Signal Flare

Kellaura Johnson

A signal flare is an eighteen-inch stick covered in red waxed paper with a removeable cap and two wire legs that bend out and make it stand. Tiny black letters spell out the instructions accompanied by the figure of a little man on fire.

“Do you want to see the circle of fire?”

My five-year-old niece looks up from her crayons with a mischievous grin.

“Fire? Yes!”

She grabs my hand, all long tangled hair and tiny fingernails sparkling with glitter. She is too smart for her age and I remember how that felt. She notices everything and I still know how that feels. 

The child and I walk hand in hand down to the long metal dock. She barely notices her father fixing the angled wire legs of the flare into the soft hillside facing the lake. 

“Look, the circle of fire has started,” I say, pointing to the light of red flares across the lake. We sit on the end of the long dock. 

I ask the child to count the red flares around the lake. As she counts, I notice that all that is left of the sunset is a faint glow of cornflower blue on top of the western hill. The rest of the sky is dark and cloudless, with barely any light coming from the fingernail sliver of the moon.

The child gives up counting, as new flares are being added all the time.

“Would you like to see a planet?”

“Yes,” she whispers in excitement.

“That,” I point to the first light to come out, right above the tops of the east-most pine trees, “is Jupiter.”

“That’s not a planet. That’s a star.”

As I explain that planets look a lot like stars from this far away, and with faked knowledge assert that stars twinkle and planets glow, I try to keep the uncertainty out of my voice. I doubt myself. I’d just read that Jupiter would be the first light, low in the eastern sky tonight, followed by Saturn, but maybe that’s just a star. My eye for the difference between glow and twinkle may have dulled over the years.

A new light glows into view near the light that is possibly Jupiter.

“And that’s Saturn,” I say with all the confidence of an adult with nothing left to lose.

“Oooh, Saturn,” breathes the child.

Emboldened, I point to a new light in the center of the sky.

“And that’s the North Star, see how it twinkles?”

The child affirms that by comparison, the star twinkles and the planets glow. She repeats, in a whisper, “the North Star.”

“People navigate by the North Star. As long as you can find it you will never be lost.” I parrot exactly what my mother told me. Not bothered by its false logic, I believe it with my whole heart.

The child and I decide that a blinking light, moving across the sky, is a plane flying very, very high.

“I saw the Big Dipper once.”

“Me, too.”

“I love the Big Dipper.”

“I love the Big Dipper, too.”

Having exhausted the possibilities of the heavens, we turn to the constellation that has formed around us on the shore. The signal flare on the hillside behind us hisses forth a flower of red sparks, just above the grass. All the flares have been lit and we sit in the middle of the circle of fire. Red flares neither glowing nor twinkling, but sizzling, form a circle around the lakeshore.

The child and I both sigh at the beauty of it. The lake is smooth obsidian reflecting the stars and planets. Each red flare is reflected as a red line on the water, all reaching toward the deep, dark center of the lake. Reaching toward us, where we sit at the end of our metal dock, stretched out into the lake itself. The child and I are the only ones inside the circle of fire. Others may watch from the shore but we are surrounded, encompassed.

“This is the circle of fire,” I intone in my most solemn, holy voice. “This is my favorite place to be. This is my favorite night. Inside the circle of fire is the safest place I know.” I have sat inside the circle on the dock, for years, alone. This year, the child sits in silence with me.

“I love this,” she says.

“So do I,” my voice echoes.

We are lost in silence. 

I notice the houses which sit dark, where no one is there to light a flare. Every flare is a family proclaiming to the darkness, “We are still here. We are here together for one more year. We are here.”

The child begins to stir. She does not yet need the safety and solitude of sitting inside the circle of fire as much as I do. Laughter twinkles from behind our backs. The kitchen light spills onto the porch and inside, our family is still here. Joking, eating, playing cards. For one more year we are all still here.

I take it all in; the lights on sky and shore, and those reflected in the water. 

Plunk! A fish jumps, setting the nearest reflections dancing. The bats sew together sky and water, back and forth they dart, stitching with every turn.

The child squirms and I touch her arm. “Let’s go inside and see what’s happening.”

Our bare footsteps drum out a beat on the metal dock. We scramble up the hillside, pass our still sizzling flare. We leave the circle of fire behind and walk toward the kitchen light, which glows brighter than Jupiter.

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