An Early Birthday Present


Rayna L. Stiner

  1. An Early Birthday Present

Riana pelted through the field under a canopy of blossoming stars. Under one arm, she clutched a glass jar, its burden on her small frame tilting her steps through the tall grasses. The looming tree line of the Tyr-Min-Hai forest rose over her left shoulder, silent and steeped in evening’s shadow.  

Her breath hitched and a pain stabbed her side, but she ran all the same. Every step rattled through her eight-year-old body and sparked hope. Her leg muscles ached from the circuit she’d been running since sunset, desperate to capture the prize that would make her mother well. Sweat pasted her silver hair to her forehead, ears and the back of her neck. They were close. It was as if they raced and then stopped to watch her catch up. It was maddening. She gave an exasperated grunt and willed her scrawny legs into a sprint.

“Wait!” she called. She stretched her empty hand out and caught on air. Ahead of her, the fire nymphs darted away.  Their blue skin shone coolly against the darker shadow of evening and their opalescent wings bore them away on a whir of color and light. The small cloud of nymphs, seemingly tired of their sport, fled into the forest. Riana pulled up under the safety of awakening stars, sweating and heaving. She collapsed onto the ground, her play skirts soaking in the dew. Clunking the jar down beside her, she wrapped her arms around her legs, frustration blooming where hope withered. She pounded her knee with a tiny fist and growled into the air. What she wouldn’t do to have a fire nymph’s blessing on her mother, to make the sickness go away. She breathed in deeply and exhaled in a spluttering whoosh.  

Once her heart and breathing calmed, she stood, dusting herself off and frowning at the dark of the Tyr-Min-Hai. If she were braver, she would go in after them, but that would be foolish in the near darkness. Not to mention that Grandmother would skin her alive if she caught her out under the trees this late in the evening. That was a scarier prospect than anything she might encounter among the trees. She sighed and began her journey back to the house, expertly catching firebugs in her big, glass jar. When a dozen or more of them darted and blinked, blue-green inside the glass, Riana heard her grandmother’s voice ring out, “Riana! Come in!”

She looked at the firebugs. “You’ll have to do, I suppose.” She shook the jar and felt the clanking of the bugs against the glass. Wrapping both arms around the jar, she tromped to the entrance of the house and General Store, leaving the night to its own devices.

Behind her, from the safety of the Tyr-Min-Hai, the fire nymphs chatted in a melody amongst each other as they watched the strange girl with silver hair disappear from their view.


Mother had been sleeping, so with a prayer to the great Mother and Father to keep the bugs alive over night, she had gone to bed with her present blinking in the corner of her room. In the morning, Riana dressed quickly and made her way down the short hall from her room to the living area. Yellow firelight danced on the floral rug and cast its partner, shadow onto the pale form of her mother. Stretched out on the sofa, Riana approached her dozing mother with the jar clutched to her small chest. Her mother’s pale eyelids twitched under pinched, golden eyebrows. Her head rocked against a teal couch pillow and a golden, curled lock of hair fell onto her sunken cheek. Riana tip-toed to her side and brushed the hair behind her mother’s ear as she lowered herself beside her.

Riana reached next to her and pushed the blue oil lamp over to make way on the oak side table for her mother’s gift. The glass jar scraped against the oak tabletop and cast the blue-green light of the firebugs against the yellow glow of the wick’s flame. They had survived the night. Riana watched the little bugs dart and blink then turned to her mother. Blue irises surrounded by reddened whites looked up at her.

“Such a beautiful girl you are,” her mother said through cracked lips. Her breath smelled of medicines and the mint leaves she used to cover the taste. Riana reached for the pitcher and water glass, but her mother’s skeletal hand stopped her.

“Mother, you need to drink something,” Riana urged.

“No,” she replied. “Not thirsty.”  Her hand slipped from Riana’s small arm. “I have something for you. I want to give it to you now, but you have to promise not to open it until your birthday.” Riana watched her mother reach into the recesses of the couch pillows and produce a very ugly jewelry box. Riana took it and kissed her mother.

“Thank you, mummy,“ she said smiling at her mother with one side of her mouth.

“But, listen to me.” Her mother’s eyes grew wide as she clasped Riana’s slender arm in her bony fingers. “This is not for your ninth birthday. You must not wear the necklace inside until your sixteenth birthday.”

Riana looked down at the little jewelry box and imagined its contents couldn’t be very pretty.  “Why?”

“This is very special, so you must keep it a secret. Can you do that?” Riana nodded.

“Mother, I got you a present too!” She cast about to make sure her father wasn’t near. “I made you a lamp. The fire nymphs were too fast for me.” She frowned down at the jewelry box, remembering their flight.

Her mother’s eyes went wide. “You saw…?”

Riana frowned. “I tried to catch one for you, but they got away.” Riana set the jewelry box next to her mother’s knees and picked up the big jar of firebugs, smaller than fire nymphs and greener, lacking the opalescent wings that shimmered like rainbows in the dark. “But, maybe you can pretend that these are fire nymphs and maybe they’ll help you feel better.”

Her mother’s face split into a wide smile that showed her teeth and made her look beautiful despite all of her weariness. Riana’s heart twisted around love and fear. The smile on her mother’s face faltered and a vice like grip encircled Riana’s upper arm. Yanked from her perch, she lost the grip on the firebug lantern and it crashed to the floor. Her father’s face whipped into sight as the firebugs floated past her from their broken glass prison. Hideous in the red glow of the firelight, his watery blue eyes burned under nettled eyebrows.