Max and the Midnight Naturalist

LIKE his mother's sweet pea vines, Max was hanging limp in the heat of middle August. During the summer, his sixth-grade year slipped quietly behind him as seventh grade rolled up on the horizon - a huge, empty cloud ready to swallow him up. It is time, Max had thought as his mother planted her seeds in early summer, to know what I am going to do with my life. But no special talents or remarkable interests pushed their way out like green, promising shoots.Last fall, his friend, Johnny "D," discovered his talent for break-away ice- hockey plays. Now, whenever people mentioned Johnny, they talked about college scholarships and pro possibilities. One ordinary winter day, another classmate, Nick Ash, decided to recycle the newspapers on his delivery route. By spring, what used to be called garbage lined the school halls - plastic bottles in wire-mesh containers, soda cans in plastic bags, and newspapers bundled in tall stacks. At the end of the year, the prin cipal announced a new "Annual Ecology Award" and honored Nick in a special presentation. Nothing like these things happened to Max. Somewhere inside himself he felt he had a light - he just couldn't find the switch to turn it on. Mom had said, "Oh, stop worrying and searching for a person to be. It doesn't work that way. You have to let that person find you. And that takes a little time." Now, as the colors in her garden faded, Max guessed he had been mistaken in thinking a whole summer would surely be enough "little time." Fortunately, Mr. Rosiello lived next door. If ever there's a man who's found himself, thought Max, it's Mr. Rosiello. In the town post office, an old photograph of a young Mr. Rosiello hung beside a bronze plaque that hailed him as "Hallowell's Renowned Captain of Pyrotechnics." Maine has an unusual need for a Captain of Pyrotechnics. After the Fourth of July, waves of celebration continue to pound the state's little towns all summer: centennials, bicentennials, even tricentennials - not to mention "home coming days." And Mr. Rosiello had something to do with most of them. He had come from an Italian family of fireworks wizards famous for their "salutes hundreds of BOOMS! and POPS! exploding one after another. For "Old Hallowell Day," Mr. Rosiello conjured up a special rendition: The booms started slowly and came faster and faster, beating like a frightened bass drum. This salute never failed to lure nearly every household down to the river bank for the show. Everyone understood the exotic language of Mr. Rosiello's fireworks, but few could understand his words - spoken with a heavy Italian accent draped in a Maine drawl. Max was the only kid who could really understand him. And he was the only kid to be initiated into the splendor of fireworks by the master himself. Ever since Max was seven, he had spent the week before Old Hallowell Day helping Mr. Rosiello sort through his "bombs." Mr. Rosiello was never exactly sure what he had in his arsenal. Hallowell didn't have the money for elaborate fireworks displays, so he made it a practice to take one or two rockets, or shells, or star mines from each of the other shows Ayuh, I taka them as a teep," he winked. He piled them one by one in his shed loft and left them there until the third week in August when Hallowell put on its grand show. Time with Mr. Rosiello shot by as fast as the Moon Travelers and Thor Missiles that Max carefully arranged in marked cardboard boxes. The butterflies in his stomach at the beginning of the week grew into frenzied bees by the final rehearsal when Mr. Rosiello went through his motions in a narrated dance: "First I dip the flare, light the fuse, run for safety, wait for the "th-thump" of the shell shooting up into the air, and the bursting charge that breaks the stars - and ah! Que bella, si? Then I tear my eyes away from the sky and clean out the mortar for the next shell." After a day of sorting and planning, the master and his apprentice sat on the porch. Sometimes Mr. Rosiello would sway rhythmically in his rocker and recite the names of favorite bombs: "Temple of Heaven ... Temple of Doom, Clustering Cicada ... Mad lIons ... Pa-BOOM!" He always added, "I can think of no profession more satisfying than sitting down all day and thinking up names like 'Flying Dragon Terrifies Jumping Tiger. Last summer, Mr. Rosiello had allowed Max to set up the racks of mortars and clean them after each firing. He could feel himself getting closer and closer to the real work of pyrotechnics. Some day Mr. Rosiello would let him dip the flare, light the fuse, and run away in exhilaration! But Max had not seen Mr. Rosiello much this summer. He must be doing a lot of shows, thought Max. Then came the sudden afterthought, And that means a LOT of fireworks for US! Now that Old Hallowell Day was speeding toward t hem, he thought he'd better check in with Mr. Rosiello. Max found him in a fitful nap at his desk. His hair seemed more ragged and his clothes more rumpled than usual. "Ahem... Oh. Ciao Max." Oddly unenthusiastic, Mr. Rosiello stood up, stretched and hobbled over to the stove to set tea water. Oh, well, thought Max, good thing I came. Maybe I can cheer him up. "Mr. Rosiello, I've been thinkin' about the show this year. Maybe we should start sorting. I thought I did a good job last year setting up the racks. What do you think? Do you think I can help you design the show? I mean we can start with salutes like always, then the Niagara Falls. I saw something called the Five Star General down at the Atomic Fireworks Shop - it said "3 Hours of Aerial Excitement ... The Show Never Stops." Do we have anything like that in the shed? Maybe if you're too tired, I could l ook... ." "Never stops?" yelled Mr. Rosiello. He walked toward him waving his arms. "What do you mean, 'never stops?' What do you know? Everything stops, Max. The show stops!" Mr. Rosiello's angry words kept repeating in Max's head as he lay in bed that night. How could it be? Mr. Rosiello had tried to explain, when he calmed down, that he didn't have any shells this year. With the economy at an all-time low in a decade, most of the towns could not afford their fire departments, let alone fireworks displays. Nearly every town had canceled its nighttime celebration. Mr. Rosiello had been so distressed all summer, he couldn't tell anyone, least of all Max. Worst of all, Mr. Rosiello had said that fireworks didn't excite him like they used to. His light has gone out, thought Max. And mine never got lit. He had allowed himself to pretend that he might follow in Mr. Rosiello's steps. That he, Max, might be the second Captain of Pyrotechnics. He had allowed himself to believe he might have found a person to be. Two and half weeks passed without Mr. Rosiello. Max felt he had lost him. One night, as Max was closing his eyes for another attempt to sleep, something yanked his eyelids wide open. At the edge of the field, where the pine trees stood tall and still, like soldiers guarding the night fields, he saw thousands of pin pricks of light. Fireworks after all? He tore to the window dragging along his blanket and the big wicker chair, and sat on the edge to watch. No big booms? He remembered how Mr. Rosiello, who specialized in noisy explosions of color, had talked last summer with sudden reverence for the silent oriental fireworks. "They're notta so exciting as our fireworks, but they have a wonder and comfort of their own." As Max watched, the silent fireworks began to move toward him away from the woods. He realized with a start that the lights were not oriental bombs, but fireflies! When they came to rest below his window, he saw that they were hovering around a vague form. The night surrounding them was really a black robe to which the fireflies were tied by long filaments of silver thread. As the robe swayed, its folds first hid and then revealed the lights that were anchored to it. Because of its utter beauty, it didn' t occur to Max to be afraid. After a few silent moments a voice came from the hooded robe, "Que bella, si?" "Mr. Rosiello!" At first Max was excited to see his old friend. But then, he remembered how Mr. Rosiello had hurt him two weeks before. "What are you doing here - in my backyard - in the middle of the night?" ve come to show you something," he whispered back. "Fireflies?" "Yes. And more." Then Mr. Rosiello caught one of the fireflies in the cup of his hands. "Watch," he whispered. Max watched for what seemed like a long time. The flickering greenish-yellow light glowed through the cracks between Mr. Rosiello's fingers. But after a while it faded until there was almost no light at all. "What's happening to him?" Max asked. "His light is going out." "Why?" "Because he needs oxygen. His light organ needs new air all the time to keep flashing." Mr. Rosiello threw the firefly back into the night and watched as its light grew back. "Max, people need air too. This last year, being the Fireworks Man made me feel like that firefly couped up in a jar. I needed new air to breathe. And I found it." "With fireflies?" Max couldn't believe Mr. Rosiello was giving up his grand fireworks for a bunch of fireflies. "Not just for fireflies, Max. But for all the miracles of night that fireworks hide. I haven't stopped loving bombs. It's just that I've never noticed the fireflies much. Or the constellations. Or the bright planets. Or the migrating geese against the moon. I never knew the richness of the night without fireworks until this year's disaster." He paused and said suddenly, "Do you know why fireflies flash their lights?" That question had never even occurred to Max. "No "They're looking for something." "What?" "A mate. They flash a certain code over and over again and wait for another firefly to flash the right answer. That's how they find each other. Every kind of firefly has a different code." "Oh, I see," whispered Max. But he didn't, really. "A firefly doesn't go out searching for a code. His light organ comes with a code - a way to express himself." "Oh... ," Max still didn't get it. "Max! Your light comes with a code, too! All you have to do is be yourself. Just be yourself, Max. Give yourself some air - room and time to let your light grow." For years to come, the photograph of the "Captain of Pyrotechnics" continued to hang in the post office. Meanwhile, Mr. Rosiello followed the fireflies deep into the night and discovered many other wonders. Occasionally, in the stillness of night, this Midnight Naturalist would remark to his young apprentice, "It's notta such a giant step from the excitement of pyrotechnics to the splendor of nature!" And Max would reply, "Ayuh, que bella!"

'Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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