Cold Light

This essay first appeared in Still: The Journal

by Rachel Rosolina

Into the cage of
fireflies, mostly dead,
I send a breath.

In the early summer twilight, my brother’s tiny silhouette stumbled through the tall grass. He paused, crouching down. In a flash of arm, he reached into the grass and, before standing, opened his fist ever so slightly. I could see his small palm glow yellow green. Samuel had caught a firefly.

They rose like embers from grass up to the wide, pale leaves of the tulip poplars at the edge of the woods. We silently followed their dotted paths, watching their ascent. In an attempt to prolong the magic of dusk, we gently placed a few captives in a mason jar with a tin lid that Mom poked holes in for air. I also slipped in a few blades of grass to make the jar seem less confining. When it became too dark to see the outline of the house, we had nearly twenty fireflies pulsing behind glass. Covered in grass stains and sweat, we walked up the hill, onto the porch, and into the florescent kitchen.

Clean from baths, Samuel and I watched the jar from our bunk beds. All was still except for their ethereal flashes casting shadows about the room. Good night, Rachel. His voice was quiet, calm. And then came the deep sound of his breathing.


My brother is four years younger than me. On the night he was born, according to my father, I was a brat. I threw temper tantrums all evening. The next morning, however, everything was new. There is a photo of me in footie pajamas, with sleep in my eyes and tangled hair, holding this tiny red person—my brother. My eyes look at the camera with wonder and confusion. Even at four, I knew his arrival redefined my place in the world with a new title: sister.

Samuel balances my darkness with his light. Physically, we are opposites—I am olive skinned with dark features while he is fair with striking blue eyes—but it goes beyond the surface. While I dwell and contemplate, he optimistically acts. While I linger anxiously outside, my brother is in the center, making people laugh. His goodness and levity are effortless. For this I both admire and envy him.

We were homeschooled in the mountains of East Tennessee for the majority of our education. Our days were spent side by side doing schoolwork at the kitchen table, swinging on grapevines until our hands were raw, designing tree houses, and imagining kingdoms of periwinkle snails on the little silt island in our creek. We didn’t always get along, but we grew together in ways many siblings don’t have the chance to. Our quiet existence was enchanting and thrilling. Really, we knew nothing different.


The primary purpose of the fireflies’ light, of course, is mating. Most female species of fireflies are wingless, grounded. At dusk, male fireflies flash sequences of light to attract a flightless lover, hoping a female responds from the grass with flashes of her own.

Each summer, the Johnson City fire department sponsored a firefly catch. For every ounce of fireflies caught and frozen, we would receive a few dollars. The beetles would then be used in cancer research. According to the pamphlet, a compound created from the firefly is inserted into cancer cells. Once the reaction begins, the cancer cells glow much like the firefly once did. When a photosensitizing agent is added, the cells produce so much light they die.

Samuel and I spent nearly every summer evening following these flashes in the space between forest and field, grass and sky, carefully slipping them into glass jars, and then watching them until sleep came—only to reluctantly place the beetles in the freezer the next morning.


Samuel lives in Knoxville, where he is pursuing a doctorate in environmental chemistry at the University of Tennessee. A few summers ago, I left my apartment in Indiana to spend a weekend with him. While wandering in and out of quaint indie shops, we ran into friends of his, mostly girls, all excited to see him. During introductions, they would visibly relax when they realized I was merely his sister.

Before Erin—his wife—came along, I never really liked the girls Samuel dated. I scrutinized them: one was too ditzy, another too demanding, yet another too judgmental. With Erin, it’s different. When his car broke down on the side of the interstate after they had just started dating, she was the one he called to rescue him. She knows he’s exceptional but does not put up with his bad habits, such as failing to plan ahead or using humor to get out of trouble. She makes him laugh and takes him seriously.

Photinus Carolinus fireflies in Pennsylvania by Radim Schreiber


When he was twelve, Samuel was accepted to sing in a national honor’s choir in Seattle, Washington. While I took tours of the city with the choir mothers, the choir spent the days practicing. We hardly saw the kids the entire trip. The final night, after the concert, we all went to a closing reception. The hotel ballroom had tables of hors d’oeuvres and fountains of punch. From a doorway, I watched my brother interact with his new friends. More and more people surrounded him, laughing when he laughed, smiling when he smiled, wanting a taste of that electricity.

I was overcome with a mixture of pride and jealousy at his radiance. There was the certainty that no matter how many important people came into his life, I was his only sibling—I had been there from the start. And yet, there was an edge I couldn’t ignore. Unlike me, he didn’t have to vie for this attention. I was content being the wallflower only because stepping into the center, as he did naturally, threatened the possibility of rejection. He didn’t seem to even acknowledge that fear.

I used to joke that we couldn’t be more different—he pursuing science and math while I went the English/humanities route. As we get older, though, I’m realizing there are more similarities than I had thought. Science to him is deeper than the black and white formulas I’d imagined. He sees a calculated art in chemistry. His passion for understanding the intricacies of nature is apparent when he talks about his latest research or an article he read. To fulfill an assignment for an organic chemistry course at Berea College, he and his girlfriend at the time decided to study the firefly. Specifically, what makes them glow. During a rare late-afternoon phone call, his voice animated in excitement, he explained that luciferin is the cause. Luciferin as in Lucifer?, I asked. Yes, as in fallen light, he said. Isn’t it poetic?


Many organisms—bacteria, certain fish, and even other insects—use bioluminescence. Nonscientists often confuse bioluminescence with fluorescence, but they are different processes. While fluorescence occurs when energy is absorbed and emitted as light, bioluminescence produces light with what is known as excitation energy from a chemical reaction. For this reaction to occur in fireflies, two reactants—the chemical luciferin and the enzyme luciferase—are needed in addition to a firefly’s ATP, which is a chemical compound that helps cells store energy. Essentially, the luciferin, after combining with the ATP, is oxidized to form oxyluciferin. The luciferase speeds up the reaction.

Firefly luciferase is stored in the abdomen of the insect and has a very specific structure and conformation. The enzyme is built efficiently, which is why the reaction gives the highest known yield of light of any bioluminescent reaction. Take an incandescent light bulb, for instance; it loses 90 percent of its energy to heat. In comparison, the oxidation of luciferin by luciferase converts nearly all of the energy to light. Because this reaction produces little to no heat, only light, scientists refer to it as “cold light.” The word cold makes the reaction sound distant or sterile, but instead it strikes me as sacred and extraordinary. What scientists strive for in labs—little wasted energy—fireflies create organically.


When Samuel and I are together, we play off each other’s sense of humor or read each other’s worries in ways no one else can. We have inside jokes spanning decades, and he knows the quickest way to make me angry. When I look in his eyes, I see who I was and who I am. No matter how old Samuel gets, I will always see the stick of a boy who caught fireflies and built forts by the creek. We will always be the children who, in the dappled light of the rhododendron patch, sat on damp logs to color paper flags, choose crests, and read the official oath to one another in hushed voices—our hands on our hearts. In dull lead, we signed our names in cursive on a clean sheet of lined notebook paper, pledging our allegiance to one another.

When I was eight or nine, and Samuel was about four, he and I spent an afternoon playing with a plastic inflated ball. At some point, one of us kicked the ball onto a rock or stick, puncturing it. Samuel saw my disappointment and anger, and instead of trying to soothe me, he lightened the situation with humor. While I pouted, my little brother quietly took the deflated ball and folded it inside itself to create a domed hat. He playfully put it on and did his best to make me forget and laugh. He knows how to fix me.

We may no longer belong to our secret society, but our pledges endure.


The cold light of fireflies is waning. Fireflies are disappearing all over the United States. Though scientists are not sure why this is happening, they have two good guesses: development and light pollution. As we light up our world, the darkness that helps the fireflies communicate and proliferate has become scarce. Our reaction is to recreate their glow by stringing strands of blinking white Christmas lights across our porches. The reality is that we’re stifling the natural magic and mystery that surround us.

In a remote part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and in a few other parts of the world, synchronous fireflies have become a phenomenon that draws crowds. Though they are one of nearly twenty species of firefly in the park, they are the only species in all of the United States that can coordinate their flashing light pattern. For just two weeks each summer, the males put on a show, lighting up all at once or sending a wave of light rippling through the trees. No one is sure how they communicate to create such an effect. Scientists have speculated that perhaps it is a result of competition, of wanting to be first. Or maybe by working together they have a better chance of being noticed.

Having heard about this spectacle since we were kids, Samuel and I have always talked about witnessing it for ourselves, but life tends to get in the way. This past year, though, Samuel drove Erin down to watch. They parked his old Honda hatchback on the side of the road and made friends with those parked nearby as they waited for the sun to set.

A local photographer snapped a shot of them that evening sitting in the back of Samuel’s car, water bottles at their sandaled feet, facing one another. With wild grins, they look excited and hopeful in the evening light.

Slowly, and then with more persistence, a whole tree of fireflies lit up together, then the next tree, then the next, illuminating the forest like bulbs on a Broadway sign. Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the greatest show on earth. 

If you have an essay about love, send it in!


by Allan Edmands

About five Junes ago, the day before my 69th birthday, Ina and I drove all the way, two and a half hours, to the North Sherman Cemetery to check out Maja’s grave. We hadn’t been there for five or six years, only once since we’d returned from Japan in 1999. We probably didn’t want Max to feel weird, reminding him of the daughter who, had she lived, might have meant we wouldn’t have gone for another baby the next year: him. Well, now that Max has finished college and has a job and house out in San Francisco, I guess we can visit Maja once in a while. She would have been 30 in just a few weeks.

In front of Maja’s granite marker with its engraved teddy bear, Ina planted a small pot of million bells, a miniature red petunia, a throng of compact purple flowers each the size of a quarter. She buttressed the pot with stones and soil. I fetched water from the faucet on the side of the white Congregationalist church, the kind of New England structure I was sure I’d seen in a Rockwell painting. We watered the pretty perennial and took some photos.

Maja is right beside the cemetery driveway, almost all the way to the woods from the church. Next door to her on the right lies a couple named Morren, Andrew and Shirley. He died in January 2003 at the age of 70, she died two Januarys later, when she was 66. They share the same stone and the same plot, and we smiled at their now eternal closeness. Their nephew, we found out about an hour later, is Mr. Judd, the man who sold us some straw that day as well as our own plot in the cemetery.

Yeah, we decided we wanted an available plot, to the right of Mr. and Mrs. Morren. We’re in excellent health, but if we wait, who knows what will be available? The plot we bought was as close as we could get to Maja, but I imagine the scene from Our Town, with all the cemetery occupants just sitting there, chatting with one another.

I’ve liked everyone we’ve met so far in Sherman, the ones who stand and walk around and do all their daily business, so I suspect the ones who stay all the time in this pleasant, bucolic cemetery must be agreeable as well. I’m pretty sure the Morrens won’t mind relaying family discourse between Maja and us. Also, we’ll be able to make sure that our fellow residents correctly pronounce the German name engraved on her stone, M-A-J-A: It rhymes with “hi-ya,” not with “rajah,” just as my wife’s name, I-N-A, rhymes with “Tina” rather than with “China.”

We used to visit her every month or so, before we moved to Japan, and now that we’ve bought the plot, I guess we’ll stop by more often.

I remember when I first met her, even before I knew she was a little girl. As she tumbled around inside Ina, whose pregnancy had evoked such an astounding loveliness, I would feel her, kiss her, sing to her, and tell her—in my halting German, what I called my Windeldeutsch (“diaper German”)—how much I looked forward to playing with her.

We’d assembled a nursery at home: basinet, mobile, chest of drawers full of baby clothes. Ina had knitted two woolen sweaters and crocheted two baby blankets, spinning the thread herself on her wheel out of the fleece she’d dyed with tea. In the basinet she put a cotton comforter lined with lace that had been her grandmother’s.

My colleagues at work surprised me with a baby shower, giving us a carrying case for changing, pacifiers, toys. Once, walking across a field on my way to meet Ina, I found a frozen and dirty teddy bear, with all the stuffing intact. Ina cleaned him up, thawed him out, made him as good as new, and sat him down in the basinet.

Maja was two and a half weeks overdue, and Ina’s suitcase was packed and ready in the car. We were at the backup obstetrician’s clinic in Rhinebeck almost every day for internal exams and fetal monitoring. There was variability in the baby’s heart rate, but neither Dr. Verrilli nor Janet, our confident and totally reassuring nurse midwife, was concerned.

I won’t dwell on the night leading up to Maja’s birth too much—how hard and fast Ina’s contractions came, how Janet promised us on the phone that she’d meet us at the birthing center at 2:30 but never showed up, how Sue, the labor nurse, was so nervous she didn’t know how to work the fetal monitor and was unsure of the erratic readings it gave, how Dr. Verilli finally arrived at six, an hour after Ina was at full dilation, and ordered a C-section right away. At 6:45 Maja’s heartbeat was strong enough, but 10 minutes later in the O.R., it couldn’t be detected.

Holding Ina’s hand as Dr. Verilli worked, I saw Maja emerge from the cut, confirmed that she was a fully formed redheaded girl, and watched as Dr. Bulba and two nurses took her to another table to try to revive her. The room’s atmosphere for this birth was one of emergency rather than celebration. I kept holding Ina’s hand as Dr. Verilli extracted the placenta and sewed up the cut.

As the minutes ticked by, I heard a gurgling from the other table, and I hoped it might be a baby sound. It was the aspirator, though, trying to clear the meconium poop out of Maja’s air passage, where she had gasped it in when her heart had stopped. I heard Dr. Bulba’s muttering such things as “It’s over” and “She’s dead.” I was crying; Ina was trembling in postoperative shock; Sue was rubbing my shoulders; Dr. Verilli was still sewing.

At 7:15 a nurse named Bea handed my daughter to me, still warm, all swaddled in a hospital blanket. Dr. Nussbaum, the pediatrician who had taken over from Dr. Bulba, apologized to me, said they had done everything they could do.

Maja was the first dead person I’d ever been around, and I wasn’t sure what to do with her. She was warm, but she didn’t make a sound, she didn’t move. This was not at all what I’d expected. I showed her to Ina, lying on the table. Ina already understood our baby was dead because she’d sensed the atmosphere in the room and she’d seen my tears.

When Dr. Verilli was finished with his stitches, he fetched a Polaroid and began taking pictures of the three of us: Ina now back in her room in bed, me sitting in the bedside rocking chair, and Maja in my arms. I looked at Maja’s abundant red hair, her red eyebrows, her dark lashes, her little nose, her lips getting darker and darker by the minute. She had all the toes and fingers she was supposed to have. She was pretty. Her heart hadn’t been strong enough to withstand the rigors of those contractions without respite, especially that last one on the way to the O.R. She was pretty, though.

Maja was with us in the hospital room for several hours, about half the time in bed beside Ina’s face, where we fondled her delicate little fingers and stroked her amazing head of hair. The other half of the time, she lay in a bedside nursery wagon. She looked like she was sleeping peacefully, and Ina and I found ourselves absurdly whispering so as not to wake her from her nap. She got bluer over that time, but she was still pretty. We kissed her goodbye when she was wheeled off for her autopsy. Later Bea brought back a lock of Maja’s hair.

We had a lot of arranging to do over the next few days. I phoned my mother in California with the sad news and heard her bawling on the other end of the line. Ina dictated the telegram I sent to her father in Bavaria: “UNSERE TOCHTER MAJA WAR EINE STILLGEBURT (27.2.87). INA GEHT ES DEN UMSTAENDEN ENTSPRECHEND GUT. ALLAN” (“Our daughter Maja, was stillborn (2/27/87). Ina is all right, all things considered. Allan”), and she followed it up with a complete letter. Ina had been speaking English so long, she forgot there is no such German word as Stillgeburt ; the proper word is Totgeburt (“deadborn”), and before my father-in-law received the follow-up letter, he sent a congratulations card.

I told my boss at work what had happened, and she assured me she would take care of informing all my colleagues who had given me the baby shower. I arranged with my ex to meet with Oona and Theo, so I could tell them personally rather than over the phone that their half-sister hadn’t survived her birth. I marveled that they were hugging me in sympathy rather than grieving for their own loss.

My neighbor Hans offered to go to our Phoenicia apartment and dismantle the baby room before we returned there, but I told him no. We wanted to face the death of our daughter squarely rather than pretend she had never really lived. State regulations don’t allow an official birth certificate if a child dies before birth, but we got one anyway, with her big footprints on it as well as her full name in calligraphy, Maja Ernestine Edmands. I put obits in the local papers.

We were generally sad during the hospital stay, but we had a few occasions to laugh, although laughing hurt Ina, pulling on her stitches. One morning her breakfast featured gooey Farina Cream of Wheat, and she complained it was like glue. “Don’t you know that Elmer’s Glue is part of the required diet after surgery?” I joked, and then we both tried to stifle that painful laughter.

Ina and I firmly rejected the notion of putting Maja into one of the styrofoam boxes provided by funeral homes for babies. They look like camping coolers and hermetically seal their contents from the earth and the life contained in the earth. We wanted our daughter to be part of the coming spring. My friend Steve helped me construct a coffin out of pine boards to the regulation dimensions: 24 inches long, 10 inches wide, 11 inches high. We attached decorative hinges and a decorative handle at each end. When we were finished, it looked like a toy box.

Ina, managing quite well on her pain medication, lined the box with the basinet’s comforter, edged with her grandmother’s lace. We picked up Maja from the Rhinebeck funeral home, already dressed as we had instructed against the late-winter cold. Her eyes were more sunken behind her closed lids, but she still looked pretty to me. She wore one of the cloth diapers Ina had cut and hemmed, a little undershirt with snaps, snuggly pajamas in which her feet and hands were tucked, one of the woolen sweaters Ina had knitted for her, and a woolen cap Andrea had given us. The clothing hid her stitches from the autopsy.

We gently laid Maja into her box and wrapped her in the quilt Ina had made. Around her little neck we put her half of the Jewish mizpah chain necklace I had prepared; Ina wore the other half. (If you were to put the two parts together, you could read this verse from Genesis: “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another.”) We put in her rattle and that rehabilitated teddy bear, then we closed the lid.

We had to get special clearance to bring Maja out of state for burial, but North Sherman Cemetery was the only place we considered for her. We had been married at the church there fourteen months earlier, and we couldn’t imagine anyone but Pastor Novak to conduct the funeral. Oona, Theo, a few friends, and several of my colleagues from work came to that ceremony, where we celebrated the short time Maja was with us. At the graveside, Ina and I each read a letter to her, telling her we loved her and wishing her well wherever she had to go, telling her how her toy box was also her house. After we lowered her box into the earth, tossing flowers on it and soil, we served a simple lunch of sandwiches and coffee in the church’s reception room.

All that was a long time ago, and I rarely think of Maja. When anyone asks me how many children I have, I usually say “Three.” Occasionally, not very often, though, I might say: “Four, three of them living.”

North Sherman Cemetery, on a small, not-much-traveled road outside of Sherman, Connecticut, is a very nice place. I’m sure we’ll visit Maja more often from now on. We’re really glad we secured that plot. We just hope our neighbors there won’t be too scandalized when they learn that our ashes are thoroughly stirred, blended in a single urn.

If you have an essay, send it in!

Becoming Red

by Matthew Dembo

 “I attempted to persuade each of you not to care for any
of his own things, until he can care for himself . . .”
—Plato’s Apology of Socrates

In the earliest civilizations, it was recognized that there was an interdependency between self and love. In Modern Love, that has not changed; to truly love another, you must know yourself.

At 27, I have dated only two people in my life.  I have held hands with and kissed two people. I have laughed and cried and shared a fiery intimacy with two people. I have expressed my wants and desires for the future, and exposed my bare, vulnerable soul to two people. I have shared the greatest passion life has to offer, and experienced the most heart-wrenching sorrow in watching that vanish instantaneously, twice.

In my time alone, I have found and learned to love myself. In that time alone, I have also lost myself and those that I once held, and still do hold, dear.   


I once wrote a poem, entitled “What If?,” at the wise old age of 15.  In it, I detailed the most beautiful flowers, sunsets, and stars in the heavens as a distraction, but the true message, revealed halfway through, was this:

“What if, in the time you had been searching for the wants of life, you never slowed down and looked at the one searching next to you.”

When I was that age, though I had written about others searching with me, I had no concept of self. It’s ironic, really, since I’m such an introvert, that I would write of others and NOT of myself. In reality, I didn’t know who I was or what I stood for or what I was looking to achieve. I didn’t know to ask myself these things. It’s really as simple as that; I went to school, stayed after for sports, went to work from there, got home to do my homework, and went to sleep. This continued throughout college, nose to the grindstone, until I neared the end of my studies there. In the week before final exams, my roommate had disappeared and was found a few days later, dead from an apparent suicide.

My brain had been learning all about chemistry and neuroscience, but there is no textbook to truly understand grief. I had never known trauma up until this point in my relatively sheltered life. As awful as the price was to pay, however, my roommate taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in life. He woke me up and showed me that we have a finite time here. He convinced me that it was time to stop existing and time to start living.

In college, I had become sedentary. It wasn’t an active choice, but a passive one; double majoring in two hard sciences didn’t leave room for much else. Entering graduate school, however, provided me with other opportunities. Through peer pressure and new environments I came to discover the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. Not bodybuilding, where they spend hours at the gym every day to get on stage and pose in speedos, nor powerlifting where they yell and slap themselves to heavy metal music before deadlifting 1000 pounds. The sport, neigh, the graceful art, of Olympic weightlifting, is when one lifts a barbell overhead while in heels and tights. I will likely never became a professional, but it certainly captured my heart, only to break it a year later.

At the end of my third competition, my back felt strange, so I decided to take some time off. That time off led to several doctor visits, which led to insight on how bad my back injury truly was. I’ve now been out of the sport for almost two years now, and in that time I lost myself. I know it sounds absurd; you don’t even know how many times I heard my parents say, “It’s fine, you’ll just have to find something else to do,” but that was the problem—weightlifting wasn’t something that I did; rather, it had become a part of who I was. I had a full on identity crisis; I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t a weightlifter. More so, I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t in love with someone.  


It seems an odd thing to write about love when one does not presently know it. However, I have come to believe that love is my purpose in life. It brings me happiness beyond ecstasy to know that I can bring someone else joy and emotion, solidarity and security, betterment and motivation.  

At times, this is incredibly taxing. I know my purpose, but I do not have the means to fulfill that purpose. I have been single over a year and a half now, mostly by choice, since I have not had the occasion to meet someone who makes me feel. You see, that is what it comes down to for me; I am a feeler. The people and things around me either do or do not elicit feelings in me. It is a rare occasion that something—or someone—causes me to feel, and even when I do, the timing is always wrong. Hence why weightlifting was so important to me; it made me feel and, as a result, changed the way I experienced the rest of the world.


The answer to the question “Who am I?” is simple; I am me. Yet its meaning is complex. I know who I am, but how do you describe the color red to someone else? You can point to something red, you can tell them the wavelength of light that produces the perception of the color red, but how do you describe red using only words, without feelings?  

So, too, do I know myself. So, too, do I know love. They are the color red; something so complex that they are beyond description, yet something so simple that you know them without a doubt.  

This has been the cycle of my life. In one moment, I know love for another so great that I am able to walk on the clouds shimmering in the sky. In the next, I am grieving uncontrollably. Sometime thereafter, I am learning once more to love myself. For the more I love myself, the more I can love another. The more I have, the more I am able to give.  

This has been my drive in life when I am down, my means of fulfilling my purpose when I am alone. For when I am not in love, when things seem their darkest, there is always purpose to be had; I can still learn to love myself.

While I look forward to the next unbridled love to come, I do not dare rush into it. In the meantime, I am learning who I am, in the hopes that I will have more to offer the next person who I feel.  

Who have I loved? Two beautiful, wonderful, passion inspiring women who I am proud to have known at one point in my life. Who have I lost? Those same two women, but alongside them, myself. However, in that ride I have learned to love myself, and for that I am eternally grateful, despite the pain that has accompanied it. I’ve lost myself, I’ve learned to love myself, and I look forward to getting to love another very, very soon.  

We’re so glad to begin sharing the submitted Modern Love Challenge essays today. If you have one, send it in!

Modern Love: A Challenge

One of our all-time favorite columns to read is Modern Love from the New York Times. It is “a series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love.” These nonfiction gems explore every facet of love imaginable, from romantic love to watching a parent grow old to giving up a baby for adoption to welcoming refugee families to a community. This collection of work gives love a shape that might surprise you.

Our challenge for you as we begin a new year and look toward Valentine’s Day is this: read a few of these essays (here are their top 10) and write your own. Who have you loved? Who have you lost? Tell us your stories!

So, here’s the deal:

  • Write an essay about love (be sure it is nonfiction) in under 1500 words.
  • Send your essay to
  • We’ll post it on the site!
  • Feel free to send as many as you like.

Book Selfies: A Challenge

It’s almost August, and you know what that means: a new challenge! August’s challenge is something we are calling “book selfies.” There are some amazing covers out there, and we want you to integrate them into your life.

Here are some great examples from a school project and a library project.


sample_1 sample_2

So get out that cover art and incorporate it into your world! Once you’re satisfied with your photo, follow these steps:

  • Send the photo to
  • Tell us the title and author of the book, and let us know if you have a caption.
  • Sit back and relax! We’ll start posting the book cover selfies in August.

We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

The Prude and the Prig


By Lesley Bolton

She sued her former boss and won a juicy settlement in court. He had been spreading gossip about his coworkers. She was shocked by the impropriety of his behavior. There was never a hint of scandal during her time in office. She was a very prim and proper young lady and had the reputation of being clever. “That’s a lot of poppycock!” she exclaimed. Then came the news: plans were being made to terminate unproductive employees. She would bring down the wrath of the gods. Or at least the wrath of Sylvia: she’s one of the strictest judges in the state. Oh yes, they received justice in court. Propriety won the day!

If you have a dictionary story, send it in!

Grandmother Nature

by Rachel Rosolina

photo by Rachel Rosolina
photo by Rachel Rosolina

It was so hot that we were all waving our hands in front of our faces to cool off—a stretch of dry weather. Crop failure was likely to spell stark famine, but millions of plants and animals live in the sea.

Our driver, a creature of rare beauty, had lived on the island all her life and was adept at negotiating the narrow, winding roads along the island’s coast. She was gasping for air, but there was no reason to get into a panic. Always a hard worker, Grandma has remained healthy into her 80s: “I’ll never give up as long as I’m still breathing.” She opened a window to let in some air. After all, she is an herbalist and self-proclaimed witch. She handles her problems with grace and dignity.

A stick was floating on the stagnant water. I glanced at my watch. We were given a relatively short amount of time to finish the job. She broke into tears, crying with relief—storms of emotion. With a sudden shower, seaweed was cast up by the waves and the streams teemed with fish. Grateful thanks.

If you have a dictionary story, send it in!

A Colorful Encounter

by Krista Williams

moundIt was a gray winter day. An argentine sky hinted at a coming storm. His hair was dyed blond, a new pitcher who’s pretty green, even by rookie standards. “This may be your golden moment to impress a baseball scout, so don’t blow it.” He turned white when he heard the news. He was too yellow to stand up and fight.

If you have a dictionary story, send it in!

The King

by Matt Dembo

kingThe tocsin rang out, warning us of the approaching tornado. The king and his retinue would brook no interference with their plans. His retirement party featured many paeans for his long years of service to the company. He had the rubicund face of a man who clearly got a lot of fresh air and exercise, but he sat with his hands folded over his paunch. Was I the only one concerned with the weird excrescence that seemed to be developing?

A loudmouthed boor who embarrassed his family at every social event was in attendance. Immured by a controlling, possessive mother, the young man had no outside social life. In discussions, anyone who disagrees with him is inevitably called a cretin. Above all, he was the king’s most vociferous critic. His story denigrated the king as a person and a teacher. A bitter diatribe about how unfair the tax system is. A bit of contretemps over a seating arrangement for the upcoming wedding. A ribald tale rife with double entendres and racy innuendo. The discussion turned into a heated debate, with recriminations flying back and forth.

I reacted to their breach of etiquette with a supercilious smile, but quickly tired of their inane comments. I demurred to the situation, a room full of obstreperous children, and placed a sardonic little jab that made the visitor quiet and subdued for the rest of the night. I felt deep pity for the old man, made abject by suffering. He’s now in that stage of his dotage where he has trouble remembering the simplest things. Sometimes he’s overwhelmed by the carking anxieties of being a single parent. He had spent the last years in the disconsolate environs of a cheap boarding house.

Though they managed to settle things without resorting to polemics, the ruction ended with everyone involved getting arrested. The execrable arguing had finally brought a complaint from the neighbors. They were now embroiled in a complicated lawsuit, and the king’s mind was in a tumult of emotions. The prosecution called their first witness. He limned the scene in the courtroom so perfectly I could see it. The king’s face welled up in pallor as the jury reached a guilty verdict. He ruminated over the implications of their decision, while I stood in shock, wroth at the decision. Had I caught a surreptitious glance from the loudmouth?

Bagpipes played a haunting dirge at the “funeral” for the fallen leader. He was to serve out a sentence of ten years. In discussion of whom the family business would betide, it was decided that the son would accede upon the king’s death. Though he had a reputation for being laconic, he made an offering to propitiate the angry mobs. He was loath to take over the family business, but he couldn’t refuse his ailing father’s adjuration. He would not take an atavistic approach to the government’s most sacrosanct institution.

His accession to power was flawless, as he predicted the people’s response with amazing prescience. However, there was still a lot ahead of him in caring for the inchoate nation with innumerous exigent circumstances. With assiduous attention, perhaps it would work. That was in the hands of the son; to deliver them to auriferous prosperity, or condemn them to endless perdition; it was all up to him.

I am that man. I am the king’s son.

If you have a dictionary story, send it in!

Dictionary Stories: A Challenge

Dictionaries aren’t usually meant for light reading. We’re here to change that: July’s challenge is to write dictionary stories.

Often, a dictionary definition is paired with a sentence for context. For instance, Merriam-Webster’s word of the day is crackerjack. Its context sentence is:

She is a crackerjack athlete who excels in soccer and softball.

The goal is to string these context sentences together to tell a story. They are often hilarious and surprisingly poignant. One of my favorites is from a site called Dictionary Stories (check them out for ideas):


Back in October, I tried my hand at it. It felt like Mad Libs:

The children in their Halloween costumes heard a terrifying noise coming from the next room. The noise spooked the cat. (The children were pretending to be animals.) The stuntman, a sorcerer who used his power for evil ends, crashed through the window on a motorcycle. “What do you want?” he growled. The street was covered with broken glass.

There was an awkward pause in the conversation. He looked back the way he had come—the officers police the streets for reckless drivers.

Cheese it, the cops!”

The moment has arrived. The actor was nervous about his big scene. For his last trick, the magician made a rabbit disappear: the child of the wealthy industrialist was kidnapped and held for ransom.

Now it’s your turn! It can be short and sweet or long and suspenseful. It can be whatever you want.

So, here’s the deal:

  • Send in your dictionary story to Italicize or underline the key word in each sentence or clause (if you’re looking for good sample sentences, use Merriam-Webster). Feel free to change punctuation to combine sentences, but don’t add any new text if you can help it. Also let us know if your piece has a title.
  • We’ll post it on the site!
  • Feel free to send as many as you like.

After all, the best way to learn is by experience. I can’t remember when I’ve had so much fun!