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What the Fireflies Knew

A Novel

Author Kai Harris
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An NAACP Image Award Nominee
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize
A Marie Claire Book Club pick

Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by *Marie Claire* *Teen Vogue* *Buzzfeed* *Essence* *Ms. Magazine* *NBCNews.com* *Bookriot* *Bookbub* and more! 

“Harris rewrites the coming-of-age story with Black girlhood at the center.”
New York Times Book Review

In the vein of Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, a coming-of-age novel told by almost-eleven-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB), as she and her sister try to make sense of their new life with their estranged grandfather in the wake of their father's death and their mother's disappearance

 
An ode to Black girlhood and adolescence as seen through KB's eyes, What the Fireflies Knew follows KB after her father dies of an overdose and the debts incurred from his addiction cause the loss of the family home in Detroit. Soon thereafter, KB and her teenage sister, Nia, are sent by their overwhelmed mother to live with their estranged grandfather in Lansing, Michigan. Over the course of a single sweltering summer, KB attempts to navigate a world that has turned upside down.

Her father has been labeled a fiend. Her mother's smile no longer reaches her eyes. Her sister, once her best friend, now feels like a stranger. Her grandfather is grumpy and silent. The white kids who live across the street are friendly, but only sometimes. And they're all keeping secrets. As KB vacillates between resentment, abandonment, and loneliness, she is forced to carve out a different identity for herself and find her own voice.

A dazzling and moving novel about family, identity, and race, What the Fireflies Knew poignantly reveals that heartbreaking but necessary component of growing up—the realization that loved ones can be flawed and that the perfect family we all dream of looks different up close.
© Fran Dwight
Kai Harris is a writer and educator from Detroit, Michigan who uses her voice to uplift the Black community through realistic fiction centered on the Black experience. She resides in the Bay Area with her husband, three daughters, and dog Tabasco, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Santa Clara University. View titles by Kai Harris

1

 

"We there yet?" My big sister, Nia, unbuckles her seat belt and lays cross the back seat beside me. Her skin shimmers in the sun from a half-cracked window, which lets a tiny breeze slide in that carries her cottony hair back and forth, up and down. People say Nia's the one who looks like Momma. They have the same oval eyes and mahogany skin. My eyes are rounder and my skin pale yellow, like the color of french fries that ain't quite cooked.

 

Momma ignores Nia's question. Probably cause it's bout the tenth time she's asked. My nose finds the smell of rotten banana and that's got me thinking back to that night, almost six months ago now. The smell fills the car, just like the stench in our old basement that stuck around even after Daddy was buried. I dig my hands into the seat cushions and touch something sticky, but it's more peppermint sticky than banana sticky. Days ago, laying with a book in the back seat, one of my favorite places now, I got interrupted by Momma and Nia, right outside the car door and yelling, like always. They ain't see me, so I crept out before they could, hiding the banana I was just bout to bite. I hid it in a perfect place to come back for later, once all the fighting finally stopped. But it never did, and now I can't remember where I put it. I rub my eyes as I look around. I wanna fall asleep, but now I'm awake and smelling that stink.

 

Nia don't look my way, just stares out the window, so I stare out the window. Ain't nothin' but flat green spaces. Cars speed by on both sides. I like that Momma drives slower than the other cars, cause then I don't get carsick. I count signs bigger than me as they blur cross my reflection in the car window. There's one for Toys"R"Us with a big picture of the new Easy-Bake Oven and Snack Center right in the middle. A now open sign for a new restaurant called Ponderosa. And one with a picture of a bunch of kids playing with dirt, and words at the bottom that say: new name, same fun. visit impression 5 science center, ahead in 28 miles. I wanna ask Momma to stop-for the restaurant or the science center, mostly, but even a toy would do-but I know we ain't gon' stop. So I count and count and get to twenty-two, then I'm bored.

 

I find my book between the seat cushions and open to the first page. This gon' be my third time reading this book bout Anne, the Green Gables girl. I wonder what a gable is, and why it's s'posed to be green. I can't always understand the kind of words she's using cause nobody I know talks all proper like that, but in some ways, Anne is just like me, so it's my best book. Besides, even if I don't always get her way of talking, I like the sound of her words, all big and eloquent. Ever since I picked it from my school's Lost and Found, I been reading bout Anne and even learning how to talk like her. I ain't ever had too many books of my own, so when nobody at my school came for it, I did.

 

The sun was coming in at the window warm and bright; the orchard on the slope below the house was in a bridal flush of pinky-white bloom, hummed over by a myriad of bees. I roll the new words over my tongue slow like dripping honey. Myriad, myriad, myriad. Orchard, what is an orchard? Bridal flush of pinky-white bloom. Sometimes I try to use words like in my book, but when I do Nia teases me, saying I don't even know what I'm talking bout. But even if me and Anne don't look the same, we can still talk the same and be alike in other ways.

 

I read six more pages bout Anne showing up in Avonlea and tryna fit in where she don't belong; then there's a loud clanking sound and the car slows down. Momma mutters a bad word under her breath, the one that starts with D. I said that word once, just to test it out when nobody could hear me. It felt good. I repeat it now in my head like a silent chant, once for each time our car has stopped working-maybe twelve since we got it bout a year ago-but at some point, I stopped counting. Seems like our old Dodge Caravan-nicknamed Carol Anne like the girl in that scary Poltergeist movie-breaks more than it works.

 

"Nia, KB. Get out and push." We know what Momma is gon' say before she says it, so my seat belt is already undone, and Nia is halfway out the car by the time she finishes the sentence. We step out into the sun, at the top of a stubby hill where the smoking car is stalled. Back when Daddy used to push the car, his muscles would grow big as he pushed, sometimes even up a hill. I am happy we get to go down the hill, at least.

 

"This is stupid," Nia mutters, but I pretend not to hear. Instead, I keep quiet, we keep pushing, and Momma keeps steering and smiling.

 

Momma always smiles, even in the bad times. Her smile is like a gigantic, dripping ice cream cone, after I stuff my belly full with dinner. Even with a stomachache, I want that smile. I need that smile more than bout anything in the world, I think. Momma has different smiles for different things. This smile, when the car hisses and puffs and then stops, is squeezed tight cross her face like the drawn-on smile of a plastic doll.

 

"Ugh!" Nia groans from the other side of the car. I still pretend not to hear, wiping sweat from my forehead and squinting up at the hot sun as I take off my favorite rainbow jacket with holes where there should be pockets, then tie it around my waist. Carol Anne don't take too much muscle to push, probably cause we going down a hill, and also cause we ain't got much stuff with us. We drove straight from the Knights Inn that's been home ever since we lost our real house, before we even had a chance to finish crying for Daddy. Before this, we never stayed at a motel. It smelled like cigarettes mixed with fried chicken grease and sometimes we found bugs in the mattress, but it had good stuff, too. Our first day there, Nia showed me how to trick the vending machine while Momma talked to the man at the front desk.

 

"We got money?" I asked, eyes scanning back and forth. There was all kinds of good stuff behind the glass, like chocolate bars and potato chips, and even a toothbrush.

 

"We don't need none," replied Nia matter-of-factly.

 

"It's gon' give us stuff for free?" My mouth got real dry thinking bout all the chocolate I could eat-one of them things we don't get a lot, but still one of my favorites.

 

"Nah." Nia put both hands up on the glass. "Unless you know the secret trick." She pushed her hands against the window, banging against it til down fell a bag of chips and two packs of gum. "Ta-da!" Nia stuck her hands down in the bottom and pulled out her stolen treasure, stuffing everything in her pockets before Momma could see.

 

"How you know that? You been to a motel before?" I tried to reach into Nia's pocket, but she swatted my hand away.

 

"No, KB, motels ain't the only places with vending machines." Nia dug in her pocket and snuck out two sticks of gum, passing one to me and popping the other in her mouth. "You ain't ever seen nobody do that before?" I shook my head, but Nia was already walking away.

 

Turns out, tricking that vending machine wasn't the only new thing I learned at the motel. They also had hair dryers that stayed stuck to the wall, and people in uniforms that would come clean your room every day. After the first time I let them in, Momma came home from work at the Chrysler plant yelling and said we can't ever let housekeeping do chores in our apartment. She likes calling it that better than the motel-we learned that the hard way-and even though I thought chores were over when we lost our house, still I did as I was told.

 

"Almost there, girls," Momma yells from the front seat. As we push the car, I dig my worn shoes in the dirt. Cept it's more like mud now, even though there ain't been no rain today. I look back to see my own small footprints beside Nia's bigger ones. The ground looks like it's decorated with big and small polka dots as my shoulder shoves into hot metal. It's a good feeling to help Momma, but every time I look over at Nia, she frowns.

 

"That's it, girls!" Momma sings as we finally reach the bottom of the hill. The car makes a loud pop! And then it's working again. Momma pulls on her braids as she waits for us to climb back inside. Nia's first, quick. I take my time, so I can catch Momma's eye in the side mirror. And there she is, just like I knew. First, one wink. Then, she blows two kisses. I catch the first and kiss it, catch the second and blow it back into the wind. Our special thing, just me and Momma. I buckle my seat belt beside Nia and try Momma's smile on her, but all it gets back is another frown.

 

Momma's watching us through the rearview mirror before she pulls off, and I wonder how we look to her, two daughters, one who smiles just like her, one who frowns just like Daddy. Either way, she smiles at us both the same before driving again, even slower now.

 

 


 

"Nia?" I tap her shoulder light at first, then harder. "Nia!"

 

"What do you want?" Nia rolls her freshly opened eyes.

 

"We there."

 

This is my first time visiting Lansing, Nia's second. Her first was before I was born. We have lots of family in Lansing, but we're here to visit Momma's daddy, who I guess we s'posed to call Granddaddy. Momma said we all gon' stay here for the rest of the summer, before school starts back. My eleventh birthday is bout a month away, and Nia gon' turn fifteen the week after. When I pointed that out, that these would be our first birthdays away from home, away from Daddy-Momma's smile disappeared, just for a second, but then it was back, pasted in place like somebody glued it there crooked.

 

Momma pulls into the driveway and Carol Anne groans, either from exhaustion or from the bump-bump-bump of the gravelly road. As she parks, I try to remember the last time I seen my granddaddy. It was years ago, probably when I was bout seven, back when I used to wear my thick hair in two ponytails parted right down the middle with Blue Magic hair grease making it shine and Pink lotion laying down my edges. It was Nia's favorite style, so it was my favorite style. Then Nia started wearing her hair in two different ponytails, one on top and one on the bottom like a unicorn. Back then, Granddaddy came to visit us once in Detroit, when there was a funeral for somebody on Momma's side of the family. I chew my thumb and try to remember the dead person in that casket. The dead arm laying on the dead chest that I could only see when standing on tiptoes. That picture fades now into the image of dead Daddy, but this was long before that. Back when I still thought dead people in caskets ain't belong to nobody. They were always just dead people, not nobody's kid or friend or daddy.

 

"Okay, okay, I'm up." Nia stretches and opens her eyes wide. But I'm still stuck remembering the itchy lace dress I wore to that funeral, the dress that Momma loved, and eating the last piece of sweet potato pie before Nia could. I peek out my finger-smudged window at the little house squatting at the end of a long driveway. The biggest thing I remember from that other funeral was meeting my granddaddy. He wasn't bad, but he never smiled, and he never talked that whole day long. I decided he couldn't speak, like maybe he lost his voice in an accident. I imagined all the possibilities, til he finally grumbled hello in a voice low and deep as thunder.

 

"Come on, girls, let's get out!" Momma is cheerful, but Nia moans. Granddaddy's house will make the third place we've lived in the six months since Daddy died. The more we move around, the more I forget stuff. Like the pattern of my wallpaper in the old house on the dead-end street. I'm starting to forget what it feels like to have a home at all.

 

I swallow and fight back tears as I climb out the car, slow. Momma don't like it when I cry so much. And Nia teases me, calling me Crybaby KB when I do. The K is for Kenyatta and the B for my middle name, Bernice, which was the name of my daddy's grandma. Nia started calling me KB when I was a baby. I have other nicknames like Kenya and TaTa that I like better, but KB is the one that stuck.

 

Gravel crunches under my shoes and something rustles in the bush ahead. I search for the noise as we march up to the tree-shadowed house like soldiers, but don't see nothin'. Just before we reach the wooden porch, wrapped around the house and sloping in the dirt, Granddaddy comes outside to meet us. His skin is dark as a moonless night with hair brushed in black and gray patterns, and a heavy limp that dips and jumps and dips again.

 

"Why he so bent over and wobbly?" I whisper to Momma. She swipes me on the bottom and flashes me The Look. I been gettin' The Look from Momma all my life-not nearly as much as Nia, but enough for me to know exactly what it's s'posed to mean.

 

"Hush your mouth," she hisses. I wonder why it's a bad question but know better than to ask. These days, asking too many questions is just as bad as crying.

 

"I bet he need a cane to walk, cause he so old." Nia is suddenly beside me and trying not to let Momma hear her giggle. I giggle, too, happy to get an answer, and happy it's from Nia.

“Harris rewrites the coming-of-age story with Black girlhood at the center.”
New York Times Book Review

"[A] sensitive, realistic portrait of a ten-year-old trying to understand her world in the wake of her father’s death. Sent to spend the summer with a grandfather she barely knows, she contends with her losses and fears while learning more about her family, finding her own voice in the process."
The Washington Post

"[What the Fireflies Knew] is not an easy read . . . but it feels authentic, and does what good fiction does: takes readers on a journey they otherwise wouldn’t travel."
—Associated Press

What the Fireflies Knew is the best novel I have read in a long time, and Harris has brilliantly captured KB’s voice. She jumps off the page so strongly that I was invested not only from the first page but, indeed, the first sentence.”
—Free Lance-Star

“Harris’s story helped me remember what it was like to be a young Black girl on the border of adolescence.” 
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Combining complex characters, writing that instantly penetrates your heart, and the restorative power of nature, What the Fireflies Knew is a luminous reminder that sometimes the only true path to healing is through facing our painful histories, and that we don’t have to do it alone. With a debut novel this remarkable, Kai Harris is a writer I hope is around for a long, long time.”
—Mateo Askaripour, New York Times bestselling author of Black Buck

"What the Fireflies Knew is a fabulous debut and truly a gem of a novel, full of the beauty, tenderness, and poignancy of Black girlhood.”
—Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

"What the Fireflies Knew is sharp and graceful, poignant in its depiction of a family learning to acknowledge what’s been broken in order to piece itself back together. Kai Harris beautifully captures what it feels like to be out of place—in a city, in a body, in a family, in the turmoil of adolescence—and then just as gracefully reminds us what it can feel like to find your way back to yourself in spite of everything. This book introduces a bold and necessary new writer, generous in her capacity for holding onto hope without erasing trauma."
—Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self


"In this gorgeous and poignant novel, Kai Harris writes a stunningly crafted tale that explores the beauty and hard truths of life, loss, and survival through the lens of an unforgettable narrator. This story of a young black girl navigating the labyrinth of self and family secrets is told in an authentic voice, filled with well-observed details and elegant prose. Harris's first novel showcases her gift as a superb storyteller." 
—Nicole Dennis-Benn, bestselling author of Patsy and Here Comes the Sun

“Kai Harris's fierce, lyrical writing drew me in from the first page. KB is an unforgettable narrator whose voice comes vibrantly to life through her journey from childhood to adulthood, even as she grapples with the forces that tear families apart and the power that holds them together. This is an extraordinary, powerful debut, and I hope there will be more to come from Harris.”
Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl with the Louding Voice

"A story of Black girlhood from a promising new voice in fiction."
Kirkus Reviews

“Kai Harris’s debut novel is a stirring story of a transformative summer for a Black girl growing up in 1990s Michigan. . . . This elegant and eloquent novel is perfect for readers who loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.”
—BookPage
(starred)

Inside the Book

About

An NAACP Image Award Nominee
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize
A Marie Claire Book Club pick

Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by *Marie Claire* *Teen Vogue* *Buzzfeed* *Essence* *Ms. Magazine* *NBCNews.com* *Bookriot* *Bookbub* and more! 

“Harris rewrites the coming-of-age story with Black girlhood at the center.”
New York Times Book Review

In the vein of Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, a coming-of-age novel told by almost-eleven-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB), as she and her sister try to make sense of their new life with their estranged grandfather in the wake of their father's death and their mother's disappearance

 
An ode to Black girlhood and adolescence as seen through KB's eyes, What the Fireflies Knew follows KB after her father dies of an overdose and the debts incurred from his addiction cause the loss of the family home in Detroit. Soon thereafter, KB and her teenage sister, Nia, are sent by their overwhelmed mother to live with their estranged grandfather in Lansing, Michigan. Over the course of a single sweltering summer, KB attempts to navigate a world that has turned upside down.

Her father has been labeled a fiend. Her mother's smile no longer reaches her eyes. Her sister, once her best friend, now feels like a stranger. Her grandfather is grumpy and silent. The white kids who live across the street are friendly, but only sometimes. And they're all keeping secrets. As KB vacillates between resentment, abandonment, and loneliness, she is forced to carve out a different identity for herself and find her own voice.

A dazzling and moving novel about family, identity, and race, What the Fireflies Knew poignantly reveals that heartbreaking but necessary component of growing up—the realization that loved ones can be flawed and that the perfect family we all dream of looks different up close.

Author

© Fran Dwight
Kai Harris is a writer and educator from Detroit, Michigan who uses her voice to uplift the Black community through realistic fiction centered on the Black experience. She resides in the Bay Area with her husband, three daughters, and dog Tabasco, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Santa Clara University. View titles by Kai Harris

Excerpt

1

 

"We there yet?" My big sister, Nia, unbuckles her seat belt and lays cross the back seat beside me. Her skin shimmers in the sun from a half-cracked window, which lets a tiny breeze slide in that carries her cottony hair back and forth, up and down. People say Nia's the one who looks like Momma. They have the same oval eyes and mahogany skin. My eyes are rounder and my skin pale yellow, like the color of french fries that ain't quite cooked.

 

Momma ignores Nia's question. Probably cause it's bout the tenth time she's asked. My nose finds the smell of rotten banana and that's got me thinking back to that night, almost six months ago now. The smell fills the car, just like the stench in our old basement that stuck around even after Daddy was buried. I dig my hands into the seat cushions and touch something sticky, but it's more peppermint sticky than banana sticky. Days ago, laying with a book in the back seat, one of my favorite places now, I got interrupted by Momma and Nia, right outside the car door and yelling, like always. They ain't see me, so I crept out before they could, hiding the banana I was just bout to bite. I hid it in a perfect place to come back for later, once all the fighting finally stopped. But it never did, and now I can't remember where I put it. I rub my eyes as I look around. I wanna fall asleep, but now I'm awake and smelling that stink.

 

Nia don't look my way, just stares out the window, so I stare out the window. Ain't nothin' but flat green spaces. Cars speed by on both sides. I like that Momma drives slower than the other cars, cause then I don't get carsick. I count signs bigger than me as they blur cross my reflection in the car window. There's one for Toys"R"Us with a big picture of the new Easy-Bake Oven and Snack Center right in the middle. A now open sign for a new restaurant called Ponderosa. And one with a picture of a bunch of kids playing with dirt, and words at the bottom that say: new name, same fun. visit impression 5 science center, ahead in 28 miles. I wanna ask Momma to stop-for the restaurant or the science center, mostly, but even a toy would do-but I know we ain't gon' stop. So I count and count and get to twenty-two, then I'm bored.

 

I find my book between the seat cushions and open to the first page. This gon' be my third time reading this book bout Anne, the Green Gables girl. I wonder what a gable is, and why it's s'posed to be green. I can't always understand the kind of words she's using cause nobody I know talks all proper like that, but in some ways, Anne is just like me, so it's my best book. Besides, even if I don't always get her way of talking, I like the sound of her words, all big and eloquent. Ever since I picked it from my school's Lost and Found, I been reading bout Anne and even learning how to talk like her. I ain't ever had too many books of my own, so when nobody at my school came for it, I did.

 

The sun was coming in at the window warm and bright; the orchard on the slope below the house was in a bridal flush of pinky-white bloom, hummed over by a myriad of bees. I roll the new words over my tongue slow like dripping honey. Myriad, myriad, myriad. Orchard, what is an orchard? Bridal flush of pinky-white bloom. Sometimes I try to use words like in my book, but when I do Nia teases me, saying I don't even know what I'm talking bout. But even if me and Anne don't look the same, we can still talk the same and be alike in other ways.

 

I read six more pages bout Anne showing up in Avonlea and tryna fit in where she don't belong; then there's a loud clanking sound and the car slows down. Momma mutters a bad word under her breath, the one that starts with D. I said that word once, just to test it out when nobody could hear me. It felt good. I repeat it now in my head like a silent chant, once for each time our car has stopped working-maybe twelve since we got it bout a year ago-but at some point, I stopped counting. Seems like our old Dodge Caravan-nicknamed Carol Anne like the girl in that scary Poltergeist movie-breaks more than it works.

 

"Nia, KB. Get out and push." We know what Momma is gon' say before she says it, so my seat belt is already undone, and Nia is halfway out the car by the time she finishes the sentence. We step out into the sun, at the top of a stubby hill where the smoking car is stalled. Back when Daddy used to push the car, his muscles would grow big as he pushed, sometimes even up a hill. I am happy we get to go down the hill, at least.

 

"This is stupid," Nia mutters, but I pretend not to hear. Instead, I keep quiet, we keep pushing, and Momma keeps steering and smiling.

 

Momma always smiles, even in the bad times. Her smile is like a gigantic, dripping ice cream cone, after I stuff my belly full with dinner. Even with a stomachache, I want that smile. I need that smile more than bout anything in the world, I think. Momma has different smiles for different things. This smile, when the car hisses and puffs and then stops, is squeezed tight cross her face like the drawn-on smile of a plastic doll.

 

"Ugh!" Nia groans from the other side of the car. I still pretend not to hear, wiping sweat from my forehead and squinting up at the hot sun as I take off my favorite rainbow jacket with holes where there should be pockets, then tie it around my waist. Carol Anne don't take too much muscle to push, probably cause we going down a hill, and also cause we ain't got much stuff with us. We drove straight from the Knights Inn that's been home ever since we lost our real house, before we even had a chance to finish crying for Daddy. Before this, we never stayed at a motel. It smelled like cigarettes mixed with fried chicken grease and sometimes we found bugs in the mattress, but it had good stuff, too. Our first day there, Nia showed me how to trick the vending machine while Momma talked to the man at the front desk.

 

"We got money?" I asked, eyes scanning back and forth. There was all kinds of good stuff behind the glass, like chocolate bars and potato chips, and even a toothbrush.

 

"We don't need none," replied Nia matter-of-factly.

 

"It's gon' give us stuff for free?" My mouth got real dry thinking bout all the chocolate I could eat-one of them things we don't get a lot, but still one of my favorites.

 

"Nah." Nia put both hands up on the glass. "Unless you know the secret trick." She pushed her hands against the window, banging against it til down fell a bag of chips and two packs of gum. "Ta-da!" Nia stuck her hands down in the bottom and pulled out her stolen treasure, stuffing everything in her pockets before Momma could see.

 

"How you know that? You been to a motel before?" I tried to reach into Nia's pocket, but she swatted my hand away.

 

"No, KB, motels ain't the only places with vending machines." Nia dug in her pocket and snuck out two sticks of gum, passing one to me and popping the other in her mouth. "You ain't ever seen nobody do that before?" I shook my head, but Nia was already walking away.

 

Turns out, tricking that vending machine wasn't the only new thing I learned at the motel. They also had hair dryers that stayed stuck to the wall, and people in uniforms that would come clean your room every day. After the first time I let them in, Momma came home from work at the Chrysler plant yelling and said we can't ever let housekeeping do chores in our apartment. She likes calling it that better than the motel-we learned that the hard way-and even though I thought chores were over when we lost our house, still I did as I was told.

 

"Almost there, girls," Momma yells from the front seat. As we push the car, I dig my worn shoes in the dirt. Cept it's more like mud now, even though there ain't been no rain today. I look back to see my own small footprints beside Nia's bigger ones. The ground looks like it's decorated with big and small polka dots as my shoulder shoves into hot metal. It's a good feeling to help Momma, but every time I look over at Nia, she frowns.

 

"That's it, girls!" Momma sings as we finally reach the bottom of the hill. The car makes a loud pop! And then it's working again. Momma pulls on her braids as she waits for us to climb back inside. Nia's first, quick. I take my time, so I can catch Momma's eye in the side mirror. And there she is, just like I knew. First, one wink. Then, she blows two kisses. I catch the first and kiss it, catch the second and blow it back into the wind. Our special thing, just me and Momma. I buckle my seat belt beside Nia and try Momma's smile on her, but all it gets back is another frown.

 

Momma's watching us through the rearview mirror before she pulls off, and I wonder how we look to her, two daughters, one who smiles just like her, one who frowns just like Daddy. Either way, she smiles at us both the same before driving again, even slower now.

 

 


 

"Nia?" I tap her shoulder light at first, then harder. "Nia!"

 

"What do you want?" Nia rolls her freshly opened eyes.

 

"We there."

 

This is my first time visiting Lansing, Nia's second. Her first was before I was born. We have lots of family in Lansing, but we're here to visit Momma's daddy, who I guess we s'posed to call Granddaddy. Momma said we all gon' stay here for the rest of the summer, before school starts back. My eleventh birthday is bout a month away, and Nia gon' turn fifteen the week after. When I pointed that out, that these would be our first birthdays away from home, away from Daddy-Momma's smile disappeared, just for a second, but then it was back, pasted in place like somebody glued it there crooked.

 

Momma pulls into the driveway and Carol Anne groans, either from exhaustion or from the bump-bump-bump of the gravelly road. As she parks, I try to remember the last time I seen my granddaddy. It was years ago, probably when I was bout seven, back when I used to wear my thick hair in two ponytails parted right down the middle with Blue Magic hair grease making it shine and Pink lotion laying down my edges. It was Nia's favorite style, so it was my favorite style. Then Nia started wearing her hair in two different ponytails, one on top and one on the bottom like a unicorn. Back then, Granddaddy came to visit us once in Detroit, when there was a funeral for somebody on Momma's side of the family. I chew my thumb and try to remember the dead person in that casket. The dead arm laying on the dead chest that I could only see when standing on tiptoes. That picture fades now into the image of dead Daddy, but this was long before that. Back when I still thought dead people in caskets ain't belong to nobody. They were always just dead people, not nobody's kid or friend or daddy.

 

"Okay, okay, I'm up." Nia stretches and opens her eyes wide. But I'm still stuck remembering the itchy lace dress I wore to that funeral, the dress that Momma loved, and eating the last piece of sweet potato pie before Nia could. I peek out my finger-smudged window at the little house squatting at the end of a long driveway. The biggest thing I remember from that other funeral was meeting my granddaddy. He wasn't bad, but he never smiled, and he never talked that whole day long. I decided he couldn't speak, like maybe he lost his voice in an accident. I imagined all the possibilities, til he finally grumbled hello in a voice low and deep as thunder.

 

"Come on, girls, let's get out!" Momma is cheerful, but Nia moans. Granddaddy's house will make the third place we've lived in the six months since Daddy died. The more we move around, the more I forget stuff. Like the pattern of my wallpaper in the old house on the dead-end street. I'm starting to forget what it feels like to have a home at all.

 

I swallow and fight back tears as I climb out the car, slow. Momma don't like it when I cry so much. And Nia teases me, calling me Crybaby KB when I do. The K is for Kenyatta and the B for my middle name, Bernice, which was the name of my daddy's grandma. Nia started calling me KB when I was a baby. I have other nicknames like Kenya and TaTa that I like better, but KB is the one that stuck.

 

Gravel crunches under my shoes and something rustles in the bush ahead. I search for the noise as we march up to the tree-shadowed house like soldiers, but don't see nothin'. Just before we reach the wooden porch, wrapped around the house and sloping in the dirt, Granddaddy comes outside to meet us. His skin is dark as a moonless night with hair brushed in black and gray patterns, and a heavy limp that dips and jumps and dips again.

 

"Why he so bent over and wobbly?" I whisper to Momma. She swipes me on the bottom and flashes me The Look. I been gettin' The Look from Momma all my life-not nearly as much as Nia, but enough for me to know exactly what it's s'posed to mean.

 

"Hush your mouth," she hisses. I wonder why it's a bad question but know better than to ask. These days, asking too many questions is just as bad as crying.

 

"I bet he need a cane to walk, cause he so old." Nia is suddenly beside me and trying not to let Momma hear her giggle. I giggle, too, happy to get an answer, and happy it's from Nia.

Praise

“Harris rewrites the coming-of-age story with Black girlhood at the center.”
New York Times Book Review

"[A] sensitive, realistic portrait of a ten-year-old trying to understand her world in the wake of her father’s death. Sent to spend the summer with a grandfather she barely knows, she contends with her losses and fears while learning more about her family, finding her own voice in the process."
The Washington Post

"[What the Fireflies Knew] is not an easy read . . . but it feels authentic, and does what good fiction does: takes readers on a journey they otherwise wouldn’t travel."
—Associated Press

What the Fireflies Knew is the best novel I have read in a long time, and Harris has brilliantly captured KB’s voice. She jumps off the page so strongly that I was invested not only from the first page but, indeed, the first sentence.”
—Free Lance-Star

“Harris’s story helped me remember what it was like to be a young Black girl on the border of adolescence.” 
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Combining complex characters, writing that instantly penetrates your heart, and the restorative power of nature, What the Fireflies Knew is a luminous reminder that sometimes the only true path to healing is through facing our painful histories, and that we don’t have to do it alone. With a debut novel this remarkable, Kai Harris is a writer I hope is around for a long, long time.”
—Mateo Askaripour, New York Times bestselling author of Black Buck

"What the Fireflies Knew is a fabulous debut and truly a gem of a novel, full of the beauty, tenderness, and poignancy of Black girlhood.”
—Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

"What the Fireflies Knew is sharp and graceful, poignant in its depiction of a family learning to acknowledge what’s been broken in order to piece itself back together. Kai Harris beautifully captures what it feels like to be out of place—in a city, in a body, in a family, in the turmoil of adolescence—and then just as gracefully reminds us what it can feel like to find your way back to yourself in spite of everything. This book introduces a bold and necessary new writer, generous in her capacity for holding onto hope without erasing trauma."
—Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self


"In this gorgeous and poignant novel, Kai Harris writes a stunningly crafted tale that explores the beauty and hard truths of life, loss, and survival through the lens of an unforgettable narrator. This story of a young black girl navigating the labyrinth of self and family secrets is told in an authentic voice, filled with well-observed details and elegant prose. Harris's first novel showcases her gift as a superb storyteller." 
—Nicole Dennis-Benn, bestselling author of Patsy and Here Comes the Sun

“Kai Harris's fierce, lyrical writing drew me in from the first page. KB is an unforgettable narrator whose voice comes vibrantly to life through her journey from childhood to adulthood, even as she grapples with the forces that tear families apart and the power that holds them together. This is an extraordinary, powerful debut, and I hope there will be more to come from Harris.”
Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl with the Louding Voice

"A story of Black girlhood from a promising new voice in fiction."
Kirkus Reviews

“Kai Harris’s debut novel is a stirring story of a transformative summer for a Black girl growing up in 1990s Michigan. . . . This elegant and eloquent novel is perfect for readers who loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.”
—BookPage
(starred)

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Inside the Book

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