When I was a little girl, and all the way up until I left for boarding school at 13, we would spend most of our summer weekends and a fair number of our summer weekdays at the lake. The lake was officially South Holston Lake, though it was never anything but “the lake” to us. It was decent sized, a couple of miles wide at its widest and about 20 miles long, and our house there was at the widest point, near the dam. The water was clear; you could see the bottom at 20 feet. The far side of the lake was park of some kind, maybe a national forest, or maybe a state park, and as such was uninhabited and lovely. Soft ridges in pretty Appalachian blue.

I would fish a bit, though never with the enthusiasm of my brother. I fished with a bagel and a bucket, mainly to admire the bluegills. Leaning off our dock, I would submerge the bucket about 8 inches under the water and hold a bagel down at the very bottom. When a curious fish would swim inside for snacks, I would pull the bucket and the fish up. They were grayish, but every now and then in the bright sun their sides would show flashes of cobalt blue, like labradorite. We never ate mine, although they were big enough that we could have, and we did sometimes eat the ones my brother would catch with a line. Everyone knew that mine were only for looking at, and letting go.

By early June there would be fireflies. The drive to the lake house took about 15 minutes from our house, and shortly after leaving town it was very rural. There were farms, one or two convenience stores, and views of the Blue Ridge mountains in all directions. Towards the end of the drive, before the road deteriorated into its series of hairpin turns and steep drops, there was a big white oak tree in a small valley, on the edge of a creek. That was the firefly tree.

When you caught it just right, the whole tree would glow and pulse and sparkle. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen since. As if the tree was on fire with pale green, with embers lifting up into the night sky in graceful arcs and sprays.

There’s something about the way this town smells as it works its way into spring that reminds me of the lake, and the firefly tree. A watery, green smell. It makes me feel ten years old again.

South Holston Lake

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