We’re sitting by a pond that looks like a half-formed handprint, fingers of water extending from a murky palm. The dragonflies are out. So many of them, skimming the water, swooping, flinging themselves around in tight circles.
With a cup of coffee held to your lips, you say, “I just remembered something from when we were kids. When we played together, we used to say, ‘Dragonfly, dragonfly.’”
A memory shivers like a creature in a mound of leaves. I’ve never forgotten that eerie sing-song. But I’m surprised you remember it.
You frown and shake your head. “We said it like a chant. ‘Dragonfly, dragonfly.’ I don’t remember why. Do you?” You wait a few seconds, and when I say nothing, you laugh a little. “I’m thinking it was a code for something. ‘Dragonfly, dragonfly.’ Maybe it didn’t mean anything.”
The pond is in a city park, a smudge of green in a world of steel and concrete. We didn’t grow up in this city. As kids, we were neighbors in one of its suburbs, our homes half-facing each other in a cul-de-sac. The windows of your house had looked sidelong at mine, as if about to turn away but not quite allowing itself to.
Now, after a couple of decades apart, we’ve met each other by chance, and we’re drinking coffee at a pond where dragonflies have multiplied. They look as if they’re being jerked around on strings made of light. They move as if they’re riding on rubber bands.
“Did it mean anything?” you ask. “We probably just said it whenever we saw dragonflies.”
Our backyards had touched along one fence and fanned away in semi-circles, like dark rings under sleepless eyes. You used to climb over my fence, and we played behind the berm in the back corner of my yard.
The berm was a small, artificial hillock crowned with blue-green spruce trees. Behind it was muddy ground – no lawn, just leaves, rocks, and patches of wet, squeaky grass, and puddles of rain that stuck around for days. It was dimmer than the rest of the yard. The spruces screened out much of the sunlight, as did the pines from another yard. It was a closed-off world, and we had sometimes pretended it was our kingdom.
“Remember the Kingdom of Shadow?” I ask.
Your forehead crinkles, and you repeat the name to yourself. Although you shake your head, you don’t look at me, so I don’t know if you’re lying.
“Our make-believe kingdom,” I say. “In my backyard. We called it the Kingdom of Shadow, and we pretended it was full of magical creatures.”
You take a sip of coffee. “It sounds like something kids do. What does it have to do with dragonflies?”
Of course, you don’t remember. Or you pretend you don’t. Because you weren’t the one who was cursed.
We were playing in that magical spot in my yard, the summer my childhood more or less ended. I don’t remember what it was we were pretending that afternoon, but I do remember a handful of dragonflies zipping around in the shadows from one puddle to another. As the minutes passed, more dragonflies joined them.
We stood with our backs to the fence and watched them. You weren’t bothered by their visit, but they made me nervous. Their sharp bodies, the twinkle in their wings – they were like creatures not of this world. I was consumed by the idea that they would swoop into my face and blind me.
Then the spruce trees shifted, and a splinter of sunlight caught my eye. My thoughts flew around in circles, and I couldn’t pin down who I was or where I was standing. There was only pain, light, and my wounded mind. So I screamed.
I returned to myself only when you grabbed my shoulder. “What happened? Are you ok?” you asked, and when I opened my eyes, the light was gone, but the dragonflies were still there, hovering and zipping around. I broke away from you and ran back indoors.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of our friendship ending. You followed me into my house, and you kept asking me what was wrong. But I couldn’t explain why I was so upset; I couldn’t explain to you that my mind felt wrecked. All I managed to tell you was that I didn’t like the dragonflies.
In the days after, you tried to be a good sport, and when I came up with the dragonfly warning chant, you played along. Whenever we saw more than two dragonflies at a time, we would say, “Dragonfly, dragonfly,” and hurry away from them.
Now, as you sit beside me on the bench, I still can’t explain to you what the warning was meant to be about. “We played a game,” I tell you. “We pretended that dragonflies were scary, and we had to say an incantation to defend ourselves.”
You smile and sip more coffee. “That makes sense. The overactive imagination of kids pretending that dragonflies are dragons.”
I would love to agree with you, but for me it wasn’t imaginative fun. While you were playing make-believe, I lived in genuine terror of dragonflies. I knew that my reaction to them was abnormal, and that it was a sign that something was wrong with me. It was the first time in my life that I realized I’m unwell.
And the incantation didn’t work. Or rather, it depended on our unreliable attention. Even though we chanted, “Dragonfly, dragonfly,” as a warning, there was one afternoon when I didn’t get away quickly enough.
That was your fault, by the way. We were playing in our magical realm behind the berm in my backyard. I was on my knees building a tiny hut made of fallen twigs. I propped up the hut in a puddle, so that it looked like a flood had swept it away from its foundation. You were supposed to be keeping a lookout for dragonflies. You were supposed to let me know when they had arrived. But when they multiplied around me, hovering and swooping, you said nothing, and I didn’t know that I was in danger.
I finished the hut and wiped my hands on my jeans. When I stood, the dragonflies swooped against my face. I screamed, and my arms flapped around. (Did you laugh? I think you did, nervously, not with malice.) The spruce trees parted, and when the sunlight stabbed into my eyes, I was carried away on a bright and boiling river.
It washed me into a realm of unrelenting light. My skin prickled with the wingbeats of dragonflies. When I screamed, my tongue was a spurting flame. I forgot my name, everything about me, and the sunlight tore through my eyelids and lit my brain on fire.
I hate what you did next. You shook me by the shoulders and screamed, “What’s wrong with you?” I had no answer to that, just as I couldn’t explain why dragonflies in sunlight had fractured my mind.
Not long after, you stopped coming over to play. You never said anything unkind. You merely drifted away, and you were always busy. Then we went to different schools. I heard about how you thrived, how you launched yourself into adult life with promise and confidence. And I remained a child behind the berm, in the throes of a terror I couldn’t understand.
We sit on this bench now, decades later, and for you these events are a faint, whimsical memory. You peek into your coffee cup and say, “It was good bumping into you.”
I think you sound sincere. Maybe you’re pleased with your powers of recognition. You’re the one who spotted me sitting here and recognized me. (Has my face not changed much from childhood?) I haven’t told you that I’m homeless. It isn’t obvious, because I’ve found couches to surf on from time to time and a cheap, reliable gym for showers. My clothes are in decent condition.
Just barely, I give off the impression of “has it together,” so long as you don’t look closely. It helps that dragonflies no longer terrify me. They’re in my blood now, in my brain, in endless tight circles, never at peace.
I catch you glancing at your watch. You grimace and stretch. “I need to get going,” you say.
At least you sat next to me today on this bench, by this pond riddled with dragonflies. Your kindness goes farther than most people’s kindness. But it still has a smooth, shallow bottom, and we have reached it now.
“Dragonfly, dragonfly,” I chant, making my voice sound high and child-like.
I see a flare of distress in your eyes, and you try to deflect it with a faint laugh. You wish me well and walk away, along the edge of the pond, with the briskness of someone who has a life to return to. As in childhood, I have been an interlude to you – pleasant company, until I became too strange. You have the luxury of escape, while I’m here, as I expect I will be for years, watching the dragonflies swoop about on their strings of light.