Eating from the Wind
Without regret. Without regard. Primitive. You were born, it is said, from the age of stones. And yet, many spend a good amount of time wary and fearful of you: “Ear Cutter,” “Devil’s Needle,” they call you. Many have fallen and been split open before you, and some have tried to reunite with your radiant armor. With that immaculate compound eye of yours, could you not have stopped those who would throw away the favor of living by removing their wings?
Did it matter what their reasons were for coupling? They might have been in sweet love or simple lust. They might have just been curious, or worse, totally indifferent. Had one of them done this before, or were they both, well you know, simply engorged and slippery? Nobody will ever know all of the details, all of the minutiae that went into the unmaking of this couple, unless one seeks the innocent opinion of baby Arial.
Toying with dragonflies. Not literally, although when I asked Dianne about her experiences with insects, she told me that she used to capture and keep dragonflies when she was very young in the Philippines. She said that they were difficult but not impossible to capture. “Move slowly so as not to create vibrations,” she said. “Appear as nothing more than a slow-moving tree or vertically oriented body of water, make next to no noise, and try to hold your Pork-Adobo breath. When you get close enough, you can bind the wings with fingers and transport the creature to your waiting favorite jar.”
She said they glowed in the dark. I had a hard time believing these already immaculately colored, iridescent, and powerful insects could also glow in the dark. Such an endowment seemed unfair and grossly disproportionate to that which others in the animal and insect kingdoms were naturally endowed. I searched online. Perhaps there was a species somewhere in the Far East that coopted luminescence out of necessity—a lure to the arena of the hunt, the killing floors. Maybe all those summers spent growing up near contained and stilled bodies of water had deadened my very own senses to the real nature of possibility. I found no supporting evidence. After a few minutes reflecting on her youth—what did and didn’t actually happen—Dianne relented. She confused the dragonfly and the firefly.
There was a boy, fifteen-years bright, and by turns, I’m told, effervescent one day and moody and dark on others, for whom light, along with all of its misleading and brilliant attributes, proved weaker than the bell that tolled and cut through the light. The bell informed the boy when his exit time drew nearer. The boy and the girl had been sweet on each other since the seventh grade, nearly inseparable. But after their first semester of high school, he was forced to transfer schools. My source knew not why. The ringing, the sounding, or clanging, arrived. The girl carried their baby.
How Not to Destroy that Which We Fear
Seems the late 60s and early 70s were rife with insect apocalyptic movies. Bugs grew gigantic. Swarmed cities. Hollowed out the Earth. Got mutated by meteors. Grew hungry for something beyond what was already largely available (us). Cockroaches, ants, bees, spiders—the insects that essentially, by their appearance and methods of interacting with the world, comprise the bulk of insecticidal advertising campaigns. Stamp out the bugs, keep them underfoot and under control, for they will ruin your home (termites), your pets (fleas), your day (locusts).
Keep in mind that according to the pseudo-documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), humanity will ultimately lose this battle with the bugs. Adaptability. Rapid reproduction. Qualities we, as a species, possess in small measure and in tiny amounts of necessity.
Ever see the movie about renegade dragonflies decapitating people left and right, bringing down planes by stripping off the wings, blinding their would-be destroyers with magnificent iridescence? Yeah, me neither. There are movies with crazy mantises, giant grasshoppers, prehistoric renegade beetles (even Jurassic Park at the soul level). Dragonflies are due an epic movie: they are born and live in the water for the first part of their lives, but then they eat everything they can including piranhas and sharks. They are ravenous. Once mature enough, they emerge as lethal winged creatures, decapitating boy bands and their narcoleptic fans, harassing men, and devouring slimy thinking sticks, zipping down and feasting on nonplussed administration officials.
Perhaps there is a line over which the end is not all that dark, the bell not so dour. Remember: a little amber goes a long way as a steadfast preservative. Surely, the creatures one encounters on that side of the line are not all as uncommon as we think.
Segments We Fail to See
Dragonflies live in segments. From egg to nymph to dragonfly. The largest of those segments designates the Anisoptera (order: Odonata), an aquatic existence. Anywhere from 2–6 years depending on a variety of cultural markers: altitude, temperature, latitude, after which it only has a fixed amount of time—typically 2–4 months, sometimes 6, during which it can fly in several directions (similar to Wonka’s elevator), mate, and hunt like a bolt of lightning. It is in this moment where the dragonfly remains his whole life—finitely, keen, focused. And hungry.
A teen suicide riding in the same drawn carriage as a teen pregnancy. The dad removes himself from the picture. Removes himself even the idea of the whole picture. The picture is broken. Was his situation really so dire that he was compelled not to choose between Scylla and Charybdis, choosing, instead, not the lesser of two evils but just evil period? A selfless life devoted to the mother of his child would have served as his salvation. And yet, the selfish exit, his Scylla and Charybdis, guided him toward the whirling mind, the bells. Were his options really that narrow?
Oh, youth, to be wrapped around that finger of your desire for a compound eye that fails you over and over. What you think you see often renders as the extreme opposite of what actually is there. Scylla and Charybdis were nymphs, once upon a time, long before being turned into the monsters terrorizing sailors in Homer’s Odyssey.
There is no shame in young lovers doing what they have always done. No disgrace in that. But you and your classmates didn't see this coming. You couldn't have. Nobody did. Most of you knew that she and she were lovers. But there is a certain shame in not using some measure of precaution amidst the furious issuance of body fluids, in not using contraception. A young man’s life was extinguished before thousands of eyes. I had no knowledge of him, nor of the thousands of sexed up young men and women like him—prior to hearing about how his suicide affected Dianne’s niece.
I do not need to recapitulate teenage suicide rates for anyone reading. Look around you, into your community, your schools, your recently repaved streets, or any mall or church in town; their residue remains, their scent, their juju. Numbers demean the memories. Divide and bracket them into smaller sums and remainders.
The dragonfly is able to track multiple targets simultaneously using its massive compound eye; to intercept with more ruthless precision than a looped drum machine; and de-wing its meal mid-flight (i.e., shred off its prey’s wings, reducing the hapless bug helpless). With a 95% success rate in the hunt, I can think of no other creature, human or otherwise, with such a success rate. A reaction time of 30 milliseconds to prey, to change direction in wind and environment. Able to see and process approximately 200 images per second. Humans max out at 60.
Heft of Blade, Flit of Wing
The boy’s actions caused ripples. Dianne’s niece said he and she had become friends during after school-arranged activities. They swapped secrets. Felt as though they understood each other. The niece’s mother asked me if I would, perhaps, have a word with her child. The mother asked this because she said the niece respected Dianne and me, she listened to us. Not sure I believe that. Yes, my father took his own life, though that hardly qualifies me as an expert on alcoholism, depression, and guns.
After the Florida shooting, the niece was scared. The niece was a child, a teenage child. She listened to herself and entertained the chatter of those around her. I know that she felt afraid to be at her school, afraid to be at any high school in the San Fernando Valley in the days following. Guns. Threats of guns. And the turmoil surrounding the intentional loss of life. Teens are more resilient than they are generally given credit for being by the adults who hover and buzz around them. She was understandably wigged out. Guns were incidental to her very real fear. And what of the boy’s family?
Make me a Postcard
“Pterostigma; an evolutionary edge eluding the noose of slow time and rapid change.”
The prefix ptero from the ancient Greek meaning “wing” or “feather.” And stigma is not without its negative and biblical associations, either. “Stigma” can mean “a mark of disgrace” or even outright shame, whereas “stigmata” (plural), represent the marks that crucifixion left on Jesus’ body. Suicide leaves in its wake a stigma upon those still beating, bleeding from the core.
Pterostigma is present on a few species of insects and remains a vital component of the wing structure. Pterostigma adds a measure of mass to the wings. Without it, self-exciting vibrations would create aerial chaos and eventually make gliding effectively near impossible, the kind of gliding a dragonfly does when hunting for food or seeking to mate. Homo sapiens refer to evolutionary additions such as faith or spirituality as “a mark of distinction.”
Toward the end of The Hellstrom Chronicle, one Dr. Nils Hellstrom (the fictitious narrator played with equal measures of doom and sinister glee by Lawrence Pressman) is commenting on the beautiful efficiency of a termite colony. He uses the phrase, “condemned by their inflexible programming,” regarding the sanctity and continued survival of the colony and its queens. I found myself wondering if the same inflexibility applies to us, both broadly as a species and in a much more focused sense: to those “faults” in our wiring.
Taking to the sky like an insect around a stilled body of water is likely an anti-endgame, one promising a swift, conclusive demise, a very literal acquisition of an end. An adult dragonfly, depending on the species, can eat anywhere from 30 to 100 mosquitoes in a day.
Can you imagine the dragonflies in our epic insect disaster movie, large enough to eat babies at that rate? I think they would want to remove our heads first, though, because what would be the point of eating them? Not much meat, heavy with dreams and confusions, fears and ennui. Terrifying stuff, the human head, stick it on a pole, a stake.
Sean Mahoney lives with his wife, her mother, two Uglydolls, and three dogs in Santa Ana, California. He works in geophysics. He believes in salsa, dark chocolate, and CBD.