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Stained Glass Wings
My earliest memory is about fairies. My grandfather is there, my parents are not. I have a vague understanding that they won't be back, and I'm clinging to grandpa's leg, begging him not to leave me alone and afraid. He smiles, patting my head. "Hey Tess," he whispered. "Let me show you something." He crouches down in the woodchips of the playground, and his hand darts forwards scooping something up from the ground. He holds it out for me to see. It is a small, pale orange insect with long, veined wings like golden stained glass. It thrums gently, buzzing to try and escape.
"A fairy," he whispers. "It's called an Amberwing. Don't worry, it won't hurt you." It's as light as air as he rests it on my hand. "Amberwings are guardsmen for fairy nobles. They're small, but they're fast and clever. If anything gets close, even hornets and wasps- they'll fight them off." With a tiny rustling noise, the insect takes flight, darting away. "See? He's on patrol already. He'll protect you now, against anything. He’s small, but you won't always see him, but he’ll always be there. Okay Tess?"
Daycare wasn't so bad. I remember telling him about it on the way home, though about what, I don't remember. That's all a blur now. What I do remember is a tiny, flitting shape hovering over his head as he helped me out of the car. "Look," I gasp, pointing at it. "The fairy! He's still there!" My grandfather smiles. "Oh no, Tess. This one's different." He glances over his shoulder, pretending to scan the bushes around our property for the Amberwing. "Don't worry, your guardian is still here, somewhere, but this one's something special. Let me tell you her story. She's called a sundragon. She was born ugly. She's all just brown and black, without any of the colors that other fairies have. She had a beautiful heart and a beautiful soul, but she wanted to be pretty. The spirits saw that she was good, so they gave her the most beautiful eyes. You can't see them until she lands, but-" A gust of wind tosses the insect high up into the air, and it darts away. "Come on!" He yells, yanking me out of the car. "Come on, don't let her get away!" We chase her across the marshy field behind our house for nearly half an hour, stalking it as it stops to rest, never quite stealthy enough to get close, until at last, she flutters to a stop on the back of my grandfather’s hands. I remember those eyes still. Brilliant, burning, metallic green eyes with blue tints that shimmered in the sun like emeralds. And so grew a lifelong love of these "fairies". Dragonflies, others called them. Odonate insects of the suborder Anisoptera. But to me, they will always be, fairies.
I spent many happy childhood hours out in the swampy fields behind our house, stalking fairies with a butterfly net, to bring home to my grandfather. He would glance at my newest catch, and give it a beautiful, poetic name, and tell me about how it lived and hunted and fought. He taught me to pick out out tiny Blue Dashers with turquoise eyes, and elegant Halloween Pennants with spotted wings raised to catch the breeze. I learned to identify huge, elegant Green Darners from the others, by their lazy, cruising autumn flights, meadowhawks by their brilliant reds, clubtails by, their paddle-tipped tails and their tiger stripes. But there were always endless others that I had neither seen nor heard of before, and my grandfather would identify those for me, and tell me how and where to find others like them. There was something immensely satisfying about putting a name to a strange, new fairy.
And it was the names that I loved most. There was Splendid Jewelwing, and Autumn Meadowhawk, and Wandering Glider. Uhler’s Sundragon, and Stygian Shadowdragon. Dragonhunter. Coppery Emerald. Comet Darner. Such colorful, exotic names, like poetry rolling off of the tongue.
My grandfather's, as it turned out, was a legendary name amongst those who loved dragonflies. He'd spent his entire life chasing fairies. He'd spent years studying the fairy courts of remote New Guinea, the Congo Basin, and the Amazon Rainforest, laying eyes of fairies nobody else had ever seen before.
I remember sitting on my grandfather's lap on the back porch on a late summer evening, watching Green Darners cruise overhead in the low golden light. The air smells of fresh cut grass and my grandfather's aftershave, and I lean back against him, surrounding myself with his scent, and just listen to him talk. "Darners," he tells me, "Are brave, daring explorers. These ones were born around here, but their parents came from a thousand miles away, down in Mexico. This spring, they flew a thousand miles north, and had their children here. Those are the ones you see now. Now they're grown up. They're preparing to brave a thousand miles of wind and rain and birds to reach their ancestral homelands again, to have their children. And next year, those children will come north again. They live their whole adult lives on the wing."
"Why?" I ask. "Why don't they just stay where they're born?"
He shrugs, and I feel his bony shoulders shift under me. "Some do. There are a But most of them... I guess its wanderlust, Tess. They just want to see the world."
"Is that really true?' I ask him. "Do they actually feel that way?"
He shrugs again. "No Tess, probably not. I suppose it's just evolutionary instinct. But... instinct doesn't quite seem beautiful enough to do them justice, does it?"
I feel the disappointment in my gut. "It's not actually true," I whisper. "They're not even smart enough to feel that way, right?"
"No. But just imagine, Tess."
My notebooks from that time are filled with binomial names and reams of disorganized, misspelled observations, written in childish, messy handwriting. And in the margins, on pages in between, are stories. Poorly written, childish stories about ugly Sundragons that gained beautiful eyes through good deeds and Green Darners' wanderlust fueled pilgrimages. These are from age nine or ten, I suppose. Past age 12, they get better- the scientific parts, anyways. The sketches become more accurate, the language becomes more scientific. My grandfather specialized in naiads- the elusive, wingless aquatic larvae of fairies painted all in shades of brown and black, who’s little-known lives my grandfather made it his mission to document. Naiads were fascinating- my first pets were a pair of huge, voracious darner larvae. But they were slow moving, and cryptically colored, earthbound, devoid of everything I loved about grown dragonflies. I found my calling in something far flashier- the mechanics of the hunt. My fairies were not Tinkerbelle-type magical helpers- they were predators, Faen on the Wild Hunt, aerial wolves- except wolves only successfully kill one out of every ten animals they chase. Lions two out of ten, sharks perhaps four. Dragonflies are the most efficient predators on earth, with a 95% success rate. I know that from the reams of tally-marked observations that dominate my notebooks, sandwiched in between sketches of dragonfly mouthparts, aerodynamics calculations, copies of scientific papers written in the dense, scientific language that I struggled to emulate. The stories are still there, sandwiched in between the pages. There are paintings too, rather poorly done water colors of Wandering Gliders circling the globe, dragonhunters dispensing bloody justice on wicked butterflies.
I remember long, cold spring mornings, that smelled of frost and mud and new life, wading through deep, dark, sphagnum bogs- a daily April pilgrimage, to the remote kingdom of Ebony Boghaunters. Boghaunters are small, black dragonflies that fly like ghosts through the swamps in April, and then vanished like ghosts again once May comes. 92% success rate, I noted, jotting down tally marks. They didn't fly much, mostly sighted prey from a perch, and then chased after it
“Just take some time to watch them, Tess,” my grandfather told me, pulling my head away from the notebook. “And just imagine.” So I did. Boghaunters, I wrote, are ghosts, shadows, hallowed spirits of the dead who returned to enjoy the earth once more for one short month each spring. They rejoice in the feeling of flight again, but pine for the forbidden warmth of sun and summer. Some manage to hold on all the way through early June, and taste sunlight for a few brief days, but they're always dragged back to the dreary spirit world for another year.
I remember driving up to northern Maine, to search for rare Umber Shadowdragons- elusive, chocolate brown dragonflies that fly only at dusk. I remember leaning on my grandfather's shoulder, ticking successful prey captures off in my notebook, as we watched them flit against the twilight blue sky. An amazing 98% success rate. Skilled aerialists, capable of hovering and flying backwards, unusual eyes, capable of a degree of night vision. This time, I took some time to “just imagine. So Shadowdragons were the cousins of the ugly Sundragon from all of those years ago. They were never made beautiful, so instead, they courted fairy princes, charming them with their wits and kindness, in the dark where their looks didn't matter.
I wish, more than anything, I could go back there, to that warm riverbank.
Winter came, the dragonflies went away, naiads hibernated beneath the ice. I hated winter. All the fairies died, or flew south, or hibernated, leaving nothing but ice and empty skies. I spent most of my time focusing on schoolwork, pining for spring, when my beloved fairies would return again, dreaming of what strange new finds April would bear. I hated winter. But I would have taken eternal winter, if only it would have prevented what spring brought.
April, just past the snowmelt, was the time of charcoal-black, gray-eyed Ebony Boghaunters darting like ghosts through dark, cold, secret swamps. They were particularly abundant that year. That was when the coughing began.
May, of yellow-spotted Baskettails and Whitefaces, of the first tiny Fragile Forktails with their green and black stripes. The coughs continued. I insisted that he go to the hospital.
Late-May, came with the first Whitetails with their powder-blue bodies and black dusted wings, and wandering Green Darners returning north for the year. Non-small-cell lung cancer, stage two.
June was the month of a dozen types of tiger-striped Clubtails, cruising over clean, clear rivers. He was too weak to search for them, and so, for the first time in thirteen years, we did not go Clubtail hunting. He rarely moved at all, and almost never ate. Sometimes, I wondered if the chemotherapy was killing him.
July, of elusive, dark-colored emeralds with metallic green eyes, patrolling cold, deep lakes without ever landing. The chemotherapy was killing him, the cancer was killing him, and combined, they were killing him faster than the chemo was killing the cancer. They stopped treatment.
August was the month of colorful skimmers with colorful names. Calico and Halloween Pennants, with their stained-glass wings. Lime-green Pondhawks and blue-gray Corporals, and brilliant, scarlet Meadowhawks. I brought him gifts from outside. Twelve-spotted Skimmers, their wings mottled powder blue and black, flashing as they sailed above his head. Tiny Blue Dashers, that flitted over him in swarms. An enormous, powerful Dragonhunter, with acid-green eyes, yellow and black tiger stripes. He smiled only when I brought him fairies and spent hours gazing at them, watching them with that same, childish fascination, with that same, scientific precision. I was glad he was distracted. That way, I wouldn’t have to be as careful to hide my tears. August wound down, the grind for college applications began, the Green Darners gathered again, in vast swarms, and suddenly vanished. Meadowhawks came and faded to nothing. August was the season of goodbyes.
Grandfather was weak, in those last few days. But he was lucid. I spent hours there by his bed, gripping his papery hand, wondering how such a vibrant, energetic creature could die this way. I left only when he told me to. River Jewelwing, he would whisper. Dusky Dancer. Spatterdock Darner. Fairies. His beloved, fierce fairies, which he could not leave without seeing again. I would leave, taking one last look at him as I closed the door, terrified that it would be the last time I would see him alive. And I would catch his fairies for him, bring them back, and set them loose in his room for him to see and touch one last time. Some were hard to find. I spent nearly a week trying to find him an Eastern Amberwing, near the very end of its season.
Grandfather smiled when he saw the little, golden winged creature. “Your guardian angel," he whispered. "Hey Tess?” he whispered, still following the tiny, flitting insect with his eyes. “Do you think we’re ever reborn?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Be honest with me. Tell me what you think is true.”
“Grandpa I… I honestly think we’re just gone.”
He chuckled. “Yes. So do I. But just imagine.” He extended his finger, and the little dragonfly hovered for a few seconds, before lighting on the pad of his index finger. “Say we’re reborn. It would be nice, to be a dragonfly, no? Sure, you only live a year or so, but you’re a predator. You’re free. He frowns. “There are six thousand species of odonates, you know?”
“Probably more, grandpa. We just haven't found all of them yet."
“Yes.” I smiles. “I'd say ten thousand is a good, round number. How many occur here?"
“Maybe hundred and fifty, give or take."
“So I suppose chances are, I'll get to see the world, eh?"
He died hours later, a golden-winged guardian angel resting on his brow.
September was the season of wanderers. The lost, the weary, creatures from far away blown stray on migration. Red and gray spotted Variegated Meadowhawks from the west, huge, indigo colored Great Blue Skimmers from the south, pale gold Wandering Gliders from across the sea. September was the season a Phantom Darner- a slender charcoal and green-banded denizen of the Deep South- found itself nearly two thousand miles home, on our land. The first ever seen in the state.
Darners, of course, are strong fliers- I’d known that since I was a little girl, sitting on my grandfather’s lap, watching the Green Darners cruise above our roof, as he told me about the epic quests south these fairy travelers engaged in every year. Darners are natural wanderers, highly migratory, and they are often found far from where they should be. Rationality would say that was all it was. Not a ghost, not a fairy, just a small, lost, windblown bug.
But just imagine.