Author / Speaker
Amber watched him, crouched at the pond’s edge, lost to the world, the dragonflies settling on his palm like jeweled raindrops. His palm already brimmed but the dragonflies kept coming, vectoring across the ruffled pond, hovering and landing atop each other, going still with a last gossamer flicker of wingbeat.
Stroked by the wind, the bulrushes issued a congregation’s reverential whisper. The Chicago Botanic Gardens was one of their favorite places, especially just before sunset.
A neon green dragonfly made its regal, stick- legged way along his finger until it perched on his fingertip. It threw back the last light of the sun.
“They’re impossibly beautiful,” she whispered.
“Pixie dust come to life.”
“They’re not afraid.”
“They don’t need to be,” Justin said.
He smiled up at her. It was a smile to love. Some people, childhood never leaves them.
“You look like a little boy, squatting there. All you need is a slingshot in your back pocket and a wad of bubble gum behind your ear.”
“You don’t have to be a little boy to love dragonflies.”
They smothered his hand past his wrist, a twitching, iridescent coating, a morphing beehive. Still, they dropped from the deepening blue.
Justin turned his hand slowly, surveying the swarm.
“Sometimes the smallest things can take up the most room in your heart,” he said.
“That’s Winnie the Pooh.”
“My beautiful, honest little boy.”
Justin gazed out across the pond, the opposite shore blurring in the dusk.
“When I was a little, I used to sit in the mangroves and watch them for hours. I thought they were magic. Messengers from a fantasy kingdom. Now I know I was right.”
A man walked toward them. He wore an orange vest and a grim look.
Amber touched Justin’s shoulder.
“Justin. Closing time.”
The docent was two weeks short of his seventy-fifth birthday. His knees ached. He liked working as a docent, but he didn’t like rounding up the laggards at closing time. The sign out front clearly said closing time was sunset. Making matters worse, his eyes worked perfectly fine; this couple was as handsome as they were oblivious. He had never liked pretty people. Too many things just fell into their lap. Their handsomeness added to his irritation. Pretty, spoon-fed daydreamers. This generation was coddled to helplessness.
He heard the brusqueness and challenge in his voice. It wasn’t him, but he was tired and drained.
The boy came out of his crouch like a dancer. The ease and grace made the docent jealous. The green eyes fixed on him; the slightly circled mouth no doubt preparing some smart-mouthed retort. In his day he would already have mumbled an apology and skedaddled. With a tinge of unease, he saw the boy was lean and muscled. Clean cut enough, but his hair fell to his shoulders. It was a world of thugs. There was no telling what this generation would do. These days, all the rules were off. He wished he had a radio. He was a decrepit sheriff.
The boy did not skedaddle. He spoke clearly.
“It’s my fault, sir. She’s been telling me we should go. I’m really sorry.”
The way the boy looked at the beautiful girl made the docent sad. His wife had been plain and beautiful.
And then the docent saw the boy’s hand, and forgot his knees and his sadness.
“Dragonflies,” the boy said unnecessarily and smiled. “I won’t take them home.”
It was almost as if the boy held a lantern in his hand. Only when the boy raised the lantern to the sky did the dragonflies lift away. They rose as one, a humming mist of rainbow confusion, and, on some collective signal, vectored off into the gloaming in dozens of perfect angles.
The attendant stared after them.
“How did that happen?”
The boy just smiled and shrugged.
GULF OF ADEN.
Sugule Ali watched the fishing sloop through stolen binoculars, a sad-looking scrap nearly invisible upon the Gulf of Aden. The sloop reminded him of the hand-carved boats he had played with as a boy. Standing where the waves washed in, he had worked tirelessly to keep his boats upright, but they had capsized every time. Even then he had realized this was a life lesson.
The three fishermen were so thin as to already be ghosts. Sugule Ali thought of his fellow pirates, all of them scarecrows on the open sea. None escaped Somalia’s poverty. In this, his country bestowed equality.
It was no cargo ship, but cargo ships were far fewer these days, redirecting to other waters or accompanied now by armed escorts. Perhaps, mused Sugule Ali, he was a victim of his own success.
Watching the panicked fishermen through the binoculars, Sugule Ali spoke his last words. He experienced no regret. It was a matter of survival.
“Shoot them when we are in range.”
He felt the impact, a simultaneous hammer strike upon every bone. In the instant before the pain, he was angry. The half-wit Yusuf had run them aground, although he knew this was impossible in four hundred feet of water. It occurred to him that one of his men might have shot him. Their marksmanship was only slightly better than that of the blind. All about him was popping; the undisciplined report of Kalashnikov rifles, splintering wood and a snapping not quite like branches underfoot. There was a smell, sweet and sickly, like a butchered oxen. He had yet to lower his binoculars. He saw, in two perfectly oval worlds, the squalid fishermen gesturing madly, as if they had never seen pirates before. Yusuf screamed his mother’s name. Wet doused Sugule Ali. Dropping his binoculars he saw the rain was red.
After a time the boat of Sugule Ali, pirate king, slid beneath the sea, but it did not concern him anymore.
Here I am in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem. There I am in Jules Verne’s novel. I am not even where you expect I am. Certainly, in Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Chambered Nautilus,” I am clearly visible on the bench at the foot of the woman’s canopied bed. But look closely. The composition and proportions of the bed and the window behind it mirror those of the nautilus on the bench. Just a little hidden fun. More than once, while writing “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne confessed to his wife Honorine de Viane Morel. “Honorine. As God is my witness, a voice is whispering inside my head.” More than once, she wisely counseled her husband keep this to himself. His family, she rightly pointed out, had madness in its bloodlines.
Mrs. Verne cared for her husband’s reputation, just as she cared for his position as wage earner. The public is seldom generous toward madcap authors.
Here I am, there I am. Whispered of, I am. This is not meant as grandstanding or conceit. It is strictly an attempt to illuminate possibility, to have you look more closely at the world around you. And perhaps sense something larger than yourself. And maybe listen to the whispers in your own head.
Your species believes anything is possible. I suggest this is so.
“The globe began with the sea so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it,” Jules Verne wrote.
Maybe he wrote this; maybe he didn’t.
I do have my limits. I cannot be everywhere at once. I must oversee my offspring more carefully. The young, they are more elemental. Closer to their roots. Sometimes unthinking. I remember. In this day and age, however, such recklessness is far more a risk. Had she taken a different vessel, say a pleasure yacht populated by technology and people who mattered, her impulsive feeding might not have gone unnoticed. But, by happenstance, she took the starving and the poor. Plenty of them to spare, without creating a proverbial ripple.
Her attack on the pirate vessel is a small thing, though not for the pirates. Or the three fishermen.
There are no survivors. Only lapping waves and splintered wood.
Like the shipwrecks of yore.
Wrote your poet Jonathan Swift, "So geographers, in Afric maps, With savage pictures fill their gaps, And o'er uninhabitable downs, Place elephants for want of towns."
Elephants. How very quaint.