DRAGONFLY • by John Van Wagner

“Eureka!” the man exclaims to his wife as they settle into Adirondack chairs on their favorite lounging dock, nestled in the shade on the far edge of the lake. “It’s perfect. The end of the rainbow.”

The water sparkles gold under the midday sun. Children frolic in the shallows off the man-made beach under the smiling eyes of their parents. There is no residual anxiety in the air after the club’s three-week closure. It’s as if there had never been any danger at all, no contamination, just an eruption of collective neurosis, provoked by anecdotes of dubious origin.

Whatever happened, Dan decides, it’s over now. There’s no time for recrimination on this, the last weekend of summer. The hours ahead brim with promise. It’s high noon, they’ve brought a basket filled with savories and a bottle of Pouilly Fouisse. He knows Carol has thought of everything, and has assembled and packed their supplies with artful, effortless efficiency. It’s a marvel to him how she does so much and says so little.

He picks up the Financial Times and attempts an article about the recent downgrade of Greek debt, but it’s not enough to distract him from the lake’s blandishments and the exquisite beauty of the woman perched just an arm’s reach away.

From the corner of his eye he glimpses her rapid blinking. This is new. There’s always something new about her, even after thirty-two years. Observing her inscrutable gaze he wonders if she’s thinking of cosmic things, purpose, destiny. Perhaps she spies the new floating disks at the boathouse on the far shore and imagines a languid afternoon float. Maybe she’s fretting about whether their daughter has remembered to file her healthcare forms with the right office at her university. Or she imagines bears in the woods on the lake’s perimeter, snakes slithering in the surrounding ferns.

But it’s probably Ryan. He knows it’s always Ryan.

Turning back to his newspaper he wishes her thoughts would appear over her eyes in words, the way they do on the chiron on CNBC. He wonders if he’d see his own name, ever. Or if Ryan’s picture would appear in video form, his tiny, tortured body, his smile amid the tubes and machines, next to the toys for his fifth birthday.

It’s been thirteen years. She hasn’t mentioned Ryan in two. This unnerves him. Time doesn’t heal, he’s learned. It hides.

“Lake looks pristine, now,” he says over his paper. “Not an algal bloom in sight.”

“So they say.”

“Three weeks. Geez. What are algal blooms, anyway?”

“It was a statewide thing. All the lakes were closed.”

Never underestimate the capacity of bureaucrats to catastrophize, Dan starts to say, but refrains. He doesn’t need to opine. Carol knows what he thinks. He has no faith in state functionaries to diagnose or cure aquatic environments. Or to do anything. Their rules are asinine. Like doctors, they derive their power from fear. When Dan looks down into the water he sees clarity, not threat; reflections, of himself, of her, and all the natural gifts that water and light bestow.

Glancing toward the swimming area, he pictures Carol diving off the dock and surfacing ecstatic, chestnut hair flung behind the alabaster opacity of her face, sea- green eyes wide with refreshment. He remembers their nights of skinny dipping in an upstate NY river, immersion in Caribbean hot springs, moonlight frolics in the waves off the shallows of Cape May. It would be worth it, now, to jettison everything, clothes, inhibitions, and club membership, to run naked amid the stunned gazes of their fellow members, and dive in.

“Look,” Carol whispers, pointing to the crook of his elbow. A dragonfly perches there, unperturbed. He starts to swat it away, but notices her rapt stare, and stops himself.

“They don’t sting,” she says. “Don’t hurt him.”

Together they lock eyes on the insect, and Dan sees what she sees, the delicate filagree of the wings, lapidary blue- green eyes, whimsically cocked head, trunk splashed with hints of yellow and turquoise.

“Wow, look at that. Masterpiece of engineering,” he says.

“And art.”

“Yes. You can’t have one without the other, right?”

She offers a faint smile. “I wonder what he’s thinking.”

“Hmm. I’ll bet I know!” He casts his eye over the lake, where two sets of coupled dragonflies spin in the air in heedless copulation. He looks at Carol and she at him. The dragonflies’ secrets are theirs to share. This is the moment. He reaches over to caress the soft, beckoning flesh of her inner arm.

“Dan, careful!” she cries. It’s too late. His movement has dislodged the insect, and it’s tumbled into the water. They’re silent, staring at the stricken creature struggling just out of their reach from the dock. Its legs cease movement, and it rests, wings flapping in slow, careful deliberation.

“That was clumsy,” he says, with genuine shame. “But I think it’ll be okay. Can’t they kind of waltz on the surface?”

“I don’t know.”

“I heard that somewhere…”

“Really? Where?”

He shrugs his shoulders. He knows she blames him and that redemption in her eyes will mean rescue. The dragonfly spreads its wings wide. It falls back, creating a tiny splash. It’s a few feet out, now, so retrieving it will require a stick for it to clasp. He sees nothing long enough nearby.

“I think it almost took off, there,” he says, knowing she’s not convinced.

It begins another slow skim across the surface. And in an instantaneous liquid explosion, it disappears.

A fish.

He hears her gasp. Radiating concentric circles memorialize its life. He can’t accept, in the moment, that it is gone, awash in the digestive juice of a perch or sunny, disintegrating, even while imagining what could have been, craving one more ecstatic, carnal flight above the lake.

The ripples fade. In the distance a whistle sounds, followed by the squeals and shrieks of children, whether of delight or terror he can’t say.


John Van Wagner lives and writes in Montclair, NJ. His work has recently been published in New Pop Lit, Marrow Magazine, October, Hill, and others.


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Every Day Fiction