Lily sprawled on the porch swing as only a ten year old could. One leg stretched over the armrest nearest the old farmhouse. The other leg hooked over the back, foot tapping the air to an unheard rhythm. Her head lolled just off the edge of the swing, above the book now resting on the porch.
A shimmering blue dragonfly darted near the posts, dipping toward the ground, dancing into the air. Lily’s eyes followed the insect, admiring its aerobatics, imagining dancing on the warm summer breeze. The unyielding surface of the swing, the heat of the day, the smell of cooking from inside the house, all fell away.
She swung her legs up, around, and down, landing on the porch with a quiet thump. The dragonfly danced away, then drifted back, searching for prey. Lily could see others like it further out in the yard, flying and chasing. She walked into the yard, stirring up the shaggy, weedy grass with her steps.
Many of the tiny bugs hiding in the depths of the grass took wing, and the dragonflies arrowed toward her, feasting. Lily giggled, and walked, stirring up the grass until she decided she was hungry too.
When she entered the kitchen, her mother stood over a pot on the stove, stirring. The pleasant odors pushed the smells of grass and old leaves out of her nose.
“You must be hungry now, after all that marching.”
“In the yard, Lily. You looked like you were leading a parade.”
Lily did not bother questioning how her mom saw what she was doing from a room away with her back to the door. Her mom always knew.
“I was talking to the dragonflies,” Lily said as she gathered bread, butter, and jam for a sandwich.
“Talking to them? Are you sure?”
“Not talking like this. More like listening,” Lily corrected, though listening was not the right word either. “No,” she said before her mother spoke. “More like feeling. I felt what they felt.”
“Hmm. And how did they feel?”
“Hungry. Watchful. Not scared of me at all.” Lily bit into the overstuffed sandwich. Her mother turned to her, wooden stirring spoon in hand.
“Do you have room to taste the sauce?” she asked, holding the spoon out toward her daughter.
“Mmm. Are we having it tonight?” Lily asked after her taste.
“Yes. Finish your sandwich and go see your grandpa.” She turned back to the stove. “And Lily, tell me what other things talk to you in this way, yes?”
“Sure, Mom,” Lily said. She wolfed the rest of her sandwich and chugged her milk in her hurry to visit her grandfather. She was sure he would know more about talking to dragonflies.
* * *
“Yellow jackets,” Lily said to her mother’s back, renewing the conversation as though two years had not passed. They stood in a different house, over a brand new stove, having moved to follow her father’s work. Her mom examined the contents of the skillet. Lily could smell chicken, vegetables, and herbs from the garden.
“Talking or feeling?”
Lily laughed. “Feeling, of course. Busy. Busy. Busy. Watchful.” Lily paused, lining up her words. Her mother valued thoughtfulness and precision in all things. “When I stared at a rotten apple they hadn’t found, a whole mob of them went right to it.”
“You think they heard you tell them about the apple?”
“Not in words. Now if I could tell them where that SOB Tommy McClemore is, maybe he’d quit calling me names at school.” Lily drew up, waiting for her mother’s reaction.
He mother turned, as calm as ever. An expression of mild disappointment on her face. Lily stood her ground, not defiant, but not shrinking, trying to be her mother’s equal.
“And what have the yellow jackets done to deserve this?”
“What do you think would happen if a swarm of hornets attacked your classmate?”
Lily bit back the obvious reply, and tried to think like her mom.
“People would freak out and start spraying everything with bug spray,” she answered. Her mother’s face softened and she wrapped her arms around Lily.
“Always think this way first, Lily,” she said as she released Lily from the embrace. “And don’t call people SOB.”
“Grandpa says it all the time!”
“He has earned that, and he says it to the newspaper or TV, but he doesn’t call people such ugly things. Now go. Tell him about the yellow jackets.”
Lily turned to leave, but then stopped and said, “Will Dad be home tonight?”
“Yes. Four days on, now three days off.”
Lily jumped and spun in the air. Her mother looked at her and laughed. “I would do that too, if I was a young girl like you!”
* * *
The hot sand felt good beneath her feet. They had moved again, following her dad’s new work out in the Gulf of Mexico. She missed the farm house, and the little ridgetop house before that. The little trailer they now called home was one of eight, clustered against the beach and sandwiched between towering condos.
She walked toward the road, a busy stretch of pavement lined with condos, houses, restaurants, and stores. There were also swaths of marshy ground, dunes, and pools, protected from development. Lily paused to slip on her flip flops, and crossed the scorching highway to walk along a strip of marsh.
Dragonflies swarmed around her. She had never seen so many in one place. Their jewel green bodies littered the ground beside the road, but even more of them filled the air around her.
Hungry, she knew. Hungry, hungry, hungry! The raw instinct translated somehow into a human thought and bounced around the inside of her head, uncontainable and unignorable.
“Okay!” she said, feeling silly the instant she said the word. She pushed that thought aside and filled her own mind with feelings of danger. In her imagination, legions of ants crawled, covering every bit of dry ground or foliage. Frogs poured into the ponds. Expanding schools of tiny fish flashed through the standing pools.
Every flying or leaping insect within two acres took flight. The dragonflies were waiting. Lily felt the hunger shift to satiation and the frenzy faded. She walked on, heading toward a run down building advertising the best seafood on the gulf.
Lily did not need extra senses to feel the eyes upon her as she picked up the few items her mother wanted. Often, she wished she could not intuit the raw feeling directed her way, however briefly.
In this, she had not yet consulted her mother, and would never breathe a word of it to her father or grandfather. Instead, she practiced disarming with a smile, deflecting with a gesture, and waited for the moment when she would encourage with a glance, and perhaps a thought.
The next day, Lily returned to marsh. The dragonflies had gone, but not far. She could see a cloud of them down the road a few hundred yards away. A few birds perched on stunted trees, or circled overhead. Although it looked no different than the marsh just a short distance away, the desolation of it took her breath away.
She fled, running as fast as she could and bursting through the screen door and straight into her mother.
“Good Lord, Lily! What in the world?” Her mother held her while Lily fumbled for the right words.
“Mama! I think I killed it! I killed them.” Lily pressed her face down into her mother’s shoulder and wept. When she had exhausted her tears, her mother was ready.
“What did you do?”
“I fed the dragonflies yesterday. They were so hungry and there were so many of them. And they knew. Somehow they knew. I just made all the little bugs in the grass jump up. And now today there’s nothing there but grass and a few birds!” Her voice cracked, and tears threatened again.
“Balance, Lily. You forgot balance. Do you understand?”
Lily looked at her mother, hoping to hear more reassurance. She shook her head. “No. I don’t understand.”
“No free lunch. Do you understand that? Action and reaction? Are they teaching you anything in that fancy school you go to?”
Her mother’s levity was better than reassurance. Lily’s panic dissolved and her brain started working again.
“They’ll come back? Just like after a hurricane?”
“Yes. What you must do is not be the hurricane. Never be the unbalancer if you can help it, Lily. Though sometimes, sometimes that is what is needed too.”
Lily looked at her mother, not really understanding. “I’ll go talk to Grandpa,” she said, beating her mother to the punch.
“You do that.”
Hours later, Lily found her mother sitting on the beach. The sun had settled behind the buildings to the west.
“We watched Spider-Man. The movie, you know?”
“Yes, Lily. I have been to the movies once or twice. And what did you learn?”
“Don’t get bitten by mutant spiders?”
“Don’t make me say it, Mom.”
“You don’t believe it anyway. I wouldn’t make you say something you didn’t believe.”
Lily leaned in toward her mother. “It’s like a trick question, isn’t it? Grandpa just wanted to see if I’d grab some easy bit of fluff.
“I don’t know what to think, but I don’t think one sentence in a movie is going to enlighten me.”
“Depends on the movie, and the person.”
“You aren’t going to tell me, are you?” Lily said. Her mother offered no response. “Tell me who we are then. You never even blinked at any of the things I’ve said or done. No one in my class goes around listening to bugs!”
“That you know of. And you are listening to the earth, not just to bugs. Your father listens to the wind, and sometimes the waves. And I listen to hearts. And Grandpa, I’m not sure sometimes. He just seems to know things.”
Lily opened her mouth to argue, but remembered some of her mother’s other lessons before she could say a word. She sat back, elbows planted in the sand.
“We aren’t gods,” she said. Even from behind, she could see her mother’s satisfaction.
“You learned that lesson quicker than anyone else in our family.”
“So I’m not destined to wear tights and lead my bug legions to world conquest?”
“Good. I hate tights.” The sky was filling with color now as the sun set. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Do you really expect an answer, or are you just talking out loud?”
“It was worth a shot,” Lily said. “Because I really don’t get it.”
“I’ll tell you what I think, then, and you can make up your own mind. It’s enough to live a good life. Help others when you can. Use all your gifts, but they do not define you. Maybe the world will need you to accept greatness, or maybe making me a grandmother someday will be enough.”
Lily laughed and sat up. “There are some cute guys around here.”
“I said someday, not to-day.”
They sat, listening to the surf as the sky darkened over the water.
“Are you hungry?” Lily’s mother said. They stood and brushed sand from their skin and clothes. Holding hands they walked home.
“You already knew, didn’t you?” Lily asked.
Her mother squeezed her hand.
Chuck is a long time reader of science fiction. After thinking about writing for a few years, he finally decided to jump in with both feet. Currently living in Huntsville, he is an electrical engineer by day. The support of his wife and children make writing possible for him.