Thursday, February 22, 2007

Chapter Eight: In Which the Mystery not only Refuses to Unravel, It Refuses to be a Mystery

Hokusai Katsushika, Chinese Bellflowers and Dragonfly,
about 1830-31, color woodblock print
Mark was in equal measure horrified and thrilled by the dragonflies. Horrified that someone had captured them and encased them in plastic, thrilled that someone had captured them and encased them in plastic so he could enjoy them from every angle without guilt and with a frisson of self-righteousness.

“It’s terrible. Such lovely creatures, and look what’s been done to them.”

“And you’ve never caught a bug in one of your little killing bottles.”

“Only in the name of research.”

“Look, bugman, I just want to know what these mean. What’s the message here? What is she trying to tell me? Or not to tell me.”

“What makes you think there’s any message here? Is it possible that your mother just likes them? Thinks they’re pretty? Or hey, maybe she has the hots for a sexy entomologist. I tell you, the groupies we get waiting outside the lab every night . . . ”

Compass tossed the last of the Three Buck Chuck down her neck – and down her chin. It had been a long, blurry day of students and teaching into the void, and now Todd was acting weird and not returning her calls, and she had this pile of bugs that were beautiful and tragic, and she would not compare them to her mother, because that would make her mother even more interesting, and if Mina got any more interesting, the next thing to get beaten to pieces would be she. Her. Whatever. It was well past midnight and working its way toward dawn, and Compass knew there was some sort of message here if only Mark would pull his sweet, shiny-bald head out of the nether orifice in which it currently resided and give her the clue she needed.

“Come on,” she urged. “What can you tell me about them? Where do they come from? What do their names mean? Is there anything here I can work with?”

“Ok, see the one with the big green lips?”

“Yes. What about it?”

“In ancient Mesopotamian mythology – that is unbelievably hard to say after this much wine. Try it: ancient Meso-po-tam-ian myth-”

“I’m going to hurt you.”

“Sorry. In ancient-”

“Heard that part. Skip it.”

“Back then, in that place, dragonflies were worn as living jewels. Particularly this one, since green lips were a sign of good fortune. The bugs were wrapped in gold filament wire, gently wound around the thorax, between the forewings and the hindwings. Just there, see? Another wire was wrapped around the tail, just above the anal appendages. Then the living, buzzing jewel was suspended in the middle of the forehead of the wearer, the gold wire wrapped around the ears, usually of an emperor or empress. They put the bug on the forehead, between the eyes, because they believed that dragonflies had excellent sight, given their big eyes. And they do, actually, the Meso- Mesopeople were right about that. The dragonfly gave the wearer a keen sight, they thought, but not of the outside world, rather of the unseen world beneath the surface.”

Compass was rapt. There was no other word for it. Rapt up like a Christmas present.

Mark took another long swig of wine. “And because the dragonfly can change direction in mid-air, fly backwards, forwards, sideways, hover, swoop, all of that, they were the Gods of Thought. They flew the way people think: all over the place and changing direction in an instant. And just as quickly as a thought, poof! they can disappear. Oh, and when they mate, which can last for hours, they form a wheel in mid-air, which I guess the Mesos thought was pretty sexy.”

“That’s so great. That’s so cool!”

“Ah, shit, now I feel bad.”


“I made all that up. Come on, Compass, they’re just bugs. Pretty, wonderful bugs. People collect all kinds of weird crap. It doesn’t mean anything at all.”

“Then why did she make such a big deal out of me never opening the box? Never never never?”

Mark looked at the box, now in splinters all over Mina’s bedroom floor. “How does this not count as ‘opening’?”

“I can’t believe you made all that stuff up. What a shit.” Compass grabbed the big-lipped dragonfly from Mark’s hand. “For that, you are disbarred from the mystery. My magical mystery tour is now short one entomologist.”

“You’re drunk.”

“I am. And you’re a shitheel, but I’ll be sober tomorrow.” Compass flopped down on the couch. Mark, sitting on the floor, stretched his long legs out in front of him and leaned back against the couch. Compass leaned over and breathed on his head and rubbed it with her sleeve. He waved his arms over his head to shoo her away.

“Quit. There is a Japanese Dragonfly of the Dead. This one’s true, I swear. It carries dead ancestors back to their families for the Obon festival. He’s called Shoryo Tombo.”

“And green lips are a sign of good luck.”

“Ok, that was bullshit. But this one isn’t. Maybe your real father is Japanese.”

“Mark, do I look half-Japanese?”

“No, but you don’t look half-raging-bitch either.”

“True. Where the hell is she?”

“You still don’t know, huh.”

“Not a word. Six days and not so much as a by-your-leave. Perhaps she has caught ride on giant dragonfly and gone to join venerable ancestors.”

“Ah so.”

“She’s that too.”

“I said, ‘ah so,’ Compass.”

“Oh. Tell me more lies about dragonflies.”

“There was a maiden in Scotland who was so kind to animals that it was said of her that dragonflies and damselflies would land in her hair to decorate her.”

“Was she beautiful?” Compass pulled her legs up under her and rested her head on the arm of the sofa.

“Beautiful, no. Compelling in lots of ways, but not beautiful. She would brush webs of honey into her hair so that the dragonflies would have something to feed on. Scarab beetles of deep green and gold wrapped their legs around her fingers to serve as rings, and luna moths and irridescent Morphidae butterflies adorned her dress, because she was poor and had no money for fine things.”

“Bugs are better.” Compass’ voice was drizzled with wine and sleepiness.

“That’s what she said, too, when people told her how sad it was that she couldn’t afford jewelry and expensive clothes. The prince of the realm wanted to marry her because she was clever and quick and funny-”

“But not beautiful.”

“No, not beautiful. Shut up about the beautiful. She refused to marry him, though. She didn’t want him to know that . . . that . . . she slept standing up so she wouldn’t crush all the bugs.”

“What?” Compass came groggily back to life. “That’s your idea of a big secret?”

“It could be important. He might think she was weird or something.”

“She has dragonflies in her hair and probably a ring of ladybugs around her neck. I don’t think she’s worried about weird.”

“Ok, then, she refused to marry him because he was a scientist and he sometimes captured bugs in jars. And she didn’t care for that. And . . . .” his voice trailed off for a moment. “So he invented a formula that would turn him into a hobby hawk and he ate her dress and they all lived happily ever after.”

There was one of those uncomfortable moments in which one person realizes he’s said too much but maybe he can still get away with it, while another person wonders if she’s just heard what she thinks she might have, and the world splits in a thousand directions with all the possible paths they could take from this moment. And then, with an audible pop, the paths rejoined into the one, cowardly one they chose. Again.

“You’re a dork.”

“I’m a dork. And I’m leaving. We’ll hash out your mystery tomorrow.”

“Thanks for your help, amigo.”

“Good night, Compass. Get your ass off the couch and go to bed.”

But she didn’t. Instead she opted to lie there for awhile longer, balancing a dragonfly on her tummy and feeling the affectionate disarray he’d made of her hair on his way out.


NuclearToast said...

The hits keep on coming in this engrossing tale! And thanks for making me waste an hour looking up dragonfly cultural information to see if any of the stuff in this chapter was true. Green lips!

DK said...

You gots skillz. I'm enjoying the read - thanks for sharing.

Raggedy Angst said...


Ash said...

I am totally hooked!