The Book of Dragonflies and Nana-Wai’s Garden

The Book of Dragonflies and Nana-Wai’s Garden

The fat gibbous moon is hours away from dropping beneath the curved horizon. Under that fat moon Nana-Wai glides through her garden, ghostlike. She’s old and there’s not as much of her as there was when she was younger. Her cotton shift, thinned with age and wear, like gossamer wafts in the breeze. It’s as if she is floating. Stiff bones and muscles find grace. Movements are gentle, breeze like, fluid. The falling moon extends Nana-Wai’s shadow along rows of vegetables like a growing thing reaching for the fence that borders the garden, as if trying to detach itself from Nana-Wai and escape.

In the rear of the old white timbered house, Lilly watches Nana-Wai from behind the screen of the sleep out. Lilly should be asleep but she drank too much of Nana-Wai’s chilled honey lime tea. She woke and had to pee. She sits on the edge of her cot and watches her grandmother drift among the rows of cabbage, chard, tatsoi and arugula, daikon, onions, beans and okra. Nana’s white hair lifts with the breeze, floats about her head, halo-like. She’s a dandelion flower gone to seed on the verge of exploding in a puff, lifting from the earth to scatter in the breeze.

Lilly is sensible. Everyone says so. She’s astute, perceptive, intuitive. She uses observation, reason and science to connect dots, join links and finish pictures. But this has her flummoxed. What is Nana-Wai doing in her garden in the pale blue light of the moon? Does she always come here? Is this the first time Lilly has seen her because she woke to have a pee? Things are planted and growing. The work has been done. Why is she here walking among the long dark moon shadows?

When Mama-Mae is away, Lilly stays with Nana-Wai and helps her in the garden. When Lilly was very little, Nana-Wai gave Lilly a long floppy butterfly net and taught her how to catch cabbage moths, pinch them dead through the net and toss them in a jar. She taught her how to search out the little green grubs that stripped the cabbages and put them in the jar too, and when Lilly finished, she’d go to the chickens and make soft clucking noises and scatter the contents of the jar on the ground and the chickens would race to her and eat those grubs and papery moths. When the breeze lifted the net, it would trail out behind Lilly like a giant bubble made of cloth. Nana-Wai’s old cotton shift reminds Lilly of that net now as she drifts through the garden like a leaf in a moonlit current. Nana-Wai taught Lilly about dragonflies and praying mantises and ladybirds. Nana-Wai said they were good bugs and ate the bad ones and bees were good too. Lilly thought that was okay because bees were cute and fuzzy but they could sting you. Dragonflies and praying mantises were scary! Ladybirds were cute but they were so small Lilly found it hard to believe they would be much help but Nana-Wai said they were, and she would know.

As she grew older she would think on these things. Some of the names were silly and challenged the orderly structure of Lilly’s thinking. Why were praying mantises called praying mantises? To Lilly ‘preying mantis’ was far more appropriate. Insects don’t pray. Lilly had observed these long slim delicate insects with their large eyes and triangular heads, watched their extended serrated arms and hooked claws lash out, grab bugs from leaves and hold them out in front of those strange orbital eyes and nibble them almost tenderly until they disappeared. They didn’t pray. They preyed. And why were dragonflies called dragonflies when they weren’t dragons? Dragons were imaginary and not real. Dragonflies were insects. Insects were real. Real enough for Lilly to duck her head when they zoomed in like helicopter gunships in a shoot ‘em up computer game. And she didn’t even want to think about how silly the name ladybird was. They weren’t birds. They were beetles. She understood make believe, understood fantasy and fairy tales. Her mother illustrated books about such things and Lilly loved them, but in Lilly’s mind Nana-Wai’s garden was about real stuff and she was sure that the two worlds were separate. Nana-Wai had beautiful flowers in her garden and she explained to Lilly that the flowers too served a purpose. Flowers helped to attract bees and bees were good. They pollinated the plants. And flowers attracted good insects that waged war with the bad ones. See, so unlike Mama-Mae’s books and pictures, they were there for a purpose, not just to look pretty.

Lilly thinks on this as she watches Nana-Wai in the garden her hair lifting in light wind, a white halo in the moonlight. Lilly can feel it. The breeze stills. The world halts. Nana-Wai spins as if on an axis, and for a moment Lilly thinks that she is dancing in the moonlight, but then Nana-Wai falls to the ground and becomes invisible among the rows of vegetables. Her shadow must have escaped through the fence because it’s no longer there. Lilly feels her heart thump and her face flush and she knows something bad has happened to Nana-Wai. She runs outside into the garden. Nana-Wai lies still. Her eyes stare into the moon.

Lilly calls the number. She knows about such things. It’s not long before the ambulance arrives. A man and woman rush out to the garden, bend over Nana-Wai and feel along her neck. They lift her gently to the gurney. There’s not a lot of Nana-Wai to lift. She’s light as a dried husk. The ambulance people are casual and steady now, the speed has gone from the scene and Lilly knows with a thud in her heart that Nana-Wai is no longer with them.

Mama-Mae once said it would be easier for them all if Nana-Wai would move in with her and Lilly in their unit on the Darwin waterfront. There was plenty of space and Nana-Wai would have her own room and could roam through the park and watch the boats. Nana-Wai refused. She wouldn’t leave the old white house and the garden. She loved them and so did Lilly. When Lilly went to Nana-Wai’s, she rode her bicycle. It was a long walk but a short bicycle ride and Lilly felt grown up and independent when she visited Nana-Wai on her own.

Mama-Mae was very busy. She had a studio in the glassed-in section of their unit. It was on the top floor and Mama-Mae had a skylight fitted and there was plenty of light. Nana-Wai used to say how clever Mama-Mae was. She was very proud of her and it was true. Lilly loved to watch her with her bowl of water and paints and bottles of ink, pens and brushes bring stiff white paper into motion and life but that was business, and in Mama-Mae’s world there was no time for a garden. Nana-Wai said that Mama-Mae was famous and well known for her cleverness and Lilly had seen pictures that had been made by Mama-Mae in books.

Sometimes Nana-Wai and Lilly would wander through the garden and Nana-Wai would point out the plants that were ready to harvest, she would bundle them up in a large cloth bag and set them in the basket on Lilly’s bike and Lilly would take them home with strict instructions to Lilly’s mother from Nana-Wai to eat them while they were fresh.

But now Nana-Wai was gone.

Mama-Mae and Lilly walked down to the water’s edge and floated a little paper lantern up into the sky to farewell Nana-Wai. It drifted out over the water and it was a beautiful thing, soft flickering yellow light, like an illustration in one of Mama-Mae’s books.

Mama-Mae was sad for a long time. One morning there were markets in the park next to the harbour not far from their apartment. Mama-Mae and Lilly walked among the market stalls and bought some things for lunch. She and Lilly sat at a picnic table beneath the shade of a tree, its leaves rich and dark green and shiny. Dragonflies flitted along the grass and cruised through the market tents like star fighters from a Star Wars movie.

Mama-Mae sketched in her book. Lilly watched. Mama-Mae drew dragonflies. She stopped and they ate their lunch under the trees and watched people wander through the market, watched dragonflies skitter over the grass, and bathers frolic in the water down at the little beach.

Mama-Mae asked Lilly if she thought much about Nana-Wai and Lilly said that she did and that she missed Nana-Wai and missed helping her in the garden. She asked Lilly if she thought much about death and whether it frightened her. Lilly thought about it before she answered and said that she knew that everyone and everything died eventually and death did frighten her at times, and she wasn’t sure she understood it. Mama-Mae nodded her head and said she was pretty much the same and she missed Nana-Wai too.

When they returned home, Mama-Mae opened her computer and read all she could find about dragonflies then she began to draw them. She drew great enlargements of eyes, complex and faceted. They reminded Lilly of geodesic domes. She drew dragonfly wings in sections and they reminded Lilly of stained-glass windows she’d seen in a photograph of an old church.

And Mama-Mae was distant and aloof and fevered. She worked for weeks on a new project. She worked long hours at night after Lilly had gone to bed. When Lilly returned home from school Mama-Mae was in the studio. She kept her work secret. Normally Mama-Mae loved to have Lilly about when she worked. But, she said this project was different. She needed to focus. She had to see things differently. Lilly was curious and wanted to watch but she respected Mama-Mae’s wishes and left her alone with her work. Lilly read books, went to school, rode her bike to friends’ houses and played computer games.

One Saturday morning Lilly woke and knew she didn’t have to go to school. She walked into the kitchen and Mama-Mae sat at the table drinking coffee. She looked very tired. Mama-Mae told Lilly that she’d finished her work and that it was time to show Lilly. Lilly said that she’d missed Mama-Mae and Mama-Mae said that she missed Lilly too. She took Lilly by the hand and led her into the studio. She pulled the drapes from the window and the blinds from the skylight and flooded the room with early morning light.

There were beautiful pictures on the wall, colours and hues that Lilly had never seen Mama-Mae use before. Colours she could not describe. Mama-Mae placed her hand on Lilly’s shoulder and led her to the left side of the wall. You need to see them in sequence said Mama-Mae and she directed Lilly to the first page of Mama-Mae’s new book.

There was a squadron of dragonflies, with ruby-red compound eyes and golden amber stained-glass wings and down below them was a garden and in the garden was a thin delicate woman with long black hair and a little girl with a butterfly net who ran through the rows of vegetables. The fabric of the net trailed behind her like a giant bubble made of cloth. And Lilly thought the little girl was her when she was younger and the woman with the long black hair was Mama-Mae, but she realised that it wasn’t so. And then Lilly knew that the little girl was Mama-Mae and the pretty woman with the long black hair was Nana-Wai long before Lilly was born. There was a script at the bottom of the page that read:

Dragonflies herald the coming the of the dry season in Darwin. A little girl and her mother work in the garden.

The figures in the picture seemed to move and shimmer on the coarse pebbly paper. She followed the pages of Mama-Mae’s book across the wall.

A dragonfly skimmed through the top of cabbage leaves and in the distance was a little girl picking fat green grubs from the leaves and putting them into a jar.

Lilly continued the journey on the wall.

Another picture. From the eyes of the dragonfly below in the garden the woman was now old and the girl was a woman and there was a new little girl clinging to the woman’s hand and the little girl was Lilly. And Lilly followed the pages as the little girl’s legs grew longer and leaner and the old woman’s hair grew whiter.

And then in the final picture from the back of a dragonfly clinging to a twig, there was a girl sitting on the edge of a cot behind a screened room looking out over the garden. The body of an old woman lay on the ground staring up at the sky. In the sky was a dark-haired woman in soft almost invisible colours rising above the body like vapour.

Lilly felt sad and happy, warm and cold all at once and she exhaled a long slow breath between her teeth. I didn’t see the other woman, she said to Mama-Mae. I didn’t see the vapour woman. I didn’t see the ghost.

No, said Mama-Mae, you didn’t. And Mama-Mae was quiet, then she said, do you remember that day we went to the markets and had lunch under the tree and watched the people in the markets and the dragonflies?

Yes, said Lilly.

When we came home, I read all I could about dragonflies, and do you know that there are dragonflies that have as many as thirty colour receptors? We only have three. Dragonflies have a range of vision almost 360 degrees, ours is only 114. So I thought I would make a book and tell a story from the eyes of dragonflies and I thought that dragonflies can see so much more than we can and they must see these things very differently. And that’s what I tried to do.

Mama-Mae was quiet for a moment, then she asked.

Do you like our book?

Yes. But, I don’t understand, said Lilly. How do you look through the eyes of a dragonfly?

You can’t, said Mama-Mae, but you can imagine.

About the Author

Alpheus Williams

Alpheus Williams, curmudgeon, pagan, pantheist, loves his wife, nature, good whisky and dogs, lives and writes in a small coastal village in Australia with his wonderful wife and their border collie. His works have appeared in The Molotov Cocktail Winners Anthology, Barren Magazine, Storgy, The Write Launch, The Fabulist Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Bristol Noir, Bath Flash Fiction, et al. He has been long listed on Bath Flash Fiction and Wigleaf . Two stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2021.