She painted dragonfly wings on her bedframe, just under the cover of her mattress.
The risk of the act was real, and it made her chest hum to think of the consequences if caught. But she was the only one who made her bed, and it would cheer her to see it there, turquoise against the stained wood. One of its veins had smeared the tiniest bit—a little sibling had toddled in and she’d dropped the mattress in place before it could dry, afraid they might give her away in their innocence—but she’d decided to embrace the smudge.
Character, she explained to her younger sister, the one whom she could trust not to tell. The household laws were made by bloodlines, so it was only fair that the fosters should stick together.
(“You’re not a real sister,” one of the boys had said, and she’d consoled the younger girl’s tears by asking who wanted to be real anyway.
“Look at him—he knows where he comes from. It’s nothing to be proud of so he pretends the knowing is something. We’ve mystery to us, and he’s jealous.”)
The little girl, being little, had drawn the two of them in her dog-eared journal, fairy-tale versions that were gowned and jeweled.
“Capes?” she asked, pointing to the colorful contrails behind each.
“Wings,” the younger corrected, applying an extra coat of colored pencil.
It was difficult to pinpoint the turn. Things had looked better at first, in those murky years of childhood, when they were in a new place that promised stability and help. Maybe it was when money grew tight, or when the rifts begun to open between her and an older brother. It was always her word against his, and he had the advantages by birth.
The tilt was slow, but seismic. Resentment ground in the gears, and as time passed the girls’ position ebbed, lower and lower until they were clearly second-tier. The sub-children.
“Chores,” ordered Mother.
The list included dusting, and once alone she went to the safe and twirled her rag over the keypad. She was circumspect and had long since gleaned the code, but that alone couldn’t help. The web around her was just legal enough to hold; she had tried escaping before only to find more proof was needed. (Bruises, apparently, were not proof—a witness must see things “in the act”.) She was eighteen in nine months and at eighteen the documents in the safe would belong to her. She’d been warned of the failures in setting off alone—homelessness, kidnapping—but the long simmer had cooked away fear and left her insides steel-hot and ready.
But the little girl was only ten.
In the evenings she read, tucked unobtrusively between the bed and the wall, turning away pages and time. Fiction, non-fiction, boring, it didn’t matter—knowledge meant growth, and growth was consolation in a place like this. Growth looked forward, promising there was a future at which to look.
Sometimes she dropped hints at the dinner table.
“Did you know dragonfly larvae can’t fly?”
Mother wasn’t listening. “What?”
“They don’t. They’re aquatic for the first part of their lives.” She held up a picture she’d kept on hand, just for the occasion, and one of the brothers grimaced.
“Ugh! I’ve seen those at the lake. I squoosh them—thought they were water spiders. They bite.”
“I know.” She looked back at the picture, at the tiny flaps along the larva’s sides. “The funny part is they have wings, but they’re useless underwater.”
“Put that away,” Mother said. “You’ll make everyone sick.”
She didn’t finish all the books. Sometimes, beauty struck and she salivated over the gorgeous moment. If it came too soon in the book she shut it, quickly, and left it on the shelf. She didn’t want the what-came-after: she wanted the apotheosis, the triumph, and prolonged the feeling down to its final shudders. Who knows what might happen if the story went on? Once, she had seen Swan Lake on the grainy, ancient channel of the TV. When Odette threw herself from the cliff she simply sat there, unable to process, and had remained sitting there until the late hours of the night. That was not the ending of the children’s book they had on their shelf. She had yet to forgive the book. Or Siegfried.
The night before she left she took the book and painted larvae onto the second act scene. They came out of the water en masse, ate Rothbart, and set the swan maidens free. It was better that way, even if it lost the drama of the original. After a moment’s contemplation she cut the page free of the others and pressed it into the folder she’d made. On either side of it were the drawings—fairytales, family, and other ten-year-old whimsy, all curled around the secretive bugs. The plan was to leave it behind as both memento and vow.
But eight years was a long time to await transformation. She woke the girl, without explaining why. Together they lifted the mattress and traced the wing veins, over and over: alternating between calm and frantic, patient and wild, hidden and seen.
I promise, she said, and her sister pushed her hands faster, memorizing the shape.
- The Dragonfly Codex - 9th July 2021
I hope K. J. Khan’s “lifelong fascination for storytelling” continues, especially if it produces stories like this. It is so polished, not a word out of place, and the tenderness is deeply touching. Well done.