“In Dragonfly Lake” by Kate Heartfield

My grandfather built this island out of resentment. He brought it three miles, truckload by truckload, from land he’d lived on for thirty-nine years. It took him a month’s sweat to do it, working alone.

He sold his other land to live in this boggy five-acre patch he got in his father’s will.

Granddad’s older brother, the war hero, got a hundred acres to farm.

The dragonflies were here already. If you ask me, there have been dragonflies patrolling this lake of sorrows since the time when dragonflies were as big as geese and all the soils of the world, from friable fear to the thick clay of shame, were mingled in Pangaea.

Six months after I moved in to take care of him, Granddad glanced at the oils and brushes under the sofa, asked why I wasn’t painting any more.

“I don’t seem to get much joy from it now.”

“That’s the dragonflies, James,” he said, with his angry little smile. “They keep all that nonsense away. And the skeeters, of course.”

I’d never heard of dragonflies having any effect on soils, but what did I know? After all, I met a woman once who swore her tomatoes would only grow if she lay down in her garden face-first and cried, at the beginning of every season. The world is made of mysteries.

But one morning I noticed a deeper droop to my mouth in the shaving mirror and I got to wondering. That was long before Google, so I rowed to where Granddad kept his Ford F-150, and drove to the town library.

Gwen and I had fallen out of touch since high school and I’d even forgotten she was the librarian, but we talked and laughed as if no time had passed. She found me a book on insects and leaned in close over my shoulder.

I pointed at the illustration. “Look at that mouth! The jaws open as big as its head. Do you think it could eat up other things, while it’s hunting? Bits of, I don’t know, happiness?”

“There are limits to the expertise of a small-town librarian, James. Hmm — It says the surfaces of their wings kill bacteria. Maybe some soils die when they touch those wings too. Look at that dust in the ray coming from the window. I bet there’s all sorts of dirt, wonder, and love and who knows what, just looking for a place to settle.”

I honestly thought I would go back to see her in a few days. But I didn’t. Back on the island, I couldn’t see the point. I’d watch the dragonflies, flitting and hovering, and I’d wonder what happened to every particle of wanderlust kicked up from the shoulders of the Interstate, every mote of satisfaction from the cornfields beyond it. Maybe it wasn’t true, what Granddad said about the dragonflies, but he believed it. It drew him here and kept him here.

Granddad knew what he was doing when he built in Dragonfly Lake. No soil getting in but what he brought. No affection or goodwill. He wanted his resentment to stay good and solid under his feet. Built his house upon it, to show his intentions.

He never did patch things up with his brother, who told Granddad that a man makes the land he needs. I found the letter where he told him that. Like your face, he wrote, by the time you’re fifty you’ve got the land you deserve.

So I suppose I deserve this place.

When Granddad breathed his wet last breath, I cried from pity.

For years, I tried to sell. Nobody wanted a peeling house on an island barely big enough to hold it. People said it was the thought of all that rowing, but the inspectors noted the unpredictability of the soil. Anything could happen to resentment under new ownership. It could get spongy, mossy, melancholy. It could acidify into hatred.

Besides, there are fields of confidence all through this county, ribboned with shifting seams of desire. Plenty of good land for the taking.

I couldn’t sell it. I thought maybe I could change it. With Granddad gone, I’d live my life on calm or courage.

If it weren’t for the dragonflies, maybe I could have.

Last spring, I got an invitation to Gwen’s wedding in the mail. It sat on Granddad’s side table until I realized the RSVP date had passed. I went out and sat on the dock and dropped it into the lake, watched it float like a water bug until it got too heavy.

Every month, the cracks in the foundation gape wider, and more soil breaks away, falls into the still dark water, into sorrow. On three sides of the house, the water of the lake now laps against the siding.

The porch is hanging off, pulling on the walls, cracking them on the inside. I hear the house groaning in the night as my grandfather’s resentment crumbles away beneath it.

How much land does a man require? Tolstoy asked.

I’m not going to wait around to find out.

I row out for the last time with my old backpack, some provisions, two silver candlesticks, and an old turntable I might be able to sell. I don’t want much to carry. I’ve no choice but to wander for a while, to tread the soils that others have made, to see what’s willing to settle upon my skin, given the chance.

The only sound on the lake is the creak and splash of my oars and, overhead, the buzz of a vigilant dragonfly.


Kate Heartfield is a writer in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion (2018) and the time-travel novella Alice Payne Arrives, coming in November 2018 from Tor.com Publishing. Kate’s interactive novel, The Road to Canterbury, was released from Choice of Games in 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Podcastle and elsewhere.

Become a Patron!

Share on Social Media