They used to believe and it hurt that they didn’t anymore. It hurt that they now thought that the things she said were silly, foolish, only said to amuse or to scare when in fact she was telling the truth. She was convinced of it. It was the truth.
She sat in her rocking chair on the patio, gazing out at her grandchildren, the ones who had used to play in the long, lush grass and who now sat and bickered between themselves or lazed around listening to terrible music. She had seen them grow up and she wished they still believed her.
The shout was unexpected, reeling through the trees and edging into her ears, the thud-thump of the music still playing.
“Nan!” Urgent now, and was that a hint of fear? Which grandchild was it? They all sounded the same, especially at this distance.
Nan heaved herself out of the chair, took up her walking sticks, and eased herself down the path, her feet too fat for her shoes, blooming out of them, spilling flesh and veins as she walked. She reached the end of the garden and found the three children – young adults, she supposed she ought to call them – kneeling on the ground, watching something fizzing and buzzing beneath a glass.
“Oh, Nan!” squealed the youngest, a girl, the one who still half believed her. The one whose eyes betrayed her confusion and her uncertainty when she was told the old stories. The stories about fairies and pixies, the ones about trees that were alive and clouds that spoke. All the stories. “Nan, look what we found!”
Nan did look. She bent as low as she could, thinking that she should have brought her glasses, but seeing just clearly enough to understand that the thing frantically trying to escape its glass prison was a dragonfly. Nan shivered, dropping one of her sticks as her hand spasmed in disgust. “Let it go,” she said, shaking her head. “And get my stick.”
One of the boys handed it to her. He grinned. “We thought you’d like it,” he said, and there was mischief all over his face. Nan, if he had been her son, would have clipped him, hard, maybe used the stick he was still gripping, anything to wipe that look off his arrogant face. But he wasn’t her son. He was her son’s son and as such she had no power. Not any more.
She felt helpless.
She felt truly frightened. And sickened. Her fingers touched her mouth, feeling the bristles that grew unfettered. And beneath the whiskers she could just make out the holes. Tiny, tiny holes dotted across her lips, neat and tidy.
How many times had she told that story?
“Just let it go,” she said again, poking at the glass, wanting to knock it over but afraid to get too close. “Or you know what will happen.”
The boys, two of them, almost teenagers and confident and superior, laughed. The older one even patted his grandmother’s arm, a there-there patronising gesture if ever there was one, and smiled, all teeth and braces. “It’s just a dragonfly, Nan. Or do you want to tell us about the devil darners?” He turned to his siblings and winked.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” said Nan, wanting to get away, afraid to leave them. “I’ve warned you, I’ve told you a million times. I’ve shown you what happens. And you still push and push, don’t you?”
The boys laughed again, but the girl felt her lip wobble. She felt torn between believing her older brothers, world-wise and all-knowing, they who had said nothing would happen, that a dragonfly couldn’t hurt anyone, and believing her grandmother, so old that she had seen it all, she who had told them all about the devil darners.
The girl kicked out, knocking the glass to one side, allowing the dragonfly to be free. It leapt into the air, wings flitting, body waving back and forth, and it hovered in front of the girl’s face. It just waited on the air, watching with its huge black eyes and its spindly legs.
And then it darted. It shot forward with such force that the air rippled as it passed through. It hit the little girl’s face, sharp and stinging, flying away again, backwards, pulling her lip with it, and then towards her again, back and forth, back and forth, cutting and pricking and tugging.
The girl screamed, or tried to, but she found that her mouth, bleeding and bruised, was sewn shut, the dragonfly, the devil darner, had done its job, dealing out its own retribution at being caught and caged.
The boys, terrified, their minds betrayed by their eyes, did not stay to watch, and as their sister fell to the ground, the dragonfly gouging and striking, going now for her eyelids, they ran, knocking their grandmother out of the way, sprinting towards the house and away from this horror.
The little girl tried to protect herself but it was no good. And her grandmother, who knew about such things, who had seen so much and who had tried to tell them all, touched her lips, feeling the holes, remembering.