When I was a child, my family had a vacation home on the edge of a modestly-sized, manmade lake in the Berkshires. The house was modestly-sized, too, much of it pieced together by my father on those same weekends that the rest of us would spend all day floating on the water and not having a care in the world. All the work he put into that house meant his family could have a place to escape to, a place where they could enjoy themselves away from the busyness and stress of their weekday lives. There were some who did not respect that, though: the nearby neighbors with their barking dogs and front yard full of broken down, rusted out cars; the geese who left our tiny beach covered in shit; and, of course, the horseflies.
I can’t recall ever being attacked by a horsefly anywhere other than our lake house. They are certainly not as widespread as their prodigious, smaller cousins the mosquitoes. I don’t think a summer day went by up there, though, that was not punctuated by at least one encounter with those bloodsucking little bullies. They don’t just stop by for a nip and then take off like mosquitoes do; they hound you again and again until you are teetering on the brink of insanity, waving your arms around your head and shouting incomprehensible monosyllables.
There is one horsefly in particular that haunts my memories. To recall my encounter with this monstrous insect is to face my own impotence in the face of even the most seemingly insignificant of nature’s creatures. This is the horsefly that attacked me unrelentingly from one shore of the lake to the other, not giving me any quarter no matter how much I flailed about like a madman and shouted at it to leave me alone.
This encounter started with me on the beach, preparing to make the swim to the other side in order to join my sister and cousins on the slightly larger, “public” beach. The lake was not very large, so this was not a particularly Herculean undertaking. The complication arose, however, when I heard an unmistakable buzzing sound moving in circles around my head. I was under attack. The horsefly landed on my shoulder but I swatted it away before it could bite. Undeterred, it came at me a second time. Then a third. Then a fourth.
That’s when I hit upon an escape plan: if I jumped in the water and submerged myself long enough, the horsefly was sure to give up and go away. So, I jumped in and went fully underwater, swimming away from the shore to put as much distance as possible between me and my tormentor. After what felt like an eternity of holding my breath, I finally poked my head above the water and drew a deep breath, confident that there was no way the horsefly could have tracked me that far.
I let out a howl of frustration that echoed throughout the woods. Too out of breath to go back underwater, I attempted to paddle with one hand and swat at the horsefly with the other. Time and time again the horsefly evaded my swats and continued to dive bomb me like a tiny kamikaze fighter plane. It would thwack against my head and take off, thwack against my head and take off, thwack against my head and take off, an attack pattern that indicated it was a truly malicious, hateful creature. My sister and cousins could see my plight from the other side of the lake and were shouting words of encouragement. One of my cousins began crying, so distraught was she at my predicament.
I went back underwater, not quite having recovered my breath but desperately wanting to be rid of this tiny Torquemada who seemed to be doing its best to do me in. I stayed under for as long as I could and then once again came up gasping for air.
By now I was about halfway across the lake, and I decided to focus on making it the rest of the way before I lost all my stamina. I paddled and swatted, swatted and paddled, and finally I made it to the other side. The cousin who had been crying ran up and hugged me while another one swatted continuously around my head at an insect she couldn’t actually see. By that time it appeared to have given up and moved onto other targets. Relieved, I collapsed on the beach and tried to catch my breath. My arms and legs were on fire from the combination of swimming and flailing wildly. Then, just when I thought it was over and I had finally escaped that pitiless insect…
I hung over the side of the wooden raft, gazing at my reflection in the water and watching as ripples distorted and warped my face beyond recognition. The air was so murky and wet that it practically merged with the lake beneath me. I was by myself, the only one in my family who wanted to be on the lake in such dismal weather. Bored beyond the ability to do anything about it, I propped myself up on my elbows and watched a dragonfly flitter about in the heavy air above me. I splashed water at it absentmindedly. I’m not sure whether or not I intended to hit the dragonfly, but I did, and as a consequence it crash-landed to the water beneath it.
I immediately regretted what I had done. After all, my parents had told me that dragonflies were benevolent creatures, feeding on the nasty little mosquitoes that would otherwise be draining our blood and leaving behind red, itchy welts. This dragonfly was no threat to me, and yet in one thoughtless motion I had most likely killed it.
When I peered over the side of the raft, however, I saw that the dragonfly was not dead. Its wings still fluttered impotently as it tried to raise itself out of the water. Hoping to rehabilitate it, I cupped my hands under the insect and gently lifted it out of the water. I deposited it next to me on the raft, then watched it dumbly as it continued to try to lift itself back into the air. After observing it for a while, I concluded that its wings were simply too heavy from the water and that if I could dry them off, it would be back to full health. I blew on it gently, over and over again, for several minutes before giving up on the idea. I would start hyperventilating long before the dragonfly recovered.
Feeling a renewed sense of guilt, I sat next to the dragonfly for the better part of an hour as it convulsed helplessly on the raft. Finally I admitted to myself that the tiny creature was not going to recover, that its convulsions were in fact death throes, not signs of potential recovery.
I was still a child then, not yet jaded and cynical toward the world around me, not yet numb to its common, everyday little tragedies, so when I realized at last that this dragonfly was now suffering its way toward death because of what I had done, I started crying. As I cried, I picked the insect up by its tail ever so gingerly and I submerged it completely in the lake. I had mortally wounded it, and now I took responsibility for ending its suffering.
Since then I’ve had other occasions to end an animal’s suffering. There was the time I found a robin in a thrift store parking lot, the victim of a hit-and-run, or the time I found a twitching, bloodied mouse in the backyard, the victim of my cat’s predatory instincts. Each time I’ve done what needed to be done. Each time I’ve thought about the dragonfly I absentmindedly splashed as a kid. Each time I’ve felt a little bit older.
Jeremy Clymer lives in Michigan, where he is a part-time freelance writer and full-time system administrator. He writes regularly about pop culture for Break Studios and has had a short story included in the ShadowCast Audio Anthology podcast. Read his blog, Eggy Toast, Disconnected Musings Inspired by Restlessness