by Annie O'Shaughnessy (2006)

On an 85 degree day in July of 1977, I sat on the hard splintered surface of Tuftonboro, New Hampshire’s public wharf for four hours. I was awkward with myself—12 years old and conscious of how strange I looked staring at the wooden dock post. I don’t think young children feel that kind of self-consciousness. They stare at whatever catches their eye for as long as they want. On that day I remember deciding not to care; I was going to wait and see what came out of the delicate case of gray skin that stirred and pulsed with life on the side of the post.

I had been trying to sunbathe the way my older sisters-who-had-boyfriends did but was restless as usual. I sat up, itching for some life to pass my way. I watched some teenagers load up their boat with beer (or “bee-uh” in New Hampshire). I read the graffiti carved in the grey boards—“I love Mike”—and then I saw it, what looked like a big, dead, gray bug attached to the post. I inched my beach blanket closer and saw something moving under the 2-inch long delicate gray case. Yes. There was certainly something alive under there, and it was trying to get out! I looked around to ask for advice but was blessedly alone.

My world was this post, and I was wholly absorbed in the waiting and watching, exhaling carefully into the tiny space between me and the creature.

After an hour it pushed its head up and out. I could see two slick black eyes. But it was another hour before more of it emerged—one-third of its wet, gleaming, body. Finally, when it seemed I could not wait any longer, its wings spread, a dragonfly! I will never forget the iridescent beauty of its wings after staring at the grey, lifeless shape of its casing for so long. I felt honored—like when I won the science fair prize—only better. It took another hour before its wings were dry enough to fly, and then it flew away in tight graceful arcs. I clapped and whooped and then sat and fell quiet.

I was lucky that no one asked me what I was doing or called my diligent waiting silly. For some reason, I was left alone and given the gift of perspective. The world of humans seemed different to me after that. I became aware that just because people didn’t talk of seeing such miracles didn’t mean they didn’t happen. I wanted to see more.

After that, I waited and watched as spiders spun their webs, and squirrels gathered their winter store of acorns in our backyard. I’ve been lucky to watch a swallow build its nest. My favorite was watching ants on our patio on a hot summer morning. I would eat my breakfast there and watch them march across the concrete and down into cracks to who-knows-where. I confess that I often tossed crumbs in their path to see how they worked together to pull dinner down their ant hole.

When I was 14, I had the freedom to be in the woods alone. I searched out the mossy, cool hollows, where cold water trickled between rocks, mushrooms of all types bloomed, newts emerged and stone nymphs formed their rugged cocoons in shallow pools. Here, squatting, with my arms wrapped around my knees, I felt clear about Ann.

This essay was orginally published in Issue 51 of the Heron Dance journal.

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