The Regal Darner
by Jeffrey Greene
The house on Washington Court had been empty for more than a year, and in central Florida nature quickly forecloses on an untended property. The overgrown yard was mined with stinging nettles, sand spurs and fire ant beds. Passion flower vines and Virginia creeper were colonizing the cinder-block walls, and tall weeds grew in the oak leaf mulch filling the rain gutters.
A year, too, was an epoch in the life of a ten-year old boy and, over the course of the summer, Lloyd Harris had come to think of this rioting quarter acre as his private domain, serving a passion for insect collecting that none of his friends shared.
One day he noticed that the For Sale sign was gone from the front yard and, a week later, he returned to find the knee-high grass and weeds mowed, the gutters cleaned, bushes trimmed and the upstart vines hacked away. Lloyd felt officially dispossessed of his kingdom when he read the name freshly painted on the mailbox with a steady-handed precision that in spite of his resentment, he couldn’t help admiring: Jonas Albert Kitchens.
Seasonal flare-ups of bronchial asthma had forced on him a less frequent presence in backyard baseball and football games, and ever more into reading, especially books on insects. Spending his many solitary days crawling through hedges, looking under rocks and rotten logs and peering into the sunken water main in his front yard, a humid hole favored by black widows, millipedes, pill bugs and small brown wood frogs, standing perilously close to beehives and yellow jacket nests, or tossing lubber grasshoppers into garden spiders’ webs, he was a volatile compound of curiosity, innocence and cruelty.
Many six- and eight-legged creatures perished in jars in his room until he learned the difference between collecting, identifying and mounting and merely imprisoning his specimens for life. He rarely respected property lines while bug-hunting, often going out at twilight and keeping an eye out for those flowering shrubs most likely to attract hawk moths. Especially prized, mainly because they flew too high for his net to reach and rarely seemed to land, the B-52s of the insect world, were the big dragonflies — the Green Darner and its close cousin, the Regal Darner — seen mostly at dusk, gorging on mosquitoes.
On the side of the newly occupied house there was a big gardenia bush lush with formal-white blossoms set against burnished, gem-like leaves and, as much from habit as defiance, he crossed the yard toward it one evening in July, his butterfly net gripped in both hands, ignoring the old blue sedan in the driveway and the glowing porch light.
The luscious scent of gardenias had attracted not only a White-lined Sphinx Moth but a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the latter zooming away at his approach. While trying to follow the hummingbird’s path, he looked up and saw in the fading light two Regal Darners patrolling the air space some fifteen feet above the ground. He watched avidly as they executed maneuvers impossible for any other winged creature.
The mosquitoes were quickly becoming intolerable, and he was about to retreat when a low-pitched nasal voice spoke behind him: “Order Odonata.”
Lloyd jumped, not having heard footsteps, and turned to face a tall, dark-complexioned, somewhat round-shouldered man wearing sandals over argyle socks and baggy gray slacks. The man’s oily black hair was tinged with gray at the temples and brushed straight back from his high forehead, some locks of which dangled in front of his big, shiny black eyes peering benevolently, it seemed, down at him with an amused twist of his wide mouth. His long-sleeved shirt was buttoned up to the neck.
“Isn’t that what you were looking at?” the man asked, pointing upward.
Lloyd nodded, too scared to speak, feeling, as children usually do in the presence of unfamiliar adults, as if he’d been caught at something.
“The order of dragonflies and damselflies,” the man went on in his quiet, soothing, accentless voice. “Odonata: Greek for ‘tooth,’ and our friends up there are all eyes, teeth and wings, aren’t they? Suborder Anisoptera, the dragonflies. Family Aeshnidae, darners. Genus Coryphaeschna, pilot darners, and could any human pilot do they what they do without tearing the wings off his plane? Species ingens, the Regal Darner. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
“Only the common name,” Lloyd shyly replied.
“Does ‘Regal Darner’ sound common to you?”
“No, sir. I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” he interrupted with a smile that came and went with startling quickness, like a facial tic. “You certainly know your insects.”
“I like the name,” Lloyd said, then dared to add, “I like saying it.”
“Me, too,” the man replied, bestowing another of his disappearing smiles as he swatted mosquitoes. “’Regal Darner’ has music in it, as the best names always do. The darners stand apart from — or fly above — their brethren, in a way that merits their name, don’t you think? They’re larger, less common, and consume all manner of flying insects at a rate that might astonish you.
“And their eyes, have you ever seen anything like them? Those wrap-around eyes have up to thirty thousand facets, each facet with its own optic nerve, producing a separate image, and they see in all directions, which is why it’s so hard to snare them with your net. Imagine seeing thirty thousand images of that gardenia bush!
“And not only do they see all the colors we see but some we can’t, like ultraviolet. If a dragonfly were to watch a movie, it wouldn’t see it as moving pictures come to life, as we do, but as a series of still photographs. To them, you and I are like statues, or rather, sixty thousand statues.
“That’s another reason you’ll never catch a darner on the wing. He can see your net coming from a long way off, in slow motion, because he’s living his life many times faster than you’re living yours. Much shorter lifespan, of course, though it doesn’t seem short to him, does it? Any more than yours does to you.”
“I know they have short lives,” Lloyd said, dazzled by the man’s flow of talk but trying to hold his own. “No more than six months as adults.”
The man nodded approvingly. “He does enjoy a long childhood, though, doesn’t he? Like humans. Four years as a nymph in ponds and creeks, eating as voraciously as he will when he metamorphoses into his imago. But adult insects — except for the queen ants, bees and termites, of course — don’t need long lives, and why might that be?”
“Because they’re only here to eat, reproduce, and die,” Lloyd promptly replied, eager to show off what little he knew.
“Correct. With the exception of the worker ants, termites, and bees, who don’t reproduce, you’ve hit on the holy trinity of nature, professor, a rule that applies to everything from plants to people. Now here’s an easy question for you: why are we the main course at the mosquito feast?”
“Because the females need blood to mate.”
“Right again. They need energy the way a pregnant woman needs to eat for two. Blood just happens to be how they get it. And guess who else needs energy? I do. My dinner awaits me on the stove, so I’d best get in there and eat it. But it’s been a rare pleasure talking to you, Mr... What is your name?”
The man extended his large hand, which Lloyd awkwardly tried to grip in a handshake. “Pleased to meet you, Lloyd Harris. My name is Jonas Kitchens. But you can call me Mr. Kitchens.”
“I will, sir.”
“Goodbye, Lloyd. If I see you skulking around my yard again, maybe we’ll chew the fat some more. But well before dark, okay? Mosquitoes are detrimental to any conversation.”
* * *
Mr. Kitchens quickly fled into the house, and the boy hurried home, pretty sure he was late for dinner. He felt almost dizzy from all he’d absorbed, and thrilled at having had a conversation with a grown-up who treated him more as a fellow naturalist than as a child. A mild scolding was all he received, his butterfly net the only excuse needed.
Though eager to tell someone, he didn’t mention his encounter with Mr. Kitchens, and not merely because he’d violated his mother’s strict rule of not talking to strangers, but for the more obscurely anxious fear that nattering on about him to his parents would subject him, and by extension, his new — whatever he was, unofficial teacher, perhaps — to their deflating scrutiny.
They were decent, well-meaning people, but his father, especially, had a way of throwing cold water on anything smacking of dangerously naïve enthusiasm. And it wasn’t just his parents; it seemed unwise to mention his new neighbor to anyone. He decided to risk the consequences of keeping a secret.
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. There seemed a charmed privacy to the few times he spent in lopsided conversations with Mr. Kitchens, who did most of the talking but managed to make Lloyd feel, by means of questions and encouraging pauses, more like a protégé than a pupil. These talks always took place in Mr. Kitchens’ front or back yard, as if he possessed another sense that enabled him to know the exact intervals when wandering eyes were directed elsewhere.
One curious thing, which even at the time struck Lloyd as odd, was the number of marvelous, rarely seen insects he collected in that yard, many more, in fact, than he’d netted when the property was an aspiring jungle. The abundance of crawling things — besides insects, he also found more garter and ringneck snakes, anoles, scorpions and spiders in his mentor’s environs than anywhere else — was probably explained by Mr. Kitchens’ opposition to the use of pesticides of any kind, even indoors, insisting that humans killed enough small creatures with their cars and lawnmowers, or just stomping around, without compounding their crimes by poisoning them, too.
On the other hand, he strongly approved of Lloyd plunging his specimens into a cyanide killing-jar for the purpose of building an insect collection. The pursuit of “natural knowledge,” he told his pupil, was man’s only other excuse besides avoiding starvation for the “ongoing slaughter of the animal kingdom” that in his mind was far worse than men killing each other.
On one memorable occasion, Lloyd collected a spotted, gray-green Hercules Beetle, the largest rhinoceros beetle in North America, this one the size of a big walnut, lumbering down the center of Mr. Kitchens’ front walk as if offering itself as a gift. On another of his after-dinner hunting expeditions, he collected a nearly bat-sized Polyphemus Moth attracted by the front porch light, and a short time later, a startlingly large Giant Water Bug almost landed on him, standing as he was directly under the yellow porch bulb.
Mr. Kitchens, observing all this from his open window as he washed his dinner dishes, described in loving detail the five instars of the Polyphemus Moth, regretted the misnaming of a moth with two hugely prominent eye patterns on its lower wings after the “monovisual monster” of Greek mythology and, even as he warned Lloyd to handle the water bug carefully, as its bite was “memorably painful,” delighted him with the gruesome particulars of the feeding habits of Lethocerus americanus, that most ferocious of aquatic insect predators, which like spiders, dissolves its victims’ insides — including small fish, tadpoles, even snakes — with digestive enzymes before sucking them out through its chitinous beak, called a rostrum.
Lloyd was euphoric.
“I seem to be your good luck charm,” Mr. Kitchens said. “At least when it comes to insects.”
“How do you know so much?” Lloyd asked, drawing an eerily high-pitched laugh from his teacher.
“I’ve picked up the pathetically little I know the same way you have, Lloyd: by paying attention to something other than the usual bag of ape tricks that blinds most of us to the amazement we should be feeling every second of our lives. And, like you, I read a lot. The only difference between us is that I’m older. And I suppose I’m lucky in another way, too, or cursed, some might say.”
“Due to nothing more than an accident of birth, I’ve been given a great deal of time to pursue my own interests. You have it too, Lloyd, for this lovely period of your life: time to think, imagine, explore, reflect on what it means to be the biggest-brained animal, proportional to your size, on this planet. And I think you’re one of the few humans I’ve met who will never waste that gift.”
It was the one time Mr. Kitchens talked about himself, hinting at things that the boy only partially understood. Although invariably generous with what seemed to Lloyd a stupendous wealth of knowledge, Mr. Kitchens was often away for days, even weeks at a time, leaving the mail piling up in his box and newspapers turning to pulp in the front yard.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene