His love of animals paradoxically started when he trained the revolver on the body of the dragonfly three or four feet away. His houseparent took him out and identified the target. He lowered the barrel of the weapon and aimed at the dragonfly’s glittery body perched motionless on the dried stalk. Its abdomen was undulating, respiring most probably out of hundreds of invisible spiracles. Its double wings glistened in the light that bathed its body in iridescence. The head barely moved and the overlarge eyes too seemed motionless.
Mark’s own eye aligned with the metal notch above the gun and took careful aim. He could feel his own breathing, respirations akin to the dragonfly’s, almost interrupting his steadiness, but there was a curious synchronization to both their intakes of air. He imagined despite the revolver going up and down that he would blend the two with his aim, with the assistance of what one day would become a painterly eye that now squinted as he squeezed the trigger. Were there slow-motion photography, the bullet could be seen going through the dragonfly and the two wings in the air, suspending them like seeds of a tree fluttering slowly, at their leisure, to the ground. The head and the eyes disintegrated on impact due to the heat of percussion, and not even the stillest photography could capture them. Mark’s own head snapped back as the revolver gave a little kick.
The boy had a curious sensation using such a giant weapon on so small a dragonfly, but attributed what he did to the wisdom of a superior marksman and a lover of the outdoors, his houseparent. Mark was an obedient boy and did what he was told, and he was especially glad to be out with the houseparent that afternoon while all the other boys were on their Easter vacation.
In fact Mark didn’t grow up to become a hunter, but an artist. He painted lions, tigers, and bald eagles, their gigantic talons descending on helpless field mice. He frequently sold paintings and as his work was shown in galleries and he became better known, wildlife groups picked him up and sponsored his travel, often to game preserves in Africa and South America.
Mark painted the ferocity of animals with the most kindly strokes. In fact despite his talent at depicting ferocity, there was almost something cuddly about the cougars, something of the road policeman about the eagles, something almost diminutive that you could hug about his brown bears.
The animals lost their wildness when transformed by his paints and their felicitous color combinations on canvases that would hang in the offices of environmental groups or large corporations across the nation to indicate that animals should be protected. His paintings were made into calendars, and he even was asked to do a series of postage stamps for the Federal government. For this one assignment he was sent to Brazil, sponsored by Save the Amazon society. He was assigned the best guides and had the most gracious hosts when he arrived in Rio. He almost forgot that he was on assignment, he had such a good time on the trip to Brasilia. There he was hosted by the mayor and met by the governor of the province, both of whom openly sympathized with Save the Amazon, the organization that had so much influence in Europe and the United States. In fact Colonel Colon himself was to be one of Mark’s personal escorts around Brasilia the day before he was to set out on what was to be a six-week painting expedition into the heartland of the Amazon, all the way to the selvas, making their base at Manicore.
For the first few weeks Mark painted South American marsh deer, capybaras and armadillos, and caught on his canvas the brilliant yellows and phosphorescent blues of the most colorfully large birds. So far had he come from his days hunting dragonflies, from learning to fire a revolver, that nobody would have given it a thought that Mark was the same person. Now he showed a reverence for the animals that was tied too deeply to his livelihood that each day it seemed he further tamed the wildlife with his brush. He nevertheless did require his government escorts to take him deeper into the forests.
One afternoon in a clearing he came upon the small cubs of a jaguar and against the advice of his guides set up his easel and sat down to paint them. So rapidly did he work and so absorbed was he that he never had time to recover when he was attacked. Even his guides were overcome with surprise and fled. In one giant rush his easel flew up in the air like a suspended wing and the colorful paints flowed into each other. So violently were his entrails ripped away by the brutal headlong lunge of the mother jaguar that he was quickly disemboweled on the spot. The heat of the violent movements of the neck and haunches, the powerful lunge from the animal’s stomach, if they could have been caught in slow motion would have in regards to precision compared favorably with the ballistics tests of a bullet being released from the chamber of a rifle, or revolver. So cleanly did the animal disembowel Mark that his head was as if torn off by a few rakes of the giant paw on his neck, and his whole look seemed to disintegrate into the thick-leaved jungle.
Days later it was found that his skull had been hollowed out by fire ants. In fact the opposite of dry weeds lay on the jungle floor. A lush growth of wildlife, that even as the remainder of the cubs scampered off, was not to be painted on this Save the Amazon expedition. The guides who fled were later reprimanded, or not heard from again. Mark’s bones were brought back to the United States and kept at the Save the Amazon headquarters in New York City.
The houseparent who had taken Mark out on his first hunting expedition of dragonflies has long since died.
There are people ill-adapted for the requirements of society. There are people who though they have all the physical capacity to speak have no need of speech. Right there they make enemies. Most of us not only need the reassuring sound of another voice, but become seriously angry at anyone unwilling to speak with us, or share the courtesies of language. We will go so far as to mete out a disproportionate punishment to that person, and promptly banish him from our circle of friends. This is what happened to Galen. For some undetermined reason he never spoke to anyone. In the two years I lived with him at Habana I only heard him briefly answer our questions, and only those he considered the most serious, otherwise he preserved his customary silence. I never heard Galen ask a question.
He never took part in the more rigorous activities that engaged the rest of us, but was absorbed in botanical pursuits. All day long he would busy himself in the two or three grassy fields surrounding the orphanage that were thickly strewn with clover and bordered by a large swath of burnt-yellow honeysuckle. He would watch the bees and butterflies pollinating the wild flowers, while perhaps listening to the ever-present killdeer screaming overhead. Otherwise I cannot account for his solitary interests. I can see him now, with his bare feet exiting from his baggy blue trousers, the unchanged bright pink shirt he always wears in my imagination, and his jet black hair and round white cheeks of soft baby fat. His eyes were the darkest brown but somehow passed notice because he never focused them directly on you. It was as if you were in conflicting poles of a magnetic field which always drove Galen’s eyes in the opposite direction of yours, as if they could not bear to look straight at you. Perhaps there was something coquettish about Galen’s shy smile and his singular inability to give any of us his attention. Perhaps there lingered in him faintly anticipatory feelings of emotions that were to come, that were expressed too clearly to have meaning for the rest of us.
Occasionally Galen’s reticence would infuriate one of us and we would launch fist-first into him to break his silence, hoping to penetrate physically his inexplicable solitude. But this anger was always unnaturally short-lived since Galen, throwing up his elbows to his head, would offer only a meagre resistance. Though we were all roused by turns to criticism or physical abuse of Galen, he never did anything consequential enough to rouse our anger in concert and so was assured the protection of our combined good judgement. Also, the stronger among us, while quickly separating out from the weak, often came back to protect the very weakest; this too reduced the number of wanton attacks upon Galen. But to say he had no friends would be mistaken, for frequently I would see two or three of the less popular among us gathered round him in the fields. Yet there was something strangely non-communicative about even this, for the times I chanced upon them unnoticed there was never any exchange of words; perhaps there was a huddled understanding that my senses were not keen enough to detect.
After losing contact with Galen for seven years, I heard he committed suicide soon after graduation.
There is more I would like to say about Galen. That I knew him better, that I understood him. But I did not. All I am able to see is the discrepancy between society and Galen. That he was too unfit for language, or any other kind of willing communication, for me to have sympathy for him. That he leaves me with a vague sense of indefiniteness is undeniable. And that our talkative social behavior as it is now structured cannot accommodate him except as an ornament of curiosity, but not comfortably as a subject of real interest. Perhaps he represents a fragment of myself, perhaps what draws my brief interest to him is that he touches something in me, something withdrawn and isolated and still unidentified, something that doesn’t labor for exposure or revelation, but keeps mutely to itself. Something that doesn’t need to speak of itself, to justify itself, or answer questions, that can wear baggy blue trousers and a pink shirt and sit shoeless in the clover and honeysuckle towards evening and feel the cool dew collect between its toes.
Richard Krause has three collections of fiction published titled Studies in Insignificance, The Horror of the Ordinary, and Crawl Space & Other Stories of Limited Maneuverability. He recently has had writing in Club Plum Literary Journal, Mobius,Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, Blue Lake Review, and Digging through the Fat. Krause lives in Kentucky where he is retired from teaching at a community college. His website is richardkrausewriting.com. He recommends the Pulaski County Animal Shelter.