“The Insects of Love,” by Genevieve Valentine, is a dream-like science fiction/fantasy puzzle about two sisters and several possible realities. The only certainty is that one sister gets a tattoo and disappears into the desert. The surviving sister is obsessed with insects and believes her sister has left her clues as to her disappearance.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
Before Fairuz got the tattoo, I’d never even heard of the beetles.
I just knew that the tattoo she wanted was enormous, and that it would take all night, and even as I agreed to come with her I said, “This is a bad idea.”
“Good,” she said, and hit the gas.
I expected some shithole off the main drag, the kind of place Fairuz would go to make a point. But it was clean as a dentist’s office, and they gave us paper caps and told us to watch what we touched.
Inside was even cleaner, and the man waiting for us was in a work suit that zipped up to his neck.
“Lie down,” he said, turning on the projector.
As Fairuz pulled off her shirt and settled onto her stomach, the ink drawing snapped into place over her skin: fifteen constellations, scattered on her back from the shoulder blades down past the waist of her trousers; freckles with labels, pulled together by string.
“You want something for the pain?” the guy asked.
Fairuz shrugged. “Sure.”
He picked up a container of gold and pink marbles and poured them over her back.
Of course they weren’t marbles, but when you haven’t heard of the beetles before, you don’t think that kind of thing will ever happen, that someone gets a Tupperware of bugs and dumps them out.
(You only need one or two, if the area’s small, but Fairuz never did anything small if she could help it; the tattoo was all over and so were the beetles.)
They skittered back and forth over her skin, a shirt of rosy sequins, and across their bodies the projected constellations flickered in and out of sight.
I think this is before she died.
Cetonia aphrodite (Venus beetle). This beetle, native to continental Europe and long thought extinct, was recently rediscovered in Denmark’s temperate thickets. Though no definitive studies have been conducted, it may be inferred that global warming forced a migration of the species to a more northern climate.
Cetonia aphrodite, commonly known as the Venus beetle because of its pink-gold coloring, feeds off pollen, particularly roses and other flowering climbers. In order to monopolize this popular resource, the beetles produce a toxin that deters predators and competition.
It is this trait that has made the Venus beetle of particular interest, and combined with a hardy disposition that does well in captivity, domestication efforts have brought the species back from the brink of extinction. Breeding programs recently began in Denmark to assure the supply of Venus beetle toxin as a natural pesticide.
The most promising potential for human application since the project’s inception has been the peripheral effects of the toxin, which acts as an analgesic on contact with skin. Like many great discoveries, it was an accidental find, but its medical application as an inexpensive, naturally-derived painkiller could be significant.
When applied repeatedly in a short span, buildup of the toxin creates mild euphoria. Addicts and experimenters have been known to plant the Venus beetle under the skin near a vein for a sustained high. The Insect Preservation Act of 2046, if passed, will place these and similar insects under protected status and make implantation punishable, but the market for them continues to thrive, and each year, dozens of injuries are reported from those who tried to self-extract the beetle, and the image of the beetle—a distant, smaller cousin of the scarab, inheriting their round heads and sturdy legs—has become a symbol among the chemical class of thrill-seekers.
My first memory is Fairuz cradling the mantis in her hands and showing it to me.
It was gray and spotted white, and its wings were crusted over. She blew on it gently; the sand scattered, and the mantis flew away as our parents came looking for us.
My parents always told the story like Fairuz was trying to scare me, but I don’t think it had crossed her mind. Being cruel came later. I think she just felt sorry for the mantis, and wanted to see what I would do.
I remember the mantis’s wedge-head and the antennae waving, the mottled and translucent wings, the pressed-up arms. Its eyes were huge, the matte steel blue of a storm cloud.
Maybe she’d expected me to hate it, or to be frightened, but it was beautiful; I looked through its glassy wings, watched the trembling, curious feelers moving around its mouth and smearing blood, until Fairuz took it back, frowning absently at the bug, at me.
I wondered what she was thinking. (That happened a lot. It happened when she burned through one career after another. It happened whenever she knew more about what I was doing than I did. It happened when she knocked on my door one night and said without waiting, “I’m sick of all this. I’m getting a tattoo. Let’s go.”)
She lost interest in bugs after that. I never did.
Everything about an insect tells you what it is.
The antennae, the wings, the joints on the legs, the color of the larvae, are all advertisements of its origin and its adaptation, a line of waiting flags for its taxonomy. It’s easy work. They want to be organized, down to the thousand-facets of their eyes; they wear exoskeletons to keep everything in order.
Fairuz had always been interested in the theory behind things—she studied math because she said she wanted to find out what was going on underneath the universe. She must not have found what she was looking for, because after one and a half degrees, her bedroom stacked waist-high with sheets of scribbles that looked like insects had migrated across them, she moved on to the public-advocacy theory of making people do what you want them to do, and from there to some government think tank where everything was classified, and she sometimes got intense and sometimes cutting, but never any happier.
I felt sorry for her. Insects were easy to love. It’s always easier to find a thing and love it without hoping for a reason.
I remember sitting in the schoolroom.
We’d been kept late because Fairuz argued with a teacher and I’d agreed with Fairuz. They didn’t want any talking, so they sat us in rows, one desk apart.
Fairuz was in front of me, her shoulders hunched (she pulled in when she was angry, like a pill bug).
As we took our temporary seats she said, “You’re so stupid sometimes,” even though it was only that Mr. Richards hated when girls spoke up in class. She had been right to argue, and I had been right to agree.
For the three hours we sat in detention, I didn’t even try to answer her. I just seethed in my chair and stared at the bun on her neck, low and beetle-black.
If I try hard enough, between the moment she breathes out and back in, her skin flickers and I can see Auriga, five dots tattoo-traced into a point, the lines disappearing below the collar of her shirt.
Fairuz went missing in the desert.
Probably exposure, the officer said when he came to my door. He said she’d been present at evening roll-call, according to the excursion director. Then she’d gone out, and never come back. There was no body.
“Is there a search?”
They’d called it off after seventy-two hours. They’d looked in every known shelter for a hundred miles, though she couldn’t possibly have gone that far. They had flown over in helicopters, looking for her clothes. There had been carrion birds, he said finally, which was when I realized what he was trying to tell me.
“Who saw her go out alone?” I asked.
“Every attempt was made to locate—”
“Who saw her go into the desert alone?”
“We’re very sorry for your loss,” he said.
I folded my arms, careful with the barbed cricket specimen I was carrying on a pin. It trembled one reedy note (my hand was shaking, my voice was shaking).
“What were they looking for?”
“It’s classified,” he said. “I’m really very sorry. Someone will be in touch with you to make arrangements.”
I crushed the barbed cricket in the door when I slammed it. That was worse than anything; that was the horrible omen that let the words slip in—she’s dead.
Some words are knives. I cried for a while, my forehead pressed against the door, clammy and sick.
When I could walk again, I pulled up every picture, every message she had sent while she was away. She would have left me a clue, something to go on if the worst should happen, some way to find her or follow her, no matter what.
There was no chance she’d died how they said. If there was one thing Fairuz couldn’t stand, it was being alone.
Acheta emarginata (barbed cricket). Known colloquially as “The Ragged Cricket,” this insect’s reedy call sets it apart from its cousins the field cricket and the tree cricket. Found widely throughout the Eurasian continent, the barbed cricket population spread as trade increased with Europe and the Americas.
The legs of Acheta emarginata are perforated for greater buoyancy when jumping through the tall grass of the temperate plains to which it is native. When the male draws its barbed wing edges together, air passing swiftly back and forth across the holes creates the mournful tone of a woodwind instrument, unique among the shrill sounds of others of its genus. So striking is the sound that the insect has historically been kept at royal courts in China and Indonesia, and has been used by hunters—particularly when displaced from its natural habitat—as a novelty lure to draw curious birds from the brush.
It has recently been speculated by entomologists that this sound, which seems designed to mimic a bird call, is not a mating song as previously supposed, but in fact a way to misdirect those same birds that are the barbed cricket’s natural enemies.
Due to the long-standing superstition that a ragged cricket’s music has the ability to call loved ones home again, they are considered good luck, and are often kept as pets.
Fairuz had argued with Mr. Richards because he corrected me.
“This is not an assignment where we should be using our imaginations,” he said, holding my biology report out to me. I’d drawn the mantis on the front in pencil, outlined in ink. The eyes I had gone over and over, until they were fathomless black; they’d bled through to the second page.
That was strange, that was wrong, its eyes had been the color of slate; why had I drawn such deep, open black?
Fairuz had turned to watch us, her face pulling at the edges she was so angry.
I opened my mouth to defend the mantis.
“Sir,” she snapped, “Given the liberties you take regarding societal evolution, surely she should be forgiven the mistake of thinking this was an exercise in creative writing.”
He pivoted slowly to face her, one eyebrow going up. “And what exactly are you suggesting, Fairuz?” He never used last names when he spoke to girls like he did when he spoke to the boys.
I said, “She’s suggesting you’re an awful teacher who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
We got detention, and he walked back to the front of the room and dropped my paper in the garbage.
When he left, Fairuz sprinted for the trash can as soon as the door was closed, before he could come back and set the clock. She sat with her hands folded on top of that report the whole time we were in detention.
“Never talk about anything unless you know it’s true here first,” she said, like it was a warning she’d given me before. “You’re so stupid sometimes.”
What she did with it I never knew; I never saw it again. I never looked for it. I never asked what she meant by “here.” Fairuz had reasons, most of the time, and either way she wouldn’t tell you.
I got a book about insects, the kind you could verify, and started reading about those instead. I never found the mantis.
Once I came in to ask her, but she looked up from her book (it was all water, tide pools and surfers and lonely-looking shells wrapped carelessly in kelp) and took one look at me and said, “If this is still bugs, I’m looking at shorelines, so only tell me if it’s dragonflies.”
After a second I closed the door.
We moved a short while after that, to a city where I learned not to say anything unless I was sure already that it was true. I ended up not saying much.
Sometimes I dreamed that the paper I wrote was only sand now, rolling over the top of the dunes in a place I’ve never been, little black grains scattered for miles and miles.
Fairuz had boyfriends.
I never remembered their names, and they all looked the same: tall, handsome, with the bearing of a man who’s landed a girl as beautiful as he thinks he deserves. She never lasted more than two weeks with a boy; she dated them mostly to drive them off. She’d get dressed up and sweep down to his car for a few nights, and after date four she’d tell him to call her at the house, mostly so our mother would shout him down about calling someone’s home and assuming he’d be welcome, didn’t he have any manners, did they think this was helping their cause with her daughter, put your father on the phone right now, I want to tell him the kind of son he raised.
Fairuz would make me sit with her on the stairs, with her leaning forward with her arms pressed tight to her chest like a chrysalis, grinning wider and wider the angrier the boy got. If we could hear him shouting on the other end of the line, it was the last time Fairuz would hear from him. They always shouted, sooner or later; our mother had a way of getting them to show off their very worst. I was always proud of her; it felt she was working against us except when she was tricking one of Fairuz’s boys into proving how awful he really was. Maybe that’s why Fairuz did it, as much as anything.
I never had boyfriends. I hardly knew how to make regular friends—I made people nervous, Fairuz said, always like it was their problem and not mine. When she brought me over to peer through the banister with her it mostly reminded me how much trouble it all was.
I tried to take it as lessons in human courtship, but mostly I thought about the time we’d watched a pregnant spider giving birth to dozens of doubles that were just waiting to dry before they ate her. I wondered if our mother felt the same way about dealing with Fairuz.
“Poor boys,” Fairuz said once, half-laughing.
Once I said, “One day you’re going to fall in love, and then you’ll be sorry,” and she shot me a strange look, like I knew something she didn’t.
(I did know. She’ll meet Michael in thirteen years, if my count is right, but in this memory I never know if time is moving at the same rate as it is in the other ones, depending on which life we’re leading; maybe she meets him in twelve.)
Michael was with the government now. He’d know how to find what I needed.
He’d been an entomologist with the Venus Project when I met him. He’d discovered the analgesic properties of the beetle and was on the Ethics Committee there. It wasn’t a surprise he’d been asked to head up a federal task force on conservation. He knew how to cover the bases and how to make everyone feel as if they’d done good work; those kinds of men always ended up treading water in positions of power.
I corresponded with him for my dissertation, which was a study of the ecological, cultural, and economic implications of domestication of half a dozen species of Entomos amoris . He always forwarded me new medical opinions about the neurology of the toxin alongside each set of observations about the beetles.
“The most important element to the beetle’s survival—to the survival of any animal species—is the human element,” he wrote me once, as if I hadn’t been studying habitat destruction and shrinking populations, as if I didn’t already know exactly what every insect I was looking at was up against. From someone I liked less, it would have been insulting.
Still, it was impressive, how much he hoped what he was doing would matter. It was flattering, how much he thought what I was doing would matter.
Fairuz met him when she invited herself to the symposium where I was presenting; he had come down from Copenhagen to hear me read.
“Looking forward to meeting you,” he’d written, and I’d looked at the screen with my whole face going hot, and thought about dusting bridal butterfly over my collarbones. I wondered whether he would look at me the way boys had always looked at Fairuz when she came down the stairs glowing, the pigment glancing off all the edges and corners of her throat.
I never used it, in the end. I had written a dissertation about how the insects of love were used by the human element, in ways that benefited no one except to soothe old superstitions and deplete populations; even if the bridal butterfly’s power was real, the methods were unacceptable. I couldn’t take advantage.
Doesn’t stop some.
When he picks up the phone my heart thumps. I manage, “Dr. Mason?”
His voice sounds just the same. I close my eyes, catch my breath, say, “It’s about Fairuz.”
Fairuz always wrote me messages when we were apart, but her messages from the desert were different, and wrong.
I knew they’d be strange—this was a classified project, there was a lot she’d be unable to say directly, I had expected some vagueness and some secrets—but not like this. These were frightening. Unfocused.
Of all the things you could say about Fairuz, “unfocused” had never, never been one. When she changed directions it was like repositioning a gun.
She sent me a letter nearly every week. She filled it with wails about the heat and long stories I remembered about our childhoods (“Those were the days,” she’d write) and stories I didn’t recognize (framed, “Do you remember?”).
She wrote, in almost every letter, “We’re out of time.”
Before the desert, she’d never used the phrase. Fairuz had never been out of time; the world would wait for her, and she knew it.
But I remember her hair shaking as we served detention, pages of a paper I never wrote curling under her fingers, as she worried about me.
I remember her looking over her shoulder at the tattoo parlor to make sure I was still with her, as the constellations scattered across her like she’d found a way straight through the sky.
I was the thing she waited for. It sounds sad, it sounds desperate, but I was. She was my sister. She would never have gone into the desert without me, unless she knew I’d be coming to find her.
I don’t know how to tell Michael what I need, how to explain what’s wrong. The silence pushes in like a broken rib.
Finally I say, “There’s something in the desert, and no one wanted her to tell me.”
The other end of the line goes very quiet. I don’t know what he’s thinking; if he loved her, I’ve never wanted to know. Not now, either. Even dead, she’s mine first.
He says, “I have to go,” disconnects.
The year I wrote my dissertation, at a half-size desk in a studio apartment barely big enough to turn around in, Fairuz headed up the environmental campaign that made the tidal basins protected government land, to preserve them from further damage.
“Those tourists and their jet skis can piss off,” she said, flinging herself onto my bed and grinning up at the ceiling. In repose, her suit looked even more expensive than it was.
I tried not to feel lesser, just having her around.
“Well, while you were doing that, I found someone who actually works with the Venus beetles. I’ve written to him—he’s an ethics man, I think his work will really strengthen the case for insect conservation.”
She laughed and rolled onto her stomach, narrowing her eyes at me. “Oh, Soraya, champion of the insects. They suit you—I don’t mean it in a bad way, don’t look like that. I just don’t dare think what would have happened if I hadn’t shown you that mantis.”
I frowned; didn’t know what she meant.
She hadn’t shown me anything.
For a split second, across the back of her gray suit, fifteen constellations flickered in and out of sight.
Well, I’m here. Don’t ever tell me you told me so about this whole thing, because you never did and I wouldn’t have let you, but if you ever even thought it, don’t tell me.
The heat’s awful, of course—I told you I’d hate the desert, didn’t I, back when my heart was broken and I left the ocean behind? Do you remember? Do you hear from Michael? Don’t tell him I’m asking.
The work in [REDACTED BY ADMINISTRATOR] continues, though, and the way things are going I think I’m not going to be home for a long time. The good news is that by the time I’m out of here I’ll be ready to go back to the sea for a little while—any place with water sounds wonderful by now.
Well, I’m out of time. I’d trade all this for one day on the seaside. I still think about that book of photography that got me in all that trouble, those waves and the seaweed and that water the color of turquoise. Those were the days.
All my love –
I know she has the tattoo.
I know which fifteen she has etched on her back, a star-map in miniature: Auriga, Columba, Pegasus, Delphinus, Vulpecula, Taurus, Draco, Aquila, Cygnus, Lyra, Canis Major, Monocerus, Lepus, Orion, Eridanus.
I remember where they sit on her: Auriga at the nape of her neck, Taurus below her shoulder blades, Canis Major on her left hip, with Sirius as large as the eye of a mantis. I remember that Eridanus went below the line of her trousers where she’d rolled the waistband down, and the last few stars were projected over the fabric like a sprinkle of soot.
I see her with it all the time whether it’s happened yet or not, but I can’t remember when the tattoo begins, even though I’m there when the artist bends to his work, my paper cap scratching my scalp and the beetles still roiling in the bucket he’s collected them in.
I don’t know if I’ve vanished by then in this memory, or if it never happened and it’s one of the things I dream that’s only grief and sand.
I don’t know if this is a mistake I’m making, or if this is something Fairuz built—a place for us to be alone, a language she wrote on her back so she would have a way to reach me that I would understand.
Michael calls back.
“There’s nothing I can tell you,” he says, and his voice is beautiful until I process the words.
He’s a scientist, still—I can hear in his voice how much he wants to share what he knows. Old habits.
“No, there’s something,” I say, hope it doesn’t sound like I’m begging. “Anything.”
”I don’t know what she was doing that far south,” he says, “and no one will tell me.”
So it’s important enough that it’s above his pay grade. Of course it would be. Fairuz wouldn’t have died for anything less.
Maybe they’re not telling him because whatever they’re looking for is going to eat up a hundred thousand beetle species, and that’s the kind of thing you don’t tell a bug man. But that’s not right, either; she stopped using bridal butterfly when I asked her to, and the time our mother brought home a barbed cricket, Fairuz was the one who let it go. She would have warned me. She knew I trusted her; she knew what I loved.
They must not understand why he’s really asking, I think; they must none of them have sisters.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “Please let me know if there’s anything you need.”
“My sister back,” I say, hang up.
Tears always sting me. Kids who grow up in dry places aren’t supposed to waste water.
Morpho amymone (bridal butterfly). This rare species in the Morphoceae family, native to the Amazon basin, is known for its iridescent pigmentation. The wings reflect an icy blue-white, visible even at night, when it comes out to feed. This bright reflection actually serves a camouflaging purpose, as the Morpho amymone feeds amid night lilies, and this iridescence mimics the lily’s petals.
The Morpho amymone subsists on a diet of aphids, making it one of only three known carnivorous butterfly species.
The butterfly was named by its discoverers after Amymone “the blameless,” due to the bridal-white wing pigment (Amymone being one of the Danaid who did not kill her husband on her wedding night), and referencing the myth of her fruitful union with Poseidon, as the pigment from the Morpho amymone, when in contact with the skin, acts as an aphrodisiac.
Since the global discovery of this attribute, demand has risen sharply, and the species has been hunted nearly to extinction. The last sighting of a Morpho amymone in the wild was in 2046; until there is further evidence to the contrary, it is presumed that they now exist only in captivity.
There is belief among some occultists that the pigment dust of this Morpho keeps harm at bay, but this seems to be tied to Amymone’s rescue from death in the original myth, and has no basis in any results of scientific study.
I’m out of time, the lights will be going off any second to give one of the generators time to recover, but I saw a dragonfly today and I got so jealous of you, because back home it might be raining, so here I am. Are you studying dragonflies, now? You should. This one goes anywhere it pleases, which I like more than I like most insects.
How is Michael? Don’t tell him I asked. You promised not to tell him. He can’t know. I miss him, that’s all. You were right, all those years back—I’m sorry for it all.
And that’s it, the lights are gone. If this turns into Morse code it’s because it’s all I could manage in the dark. Do you know Morse code? I don’t, really, so good luck to you.
The sky here is something, though, when the lights are out. No clouds at all, just you and the stars and the night. When I count the constellations, I think of you. Do you think of me, too? Can you even see stars, where you are?
You’ll have to come meet me here, after this is over. The stars are beautiful. Promise me.
All my love –
Fairuz cried over Michael more than she’d cried over anything, throwing herself on the bed, sobbing into my shoulder.
Her tears were hotter than human; burning.
“I have to give him up,” she said, when she was calm again. “I know that. I’ll let him go. Don’t tell him anything about it. It’s not his business.”
I wondered what had happened between them, but I didn’t ask. I never opened my mouth about Michael, for fear of what I’d say.
(That day at my reading he’d looked right at me and smiled, and my heart turned over in my chest for one violent beat before he said, “And is this your sister?,” and I thought about what it meant to be cruel.)
Instead I asked, “Will you be all right?”
She looked straight ahead, said as if I hadn’t spoken, “I’m finished with the sea. I’ll have to turn to the desert next.”
“You hate the desert,” I said.
She said, “Not as much as I will.”
This is probably after she’s died, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.
I dredge up the memory anyway, as often as I dare. There’s so little I know for certain. I’ll hang on to anything where we were together; what does it matter if it’s a lie?
I pull up my dissertation and refresh my data points to reflect updates in field research.
I write an article about recent developments in the conservation of Entomos amoris in arid zones near human habitation. It gets published.
I write a grant proposal and submit it to my university committee.
Michael calls me.
“Soraya, what are you doing?”
There’s no way my university would have flagged my proposal; he’s keeping an eye on me, then.
“Studying the migratory patterns of turquoise dragonflies in desert regions,” I say. “I find it fascinating. There are a lot of implications for adjusting similar populations to counteract human encroachment. It might be very positive. I’m happy to speak to anyone on the committee about my goals for the study.”
He says, “I don’t like where this is going.”
I say, “Good.”
Sometimes at night, as I’m working and reading and looking at maps because there’s no chance at sleep, Fairuz blinks into sight in my doorway, my desk chair, at the edge of my bed. (A different bed, now; I gave away the one where she sat next to me and wept.)
I’m looking through her old letters for the clues I hadn’t understood before. The list of places she could be gets shorter every night. Every time I see Fairuz, I put a pin on the map. The circles get smaller.
I wish, unfairly, that she’d let me grieve for a little while. If she’s only dead, if I go to the desert and there’s nothing, I can’t still be holding these letters. I can’t keep going like this, if she’s really gone.
But she’s always got a steady, searching look that I remember from whenever she was waiting for me to finally catch up. I keep going.
Sometimes, in the morning, there’s a Venus beetle on my wall.
Won’t be leaving here any time soon. The desert’s full of secrets, and I’m out to name them all. Tell Mother for me; I don’t have the courage to do it myself.
Everyone here is either too nice or absolutely horrible, but if I told you why they’d only redact it, so imagine it as best you can. (I know that’s not much, when it comes to you, I wish you’d had a little more interest when I tried to show you the endless sea that you think is empty until you look under the surface at the fish eating one another. It would have made all this easier for me to explain.)
This place is crawling with insects. Every time I see a mantis I think about the one I showed you when you were still a baby and we lived in that little town at the edge of the grassland and the dunes; that little gray mantis with the wings. You loved it so much. I should have known right then what you would be when you were older. You just stared at it with those big eyes, and then you were looking at me like I was going to explain everything, and I was sitting there thinking I knew. Not in this world, eh? Those were the days. It had sand on its wings, stuck together. Now I know how it felt.
I’ve always admired that about you, though—that you can pick something to love and never waver.
Must go, [REDACTED BY ADMINISTRATOR] is calling and there’s work to be done. I’m almost out of time. I’m sorry I’m not coming home quite as you thought. Please don’t be angry. I’ll see you very soon, I promise.
All my love –
We’re in the tattoo parlor. The Venus beetles have been coaxed back into their container, and now Fairuz’s bare back is a maze of constellations, waiting for the work to begin.
(I know how they corralled the beetles back again, which means this is a memory, or a past I must have lived—one in which I study insects, in which this isn’t a surprise to me because I know the man who discovered they could be used this way. This is a past in which I know of the beetles long before Fairuz brings me here. It might be real.)
Fairuz says, “Soraya, make sure all the constellations are lined up, all right? Otherwise it’ll look like I sneezed.”
It would be rude to the artist, if he was here, but she and I are all alone.
“Taurus is centered, I promise,” I say, and press my thumb below her shoulder blades to prove it. Somehow I know where the stars should go.
The image slides over the mountain range of my hand, a few straight lines and a cluster of dots. It looks a little like the beetles, if you squint.
Without a sound, her back crumbles under me.
Before I can scream, before I can move, before I can think about what pain she must be in to disappear that way, the light goes out; then I’m kneeling in the desert, my thumb sinking into the sand.
It’s cold and it’s pitch black, until I look up. I’m underneath those same stars. It looks like anywhere, but I know it can’t be real, because Fairuz is kneeling opposite me, grinning.
“What do you think?” she asks.
(I don’t remember this.)
Trithemis fairuz (turquoise dragonfly). This dragonfly, found widely throughout the African continent, is most easily identified by the wide, bright blue-green stripes the male adult bears on its abdomen. Young females have a paler blue coloration that fades as they reach adulthood.
The turquoise dragonfly population is nomadic, rarely returning to the same mating ground. This ensures the greatest variety of mates, which has helped this dragonfly adapt to ecological changes more swiftly than some of its more loyal (and now endangered) cousins. For instance, over the last two hundred years the adult female’s wingspan has increased by a median three cm, presumably to allow for swifter escape from predators and to demand greater stamina from males during the mating flight.
The fickle nature of Trithemis fairuz’s habitation patterns has earned it the nickname ”the heartbreak dragonfly,“ as its absence means a rise in the mosquito population, and often a corollary rise in disease.
Historical superstition has it that someone who kills a turquoise dragonfly will soon suffer a personal loss.
On a more practical note, it seems desirable to study the migration habits of Trithemis fairuz to determine any factors that encourage the successful transplantation of the population, in order to develop repopulating techniques for other, more threatened dragonfly species.
I get the grant.
“Congratulations,” he says.
He doesn’t know, I realize as soon as I hear his voice. I’ve pushed at the edges enough, like Fairuz would have, and something gave, but something else always crumbles underneath you when you do, some tether that slides loose that you can never catch hold of again.
Poor Michael, I think. This must be some other life for him now—are you still with the Venus Project, is that where this money’s coming from?—and he hardly knows me, and he’s never even heard of Fairuz.
She left you for my sake, I almost say.
As I open my mouth, the walls flood with beetles, and I remember everything.
I nearly drop the phone.
(All at the same time, Fairuz is crying into my pajamas, her wild black hair spread over my shoulders; I’m knocking on his door—a house I’ve never seen in a city I’ve never been to—and kissing him; I’m attending his wedding to Fairuz; he’s clapping politely in the auditorium after my presentation and he will never see me again; Fairuz is standing in my bedroom doorway, leveling a look at me and saying, “I’m getting a tattoo. Let’s go.”)
His voice is tinny with the phone so far from my ear: ”Soraya? Soraya?“
He’s mentioned where I’m going—it must not be a secret in this instant, wherever we’re standing now. Maybe he’s heard the beetles, I think, but they’re gone, except one, gleaming on my wall like a pin in a map.
I’m going to forget this, I think, panicking. The receiver cracks under my fingers, I’m so desperate to hold on to anything, but I know that as soon as I speak, or he speaks, or I take a breath, this will vanish. I don’t know what will take its place.
I’m shaking. I hope he doesn’t say anything. My voice would give me away if he knew what I knew.
I blink. The beetle’s gone. (Of course the beetle’s gone; they don’t live here, the climate’s all wrong for them.)
”Yes, I’m here,“ I say. My body is stretched thin, I’m not getting enough sound to support the words. I’m happy, I think, that’s why; I can go out looking for her now.
But he only says, “Be careful out there, yeah?”
It doesn’t sound like goodbye, but he should know better. This isn’t a desert you come back from.
I loved you, I want to say, just to throw him, but all I can think is, I’m coming, Fairuz.
The heat and the wind suck all the air out of me, and I stand outside and struggle against the sun just to breathe.
(I’ve forgotten that I’ve lived in the desert before; it’s a stranger.)
Fairuz hated the heat, the bright sun, anything that wasn’t water. I try to remember what could have sent her to someplace like this. I can’t.
When I try to think back to that—when I try to think back to anything—I’m suddenly watching her in the wings of the stage where I’m delivering my paper and she’s grinning fit to burst; she’s in detention with me, not quite turning her head, and there’s the sound of paper being torn to bits; she’s dusting bridal butterfly on her collarbones on her way to see Michael, and when I say, “I wish you wouldn’t,” she looks at me a second before she realizes I mean the bridal butterfly, and she says, “All right, this is for you,” and when she offers me the brush there are a few bright spangles still stuck to it,a shape I know I should know—Orion, maybe, or Pegasus.
When I think about the tattoo parlor, all I remember is stars like pinpricks, and the white light bleaching everything I try to look at, except the endless carpet of rosy beetles that runs into the sand at my feet and vanishes.
By the time I make it to my hotel, the desert has already pulled me to pieces.
I can hear the sand caught in my eyelashes when I blink, and I think of the mantis with its wings stuck together, and of Fairuz out in the desert somewhere, alone and waiting for me in the last seconds before she died, and I cry so long that all the sand washes away.
“You have to do something besides cry about things,” Fairuz is saying.
We’re out of detention, and she’s walking through the main hall so fast that the tangled bun of her black hair bangs against her neck with every step.
I stay behind her. It’s hopeless, trying to catch up.
“I wasn’t crying,” I’m saying. I don’t want to tell her that my eyes welled up because she’d insulted me for defending her and I’d spent three hours furious and wanting to hit her with my eraser, smack in the middle of Taurus. “And I’m not stupid.”
There must be something in the way I say it, because she’s stopping, turning, waiting for me. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her, and she gives me a long look. Her eyes have always been huge and dark, two stains of ink.
“I hope not,” she says.
Then we’re walking together, and I know already that something is wrong, that someday I’ll need to remember this and I won’t, that something is slipping away I’ll never get back.
As we get outside, I step on a heartbreak dragonfly.
This memory isn’t real, then; I would never.
The wonderful thing about dragonflies is that they fly wherever they like, and if you are to document them properly, you must go where they go.
Still, it’s a terrible thing to look at the horizon and know that, somewhere in that vast question, your sister’s body is being swallowed by the sand.
I write a letter.
Government property is marked with wire fences, but I’m beginning to remember how wonderful sand can be, and it doesn’t take long before I find a place where it’s half-swallowed the post, and I can shove it further down with my bare hands, walk right over it without having to climb a thing.
There are enough patches of grass ahead of me that I can probably come up with a dragonfly specimen to match the one on my papers, which is helpful, and the university will defend my purpose here, if it comes to that.
I don’t think it will come to that. This is a government operation, and they have something specific in mind. I think if they see me I’ll disappear, and then I’ll really see what’s happened to Fairuz.
The Insects of Love is itself the product of those with great passion for their work. I would like, first and foremost, to acknowledge the work of a fellow in my field without whom this book would not exist.
Soraya Qadir’s observation and analysis of species within the neoclassification Entomos amoris over the last several years was an invaluable resource and inspiration during the writing of this book. What work she completed with Trithemis fairuz (which, thanks to her findings, has now been termed the turquoise nomad) is a fascinating glimpse into the future, and may greatly influence the landscape of ecological entomology.
In the last letter I received from her from the field, she presented her progress and the suggestion for The Insects of Love, and asked me to be her research partner and the co-author of this work. I was honored. When the time came, I made the decision to continue alone, but never has an accomplishment been so bittersweet.
Qadir first corresponded with me for her dissertation many years ago, and I knew even then an unusual mind was at work. This neoclassification provides new taxonomical and ecological options for those seeking to preserve and study these insect populations, negotiating a visionary space between scholarship and practicality.
Though I never met her, her enthusiasm and insight were, and remain, an inspiration.
As a scientist and as a scholar, she is missed.
Michael Mason (First Edition 2046)
I keep to the scrub and grass for a while, taking photos of a turquoise dragonfly I find in a stand of tall grass. I think about putting it in the jar in my pack, but since Fairuz died I haven’t had much of a heart for collecting.
I’ve walked for a long time. My water runs out. At some point the sand seems to swallow me up, and I sink to the ground, close my eyes. Air whistles across my ear; it sounds like the barbed cricket. Oh, I think, come home, come home, Fairuz.
When I wake, my neck hurts (sunburn, I fell asleep when the sun was still out, mistake), but it’s cool now, nearly cold, and the stars are out.
The stars are out.
I concentrate until I recognize Orion. It takes longer than it should; I should have been studying the stars all this time, I should have known what Fairuz was really telling me. (I saw them hovering over her back; I know where I’m meant to be, now.)
Eridanus is on my right, then, and when I stand up it will be curving behind me. The sky is a riot of stars, a thousand Venus beetles on a black ground, but I know the road.
I walk as quickly as sand will allow, heading right for the center of the chaos above me.
It seems as though the sun rises and falls, but I don’t feel it. It’s only that my eyes hurt, and then they don’t, and it’s night again and I haven’t wavered, I haven’t stopped for a second, she’ll be proud.
Finally it’s so cold and I’m so tired that the stars are holding still, and for the first time in a long time I drop to my knees and look around.
It’s sand, smooth and glass-flat until it meets the sky, and everywhere I look the air shimmers like I’m burning to death; then for a blink I see Fairuz, and Fairuz when I turn, and then Fairuz is sitting in front of me, grinning, her arms folded on her knees like we’re back beside the banister and our mother is yelling at some boy downstairs; her black hair is so dark that it looks like the night’s curling around her face.
The stars here are brighter than morning was and getting larger, as if we’re close enough to touch them.
(Maybe we are. Maybe I understand what brought Fairuz to the desert at last; this way to make the world really wait for her, to never be out of time, to be outside it, to look straight through the sky and out the other side; this way to never be alone again.)
“Come on, Soraya,” she says. “Come with me, if you can find me.”
“I can’t,” I say. I’m too tired to be brave, I don’t know what I’m saying, I’m so tired, I want to close my eyes and for everything to be over. “I don’t know where you are.”
“You’re so stupid sometimes,” she says, and for the first time in our lives, she sounds afraid.
It’s too bright, now, we’re in the tattoo parlor and the lamp is on and the artist is about to begin; my throat is dry and I can’t move.
A thousand miles away at the end of my arm, a little gray mantis climbs over my hand, shakes the sand off its wings, flies away. I don’t recognize it (not yet), but all at once I do; it’s the promise between Fairuz and me that I’ve never understood, that means everything is all right. I should have Fairuz show it to me when I’m little, so I know what to look for now.
“I will,” she says, as if I’ve spoken. “I promise. Come with me.”
Maybe I was wrong all those years. Fairuz wasn’t afraid of being alone. It’s only that she went ahead to make the way easier; it’s only that she was waiting, and giving me the chance to reach her.
That much, then, was true: I was her sister, and she wouldn’t go on without me.
We’re in the tattoo parlor because she insisted I come with her, and her back is a map of the sky.
Taurus has to go in the center.
I look up, where nine bright stars are waiting.
“Oh,” I say softly, “the Pleiades,” and Fairuz laughing is the last thing I hear.
Polyspilota soraya (Pleiades mantis). This desert-dwelling member of the mantis family, a cousin of the griffin mantis, is recognizable because of the wings set permanently perpendicular to the abdomen. Adults were medium gray with white-spotted abdomens and front legs, a pattern ideal for camouflage in the sand and scrub regions where they made their home. (These white markings earned the mantis its designation P. soraya, from the Persian name for the Pleiades cluster of stars.)
The mantis preyed largely on Morphos by mimicking butterfly mating behavior to get close to its prey.
It was widely believed that consuming a Pleiades mantis granted one wish. Unfortunately, the demand greatly exceeded any possible natural supply, and attempts to domesticate the mantis failed.
Since 2022, when the last known specimen died in captivity, the Pleiades mantis has been classified extinct.
“The Insects of Love” copyright © 2014 by Genevieve Valentine
Art copyright © 2014 by Tran Nguyen