λ [λιβελούλα (libellula, dragonfly)]


I would see them every time I went down the path. Red and blue-green. It was color in motion–motion did something to color like light does something to the expression of human eyes. I never managed to see their eyes–I saw them only later, in pictures. Big like mountains, in the same shade as their bodies, but iridescent. It was there I saw their wings up close; transparent, with dense veins like cracks in old china. A different kind of “seeing” of course, but in some pictures you see things that bare vision, not mediated through a lens, probably bypasses. I remember your look in a childhood picture–yours only. I too was in that picture, but I was looking down.

When I was little, I had dragonfly hair clips in some pastel shade. Not red or turquoise. This was my first contact with dragonflies, whereas your first contact with snakes took place at the reptile museum of a zoo. I retained something different from that visit–it must have been the same, because how many snake museums could we have been taken to as kids? (“Many,” I can hear you answer sarcastically.) I mostly remember the cockroach I saw in the glass case where the snake was locked. You insisted it was his food, whereas I took it as proof of the museum’s filth and of the miserable existence of its exhibits.

Red and blue-green. There were usually at least two, and we always saw them near the spring, or, more precisely, in the hollow part of the rock that held water–I don’t know how, since it was summer. And thanks to them we could exchange a couple of words when we met again on the beach. “Did you see them today?” “I only saw one.” “The red one or the blue?” Or even without a pretext: “I think they are a couple.”


That summer we went on holiday together, something we had always avoided in the past. Two persons whose feelings are mutual do not necessarily make choices that are mutually understood. And this applies to people and other things: who did you decide to get married to, and who did I (except that I figured that one out early on) or what did you do with your degrees, and what did I–even though, on the professional front, it is always easier to blame the circumstances or the lack of connections. It did occur to me, of course, and you must have thought so too, that this vacation would be the right moment and the right place, far away from home, for us to put an end to it, this time for good.

The advertisement only mentioned the ground floor, but the owner agreed to give us the upstairs flat too, which she normally kept for herself. With its small bedroom and a kitchen that also fit a sofa, it was all Roxanne and I needed. The ground floor and the backyard would be left to you, with the larger family. From both upstairs and downstairs we could see the sea and a part of the mountain, the latter tied with the grey ribbon of the road. The owner, an Athenian, knew the island well, as she had vacationed there since her youth. She was probably older than us by at least a decade but still youthful, and her grey, unruly curls gave her, at least in my eyes, an air of independence and superiority. Some photos from exotic trips on the walls further reinforced the impression of somebody who, as they say, has found her way, and that way has taken her a little further. She had chosen an ideal place to build: in the wilderness, at the top of the bald mountain, over an isolated little bay. With the exception of a couple of tacky villas (one with a swimming pool visible from the upstairs flat) whose crass proprietors were luckily absent, there was no obstacle to the eye. By the path that started beneath the house, it took half an hour to get to a sea that could only be reached by a few brave hikers and which was inaccessible to cars.

We would descend to the beach each one in turn or in small groups, maintaining a certain independence. First, Eleni with the two youngest kids, who were early risers, to secure the only shady place. You would wait for the sun to get high in the sky, supposedly in order to encourage your daughter Phoebe, who was a teenager, to follow you for a swim. And I would be the last one. I had to go to Chora to get groceries or I needed to make some preparations for the evening meal for the six of us. In order to give the two of you some privacy? In reality, because I did not want to be left alone on the beach with Eleni. No, she had no suspicions–she never could have suspected me. And, yes, lying did bother me, especially since I was, or rather we both were, above all suspicion.


Due to a two-year immersion in French culture in your youth, you had right from the start resorted to Aragon and his “mentir-vrai.” “Mentir-vrai” in our case meant lying to the others in order to protect a precious truth. To avoid lying, we would have been obliged to deny it, and lie to ourselves. Either way, lying had an important part in all this, the only issue being which type of lying was preferable. You had such a good grasp of the theory, that it was impossible for me not to think–suspicion has been instilled in me by our middle-class upbringing–that, despite the immaculate facade of your marriage, you probably had been economical with the truth on previous occasions too. I regretted not having been able to win Eleni’s confidence, in order to hear, directly from her, a different version.


At night, the two of us sat on the side overlooking the mountain. The mosquitoes and the various other insects that gathered on the door screen gave us an excuse to switch off the lights. Not that we did anything. At best, you’d hold my hand for a bit. Holding hands could be enough. When you were young, you had been playing the cello and knew exactly how to manipulate an instrument with hard strings. You said that once, I remember perfectly at which moment. Sexually, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and not because it was forbidden. I do not know what made it necessary, why admiration and love–the brotherly type–did not suffice. It had never sufficed–we’d known it since we were kids. Since the time I would hide at night in your bed and lie on top of you, pretending you were my body that had managed to escape. Once we overheard Mum give Dad the only explanation she had devised on her own or with the help of some specialist: this morbid adoration for your younger sister perhaps concealed a latent homosexuality. How we had laughed! It must have been a little before the summer this was supposed to happen–which in fact happened only thirty years later.

Such secrets are supposed to give strength, as you get access to a second life that no one suspects. But it was not just that, and neither was it because it started at a point when I had not seen my period for months. There was, therefore, no risk of producing offspring that would be genetically compromised. Now, why was it sinful? Biologically, we had both done our duty, especially you, who had produced two children. I did not want to take you from your wife, let alone from your children. Even if Eleni envied such a bond–what was it that you had to tell me? she must have been wondering–this was far better than seeing you glued to your phone, not knowing who was the sender or the receiver of all these messages that so much absorbed you, but being sure it was a single person, always the same.

I learned this only afterwards: female dragonflies lay their eggs in the water, and that is why their nymphs are called “naiads.” They spend most of their lives under water. The naiad stage lasts for years, three or even four for certain species. Whereas, after its transformation, a dragonfly will live for a couple of months at most. You understand what I mean by this metaphor.

This could go on forever–a situation incubating for years until we both went through a transformation at the age of fifty. Having a few, infrequent encounters, whenever the conditions would permit. For the time being, taking advantage of your wife’s business trips. And in the future–you wanted to believe–enjoying somewhat longer absences that would always have to be justified. It could go on forever or we could try to put an end to it. Was there any difference between a separation that would not last, and a sequence of rare encounters followed by painful breakups? On moonless and moonlit nights in the backyard overlooking the mountain, the conclusion we would draw was that there was no difference whatsoever.


One night we heard a car come up to the house. The gate at the road was always left open, even though at this time there was not a soul in sight. An old Fiat parked next to the pruned vineyard that doubled as a fence, and from it emerged the proprietor. She had told us she would stay with friends in the neighboring village for as long as we rented her house, but we had never bumped into her at the sea or in Chora. She probably got scared when she suddenly distinguished us behind the curtain formed by the towels hung to dry. However, instead of apologizing for having shown up at such a late time, she nearly scolded us:

“Why are you sitting in the dark?”

“There is moonlight,” we protested.

“I always tell my kids to switch on the lights when they sit with friends in the yard.”

She did not explain why we needed to turn on the lights. Even though it was us who had seen her first, it did occur to me that perhaps something had caught her eye, which enabled her to guess. She was now trying to tell us, implicitly but quite unambiguously, that she did not want this kind of thing in her house. “No way,” you reassured me. In the end, I admitted that my own scenario was probably far-fetched.


Playing the watchdog and the explorer, we had both verified, from the upstairs as well as the downstairs windows, the areas near the path where we could not be seen. This could not be done at home, even when everyone was out. It had never been done in our place in Athens, in the bed you shared every night with Eleni or the one I now rarely shared with Roxanne, if she happened to wake up from a nightmare. On the island, despite our being so close, opportunities rarely occurred, and we were obliged to take numerous precautions. But there are also times when one feels invincible.

It happened one morning when Eleni and the kids had gone down to the beach–one of the rare times that Phoebe’s teenage laziness had not prevailed. We could see them from high up and that reassured me: Eleni’s orange-and-red towel, Phoebe’s turquoise towel, and the half-inflated dolphin that was daily taken up and down the slope, and that the younger ones had by now learned to share. We could see them but they could not see us–that had been confirmed. Besides, we were not engaging in orgies. Walking down the path, we had stopped to admire the cicada shells on the trunk of an olive tree. Honey-colored, caramel-like, they were embossed with the anatomical details of the insect that came out of them, ready to fly. In addition to these ornaments on its trunk, this particular olive tree was a good one because its foliage was very dense. And all around, there were a number of olive trees with dense foliage.


We were still lying under the olive tree when we heard your phone. For a moment we didn’t know if it was better to answer it or not. It took you some time to locate it in the clothes that had been thrown around, and you missed the call. But it wasn’t from Eleni or Phoebe. A minute later you received a message: “Attention! Snake on the trail!” You had not included it in the contacts, but I thought I recognized the mobile number of the owner of the house.

With butterflies in our stomachs, we went down the trail, but of course there was no snake to be seen. The flirty dragonflies that we spotted daily were for the first time missing. Down at the beach, Eleni took us aside. She didn’t want Phoebe to overhear, as it would do no good. She had received the same message, and in fact ahead of us. She confirmed it was from the proprietor. “You were late, but I decided to wait for you. I didn’t want to walk on the path alone with the kids.” You tried to reassure her. “We are on an island, snakes do occasionally show up. Most of them are harmless, if you don’t bother them.” We had to be careful, but avoid hysteria. You imitated Phoebe’s voice: “A snake; and you force us to come down to the beach?” We all started to laugh.


If it was true that Eleni had nothing to do with this, what were the proprietor’s intentions? Had she really tried to protect us? Given the circumstances, the warning about the snake could almost be considered a Freudian joke. But if she did see us, so could somebody else. It would have been enough to distinguish some color through the tree foliage; your red t-shirt or my turquoise one. We had no camouflage.

With a calm deliberation I almost admired, you called her number. What was this snake story? There were snakes on the island–hadn’t we been aware of this? She had seen it with her own eyes at the point where our path crossed with another that led through the mountain to Chora. “A big snake, maybe even a meter long. It was near the rock where in the winter there is a water fountain.” We have only seen dragonflies there, you said to her. “But haven’t you heard what they say about dragonflies?” she asked.

In some traditions, dragonflies are associated with snakes. They are called “snake doctors” and are believed to follow snakes, so as to sew them up if they get injured. That is why, if you see a dragonfly, the snake will never be far off.


During our stay on the island, we never saw a snake. Nor did we ever find out if the proprietor had discovered anything that morning. If we were the only snakes, and she the dragonfly that had come to our rescue.

A few days later, the kids found a snake skin on the asphalt and they collected it with enthusiasm, believing it to be a rare find that can bring luck. The colors, a dirty beige and a matte grey, were dim, and the patterns were almost indistinguishable under the darker and more dense tire tracks. It did maintain nonetheless certain patches with a pearl-like sheen. I remember it being thrown at one end of the courtyard, because despite its magical dimension, no one wanted to bring it into the house. The initial excitement quickly faded when we noticed that it attracted flies. It was most likely not a real snake skin, but the remains of a snake that had been run over some time ago and was still decomposing. This half-finished snake that we left behind has, of course, nothing to do with what happened to the two of us. It was our last summer, it’s been a long while since. So long, that I can now remember it almost without regret. Above all, I remember the dragonflies, and that it had been good that time under the olive trees.


Dimitra Kolliakou

Dimitra Kolliakou (b. 1968) grew up in Athens. She studied classics at the University of Athens (NKUA) and obtained a PhD in linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. She taught linguistics at Newcastle University in the UK from 1995 to 2010, and lived in various places in Europe before settling in Paris. She has written novels, short stories and novellas. She won the Athens Prize for Literature and the National Academy of Greece award for her second novel Θερμοκρασία δωματίου (Room Temperature; Patakis Publishers, 2007), and the Short Story State Literary Award and the Anagnostis literary prize in 2019 for Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων (Insect Alphabet; Patakis Publishers, 2018). Some of her short stories have been translated into English, French, and Chinese.

Dimitra Kolliakou

From Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων. Copyright (c) Dimitra Kolliakou, 2018. English translation copyright (c) Dimitra Kolliakou, 2020.