A Summer’s Portal by Mary Earnshaw

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Mary Earnshaw began writing for a living – about telecommunications and electronic ‘defense’ – as European Editor for an American publishing group. When a subsequent business career grew too stressful she set up a small academic publishing house but now writes full time, freelance and creatively. Her recent poetry, short stories or creative non-fiction may be found in Black Bough Poetry’s two Deep Time anthologies, Dream Catcher, Orbis, The Broken Spine Artist Collective and the inaugural issue of Spelt.

A pot of scented geraniums sits by my feet, waiting for me to rub one of its fuzzy leaves between finger and thumb to release its perfumed, short-lived essence. Clouds from the west have overcast the sun. But I’m opening all channels, hoping to receive a signal.

Waiting for summer to speak to me.

It does.

With a soft thrum, a muted rasp, a dragonfly buzzes me, repeatedly.

Skipping airport queues and a ten hour flight, without purchasing a visa or changing pounds for kwacha, I’m back in a place I love. A place that often leaves me battered – and always bruised. Bitten by tsetse flies and mosquitoes. Exhausted, but replete with amazing experiences. Sometimes magical.

Since 1993 I’ve spent many a summer interlude in Zambia, in south central Africa. Every year as soon as the undergraduate year ends (except in these times of pandemic), a seasonal migration takes my husband there to excavate remote sites for evidence of human evolution. He’s usually away for anywhere between six and twelve weeks. I do my best to join him for at least two, often more.

One of the cornerstones of these trips is a place we stay on the outer edge of the capital, Lusaka.

Not a traditional hotel, Pioneer Camp is well outside the diesel-fumed, traffic-clogged streets of the city itself, reached after much jolting down a dusty dirt road. There we stay in whatever we manage to book. A tent. A dark room in a shared block. Or an airy chalet in the grounds, surrounded by parched grass and lemon trees.

But it’s the bar that is a highlight of our stay.

A large thatched structure, open at both ends for the tropical warmth, but chilly enough in in July and August to warrant charcoal burners – ‘mbaulas’ in one of the many local languages.

It’s not summer in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter. Well before six o’clock the sun makes a very hasty exit. Warmth rapidly turns cold and the Milky Way, in all its countlessness, pinpricks the sky.

If the moon appears there’s a rabbit waiting where our northern man in the moon would be – and the constellation of the Southern Cross confirms what we already know, we’re south of the equator.

But back to charcoal burners. To heavy wooden furniture with plump cotton cushions. To Jack Russell dogs seeking treats. And to humans relishing large glasses of red South African wine or bottles of Mosi oa Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’, Victoria Falls) beer.

We nicknamed this The Intergalactic Bar (after Star Wars) years ago. Not because it’s full of little green creatures or intelligent beings with long trunks and squeaky voices. But for its curiousness. And my nosiness.

One night I might spot a millionaire from Germany with piercing blue eyes, the like of which I’ve never seen before – and imagine him an assassin. Another night, another glass of red in hand and I’m listening to the soft lilting voice of a young man who’s spent months living with baboons – for research.

Hunters, missionaries, philanthropists, teachers, adventurers all pass through. And tonight, it’s a dragonfly expert.

I’ll be honest, I almost avoided him. But I’d run out of other interesting folk after the Italian woman who could imitate a singing lemur left for bed.

For some reason his calm, unassertive, slightly hirsute appearance– and the American drawl – had me pigeonhole him as a missionary for an evangelical church. I was wrong.

As he spoke I became entranced. He took me on a journey, a flight across the USA, following a dragonfly with a miniature transmitter attached to its back.

But the real enchantment was reserved for the last few minutes, before our cups of wine ran dry and I headed for dream world under its spell.

I flew with a cloud of dragonflies high above the earth. Myriad living rainbows only a god, high-flying jet, or astronaut in a space station might see.

The days had grown dry. And drier. And drier. Until our sources of water ran out and we left our Indian home.

Beating our wings in a mighty thrumming, we reached for the sky and carried on reaching. Tracking our life-giving prey across the Indian Ocean. Seeking monsoons, thousands of miles away.

Dragonflies. Magic.

Summer. Winter.

All in my head.

Except for that one, winged creature buzzing my shoulders as I sat on a wooden bench in my little back garden.

Now that dark dragonfly beats its wings, dances its elusive solo over our small steel bowl of water and weed, where a single, perfect waterlily unfurls, as the sun reappears.

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