Perfect Kill

Caroline Sutton

Dragonflies are like Waze. They predict. They don’t chase after mosquitoes, they intercept them, which means they have to calculate the mosquito’s distance, speed, and trajectory. Dragonflies perform these calculations in milliseconds, far faster than Waze, which always takes agonizing seconds to load as it computes the route, average speed of drivers, and quagmires that might await. Waze sometimes goes berserk, once telling me to pull a U-turn on the Long Island Expressway when it’s lucky I knew better.

Dragonflies’ calculations are more precise. They dart after flies and mosquitoes with a successful kill rate of 95% and rarely stop. They grab, decapitate, de-wing, and devour in flight. They may copulate aloft, male grabbing female, then zoom without pause after the next hapless mosquito. Their four wings can flutter independently in any direction, a complex choreography that lets the dragonfly rise, fall, or skim side to side like a helicopter, and with less expenditure of energy than a fly whose wings beat 1,000 times per second, compared to the dragonfly’s 30. Still, dragonflies need to eat all the time, sometimes consuming hundreds of mosquitoes in the course of a day, zigzagging here and there along shorelines and gardens at speeds up to thirty miles an hour.

Articulating an ice hockey version of dragonfly tactics, Wayne Gretsky advised, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” This comment has appeared in millions of PowerPoints in businesses across America as a call for innovation. The dragonfly’s success rate sets a high standard. Maybe an Amazon warehouse with its swift conveyor belts, precision-wired robots, and humans standing ten hours packing single-item boxes wins out. The company is seeking perfect efficiency and it’s making a lot of people nervous, but soon those jobs will be gone, replaced by the robots and assorted AI. We rarely see where the puck is going.

I don’t know if perfection exists in nature, or how we would recognize it if it did. A buttery daffodil with a flaring trumpet at the center of a spiral of petals looks perfect to me, but so might another that is smaller, white, dotted with orange at the heart, so which is it, or both? We don’t have an absolute paradigm against which to measure a daffodil—or dog, man, or woman—though for centuries we have conceived models of aesthetic perfection, human and divine: Poseidon poised to hurl his trident, left hand deftly raised in the direction of flight, right arm back and eternally cocked. Or the Nike of Samothrace leaning into the wind with her marble dress rippling like water and wings flung back in honor of some sea battle in which humans have long been forgotten. Or David, the giant killer, with his alert eyes and crown of curls.

When my son was about two, I still looked at him with the glazed eyes of a new mother enthralled with the beauty of her first child, his honey hair and deep brown eyes. One afternoon we headed to Riverside Park in Manhattan, he on his little motorbike propelled by pumping his sturdy legs and pushing off on the sidewalk with his Keds. Once off the streets, he sailed ahead and within seconds slammed into a girl on a mini two-wheeler, the impact sending him headfirst over his bike and jaw-first onto cement. I raced over and picked him up, blood streaming from his mouth. I didn’t dare look but turned abruptly with him in my arms, chin on my shoulder, and hustled back to the street. Once in a cab I slowly peeked at his blood-spattered face and saw he had broken his two front teeth, one straight across, the other at an angle. About half of each tooth remained. When the steady dentist ascertained that they wouldn’t fall out, he said I could have the teeth repaired. I demurred, shaken by the tragedy. As if through water I heard the dentist concede that they were, of course, baby teeth. Of course? We would have to wait four years, five, and all that time my child would be marred. I had created a perfect being and now the world was beginning to interfere, chip away at snowy teeth, carve unmapped skin and unscarred knees. In subsequent years he would get gravel in his shins, break his wrists twice, suffer pernicious ingrown toenails, develop an overbite, get pimples. But that afternoon I went home and discussed the idea with my husband, who was more worried about the loss of my mind than a tooth. I sighed and conceded. It became one of those flaws that lends character, one could say.

The Greeks knew not to conflate aesthetic and moral perfection; their gods often behaved in scurrilous ways, subject to fits of emotion. But in the Old Testament, Moses made a staggering claim about God and his creation: “He is the Rock, his work is perfect.” How can anyone make such an assertion unless their definition of perfection includes imperfection, ranging from a child’s inconsequential tooth to hunger, greed, and slaughter? But the biblical passage gives an odd justification: “for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” All His actions are law, and that law based on opinion, which is certainly relative, but relative to a divine being who is believed to be perfect. In Deuteronomy Moses leaves no room for skepticism, trusting the opinion, or law, because God is always fair and correct, which is ad hominem reasoning if we can apply such a term to God. Alternatively, judgment can mean a calamity or punishment sent by God. Rather than being perfect, we are the objects of divine punishment, which he is just and correct to inflict, and for what? Perhaps our moral imperfection.

There is a possible contradiction here of two truths, a disconnect between intention and outcome. “Between the conception / And the creation / […] Falls the Shadow,” as T.S. Eliot wrote. Like one of those drowning humans watching Noah’s ark float by, I find myself clinging to a splinter of wood, still believing in the purity and possibility of creation in its most mundane and quotidian iterations. As such, the most perfect element in my life today is my daughter’s pregnancy. I’m weathered enough to know she will not have a perfect child, that fractures, anger, rebellion, and tenderness mark the highway ahead like sundry billboards and neon motels, scarlet sirens whirling at accidents, slivers of the moon through an opening in the hills. It is the concept of this pregnancy, the idea that life is being created, another generation in the making, that alone seems emblematic of a paradigm that exists among any surviving species on the globe, and in it lies perfection, the natural order to which I’m witness and a part. What feeds the abstraction, oddly, is my wonder at what is physically occurring at any given moment in my daughter’s body: the formation of 100 new brain cells each minute while the heart flutters 150 times, the sprouting of tiny fingers that will soon hold hers, and then another’s, the sounds of my daughter’s heartbeat of which this fetus knows nothing—but is listening. These tangibles construct and confirm the idea of more life, more energy, a fundamental form of perfection, even as my daughter vomits, bites her lip to keep down a saltine, drags herself from bed wondering what alien being has invaded, how she could have two hearts, if her life as she knows it is gone forever.

Approximately 300 million years ago, when the earth’s atmosphere had more oxygen than it does now, giant dragonflies buzzed around with wingspans of two and a half feet, taking out other dragonflies, mayflies, sixteen-inch reptiles called Petrolacosaurus, and amphibians. Today’s descendants have the same extraordinary eyesight, which along with their flight agility, makes them near-perfect hunters. Dragonflies can see 360 degrees. Eyes encircle their entire head like a helmet, with 30,000 facets feeding eight neurons that deliver all these images to the brain. By way of comparison, a fly, also a vigilant creature, has 6,000 facets. Dragonflies detect light in the same spectrum we do, plus UV and light polarization, which helps cut glare over water. Perhaps more incredible, a dragonfly can frame points of interest and literally block out the rest, like looking through the scope of a semi-automatic to zero in on a target and hone the precision of attack. 

One late August evening I walked to a beach on Peconic Bay to see the sunset as I might on any day. I was startled to see a perfect globe, as if drawn with a fine pen, staring directly at me with ochre orange calm, while over the water it shed millions of flickering glints signaling faster than I could measure, sparking and darkening as the water trembled. At the edge of the beach, backlit by the sun, were scores of dragonflies swirling and diving and rising in what struck me as a mating dance—but was, in fact, a kill. A swarm of insects had just hatched and the dragonflies were dancing, eating, devouring in what I felt to be the counterpart of my daughter’s creation of life. Here was perfect death. Sunset and all.

The next afternoon I was reading by a pool when I looked down beside my chair and mere inches from my foot, making its way through unruly spears of grass, was a huge black spider with a thick abdomen and hairy, arching legs, the largest I’d ever seen. I was horrified. What would I do with it? Weirder still, once it made its way to the bluestone, I saw that six inches behind and seemingly attached to the spider’s single filament was a half-inch black insect with wings and a curved abdomen like a hornet. The two, spider ahead, insect following, made straight for the pool. A few inches from water, the black-winged hornet pounced and the spider went dead still, stunned. I waited seconds, minutes. The predator stabbed at the spider, eating it, I thought, and my sympathies turned. Poor spider. I crept closer to look and suddenly the spider flipped over and made a dash for the pool, the hornet running after, both tumbling over the edge and landing in the water where the battle continued. By now I felt too sorry for the spider and ran to get a skimmer to lift out the battling pair and put them on even ground. When I returned they were nowhere in sight. I saw no bodies, the water was clear. Suddenly over the lip of the pool the hornet appeared, dragging the spider, which did not move. At this point I could predict nothing, it was all new. The spider had turned ashy gray and lay on its back while the hornet covered its curled body with its own. As I looked more closely, the hornet spooked and took off, abandoning the spider on the bluestone. Should I flick it into the grass? Why did the hornet chase it down, stun it, heave it from the water just to leave it there? Some minutes later I looked and the hornet had returned, victorious, and dragged away the spoils of war. There was no trace on the quiet stone, as if nothing at all had happened. I was stunned. What had I witnessed? A vicious, prolonged, dramatic battle that shattered my notion of death as the closing parenthesis that balances the opening one, death as in any way perfect, for a fly, a spider, or me. An unpretty sight, morally indifferent. Reason says it must be; my heart balks.

Somewhere under the trees, perhaps nearby as I admire the sunlight and flickering monarchs over the grasslands, this tarantula hornet will lay an egg in the safe body of that spider, stunned and still not dead. The young will hatch to a bonanza of food. It will devour unvital organs first to keep the spider, its lifeline, alive until it flies off on its own, energized and empowered to kill and live.