The Elegant Undoing
By Amber Scott
The praying mantis turns its head. No, wait. The story doesn’t start there. The story starts with a black sky and distant stars and the orange glow of the light over our patio. The light envelops a small gecko on the outside of a window, its body rendered nearly translucent as it darts within the circle of light, gobbling up tiny bugs. I should be shepherding my daughters off to bed by now, but Madeleine, my 6-year-old reptile enthusiast, has had a rough day and the sight of the gecko has revived her spirit. “Can I try to catch the gecko?” she asks, and she might as well have been asking for permission to be happy. “Five minutes,” I tell her.
She bounds outside and I lurk near the back door, carefully, trying to remain hidden so she doesn’t know I’m watching her. And there. There is the smile I was waiting for. It comes as she tilts her head up, that particular determination shining in her brown eyes as she zeroes in on the now-still gecko. The line of her upturned mouth curls into her cheeks and it is the loveliest line I’ve ever seen because I know that it mirrors a certain peace within her, a contentment. That’s a rare smile these days now that school has started and we have found ourselves in the deep, unfathomable waters of first grade. Where Madeleine, with her isolating shyness and inability to pick up basic social cues, is having a hard time. It seems like every day brings a new story, something to puzzle over, to worry half to death, and today’s was buried deep into the lining of her pockets, so reluctant was she to pull it out. “I pushed and punched a boy. I had to defeat him,” she explains. Why, we ask, and all she can do is sigh. “I don’t know,” she says, and she truly doesn’t. It’s an itch, a nervous tic; it’s rain. She has no control. She gets a feeling and turns it into action, absent of thought. These things happen.
The only time I don’t worry about this kid is when she’s in her element, which is literally in the elements. When she is less Madeleine and more Other, or maybe exactly Madeleine, a wandering spirit among towering maples, the swirl of a river eddy, a little girl rustling through thick underbrush, scaling tall hills and flying down them on the other side. Every day is a new discovery: geckos, snakes, beetles, anoles, skinks, butterflies, moths, shiny rocks, leaves made remarkable by virtue of her simply noticing them. Her room is filled with mementos of a world she only visits but wishes she could live in forever. Containers filled with dirt and pebbles, bits of bone, long casings of shed snake- skin, shells, dry brown magnolia leaves, tangles of dried grass.
I watch her as she climbs up on the windowsill, movements so slow and measured that the gecko doesn’t seem to notice she’s there. Until it does. She darts up, hand outstretched, and the gecko scurries higher, just out of reach. Madeleine is disappointed, but still smiling.
And then, as she comes around to the back door to re-enter the house, I hear her exclaim. “Mom! Come see!”
I open the door and Madeleine is standing right near the porch mat, pointing to the side of the house. There, clinging to the weather-stripped paint, is a brown praying mantis. I step closer, and the praying mantis turns its head.
I’m stuck there because watching a praying mantis turn its head is an experience. Because they turn their heads and suddenly you feel unsettled. This bug knows more than I do, I thought. Bug. What a funny thing to call this creature. This is not a bug. It is a being. A sentient thing.
The praying mantis is still, and it is staring at us while we stare at it. I’ve seen green praying mantises before, but never brown like this one. It’s such a dull brown it looks like the husk of a healthier mantis now sleeping under a leaf or building an egg case. Half of one of its forelegs appears to be missing. This is concerning because a praying mantis needs its forelegs to hunt and eat its prey. “I think it’s hurt,” I tell Madeleine, pointing out the leg, and steel myself because I know what’s coming.
“We have to help it,” Madeleine says.
I knew she’d insist on it, and the words I’d prepared—we have to let nature take its course—fizzle on my tongue. We have to help it, she says, because of course we do. This is a truth I feel deep in my bones because if Madeleine has taught me anything at all, it’s that we are no better or worse than these weird little beings. To Madeleine, all things exist on an equal plane. To Madeleine, a cockroach is precious. So we’ll help the praying mantis if we can. Of course we will.
Once inside, though, it becomes clear that the praying mantis is not actually missing half of its leg. Instead, the bottom half of its leg is stuck folded and twisted in the “prayer” position. It doesn’t look like anything we can help. Google tells me that the praying mantis probably had a bad molt. I imagine the molting process, when the mantis starts to know, in the curious way that insects and animals know things, that it has grown out of its exoskeleton. Some ancient synapse fired and the mantis set about the arduous process of sup- porting its own growth. It seems like this should be easy, a no-brainer, but for this guy, something went wrong.
And now, plainly, it can’t hunt or eat, so it will die. That’s it! Its life is over prematurely because it was just going about what nature called for, following a script encoded in its DNA. And it just seems so achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, what nature can do to a thing. An entire being. It or me or you or any one thing in the universe.
But Google also tells me it’s possible to hand-feed a crippled praying mantis if one is so inclined. There is even a video demonstrating the process, and I show it to Madeleine. “So that’s an option,” I say to her. I wonder if I can convince my husband to do the feeding, but he is horrified when I try to explain it to him over the phone. “No way,” he says. I can practically see his shudder. “That’s disgusting!”
It is disgusting. I won’t do it either, I decide. But then I find myself watching this strange, mysterious insect inch its way up the habitat we’ve housed it in, reaching up for the overhead light. The habitat, a glass terrarium carefully landscaped with dirt, pebbles, plastic greenery, and even an underground tunnel, has been home to all kinds of wildlife. Two anoles, caught outside and returned to the yard after a few weeks; various house geckos, snared from around drainpipes and windows framing our home; click beetles captured after a trip to the park; and even two emperor hackberry caterpillars found during a walk—they cycled into chrysalises and butterflies in the duration of a week and were released the day they were hatched.
I wonder if the habitat feels even a little like home to the mantis, or if it can sense the various lives that have passed through the glass confines. The mantis hangs from the screen below the UVA light bulb casting white light into the tank. Its deformed leg wavers once in the air, as though to grasp at something, and stills. Again it turns its head to watch us watching it, and I think: maybe.
A day passes as I consider what to do with the mantis. I check on it, concerned with its suffering. Was it suffering? Should we have left it outside to let nature take its course? The mantis doesn’t move much, but when it does, its crippled leg sometimes gets stuck around the other leg, behind its head, in the foliage.
Madeleine, meanwhile, is carrying the weight of school and all its bewildering social interactions heavy on her shoulders. She yells and rails, shakes branches and coils and clenches her muscles like a snake tightening on its prey. She shrugs off concerned hugs and glances. Sometimes it feels like she would tear down the walls in furious rips if she could. The only smiles come when she is considering the weight of living things in her hands: the gently clasped anole, the snared gecko. The grasshoppers and katydids plucked from the grass in our backyard. And the mantis. “I’m going to name it Adorable Face,” Madeleine says, pressing her nose to the glass of the habitat, watching the slow, careful way it climbs.
And there is what convinced me to try feeding the little guy. All of it: its name, her smile-lit cheeks, and even the wall-rattling frustration that she lurches around the house like a medieval weapon. Because it’s achingly unfair, so unfailingly horrible, the ancient synapses that sometimes misfire in my daughter’s brain. Faced with an emotion that skews even slightly into negative territory, her coping mechanisms are all wrong. She turns feral, tamping down tears and literally baring her teeth, hissing and clawing at anyone near. And in those moments, her deep brown eyes go impossibly dark and sad and sparking with fear. Like she’s observing from somewhere inside while her body goes haywire, while bad thoughts and feelings hijack her actions. Later, the helpless sobs as she struggles to explain.
Helping Madeleine is hard. Teaching words for feelings, guiding her away from being afraid of those feelings, into accepting them. Into communicating. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But helping the mantis is easy. Food, water, shelter. So I tell Madeleine, against the pressing certainty that the mantis is going to die anyway, that we can try to feed it if she wants to help.
Madeleine retrieves a squirming, writhing cricket and hands it to me. I hold its lower body between two fingers, and it flails and flails. Madeleine braces the mantis gently in her hands and holds it out, brushing its head against the cricket’s waving antennae. And the mantis gets to work, mandibles tearing off legs and slurping them down with little fanfare. Its jaws find the cricket’s abdomen and begin pulling at the flesh, bit by bit. For a brief moment, I make myself watch, to see what Madeleine is now staring at with an incomprehensible look on her face. The inside of the cricket looks soft and white, pillowy even. The mantis pulls up tufts as it eats, maw working steadily. As gross as it is, there is also a strange grace to its ruthless chewing, head moving just so, legs attempting to do what is basic nature, reaching out to hook into the prey.
I only watch for a brief moment, and it’s too much—too much for the both of us. We shriek and groan and yuck and look away and our hands shake, but the mantis manages to get a little meal out of it. He doesn’t finish the poor cricket, so we return both to the habitat. The mantis crawls for a green branch and the cricket hobbles across the dirt, twitching feebly. I feel a strange mix of horror and fascination. It was disgust- ing, sure, but we also got to hold the essence of nature in our hands. We got to see it up close, in great detail. Like prying open the back of a clock to see how the gears turn. Beyond observing the existence of something, we were seeing its true function. We were watching the way of the world. Ugly and hard, oddly elegant and true.
Even still, when Madeleine decides that we did the right thing, and that we should make sure to feed the mantis every day, I am not so sure. My stomach churns at the thought, but I tell her I will think about it.
Madeleine strings together a few good days at school, and while we slog through our daily routines, the presence of the mantis weighs on me. I am loathe to let it go, knowing that it will certainly die, likely without ever leaving our backyard. I imagine finding it dead on the ground, or worse, Madeleine finding it dead on the ground. She’d bring it to me with her arm outstretched, face sad, and I’d be hard-pressed to know what to say to her. That’s what happens in nature sometimes, is the patented response, but it doesn’t seem enough in cases like this, when you’ve invested so much in something.
On the fourth day of mantis ownership, I know we have to make a decision, but the point becomes moot when I find the mantis lying at the bottom of the habitat, its pale brown body nestled into the dirt and leaves. It is not moving, and I feel a strange grief well in my chest, a dawning sense of dismay. I reach in to take the mantis out, and it moves just a little. And this is even worse, holding this small, dying creature. “Aw, no, little mantis,” I say to it, and its body twitches. This is awful, awful. Madeleine wanders in and wants to know what is wrong with it. “It’s dying,” I tell her, and she wants to know why. I remind her that we had known it would happen, but it doesn’t seem right somehow. It wasn’t supposed to die on our watch. We were the ones who would do right by it. We would make its life better by virtue of being in it. We had hoped.
As Madeleine gets closer, I hold out my open palm. The mantis’s body flicks in small, twitchy movements. And then, horror of horrors, a tiny white larva comes squirming out of the mantis’ abdomen. Another follows. And another.
And so many more. I drop the mantis with a small shriek and the husk of its body flits to the floor. The larvae scatter. “Are those its babies?” Madeleine wants to know, a hopeful note coloring her words.
And no. No. I wish. “A parasitic wasp must have laid eggs in the praying mantis,” I tell her. “Those are the baby wasps.”
We watch for a second, with revulsion on my part and mute fascination on Madeleine’s. She leans in for a closer look and so do I. Tiny black dots, muted and fuzzy around the edges, are visible just under the milk-glass bodies of each larva. Their brains? The whole of their nervous systems? They’re just so small, so non-wasp, it’s strange to imagine that full-fledged winged creatures would come from these things. What complicated potential rests in those little black spots! Whole lives crawling from the desiccated shell of our mantis. Nature is good at that, finding growth from death. Birthing a peculiar new kind of hope from the decay of an old one.
Still, I am sad for the mantis and eager to put the whole episode behind us. And so there is really no elegant ending to the story of the mantis. I sweep up its carcass and the larvae and toss them together into the backyard with a quick, unceremonious sweep of my hand. They will crumble into the dirt the way that nature unravels all dead things, and we’ll move on.
On the way back into the house, Madeleine’s head is bowed and her steps are slow. I brace myself for her reaction. This is a girl who wept when classmates at school smashed ants into the sidewalk near the playground. The same girl who can shrug when her snake eats a mouse: “It’s sad for the mouse, but good for the snake. It’s just part of nature,” she tells me while I worriedly monitor her reaction.
She still doesn’t speak, so I ask her if she’s okay. She considers the question and finally answers. “I wish we would’ve kept the baby wasps,” she says, her brown eyes as deep as the richest soil, like wet bark after rain and all the best bits of autumn. “Wouldn’t it be neat to watch them grow?”
I think of those larvae and the creatures they will become. No, it certainly wouldn’t be neat, I want to say, but looking down at my unfathomable daughter, I feel a rush of tenderness. For this girl who some days is sweet and some days not, but is always breathtaking, the very living wonder of discovery. What a strange, biting joy it is to be her mother.
And the answer is easy, then. “Yes,” I tell her, and I mean it with my whole heart.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Madeleine I have learned all sorts of beautiful, harrowing, and fascinating things about nature. And while I am probably better off not knowing about the giant water bug’s hunting and reproductive habits (for example), I am forever grateful to her for connecting me in a very immediate way to the stuff of life, from disturbing to amazing and everything in between, both in the natural world and within the walls of our home.
Amber Scott lives in Arlington, Texas, with her husband and two daughters. As an undergraduate, she was nominated for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Since then, her poetry has been published in local literary magazines. She is a communications writer and editor for the University of Texas at Arlington.
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