The days are getting longer and I am suddenly thinking about her again, harbinger of Spring and Summer that her species is. I killed her last October. Not intentionally, but in the end it hardly mattered the deed was done.
The cool days and nights of Fall had just begun to revive my outdoor red and yellow Hibiscus trees, beaten and bested by four months of brutally hot and humid weather. Over the Summer an infestation of thousands of tiny white flies had colonized the undersides of their leaves, transforming their thick, lustrous surfaces, once dense with chlorophyll, into yellowed, tissue-thin shades against the burning sun.
The prior year’s visitation of beauteous bumblebees and butterflies, attracted by a bounty of flowering plants draped over the iron railing off our living room terrace – a kind of natural theatre scrim – was a distant memory. The heat had even chased away the hummingbirds, whose memories of the previous Summer’s supply of nectar were dashed on discovering their favored Hibiscus blooms had been drenched with insecticide, rendering their sweet potion undrinkable. Flying in to investigate, a ruby-throated one would flit from forlorn flower to forlorn flower, hovering in confusion before taking off, thirsty, across the Kentucky fields. Conscious of the ills of pesticides I’d made every effort to honor the organic route to pest control, my costly concoction of cinnamon and rosemary oils accomplishing nothing in the end.
Come mid-Summer my Hibiscus, Gardenias and Oleanders were under full siege, and I reluctantly engaged the potency of inorganic insecticide. Failing to identify whatever karmic purpose there might have been in allowing the plants to die, which I was convinced they would have done if I didn’t take action, I spent a small fortune on sprays trying to keep them alive. In truth, the more I sprayed, the more flies arrived, until I, too, bested by a flying insect so small I could hardly make out its shape, decided to throw in the towel.
Yet even mangy dogs are revivable and I remained hopeful that wintering the plants in the cool downstairs bedroom would breathe new life into their bedraggled branches come a new Spring. But I wasn’t naive enough to believe that Autumn’s chill had completely done in whatever white fly eggs remained, and in a moment of puckish revenge I grabbed my still half-filled bottle of poison and headed out to the terrace for one last satisfying assault on the nasty white menace that had ruined my Summer’s pleasure.
I started at the top of my two Pink Oleanders, each of which were over 6 feet, watching as the milky white substance collected in beads all along their long slender leaves, dripping down onto the next tier like a waterfall, and then the next and the next, until the plants were fairly soaked in a sticky pungent potion. A cascade of droplets ran down the center stalks into the soil, which I knew harbored innumerable and invisible white fly eggs. I gripped the sprayer and moistened every last visible inch of soil.
I stood there in the cold night air, the door to the living room open behind me, my husband sitting on the couch simultaneously working on his laptop and watching television, wondering whether they would be dry enough to bring indoors before I went to bed.
“Can you close the door? It’s cold.” he said.
“Oh my God, Oh No! God Dammit! What have I done?”
“What happened?” called my husband from inside.
“Oh my God, I’ve poisoned her. I’ve sprayed her. What do I do? I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.”
My husband’s tall frame appeared behind me in the doorway, blocking out the living room light.
“Move! I can’t see! Dammit it!” I scream.
“What? What? What’s happened?” he asked.
“I didn’t see her. I swear I didn’t. I was so wrapped up in spraying, I didn’t see her!”
“See what? See who? What are you talking about?” he asked again.
“A Praying Mantis. Right there! Look! She’s lying on her side covered in insecticide now, thanks to me. I haven’t seen one in so long…it’s been so hot…and now it’s October and I thought they’d all be gone…I thought they’d all laid their eggs by now and died, and so I thought it was safe to spray and try to save these trees and damn it, now I’ve killed one of them.”
I felt sick. We stood there side-by-side watching a beautiful five-inch long bright green female Praying Mantis writhe on her side, her long clawed forelegs rubbing her protruding and bright green eyes over and over again. She struggled to unfurl her wings, which were now virtually stuck together, clearly pregnant with eggs, the rear tip of her abdomen slightly buried in the soil in the planter nearest to the kitchen window. My stomach turned.
“What if she was just getting ready to lay her eggs? They do that in the soil sometimes, but I thought it was too close to the first frost, which is probably tonight or tomorrow or the next day and too late for one to be laying its eggs. Oh, God…”
I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a spray bottle I used to mist my Gardenias, ran back outside, stooped down next to the planter and sprayed her gently.
“What are you doing?” my husband asked.
“Rinsing her off. Maybe I can dilute the insecticide. Maybe there’s a chance.”
“If you don’t drown her first,” he said. “Why don’t you just leave her alone for awhile?”
“Because it’s almost freezing. She’ll freeze if I leave her like this. She can’t take cover anywhere. She can’t fly. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, for sure she’ll freeze now because you’ve drowned her in water…and you probably didn’t poison her. She’s probably at the end of her life cycle and was dying anyway,” my husband offered, backtracking from the comment about drowning her.
“How do you know? I’ve killed her. I wasn’t paying attention and I killed her. I poisoned one of my favorite garden creatures. It’s a sign.”
“That I’ve lost my mind. That Kentucky sucks. That you’re not supposed to be working here. We bring Gatsby here, he’s allergic to Kentucky, he gets sick and he dies. Then I become allergic to mold and need allergy shots. Now I’m killing Praying Mantises. It’s a sign.”
“Leave her alone. Come inside. Let’s see what happens. They’re pretty hardy,” he said. As he closed the door behind us, I imagined him displaying what my stepson would have called a five-star eye roll.
I lay down on the couch with my hand over my forehead like Greta Garbo in Camille. A beautiful Praying Mantis was outside dying because of me and I was practically catatonic. My husband went outside and came back in, his palms cupped together in front of him.
“Where do you want me to put her?” he asked.
“In the Orchid pot. You picked her up? Put her in the Orchid pot. How did you pick her up?”
“What do you mean how did I pick her up? I picked her up between my thumb and forefinger.” I stared at him.
“What if she hates Orchids?” I said. He stared at me.
Then he carefully put her in the pot on her side because she could not seem to right herself, kissed me goodnight and went upstairs to bed. I stayed there, stooped down by her side, for an absurdly long time, guilty, wondering if she was hungry, not being able to imagine myself catching flies for her to eat, picturing her ultimate death.
I have always been obsessed with dead creatures. As a child whenever I would come across a dead animal on the road I would stop and imagine what it had looked like when it was alive, try to figure out how old it was, wondering whether it had been a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, whether it had just gone out for a snack, or a drink, a little philandering perhaps, or an afternoon stroll before being broadsided by a car (usually), try to imagine the moments before it died and why it hadn’t chosen an alternate, perhaps safer, route…and the worst of it, I would wonder whether any of its kin knew that it was missing, or would have cared to discover that it was lying in the middle of the road, swarming with black desert ants, cold, abandoned, lifeless…dead.
The last time I had been present to death was when my mother died in 2004. While the differences are of course enormous, I had in fact anticipated the death of my mother and had thought about that inevitability quite often ever since my father died when I was five. There is the expectation of significant grace in the death of a loved one – being there when it happens, or shortly thereafter, comforted by the knowledge that, hopefully, the person we care about did not die all alone without anyone having borne witness to their effort to leave this world and go wherever it is we want to believe they go.
But with wild creatures it is an altogether much colder and lonely affair. The birds sing me awake in the morning and announce the end of the day as the sun sets. I don’t think about whether they will make it to the next day. The coyotes howl in the field across the street when they have killed something in the early hours of the morning. I picture the family whole and healthy, the pups snoozing during the day and playing with Mom at night. I don’t think that one of them might saunter off onto the highway to meet the grille of a hulking Peterbilt. But I know that this is exactly what happens, because I often see such creatures by the roadside, having met their fate at the hands of some random rig, tossed to the side of the highway by the impact and left to be wondered about, or not, by the family and friends and lovers and enemies they left behind.
Yet the Praying Mantises who have visited my terrace garden in Kentucky fall into quite another category. Mystical creatures they have always been to me, their visits something to which I look forward and always an odd source of comfort. They keep bug populations in check, allowing for a healthy garden environment, and when they show up in Summer it is a sign that that they feel at home and secure in my garden, that I am doing something right. It is as though they like it there and want to help me.
Watching one of my magical flying friends suffer at my hand was like telling her entire extended family that my garden was no longer a safe harbor and not to bother coming around anymore. She was motionless, and when I touched her back with my forefinger she tried to rear up onto her hind legs but fell forward again, her forelegs covering her eyes, and since my own eyes were closing, as much from sorrow as from exhaustion, I turned out the lights and went upstairs to bed.
When I came downstairs in the morning I was horrified to discover that she had hurled herself over the side of the Orchid pot – perhaps in a suicidal bid to get away from the madwoman who was torturing her – and was lying on her back on the coffee table, one wing curled under her slowly dehydrating body. I slid a piece of paper beneath her and put her back in the pot, closer to the center so that she couldn’t get into any more trouble. As the day went on the situation and monologue in my head became ever more ludicrous. Clearly she was going to die. She couldn’t capture dinner, she couldn’t fly away, and she wasn’t going to get any better. I moved her out of the sun so she wouldn’t get too hot. I turned up the thermostat so she wouldn’t get too cold. I debated taking her outside again, back to nature, but felt that would have been cruel, as though I would have been washing my hands of that which I had screwed up but was now powerless to fix. ‘This is my fault,’ I thought, “and whatever happens I have to see it through to the end.’ I had been possessed by the spirit of a Praying Mantis.
Watching her die became like a child’s science project. As the day went by her body began to gradually lose its deep green evanescence, becoming a faded bark-colored greenish-brown. Her once luminous pea green eyes lost their translucence and turned opaque, her wings outstretched but lifeless on the soil. When I touched her back she barely responded. I remembered sticking pins through dead butterflies and displaying them against tin foil in science class in grade school. I wondered what to do with her carcass when the time came. I imagined her slowly turning into a piece of petrified wood permanently decorating my Orchid pot. I could tell people I made her myself. They would be in awe of my carving skills and my precision with a paint brush. I chicken-heartedly wished I wouldn’t be there when she died. The next day I had to drive to Virginia and I hoped she would find peace after I hit the road. If I never said anything about it again, I felt sure my husband would forget about her entirely in my absence, and I thought, ‘I’ll figure out what to do with her body when I get back.’
I waited for my husband to leave before I went downstairs the next morning. Despite my wish for a postponement, I knew she would probably have taken her last breath during the night. But to my considerable and stunned surprise, there was no dying Praying Mantis in my Orchid Pot. I looked everywhere downstairs, on the floor, behind the sofa, on the carpet, within the folds of the Orchid leaves, but she was gone. Gone! Every last trace of her had utterly and completely vanished. I imagined her being eaten by a mouse in the middle of the night. But we had no mice. I imagined four Praying Mantis Angels sneaking in and bearing her aloft and out an air vent somehow. It was absurd, the power this Mantis had over my emotions. I had to force my mind to stop free-associating wildly.
I sat down on the couch and looked at the empty pot, and smiled. Like the truly mystical creature and lady that she was, she had died gracefully and even spared me having to figure out what to do with her body.
I have no idea what happened to my Praying Mantis of October 2012, and I never will. But I look forward to giving my Mantises of 2013, which I am absolutely certain will give me another chance, an entirely organic shelter from the climactic vicissitudes of Summer.
And I promise never to bring one indoors again.