scholars and rogues

Nature's way. Her horrible, horrible way.

by Terry Hargrove
For the week after we found her, the female praying mantis in the mason jar provided us with great entertainment as we avoided the Big Galoot, our neighborhood bully. We fed her moths, lady bugs, crickets, and anything else we could catch that didn’t bite or have a stinger. When I suggested she might be getting fat, Glenn told me to shut up and get a bigger mason jar.

“Insects don’t get fat,” he instructed. “They get too much exercise. What would you do if you woke up every morning and wondered what was going to eat you that day? You’d run, wouldn’t you? Same with bugs. They run the fat off.”

“The World Book says that insects have their skeletons on the outside,” added Ray. “I don’t know how that can be, but that’s what it says. I guess when a grasshopper breaks his leg, he breaks it clean off.”

“All you’d need to be a bug doctor is a bottle of glue,” laughed Ray’s brother.

“A skeleton on the outside?” I asked. “That would mean her head was a skull.”

And it was a skull. A small, green, triangular, capable of spinning-360-degrees skull. That was so cool.

But in spite of the hours we spent pouring over mantid articles and photographs, we were still pretty stupid. We named her Queen Death, and though we fed her often, we were almost her undoing. I had grown weary of watching her devour small fluffy bugs, so I initiated a search for a proper challenger. Eventually, I found her a worthy adversary. Almost two inches long he was, and full of spit and vinegar. I dropped him into the

mason jar. As Queen Death warily eyed this interloper, my brother came out of the library.

“Well guess what I just read?” he asked. “It seems there is one insect that poses a serious threat to the mighty Queen Death. It said in a magazine that a big grasshopper can kill a praying mantis. Seems grasshoppers have these barbs on their back legs that can rip a mantis’s stomach wide open. We’d better not put any grasshoppers into her jar.”

“Would you be quiet please?” I said. “I’m trying to see Queen Death attack this grasshopper.”

It was quite a show, the second most fascinating thing I ever saw her do. The grasshopper and the mantid did a deadly waltz that lasted for almost ten minutes, before Queen Death hooked the grasshopper’s head in one claw and its thorax in the other, bent each part down, and feasted on whatever was between. I felt kind of bad for the grasshopper.

“Don’t be too worried about it,” Glenn said. “It’s Nature’s way.” Then he slapped me for putting dangerous things into her jar without his permission.

But we had our own dangers to worry about. The Big Galoot was always lurking, always just in sight. He didn’t know what we had in the mason jar, but he wanted to find out. I can see him even now, plucking garden spiders off their webs and letting them scurry over his hands and arms. When he rumbled in our direction like a May thundercloud, we ran away. I lost a lot of weight that summer.

But the greatest show of all happened on Saturday afternoon. My oldest sister Connie had just become old enough to date, and an overweight boy named Billy had

come to escort her to the Dixie Theatre, a walk of four blocks, for the afternoon matinee. She was getting ready, so we were left to entertain him. That meant showing him Queen Death. He studied her carefully for several minutes.

“She eats everything?” he asked.

“Everything,” said Glenn.

Then Billy made an audacious suggestion.

“You know what would be fun,” he said. “What would happen if you put another praying mantis in there with her? The little brown ones are everywhere. Let’s see if we can find one.”

We did. A note of caution here. You should probably send the kids out of the room, because what I have to describe in the next few lines was, well it was disturbing, and except for Connie’s beau, the rest of us were just kids who didn’t know anything about the facts of life. I’ll just relate what we saw and you can decide on the relevance of it.

The small brown mantid saw Queen Death and she saw him. He did a provocative dance and approached her. She watched, but did not attack him. Then it looked like they were dancing. Maybe they were dancing cheek to cheek because who knows where an insect’s cheeks are? I half expected to hear some kind of insect music rise from the mason jar, because it looked like the two of them were having a great time.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why is she letting him do that? Why doesn’t she eat him?”

“I think they like each other,” said Glenn.

“Yeah,” laughed Billy. “They really like each other.”

And as soon as he said that, Queen Death spun her green skull around and decapitated the small brown mantid on her back. She then spun her face back to the front, took the brown head in her claws, and began to eat it. The headless brown body on her back kept dancing.

We didn’t know what to say. We just stared in wonder and horror. When Connie came out, she asked where her date had gone. We didn’t know. We just turned around and he was gone.

“He couldn’t even wait for five minutes?” asked Connie. “You probably scared him off with that stupid praying mantis. I’ll never understand boys.”

“There’s a lot of things we don’t understand neither,” muttered Glenn. “Billy musta run away. Don’t be too worried about it.”

“It’s Nature’s way,” I added with a shudder.

The tiny brown body just kept right on dancing. For hours. By the next morning, it was gone and we were left to assume that Queen Death had eaten that as well.

But after lunch, we went out to the back porch to see Queen Death and the mason jar was gone. In its place, a crudely written note scrawled in crayon, said if we wanted her back, we had to cross the street for her. There was only one house across the street from ours. It was the home of the Big Galoot.

 

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