Mack Williams: Ode ( prose) on the Death of a Mantis
Not long ago I went in to work at the science museum and learned that our “terrariumed” praying mantis had passed away. Someone noticed it the day before, when I wasn’t there, and had placed a hand-drawn, hand-dated sign on his tank informing me.
That sign, in the neatest of hands stated: “This praying mantis is deceased.” Below the message, a “sad” face was drawn, also in the neatest of hands, the mouth’s corners in artfull (“arc-full”) descent .
He had enjoyed our hospitality since I evicted him from our museum’s netted butterfly garden this past Summer. These forever-hungry creatures eat gross-looking bugs, but also savor the “beautiful bugs” the museum spends good money for: butterflies.
I purchased crickets for him regularly from PetSmart, sometimes dropping a few roaches in from the “overflow” in another terrarium. I only saw him eat crickets, roaches seemingly beneath the culinary taste of this particular mantis. Often did I see him in merrily mantid mandibular mastication! (Agnew, in whatever unearthly realm your soul presently resides, eat your heart out!).
Notice, in several prior paragraphs I used the personal pronoun “he” regarding our mantis. I know so, because another employee had caught a praying mantis some weeks before and determined it to be female by using the tried and true method of counting the number of segments of its abdomen to determine gender. His female had 6 of them, whereas my male had 8. It just now occurs to me how scary and gross a man in possession of an “eight-pack” would be (Arnold is “monstrous” enough, without that).
We decided not to breed our mantises, keeping them in separate terraria and displaying both sexes for the public’s enlightenment. Besides, when it comes to praying mantises, two in one terrarium would soon lead to “one within another” (not a mantis of the next size down slipped within a mantis of slightly larger size, like Russian Matryoshka dolls; but instead, one digested past recognition, as mantises become cannibalistic when confined “plurally”).
As luck would have it, one day, our female mantis constructed an egg case, attaching it to one side of the glass terrarium. Just because her terrarium was adjacent the terrarium of the recently late male praying mantis didn’t mean he was the father, because both were collected from the butterfly garden at different times. However, since our butterfly garden is the scientific “constant” in all of this, our recently deceased male mantis might have been the father; but still, even the likes of “Maury” would be hard-pressed in the determination of this particular egg case’s paternity! Additionally, no bans were published and no vows taken, so in no way could our female mantid have been derided as a wanton “floozie.”
I always thought a giant praying mantis would have made a great antagonist in an old 1950s sci-fi movie. “Mantra” (lot of symbolism there) would certainly have been scarier than “Mothra!” But PETA would have championed “Mothra!” (remember, moth larvae’s effect on fur coats).
I guess it’s time to give him a decent burial, but with his protective chitinous covering he could be displayed for a while, as with entomological collections, decades old. I could probably affix him to the inside of the terrarium’s cover screen, telling the school kids he’s just “taking a break” or “making up his mind” (back at Granite Quarry School in the 1950s and 60s, we were too observant and possessed of attention spans much too substantive to have fallen for that sort of thing, but it would probably work now).
In the religion of Ancient Egypt, it was believed that praying mantises transported the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Just think of how short a time it took my little mantid friend’s soul to reach the great beyond without the additional, burdening weight of a human shade!
In a final comment on our recently-deceased mantis, I estimate the degree of devoutness expressed in his countenance to be equaled to that displayed in any first-century mosaic or Orthodox Icon.
I have no fear for the outcome of his little soul; for during the entire time of our acquaintance, his was the very image of constant supplication.