“The Love Song of M. Religiosa” by Nibedita Sen
She is sitting on a twig again. She, greenest, to put any leaf to shame. She of the flitting legs and the wet-sheened exoskeleton, the straight neck and enticingly rounded abdomen. She of the globe-eyes with their black-dot pupils and the shining needle arms. Her antennae flutter delicately, and Mantis watches through the glass as She raises her bulbous head.
His thorax contracts. Her pheromones cross the mesh between glass and lid, and he sucks them through his spiracles. She smells tart and delicious, refreshing as a cool bead of water plucked from a bowed blade of grass, succulent as a cottony insect abdomen coming apart between his jaws. Instinct older than the short ticking of his insectile life can comprehend pulls him to her. She is a chitinous lodestone, a centripetal force that tugs eye and feeler and antennae to her through the glass.
And She is out of his reach.
Five inches of air an impassable barrier between them, framed by the parallel walls of their terrariums. Mantis taps the hard tip of one curved forelimb on the glass. Clink.
A shadow falls over Mantis’ terrarium. Two humans loom above the glass. One, tall and thin with a too-big head, like a knobby stick, holds a plastic box that teems with quivering fruit-flies, sweet golden mealworms bursting with juice, and fragile moths no bigger than a human fingernail.
“I call him Darcy,” he says. “Darcy, meet Priyanka, she’ll be part-timing at the lab this semester. Say hello.”
“Darcy, really?” the other human says.
“Because he’s a gentleman. Aren’t you, boy?” The tall human checks the temperature of the under-tank heating unit and then cracks open the lid. With long-handled tweezers, he plops red-eyed, bristling flies into the tank. Mantis, who has been expecting this since he saw their approach, darts forward. In the blink of an eye, a moth is trapped between the barbs of his curved forelimbs. He watches the humans unblinkingly over the moth’s tiny, feathered death as he eats, its dusted wings fluttering vainly against his mandibles like a moustache.
The she-human stares back at him. This one’s skin is bark-brown and her shiny black hair is pulled together at the base of her neck. “It’s like he’s looking right at us.”
“Fun fact,” the other says. “Praying mantises actually have stereoscopic and binocular vision, just like humans. He probably is looking right at you.”
Priyanka studies her short, blunt human fingertips. “You talk like that to all the girls, Travis?”
Travis’ coloration shifts, becoming splotchier, and he withdraws. He drops a few more worms into Mantis’ tank, closes the lid, and moves onto the next terrarium on the long, low table.
“And her name,” he says, “is Cersei Mantister.”
Mantis follows them along the length of his terrarium. He bounds over a piece of driftwood, briefly scurries along the substrate of soil mixed with sand and vermiculite, past his shallow water dish with its knobbly finger of sea-sponge. He finds a perch, meditatively nibbling the last of the moth, and tracks them with his stereoscopic and binocular vision as they move.
He has no use for human names. She is She. Forever She, only She. She, greenest. She, made of hunger and watchfulness, She who is beautiful, and who calls to him without sound. She, now rearing up as the humans drop tasty insect morsels into her terrarium, striking with savagery at the snuff of their tiny lives.
“Cersei here just had her last molt two weeks ago,” Travis says. “She’ll be ready to make lots of little mantises in a few days, won’t you, Cersei?”
Priyanka rounds her fleshy human mouth. “Should Darcy be worried?”
“Maybe. Probably. Funner fact: sexual cannibalism in praying mantises was first documented in captivity. Some think that the stress of confined spaces, bright lights and human observation drives females to, um, unusually aggressive behavior in captive conditions.”
“I guess Darcy better start praying, then.”
“Did you know Professor T got in a shipment of Darwin’s bark spiders? Fascinating little critters. They exhibit sexual cannibalism too, you see, but some males have begun to evolve this technique to keep themselves from becoming chow. They—”
“Have you ever considered,” Priyanka says. “That we might be voyeurs?”
Mantis watches the humans consider this for several moments. Then Travis snaps the meal-box shut and gathers up his tweezers. Their voices bounce off the glass, and Mantis listens, pressed low to the substrate. He has only one ear to a human’s two, but contrary to what humans might think, it works well enough to hear them with.
“Are you doing anything tonight?”
“Not with you, bug-boy. Not with you.”
He bides his time. He is four months old, after all, not some nymph newly split from a egg, made entirely of hunger and eyes. He’s lived between these glass walls long enough to know the humans’ routines, and so he waits until Travis returns later that evening to clean out his terrarium.
“How’s it hanging, Darcy?” the human says. His red-splotched face looms over the tank. He props open the lid and uses his juice-stained tweezers to gather up uneaten insect parts—barbed fly-legs, fragments of moth wings shedding fuzz, twinkling shards of chitin and minute, translucent viscera. “Yup, still a messy eater. We gotta talk about your table manners, man.”
Mantis scurries up the twisting path of a well-positioned branch. His hindwings flutter, and then just as the human’s hand moves—he leaps. He stabs downward with his needle arms, raising tiny pinpricks of blood. Travis yelps, more out of shock than pain. He whips his wrist violently to dislodge Mantis, who rockets through the air. Wings snapping open, Mantis catches a shockingly cold air-conditioned downdraft as the lab expands before him, its bewildering wilderness of smells and space laid open for the first time in his life.
“Darcy,” Travis wails. “Darcy, no.”
But Mantis is gone, tailspinning away. His wings are not designed to carry him long distances, a fact rapidly becoming apparent to him on his first flight outside the confines of a terrarium. He smacks into the boundary wall between two cubicles, spindly legs thrashing for panicked purchase, hits a desk, leaps into flight again. Travis chases clumsily, knocking papers off desks, knocking dustbins over.
It ends when Mantis finds refuge beneath a seat, clinging between the five spokes with wheels on their ends, antennae flaring wildly, hindwings crooked and still trembling from the chase. Travis searches for him until closing time; Mantis hears him curse faintly in the distance when he is forced to give up.
The dung-beetle terrarium is a city unto itself, four feet by three feet of glass made foggy by internal condensation. The entomology grad students come in every three to four days and lift the heavy lid, mist the peat and succulents with their spray bottles. Wearing wrinkled expressions and elbow-high gloves, they crack open sanitized plastic containers and replace the dung, evicting old, dried pats and tipping in fresh dollops. The heating mats steam the glass as bacteria and humidity go to work on the feces. Few humans go near this corner of the laboratory if they can help it.
The beetles are nocturnal. Mantis waits until the laboratory is closed for the evening, until the students have left and the night janitor is slowly wheeling his cart through the benches. He scurries from underneath his chair and up the plastic highway of a table leg.
There is mesh over the gap between lid and glass. Mantis clings to this, antennae flaring as they drink the scent-particulate-rich air. His compound eyes are not suited for the dark, and the only illumination here is from the glow of the undertank heating.
“‘Scuse me,” he says. “‘Scuse me.”
Something large and faintly iridescent moves on the other side of the glass.
“Greetings,” comes the sepulchral reply. The dung-beetle’s voice is like bark rubbing on bark, like the rasp of chitin. It comes from under the earth and inside the glass all at once.
“I wish to know,” Mantis says, “Where I may find the spiders.”
The earth shifts. Another beetle slowly appears, and then another, their broad, domed backs reflecting the low light.
“Spiders,” they drone in chorus. “Leaping, lascivious, long-legged things. They spin and they strike, they weave and they wait. Spiders are not our friends, and we do not know their lair. Why do you seek them?”
“I wish,” Mantis says, “to seek their advice upon the matter of a She.”
The beetles rumble in interest. “A She?”
“I do not think it fair that I should lose my head,” Mantis explains. “After all, I might live a whole month after She and I are done, and I can think of a great many things I should like to do with my head in that time. Alas, her appetite is prodigious, and I fear I will be devoured.”
“Share the load,” the beetles advise. Their sonorous, collective voice vibrates the thin capillaries of Mantis’ hindwings. “We share the load. Together, we roll the dung into spheres of the perfect consistency. Together, we bury them deep beneath the earth, and in these brooding balls, we lay the eggs.”
“Oh,” Mantis says, disappointed. “Oh, I do not think that would work very well for me at all. I am certain She has no use at all for dung, you see, even one so inventive as yours.”
The creak of the night janitor’s cart approaches, accompanied by a bouncing beam of torch light, and he bends his legs. “I thank you for the advice nevertheless. But if you cannot direct me to the spiders, I must take my leave.”
“Farewell,” the beetles rumble. “Farewell and good luck.”
Mantis lands on the ground just as the janitor’s cart rounds the corner. He pauses for a moment to scent the air—regretfully acknowledging the minute shift in the air that heralds the familiar odors of tank, of sponge and dirt and vermiculite and She—before scurrying back into hiding once more.
The next day dawns in a shuffle of returning graduate students, the bubble and stink of multiple coffee machines, and Travis, armed with a butterfly net.
Mantis ducks and weaves wildly through the maze of cubicles and terrariums, skitters into discarded cardboard boxes and along the undersides of ceiling lights, and Travis manages only to break a beaker and overturn stacks of paper in his pursuit. When not laughing at Travis, the other students lay bets on how long Mantis will remain at large before he is recaptured, escapes the facility lab, or is eaten by the Professor’s cat.
Mantis remains at large.
It has been two days since his escape. He is the laboratory’s silent stalker, the after-hours prowler who sees all. The cold air makes him slow and heavy, and he misses his heated terrarium. The lab is a great dizzying chemical-scented forest after that small trapezoid world, too many fractured referent points of glass and metal and paper for his compound eyes to track, and he navigates it warily, slinking from corner to mesh cage to tank.
He captures small moths in the ceiling corners, does mighty battle with three pungent, horny-carapaced cockroaches by the trashcan and nurses a sliver of a tear in his left hindwing afterwards. He makes a student scream when he erupts from behind the photocopy machine in a green flutter of wings and barbs.
When not attempting to uncover the spiders’ whereabouts, he watches the humans do the dance. The dance of lowered eyes and fingers discreetly squeezing a knee, of magazines hidden in drawers and courtship conducted with burnt beans, sugar, and milk. He sits on the cold metal edge of a stall in the she-human lavatory and watches Priyanka and another entomology student crowd into the small space and slap the lock down. What follows is brief and inordinately messy and rocks the stall so violently that Mantis flares his wings to keep his perch.
He watches the she-human with interest afterwards, but no eggs are forthcoming. Not only that, she returns to the lavatory two days later and proceeds to rock one of the stalls in company with another she-human.
“So,” Travis says casually, stopping by her desk the next day, “you and Weichen, huh?”
“We’re not going to have a threesome with you,” Priyanka says without taking her eyes off her computer screen.
“That… is not what I was going to ask.”
Humans do it not once, Mantis learns, not twice, but as many times as they can. It is a mystery to him why no eggs result from any of these encounters, but perhaps they are simply very bad at egg-making, which is hardly to be wondered at in beings so huge and ungainly, and that is why they must do it so many times before they get it right.
After some thought, he concludes that he would be not at all averse to doing it more than once with his She, if he had time and should retain his head.
It occurs to him that he does not know how long humans live.
On the third evening since his escape, he perches above Travis’ desk and watches the human stare at his phone, headphones over his ears. The human’s face is splotchier than usual. Humans writhe on the glass screen of his phone. They are bare and fleshy, like wriggling mealworms.
Travis looks up. His eyes meet Mantis’ bulbous green orbs and he squawks in horror. Paper flies from his desk as he reels his chair back, phone falling from his hand.
Mantis sets his wings a-flutter and escapes with alacrity.
“He’s doing it on purpose,” Travis is heard to moan later. “He’s messing with my head.”
“I think it’s karma,” Priyanka says. She has taken to leaving leftover mealworms out for him, covered with a flimsy plastic bottle-cap that he can easily knock aside. “You’ve been watching him all his life. Now he’s watching you.”
Mantis disagrees. He is not prowling the lab because he wants to, only because he does not know where to go next. Already, he has had two near encounters with the Professor’s cat. This insatiable calico creature is not allowed in the lab, but slides along the hallways of the entomology department and slips in when a student leaves the door open too long. Her eyes go massive when she spies Mantis, and she flattens herself to the ground. Last evening she leapt to a table to catch him, and it was only a prodigious effort of flight that kept him from disappearing into her slavering jaws.
This new existence is a far cry from the one he knew in his terrarium, nestled in warmth, food delivered daily to his watching jaws. This new existence is jab-filled and uncomfortable, full of jumps and starts, the newness of pain and hunger pangs. He endures it because he must. He endures it for She—to reconcile the call of She with the persistent seed that has rooted in his minuscule cranium, some selfish quirk of captive breeding or genetic anomaly that leaves him, inexplicably, wanting to live. To not surrender his consciousness to a brief dark moment of pleasure and the continuation of the next generation, but to continue to devour soft morsels, pluck beads of water from sweet grass, and taste the air.
This morning, he prowls across a table to the laboratory formicarium. Hundreds of ants trace intestinal patterns through the close-packed earth.
Mantis clinks lightly on the glass. “‘Scuse me,” he says. “‘Scuse me.”
The ants do not reply. They continue to scurry in increasingly complicated, ceaseless patterns, propelled by the alien logic of their hive mind.
Something rustles off to the side.
“Psst,” someone hisses.
Mantis turns his globed eyes reluctantly from the ants. They would have been delicious, tiny and crunchy, with a hint of formic acid to add bite.
The rustling comes from a long mesh-cage of scorpion-flies. One fluttery creature clings to the mesh. Its yellow and black-striped belly twitches against the wire. “Psst,” it says again. “Psst. You. Yes, you. Asking about a She. Yes?”
“I do,” Mantis says.
“Don’t know about spiders.” The scorpion-fly shakes its barbed tail. “But know how to please a She. Yes.”
Another fly appears out of nowhere and pastes itself to the mesh. “Will give you the facts,” it shrills rapidly. “But a favor first.”
“Just a sec. No big. See that?” The first fly flicks its antennae at the wire loop that holds the flimsy cage shut. “Do a tug. Open for us.”
“Let us out. Yes.”
“I see no reason why I cannot do this,” Mantis says. “Where will you go?”
The flies seethe impatiently, wings settling into a faint hum as more of their number rise from the floor of the cage, loop loosely around within the mesh. “Does it matter? Out. Out we go.”
“Away from here.”
“Free, free, free.”
Mantis fits his triangular head under the latch and rises to his full height, clicking it free. He steps out of the way as spilling fly-bodies force the door open. The first scorpion-fly he spoke to stays behind, twitching its tail appreciatively.
“Thanks much,” it says. “Your info, now. Give her a snack. Gift of a snack. Want her in a good mood, yes? See here.”
The fly hacks and convulses. Its long, fine antennae snap upright. An unidentifiable piece of half-digested insect matter shoots from its mouthparts, and a blob of saliva anchors the dripping particle to the mesh.
“Snacks,” it explains helpfully.
“Ah,” Mantis says with interest. “Ah, that is a fine idea indeed. I thank you.” He steps closer on his spindly legs with their two-toed claws. His lobstered forelimbs are drawn up before him, the inward-sweeping barbs tucked tight to his bright green carapace. “You have given me much food for thought.”
The escape of the scorpion-flies causes a great deal of noise and excitement among the humans. Mantis creeps along the floor with his prize clutched in his barbs while they thud and shout above, keeping to the cool safe occluded spaces underneath tables and chairs.
He is almost clear of the disturbance when he hears a soft footfall behind him.
She comes towards him on her belly. Her eyes flash. Her ears are pressed flat to her furred skull, and then, she leaps.
Mantis abandons the scorpion-fly corpse and bounds into the air, but her paw dashes him to the ground. Dazed and crumpled, his soft abdomen dented, he drags himself across the floor and leaves a wet trail behind him. The cat bats again, pinning him by one spindly leg. Her wet pink nose looms like a many-faceted harbinger of doom, multiplied a thousand times over in his compound eyes, when he draws back and strikes at that soft, vulnerable nub of flesh with his barbed arms.
The cat yowls in agony. She pulls back into herself and Mantis forces his battered wings into flight, leaving one of his legs behind with a sticky tug and a fine thread of meat. He scoots under a chair, which the cat smacks into in her pursuit, sending it rolling across the floor.
There is a door feet away. He lands prematurely, crumpled wings betraying him, scrabbles at the wood. He hears the padding paws of death draw near.
A new gust of wind tumbles him back. Someone has opened the office door. A human in flat skirt and flat shoes, mouth opening in an “O” of surprise as she sees the hissing cat. She does not see Mantis.
But Mantis sees his chance.
He is through the door an antennae-width before it closes. It slams shut and he tumbles to the floor, a small and bright green fold of legs and barbs and crooked wings.
The hallway he finds himself in is long and cool and made of afternoon light. As he slowly, laboriously straightens and shakes out his somewhat-worse-for-wear wings, he feels a light breeze that smells of pine needles and formaldehyde. The breeze leads to a window that dazzles his compound eyes. An open window.
For a moment, his fancies lift on the wings of that wind. Perhaps he will fly through those open windows, make for trees and long grass and leave She behind. Perhaps he will be free, free, free, as the scorpion-flies said. But he has never been outside the lab at all, never even been outside his terrarium before this. He was hatched in a jar, one of a hundred tiny nymphs, shed his first skin under human eyes. Four glass walls, Travis’s splotched face, mealworms dropped in by tweezer, and the smell of She next door are all he has ever known.
What does he know of trees and long grass? Of a life without She?
The strong stench of coffee beans, cat urine, and Indian ink issue from an open doorway further down the hall. Mantis hesitates a moment before scuttling toward it, conscious dimly of other, closed doors that might have been open if he had hatched outside these walls and not inside.
This room is perhaps half the size of the lab. A magnificent terrarium sits against one wall. It stretches almost the length of the room, a strange and magnificent spectacle with three-inch-deep pools of water carefully carved into the substrate. There are glinting lines spun between twigs and leafy plants. The silk is thick and silvery in the center of the webs, with countless fine, near-invisible strands disintegrating into a mess of fluff towards the edges.
Mantis limps towards the terrarium. Slowly and shakily he climbs the side-table to a circular gap in the glass where the red and blue wires of the heating apparatus enter the tank, buried in the substrate. With one forelimb, he taps. Clink.
“‘Scuse me,” he says.
For a long time, there is no answer.
Then something moves. A small spider emerges warily through the web. Its eight eyes gleam like tiny beads of black glass. Its eight limbs are thick and stubby, bristling with black hair dotted white at the tips, as if the creature has been dusted with powdered chalk.
“Come no closser,” it says.
“Greetings and well met at last. I have been searching for you,” Mantis explains, “To seek your advice.”
“On what ssubject?”
“I am told,” Mantis says, “That you are something of an expert on the matter of Shes.”
This makes the spider clack its chelicerae with interest. It crawls jerkily towards him over the broad plane of a leaf. “Yess,” it clacks. “Yess, we have our wayss with women.”
Mantis puts his curved forelimbs up against the heating wires. He scrabbles through chips of sand and substrate, digging out a hollow until he can fit his triangular head through the gap in the glass, and the spider backs away.
“Come no closser,” it repeats.
“I have just eaten,” Mantis assures. “A most excellent scorpion-fly. I am quite full.”
The spider is not appeased. “What do you wissh to know?”
Mantis explains his situation. “I would like very much to keep my head,” he says. “For it does not seem to me a good bargain that She should take it, when She has an excellent one of her own.”
“I ssee.” The spider is inching closer again. Clack, clack, go the chelate appendages of its mouth. “You wissh to know how we keep our Shes from eating uss.”
“I would be much obliged.”
“We use our fangss.” The spider displays these. They are finer even than Mantis’, small, but sharp and strong. Beads of saliva and digestive enzymes froth at their curve, form long drooping strings. Clack, clack. “We rub them againsst our She’s she-partss until She iss relaxed from the pleassure.”
“Oh,” Mantis says, intrigued. “Oh, that is ingenious.”
“Jusst sso.” The spider preens. “Make no misstake, She iss masster. She iss beauty and danger and death, and without Her, there iss no life.”
“I have never thought otherwise.” Mantis unfolds his forelimbs and props the serrated barbs delicately on the bundle of wires. His abdomen hangs outside the tank, but the rest of him is inside the glass. “Thank you, sir. I think, however, that I will take my friend the scorpion-fly’s advice as well as yours. After all, one has only one head, and it would be a poor thing to lose it for want of all the necessary precautions.”
The spider crawls a little closer, until it is perched on the heating wires as well, fascinated despite itself. “What advice iss that?” it clacks.
The black pseudopupils of Mantis’ lucid green eyes are fixed directly on the spider. “Bring her a snack.”
When Travis approaches Cersei Mantister’s terrarium that evening, he finds Mantis perched on the lid, wings tattered and untucked. He sits right above the printed label that reads “Mantis religiosa—Praying mantis,” and he rears up as the human approaches.
Clamped in the needle-sweep of his barbed forelimbs is the stiffening form of a spider. One of its legs twitches too slightly for human eyes to see.
“Is that one of the Professor’s—of course it is. Oh Darcy, Darcy,” the human moans. “You’re going to make me lose my assistantship.”
Mantis clacks his mandibles. He cannot lunge forward with his forelimbs occupied, but he rears further on his three remaining hindlegs.
“What? You going to stab me again, tough guy? Okay no, forget I said that. Just hold it—hold it right there—” Travis reaches carefully behind him for an empty water glass. He upends it quickly onto the terrarium lid, but not quickly enough; Mantis skitters away. “For the love of—”
“I know what he wants.” Priyanka appears next to him, mouth twisted up with amusement. She bends to the latch and lifts the terrarium lid with both hands. Mantis is through the opening and into the tank in an instant. “Yep, thought so.”
“What’re you—weren’t you the one worried about him getting eaten?”
“A noble death.”
The lid comes back down, muffling Travis’ next lament. “We were going to feed her before we let you guys at each other, you know. You didn’t need to bring her takeout.”
Mantis lands on the substrate.
She is watching him. She sits on a twig, bright green against the brown. The broad, triangular base of her head splits open to reveal her cutting mouthparts, shining with saliva in the sun refracting through the glass, as she scents him. She inches slowly down the twig.
He dips. He places the spider at her feet, and backs away. She descends in a swoop of legs and luminescent needles. The spider twitches one last time as She feeds.
Mantis circles her. Their feelers flicker, tasting each other, tasting the air. Her pheromones fill the air as She stirs her crisp wings.
The spider is half-devoured when She lifts her head. She rustles her wings again and rises up on the tips of delicate toes. Her green body sways rhythmically to and fro as She lifts sickle-moon arms to the wind. They spread and retract, over and over again.
Mantis mimics her movements. And together, they dance.
|Nibedita Sen is a Hugo, Nebula, and Astounding Award-nominated queer Bengali writer from Calcutta, and a graduate of Clarion West 2015 whose work has appeared in venues including Uncanny, Podcastle, Nightmare and Fireside. She accumulated a number of English degrees in India before deciding she wanted another in creative writing, and that she was going to move halfway across the world for it. These days, she can be found working as an editor in NYC while consuming large amounts of coffee and videogames. Hit her up on Twitter at @her_nibsen, where she can usually be found yelling about food, her elderly flatulent cat, or what she’s currently reading.|