My mom lives in Northern Maryland, and on a visit this weekend I was helping her get rid of some weeds and vines in her garden. She spotted the Mantis first. “Look, a praying mantis!” she said. It was barely two feet away, right in front of my face, perched on a miniature Japanese maple tree my mother affectionately calls “Suzy Wong.” (Yes, I know.)
I hadn’t noticed it before, but now that I did it really seemed to leap right out of the background, all bright green bulk, way out of scale to the wispy red fronds on the tree.
“You know,” I said, “we can totally see you. You stick out like a sore thumb in that tree.”
I felt like kind of an @$$hole for thoughtlessly using an ableist reference to privileged opposable thumb-bearing primates. But I nevertheless had the distinct sense that the Mantis knew exactly what I was talking about, and was just playing me. I dug in. “What I mean is, you’re supposed to be some kind of amazing expert at camouflaging yourself … and yet you’re completely obvious in that tree. The leaves are, like, red? And wispy?”
The Mantis rolled its enormous compound eyes, and once again I felt like the @$$hole. “Whatever,” I said. I went back to mom’s weeds. When I looked up moments later, the Mantis had turned around on its branch 180 degrees.
“I can still see you,” I said.
Now I felt terrible. Clearly the Mantis was attempting to put my earlier observation to constructive use, and here I was raining on the proverbial parade — or whatever it is that insects have in place of parades. Swarms?
“Well, yeah, it is much better,” I said. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
The Mantis tilted its head.
“What’s with… you know, all the praying?”
At this point mom interjected. “You know it’s illegal to kill a praying mantis? They’re an endangered species!”
“I’m pretty sure that’s bullshit, Ma. It’s an urban legend — or in this case, a suburban one.”
“Really.” She said. It was a statement, not a question: Mom’s not exactly a big skeptic.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Your species has been around since, what, the Cretaceous or something? That’s like 70 million years. You’re saying you’ve got mantis gods? And you… actually pray to them and stuff?”
“Wow. That’s brilliant,” I said, truly impressed. “So…you don’t really believe in gods, or anything like that?”
I was about to say something shitty, and point out that this was impossible since mantises only live for a year. But I caught myself. “So…” I whispered, wide-eyed. “Then you’re… an atheist?”
The Mantis swiveled its remarkable head around to make sure no one was watching. My mom was busy attending to some particularly dense vines by the porch. And then — I swear — the Mantis flashed me a smile and a wink, and spread its long forelegs out into the shape of an A.