She prayed beneath my mailbox that humid day in Northwest Ohio—her great hands folded in a gesture that was both humble and deadly. Who can hear the prayers the mantis prays? I had never seen a praying mantis before. I could not have been much older than eight. Some cultures believe that the praying mantis can lead a lost child home. But, I stood on the porch steps of my childhood house, and she was the one who seemed lost: praying, prophesying, testifying in the mystical language of beings without words.
A deep fear of insects had paralyzed me by that age but not just any insects, flying insects. Previous to a scarring event in first grade, I had little fear of bees or wasps or bumble bees. I found bumble bees happy companions whenever I went out to smell the blossoms on our lilac bush. Our next door neighbors had an apple tree, and in the fall, the apples fell and the bees would swarm the rotting fruit. We would cover the apples and the bees with a glass and watch their frenzied tempest. They would drop, then, one by one from the suffocation. Air seemed a curious thing for a bug to need—or so, my childish mind would muse. I had not been stung, not even while participating in such godlike play with the life and death of smaller creatures.
But, a hot, hot day in first grade rendered me mortal and reduced me to the vulnerable child I was. We did not have screens on our windows and the idea of air conditioning in such an old building in 1980 was like thinking we would one day carry telephones in our pockets. So, the windows were each propped open—since it was such an old building—and nothing barred that one little bee from her desire to wander into a classroom full of children learning math. I don’t know if we were learning math, but I’m going to believe it was math. Perhaps, this stray little bee prevented me from understanding some foundational mathematical concept and that is why I prefer English to this day.
She landed on my chest. I remember I was wearing a red checkered, button down short sleeve shirt and probably solid red slacks to match. My mother always called pants slacks, so I’m sure I was wearing red slacks that she had made. That bee seemed pleased with the print or my scent or both. She did not feel the need to fly off. Instead, she crawled, ever so slowly, over each of my red buttons.
I focused on nothing else but her—that yellow body with the bands of black. I barely breathed. Hot tears formed in my eyes at the helplessness of this threat so casually strolling up my body. I feared that if I moved, I would be stung. I had not been stung, but I’d seen others after they’d been stung: screams, tears, sobs, pain, swollenness, like a shot from the doctor. I knew the sting of needles all too well. So, I stayed breathless, motionless, my heart rocking inside. Finally, satisfied at the scope of her terrain, the bee zipped off. Tears fell from relief.
“What’s the matter, Sarah?” my teacher asked, concerned by my tears.
I don’t know why I didn’t say, too modified to suddenly be the center of attention, I suppose.
Ever since, I have feared the glaring abdomen of honey bees, carpenter bees, cicada killers, wasps—the vibration of their buzz shoots hot jolts through my body, heats my skin where they fly near.
This said, as far as I know, I have never seen a praying mantis in flight.
On that humid summer day in Northwest Ohio, I did not know that a mantis means humans no harm, that she is a helper who preys on the pests who plagued my summer play with their potential stings and swirling flight patterns.
Her only sin was her size. I could not open the mailbox without my young hand brushing the top of her head, which she turned in my direction with ease.
The decision was made after I showed my neighborhood friends the mantis. I don’t know how we arrived at the idea to kill her, but children can be capricious in their bouts of cruelty. The young boy from down the street ultimately did it. He used a Star Wars Landspeeder—the tan plastic toy just large enough to swipe away the mantis where she prayed.
For days, the stain of our deed marred the wood beneath the mailbox. The next blustery thunderstorm eventually washed away the evidence, but for the first time, I felt as though I had participated in killing something innocent.
She did not buzz like bees. She was peaceful, a beautiful saint in grass green robes. I misunderstood her, and my childish rush to judgment was a greater threat to her than she ever was to me.
Even now on this quiet evening, miles from my childhood home, she leads me back to that moment in my memories, that moment when maturity taught innocence to be more merciful. Whenever I remember the mantis, which has been at random times over the years, the child I was bows her head and whisper words of penance.