“Honeyyyyyyy! You awaaake? Foooood’s readyyy!”
Eyes open, staring at the ceiling, Matt ignored his mother’s call. He wasn’t sleepy, but he also didn’t want to get up. This was it. The first day of spring. The day had finally arrived, and he couldn’t believe it.
For a moment he squeezed his eyes shut again, willing himself to go back to sleep. Maybe I can just sleep through the whole day? Or even pretend to be sick? Fugitive notions. He knew that he couldn’t. Besides, now that he was up, there was no stopping the torrent of thoughts assailing him from every direction.
After today, you may never sleep again. That was a big one.
For almost a week now — at the thought of today — he’d been entangled in a web of mental torment, oscillating between periods of intense titillation and abject terror. It sounds a bit dramatic, but certainly not uncommon for a boy (or young man, as his mother had taken to calling him recently) his age. A younger, still-immature part of him (the boy) had naively assumed — hoped? — that today would somehow never come; just … you know, sort of … not arrive; forever remaining in the crosshairs of tomorrow. A pretty thought. Like a caterpillar. But Matt was not a boy anymore. And he certainly knew tha —
“Maaaaaaatt? Am I gonna have to come up there?”
“I’m up! I’m up! Be down in a second.”
The moment his feet hit the ground, a new wave of trepidation — coalesced clumsily with exhilaration — surged through his entire body. Get your shit together, Matt. This is it. Today is the day. It’s actually here. It’s actually today. It’s happening. There’s no going back. No getting out of it. No time to be scared. Get. Your shit. Together.
“There you are!” his mom cheerfully greeted him as Matt slowly took his seat at the table.
“Oh you should definitely eat. It’s a big day. You need your energy. Look what I made: cricket casserole!”
This was Matt’s favourite meal, which he immediately took to be a terrible omen.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“You know what’s wrong mom. All this fake cheerfulness. And you made my favourite meal? Why? That’s not a good sign. That’s a terrible sign. I’m scared.”
“Oh honey — ” there was a genuine tone of solicitude in her voice. Maybe she did really understand. But then again, how could she? “ — everything is going to be all right,” she continued.
“Is it, mom? is everything just *magically* going to be all right?” a little more agitated now, “because you don’t know that. and I actually don’t think so. I have a terrible feeling about today. I’ve heard the rumours at school. I don’t know if I can go through wi — “
“Oh baby. Everything will be all right, one way or another.”
“Oh that’s fucking reassuring.”
“Matthew! I know you’re on edge but I will not have that language in this house, understood?”
“And I’m sorry.”
“Good, now get started, eat! Your father will be down in a minute.”
Ordinarily, this was one of Matt’s favourite little morsels in time: the few minutes he got to chat with his mom — and soak in her wisdom — before his father came downstairs. He loved his dad very much of course, but he wasn’t exactly a shrewd man. He’s what you’d call a subservient partner (a phrase he’d learned at school), and was basically just happy to be there. Of course he was; the man was just happy to be alive.
Don’t worry. Be happy. That was his dad’s motto. Easy for him to say. Lucky bastard.
“Matty boy! Big day today! How ya feeling?” his dad boomed as he came in, maintaining his typical, deliberate gait.
Instead of a response, Matt just looked at him and tried to contort his emotions into a single facial expression.
“That bad, eh?” his father remarked. “Oh yes” his mom joined in, “he’s quite the nervous wreck today. I don’t think the casserole has cheered him up at all.”
“Listen, Matty: don’t be nervous. Everything’s gonna be fine — ” why does everyone keep saying that? “ — just look at your mother and I. Look how we made it. Besides, it’s a different time. New generation. New morals. Things are done differently now, not like in the old days. You’ll see.”
Matt caught a glimpse of his mother, fondly yet superciliously, looking at her husband. Matt’s father really was a credulous (albeit sweet) man.
“Is that true mom? Are things different now?” A last ditch effort by Matt. Anything to abate the fear.
“Well, I mean, sure. I guess. I don’t — I’m not sure if the numbers are really that different now than when I was young. Some things are just ingrained in us, you know, they’re natural — “ the way she said ingrained made Matt shudder. Such finality to it. Incontrovertible. “ — But yea. You know, the new generation and all. The Equality Marches. The Right to Life movement. Sure. I can see … I guess it’s possible.”
Matt hated to see his mother intellectually handcuff herself like this in an attempt to humour and patronize (in their household, those two were the same thing) her husband, so he pushed the conversation in the right direction.
“What are the numbers again?”
“Oh honey. We’ve been through this. We’ve talked about this.”
“Yea like a hundred times already” his dad chimed in, a cricket leg dangling from his mouth.
“Just tell me again. Please. What are the hard numbers? The actual odds? Highest end of the spectrum?” Matt already knew the answer to these questions. It’s the only thing he’d been able to think about all week. He was just grasping at straws, hoping that one question would lead to another, and to another, and suddenly they will have passed the whole day asking questions, forgotten about the whole affair, and gone on eating crickets and being a happy family.
“Twenty-five percent” she replied, trying to temper the hard truth with some hope.
No one said anything for a while after that.
One out of every four.
Even Russian Roulette gave you better odds.
The three of them sat in silence, contemplating the grand magnitude of what was to come, the ramifications it could have — the sheer fucking gravity of it. For Matt, it was nauseating.
“You know most boys your age would be excited. I mean sure, a little nervous too — and that’s normal — but mostly just excited. I mean, come on, it’s your first date! I hear she’s a very lovely girl. Surely there’s something to be excited about, huh?” His dad winked at his mom as he said this last part; she reciprocated with a congenial smile.
“Well, yes. I mean, obviously I’ll admit I’m also a little excited. I can’t lie about that. It is kind of a big deal. But … also … you know.”
“We know honey.”
“We sure do, son. Hey I’ve been there. Believe you me. But, we’ve also talked about that plenty, and I think that the time for talking is up. It’s getting late. I’m gonna quickly grab a couple things, meet you outside and we’ll walk over together?”
“Okay dad. Sure.”
Matt’s mother walked him to the front door while his father went upstairs to collect his things.
“I love you, Matt. You know that, right honey? I love you so much. And if there was anything I could do to control what happens today, I would. You know I would. Do you believe me?”
“Yea. Okay. Sure. Love you too, mom.”
“Well, maybe you can inform your face!” this was a little joke his mom liked to make to lighten the mood whenever he was upset. Ordinarily, Matt found his mother’s droll sense of humour witty and charming. But this time, the mood was too dark, too heavy, and no amount of joking would suffice to lighten it.
Matt’s mother then grabbed and enveloped him in a long, serious embrace. The most serious hug he could remember getting from her in recent memory. First the cricket casserole. Now the Hug to end All Hugs. Oh yes, this was definitely not a good sign.
And just like that, having said goodbye to his mom, maybe for the last time (twenty five percent probability), Matt and his dad were out the house and on their way.
They ambled in silence. There wasn’t much to talk about. As his father had crudely pointed out, they’d already discussed the matter to death (no pun intended), and so there was little left to say. Today was the day. He was going on his first date with a woman. And that was that. It was happening. He was excited. He was! But he was also petrified. I mean, 25%. How would you feel?
After several seemingly endless meters of silent strolling, Matt’s father became preoccupied with something, and Matt took this opportunity — his absolute final chance — to tip the odds in his favour.
After slowing down a little to allow his dad to get ahead, Matt stopped, bent his knees and tucked his legs underneath. He got close to the ground, closed his eyes, and whispered out a prayer:
“Dear Lord. Creator of all things — almighty ǀKágge̥n: please, spare my life today. If so, I will forever remain in your debt, I will lead a life of unquestioned servitude, I will follow you to the gates of hell, and back, until my very last breath — if you spare my life today. Thank you. Amen.”
In the heat of the moment, Matt didn’t notice that his father had stopped what he was doing, and had been looking at him with a tender look of amusement.
“Paying respects to ǀKágge̥n, I see? Didn’t know you were religious.”
Matt quickly got up. His aqua-green skin blushed into a tint of rose, and he lowered his head.
“Hey! No no. No need to be embarrassed, absolutely not. Trust me, I get. It’s totally okay. It’s just … that .. well … you’re praying.”
“So? I thought you said it was o — ”
“Oh it is! It is. But. Oh come on, Matty! A Praying Mantis … praying? You’re a praying praying mantis! Ha!! Oh that’s so funny!” his father could hardly contain his delight.
What a stupid joke. What a derivative, dumbass joke. But instead of getting angry, Matt just got sad. Because he loved his stupid dad along with his stupid dad-jokes. And the realization that this may well be the last time he gets to hear one of them — it really hit him. And for the first time that day, he felt far more sad than he did scared.
He was going to have his first (and possibly only) date with a woman. And everyone knew what that meant. Oh yes, pretty much everybody knows — not just in Mantis society — but across the animal kingdom, it is known:
When praying mantises mate, around twenty-five percent of the time, the male’s head is severed by the female, and his corpse devoured in order to nourish her body.
One in four.
It was time to face the music.
Her name was Magda, and she was one of the most beautiful mantises — heck, one of the most beautiful insects of the Mantodea order! — Matt had ever seen.
They met up on the branches of a tree, on a secluded, shady side of the river. It was a nice enough spot for a date, but Matt had hardly taken note of the location. From the moment he saw her, he was flabbergasted by her beauty — completely mesmerized.
He momentarily flashed back to a day at school where they had once read a story entitled “Love at First Sight”. At the time, Matt didn’t really grasp the concept, and thought it was stupid — until now. Everything made sense now. The story from school, the love ballads of the crickets’ choirs, the way his dad looked at his mom — it all finally made sense.
Magda was an absolute delight. She was confident, yet reserved. Charming, easy-going, coy, graceful, and beautiful. My god was she ever. The kind of girl who either didn’t know — or acted like she didn’t know — just how beautiful she was.
She was passionate about sunflowers and spoke animatedly about all the different varieties she’d seen. He could listen to her all day. The coquettish way she would brush his forearm when she laughed, the way her big eyes sparkled when she was making a joke, the sweet scent of her skin … a temptress if there ever was one.
Oh boy. Look at her. You’re in it now. What’s the plan, Matt?
After several minutes, having gotten the pleasantries and backstories out of the way, the conversation took a more serious tone.
“So?” she started.
“So.” Matt didn’t know what else to say. She would have to lead.
“I’m guessing your parents have talked to you about today? About what .. could happen?”
Incredibly, since meeting up with Magda, Matt had temporarily forgotten about the dilemma of the day. The relentless torment of the last week had simply vacated his mind, and now that he was reminded of it, he couldn’t quite comprehend his feelings. Gripped by an emotional squall — paradoxically excited and afraid and more confused than ever — he wanted to scream and expel the disquiet in him, but instead opted for a more measured response.
“Yep. They have. They umm .. We’ve discussed it.” What else could he say?
“And how do you feel now?”
“A little .. ummm .. I’m not sure actually. It’s definitely .. umm .. I … well how do you feel about it?”, he finally sputtered out.
Idiot! Stop acting like an imbecile, stuttering like a witless grasshopper. You’re making a fool of yourself. She’s gonna think you’re a moron. And nobody wants to mate with a moron. You’re a mantis. Get your shit together.
“Well, to be honest I’m kind of torn up about it,” she replied.
“Really?” Matt was intrigued.
“Yea I mean. My mom and Italked about it a lot. She explained everything to me, about how it’s very natura — ”
“Natural! Yes. That’s what my mom said to me this morning. How does that even work? Do you, like, choose to do it? Is it a choice? Do you decide in advance?”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Magda said.
Goodness she was beautiful.
“I don’t know” she shrugged. “Apparently it’s like .. a heat-of-the-moment kinda thing. Not something you really plan for. You just sort of know, and go for it.”
Matt was certainly ready to go for it. But he didn’t speak. Instead, he issued himself a private reprimand for staring at her legs and not paying attention to the literal life-or-death conversation they were having.
Magda continued: “Me and some of the girls at school have been talking about it. It’s a very curious thing. I mean, first of all, I don’t know if I want to raise children on my own. Plus there’s the whole equality movement, and I kind of agree with their rhetoric.”
“How could you not? It’s very compelling.”
“Totally. It makes sense, right? It’s not like eating beetles or grasshoppers. We’re in the same order! We shouldn’t be treating each other like that. The whole idea is just a little unsettling .. even sort of — ” Magda took a moment to adorably search for the right word, “ — perverse.”
Matt was only half listening. The seductive, nonchalant swaying of her antennae had had him hypnotized. He once again willed himself to concentrate, hoping that his newly-hued complexion would not betray his thoughts. He needed to get a hold of himself.
“So then what do you think the evolutionary precedent is?” he asked, composing himself, trying to sound as intelligent and sophisticated as possible.
“Well,” she started, “apart from nourishment to the body — which everyone already knows about — we also learned at school that there’s an advantage for the offspring. That the umm .. manoeuvre actually intensifies male virility and produces more, and healthier, children. I mean … ” she trailed off.
Matt was putty in her presence. He’d never imagined anyone could talk about a ruthless and savage act of insecticide with the grace and subtlety of a poet. Manoeuvre. what a word. I think I love you is what he wanted to say; but instead, he just nodded along.
“I think so.”
What ensued was, for lack of a better word, endearing.
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of indulging in carnal acts will tell you that once it gets going, you sort of lose yourself in the moment. Neither Matt nor Magda had ever done this before, but the motions seemed to come effortlessly as they entangled in their venereal dance.
After several minutes, as they approached the climax of their copulation, Matt was struck by a sudden moment of clarity:
This is it. It’s going to happen. I want it to happen! I want to give my children the best chance of survival. They will be fine with their mother. She’ll be strong. And my kids will be strong too. I’m ready. I’m not afraid anymore. This is right. This makes sense.
And then, it was over.
The sperm of the young male mantis had been deposited into the female’s reproductive tract. Mission accomplished.
“You okay?” Magda asked, still panting.
“Yea. I’m fine.”
“Something’s wrong. What happened? Was that not good?” she asked, with the slightest hint of self-doubt creeping in her voice.
“Oh no. Of course, it was great. Really good. It was amazing. You’re amazing.”
“Ummm .. okay. Except you don’t look like it was amazing.”
“I am! It was! It’s just tha — “
“Well, why didn’t you? I mean .. how come you didn’t … you know .. go for it.” Matt asked softly, hardly above a whisper.
Magda’s eyes grew wide with amazement. “You wanted me to bite your head off?”
“Well, no! Obviously not. But, I mean, I dunno, maybe. I guess I don’t know. It’s just .. did you .. was there … I mean, did you want to?”
“What? Eat you alive? No! Of course not. I told you, I never wanted to. It’s something that just happens sometimes. Some girls get swept up in the moment and can’t control themselves. Aren’t you happy I didn’t?”
Matt didn’t know what he was. He was happy to be alive. Sure. Obviously. His prayers had been answered, but he was also feeling insecure. Why hadn’t she been swept up in the moment? Had he done something wrong? Was he not good enough? Didn’t she want to give their kids the best chance at survival?
“Yes. Sorry. Yes! I am happy. Absolutely. I promise. Everything’s fine.”
“Alright” she replied, squinting her eyes to indicate playful suspicion. “I’m gonna head back now. Need to make sure these babies are laid in the right environment. I uhh.. guess I’ll see you later?”
“Sounds good. I’ll come by tomorrow. We can talk about the future.”
“Alright then, take care.”
And just like that, it was over. And she was gone.
Matt took the long way home, pondering and pouring over everything in his head. He couldn’t stop thinking about the way Magda had looked afterward. There must not have been any heat in the moment for her. If there had been — if he had been good enough — things may have gone differently. Of course, if they had, he wouldn’t be here to enjoy it. So that’s a good thing. He should be happy. But in truth, he wasn’t happy. He felt empty.
Irresolute about whether the afternoon’s events — the anticlimactic climax — had been a good thing or not, Matt meandered back home. Having spent endless days worrying about dying, now that he was alive, he wondered if that was what he really wanted.
Was it? Did he? He wasn’t sure.
All he knew was that he’d gone through — and survived — a momentous rite of passage. As far as mantis life went, it was the rite of passage. And he’d made it. He’d survived. Just like his dad. He was one of the lucky ones.
Or was he?