Mantis stood each morning on the porch railing of a suburban backyard, arms pressed together in contemplation. He began his daily meditation by relaxing his eyes and focusing on the breath. Inhale, exhale. That was his mantra on loop, until the breath became automatic and his mind was freed of thoughts. In this state, Mantis was able to let go of his attachments to self and others, and could simply be. Except for the green of his exoskeleton, no one would have noticed him there, his breath was so imperceptible. His meditations lasted for hours each day, breaking only when thoughts of hunger made their way into his mind, and then he set his focus on his catch of the day.
One morning as Mantis climbed to his meditation spot, he noticed something new—a bright red bubble hanging from an iron hook next to the porch railing. He told himself that he would check it out later, and folded his arms in contemplation. He relaxed his eyes and focused on the breath, inhale, exhale. But then he thought red, bubble and he struggled to keep his eyes unfocused. He set his mandible and began again. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, red, bubble, inhale, red, bubble, exhale, red...and his eyes flew open. All he could see was the red bubble. Mantis tried again to center himself, but his mantra whirled away from him and his eyes couldn’t stop focusing on the red bubble. He eventually gave up on meditating and slowly made his way toward it.
When he got closer, Mantis could see that the bubble itself was clear, not red, but inside the bubble floated a red liquid. What is it, he wondered, and what is it for? He studied it, looking for answers. The more he looked, the more the red drew him in. Thoughts of what the red meant raced through his mind, quickening his heartbeat. He felt very unlike himself. He drew in a deep breath, relaxed his eyes, and folded his arms together to still himself. But he could not still his mind, and it made him weary. After many hours of focus on the bubble, Mantis made his way across the porch and up the wall to the light. He was too distracted by his thoughts to focus on hunting. Anchored to the wall on four legs, he hid behind the light’s glare. He had only to reach out and take moths from the air, so his mind was free to think about the red bubble as his hands and mandible worked without direction. After many moths, Mantis fell into a fitful sleep there, his body still anchored to the wall, and he dreamt of the red bubble—him standing atop it, and then hurling himself off and stretching into a headfirst dive toward the ground.
The next morning, Mantis woke with the red bubble in his sights. Just as he started toward it, he noticed a flash of color moving nearby. The color never stopped for long enough for Mantis to make out the details. He grew even more curious, wondering if maybe this flash of color could help him understand the red bubble and calm his thoughts. By the time Mantis reached the red bubble, the flash of color was gone. What was that, Mantis wondered, and what was it doing? Cautiously, he eased his way out onto the hook and then down onto the bubble. From the top, Mantis could see that the bubble had flowers at its base, and soon his antennae were overwhelmed by a strong, sweet smell. He felt compelled to try it, though it smelled nothing like a bee, his favorite sweet food. Mantis drew in a deep breath and pressed his mouth to a small tube inside one of the flowers. The red liquid filled his mouth and he felt a warmth flow through him, like nothing else he’d ever felt. When he drew his mouth away, his head was swimming and his heart began to quicken. He went back in for another drink. And another, until he couldn’t drink another drop. Mantis climbed the red bubble, his legs unsteady on his own winding path. At the top, he pressed his arms together in contemplation. His eyelids fluttered from time to time; his mantra inhale, exhale, was replaced by a low humming in his throat; and his green exoskeleton vibrated.
Days went by like this, Mantis going immediately to the red bubble in the morning, seeing the flash of color but never what made it, and filling his senses with the sweet buzzing sound of the red bubble. He began to focus more on the flash of color, and scanned the backyard for signs. Sometimes he thought he saw it in the distance, and his heart raced. But it never came close enough for him to be sure that it wasn’t a creation of his increasingly agitated mind. He would relax his eyes to meditate, only to see a flash of color again, startling him into scanning the backyard again. By the time he knew he should go hunting, he couldn’t blink without seeing flashes of color, so he drank from the red bubble before going. In his mind, he repeated his mantra bubble, drink, breathe, as he took shaky steps onto the porch railing. It was the same the next day. And the next. He developed a tremble in his arms when he pressed them together in contemplation.
Mantis grew nervous at the thought of leaving the bubble to hunt, and his furtive glances while he hunted at the light made him miss the moths more often than not. The hunting was not as regular on the porch railing, and his inaccurate aim caused him to fail at catching a seven-legged spider. Then one day Mantis gave up hunting altogether, and decided to stay at the red bubble, to drink its sweetness. And maybe, just maybe, he would finally catch a glimpse of the flash of color up close. So he crawled to the bottom of the bubble and hid in waiting, his green exoskeleton twitching as he folded his arms in contemplation. And he waited…
Hummingbird liked an easy meal. He had a daily schedule that he kept to, zigzagging through the backyards of the suburbs, drinking from the fountains that were there just for him. In one backyard, he’d discovered a particularly tasty nectar served up in a shiny bubble. It was his first stop of the day. After he’d drank his fill, he claimed it as his. Then he flitted off to do his hummingbird errands. Constant movement requires a lot of nectar, so he came back a few hours later. But before he made it there, Hummingbird noticed something strange atop the shiny bubble. When he moved closer, he could see that it was bug, one as large as he was. Sure, he was a small bird, but no one wants to come eye-to-eye with a bug that’s their height. So he checked in many times throughout the day, and always the bug was there, sitting atop the shiny bubble or making its way to and from the fountain. That’s my nectar, Hummingbird thought, and buzzed away.
As the days passed, Hummingbird grew bolder, flying low when the bug stood on top of bubble, and flying high when the bug went down for a drink. Sometimes, he got the feeling that the bug knew he was there, when it jerked its head side to side and slowly spun around. But the bug was slow-moving, and Hummingbird soon realized that he could drink from the shiny bubble easily. But he always made sure that the bug wasn’t near the flowers first. One afternoon, he found his shiny bubble clear of the giant bug, and he sped a few laps around the yard. Then he drank twice as much nectar as he otherwise would have, to celebrate his luck.
When Mantis woke to a whirring breeze stirring his antennae, he was confused. Then he saw the flash of color, and all of his senses went on alert. This close up, the flash of color was not a flash at all, but a solid shape that moved through the air, this way and that, in patterns that Mantis couldn’t decipher. He stretched his body out to its full length slowly, attempting to get a better look, and was shocked to see that it was a bird, small as he, with a thin beak and shiny feathers. Even though the bird was a small one, still Mantis was afraid of coming eye-to-eye with him. He stayed in hiding until the bird flew away again, only barely revealing himself to drink the red liquid.
This game of Mantis hiding, then drinking, then hiding, and Hummingbird drinking, then flitting away, then drinking, went on and on. Over time, Mantis became fixated on the deep red of the bird’s throat, his eyes darting with it and his mind looping the mantra red, hmmm. Without realizing it, Mantis began to move closer and closer to the bird, until eventually, he was no longer hidden.
Mid-drink, Hummingbird spotted the bug, and grew angry that he’d been fooled. He wasn’t going to stand for a bug drinking his nectar anymore, so he flew at it, ramming his long beak into the bug’s face and neck. He planned to take his shiny bubble back.
The bird had attacked without warning, and Mantis wasn’t sure how to shield himself as the bird constantly changed direction in its attack. He folded his arms in front of his face, in protection. And when the bird hit him directly from the front, Mantis thrust his arms outward to push it away. But the bird’s flesh gave way to the pointy spines, and Mantis felt his arms sink into its chest.
Hummingbird felt the bug’s arms tear through him, and he tried to fly away. But the bug held on, so he flapped his wings harder and thrashed his small body. When that didn’t work, he attacked the bug again. The frantic motions of his body made the shiny bubble sway and he saw the bug slip. And then they were falling. Hummingbird tried one more time to fly away, but his wings were weak and his vision was blurry. The last thing Hummingbird saw was the bug’s empty green eyes staring down at him.
Mantis could feel the quick jerk of the bird’s heart briefly before it stuttered to a stop. He tensed his arms, still inside the bird, and waited for it to erupt in another blur of motion, but it didn’t. So close up, Mantis noticed that the bird smelled sweet like a bee, but not as sweet as the red liquid in the bubble. Compelled by its sweetness, Mantis buried his face in the soft down of the bird’s red throat, inhaling its scent for a long time before pushing his mandible into the bird and beginning to drink. He drank until his arms felt thick and heavy, and then he pulled them out of the bird, and turned his back to the remains. Mantis made his way, more slowly than usual, up to the porch railing and then out onto the red bubble. He settled into his four-legged stance and looked down at the red liquid below. Then he folded his arms in contemplation, and with a small twitch in his mandible and a buzzing in his exoskeleton, he began his mantra. Breathe, wait, drink.
This short story was published in Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel 16: Tricksters, Truthtellers, and Lost Souls. I read it at Joseph-Beth in Crestview, KY, in March 2014, and again at Coffee Tree Books in Morehead, KY, in April 2014.