SUMMER IS DEAD. People are using lyrics from Boys of Summer in their status updates. The memory of Joyland is still fresh in my mind. Pumpkin Spice is being shoved at me everywhere. So I’m extra moody today as I mourn the summer that never really was.
Hey I got an idea, Jeff!
What? Who are you?
I’m a narrative device. Why don’t you tell people about the awesome things that happened this summer?
You know, the two awesome things . . .
Yeah the bugs! They’re pretty awesome.
You’re an asshat.
I know you are but so am I!
Normally, bug stories from my home are pretty straightforward—Elsa will abduct an insect and house it until it starves. Hardly worth a blog post.
But this summer, I said “Enough! Enough with this pesticide!” I said that twice.
The first time I beat death. Elsa abducted a caterpillar* and tossed it inside this collapsible bug enclosure she uses to starve bugs to death. It’s littered with tiny desiccated corpses and the dried leaves that were once the honest attempt to feed the prisoners. The scene is both sweet and brutal.
The enclosure containing this caterpillar was exiled to the back deck, which is where we put the insects we’re taking care of when no hope remains. There’s no coming back from the back deck. But on this day, it just so happened that I jumped up from my chair to do something responsible, like taking the garbage outside the house, and I walked past the enclosure with the caterpillar and saw a flutter out of the corner of my eye. A flutter. Something alive! You know where this is going. That’s right. The caterpillar became a butterfly! So the neglect could almost seem like it was just part of the plan.
Having this butterfly posed a problem. It’s much easier to watch a caterpillar dry up and die than watching a delicate winged creature slam about in a container. We needed to release the butterfly. I called the children outside to gather around and gawk at the captive. They were duly amazed. Then I told them we were going to release the butterfly that very day. Right at that moment. They agreed that we had a mandate to free the beautiful butterfly since it was no longer a repulsive caterpillar. It was a triumphant moment and I felt thrilled for all of nature.
Two days later we were going to my in-laws’ house for some get-together or some other bullshit. I was walking out on the back deck to load the truck with the diaper bag when I saw a flutter out of the corner of my eye. Shit. We never released the butterfly. We were the monsters of the 21st century. But it was still alive! On the wings of shame, I threw the enclosure in the truck with the diaper bag and we were off to deal with family issues.
As soon as we were at my in-laws, I unzipped the enclosure and released the majestic creature. I’d love to report that the butterfly zoomed up and off, farting a rainbow of ecstasy all over Chicagoland. But that’s not how things went down. The butterfly flopped about on the driveway. In the sun. Exhausted and nearly dead. I watched in resigned horror with Elsa as the butterfly realized that it was free. Free to die.
Whatever passes for gritty resolve in butterflies must have suddenly risen up because with a mighty effort, the butterfly began to fly. For 10 minutes it floundered about five feet off the ground. Clumsily finding its wings. It went the width of the driveway, from hedge to hedge before seeming to find focus. It lasered in on a flower. And went to work.
It must have hopped from flower to flower for the next half hour, sampling, drinking deep, and filling itself with life. Finally, it lifted off, strong and powerful. It flew away. But not before restoring a bit of the magic I lost after turning 40.
The second time I slammed the door in the face of the grim reaper was about a month later. I came home from work, greeted by some shouts. They weren’t pain-shouts, they were regular shouts, so this part of the story isn’t unusual and you can probably disregard it. The little ones were shouting because they had bested a mighty beast. In their tribal language of squeals and grunts, they told me the tale of how The Great White Mother Conquered the Green Demon in an Epic Battle. Then they showed me. In the bug enclosure, openly staring back at me like “WHAT YOU WANT!?” was a praying mantis.
Great White Mother then told me that she caught the praying mantis with an empty cotton candy bucket after it landed on our front door. It was remarkable for a few reasons** but I was immediately struck with three things: the realization that this creature chose us, the deep shame that comes with knowing your children ate a goddamn bucket of cotton candy, and the understanding that this animal needs to eat if we wanted to keep it as a pet.
I took the kids to the pet store and bought a box of crickets. 36 crickets were promised for $5.99. I threw the box out so I can’t verify whether or not they promised 36 live crickets. But we got maybe 6 live ones.
We plopped the first one in there and the praying mantis preyed the hell out of it, tearing through its head and sucking out its insides while its legs twitched the entire time. Look at the nature, children! Stare into the alien maw of nature!
Elsa immediately wanted to keep the rest of the living crickets as pets. Instead, we fed them to the mantis. In two days, they were all gone.
A week later, I was scraping maggots off of the garbage can lid into a little cup.
A few days after that I was stomping through the house trying to catch the fattest damn fly I had ever seen. And I caught it in my bare hand like a grown-ass man. It was plump. It buzzed in my fist. It was a worthy meal. It felt good to offer it up to the mantis. It felt right. It was right to give food; to give living, buzzing life unto the mantis. I keep catching flies. I chased a moth for 20 minutes by the light of my backyard’s floodlight. I’m always looking for offerings.
I am growing in favor with the Mantis.
Soon he will reveal his secrets to me.
*Fun Fact: My mom is TERRIFIED of caterpillars. So if you want to see an expression other than her resting bitch face, just throw a few fuzzy-crawlies at her.
**When Jill sees a bug, she unleashes a sonic weapon known as the bug alarm. It’s sort of a scream on top of a shriek, powered by a howl. So for her to catch the bug equivalent of the alien from Alien is nothing short of amazing.