Contest #44 shortlist ⭐️

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Nannette pinches out the candle next to the door. “God be with you, Ari.”


The words come out of her mouth like juice squeezed from the rind of a lemon: sour and strained. And then she’s gone. I don’t have time even to croak a “Goodbye.” She slams the door, leaving rattling hinges and dying spires of smoke behind her. 


This is the way she always leaves. Her lips form the words “God be with you” habitually. This time, though, feels different. Final. Something about the palpable bitterness of her voice, or the stiffness of her narrow shoulders, tells me she isn’t coming back. Or maybe the trembling of her knees reminds me that we’re in our sixties now; too old to play the game of back-and-forth. 


I watch through the window blinds as she climbs into the car, a silver star of David bouncing on her sternum. The engine hums and putters. And then she is gone. I watch the last drop of wax coagulate at the base of the candle. Not even God is with me now. 

---

The garden is staked with four poles and walled with chicken wire. Tiny bean sprouts poke up from the scalp of the earth. Despite the ache in my bones, I kneel to the ground. I lower myself until my earlobe grazes the dirt, and I listen. My grandmother told me a long, long time ago that you can hear a plant growing if you listen closely. Today, I can only hear the distant jingle of windchimes.


When I lift my head, a mantis with eyes like peeled grapes is staring at me. A small, spindly alien, too strange to come from this earth. It cocks its pinched face to the side.


With a childlike curiosity, I extend my hand. I’m startled at the lines and calluses that score my palms, which used to be smooth. Now they’ve been split open like the leather on an old soccer ball. The insect approaches gingerly, placing its front feet on my hand. It crawls onto me, grazing the ligature on my ring finger where my wedding band used to sit. I lift the creature to my eyeline. One of its back legs is twisted and limp like a dandelion stem. It’s injured. 


Nannette never understood my affinity for insects. I remember pulling a ladybug from her hair when we were much, much younger and mad with love. She shrieked and flicked it off my finger. I learned to put my own desires aside. But now, looking at this mantis, I marvel at its angular body, the perfect convergence of the geometric and the natural. Something in me reawakens. 

--

Dora, as I’ve named her, drinks water droplets from a q-tip. I swat her a fly from the ceiling and watch her pincers tear it to shreds. She seems grateful, in her own way. I’ve often seen birds roost in nearby trees with mantids dangling from their beaks, feeding the appendages to their babies. Dora, though, is safe for the night. 


Nannette would be horrified at the mess I’ve made. Some dirt spilled on the carpet as I was tamping it into the bottom of a mason jar. My filthy fingertips smeared the knobs on the kitchen cabinets, and my shoes tracked dead leaves across the floor. Nannette was always fond of cleanliness, mostly for its proximity to godliness. The couch cushions have always been wrapped in plastic like sandwiches, protecting the upholstery from stains. But she isn’t here to chastise. 


Dora has acclimated to her makeshift terrarium. She has only one piece of furniture: a twig that bisects the jar diagonally. It’s important for mantids to hang from a branch when they shed their skin. Now, though, she’s finishing her dinner. 


I place my finger against the cold glass. Dora’s thorny front leg twitches out for a moment, as if to touch me back. I feel an odd pulse of energy. This is the most intimate moment I’ve had with a living creature since Nannette slid the ring on my finger some forty years ago. I’ll always remember how tender her fingers felt before they became cruel instruments, striking matches against flint and pinching out the flames.


I stay with Dora for a long time. I watch.

--

The next day is Saturday, the sabbath. Nannette would have lit the candles before sunrise. I stand by the front door with a box of matches, contemplating. The hardened streaks of wax remain exactly as they were when she left. The wick puckers out like a black knot from the top. I run my fingers over the comb of the matchbox, which still bears the marks from Nannette's tireless scratching. Everything in this house is still marked by her. Our life together still echoes through it, frozen in time like a bug in amber. 


In the end, the house stays dark. I put the match back in the box. 


Dora is hanging from the branch. I think she is preparing to molt, which is when the mantis sheds its skin like a cornhusk. Tiny buds on her back mark where wings will grow. I offer her crickets on the end of brittle twigs, but she stays still. Even live prey doesn’t entice her. She’s going through an internal change, deeply encoded, inevitable. No outside force can perturb her. 


In a strange way, I feel like I’m with her. Like something inside me is shifting, too. I’m compelled to throw open the windows, even if the sun might fade the carpet. I finally unwrap the couch and let it be touched by sun and skin and air. This house has shed its exoskeleton, and is ready to sprout its wings. 

--

After the third day, Dora begins to move again. The filmy white exoskeleton falls like a crumpled-up receipt into the bottom of the jar. A new set of wings folds neatly on her back. She fans them out a few times, testing them out, then stows them away. Her grape eyes dart around with a new vigor. And her back leg, once contorted like a pretzel, now stands stiff and robust.


I go outside and pluck a cricket from a rosebush. It wriggles between my thumb and pointer finger as I lower it into Dora’s enclosure. She watches the little bug, pincers twitching, but does not feed. I wet the end of a q tip and dangle it in front of her, but she does not drink. She paces, agitated, in the circle of dirt. Occasionally she flutters upwards, but I put my hand over the top of the jar. 


I want to keep her, just a little longer. But I know, and my heart knows, that it’s time to let her go. She’s outgrown this tiny terrarium. She’s ready to go back into the world. 


I flick open the latches of the window and tilt it open. Tears well in the corners of my eyes, hot and unexpected. I can’t remember the last time I cried. I regard Dora one last time. In only a few days, she’s become a new creature. Slowly, I retract my hand from the jar’s mouth. Dora flutters unsteadily upwards, adjusting to her new appendages. Then she seems to find her balance. She slips out the crack in the window and buzzes away. 


A panel of sunlight falls across my face, as if searching for the desire that used to be written so plainly across my face, but now has sunk into creases and wrinkles. I watch her fly away in a green blur, and whisper under my breath, “God be with you.”

June 04, 2020 21:08

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1 comment

Ranya Navarez
16:04 Jun 11, 2020

Hey, Alyssa! I got you for the critique circle this week! I don't have much criticism to give, though. This was a very well-written story, and well-told. Well-done and keep writing!

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