a story of a man and his mantis...
Dr. Peter Engle waits warily in a restaurant for a colleague whom he must grudgingly admit is his superior. The Red Dragon is a new-fangled fusion establishment, and he could hardly say he was expecting greatness. St. Louis had been host to so many fondly remembered traditional Chinese restaurants of the glorious past; how sad that he is sitting down at this monstrosity! He wants to sneer at the absurdities clothing themselves in leisure wear at the adjacent tables, but keeps his eyes on the menu. Modernity had done little to improve the “great unwashed;” how he wishes he could return to his beloved laboratory- and to Christina! Impeccably early, Dr. Engle straightens his cravat, and examines his fine black linen sports coat for traces of dust. His boyhood memories of Mr. Ling, a beloved restauranteur, at the Dragon Restaurant flicker briefly in his mind’s eye, further reminding him of the superior nature of the past to the present. Dr. Engle briefly reflects on the hypocrisy of the world’s hatred of his company, Monsanto, although even he had wrestled internally with its product, Roundup. His Christina seems nature’s terrible answer to the whole conundrum of man’s revulsion to insect. Why, as a boy, he remembered the neighborhood cheers to DDT’s summertime relief from mosquitoes, yet no one is cheering for Monsanto these days. No one has any gratitude!
Soon enough, Frank Meredith arrives to something he fears may be unpleasant. Monsanto must trim some employees before the merger, and he wishes to push Peter Engle, brilliant but troublesome, into early retirement. Engle represents the old guard, and times have changed. Although years away, already the groundwork for the world’s most important merger is being laid. The merger will bring need jobs and revenue to the St. Louis area: jobs for fresher, younger employees than Dr. Engle. As a toxicologist, Meredith views Engle’s entomology background as unnecessary to the company. The usual pleasantries are exchanged, but Frank has never quite warmed to the chilly Mr. Engle, with his cavernous blue eyes, hawkish nose, and cheekbones that jut out too sharply. Engle orders only Asian short ribs and hot tea, and isn’t much for small talk. “Might I trouble you for honey and milk with the tea?” He queries the efficient waiter, but says little beyond that.
“Have you thought of retirement, Peter?” Dr. Meredith says at last.
“My present project consumes me and the lab is quite necessary to my continued work.” Dr. Engle states this with direct eye contact as if to impose his will on Dr. Meredith.
Gently, Dr. Meredith continues the troublesome subject of retirement, but Engle seems more concerned with clearing out his laboratory in absolute privacy than with any other subject. Engle’s fork often sweeps over the food on the plate, as if he were scanning it for contamination. He seems very concerned with “properly” ending an unspecified project. Something strange in these reactions causes Frank to feel a moment’s unease, as if some entity had walked over his future grave, but he dismisses the feeling, and tries to respect the legacy of Dr. Peter Engle at Monsanto with the warmest wishes he can muster. He will even pencil in a retirement party to take place well before the impending merger. They traditionally end the matter with a firm handshake.
Engle tries not to give the impression of haste, but he must get to Christina before his retirement goes into effect the next Monday. He calls his secretary, laboratory assistant, and more, Klaus, a great help, and rushes back to the Monsanto Center. He can hear Christina’s movements in the concealed cage. Soon, Klaus limps to him; so very sad over the news of his departure. He has found more of a colleague in this secretary than in any fellow scientist! Klaus might have reached greatness himself, if not for the accident in college that sidelined his education. The Meyer family history being one of tragic histories, intermittent genius, and brilliant careers, but Engle had long tired of the stories.
“What of Christina now?” Klaus stares in near agony.
“I will take her home. Can you help in her feeding until we get settled?”
“Yes, sir, but how shall we conceal her for the ride home?”
“A blanket, Klaus! A mere blanket!” laughs Peter. Why should he be forced to conceal her, his crowning achievement? What rules has he broken that he should hide? The world has forced his complicit obedience long enough, but now, his research was entirely his. He has lost his laboratory, but gained a companion to help him look forward to his retirement! Although taking Christina to the dog park is out of the question, his yard is secluded enough for them. She has taken a leash in the past, after all.
“Christina!” he cries, tearing up at the thought of taking her from the only home she has known. The mantis moves towards him, with the great clicking sounds he has grown to love. Almost as large as a German Shepherd, the only survivor of his secret foray into the insect genome, she is Monsanto’s unknown glory. Now, with the merger, the Monsanto name will never be lifted to the giddying heights Peter had once envisioned for all of them! Although his extreme revulsion to insects has led to her creation, he feels as if she is a cherished family pet. The glorious Carolina Mantis is a natural friend to humans and enemy of the insect pests that wreak havoc. Christina is the largest Carolina Mantis in world history. His genetic research involving the praying mantis had reached its apex with this unusual specimen. Because of her dog-like size, her intelligence and behaviors often remind him of his beloved childhood dog, Christina, her namesake.
The young boy had gone swimming by himself in the glorious summer heat; his old dog Christina had followed him. He had found himself drowning perhaps, and the dog pulled him to shore, but Christina was never seen again.
“You must visit us, Klaus!” Klaus says nothing, but has retrieved a blanket and packaged live rats securely as a “to go” meal for Christina, as well as her favorite dry dog food. He will go along for the ride and leave absolutely nothing to chance! The botanical gardens adjacent to the Monsanto Center had closed for the evening, and Klaus had bribed several employees to allow Christina’s departure in secrecy. That day, a few months prior, when Christina had terrifyingly wandered the gardens, only being lured back to the lab with treats, must never be repeated. She stood, sniffing at the air in a moment of freedom- and how sad Klaus is to deprive her! He holds Christina under the blanket during the long ride in Dr. Engle’s SUV; the animal knows and trusts him and she is traveling in restraints, but how nervous her size and strength still make him! He hopes they will attract no attention from police!
She will now inhabit Dr. Engle’s basement, once envisioned as a play room for children that never came. She is that long awaited child and legacy, though not in the way he’d ever dreamed. She must be comfortable, happy, and well-fed for the rest of her life. Peter isn’t sure what her life span will be; already, she has lived beyond the single year expected of a typical praying mantis; has her size changed more than her intelligence and behavior? He has chosen the same soft music for her sleep as in the lab, and she settles in peaceably enough to her new surroundings. Klaus settles in for the night, as well. Peter may consider him as a long term keeper for Christina, if the arrangements suit him. Peter laments that keeping Christina fed in lab rats might be more difficult without Klaus to bring them home; will Christina’s diet become troublesome in his retirement? And, what comes of the future? The idyllic sunset belies their worries and they feel peace that comes from a family settling in for the night.
Klaus pads down the basement stairs in the morning, engaging the special security system they’ve built for Christina. He hums a tune that’s become a morning song to soothe the creature during her breakfast. Her dance to the song sometimes seems eerily human, even dancing with her “hands,” followed by shockingly predatory treatment of the live rats. Her kill is clean and efficient every time. Her long antenna, the great jaw-like claws and her ferocity make her a formidable sight. The dry dog food afterward seems to function as sort of a dessert for the cherished pet. Still, the creature seems a bit sad in her different surroundings. Dr. Engle visits the basement often, but she remains in an adjustment period. He can almost feel her asking for something more in her life; but the opaque eyes can obscure at times, and Peter has rarely succeeded in understanding any female in his life, except Christina.
An unexpected phone call from Monsanto disrupts the day with the creature. Although ostensibly about a retirement party, Dr. Meredith seems too curious about the details of Peter’s life and habits, and he feels a tinge of discomfort.
“New company protocols must be followed as you retire. You must fill out forms detailing your use of Lab 16 over the past year,” the voice over the phone states, and Peter has to restrain himself from a volatile response.
“I am in feeble health, an age related complaint. I won’t be able to come back to the Monsanto Center for some time.” He manages in a weak voice.
This seems to convince the caller, and the discussion ends after Dr. Engle promises to return within the month to complete paperwork. Shaking, Peter tosses aside the cell phone and wonders if he has left anything incriminating at the headquarters. With horror, he remembers the moltings of Christina and how some of the discarded exoskeletons had been preserved and left behind in the lab. He had never intended her extreme growth that had begun with her ninth molting.
Dr. Meredith had been informed of Dr. Engle’s somewhat odd departure from his lab at the Monsanto Center, and his curiosity itches unbearably. Every day, Dr. Engle’s eyes follow him as he passes under the enormous painting of the scientist that stands in the atrium of the Monsanto Center. The two men stood in contrast to one another, Frank felt, and he deems his colleague an artifact from another era that must be removed for everyone’s sake. Underneath his trimmed goatee and monotone speech, he is a creature of curiosity and of science. Finally, a few days after Engle’s departure, he must act on his instincts and investigate the mystery project. The smells that assault him as he opens the door of Engle’s entomology lab are unlike anything he imagines. Pungent, and only reminiscent of his pet lizard’s cage as a child, the acridness of the odor leads him to cover his nose and mouth with his red tie. A white substance drips on his middle finger and he looks up to divine its source. It is a translucent skeletal shape hanging from the ceiling like an exhibit in a natural history museum. He marvels at the ingenuity of what must be a sculpture, what must be too large to have been alive, but its pungency and the clouded opacity of the liquids dripping from the exoskeleton bring a horrible realization. Whatever had made that monolithic molting, must be an insect…. more giant, more terrible than anything seen since the days of dinosaurs!
Dr. Engle, meanwhile, had underestimated his former colleague, nor anticipated any sudden intrusions. The household that revolved around an insect had begun to function harmoniously. However, the next morning, an alarm wakes up the house. Peter shuts it off before it can draw any undue attention to Christina. He runs towards the basement with poor Klaus falling behind and finds the system has been breached! An eerie quiet unsettles him as the sunlight reveals the undiscovered events of the night before.
Christina seems to be sleeping, or in a state of extreme rest, her eyes half-shut, but something feels amiss. Then, Peter sees the blood and something else in the corner of the room, near Christina’s alfalfa bedding. It is the lifeless body of a man, missing its head! Peter runs to the trash and vomits in horror, remembering the praying mantis’ penchant for sexual cannibalism, but Christina has apparently attempted it with a human male! The body is, indeed, partially unclothed, but who was he? Klaus wearily retrieves the identification and it seems that Frank Meredith has met an untimely end! But, why was he in the basement at all; had discoveries in the lab caused suspicion after all? Peter realizes that his family may be in danger, but where can they go? He must return to the Monsanto Center! Then, a plan dances in the edges of his mind, and he silently pets the sleeping mantis, praying to keep her safe. She emits a muffled groan as he begins moving the body, yet remains still…..
The discovery of the corpse and the monstrous mantis nearby in the Monsanto Center became the stuff of media legend for years to come. Reporters compared Meredith’s research to something out of a Frankenstein movie, and praised the confident handling of the matter by recently retired Dr. Engle. Monsanto had sold the rights to a single photo of the creature to Newsweek, and it had gone viral on all social media platforms. The story, in different forms and media, was retold many times: Apparently, Dr. Frank Meredith had spiraled out of control after warning bells sounded at a disastrous business lunch, but Monsanto had been deaf to the whistleblowers, Dr. Engle and his secretary Klaus. Dr. Peter Engle had granted an all access interview to the St. Louis Dispatch after the incident. All the company could do now was promise to end its forays into entomology, and Christina was transferred to a government laboratory for study.
August 9, 2012
Forgive this old-fashioned missive, as I could not risk leaving a digital trace. I trust my associate has delivered this to you and I trust you will exercise discretion.
Circumstances relating to Christina have developed fortuitously for us; she is being well cared for and studied by decent men of science. How grateful I am that you have secured a position in Atlanta to remain our eyes and ears in this matter!
The horrors of Christina’s kill cannot be erased, but I retain my respect for her magnificence. In many cultures, the mantis was regarded as a goddess, and I have created one in the flesh! She remains the work of my life. The world, which I feared would condemn me, now grants me the pleasure of its appreciation.
How happy I would have been to live out the remainder of my days with Christina and you! How she must have loved us, to have restrained her instincts to kill us with one simple stroke. Her mercies will remain with me for all my life.
Her loneliness concerns me, however, and I quest to find her suitable mates that she may discard or encourage at her will. We will watch and wait for opportunities.
For now, know that you have my utmost gratitude for your years dedicated to science. Please write to me should you require anything.
Dr. Peter Engle