Garden Variety

by Jarod K. Anderson

The garden was beautiful. The garden was a massacre.

Ally sat with her back against the sun-warmed cedar siding of the tool shed, tucked in between the snapdragons and the bleeding hearts. The mulch underneath her had been flattened by countless long afternoons of sitting and watching. Ally’s mom had taken to calling the dented section of garden the “Ally Patch,” and teased that if she kept it up much longer, she would probably put down roots.

That would be fine with me, thought Ally. Her mom thought that she loved the flowers. She thought that she was watching the birds.

Ally loved monsters. Almost a year earlier, on her twelfth birthday, her uncle Mark had taken her to see her first real scary movie. He had had to pretend to be her father, but the theater sold him the tickets. The movie was all about a monster that looked human right up until it was ready to eat somebody. It wore a long brown trench coat and never said a word; its human-looking mouth wasn’t its real mouth, after all. Ally had been terrified. She had been exhilarated. She had been in love. After the movie, on the walk to the car, her uncle had mistaken her silence for fear, and had reminded her that it wasn’t real, but that was the last thing Ally wanted to hear.

She found it wasn’t easy to be in love with monsters. Her classmates that loved outer space could dream of being astronauts. They could ask for telescopes for their birthdays. They could tell their teachers about their love. What could she do?

The answer came late one Saturday afternoon when Ally was out in the yard hunting fireflies with a badminton racket. She was watching the wreckage of her last victim fading into the grass when movement in the lilac bush caught her attention. At first, she had a hard time understanding what she was seeing. It was a tangle of bright feathers and sharp green lines. It was beautiful.

A praying mantis, bigger than Ally’s hand, had caught a hummingbird. The combined weight of the bird and insect together was bending the slender branches of the lilac, but the mantis somehow kept its grip on both bush and the bird. Ally didn’t know how long ago the bird had been caught, but it wasn’t struggling. The mantis had gnawed into the bird’s chest, and as it ate bits of down and feather floated away on the breeze like dandelion fluff.

Ally was mesmerized. She had never seen anything like it. She watched the mantis eating until her neck was stiff, then she kept watching. When the streetlights hummed and fluttered to life, she prayed that her mom wouldn’t notice that it was getting dark. When her mom did call, she walked backwards toward the house, straining to keep watching through the darkness.

In the morning, she wolfed down her breakfast and begged permission to go “out to play.” A handful of feathers were scattered about on the lawn under the lilac, but there was no sign of the mantis, no sign of yesterday’s miracle. Ally put a few of the feathers in her pocket and turned to look around at the garden. She had seen under the garden’s brown trench coat. She had seen its real face, its real mouth, and all its beautiful teeth. She grinned. “I see you,” she whispered. “It’s ok. I’m like you.”

She was right. She found her love’s face under every rock and plant: scab-red ants peeling the skin from a caterpillar under the hosta; a fat spider, swollen with kills, lurking in the grey trumpet funnel of its web; flies whose soft pale bodies tapered to a scorpion’s sting. Every moment in the garden held expectations of new, gorgeous savagery.

Ally had quickly discovered that the garden was most beautiful when she didn’t go hunting for its charms. Sitting still, her eyes close to the ground, being coy with the monsters, that was the way to win their affections. She chose her spot, “The Ally Patch,” because the snapdragons and bleeding hearts seemed to attract numerous and various flies, butterflies, and other nectar loving insects. These were the sheep of the garden. And where there were sheep, the wolves were sure to follow.

On the Wednesday that Ally turned thirteen, she stopped being a child. After school, she quickly scribbled her way through her homework, thankfully nothing more than a vocabulary worksheet for Mr. Van Dorn’s science class, and prepared for her birthday party. The party was her mother’s idea. Ally didn’t particularly want a party, but she knew that it was important to her mom.

Brown trench coats come in lots of shapes and sizes, she thought as her mom carefully arranged the candles on her birthday cake.

She hung out on the back porch with Josie, Sarah, and Sam, the same three friends that had come to her twelfth birthday party. They laughed. They ate cake. Ally was happy when it was time for them to go.

After Josie’s mom’s red station wagon backed out of the driveway and pulled onto the road, Ally made a b-line for her place in the garden.

“Ally? You should really come inside. It’ll be dark soon. Why don’t we both sneak one more piece of cake before bedtime, hmm?” said Ally’s mom.

“I’ll be in in a little bit,” said Ally, barely stopping to answer.

“Ally, it’s a school night and…”

“It’s my birthday, mom. Please?”

“Okay. But, not too long.”

Ally had nearly rounded the corner of the house on her way to the garden before her mother had finished speaking. She had a feeling that her mother wouldn’t push the issue. It was her birthday.

She plopped down in the Ally-shaped divot that was her home away from home and opened her senses. There was a certain rhythm to tuning out the background noise of the garden and teasing out the precious horror.

The garden seemed to know that it was a special day. A colony of big black ants was challenging the reds under the snapdragons. The fight was congealing like old blood –coagulating into clumps of biting ants and discarded limbs.

Ally giggled. This was her favorite present of the day.

She watched the battle with contented tingles running up and down the length of her body. Then, something wonderful happened. A few of the bleeding heart flowers began to bob and sway. Ally looked up from the ant war to study the sudden movement. And there it was.

A praying mantis, the praying mantis was emerging from the center of the plant and moving steadily towards Ally. It looked like the bent stalks of the bleeding heart had spontaneously sprouted a tangle of living thorns.

The mantis simply froze, less than two feet from Ally’s wide-eyed face. Then, running the tip of one of its forelegs through its jaws, it began cleaning its oversized eyes in a strange feline motion.

Ally made a little gasping noise and shifted to lean closer to the mantis. Seeing the movement, the insect froze mid-cleaning and tilted its head to look directly into Ally’s face. Eye contact. Electricity coursed though Ally’s body. This was like nothing before it. She wasn’t simply watching a show. She wasn’t looking at the monster. Not a spectator. The monsters were looking back. They knew her face.

Ally shivered and leaned closer. The mantis recoiled for a moment and then it spoke. Not in words, but in action. In a trembling instant the mantis went from a startled reticence to a full defensive posture. It splayed wide its jagged forearms, grew to its full height, and spread iridescent wings that somehow caught the last rays of the fading sunlight.

Ally never broke contact with the mantis’s eyes and the alien intelligence behind them. She had no doubts about what she was looking at. This was an invitation, a message. An extended hand from the monsters.

Her mind raced. She had to respond, but it needed to be the right response. How could she make them understand? She wasn’t just a spectator. She wasn’t just a sheep, a brown trench coat with nothing underneath. She was…

Slender hands closed on the mantis. Less than a breath later, Ally’s teeth split the chitinous upper body of the huge insect. Its blood tasted the way fresh mown grass smells. It fought. It should fight, Ally thought.

Again and again she snapped and bit with vicious speed, but her eyes never stopped smiling. She heard the metallic ring of plate and forks clattering to the lawn, but she didn’t stop chewing. She looked up at her pale, wilting mother. She looked at her, then through her to the dark plane that was opening up in front of her and the shapes like cities of shadow that were rising up to welcome her home.

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