Martin Toman

Sticky and Twiggy

When Kevin was in kinder, there was a terrarium in his classroom. His teacher, Susan, kept a praying mantis in it, and the children in the class named her Sticky. Sticky was the twenty-seventh stick insect that Susan had kept in her classroom over her forty years of teaching. Usually the insects lived for a year or two, provided the children didn’t kill them with kindness. Susan used the mantises to reveal the mysteries of life and death to her students, all played out in miniature.

The pupils took it in turns to feed the praying mantis the caterpillars and aphids they found in the glasshouse vegetable garden that was attached to the school. Over time, Sticky grew to a prodigious size. To Kevin, Sticky looked like an insect robot. He would stare agog at her deliberate movements, each step like a slow motion act that was pre-planned and consciously considered.

One day in winter, it was Kevin’s turn to feed Sticky. Kevin opened the lid of the terrarium, a small jar of live insects in his hand, and peered into the mess of small-scale foliage and stones. Sticky lay on her side, feet in the air, utterly still. He closed the lid and ran for his teacher. Susan inspected the insect and pronounced her dead. She delicately extracted Sticky with a pair of tongs, placed her in a cardboard tray, and with the children in tow, presided over a ceremony where the mantis was laid to rest in the muddy garden. Later, thinking Kevin was upset over the loss of Sticky, Susan sat next to him, putting her arm around his shoulders to comfort her four-year-old student. Kevin looked up at her. The clouds had parted, and the light that streamed through the windows from the overcast sky transformed his eyes from brown to a shade of amber. His expression was blank, the edges of his lips slightly downturned so as to make his small face appear almost grim. Then the moment broke, and he smiled.

           It’s ok about Sticky, she’s not real anymore.

For the next week, the terrarium sat empty. The following Monday, a new praying mantis appeared. She was tiny compared to Sticky. Susan confided to a parent that it had been quite hard to find the insect in her garden that weekend, and she had to settle for one that was very small. The children suggested a range of new names, but the one that stuck was Twiggy. So the imprisoned life of Twiggy began, the twenty-eighth captured praying mantis of Susan’s career.

Time passed and Twiggy grew. The seasons turned and the kinder children continued to feed her insects from the greenhouse. The children also learnt basic written expression, and numbers, and how to write down their names. But mostly they learnt how to be with each other and co-operate, and how to have a routine in their days, so that when they started real school next year, they would adjust more easily to the classroom.

One day, after the last of the spring storms had passed, Susan was preparing to face the yearly heart wrench of bidding her kinder group farewell. She gathered the children in a circle in front of her chair and took out her nylon-stringed guitar. After carefully tuning it by ear, she started singing a song that had kept children entertained through the generations that had passed through her classroom. The song had also taught them about melody, pattern and beat. Her voice was strong and clear as she started to sing, repeating the lines and matching them to the chords as the children picked up the words and notes.

Kevin sat on the edge of the group, a thin line between his brows, his face intent. As he sang, his fluency and confidence increased, along with the clarity of his pronunciation and the volume of his voice. He heard his voice matching the high pitch of the others around him, in counterpoint to the deeper notes that Susan produced.

            Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,

            Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

Kevin closed his eyes and concentrated upon the sound, feeling the song within him. His chest swelled as he finished each couplet, and he challenged his vocal cords to reach lower and lower so he could imitate the voice of his teacher every time he sang out the first three words of the melody. He was full of song.

And then in the midst of the melody, there was a banging sound, and the loud twang of a guitar striking the floor. The girl next to Kevin screamed.

Kevin opened his eyes. The children were pulling themselves backwards on their heels and hands, retreating from their teacher, who lay slumped on her face on the floor in front of her chair. Her body was making movements that Kevin had never seen a person make before; small twitches, and one her hands flapped on the carpet. She was gasping, and there was a strong smell as if someone had wet their pants.

The period of time that followed this incident was confusing for Kevin. Other teachers from the centre rushed into the room, along with the nice lady from the front desk. Kevin was shoved to the back of the room, where he stood and watched the adults crouch over Susan’s body and pump her chest, breathe into her mouth. He was eventually herded with the other members of the kinder class to the open play space outside. He noticed that the trees that had been bare all winter had lost their spring blossoms and were now budding into full leaf. He saw an ambulance with lights blazing pull into the carpark and stay there.

Kevin also saw the other teachers gathered together, away from the door to his classroom. Some were crying, and they were exchanging embraces. He walked over to the door of his room and peered through the glass. There was a shape under a sheet in front of his teacher’s chair. He knew the shape was Susan’s body. Looking across at the other teachers, who were now speaking to the man and woman who had arrived in the ambulance, he saw they were not looking in his direction. He reached up to the door handle, pulled down the lever, and silently let himself into the room.

Kevin approached the sheet, knelt in front of it, and reached out his hand to grab the edge of the material. He pulled it back. It was Susan. Her eyes were shut. Her face looked much as it always did, but gravity had pulled the flesh downwards slightly, partially exposing her front teeth. A thin line of drool had escaped the corner of Susan’s mouth, but when Kevin reached out his finger out to touch it, the saliva felt cold. Kevin reached under the sheet and touched her hand. It felt stiff, without warmth, not at all like the hands that had picked him up when he had fallen in the yard, or applied a damp cloth to his forehead when he had come down with a fever. Kevin pushed the hand back under the covering, reached up and stroked Susan’s hair.

At that moment, Kevin felt a hand on his shoulder, strong fingers turning him around. He looked up. It was his father. It wasn’t dark yet, so his father must have come early. The hands grasped him under the armpits, and he was suddenly off the floor, picked up and held to his father’s chest. He could feel the raspy sandpaper of his father’s stubble on his cheek as he was held close. It hurt a little but also felt nice. There was a pause before his father spoke.

           Hi Kevin, what are you doing in here? Are you ok?

           Dad, that’s my teacher. That’s Susan.

Kevin pointed down to the shape under the sheet. There was another pause.

           Yes, I know, Kevin, they called me. That’s why I’m here, to take you home. Are you ok?

Kevin thought for a moment, considered. Then it came to him.

           It’s ok about Susan. She’s not real anymore. She’s dead. Not real.

Kevin felt himself put down on his feet. The terrarium sat on the table next to the teacher’s chair, with its bright green foliage and shiny rocks. He looked through the glass. Inside it, Twiggy stood motionless, watching the world through the glass. Then, almost imperceptibly, the praying mantis began to move; her angular limbs, blunt triangular head and elongated body gently making her way across the world in which she now lived. She moved to the edge of the tank and pressed against the glass, watching the aliens who only existed in the bright hours of the day. There was some movement for a while, and then the room darkened, and the day drew to its close.

Martin Toman is a writer of contemporary fiction who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He studied at Australian Nation University and the University of Canberra before becoming a teacher of English Literature. Martin has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Across the Margin, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fresh Ink, The Raven Review, Haunted Waters Press, The Adelaide Literary Review, and Literally Stories.

← Back to Issue 12