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The Monster in My Garden

By Mitch Silver

The guilt was overwhelming. After all, my wife Ellen and I had planted different kinds of milkweed to attract them in the first place. And, once they were here, they really enjoyed our zinnias.

We hadn’t seen monarch butterflies for several years, and were saddened by the decline in these once abundant creatures. So we were delighted when they came back in 2017.

And then we found the wings. No body, just wings, lying on the deck one morning. Old age? Hardly. A green stick about four inches long was all but hidden among the zinnia stems and leaves. And in her mouth was another already headless butterfly, being devoured down to the nub.

I was on my way out to the store. When I returned, a second set of wings had fallen to the deck. And there was the praying mantis, lurking once more in the zinnia stems like Cary Grant hiding among the cornstalks in North by Northwest. Except, she wasn’t hiding. She was waiting.

By the time I put the groceries away, another innocent member of the Lepidoptera family was flitting from one zinnia flower to the next. And there was that “preying” mantis just an inch away. So I did what I had to do: I yelled at the butterfly to get out of there.

It had no effect. Can butterflies hear? This one certainly didn’t. So I brought out the big guns, my lungs. I took a deep breath and blew the butterfly off the flower. And that’s when the mantis turned and glared at me, its spade-shaped head sporting a pair of beady, malevolent eyes. I retreated into the kitchen.

Now, I know mantises are supposed to be helpful, that they devour unwanted pests. What’s more, I couldn’t stand guard there all day, blowing away the very visitors we’d been at such pains to invite to our place. That evening and all the next day, Ellen and I stayed inside, believing we had to let things take their course, like photographers on the Nature Channel.

But the following morning, we understood our benign neglect was, in fact, malign: a total of a dozen wings littered the wooden planks of the deck. At this rate, the species would be extinct before it could ever migrate back to Mexico. Extreme measures were called for.

So I went across the road and asked my neighbor with the vegetable garden if he’d had any butterflies this summer. Joe said no. Then I asked him if he wanted a praying mantis. He said, “Sure. They get rid of unwanted pests.”

I went home, grabbed a leftover Stop and Shop bag and scissors, and strode out to the deck. The green monster (sorry, Red Sox fans) was still there, ravenously eyeing another butterfly. With what I like to remember as a swift movement, I whipped the bag down over zinnia and mantis as I snipped the stem at the base. Then I turned the bag and its cargo over, knotted the plastic ends together, and carried the bastard over to Joe’s place. He seemed happy with the gift, and told me he would open the bag over his rhododendron in back. He could open it over the jaws of Hell as far I was concerned.

But, maybe, I’m too sensitive.

A butterfly enjoys the zinnias off the back deck.

The mantis turns to give me a withering stare.

The body count.

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