An Encounter Between the Poet and the Mantis
by Vanessa Couchman
He comes yet again with his busy retinue of clerks. They sneer at me and fawn on him, but he holds his papers away from their gaze.
The cries of boatmen on the Thames, carefree in their liberty, rise up the walls and through the barred slit high above my head. The stink of river water floats up and competes with the chamber pot. My sweet Kentish meadows are but a fading dream. The clerks wrinkle their noses, but he, raised in the stews of Putney, seems oblivious.
Others who occupied this place likened him to a snake for his darting eyes and flitting tongue. Forked, it certainly is. He twists himself around you and squeezes you into saying what he wants, even if it means death to comply. Up till now, I have evaded his choking coils.
I think of him rather as a green insect, such as I encountered when walking on a steep Tuscan hillside in untroubled days. The emerald creature poised motionless on a branch of juniper, its front legs held before it, waiting to pounce. Another of its kind alighted on a twig close by. They remained unmoving, their eyes locked in silent combat. The sun burned like molten gold, so I lowered myself onto a shaded stone to watch the creatures, already fashioning a quatrain in my mind. But my head sagged, lulled by my exertions, good wine and the stifling air.
He slides into his seat opposite me. I perch on a three-cornered stool and try to balance its rocking legs on the flagged floor. His clerks have dragged in a carved oak chair, rich with damask cushions the colour of blood, but he does not sink into them. He places his forearms on the bare table, and his small, unblinking eyes fix mine. My bowels clench, but I stare back. The reek of garlic drifts across the space between us.
On that parched hillside, my chin dropped towards my chest. The first insect chose this moment to strike. My head shot up. The creature grasped its enemy in a fatal embrace and proceeded to consume it from the head downwards. No emotion did either creature display.
A cramp grips my left foot, but I will not move nor avert my gaze. I preserve that freedom if no other.
He thrusts his head forward. I blink and recoil, against my will.
He taps his papers with a stubby forefinger. “Well,” he says. “Shall we start all over again?”
The mortal embrace begins.
Vanessa Couchman is a self-confessed history nut and has lived in France since 1997. She is published/forthcoming in 5MinuteFiction, FiveMinuteLit, FlashBack Fiction, FlashFlood Journal, Friday Flash Fiction, Reflex, Sundial Magazine, WestWord Journal, Writing Magazine, among others, and in numerous anthologies. Vanessa’s blog about France focuses on history: https://vanessafrance.wordpress.com
Detail of portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (1532-1533); The Frick Collection, 1915.1.76 via Wikimedia Commons.