We are proud to present competition runner-up
MADAME AND YVES IN THE GARDEN OF DARKNESS
by Kate Felix
Pomorski and his insidious papers present an unforeseen obstacle to The Roach’s mission.
“Okey-dokey, Yves. All set up for booth M-18. Just sign here please-and-thank-you and welcome to Sprouts of Spring Craft Show.”
The Roach looks uneasily to the entrance of the warehouse. “Have you assigned a place to Madame Mantis?”
“Mandy Hagopian? She’s not here yet.”
The Roach’s relief is palpable. “You will assign her to the booth across from mine, like last year.” The Roach slides a red fifty across the registration desk.
A sinister smile crosses Pomorski’s face. “Yves, you old dog.”
The Roach’s eyes are sharp behind thick-lensed glasses. He is alert for the appearance of Madame Mantis. He runs his hands over the smooth surface of his wares: upcycled leather bags with seat-belt clips. Each bag is hand-inked and bears the image of a superhero of The Roach’s creation.
The Roach’s hand comes to rest on the largest and most intricate of the bags. The muscled green thighs of “Madame Mantis” leap from the leather, as if she might break free from her inky prison and surround him with her powerful limbs. The product of a mating between a plant-man and a mantis, she is mistress of the garden and the woman of The Roach’s dreams.
Madame Mantis, wrapped majestically in a size twenty-four emerald pea coat, approaches the registration table and prepares to do battle.
“You know who I am.”
Pomorski petulantly checks his list and circles a name with his cheap red pen.
“Huh. Mandy Hagopain. M-25, right across from Yves again. People may talk.” Pomorski’s gaze roves over Madame Mantis’ impressive form. “But maybe you are no longer capable of human love.”
Madame Mantis slams her fist on the table and shakes it to its plywood core.
Pomorski’s eyes dart from the meatiness of her clenched fingers to the line of artisans forming behind her. His voice carries through the warehouse like a shrill bird. “Next in line!”
Madame Mantis bounds down Aisle M in a rage. Her bulging arms expand by the minute and strain the sleeves of her pea coat to the point of bursting. Several artisans stare openly as she passes, intrigued by her transformation. Madame Mantis tells herself to ignore them. They are jealous of her new form. With great power comes immense loneliness, but Madame Mantis has her plan. She can have it all.
She gathers her enormous coat around her so her metamorphosis will be less apparent. The problem with the change is the anger that comes with it. Her darker nature, always difficult to harness, has come closer to the surface. Madame Mantis can no longer predict when she will turn.
“Staring problems, people?” Madame Mantis sweeps forward to face her accusers and the hem of her emerald coat flares.
“Uh… No, Mandy. Sorry.”
The artisans scatter and return to the shadows of their booths.
Madame Mantis tosses her head like a jungle cat and her eyes meet those of the last man standing in her wake. Suddenly, The Roach and Madame Mantis are transported back to this time and place one year ago, and the memory of their first and last conversation.
Madame Mantis had approached the table and perused The Roach’s offerings with the cool disdain of a grade school principal.
“Are these real leather?”
The Roach’s silence had been his answer.
“There is only one woman at your table,” she had added.
The Roach, puzzled, had turned his eyes downward to where Madame Mantis’ finger had rested on a small sketch of a green insect-lady, lost in a sea of muscled men.
“Sexist much, Mr. Roche?”
The Roach shakes his head to free himself from the physical pain of the memory. His power diminished, he takes shelter behind his painted sign: ‘R. Yves Roche – Upcycled Leather Satchels.’
Madame Mantis assembles her booth and The Roach observes her from behind the pages of his comic book.
Madame Mantis’s hair is luminous and falls in thick, black curls that reach halfway down the back of her emerald coat. The Roach dabs the corner of his mouth with a napkin and waits for her to turn around. He brings his fingers to his lips and counts all the things he knows about Madame Mantis.
His hearing is keen and The Roach has learned much from his years of eavesdropping across Aisle M: Madame Mantis lives in a basement apartment in Cabbagetown. She likes plants better than people. Her ex-boyfriend is a weakling who left her high and dry because he couldn’t stand up to her strong personality.
Madame Mantis lays eight long trays across her table and coats them with a thin layer of iridescent sand. Atop the sand she arranges clay pots, shaped like hands. The long fingers of each pot hold a single Bonsai tree, pruned to perfection.
The Roach’s comic book creeps closer to his table as he considers Madame Mantis’s fluid movements and the way her cat-eye glasses frame her solid, Armenian nose.
Miniature ultraviolet lights appear on her table. All are uniquely crafted, in a retro-atomic style, to resemble an iconic preying insect. The elegant mantises illuminate each bonsai like a spotlight. The effect takes The Roach’s breath away.
The Roach’s comic book falls from his hand and clatters to the floor. Madame Mantis turns her head and he drinks in a moment of her angry stare.
She clips a sign to the front of her table and steps back to assess her efforts. The Roach can recite the words of her sign from memory. He often whispers them to the dark walls of his solitary apartment: ‘Madame Mantis, Gardens For Darkness.’ The Roach says the words to himself, under his breath like an incantation. Madame Mantis walks to her booth, sits heavily, and shrugs her emerald coat on to her chair.
A bearish woman approaches The Roach’s table.
“Do you have Superman? My grandson likes Superman.”
The Roach is taken aback by the strength of the woman’s perfume and the solidness of her eyeshadow.
“No. He’s the least compelling superhero, in my opinion. Have you considered Razorhyde? Here he is. You see, ma’am? He has the head of a swine.”
Madame Mantis’s voice drifts across the aisle and The Roach drinks in her melody.
“That’s it ma’am, botany and energy fused. Light as beauty and life where there should be none. Perfect for the underground dweller.”
The Roach leans his face on his moist palm and pretends Madame Mantis is speaking directly to him.
“Oh my! I’m afraid it’s all too space age for me!”
Madame Mantis presents her middle finger to the customer’s disappearing form. The Roach feasts on her fierceness and she senses his attention. Without adjusting the position of her fingers, she rotates her hand to face him. Under the heat of her gaze, The Roach recalls his mission. He grabs the largest bag from his table and stands. Madame Mantis rises in unison, perceiving his action as retaliatory to her rude gesture.
A new reality dawns as Madame Mantis’s stomach comes in to view. Without the veil of her emerald coat, it protrudes in front of her and points menacingly across Aisle M. The crumbling wall of The Roach’s expectation falls heavily on his soul. The Roach looks despondently at Madame Mantis’s gravid state and realizes who he really is. He is no superhero in waiting. He is a yesterday’s man selling bags made of trash.
Like a sucker punch perfectly executed, Pomorski ambles up to The Roach’s table and leans in like they are old pals.
“Hey Yves. Give you some advice about old Mandy. She’s a go-er but, dude, that temper is something else. When that bomb goes off you don’t want to be anywhere near the place.”
Both men fail to notice Madame Mantis’s approach. She kicks the base of The Roach’s table with her powerful leg and the seat belt clasps rattle.
“Do you have something to say to me, numb nuts?”
“Uh…no?” The Roach realizes too late that Madame Mantis is addressing Pomorski.
Pomorski snorts and says haughtily, “Just looking out for the safety of my exhibitors.”
Madame Mantis’s face reddens with rage.
“Don’t test me Jim, I swear to god…”
“Screw you, Mandy.”
Pomorski turns and bolts like a fawn; knocking Madame Mantis off balance.
The Roach reaches out to steady her and she shoves him away with great force.
“You think you are just the cat’s ass, don’t you? Sitting over there with your spiky hair and your edgy bags? Charming all those vapid hags and drinking up their money?” Madame Mantis raises her hands in front of her and speaks with a terrible French accent. “Bonjour! I’m Yves, I’m from Quebec and I’m just so goddamn impressive to everyone!”
“But I’m not…”
“Talking shit about me with Pomorski and snickering like a grade school thug?
It’s no wonder a woman can’t find a proper mate in this den of bloody misogyny.”
The Roach steels a glance at Madame Mantis’s belly.
“You know how old I am, Yves? Thirty-eight. Thirty-eight and never had a man that lasted more than three months. Every night I go home to my basement apartment and my goddamn garden of darkness and I think, ‘Mandy, there’s gotta be more than this!’”
“What about your husband?”
“What is this, 1953? Jesus. I went and spent twelve thousand bucks I didn’t have in-vitro because guess what, Yves? Nobody is interested mating with a tough-ass Armenian girl with a bad temper!”
“So your child is fatherless?”
“Is that all you heard out of everything I just said?”
Madame Mantis’s eyes mist over and The Roach hovers his hand over her shoulder. He is somewhere between vomiting and a heart attack. Madame Mantis gives his hand a slap and snickers.
“Hands off, Roche. It’s not time for a hero show just because a girl has a moment. Go back to your table, Superman, and leave the rest of us mortals alone.”
The Roach reddens and retreats to his table. He grips the large bag in both of his trembling hands and breathes hard. A button in the middle of his shirt pops free from the abrupt expansion of his chest. His brain screams and starts to pound against his skull. The Roach knows this will end badly, but he is powerless against his dark rage. He bounds back to Madame Mantis with the ferocity of a recently freed gorilla. He bangs the bag down on the table and the miniature insect lights flicker.
“See that? I made it for you. See her? That’s Madame Mantis. The only girl at my goddamn table. She’s one of the most powerful and, screw it, I’m just gonna say it, sexy heroines in fair-trade, non-toxic ink!” The Roach’s eyes catch fire and the inside of his skin turns green.
Madame Mantis takes a step backward and draws a sharp breath as The Roach’s rage crests.
“Maybe if you had been willing to have this conversation a year ago you wouldn’t have had to waste all your money on I.V.F!”
The weight of The Roach’s statement pauses the world long enough for the surroundings to come back in to focus. He feels the first tendrils of retreat pulling at his heels.
The two heroes stand alone in Aisle M with only the sound of their ragged breath between them. Madame Mantis’s eyes dance hungrily over The Roach as if she might consume him. The Roach jerks his foot forward and shakes something loose. He sucks all of the air from the room through his nostrils and says, “Maybe when you are done giving birth, we can go for coffee.”
“I’m not due till the 17th.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?”