The grasshopper lady handed me an insect. “It’s a grasshopper,” she said. “Schistocerca americana.” The creature—leathery, angular—perched on my palm, its body like a tiny pile of torn leaves and split twigs. This design, the grasshopper lady advised, is an effective defense against predation. I should say this was my first visit to the small natural history museum.
“Won’t it hop away?” I asked.
The grasshopper lady shifted her long white coat. I heard a rustling and another sound like a series of soft clicks. “This one is trained,” the grasshopper lady said. “It will not hop away even if you stroke it with your fingertips.” I stroked the grasshopper and its legs and antennae shuddered.
“See?” The grasshopper lady said. She was visibly pleased. A small group of students entered the room, trailed by their teacher. The grasshopper lady smiled and her nose and her eyebrows twitched. I got a whiff of dirt, wet leaves and wood rot.
I stroked the grasshopper again and again with my small finger. It seemed to hum, though what mechanism allowed it to do this was a mystery, as it appeared quite still. Eliciting such a reaction from the small creature was oddly gratifying.
“She likes it,” the grasshopper lady said. I watched her closely for a moment and her smile faded. Her face darkened and her lips parted slightly. The grasshopper lady rolled her shoulders back and her eyelids fluttered and there was a soft scraping like fingernails on tree bark. Still holding the grasshopper, I placed the fingertips of my free hand on her face and stroked her skin gently. I felt a hum almost like a vibration.
One of my fingers caught in her bottom lip and slipped into her mouth. It was dry and toothless as an empty paper sack. The grasshopper lady closed her eyes and we stood like that, unmoving. The students, many of which had gathered around for a turn to hold the grasshopper dispersed quietly, ushered by their teacher towards the fossil exhibit, where surely nothing untoward could occur.
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Christopher Santantasio is a native of New York’s Hudson Valley. His fiction and nonfiction appears in decomP, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, and is forthcoming in Lake Effect. He is a co-founder of the Frontyard Writers’ Workshop of Philadelphia. http://www.crsantantasio.com