A Mild Attack of Locusts
“Look, look, there they are!”
Out ran Margaret to join them, looking at the hills. Out came the servants from the kitchen. They all stood and gazed. Over the rocky levels of the mountain was a streak of rust-colored air, Locusts. There they came.
At once Richard shouted at the cookboy. Old Stephen yelled at the houseboy. They cookboy ran to beat the old ploughshare are hanging from a tree branch, which was used to summon laborers at moments of crisis. The houseboy ran off to the store to collect tin cans, any old bit of metal. The farm was ringing with the clamour of the gong; and they could see the laborers come pouring out of the compound, pointing at the hills and shouting excitedly. Seen they had all come up to the house, and Richard and old Stephen were giving them orders – Hurry, hurry, hurry.
And off they ran again, the two white men with them and in a few minutes Margaret could see the smoke of fires rising from all around the farmlands. Piles of wood and grass had been prepared there. There were seven patches of bared soil yellow colour and pink, where the new mealies were just showing, making a film of bright green; and around each drifted up thick clouds of smoke. They were throwing wet leaves on the fires now, to make it acrid and black. Margaret was watching the hills. Now there was a long, low cloud advancing, rust color still, swelling forward and out as she looked. The telephone was ringing. Neighbours – quick, quick, there come the locusts. Old smith had had his crop eaten to the ground. Quick get your fires started. For of course, while every farmer hoped the locust would overlook his farm and go on the next, it was only fair to wan each other; one must play fair Everyware, fifty miles over the country side, the smoke was rising from my raids of fires. Margaret answered the telephone calls, and between calls she stood watching the locusts. The air was darkening. A strange darkness, for the sun was blazing – it was like the darkness of veldt fire, when the air gets thick with smoke. The sunlight comes down distorted, a thick, hot orange, Oppressive it was, too, with the heaviness of a storm. The locusts were coming fast. Now half the sky was darkened. Behind the reddish veils in front, which were the advance guards of the swarm, the main swarm showed in dense black cloud, reaching almost to the sun itself.
Margaret was wondering what she could do to help. She did not know. Then up came old Stephen from the lands. “We’re finished, Margaret, finished! Those beggars can eat every leaf and blade off the farm in half an hour! And it is only early afternoon – if we make enough smoke, make enough noise till the sun goes down, they’ll settle somewhere else perhaps…..” And then: “Get the kettle going. It’s thirsty work, this.”
Looking out, all the trees were queer and still, clotted with insects their boughs weighed to the ground. The earth seemed to be moving, locusts crawling mountains it was like looking into driving rain – even as she watched, the sun was blotted out with a fresh onrush of them. It was a half-night a perverted blackness. Then came a sharp crack from the bush – a branch had snapped off. Then another. A tree down the slope leaned over and settled heavily to the ground. Through the hail of insets a man came running.”All the crops finished. Nothing left,” he said.
But the gongs were still beating, the men still shouting, and Margaret asked: “Why do you go on with it, then?”
“The main swarm isn’t settling. They are heavy with eggs. They are looking for a place to settle and lay. If we can stop the main body settling on our farm that’s everything. If they get a chance to lay their eggs, we are going to have everything eaten flat with hoppers later on.”He picked a stray locust off his shirt and split down with his thumbnail – it was clouted inside with eggs. “Imagine that multiplied by millions. You ever seen a hopper swarm on the march? Well, you’re lucky.”
“Is it very bad ?” asked Margaret fearfully, and the old man said emphatically: “We’re finished. This swarm may pass over, but once they’ve started, they’ll be coming down from the North now one after another. And then there are the hoppers – it might go on for two or three years.”
“For the Lord’s sake,” said Margaret angrily, still half-crying, “what’s here is bad enough, isn’t it?” For although the evening air was no longer black and thick, but a clear blue, with a pattern of insects whizzing this way and that across it, everything else – trees, buildings, bushes, earth – was gone under the moving brown masses.
But Margaret preferred not even to think of them. After the midday meal the men went off to the lands. Everything was to be replanted. With a bit of luck another swarm would not come traveling down just this way. But they hoped it would rain very soon, to spring some new grass, because the cattle would die otherwise – there was not a blade of grass left on the farm. As for Margaret, she was trying to get used to the idea of three or four years of locusts. Locusts were going to be like bad weather, from now-on, always imminent. She felt like a survivor after war – if this devastated and mangled countryside was not ruin, well, what then was ruin?
But the men ate their supper with good appetites.
“It could have been worse,” was what they said. “It could be much worse.”