Speedy, the little brown and tan squeaker in front of me, passed a fairly substantial milkweed. She had sniffed it, but didn’t pull it up. I had been letting her do what she wanted in the row, testing her to see how much she had learned on her second day in a corn field. She needed reinforcement. After it was clear that she wasn’t going to come back for the weed, I set the head of my hoe next to the base of the weed with a quick chopping motion, and said “weed.”
She turned around, looked up at me, and then darted back, struggling comically as she gripped the big weed in her teeth while trying to rip it out of the ground. After a second of straining, the weed popped out of the ground and she started munching on the roots. She didn’t like the taste and spit it out, which was fine. Swine could eat milkweed, but it wasn’t good for them to eat a lot of it. I scrubbed her on the back of her neck, not hard, but hard enough that my fingernails scratched across her hide with enough force to wrinkle her skin. She pressed into the scratching.
I smiled. She was going to be a good one, I was pretty sure. “Good Speedy, good girl”
Speedy looked up at me, expectantly, but my other hand was already moving, bringing out one of the tiny acorn meal treats and dropping it in front of her. Speedy was nearly nine months old, and one of my most promising from this generation. She already had the floppy ears and white forehead star that marked her as being highly likely to be a tractable forest swine. Her early training had gone extremely well, and she was almost good enough in corn in two days that I could let her work around me without close supervision like the rest of my sounder. I still had to watch her closely in the mangel beets though. She was having a hard time distinguishing between weeds and the mangel beet greens.
Difficulty with training for mangel beet fields was nothing new. All my swine had issues with that. Personally, I didn’t much care for mangel beet greens, even though they were human edible, but the greens were apparently tasty to swine. Even more of a temptation for a working swine was if one happened to see a grasshopper, snail, or beetle on a leaf. My swine would eat bugs in preference to almost anything else, except white oak acorns or sweet corn mash. It was understandably hard for them to not take a bite at a beet leaf to get a tasty bug morsel, as opposed to licking the bug off, or trying to knock the pest off the leaf with a snout. Even my best-trained swine left a bite mark here or there on a mangel beet leaf. If I saw them do it, I chastised them, but I didn’t try to micromanage them.
I preferred for my swine to work a field after Marza had let her chickens loose for a day in that field. Fewer bugs meant fewer tasty distractions, and less likelihood for mistakes. Our parents’ traded mine and Marza’s services back and forth without charge. She would work a field with her four border collies and her chickens. The next day, I would follow behind with my sounder. There was a lot more to mine and Marza’s relationship than that, and both families approved, even though both of our families were still rather careful not to leave us alone for long. If we wanted to, we could have gotten around it, but if extracurricular activities generated another mouth to feed before Marza and I could feed that extra mouth ourselves, things would get a lot less happy at both farms.
Shaking my head, I looked up and side to side, checking the swine working in each of the four rows to either side of me. All eight of them were keeping up with me well enough. The biggest four, each of them around a hundred kilos, were eating almost everything they tore up. The smaller ones ranging from sixty to seventy kilos simply couldn’t eat that much and would tear up everything, and eat mostly the roots. Speedy was small, less than thirty kilos the last time I weighed her, but she might be up to forty kilos now.
I continued down the row I was on, letting Speedy lead. When she missed a weed, I tapped the hoe against the ground next to the missed weed and pulled it away, saying ‘weed’ every time I touched a plant that didn’t belong in the field. Speedy would wait till the hoe was moved away from the weed, and then dart forward to grab the offending weed in her mouth and rip it out. Depending on what kind of weed it was, she’d then eat the whole weed, eat the greens, or eat the roots. For the most part, Speedy only ate the roots. That was fine by me, a weed couldn’t grow itself back into the ground without roots. As she got bigger, she would eat more and work faster. I didn’t need to give her a treat for every weed, because the weeds were food. Whenever she missed one though, I gave her a treat after she fixed her mistake.
We reached the end of the row, and I looked around. A couple hundred yards away, I could see Hoss and Bigboy, my two boars. Hoss was pushing against the pump bar in his enclosure with his forehead, driving the leather strap powertrain that operated a screw pump to fill a big water bucket. As I watched, I heard a loud clack and the rattle of acorns as the water from Hoss’s screw pump finished filling the large bucket of water. The bucket, when almost full, weighed enough to fall slowly, despite a large counterweight rock. The bucket on the end of the long pole would drop until the bucket was off balance. The bucket would then tip forward and pour its collected water into a raised stone cistern.
Without the water’s mass in the bucket, the large rock counterbalance would then snap the arm and bucket back into place under the spout at the end of the screw pump. The smaller rock counterbalances attached between the bottom of the bucket and the large shaft made sure the bucket was properly aligned under the water after it was emptied. For the brief time that the water bucket wasn’t present, the screw pump dropped a stream of water into a wide chute that redirected the water into Hoss’s walking track. At the same time, a small handful of acorns would fall into a different chute, leading to a small feed trough. Hoss trotted over to the puddle and rolled a couple times in the mud before standing back up. Then he wandered over to the small trough where the handful of acorns waited for him.
I watched Bigboy heave himself to his feet, looking in Hoss’s direction, clearly hearing and smelling Hoss eat. He shook his head and wandered over to the pump bar in his own enclosure, leaned his forehead against the big rawhide pad there, and started pushing. After a few seconds, water started filling the bucket, and Bigboy was well on the way to getting a snack for himself. If the two hogs managed to fill the cistern to overflow, there was a little wooden aqueduct that carried the excess to where the horses, cows, and swine were stabled. They shared a drinking cistern. Overflow from that would drain into the swine area, which was at a slightly lower elevation than the barn or horse paddock. Rainwater from the barn roof and the house was routed to the house cistern for cooking and bathing. We could use water from the stream-fed pond if needed, but preferred roof water.
There were two other pump stations, but they were not in use. The weather had been good, with rain every other night or so for about an hour, so the cistern hadn’t been needed to irrigate. Tomorrow, I wouldn’t have to bring Bigboy and Hoss out. In a dry year, we’d have to keep the four biggest boars at the pumps every day during the growing season. As long as there were acorns and mud to cool off in, they would work off and on all day long and move a surprising amount of water with no need for human interference.
Horse pumps moved more water because horses were simply bigger and much stronger. In a really bad year, we would assemble a horse pump for even more water, but we didn’t like to because horses needed harness to run a pump. Having a horse harnessed to a pump meant you needed a person there too, or you might end up with an injured horse or wrecked pump. Swine would push with their foreheads, so they couldn’t get wrapped up in harness they didn’t need
I made a note to myself to mention to Pa that the leather belts that transferred the swine’s pushing into screw pump rotation looked like they would need replacement soon. There was only another three weeks before harvest started, and maybe a month and a half before harvest ended, including the seed corn harvest. The belts would certainly make it through the rest of the growing season, but they would probably fail next season early. We’d make new belts over the winter, and have them ready.
I turned my attention back to my sounder. They had all emerged from their rows, and were socializing a little with one another with low toned grunts as they waited for me. I gave each of them a little acorn meal treat for finishing the row, and walked them to the next set of nine rows. I directed each of them into a row, tapping my hoe onto the ground between the two corn rows that I wanted each swine to walk between. The slowest workers got into their rows first.
Tap. “Hotfoot.” Tap. “Duchess.” Tap. “Sneaky.” I settled the rest into their rows, and then moved myself into the middle of nine rows like before.
Before I could tap the ground and call out Speedy’s name, I heard an unmistakable noise that sent a chill down my spine. I turned my head towards the sound, hoping I was wrong, hoping the loud humming was a big hornet or beetle flying nearby. I wasn’t wrong. I watched as a locust nearly three inches long landed on the leaf of a nearby corn plant and started to eat, visibly carving into the leaf with alarming speed.
My mouth gaped as I thought to myself, It’s too early.
I shook off my paralysis, snapped my mouth shut, and whipped out my hoe, smashing the pest off the leaf of the corn plant. It was more than a full month too early. I needed proof. Speedy dashed out from behind me towards the locust laying on the ground, clearly recognizing it as food that I had dropped for her. I barely fended her off the locust with the hoe, and she wasn’t happy about it. I couldn’t give her a treat when she hadn’t done something right, so I scratched the back of her neck for a few seconds, saying nothing. After a couple seconds she started to press back against the scratching so I knew she’d forgiven me. Mostly. That was food I’d kept from her, after all.
I stayed on one knee, scratching Speedy’s neck a little longer, looking around, listening and thinking. I didn’t hear any more locusts, but that didn’t matter. Overcrowding in their breeding area triggered transformations from big green grasshopper to locust. Where there was one, there would soon be millions, perhaps billions, maybe trillions worldwide in a heavy season.
I shuddered remembering the bad year. Five years before, when I was ten, the swarms had been so heavy that the sun hadn’t seemed to shine for two days. The damn things had eaten the farm down to dirt. They had even eaten the fenceposts to the ground and the wooden upper parts of all of the barns. The house was stone, and the roof glass tile, but the inside was largely wood. My family had spent those two days keeping the locusts from eating through the window frames and getting into the house. The locusts had literally eaten the clothes off our backs the first day, and the second day we’d worked naked outdoors, guarding the wooden window frames with brooms, which the locusts couldn’t eat because we wouldn’t let them stay on the brooms long enough. That had been a bad year, but we had already finished the harvest that year, and stored it in the stone food storage huts. Locusts couldn’t eat through the blocks of glass slag that the food storage huts were made of. This year could be worse. Much worse.
Shaking my head, I took three deep breaths and counted backwards from nine to zero to calm myself. Every seven years there was an early spawn, but that wasn’t supposed to be this year. The last early year was in forty-seven twenty-three, the year after the extremely heavy swarm. The next was due in forty-seven thirty, in three years.
I lifted the cow horn on its strap to my lips and started to blow the alarm. Not the four-blow alarm of something terrible like a serious injury, but a three-blow alarm to indicate a serious problem that required help. If I had blown four times, everyone on the farm would have dropped everything and swarmed to the source. After three evenly spaced short blows, followed by a five second silence, I repeated the three short blows again. I heard the acknowledging reply of two long three second blows from two sources, almost certainly Edward and Pa. I blew the code for the Northeast fields and heard more two-blow acknowledgements.
With all the horn blowing, my sounder was making confused, low pitched noises in the cornfield. I couldn’t whistle them out of the corn without running the risk that they would damage the crop, so I called them all out of the field, one at a time, row by row, by name. After they were all out of the field, I led them to the dry wallow in the corner of the field, telling them to “stay.” Most of them flopped down in the dirt and took a nap. A couple of the younger ones stood, watching me as I ran around swinging my hoe wildly a few feet away. Occasionally they would make inquisitive noises at my strange antics.
About five minutes later, Edward and Pa walked up. Edward, my eldest brother, was glaring at me with a clear warning in his eyes that I had best have good reason for calling him and Pa.
I said nothing, only holding out my right palm to display the battered body of the last locust I’d knocked out of the air shortly before they arrived. Edward’s glare disappeared as his eyes snapped to my hand in shock. I then heard another locust, and Edward heard it too. Both of our heads tracked to follow the loud sound of the flying insect, moving too far over our heads for me to club it out of the sky. Pa’s gaze followed ours.
“It’s too early. Far too early. It’s the wrong year for early.” Edward spoke, quietly.
Pa’s eyes went to my hand again, and then swept the horizon. I saw his eyes squint twice as he scanned. He frowned. “Allen, how many have you collected?”
“I have eight now, sir.” I replied, dropping the one in my hand into my swine treat bag at my hip with the rest.
“That’s enough then.” He paused. “Run your sounder to the south fields on the way to the house and let them loose to forage. Boars to the Southwest field, the rest to the Southeast. Then stop by the house, tell your granpa and your ma about the locusts and that we’re starting harvest today. Ask your granpa to help Abe and Molly set up a travois and start moving some of the turpentine-soaked wood to the burning stations around the north fields to prep the fires. I’ll meet him at the horse barn.” Pa took a deep breath before continuing. “After that, run to town and tell the Countyman, give him your locusts as proof. Show the neighbors on the way. Do not stop, walk, chat, or dawdle. The Countyman may try to enlist you. Don’t let him unless he flat out orders you. If he tries to order you, tell him I need you here. If he still insists, do what he says, but remind him that he’s got townie kids he can send as runners or riders. You can do a man’s work. I want you back here as fast as you can, and I can’t spare a horse for you.”
“Yes, sir.” I pulled out my little wooden whistle, blew a quick note, and called “follow” towards my sounder. The ones that had been laying down stood up, and they all wandered up to me. I fed them each a treat as they arrived, and then turned towards the screw pumps to collect the boars.
Pa and Edward started walking towards the center of the farm as they talked about what they would need to do to get started, what everyone would be doing.
Edward said something with my name in it and I stopped to pay closer attention and heard Pa respond. “If we don’t tell everyone else as soon as we can when there’s an early swarm, people might starve overwinter. Hours matter. Minutes matter. Allen will be back soon. We need the horses here. We’ll talk about it later, after we harvest.”
Edward looked up at me, and frowned before pointing towards the screw pumps with a jerky motion. Pa looked at Edward, then at me, and smiled a bit but said nothing. I nodded and started running. The sounder kept up with me easily, enjoying the easy run, grunting socially between themselves.
About a minute after leaving the corn field, I stopped at the screw pump enclosures. Both boars had heard the whistle, but not the command. They were bumping their heads against the gates of their enclosures. They weren’t trying to force their way out, they were just impatient and confused. At nearly two hundred kilos each, if they wanted to force the gates they almost certainly could. I opened Bigboy’s and Hoss’ enclosures and blew my whistle again, calling “follow” as I ran to the south fields. Bigboy and Hoss, despite how big they were, kept up easily. Loping along, separate from the sounder around me, giving each other and the rest of the sounder plenty of room, one on one side of me, one on the other.
I looked for Speedy. Despite being the youngest and smallest of the group, she seemed fine, which didn’t really surprise me. She had a surprising turn of speed for a squeaker, seemingly able to run as easily as the two juveniles, Hotfoot and Duchess. Her back legs and hips were a little higher than normal for a forest swine, and she carried her head a little higher despite her hips being higher. Even though she wasn’t the biggest of her litter, she hadn’t been the runt either, and she’d always been fast to move around. When I asked his opinion, Granpa said Speedy probably had a little bit of extra farm pig genes in her to give her bigger back legs. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since she wasn’t carrying extra weight, had the black and tan stripes of a forest swine squeaker, and seemed smart enough.
Confident that nobody was straining to keep up, I picked up the pace a bit. Coming back towards the center path through the farm, I saw Pa and Edward walking quickly towards the storage barn next to the center east field. Edward nodded one last time as Pa pointed at the storage barn and then moved towards it in a lumbering run as Pa walked quickly to the horse barn. I smiled. Edward hated to run. He was almost ten years older than me, almost twice as heavy, and probably three times as strong, but he was slow, a bit soft, and got tired pretty quick. He took after Pa, but was even heavier. Not fat, but not lean.
I’ve always been thin like my ma, but much more extreme. Ma has always said I lost all my baby fat before I was two years old, and Pa always agreed with her. They said they even took me to the doctor in town when they could see my stomach muscles at not quite two years old, thinking I might be allergic to something I was eating. I hadn’t been. This year, I had measured a tiny bit over two meters tall against the doorframe Ma measured us against every summer, fifteen centimeters taller than Edward already, and would probably get a little taller.
Ma was something of an outsider. She came from New Dublin as part of a series of arranged marriages between states concerned about genetic diversity. She had been an old maid at twenty-one and unmarried, and Pa’s first wife and child had died due to premature childbirth with complications. There had been some letters back and forth before they were just thrown together, but it was far too distant for casual travel. They never saw one another face to face until the day before they were married. I’d met Ma’s pa once, in his third visit, many years ago. Because I was only four at the time, I only remembered than that he was tall and thin compared to Pa, and had long, braided fire red hair. I apparently took after him, but I kept my hair short. It was hotter here than New Dublin.
I arrived at the southwest field gate and unwrapped the rope holding it in place. “Bigboy, Hoss, inside.” As they passed, I patted them on the sides, feeling for thickening of their subcutaneous side, chest, and shoulder shields that would indicate they were getting ready to go into rut. It didn’t seem like the shields were thickening up yet. The boars probably wouldn’t knock over any fence posts rubbing the thickening shields. Probably. Fence posts weren’t my real worry though. It made me nervous leaving the two boars together in the same field unsupervised because they could tear each other up pretty terribly if they chose to fight for dominance. I reminded myself that the shields weren’t thickening, and they didn’t act like they were sizing each other up to fight. Yet. They would. When they went into rut, it would complicate dealing with them to a large degree.
After the two boars entered the gate, they both turned around and wandered back to the gate. They looked up at me and made deep throat noises, clearly knowing they deserved a treat. I delivered the expected acorn meal treats, carefully dropping them at the same time and at arms length from one another, so that the boars wouldn’t scuffle over the snacks. When they looked back up at me, I reached over and scratched each of them between the ears, and back down the neck. Despite the fact that their hide was like armor at their age, they enjoyed it.
I quickly moved a few feet along the fence to the southeast field gate and led the rest of my swine in, since they were following me still, and looking expectant. I gave each of them a treat, and then whistled and gave one last command. “Stay.” They would wander around a little bit, but stay near the gates.
These two fields and the west field were all fallow this season, so even if the swine started rooting hard, it wouldn’t matter. If the locusts swarmed, the swine would go wild eating them, which was certainly why Pa had me put them in the field. Free swine food with protein was always good. Something put pressure on one of my feet, and I looked down at Speedy who was nibbling at my double-bottomed moccasins. I scratched her head quickly, distracting her from nibbling before she decided to take a bite. Then reached over and scratched the other nearby sows, so nobody would get jealous. There wasn’t much risk of jealousy. Swine were typically not terribly jealous about social attention. The most tame ones could be, every now and then. With a little jolt of startlement, I realized I was wasting valuable time, and hoped Pa wasn’t watching me.
I straightened up and walked out of the gate, quickly checking to be sure both gates were securely roped so they wouldn’t come open easily. I was very careful to not look around to see if Pa was watching me. I’d know later if he had been, unless he caught me looking guilty, in which case I’d get yelled at for being slack, and for knowing I was being slack.
I ran to the house, only stopping by the toolshed to drop off the hoe and farm horn. I left my staff where I had left it in the morning before taking the swine up to work the corn field. I wanted to take my staff if I was leaving the farm, but I was going to be running. I couldn’t afford the extra weight. The sling and a couple stones I kept my pouch would have to do for self-defense. I made certain the door was roped shut and ran to the house next.
I banged through the front door. “Ma, Granpa, early locusts!” I pulled a dead locust out of my pouch and showed it to Ma in the kitchen. Ma cursed. Ma never cursed. I just stared at her for a second.
Ma’s mouth quirked and she reached up with her hand and pushed her hand gently against the bottom of my jaw to close my mouth. “Yes, son, I know those words. Is your pa sending you to the Countyman and the neighbors? When did you last eat?”
I struggled to remember. “I, uh, think it was breakfast. I’m pretty sure I didn’t take anything out since I was going to be on the farm all day, and was planning on coming back for lunch after the corn, before moving to the mangels.”
Ma opened the breadbox and pulled out a half loaf of fresh loaf bread and two flatbread biscuits the size of my palm, setting them on the counter. “Eat the half-loaf now. Put the rest in your pouch. Give me your cameltote and I’ll fill it. Show your granpa the locust.”
I hesitated, figuring out what order to do things in, and then took four long, quick steps to the dining room and set the dead locust on the table next to where Granpa was working before walking over to the sink and washing my hands. I wasn’t so much worried about the bug blood, but I had been in the field all morning working with the swine. Swine weren’t unsanitary, but they sure weren’t clean either. Ma insisted on washing hands before eating anyway, and had been watching me. School had taught me about bacteria and toxins, so I had long ago decided she was probably right. I still forgot now and then though, and Ma caught me every time I did.
As I was leaning over the sink, dipping water out of the water on the stove and wetting my hands, Ma quickly pulled my pouch behind me and put the flatbreads in the large compartment. As I was rubbing my hands together with a bit of soap, Ma lifted the cameltote off my shoulder, unwrapped the string holding the mouthpiece folded closed, and filled the half-empty cameltote with the wooden dipper and a funnel. She tossed a couple salt tablets in too and rewrapped and knotted the mouthpiece. “Thanks Ma!” I said as I dried my hands, grabbed the bread, and stuffed about a quarter of the half-loaf in my mouth.
I dropped my shoulder a bit and leaned my head down so she could more easily put the cameltote back on me. After she got the cameltote over my shoulder, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me “Watch your footing.”
I grinned and swallowed the big mouthful of bread. “Yes, Ma, I will!” I then gave her a little hug and a peck on the cheek before turning around and pulling out a short length of thin rope that I kept in my main pouch with my left hand, and stuffing my bread in my mouth with my right.
As I turned around, I saw that Granpa hadn’t stopped carefully cutting potatoes and carrots after I dropped the locust on the table. Still continuing to cut, Granpa was staring at the locust. He looked up at me. “Too early. Wrong year. Where’s your pa?”
“He’s headed to the horse barn and Edward is going to the equipment barn. We’re going to start harvesting today. He asked me to ask you to help get Abe and Molly together, rig up a travois, and get the turpentine wood to the burning stations. He said he’ll be waiting at the horse barn to talk with you.”
Granpa nodded, and carefully set aside the tempered glass blade he had been using, tapping it lightly with a gnarled finger as he put it next to the dead locust. I took the hint and picked it up and carefully handed it to Ma, who immediately washed it and put it with the other kitchen knife.
While I was doing that, Granpa had collected his crutches and stood, starting to hobble towards the door on his remaining foot, saying “Allie, Please get Abe and Molly out of the garden and have them meet me at the horse barn.”
Ma answered “Of course, Simon, I’ll do that now.” And walked towards the back of the house.
Granpa easily negotiated the front door. I didn’t help him. That would get me a glare, and maybe a sour comment. After he was clear, I followed him out the door, stuffing another big chunk of bread into my mouth as I jogged past. In about a minute, I was at the road, and warmed up. I did a couple quick stretches, while using the thin rope in my left hand to tie my pouch and cameltote to my suspenders so they wouldn’t flop around so much as I ran. Finally, I sucked a healthy swallow out of the cameltote’s neck that lay over my shoulder, swishing the salty water around in my mouth for a second while I rewrapped the mouthpiece. Then, I started to run.