As I got closer to home I wracked my brain, trying to get an idea of how bad this swarm might be. Locusts arrived in geometric progression. The frontrunners of a swarm were scattered here and there. Over time, more and more would be evident, until the swarm reached numbers that were impossible to count, and difficult to estimate accurately. A rough idea of how many locusts had passed over an area could be made by seeing what they left behind where they were not actively being prevented from feeding. A modest swarm would eat grass to dirt and all the leaves from trees. A heavy swarm would eat smaller limbs and branches from some types of trees. An enormous swarm would substantially prune every tree and reduce most bushes to stumps. Locusts tended to travel until they could detect the sea before they began eating in earnest, a biological trigger. There were no forests within twenty kilometers of any sea coast. We were about forty kilometers from the coast. Far enough away that the locusts wouldn’t be triggered into voracious mode as they passed over us.
Still, locusts landed every now and then to eat a little and then continue on. They preferred crops to anything else, and then grass, followed by deciduous tree leaves and finally evergreen leaves, wool, leather, or even wood. There had been cases reported of them consuming utterly helpless newborn animals like mouse pinkies and swarming on carrion, but never predation on anything that was capable of moving around. It was useless trying to calculate how dangerous they were now. The only sane choice was to act as if this was the worst possible scenario. Especially since the crops weren’t in yet.
I slowed down from running to a jog, popped the last bits of the second flatbread in my mouth. Honey and blackberry, with a touch of mint. It was delicious. I made a mental note to cajole and flatter Ma to get at least a couple of her filling recipes to give to Marza. Maybe I’d ask for it as a marriage gift? I drained the cameltote of the last couple swallows of water, and concentrated on my breathing and pace. The locusts were a constant sound now. I forced myself to ignore what that sound meant, and use the meaningless sound to help center myself. I rested as I jogged, waiting to start feeling the carbs from the last of the bread starting to hit my system.
A new sound collected my attention, breaking me out of my centering. There was a carriage on the road. A carriage with unhappy horses. It was riding in the center of the road, and as I watched the driver had to make two course adjustments as the horses shied from locusts launching into the air from under their hooves.
“How far to town, son?” The driver yelled out to me as we reached speaking distance.
I swerved over to the side of the road and looked at the k-mark tile on its small stone pedestal. Since he was riding the center of the road with skittish animals, he couldn’t see the number on top. He was pretty high up on the carriage though. Maybe he had bad vision? “About eighteen kilometers, sir.”
The driver responded cordially, tipping his hat to me. “Thank you, son.”
As the carriage passed me, I saw a man and a woman watching out of the windows of the carriage. Middle-aged, soft faces with dark hair touched with grey. I didn’t recognize them, and they didn’t look like anyone I knew. Their eyes darted here and there on me as I passed. I looked at them as they looked at me, waving as I passed, and they waved back. Curious, I looked back at the carriage as I passed it. There were several crates, but the bottom two were pitch-sealed, and marked ‘books’ in very large letters. Language teachers. Our other teachers stayed here in the community, but language teachers travelled thousands of kilometers every year, moving from region to region. Language unity was hammered into everyone. Miscommunication was a potential source of conflict. Everyone had to speak the same language.
Teaching other languages was banned in schools. A few families still taught other languages to their children at home, and there was no penalty or pressure not to do so. As long as you spoke Primary, you were allowed to speak anything else you wanted. Children raised who couldn’t properly speak Primary, but could speak another languages, would cost the parents a slightly higher tax. Later in life, the tax would shift to the speaker. Marza’s family spoke a language that they called Latino, but it didn’t seem to be the same as the Latin words that were used in science. Marza had taught me a few words of it, but I hadn’t been very enthusiastic. Her pet name for me was ‘Tonto’, and none of her family would tell me what it meant. They all smiled when I asked, so I guessed it wasn’t too bad.
I shook my head and picked up the pace from a jog into a run. My family only spoke Primary, and I was glad for it, but I had to say that it would probably be a little fun to be able to speak something else. Maybe I’d learn Latino as our kids did, because Marza had already promised she would teach them. Her granpa had even spoken to me seriously once, making sure I would let our children learn Latino. It apparently was important enough to their family that it might make a difference in whether or not their family would support us marrying one another.
I ran up the family road, and stopped by the south fields to check on my swine as I passed. They were all happily chasing locusts around the field. Even if they had eaten their fill recently, they would make room for locusts, stuffing themselves happily. Speedy was running around and trying to catch them out of the air like she was one of Marza’s dogs chasing a ball, with some success. The sounder and the boars were all happily grunting as they caught the locusts, which weren’t making much effort to be evasive. My swine mostly ignored me, though the two boars and the four oldest sows turned slightly so they could see me better. I laughed at them, and all of them looked up at me briefly. After a few seconds, since I didn’t give them any commands, they resumed the important work – eating.
Before heading up to the house to see where Pa wanted me, I decided to check the south side storage huts, just to be absolutely certain they were sealed. All four of the large half-cylinder shaped storage buildings were sealed tightly. The remains of the last year’s crops and the trade crops we had gotten from other farmers was in there, including the hay for the animals. There was usually a little ventilation allowed, but today the vents were sealed with glass plugs, and the cat doors were sealed. I faintly heard a couple cats meowing to be let out, but ignored them. Even sealed, the buildings weren’t completely airtight. If properly sealed, locusts could not get in, but a little air could.
I jogged around each building, carefully looking the walls up and down. The buildings were made from glass slag blocks from the solar glass mill by the coast. It was the cheapest inorganic building material with enough structural soundness to build with. Sometimes the ugly translucent blocks with bubbles, ash, and dirt trapped inside would crack and become loose with temperature changes, or when exposed to a cold rain after a hot day. I saw no sign of breaks in the walls, thankfully. While I was looking I did, however, find one fresh patch of mortar that I could see. It looked like Zeke’s work. He always did his last scrape across the mortar in a downward movement and a little squiggly finishing move with the paddle. When I touched it very carefully, it was still tacky. Zeke was back, and that was good. Another hand at the harvest.
I finished inspecting the walls and ran up to the farmhouse, banging through the front door, quickly swinging it shut behind me. Granpa was in the kitchen, and the first thing that hit me as I walked in was the scent of tamale with pepper. Even granpa couldn’t mess up tamale with pepper. There were two pots on the stove boiling water, the larger one I could see had the corn husk wrapped tamales in it. The other was boiling a tea bag made from the remnants of one of my old shirts, it looked like. Nobody else was in the house.
“Granpa, do you know what Pa wants me to do?” I didn’t stop moving, hopping from foot to foot, jogging without lifting my feet off the ground as I let myself slowly cool down.
Granpa shifted on the one cane he was using while he was working in the kitchen, turning and looking me up and down. “Good time on that run, Allen. We weren’t expecting you back for a little while. Yes. Your pa wants you to bring the first meal to the field as soon as you arrive, and a crew tote of water. But the meal’s not ready.” He thought for a second. “You’ve only got fifteen minutes. Going to the north field then coming back for the food would be a bit blockheaded, so go pick the garden.”
“OK, what do you want me to pick first, granpa.” I was thinking probably the tomatoes, since they might ripen off the vine.
“All of it.”
I stopped jogging in place. “What? Did someone already pick most of it?” I couldn’t help but think to myself Oh, boy. This is just what we need. Granpa has gone into early stage dementia.
Granpa, reached out and thumped me hard on the shoulder, grinning at me. “I’m not crazy yet, Allen. Don’t pick the produce, pick the plants, roots and all. The locusts will eat everything anyway, so we’re not wasting anything by killing the plants. Load them on the hand cart and haul them to the smokehouse. Start the smoker oven to kill off the locusts on the plants and keep others from getting in, and then come back here. I’ll have the food ready.”
“Sorry granpa, I’ve never seen that done before.” I apologized.
Granpa patted my shoulder again, saying “I know.” With a bit of humor in his voice. Then, more seriously. “Less talk, more work, Allen.”
“Yes, sir!” I ran out the back door and grabbed the hand cart, dumped out the compost that was loaded in it, and went out to the quarter-acre garden plot behind the house and fought the locusts for the garden, ripping up entire plants as fast as I could, not worrying about any loose fruits or vegetables that came loose. I left the carrots, potatos, and table beets. They were underground, and the locusts wouldn’t damage them too much. This early in the season, they might even regrow their greens and develop a bit more. The beans went in first, since they were least likely to suffer crushing damage. After that I pulled up the cucumber and zukini plants. I stacked all the tomato plants on top of the pile in the cart, and took them all to the smokehouse, and dumped the whole mess of them on the ground. I quickly used a fire bow to start a tinder and kindling fire and then blew on it until it was going strongly. After the starter fire was burning well on its slab of heart of pine, I pushed it under the main smoker’s prepared fire. I made sure the heart of pine slab was burning, blowing a few more times. As I watched, the heart of pine flared and started to burn incredibly fast with a hot flame. When I saw flames start to take hold on the smaller pieces of hickory, I left the smokehouse and walked towards the garden.
Looking around, the air was thick with locusts. There were more and more of them on the ground, eating briefly before moving on. The garden was covered with them. As I walked in front of the kitchen window that faced the garden, I yelled out to grandpa in the house. “Finish the garden, or haul food to the fields, Granpa?”
I saw movement in the kitchen window. Granpa pointed to the garden. I waved and pushed the cart into the garden, ripping all the squash and gourds out of the ground. The pumpkins were too big to lift more than a couple at a time, so I actually picked those, rapidly, filling up the cart with them. Another trip to the smokehouse. I dumped the second load on the floor of the smokehouse after removing the pumpkins individually. They weren’t fully ripe, and probably would have just bounced if I dumped them out of the cart, but I didn’t want to waste anything.
I made one more trip back and forth to the garden, for more pumpkins and melons. I even made myself pull up some of the lettuce, okra, and brussel sprout plants. Not my favorites, but I wasn’t asked to only save my favorites.
When the third trip was done, Granpa had already gotten a second cart out of the tool shed and loaded it with the food and drinks for the field. The glass pots were tempered, tough, but we still didn’t risk them in the field. There were two big wooden buckets with rope handles in the cart, both with leather covers strapped on. Tea in one bucket, tamales in the other. A dozen full cameltotes and a small wax-sealed bleached leather pouch of salt. The tea was in another bucket. A leather bag of sugar peeked out from between the two buckets. A wooden crate held mugs and a dipper for the tea.
As I lifted the two poles of the cart and heaved forward to start it moving, I told Grandpa what I had done in the garden. He nodded, resting on the one crutch he could use while carrying a bucket, and said he would salvage as much of the rest as he could, and make sure the smokehouse fire stayed lit while he started making more tea and cooking. Emergency harvest was a quick and dirty harvest, but it didn’t stop until it was done.
I finished hauling the cart up to the north fields, yelling out to Zeke, “Sugar tea and pepper tamales, Zeke!”
He waved back, “Thanks Allen, I’ll be there in a minute.”
Zeke was only five years older than me. We were both swineherds, and had both grown up learning swine lore and genetics from Grandpa, and to a lesser extent from Pa. We got along well. The biggest problem we had with one another was that he would inherit the swine facilities at the farm. After I turned sixteen, I would be expected to be on my own, off the farm, in two years or less. I didn’t have a real problem with it, but Zeke was careful to avoid speaking about it. He knew his position, but didn’t try to rub my nose in it. I appreciated that, but I would have preferred that he simply accept it rather than be afraid I would hold it against him somehow. There was only room for two heirs on the farm. Edward got the farm and Zeke got the swine facilities.
Zeke’s swine were the best on the farm. I’d created my sounder from culls from his sounder. I had eight swine I could trust in fields, he had twenty. His swine would behave in mangel beets and corn like mine, but also in wheat, oats, and cotton. That’s how he made his living, by weeding the fields of other farmers for them, with swine. When I left, his sounder would take over for mine on our own farm, and also service the fields of Marza’s family if they wanted to pay or barter a decent price for it.
As I walked past with the cart, Zeke whistled, gave another command to his sounder, and they looked his way for a second. A moment later, they started moving a little faster in the rows, snapping at locusts as they trotted back and forth.
Zeke had been covering the tops of mangel roots with a shovel as his swine did their best to keep the locusts off. It wouldn’t be much longer before the effort would be meaningless, but the longer the greens lasted, the fewer roots would be uncovered and partly eaten. He caught up with me before I made it to the north fields, tapping me on the shoulder “All right, skin and bones, let me take that, you’re barely moving. Running to town and back isn’t light work.”
I gratefully let him push the cart. He was right, I had been barely moving. “I’ll be fine after I get my stomach around a couple tamales, and a couple minutes rest.”
Zeke nodded, looking at me sideways a bit, clearly checking me out to make sure I was OK.
“I’m fine, Zeke, really. I’m just a bit low on sugar after a long run.”
He stopped looking at me. “OK.” Zeke was somewhere between me and Edward in body shape. Herding swine in a field meant constant, repetitive work. It didn’t build a lot of muscle. He still took after Pa and Grandpa more than Ma. Heavy bones, quite a bit shorter than me, but despite being lean for his build, he was quite a bit heavier. He had even been able to outrun me in a long run until I was thirteen. He could still outrun me in a sprint, a short one, but I’d catch him after a hundred meters and leave him in my dust. I smiled a bit.
“I was expecting you a little earlier, Allen.” Pa said, startling me. I hadn’t even seen him coming. I really needed that tea and food.
“Sorry, sir. I got back sooner than expected, and Granpa had me uproot the aboveground crops from the garden and throw it in the smokehouse and start the fire. While I was doing that, he finished the meal and loaded it. I got most of what was left in the garden in three cartloads.”
Pa looked towards the house. “Good thinking on Pa’s part. He was going to pick the garden as well as he could but I’m sure you saved a lot more than he could have.” He paused. “I heard the Vuvuzela blowing emergency harvest. Did someone else beat you into town?”
“No sir. Ted Hershel was sent by his family to go to town, but I talked him into going the other way. Or rather, I asked him to tell his Pa I was running into town, and asked him, through Ted, if he could send Ted the other way and warn people away from town. Since I didn’t see Ted again, I’m guessing that’s what he did.”
Zeke set the cart to rest, and quickly plucked one of the full cameltotes and the salt bag from the cart, replacing his nearly empty tote after salting the water. Pa and I did the same. Edward and Ma showed up a few seconds later, followed by Abe and Molly, pushing back and forth at each other a little bit about something I couldn’t quite follow. Edward’s wife, Jan, who was a little pregnant and looking a lot out of breath, followed Abe and Molly.
Jan was carrying one of the wood axes. A friction-ground piece of sharp stone that weighed about five kilos, in a heavy shaft that probably weighed another three kilos. Jan was a town girl, and pregnant. She had clearly worked as hard as she could but she had a long way to go before she could work hard all day, and she absolutely didn’t need to be swinging a wood axe when she was pregnant. I reached out my hand for the axe. “You’ve been cutting for the smoke fires?”
Jan looked at me, smiled, and nodded, but said nothing, merely handing over the axe.
Edward looked at me and smiled in gratitude. I’d made some points with him. That hadn’t been my intent, but I appreciated it anyway.
After everyone, including Abe and Molly, had replaced their cameltotes and salted them to taste, Pa handed out the mugs, poured a couple centimeters of sugar in each mug, and then dipped out the tea, which was still barely too hot to drink quickly. Pa handed out the tamales next, and everyone ate ravenously. Edward showed Jan how to protect her tea from locusts by holding her tamale over it while she was eating the tamale, and sliding the mug out from underneath quickly to take a sip. The corn wrapper protected the tamale from the locusts, and kept the tamale bits from falling in the tea.
I noticed Abe and Molly watching as Edward showed Jan, and noticed them copying. They had already been trying to copy what we were doing with the tamales and tea mugs, but Edward was explaining it. They both watched him like little hawks. It made me chuckle inside.
Pa cleared his throat. “OK, Allen will be cutting wood now. Jan, I want you to take over for Molly and Abe, keeping the fires going. Remember, we want smoke. If a fire seems to be burning too clean, throw a shovelful of dirt on it. Allen will be cutting green wood, so it shouldn’t burn too clean. We need the smoke.”
Pa continued. “Abe and Molly will take two of the horses and start hauling shocks of corn into the storage sheds. Edward and I will shock the sheared corn. Ma will run the shear behind the other two horses. When Abe and Molly catch up to us, I’ll start running the other shear until we get ahead again.”
Ma spoke up. “Is it worth husking, or will it all end up being fodder?”
“It was growing very well, and would have been a fine crop. There’s quite a bit of brown tassel that I’ve seen already.” He shook his head. “We can only work, and hope. We certainly can’t leave it in the field. I’m hoping that we’ll get a lot of cobs that are human-edible along half their length. If not, it’s going to be a lean year, though with the locusts coming this early, we might manage a winter planting of table beets soon enough to get a fair harvest before frost. We certainly won’t get a good crop in this short of a growing season, but we might get a crop that’ll help keep our navels and our backbones comfortably far apart after we pay the taxes.”
With that brief discussion out of the way, we got back to work. I started cutting wood in the forest bordering out fields. Three hours later, a couple fishermen, Tate and Jomo showed up. Granpa sent them up to us. They had dropped their masts and buried their sails and ropes before sinking their boats at the dock. A really bad swarm could literally eat a boat down to the waterline once the locusts were triggered into their greatest hunger by proximity to the sea. The Countyman had called on all the labor that he could for emergency harvest, and the two fishermen were more than welcome. They had each worked emergency harvests before, but never corn. They were, however, good with their hands and pulling nets was clearly hard enough work that they could keep a good pace once they learned how to form shocks.
It was a loud argument, but since the fishermen were helping, and doing a fine job, Edward and Ma got Pa to start hauling shocks instead of Abe and Molly. Abe and Molly started hauling water, tea, salt, sugar, and tamales. When they weren’t doing that, they took over hauling firewood and tending the fires and let Jan rest.
The locusts got thicker and thicker until dark. Granpa send out lanterns with Abe and Molly, one at a time. Abe carried the lantern, and Molly would carry a small jar of citronella oil. Since I was at the forest’s edge, with the least light, I got the first lantern.
Zeke finished burying the Mangel roots at some point during the night, and moved his swine and mine into the swine pens. When he returned, he started swapping off with us one at a time to let us eat, cutting wood for me, shocking, shearing, tending the fires, and hauling shocks, until everyone had eaten again, and then he told Jan to go and get some sleep. She tried to say no, but Zeke cheated and got Ma and Edward to talk to her.
Eventually, Jan agreed, gave Edward a kiss, and walked back to the house. Pa sent Abe and Molly with her, telling her to make sure they got to the house and got to sleep, but we all knew it was the other way around. Jan wasn’t heavily pregnant yet, but she was getting to around five months, and didn’t need to be pushing herself as hard as she had been doing. Not if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Edward spoke quietly to Zeke and slapped him on the shoulder, and then they both went back to work.
Pa didn’t shock anymore. Edward wouldn’t let him. Pa could drive a shearing team, or pull the shocks to storage, but he wasn’t to shock the stalks. I heard the not-so-quiet arguments from the woods. Pa didn’t want to get put on a shelf, he said, but Edward wouldn’t back down. The fishermen were faster at shocking than Pa was. When Pa wouldn’t back down, Edward mentioned that he had seen the flecks of blood in Pa’s cough that he sometimes got when he pushed himself too hard. At that point, Ma took over, and Pa did what Edward said.
The fishermen worked hard and well, talking to each other, rarely to us.
At dawn, I shut off the lantern, and kept chopping.
“Son, we don’t need any more wood.” Ma’s voice.
“What?” I replied, shaking my head and attempting to get the fuzz out of my thoughts.
“Shearing’s done. Edward, Zeke, Tate, and Jomo are shocking. Granpa has let all the swine except the boars out into the fallow fields to eat locusts. He let the boars out into the horse paddock. Abe and Molly are out with brooms sweeping up a couple barrels of locusts before it gets too warm. Based on what’s on the ground and what we can see in the trees, it’s not going to be a heavy year, but you still need to try your idea with the sails. Before it gets too late in the morning.”
The sails. My idea. My brain refused to cooperate, so I carefully set the axe down. Without the axe in my hands, my arms felt like they would float away into the air. I needed my arms so I held them down.
Ma smiled at me, and handed me what she was holding. A mug of sugar tea and a tamale. That got my attention, and I swallowed the entire mug of warm, sugar-shock goodness in one lift of the mug, and then ate the tamale so quickly that I accidentally chewed and swallowed some of the corn husk wrapper.
I tried to make my brain trigger a memory. What idea? And then it hit me. “Oh, that’s right. I remember now. I’ll go get right on it, Ma. Thank you for reminding me.”
I had spoken to the family about how much the swine loved eating locusts, and that locusts were actually very good protein food for them, but we never really caught a lot of them. Sure, we would gather them in the early morning, sweeping them together into barrels when they were cold and in a torpor, but that only got us a couple barrels a day, no more than half a dozen barrels. With a barrel normally being about as large as a big olive oil amphora, maybe up to twenty liters at most, one barrel would provide every swine on the farm a tiny snack, even after we sold off the culls. Kilo for kilo, forest swine in good health needed about as much food as men, about a kilocalorie per fifty kilos bodyweight. That meant that Bigboy and Hoss each needed more than three times what I needed to stay healthy. It was a very good thing that swine could eat things that humans couldn’t, even if they preferred things that humans could eat. If I could find a way to make locust collection viable, it would be useful.
After a little planning, with Pa’s blessing, I went to the marina and traded one of the culls from my sows to a fisherman for a couple old sails he was going to have his wife make into pants. After that, I went to the inn and bought a dozen standard-size square barrels that were still structurally sound, but had degraded dado or tongue and groove connections that wouldn’t hold liquids. The innkeeper always had a bunch of those laying around. He would burn them over the winter at nights when he had a good crown, so the inn would smell like cooking beer. That cost me another cull. The rest of what I needed was laying around the farm. An old garden cart frame we had been restoring, with handles, axle, and cart wheels started me out. Then I needed a few planks of wood, a bunch of old but serviceable leather strap, and a couple of travois poles. It took me about a week of my own time to make the thing, and when I got done, I had enough sail to make three more.
I went to the equipment barn, hoping the gizmo would work. Of course, if it worked I’d actually have to name the darn thing, and I had absolutely no clue what to call it.
All of the pieces and parts were just where I had put them. I set a square barrel in the cradle, strapped it in place, and mounted the travois poles. Then I fitted the sail half over the travois poles, tightening the leather straps to hold the cloth to the vertical poles and let the loose end of the sail fall into the barrel. I gave everything a good once over, checking to make sure all the pegs were tight, and the steam-bent hickory wheels and their two layers of one-piece rawhide strapping over rubber were undamaged. Sometimes mice would evade the cats long enough to do serious damage to tire leather, even if the leather was treated with cat urine, and termites were terrible pests if they got established.
Everything seemed to be in good condition. When I pushed the contraption outside the equipment barn, it rolled easily.
Pa was leading two horses back from the field, and they looked as tired as he did, not even bothering to try to pull away to eat when Pa stopped to look at the contraption. “You’re seriously going to try that thing after running to town and back, and then cutting wood all night?”
I took one of his favorite phrases and twisted it a bit. “It won’t test itself, Pa.”
I got a big smile for that, and that didn’t happen often. Pa rarely smiled big. “It sure won’t. It’s still a little too cool though, I think, for the locusts to act like you want them to.” He paused, looking up at me with a thoughtful expression. “Mind taking these two to their stalls, so I can get back up there to drag shocks?”
It took me a moment to realize he was asking me, not telling me. I know I got a funny look on my face.
Pa slapped me on the shoulder. “Son, you’re not a child anymore. You proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt yesterday and last night. I’ll be asking a lot more than telling in the future. I’m still your Pa though. I reserve the right to yell at you if you muck something up.”
“Umm, sure, Pa, I’ll put up the horses.” I took the reins from him. It didn’t feel right to comment on the rest of what he’d said, but I had to admit it felt pretty good.
Pa slapped me hard on the shoulder. Hard enough to make me stumble. “Get moving. That smile will blind me if you keep it up.” As he turned back up to the north fields, he spoke loudly, but with a little wheezing. “Get Abe and Molly to rub them down, and give them a measure of molasses and oat. A couple of the crab apples too. Don’t do it all yourself. You need to test that thing. If it works, it’ll be useful.”
More orders. That felt more like Pa, but it was orders for me to get Abe and Molly to do things. “Yes, sir.”
I clucked in my throat and tugged lightly on the reins. The two draft horses snuffled tiredly and followed behind me. I led them to their stalls, and they perked up a little as I gave them a measure of oat and a dollop of molasses, and made sure they each had at least half a bale of hay. That much I’d do for the horses. Abe and Molly were probably back behind the house, sweeping up locusts into barrels. Every full barrel would be moved to the smokehouse and then heated to kill them in the barrels. After they were dead, we would spread them on planks in the smokehouse and smoke them. The swine would happily eat the smoked pests as treats, and bulk up nicely with the extra protein while they lasted. Just a couple locusts per day per swine made a huge difference in how well they grew.
I set Abe and Molly to getting a couple crab apples for each of the horses and asked them to rub them down and groom them. They both loved the horses, and darted off so quickly they were literally running before their dropped brooms hit the ground. I had to call them back and remind them to put their brooms up in the toolshed. I didn’t say anything about the half-full barrel of locusts they left there, I just tapped the wooden top in place over the confused insects and carried it over to the smokehouse, setting it a couple feet over the fire. The barrel would heat quickly and kill the locusts but not burn the oak.
I walked back into the house, and saw Jan at table with Granpa. They were both preparing food from the garden for jarring. Jan didn’t look worse for wear after getting a little sleep, which was good. Ma was heating wax and inspecting mason jars and their glass lids. Every window in the house that I could see had a row of half-ripe tomatos along the base of the window.
“Wish me luck, Ma, I’m off to try out the gizmo.” I turned to Granpa and spoke to him next. “Abe and Molly are going to be a while grooming the horses. I put their most recent barrel of locusts on the shelf above the fire in the smokehouse, granpa.”
Ma laughed. “We’ll all be watching you through the window, Allen. I hope it works. I think it will work. You waxed the sail, right?”
“Yes Ma, I did.”
Granpa just smiled, like he already knew the answer. He probably did, and just wanted me to see for myself. That certainly didn’t mean it would work. It just meant he thought it was something good for me to figure out for myself.
I smiled at Granpa and gave him a little salute. “Science project time.” His smile got a little bigger before I turned and walked out the door and over to the equipment barn. Tate and Jomo were standing there, staring at what I had built, talking to Edward and Zeke. Pa was leading the other two draft horses to the horse barn.
The locusts were starting to fly again, in greater and greater numbers. This was as good a time as any.
“What are you going to do with that thing, Legs? That sail’s too small to move a man, and you’ve only got one axle. Your brothers won’t tell us.” Tate asked.
It took me a second to figure out why he had called me by my school nickname. I vaguely knew him from school. He had been two years ahead of me. “I’d rather just try it out, so I can lie about it if it doesn’t work like I hope.”
All four of them chuckled tiredly at that. I pushed the gizmo over to one of the sections of land that still had a bit of green left, and was covered by locusts. I had enough room to run in a straight line for almost a hundred meters. I lined up, and started pushing. The cart was really light, and started moving easily. After a couple seconds I had it up to speed and could feel the sail keeping me from running faster.
It was working! As I ran towards them, the locusts would take off into the air. A lot of them would fly directly away from me, faster than I was running, but a lot didn’t, flying towards me, or to the sides, or just straight up. As I ran, I heard scores of locusts hit the vertical sail. I watched the dark blobs through the worn tan sail as they fell across its waxed surface. As they were unable to gain purchase on the cloth, and were maybe a bit stunned, they were funneled into the barrel. I ran about a hundred meters, and then ran back. I could feel the weight in the barrel.
I ran back up to the equipment shed, and Zeke was already walking out of the shed carrying four more of the empty square barrels. When I stopped the cart, I jumped around in front of it, and there was a barrel overflowing with locusts there. I unstrapped it, pulled the sail funnel end out of it, and Zeke handed me a lid. I banged the lid into place so the locusts couldn’t escape, and saw Pa looking at me.
“Looks like it worked, Allen. Good Job. Hand me that barrel, I’ll take it to the smokehouse.” He turned to Zeke. “Zeke can you get one of this swine culls from this year’s litters for both Tate and Jomo? Ones that will respond to a leash?”
Zeke nodded. “Yes, sir. Follow me, you two, we’ll get you payment for the excellent work last night.” Zeke walked off with Tate and Jomo in tow.
I handed Pa the barrel and put another one in place and filled it. After the next barrel full, Edward and I started running back and forth through the locusts from a starting point closer to the smokehouse. After another thirty minutes, the whole family was out laughing. Everyone except Pa and Granpa took a turn pushing the gizmo. Even Ma, and Abe and Molly, both working together. Abe decided it should be called the bugbuster, and I agreed with him. Jomo and Tate even stopped by and laughed at us and with us before heading out to the road to walk back through the locust storm with their culled swine obediently following them on a twine leash, snapping up locusts whenever they got close to one, without ever pulling on the leash.
Eventually Ma, Jan, Abe, and Molly started canning the garden fruits and veggies I’d pulled up while Pa and Granpa pulled out every barrel they could find from everywhere on the farm. We filled them all, heated each barrel of locusts until they stopped making noises, and then for three minutes more. One of the south field storage huts was nearly empty except for a few bales of hay. While we were waiting for Pa and Granpa to kill off the barreled locusts, Edward, Zeke and I removed the thin ceramic shields covering the door and moved the hay to the horse barn in handcarts. Then we moved masses of cooked locusts to the empty hut and dumped them into piles. After emptying the barrels, we filled them again with the bugbuster. Rinse and repeat.
We collected two hundred barrels worth of locusts that day before dark. With all the protein from the locusts, the swine culls would be much bigger and meatier than normal this year when we went to market with them, the next season’s squeakers would be even bigger, because the sows would have more milk, and the squeakers themselves could go straight to a very high protein diet as soon as they started taking solid food.
As we all sat town to table that evening, we got the bad news. Pa had checked on the harvest we had saved, and said we had maybe collected a third of a normal harvest, and very little of it was human consumable corn. The swine, horses and cattle could eat it, but we couldn’t. The mangel beets had come though OK, and Pa was fairly sure they would grow at least enough greens back through the dirt for us to find them.to harvest easily if the family needed to eat them. A single mangel beet could weigh twenty pounds, but they were nobody’s favorite food. They were a fodder crop that humans could eat. As soon as the locusts hit the coast and bounced back over us again to their breeding grounds, we would plant every table beet and radish seed we had and hope that we could get a harvest of them in, even a mediocre harvest, before the first strong freeze.
Unfortunately for the swine, high protein from the locusts wouldn’t be enough. We would still have to cull heavily because we simply couldn’t keep sixty-five swine overwinter after paying taxes. Unless we got a real bumper crop of table beets and radishes, we’d probably end up having to pay our taxes at least partly in swine culls, which was what we normally used to barter for household needs.
It was going to be a hard winter, with hard decisions, but we would make it through. I do remember Pa wishing everyone a good night. I do not remember falling asleep at the kitchen table five seconds after he said it. I do not remember my two brothers hauling me back to the room I shared with Zeke and tossing me on my bed, and making sure I was at least covered up.
When I woke up in the morning, still fully dressed, I almost flew out of bed because it was light out, and I had just woken up. I ran down the hall to the kitchen and found Ma inspecting the results of canning, checking seals and dating canisters by color with dyed melted wax.
“Why did you let me oversleep? Is Pa mad?”
“No, Allen, he told us to let you sleep in. You made quite an impression on him yesterday. And then you made a little impression on the table. With your forehead.” Ma gave me a hug. “We’re on short rations after today until we harvest the beets and turnips. A few of the locusts have been going the other way today, so we will plant the day after tomorrow. Today though, I saved you a big breakfast.”
Ma lifted the lid over a plate on the counter, and I saw flapjacks with a black jelly and thick slices of tomato. I smelled blackberries and butter. My mouth immediately required that I swallow saliva, and my arms shot out to grab the plate, carefully. I quickly transported my treasure to the table and went back toward the kitchen, only to find Ma standing in my way, handing me a wooden fork and knife. My stomach made loud, obnoxious noises.
“You better take care of that, son, it sounds dangerous.” Ma said with a grin as I started to demolish the stack of pancakes and tomato slices. A moment later, she put a mug of regular hot tea with mint and honey in it next to the plate.
I had been so hungry I hadn’t even noticed I was thirsty. The tea mostly disappeared in two gulps, but by that time I was half done with the food, and my stomach was no longer in danger of making loud noises.
I noticed movement through the window and saw Pa speaking to someone on a horse by the equipment shed. Someone that looked a bit overweight. The Countyman? I looked at the horse and recognized it. Definitely the Countyman, nobody else had a heavy riding horse with those colors. What was he doing here?
Pa turned away from the Countyman. Sharply, rudely, with a slash of his hand as he turned that I recognized as a very angry Pa. As he walked away, he said something, loudly, without looking at the Countyman. I couldn’t make out what he said. The way the Countyman tilted his head forward, it didn’t seem like he was mad. He didn’t say anything to Pa as Pa walked away from him towards the house, or try to call Pa back. He just turned his horse away and left.
I wasn’t hungry anymore. The Countyman had brought news bad enough for Pa to turn his back on him, and behave poorly. I whispered to Ma. “Pa just spoke to the Countyman, there was an argument. Pa’s walking back here, angry. The Countyman just turned away and rode towards the road.”
Ma picked up the plate in front of me and put it back underneath its cover on the counter. While retrieving my plate, she looked at Pa as he walked towards the house. She stiffened up a little when she saw him. He was walking quickly, and stiff-legged. Extremely unhappy.
Pa banged through the front door, looked at Ma, and then looked at me. He turned away from us, put a hand on the door, and gently closed it. He took a deep breath, coughed lightly, wincing, and then turned and sat at the table in front of me.
Without saying anything, Ma brought him a hot tea with mint and honey, which he held in front of his face. Breathing the steam, clearly trying to calm himself.
I said nothing, having absolutely no desire to interrupt Pa while he was trying to calm down from being that mad.
After a minute or so, Pa took a drink of the tea. A few seconds later, he set it next to him on the table and pulled a piece of paper from his belt. With knotted brows, he unfolded it and I watched his eyes scan back and forth as he read it. After a minute he breathed a deep breath out and set the note gently on the table. He pushed it across the table, spinning it around with his wrist as he moved it in front of me. “The Stateman is calling up a militia for the first time in over nine hundred years. I’m sorry son, you’ve been drafted.”