A Good Year for Songbirds and Rodents

The sunlight was so strong it had a sound, a cracking hum underneath everything. A sound of the hot, dry exhale of light. I sat on the limestone steps of a church, looking down Franklin Avenue, and the surgical sunlight cut everything into abstract, flat geometric shapes. My brain was forced to work harder than normal to sort the abstractions of light back into coherent, recognizable forms, and then to sort the forms into a coherent narrative of reality. It was midday: hot, and everything was painted upon a canvas of silence undercut with the sunlight’s sound. The canvas was airbrushed here and there with slices of conversations and ambient noise. Aural graffiti on a blank white wall.

A red pickup truck sat askew at the curb near me. A thin sound stream of its radio wafted around in the heat. Locusts. Not unexpectedly, the radio was talking about the locusts. The newspaper had been blaring silently for the last few days about the locusts. An invading horde was sweeping down the steppes of Canada. Oklahoma had another undulating ocean of them. The winds off the Front Range were blowing locusts in seven separate streams towards us, and now the radio was announcing that meteorologists had predicted that those streams wound flow together into a living river torrent of insects right on top of us.

I sat and watched. People drifted past in groups of two or three, and every conversation had to do with the locusts. And even where there was no conversation, or only one person hurried by, hunched against the buffeting sunlight, locusts had already contorted their expressions to a husk-mask of locust-apprehension. Two farmers, young women, healthy, vital, strong, burst from the doors of the agriculture extension office next to where I sat and descended onto the sidewalk. Their conversation was excited. Animated. An intoxicating fervent optimism. Insecticides. The newest and strongest things available. Add in crop-control and hybrid exercise and reports from central Asia and Africa showed that locusts could be reduced to something that wouldn’t matter. Something to be ignored, even laughed at. Stopped. Doctors, scientists, entomologists and the advance of human knowledge would finally defeat locusts, and every other plague. And if all else failed, their body language and mutual validations suggested energetic denial might stem the tide.

Three teenagers, probing the edges of existential anxiety and fear and painful imagination like a raw scar, and engaging in life-affirming bits of romantic revere of catastrophe, talked with apocalyptic rapture about how the seven streams now had seven names: the Alberta-Saskatchewan, the Wind Prairie, the Red River, the Ignorance, the Kiowa, the Pale Horseman, and the Night Sky. Together the seven legions would fall upon us. Right here. Giving them, the three teenagers, the specialness and the important rank of status that comes with proximity to calamity. Excitement was coming. Stimulation. Arousal. They, the youthful dreamers, would be ready. They would be prepared. Where their elders and the frail and foolish had failed before, they would succeed. Indestructible and undaunted.

More words. Feeding habits. Mating rituals. Morphology. Comparative anatomy. Swarm psychology. Insect social hierarchy. The infinite and suddenly beautiful complexities of collective organization that could be metaphorically translated to the development of a human embryo, the mathematics of music, and the vastness of universal cosmology. All of it contemplated in urgent and nervous rationality by various passers-by. There is safety in being able to name and understand and explain the usages, origins, histories, mechanics, destinations, workings, manifest meanings and poetic allusions of the train about to hit you. It renders it…? At least no longer a monster under the bed. A banished mystery. The intellect is a comfortable, if ineffective, shield.

An old man, just returned from his travels, sat with his brother on a bench in the shade within earshot. He told his brother he’d seen one of them. One of the Seven. In the vastness of west-central Nebraska, where he’d been, he’d see the Living Mountain, the Devouring Storm, The Vision of Thunder made Manifest. He’d seen the mighty Kiowa. From a distance it looked, he said, like a dark fog, a black smoke, and it isn’t until it is too close to escape it that you realize it has a mass and that it is rushing. Like a storm cloud or a forest fire it creates its own wind that stampedes before it. A hot stench of a wind, it is the Breath of the Kiowa, he said, and everything not rooted to the earth rolls. It has a sound as well, he said, a choking, retching, coughing roar. And at the precise the moment you hear it, the Kiowa rises up like a single great being and takes the shape of a fluttering swirling hooded figure, incomprehensibly huge, a gigantic Death, and it scours everything from horizon to horizon. Or so he said.

His brother took his arm and talked about life. About ebbs and flows and cycles, and the majesty and mystery of unstoppable urges to grow and prosper and procreate. How there are seasons, and death and destruction inevitably lead to life and rebirth. The locusts were to be accepted and experienced, and like a fire, they would be over and all would begin again. They would themselves, the locusts and the brothers too, become food and fertilizer. It would be a good year for songbirds and rodents.

The Pastor, upon whose church steps I sat, emerged blinking into the violent razor sunlight. He had a plastic bucket full of plastic black letters and he moved to the church’s signboard by the street and began to put up an advertisement for the Sunday sermon. I watched as the words slowly formed: “The Lord provides a measuring stick for our faith”. A woman from the flock approached and asked and the Pastor’s words described a drunken path along the line between the Old Testament and the New. Job and Sodom and the evils of Egypt and the love of Jesus and everlasting redemption and above all, faith. The woman brightened and took on a serene look. There was more the Pastor said to her, but I didn’t hear it.

I was looking down at the brilliant emerald and black locust that had alighted on my shirt sleeve.

 

About Jim Naremore

Jim Naremore's first novel, "The Arts Of Legerdemain As Taught By Ghosts", is due out in late 2016. His short fiction has been picked up by Emrys Journal and Chicago Literati most recently. He lives in Indianapolis where he writes under the dispassionate gaze of a 30-foot tall mural of Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut.
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