‘Locusts’ by Guest Author James F. Gaines

jim-gains1-300x225Locusts

By Alphonse Daudet

Translated by James F. Gaines

          Before returning to my mill, here’s another memory of Algeria…

The night I arrived in that farm on the outskirts of the Sahara, I couldn’t sleep.  The new landscape, the disruption of the trip, the barking of the jackals, and then that sapping, oppressive heat – complete suffocation –  as if the mesh in my mosquito netting could not allow the passage of a single breath of air.  When I opened the window at dawn, a heavy summer fog floated in the air, scarcely drifting along and fringed at the edges with pink and black.  It hovered like a cloud of gunpowder over a battlefield.  Not a leaf fluttered, and in the beautiful gardens that spread out below me, everything had the same sullen mood, the same immobility of foliage waiting for a thunderstorm: the grapevines aligned on the exposed slopes that made for sweet wines, the European orchard tucked into a shady corner, the orange and mandarin trees in long, calibrated rows.  Even the banana trees with their shoots of tender green, always waving in the slightest breeze that tousled the fine, light fronds, stood at attention silent and straight as the plumes of a cavalry regiment. 

I paused a moment to look over that marvelous plantation where all the trees of the world congregated, each providing in season its gifts of exotic fruits and flowers.  Between the wheat fields and the masses of cork oaks shown a stream that was refreshing to behold on such a stuffy morning.  Just as I was admiring the orderliness and plenty of all these things, the handsome farmhouse with its Moorish arcades, the terraces sparkling with dew, the stables and barns clustered around, it struck me that twenty years ago, when the intrepid settlers came to homestead in this valley of the Sahel, they had found nothing but the wretched hut of a highway worker surrounded by a wilderness of dwarf palms and sumacs.  Everything had to be done from scratch, built up from nothing.  At the drop of a hat an Arab revolt would spring up and they had to drop the plow to take up the rifle.  And then the diseases, the eye infections, the bad harvests, the groping around with inexperienced hands, not to mention the ongoing struggle with a short-sighted, wishy-washy administration.  What exertions!  What drudgery!  What unbroken watchfulness!

Even today, despite the bad times they had weathered and the fortune they had scrimped to win, the farmer and his wife were the first in the village to rise.  I could hear them at this ungodly hour, bustling about down in the kitchen on the ground floor as they organized breakfast for the farm hands.  Soon a bell rang and the workers filed out onto the paths.  There were vineyard specialists from Burgundy, Kabyles from the Berber hills dressed in homespun  with red fezzes on their heads, Spanish gardeners from Minorca without any leggings, Maltese, Italian laborers from Lucca, a whole motley world of a workforce that was challenging to control.  To each of them the farmer in the doorway assigned a daily task in a clipped, gruff voice.  When he had finished, this tough fellow raised his head and scoured the sky with worried eyes.  When he spotted me at the window he yelled up, “Bad weather for the crops.   The scirocco wind will be blowing in.”

Just so, as the sun rose higher, gusts of incandescent, suffocating air hit us like the fires of a blast furnace.  We couldn’t decide what to do or where to hide.  The whole morning went on like that.  We took our coffee on mats out in the gallery, without the force to stir or to make conversation.  The miserable dogs, seeking coolness from the floor tiles, stretched themselves into ridiculous contortions.  Lunch raised our spirits a bit, for it was a real farmer’s spread with odd ingredients including carp, trout, slices of roast boar, hedgehog stew, high-class butter from the resort at Staoueli, local wine from Crescia, guavas and bananas.  Nothing less than an international conference of dishes that so resembled the complex environment that surrounded us.  We were about to get up reluctantly from the table when suddenly we heard cries that came right through the shuttered French doors that tried to keep out the incinerating midday heat: “Locusts!  Locusts!”

Our host became as white as a sheet, like a man who had heard news of a disaster, and we sped outside.  For ten minutes throughout the house that had moments ago been so calm there arose a stampede of running feet and chaotic voices blending into the mobilization of an alarm.  Hopping up from the shady nooks where they had been enjoying their siestas, the servants stormed outdoors banging away with sticks, pitchforks, flails, and any metal objects they could lay hands on, such as copper kettles, wash basins, or pots and pans.  The shepherds blew frantically on their sheep horns.  Others sounded off with conch shells from the ocean or hunting horns.  This created a frightful, disorganized cacophony that accompanied the harsh ululation made by Arab women running up from the adjoining village.  Sometimes, they think, you can frighten off the locusts by making a colossal racket that causes the atmosphere itself start to shake and impedes the locusts from descending to earth.

But where in the world were those horrible insects?  I could see nothing in the vibrant blue and burning sky but a bronze-colored cloud on the horizon, compact as a cloud full of hail, advancing with the sound like a million trees rustled by a downburst.  That was the locusts.  Flying wingtip to parched wingtip as if to hold each other aloft, they formed a solid mass that spread a dense, expanding shadow over the valley below.  Despite all our cries and exertions, they came on.  Soon the cloud arrived right over us.  For a second we noticed a slight tear on the edges and a sort of unraveling.  Like the first drops to fall from a shower, a few of them, distinct and brownish, broke off from the flight and dove, then the entire cloud broke open and a hail of insects hit the ground hard and noisily.  As far as the eye could see, the fields were covered with enormous grasshoppers as fat as your thumb.

The massacre began.  A hideous crunching like hay being chewed up.  With plows, harrows, and picks, the people attacked the seething earth.  The more we killed, the more they came on.  They writhed, layer upon layer, with their long legs interlocked.  The ones on top leaped wildly in panic, right onto the noses of the horses that had been harnessed for this bizarre plowing.  Dogs from the farmyard and the native village launched themselves into a cross-country mayhem, snapping at the locusts and rolling on them, At that instant, two companies of the Native Algerian Rifles, trumpets blaring at the lead, raced to the rescue of the beleaguered colonists, and the battle changed its appearance.

Instead of squashing the bugs, the soldiers methodically roasted them by igniting long trails of gunpowder stretched through the furrows.

Tired of killing, sickened by the stench, I returned to the farmhouse.  Inside the building there were almost as many of the locusts as outside.  They had pressed in through the shutters, through cracks around doors and windows, even down the chimneys.  Along the woodwork and the half-eaten draperies, they dragged, dropped and flew.   They scaled the whitewashed walls casting huge shadows that doubled their ugliness.  And always that gut-wrenching smell.  At dinner time, we had to do without water because they had fouled all the cisterns, the water basins, the wells, and even the horse troughs.   That night in my room, despite the hordes of them we had killed and removed, I still heard some stragglers crawling beneath the furniture.  The scraping of their carcasses reminded me of the sound of pods splitting open in the sun.  I didn’t sleep that night, either.  Anyway, the entire farm was still awake.  Gunpowder trails sizzled across the valley from one end to the other.  The Native Algerian Rifles were still at it.

The next day, when I opened my window again, the locusts had all gone.  But what devastation they had left behind them!  Not a flower remained, not a blade of grass.  Everything was blackened, eaten away, incinerated.  I could recognize the orchards of bananas, apricots, peaches, and mandarins only by the skeletons of their lifeless branches.  Nothing remained of the charm, the shimmering leaves that are the life and soul of a tree.  Women were dredging out the cisterns and the pools.  The farm hands were plowing up every inch of earth to kill the eggs that the swarm had laid.  Each clod had to be turned and laboriously broken up.  My heart nearly broke at the sight of all the pale roots, previously full of life, that withered as the land was turned inside out.