by Nino Cipri
Illustration by Sarah Emerson
I was in the orchard when the siren went off, ripping through the clear air of the afternoon. I was dozing underneath one of the trees and heard it first as an insect whine in my dream. Then I recognized it for what it was, and startled myself awake.
I’d been in the orchard for hours, safe in the knowledge that my uncle and the farmhands would be haying in the eastern fields. There was a pile of apple and pear cores on the ground below me. I’d been late to breakfast that morning, and Uncle Mo had said that the early bird got the worm, but the late one ate air. His voice was rough and sharp in the way he had, like a rusty scythe. I’d snagged the uneaten toast crusts from my cousin’s plate and slipped out the back door.
I looked up, but the sky was clear of clouds. It was a beautiful day, with a cool breeze shaking the branches of the trees, so it couldn’t have been a tornado warning. I felt a little thrill, uncomfortable and prickly, wondering if maybe a swarm had been sighted — it was the season for them, after all, and they’d hit a town to the southwest of us only last month — but my mind snapped shut on the thought. Better not to think such things. It was probably just a drill, I told myself. Nothing more. Nothing ever happened around here.
I’d lived on my uncle’s farm since my mother died. It was beautiful here, but lonely, too, the kind of loneliness that sat heavy in your stomach and devoured itself. I never had to wonder why my mother chose to leave the family farm; I dreamed of the day I’d be able to break free like she had, go to a city and be swallowed up in noise and light and other people.
The siren went on wailing, so I got up, gathering the discarded cores and tossing them over the fence into the neighbor’s pasture as I went. The siren’s cry was pitched high and panicky, sweeping through the air. It sounded like the sustained yowl my cat Violet made when a dog cornered her. I screamed like that once, last year, when Uncle Mo twisted my wrist until I felt something give. That was before I’d gotten better at hiding, at disappearing from plain sight into corners and tree tops and the crawl space beneath the cellar stairs.
I snuck up to the house from the back, tiptoeing when I heard voices. Uncle Mo and the farmhands — older men with rough hands who occasionally followed me with their eyes, but wouldn’t speak to me if Uncle Mo was in earshot — were on the front porch. They must have taken a lunch break. The thought made me hungry again, or rather, made me notice I was still hungry from the morning. Of course, I was always hungry: I’d shot up two-and-a-half inches since spring, and it felt like I’d grown a second stomach along with it.
A truck roared up to the front of the house while I was still pondering whether I could sneak inside and grab some leftovers. I recognized it as Frank’s by the sound of its engine. He slammed on the brakes, skidding on the gravel drive, which was unusual. My cousin loved that truck with all the ardor a sixteen-year-old boy could muster up, and treated it like others might treat a skittish horse, with no sudden moves. I peered around the side of the house, through the latticework underneath the front porch.
Frank threw open the door and yelled, “They’re coming! The locusts!”
The siren’s whine was his only answer at first. Then one of the men said, so low I could barely hear it, “Jesus, God, no.”
I felt a rush of cold that went straight from my spine to my fingertips, and thought back to last Sunday, when the pastor had chosen the locusts as the topic of his sermon. The plague of mouths and wings, he called it. The reflection of our own greed, to remind us who the Earth really belonged to, that what we thought of as ours were just things loaned to us by the grace of God.
I had heard other stories too. Frank had shown me the photos from the newspapers last month, the empty skins that looked like sacks of wet silk lying on the barren ground. Some people, instead of being devoured by the swarm, were transformed by it, discarding their skins and humanity like a suit that had grown too tight. It was how the swarm sustained its catastrophic numbers despite the culls and hunts.
On the lawn, Frank was panting for breath, as if he’d run all the way from town instead of driving. Maybe he was winded by the news, by the disaster that was flying towards us on the wind. “The swarm is heading from the northeast,” he said between gasps of air. “They’ll be here in the hour, unless the wind shifts.”
The farmhands shot each other and Uncle Mo worried looks; the haying wasn’t even half done, and the orchards were still full of fruit, waiting to be picked.
God’s plague of mouths and wings, and our farm was a feast set out for them, ready and ripe to be taken. I looked up at the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of either God or His plague, but it was still business as usual up there, the blues and golds of a late summer afternoon.
Remember, the pastor had said last Sunday. We all enter Paradise with empty hands.
“We gotta go,” one of the farmhands said. I didn’t know his name, or any of their names. I kept clear of them as much as I could, just like I kept clear of everyone else.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Uncle Mo said sharply. “They’ll be here before you could get halfway home.”
“My family—” the man said.
“Trust in God,” Mo replied. “Trust Him to keep them safe. In the meantime, grab all the food and feed you can carry and get to the tornado shelter. Anything you want kept. God help us, it’ll probably be lost otherwise.”
Anything I wanted to keep was already hidden deep in the crawl space underneath the cellar stairs, one of my favorite places to hide: it was dank and coffin-sized, but too small for my uncle or any of the other men on the farm to get into. I had a curl of my mother’s hair hidden in an old cigar box in there, a photo of my father, the last of my baby teeth that had fallen out, and the shucked-off skin of a cicada I’d found in the orchard.
Then I remembered Violet and her kittens. If there were anything worth saving on this farm, it was them, Violet and her quiet purr and green eyes, the kittens with their warm, taut bellies and soft fur. Violet had been a stray that had wandered onto the farm around the same time I had, not much more than a kitten herself. I’d wanted her as a pet, but Uncle Mo was adamant that all animals belonged outside, and said he’d drown her if he ever saw a cat hair on my bed.
I’d seen pictures of what the locusts left when they swept through a town or a farm. Brown dirt, broken glass, and a jumble of picked-over bones. I couldn’t let that happen to Violet.
“What about Libby?” I heard Frank say to his father.
Uncle Mo spat. “Hell,” he said, and that was all.
I bumped into Frank as he dashed around to my side of the house. He was almost a hundred pounds heavier than me, and I went sprawling on the ground. He hauled me up by my overalls. “Damn it, Libby,” he hissed, quiet. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Help me get the food from the kitchen.”
“I’m gonna grab Violet and her kittens,” I told him, pushing his hands away from my shoulders.
“Are you crazy? We’re about to lose everything and you wanna save a cat?”
I pulled away from him. “You’re gonna be sorry when we’re all stuck in that shelter and the rats start coming out.”
“There ain’t rats,” Frank said. But he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know where I hid when I went away, he just marked my absences by the rages they caused in his father.
“Are so,” I answered. “Trust me. Mice, too.”
Frank looked back at the sky, either checking for the swarm, or just as an excuse not to look at me, at the green-yellow bruise his father had left on my cheek the weekend before.
She’s clumsy, bruises easy, my uncle told anyone that asked. It was true. I wished I had tougher skin, that he couldn’t mark me, that my mother hadn’t died and left me in his care, but all those wishes amounted to less than nothing. I was still here, still soft-skinned and weak, loneliness eating away at me. There were days where I felt like an unexploded bomb was buried just beneath my breast bone, fragile as an empty egg shell, waiting for something to hit it just right and detonate.
“All right,” Frank said. “But be quick. If you’re still looking when they come—”
“I know,” I said.
“A cat ain’t worth it. You know what they can do,” he said, staring down at me. “This ain’t a false alarm. It’s the fist of God coming down on us. Like He did to Pharaoh, only worse.”
“I know,” I said, impatient.
He looked like he wanted to say something else, something meaningful, but all he said was, “Be careful.”
“I know,” I said again, and ran. The siren hurried me on to the barn, up the ladder to the hayloft.
“Violet,” I called, hoping that she was napping up here and not in some other patch of sun. There was a little whimper of noise from one of the kittens, then Violet’s head popping up from the hay. She yawned and stretched, undisturbed by either the siren or my sudden appearance.
I pulled off my sweater and laid it down next to her three kittens. They’d had their eyes open for a week or two, but were still wobbly on their feet. She’d had them late in the year, and two had died already. I’d buried them in the orchard, beneath the trees where I’d dreamed away most of the summer, crying the whole time.
I picked them up,putting them in my sweater, and Violet came over to investigate what I was doing, making concerned noises deep in her throat.
“I know,” I said. “Trust me, this is better than—”
I cut myself off. I didn’t want to put it into words, the pictures I’d seen.
The three kittens blinked and sniffed at my sweater as I placed them there, confused but placid. I tied them up in a bundle. Violet wasn’t particularly pleased to see her kittens disappear in the folds of wool, but I didn’t know how else to get them all back down to the ground. She followed me down the ladder, complaints getting louder. She kept getting around my feet, trying to trip me up as I ran back to the house, to the coffin-sized crawl space beneath the cellar stairs.
I was so focused on getting back to my hiding spot that I didn’t see him in the cellar, hidden in a shadowy corner. I didn’t know he was there at all until I smelled the hay dust and diesel on his jacket, felt him looming up behind me.
“The hell are you doing, Libby?” Uncle Mo said. He grabbed my shoulder, fingers digging in, and I couldn’t help it, I dropped my bundled up sweater with the kittens tucked inside. There were a few grunts, and Violet immediately pounced on the sweater and pushed it open, meowing loudly.
I couldn’t speak. I almost never could to him. His size and his anger just dwarfed me, seized my throat up in a vice, made me small and weak. Violet, I thought, maybe even mouthed the name. Her kittens. Safe.
“God help me,” Mo hissed. “I do not have the time or patience for this.”
He started to drag me away, back up the stairs. I found my voice then. “No,” I said. “No, please.”
When he didn’t listen, I started shrieking it. Please. No. Please. They were the only two words I could ever summon when he had me.
Violet was crouched over her kittens, tail twitching, eyes watching us. Would she know what was happening? When the locusts came into the house and then the cellar? Would she fight them, scratch them, as they grabbed her and her kittens, devouring them all? Would they even give her the chance to fight?
I struggled, like I hadn’t ever before. All I could think of was the locusts grabbing up Violet, pulling her apart with their claws, those nightmarish mouths, killing the only friend I had on the farm.
Maybe he was so distracted by the imminent disaster that was flying towards us, that he wasn’t holding me so hard. Maybe my fear gave me strength. Either way, I tore out of his grasp, scooping the kittens up and shoving them into the crawl space. Violet darted in after them.
Uncle Mo’s fist connected with the side of my face, knocking me into the wall. I shook my head and tried to wriggle into my hiding spot, but he caught me by the leg and dragged me back out. I kicked out at him, purely by instinct, and connected with something soft. He grunted and staggered back, and I ran, never looking back to see if he was chasing me, looking only at what was right in front of me. The top of the stairs. The kitchen door. The back yard. The dirt road. And then I was back in the orchard, running through the rows of trees. There wasn’t anything in me but the instinct to run, and I forgot all about the cellar and Violet and the swarm—
Until I heard the buzzing of wings.
I stopped so suddenly that I tripped, rocks biting into my palms as I hit the ground. I lay there stunned for a moment, as the swarm landed on the grass around me, not so much like the fist of God, but like dancers. Some touched down lightly, on their toes, wings barely twitching. Others — the younger ones, the newly-turned that still wore scraps of clothing and their old skins — landed on their hands and knees, as hard as I just had.
The locusts still looked like people from the back, skinny and hungry-looking, dirty and in need of a bath. You could ignore the deep cracks in their hard skin, where their skin folded over their wings, the way it shone opalescent in the light. Maybe it was an instinct to find the similarities and ignore the bits that were too strange, their too-long limbs set with too many joints, their fingers that ended in curved claws. Once they turned to look at you though — once you saw their opaque eyes and the monstrous things they had instead of mouths — you knew they weren’t human. They were locusts, they were hunger itself, with grasping hands and long, translucent wings.
I thought of my mother then, reminded of the way her face had sunk into itself, the sharp lines of her cheekbones. Cancer snuck into her like a fox getting into a hen house. All that was left by the end were bones and hair that had fallen out like feathers.
Nearby, an animal screamed. A dog barked frantically. The siren slowly lost its frantic pitch and eventually died down to nothing.
Run. The thought came to me in my mother’s voice. You can still make it to the house. Then I remembered Violet, still hidden away with her kittens. What if the swarm followed me in there? There were too many of them, and my legs felt like jelly. I’d never make it.
The dog’s barking cut off with a yelp. The only sounds now were the shiver of wings and the wet grind of mandibles chewing up the grass and leaves and apples.
They watched me, edging closer. I couldn’t move, not even to get away. My pants were wet, and for a second I wondered if I’d landed in a puddle, but then I caught the scent. I’d pissed myself without even noticing.
One approached me. Her eyes were amber, shining and faceted. I could see my reflection in them. All around her was a smell like tree pollen, something sweet and sticky and calming.
They know me, I thought. They recognize me. Like I recognized something in them, the hunger in their opaque eyes.
I’d been hungry, too. Not just from the missed meals when my uncle banished me from his dinner table, or the hours I’d spent hiding from him and his rage. It was a hunger that grew during the long nights spent alone in my bedroom, listening to lonely sound of the wind; the nights where I would touch myself to keep from flying apart, feeling sick with shame when I did, but not knowing how else to keep that fragile-shelled bomb in my center from exploding.
There’s a reason we call it fall, my mother told me once, during one of our infrequent visits back to the farm. We’d walked through the orchard, her arm over my shoulder, and she pointed at the limbs that were bowed under the weight of their fruit. Everything gets so ripe, she said, it can’t stand to stay on the branch. All the fruit lets go of whatever was holding it back, and topples towards the earth.
The locust lay down next to me, and the skin on her back cracked apart. Her wings slowly rose over us, catching the light like iridescent glass. They were beautiful, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I was no longer afraid.
I opened my arms, and the locust crawled closer to me, resting against my chest. She was small but dense, heavy against my bones, strong. She drew her legs over mine, caressed sharp fingers against my cheek. Her smell surrounded us, sweet like grass, like the sun-soaked afternoon itself.
“Does it hurt?” I muttered.
Yes. It will hurt. I didn’t know if it was my thought or the swarm’s, carried into my mind on her scent and the thin chatter of wings. The lines between us were blurring, and for a moment, I fought it. I tried to remember: my name is Libby, I’m fourteen years old, I’m an orphan, I live with my uncle and cousin, my cat had kittens late in the summer. There are layers of bruises beneath my clothes. I am a fruit that fell too early, that was marked by the hard impact of the ground, by the hard impacts of my uncle’s hands. There is something that is empty in my center, that feels fragile and fraught with loneliness….
But that was no longer true. Whatever was rotten in me before — the fear that had fermented in my gut — had been carved away, replaced with something denser, heavier.
My skin was a shroud, tightening up in the sun. It was too soft and bruised too easy, but now I knew something harder lay beneath. I shut my eyes, waiting for it to crack through and emerge into the light.