Far beyond the distant peaks of the Blesberg, solitary warriors jostle for space where the desiccated winter grass has shot sweet, succulent shoots in the wake of early rains. Pores exude secretions which arouse a silent rallying cry. Pale-green carapaces turn yellow streaked with black. Band upon band of insatiable brigands assemble until they are a horde as terrible than Mzilikaze’s marauders. The corporate mind follows instinct. A heaving, rippling mass ascends into the cloudless sky and turns west towards the Thaba Nchu District. Behind remains a khaki-coloured dust bowl in place of greening savanna.
When the locusts reach us, they blot out the midday sun.
Amos, our gardener, looks up at the flickering eclipse, the peculiar dimming of noonday light. He yells. Big Sarah, pegging linens on the washline, screams. At the kitchen window Ma’s face pales.
“Locusts”, Dad bellows.
He dashes out of the front door of Wolverton & Ferguson's Trading Ltd, which neighbours our house. Odd-job-Bill and Mr Ferguson and Meneer Potgieter and the workers who have stopped loading Meneer’s truck follow him.
“Locusts,” I whimper.
Our weaponry is at hand. This is not the first time the curse has struck. My sister, Helen, and Boy grab the empty oil cans stored alongside the garage. Amos and the workers seize buckets, crowbars and scrap iron. Big Sarah and the Wednesday ironing girl run for saucepans and ladles. Ma shoves two lids into my hands, a makeshift cymbal. She snatches up the brass dinner gong. Dad tosses hessian feedbags piled on the store’s porch to Bill, Mr Ferguson and Meneer. They snap their gas lighters and set the corners aflame.
A mad rag-tag army, we run towards the billowing cloud, helter-skelter, pell-mell, galvanising the dogs to a barking frenzy, astonishing Ma’s hens and frightening the doves which rise from the dovecote. Boy charges ahead. My brother is a drummer boy leading the khakis against the burghers in the open veld. He is a Barolong warrior taunting the Matabele. He is David challenging a Goliath made of a billion quivering parts. Behind Boy, we bang and beat, bash and hammer, slam and pound. The smoking sacking poisons the air. But still the plague advances, secure in its armour, brazen in numbers, voracious in appetite.
Locusts drop into our hair. They alight on our bare arms and spring onto our legs. They stick to aprons and overalls like burrs. On the wash-line Ma’s white sheets and best tablecloths sag under thousands of clutching insects. A locust squeezes past the collar of a dress or a shirt to rasp and squirm against the skin. They smash against the windows of our house and of Dad’s store. Their exploding abdomens ooze yellow pus, detached wings stick to splotched glass, broken antennae twitch, serrated legs saw up and down like newly amputated limbs.
I abandon my useless weapon into the hydrangeas that bush on either side of the wooden steps which lead to the veranda. I surrender. I scream and shudder and dance up and down on the spot, a single, shameful, shell-shocked coward unnoticed amidst a crowd of battling heroes.
Why has God unleashed His wrath on Thaba Nchu?
Every Sunday we worship at the Church of England on the corner of Hoofstraat. We bow low and kneel and rise and sit and kneel again on the flagstones. We take the precious Bread with outstretched palms, criss-crossed, without a crumb falling from the silver plate. We pass the shining chalice to one another and sip the precious Wine without a drop spilling onto our fingers. Every Sunday our Boer neighbours sit in obedient rows in the pews of the big Dutch church, whose steeple pokes the sky like the Dominee’s warning finger. On weekdays at dinner we shut our eyes tight and punctuate Dad’s grace with a firm Amen. Most times I do what Ma asks without arguing. Helen swallows the bitter medicines Doctor Green dispenses to strengthen her heart, without even pulling a face. Boy sneaks away to play mancala with the herdboys just now and then. Ma seldom complains about the dust and heat and the maids. Dad only drinks too much Friday nights. Surely that's enough for the Almighty?
The locusts strip Ma’s sweet peas, the yellow and white daisy bushes, the three tea roses, the climbing vine. They turn the lawn brown. They shred row upon row of cabbage, spinach and carrot tufts. They leave bare tendrils where only minutes ago, leafy tomatoes plants trailed the tripods in the kitchen garden. I can see that the tall maize stalks around Big Sarah’s hut on the far side of the fence have already buckled and drooped. And this is but the work of the vanguard.
The black cloud hesitates then moves on. Is it the tumult or the smoking sacks or our anguished prayers that has driven it away? But the respite is temporary. Near Tweespruit the locusts will plunder the districts’ crops and the bereft farmers will not be able to repay Dad and Mr Ferguson the debts owed on ploughs and reapers and threshers and seed and tools.
When everyone has gone home except for Sarah, Dad sits on the painted kitchen chair leaning his elbows on his knees and his hands cupping his chin. A stray locust crawls across his shoulders and feelers poke from the turn-ups of his trousers. Ma stokes the Aga; her tight bun has unravelled and soot smears her cheek. I sit cross-legged on the floor in front of Helen’s stool. She picks bits of locust out of my hair and drops them onto a newspaper. Helen is unafraid of twitching limbs, bulging compound eyes, sticky, transparent wings. Helen once stared down a cobra in Ma’s chicken run; when it turned, she broke its back with a spade. Helen scrubs burnt, blackened pots until they shine and she throws out the night’s slops without gagging, long before Big Sarah arrives for work. Rheumatic fever may have left Helen with a faltering heart but she refuses to fear any created thing on God’s earth. It does not matter how much it stinks, slithers or sticks.
We can hear Boy whooping outside with Big Sarah’s grandchildren. Boy is Chief Moroka leading the Barolong on a murderous rampage of vengeance. He shouts in Tswana like a piccannin. Through the kitchen door I see him stomping on anything that moves with his boots; Big Sarah’s grandchildren stomp on anything that moves with their calloused, bare feet.
When I take the gas lamp and go to bed. I pass Big Sarah in the hall. She is still at work. She has swept up all the locusts that slipped into the house through cracks and gaps. She holds a dustpan of corpses with a stiff arm in front of her.
“Tsies, Miss Eve, they will chew your mother’s tables and chairs. They will eat her doilies. When I was a girl, I saw tsies eat out the jelly of a baby’s eyes. The mama had her abba when they went to the fields to drive the locusts away. When she came home, the child’s eyes - gone!”
“Heish,” I shudder.
Mother appears. She has fixed her bun and wiped her face. She has also recognised the ring of the covert exchange.
“Sarah, hurry, woman, hurry!”
Mother has forbidden the locals to speak Tswana in the house. But she cannot stop Dad. Dad’s quiet voice becomes loud and strident when he speaks the lingo and no-one can tell if it is Amos or Dad shouting orders at the workers. But Ma does not trust a conversation she cannot understand. After my last clandestine chat with Sarah, I suffered nightmares for nights on end. The whole family was woken by my midnight screeches until I begged Ma to put my bed on bricks so that the tokoloshe could not hide underneath it at night.
In the bedroom I share with Helen, I open the sash window and breathe in the cool air. The evening sky is clear and innocent of any plague. I pull back the calico coverlet embroidered with twisted French knots in the shape of rosebuds. On the starched white under-sheet, deep inside the bed, a locust stands transfixed. My shrieks echo. The locust is worse than a tokoloshe, worse than a baby without eyeballs, worse than a cobra in the henhouse.
Boy appears in the doorway. His boots grate on the floorboards. A thick, sticky jam of squashed bodies encrusts the soles. He steps forward and grasps the leathery thorax between his forefinger and thumb. Delighted he waves his trophy in front of my face.
“Three thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight,” he says.