Free Grass and Green Fronds for All

 

I don’t know whether to consider myself ill designed or fortunate that my multifaceted eyes are incapable of tears.

The field of tall green fronds are gone. Not simply eaten but ripped and torn from a point beneath the soil. Of the lush, manicured grass, there is no evidence it had ever existed. Dirt. Bare dirt is all I can see. I never knew it was so ugly.

The water sprinklers rise out of the section what had once been a garden. A rhythmic chook. . . chook. . .  chook. . . chook, chu, chu, chu, chu, chu, chu, chu proceeded the droplets of water that fell about me.

I cry to the barren wasteland. “Lucy!”

Only the sprinklers answer.

Aching, wrenching sobs deep within me scream for release, but they have no place to go. There are no friendly sympathetic ears to hear them, except one.

Another grasshopper hops onto the woodpile and settles near me without touching.

“Neal, I am finished,” she said.

I look at her, uncomprehending.

“Eggs, Neal. I have laid my eggs.”

I remember. Elder Smith sent this female to me to ensure the future. I wish Lucy had laid the eggs.

 

The Day Before

 

I spy two young adult grasshoppers recently out of their last molt. One of the young adults is Lucy. Love of my life, I would have recognized her anywhere. Recently we had declared before the Elder Council our desire to mate.

Lucy had wanted to pick a good place in the field to lay eggs. As I can deny her nothing, she spent the last two days searching the field from the sparse edge to the garden, and all the way to the woodpile next to the human habitation. I am glad her globetrotting days are over.

I creep closer, not intending to sneak up on them, but after a year in the Elder Patrol I picked up some habits. Besides, I don’t like her friend, Jan. She is a Fringer and doesn’t adhere to long held social mores held by most grasshoppers.

Specifically, Jan likes getting close to other grasshoppers. Once I reach a position close enough to shout to Lucy after her friend leaves, I pull a blade of grass to my mouth.

“It’s so sad,” says her friend Jan. “The nymphs are tiny, and the fledglings weak and starved. Their field is not as green as yours.”

“That is sad,” Lucy says. “My heart goes out to them. They should feed in our field. We have plenty.”

Jan moves closer to Lucy. A knot develops in my abdomen. Lucy’s antennae wave back and forth in a nervous pattern. She knows what will happen, too. I taught her the lesson myself. My appetite disappears. I release my blade of grass and inch closer to get a better look at Jan.

“They try,” says Jan. “They hop over and feed until the Elder Patrol shows up and chases them off.”

Lucy sits back and rubs her preocular ridge with the tarsus on the end of her forelegs. “What? Why would we do that? We have so much. Not sharing is not right.”

“You tell me why,” Jan says. “You attend Council meetings. I’m sure you have heard them say, ‘if we allowed everybody in, our poor starving neighbors would swarm like they tried to do in early Spring.’”

“I’ve heard, but I don’t believe it,” Lucy says. “I’ve never seen a swarm, and the field is still here. It can’t be true.”

“I hear it every day,” Jan says. “That, and ‘Look at their wing structure. They can fly. That’s not a grasshopper, that’s a locust!’”

“Well, your shoulders are different from mine.”

“You, too?” Jan’s antennae shoot forward, tasting Lucy’s pheromones. “I’m so disappointed in you.”

“No! I’m not saying you are a locust,” Lucy protests.

Lucy is buying in to the story. My alarm grows with every word the two speak. I don’t remember grabbing the blade of grass I’m devouring.

Lucy is my intended. I can’t let a Fringer seduce her.

Unlike Lucy, I had been on the edge of the field last Spring. I witnessed what happened.

No longer caring about offending anyone, I reposition to the topside of the frond I’d been feeding under and jump. While airborne, I hear Jan ask.

“Who’s that hopping near?”

I land a respectable distance away.

“Oh, that’s Neal,” says Lucy. Her tone brightens. “He’s the one. He’s okay.”

“Really?” asks Jan.

I wave my broken antenna, the one injured during last Spring’s attempted swarm. Even from where I crouch the air tasted of Jan’s biting sarcasm.

Apparently, Lucy doesn’t notice. “He listens. He doesn’t lecture.”

I’m about to.

“I’ll bet,” says Jan. “What does he think about the field?”

“I don’t know. We’ve never talked about it.”

“I’ll hop along. He has the look about him.”

“What look?” Lucy asks.

Jan’s antennae wave in my direction. “You know, the one that precedes a lecture.”

Jan hops off. I can’t say I’m sorry to see her leave. She flies almost to the edge of my vision before dropping out of sight.

I adjust my wings over and over. After watching Jan fly so far, I‘m unable to find a comfortable position.

Lucy is best friends with a Fringer, and a proselytizing one.

I call out a greeting, “Lucy.”

“Hey, Neal.”

I hesitate. Her greeting lacks its usual warmth. Under the circumstances, I don’t want to talk about egg sites. I attempt a safe subject. “Did you attend the Council meeting last night?”

“Why?” She repositions directly in front of me. “Are you my conscience now?”

 Her attitude explodes on me like a well-timed stinkbug. I had hoped for better but should have known. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! I am just asking, not accusing.”

 “Why do we protect the borders of the field? Why do we keep the hungry out?”

Her questions sound like vitriol. I change my mind, wishing I had asked about egg sites. “To preserve the balance of nature. If we let everyone in?”

“That’s what everyone says,” she wails.

“Is everyone wrong?” I ask.

She shrinks back.

“I know that’s a lot of ‘everyone’s’ to sort through, but both sides cannot have everyone agreeing with them.”

Lucy tenses, rising up as if to challenge.

“Let me finish,” I say. “What I know is, food would grow scarce. Grasshoppers would crawl all over each other, competing for the diminishing supply, like in Jan’s field. Soon everyone would be hungry.” I pause to take a breath and then speak each word distinctly. “Just like in Jan’s field.”

Lucy sags. Her antennae quiver.

“Have I ever told you an untruth?” I ask.

“Mother nature wouldn’t let us go hungry,” Lucy insists. “She provides.”

It pains me to dredge up hurtful memories, but she gave me no choice. Those seeking power incite their minions without mercy, stirring up resentments based on emotions rather than facts. “Like she provided for little John, or Jamal, or Susan?”

Lucy flattens against the ground.

That day had started warm and bright. The three nymphs fed in a patch of sweet grass. Then the wind shifted, and the air blew cold. Clouds made the day dark and ice balls the size of adults fell from the sky followed by heavy rain. As quickly as it arrived, the storm moved off, and so did the remains of little John, Jamal, and Susan, carried away by a never-ending stream of ants.

Visibly shaken, Lucy flusters, “You think you know everything. I don’t know why I like you.”

Crestfallen, I lower my abdomen to the ground. I wish there were a reset button to start this day over. “That’s your friend talking.”

“What’s wrong with my friend?” asks Lucy, though in tone it is more of a demand.

It is blatantly obvious to me the only thing this conversation needs is ending. I try to redirect it. “Who said there was something wrong with your friend?”

“Then what’s wrong with you?” storms Lucy. “You’re usually reasonable and understanding. Jan’s right, you’re as bad as those old fogeys on the Council.”

My ears must be deceiving me. Lucy’s friend had really gotten to her. She wants to give away everything the Elder Patrol fights for. The field. Security. And for what? Some temporary, feel-good dopamine release?

Coldness creeps over me as I recall the near swarm. I don’t mean to, but I take it out on Lucy. “You weren’t on the edge of the field in the early Spring. You had just come out of your first molt, unable to move more than a couple of inches in any direction. You didn’t see the Fringers cross en masse into our field.”

Lucy bunched her legs together. Her antennae shifted forward as if she tried to hide behind them.

“They came into our field and crawled over friends of mine. Friends who fed in peace, not wanting any trouble. That’s how the change starts, Lucy. Grasshoppers in too close a proximity. You know that.”

Lucy flattened herself against the ground. She obviously did not want to hear my version of what happened. “I know that’s what you say.”

“What I say?” Dark clouds, thunderheads stare at me from the many outlets of her compound eyes. I continue with a more urgent need to impress upon her the seriousness of the coming conflict. “I have always spoken the truth! Fringers care little for the ways of grasshoppers. We launched ourselves against the invaders, trying to push them away.”

Lucy shook her head.

I didn’t give her time to voice a denial. I waved my injured antenna in her face. “That is how this happened.” In my mind’s eye, I could see the crazed Fringer grab it and stick it in his mouth. Agony had nearly blinded me when his mandibles bit through my exoskeleton.

“Repeatedly, we threw ourselves at the Fringers to beat them back, but there weren’t enough of us. The change accelerated. Shoulders of the Fringers bulked up. A wild frenzied light appeared in their eyes. The swarm had begun.”

Lucy rises to her feet, antennae quivering.

I speak through her intended interruption. “Then thunder clapped. The clouds opened, and rain poured down. Big drops, and lots of them. Grasshoppers scattered in every direction, seeking shelter. Three times the sun rose and fell with the heavy rain. The impending swarm ended before it overwhelmed us, but not before signs of the change had manifested itself on the Fringers.”

Lucy stood defiant “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe they swarmed!”

 “And you better hope to God they don’t again!” I declare, too hot now to care how I shout at my beloved. “In the meantime, I suggest you open your eyes and look around you. It’s happening again and your friend has the signs.”

“Are you calling my friend a swarmer?” Lucy shouted.

I stop to catch my breath. The corner I’m backing myself into looms large. With a more moderate tone, I try again. “The change is already manifesting itself within her. You saw how far she flew.”

“No!” Lucy explodes. “You’re saying that because she lives on the edge of the field. You’re a racist!”

I flinch. This is more than our first lover’s quarrel. Lucy acts fully indoctrinated. Such a change it makes. Before she had always listened attentively and spoke with politeness. I wonder if she and her friend fed on the cannabis plant in the corner of the field. Still, I didn’t want to lose her. Maybe if I let her talk it out, she would see reason. “Tell me, Lucy, what do you think causes the swarm?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Grasshoppers not sharing. That’s what Jan’s leaders say. Hungry grasshoppers get desperate, then take what they must to survive. It’s not their fault. If we would welcome them, they would not swarm.”

I grab a stalk of grass and stick it in my mouth.

So if we don’t give the Fringers what they want, they’ll take it. I fail to see the nobility in either tribute or confiscation. I keep a firm grasp on the frond to keep from speaking aloud.

“See. Even you can say nothing about that.” With a huff, Lucy draws her legs under her.

I know remaining silent is the wrong approach, but I don’t want to irritate her any further. Fringers tend toward rudeness and intimidation, shouting down others or resorting to personal attacks when the discussions do not travel down the path they desire them to go. For Lucy to employ the tactic against me is a stab in the heart, my world whirls in a Wagnerian tempest.

As she hops away, the sun breaks through the cloud cover. I reposition under a frond blade to minimize my exposure to predators but still bask in the sun. Its soothing warmth helps ease Lucy’s harsh words. I relax.

* * *

“We are fortunate, second molt Neal,” says ancient Elder Lowe. “We have abundant green grass and tall fronds. Not all grasshoppers do. I will tell you a secret known only to the Elders. Listen close. One day you will have to pass it on.”

“Why, Elder Lowe?”

“Because that is the way of all things. Now listen and learn. Others will come to our field. The green grass and tall fronds will draw them, but mostly, they will come because they are swarming.”

“What’s swarming?” I ask.

“Swarming is when the change happens to grasshoppers?”

“Like molting?”

“No and stop interrupting.” Elder Lowe fusses with his antennae.

I taste the displeasure in his pheromones.

“As I was saying, grasshoppers from sparse fields crawl over each other, competing for the few leaves of grass. In the process they rub their hind legs against other grasshopper hind legs.”

I quiver in revulsion at the thought of another grasshopper being that close to me.

* * *

 An irritating noise awakens me away from my daydream.

“We have plenty. Let them in. We have plenty. Let them in.”

The rhythmic chant goes on and on.

A different voice rises above it. “There are two kinds of grasshoppers that cannot be saved. Those that don’t want salvation and those that don’t believe they need saving.”

It is Elder Smith speaking. I gaze about. I am no longer a second molt. Ancient Elder is no longer by me. Repositioning myself to the topside of the frond, I see sun is in the lower quadrant, two hours before dark.

Tightly packed Fringers crawl over and around each other. Lucy is among them with her friend Jan. The Fringers try to drown out Elder Smith with their chant.

Elder Smith turns to the leader of the Elder Patrol. “Attempting to save this bunch is like pissing in the wind. All that happens is you get wet and smell bad. Drive them off.”

The Elder Patrol jumps forward, crashing into the protestors. The chanting stops.

“This field belongs to us as much as it does you. We have a right to speak out!” shouts the Fringer leader.

“You are also obliged to listen, not drown out dissent,” says the leader of the Elder Patrol. “By refusing to listen, you forfeit your right to speak. Now move on.”

The Elder Patrol continues to bump into the Fringers, pushing them toward the edge of the field. I jump down from my frond and join the patrol. I cut Lucy out of the Fringer group.

She is furious. “Why are you driving our guests away?”

“They have no manners,” I say, “and didn’t tell the truth.”

“The truth as you see it, you mean,” she says.

“There’s only one truth, Lucy.”

“Really? Who’s telling it?” she asks. “Jan says the Fringers did not actually swarm last Spring.”

“What a shock,” I say.

“You really are racist.”

“No, Lucy. I am pragmatic,” Again I am forced to speak sternly to my beloved. “If it flies like a locust and eats like a locust, it’s a locust. There is nothing racist about that. Look how she played with the truth. The Fringers did not actually swarm. That is correct; however, they were about to. The reason they didn’t was intervention from above, not free will on their part.”

“Lies!”

I looked closely at Lucy’s shoulders. They were growing larger. A frenetic look comes over her.

No, no! Not Lucy.

Her mandibles began over-producing ichor. Her wings grow larger before my eyes.

“The grasshoppers in the neighboring field did not swarm then and they won’t now.” She flies off after the Fringers.

I start to follow but stop when an Elder hops in front of me. He has a female, abdomen swollen with eggs, close by.

“Neal, a patrolman returned. The Fringers are changing.”

Heartbroken, I gaze after Lucy. “I know.”

“Elder Smith says the locusts will be here before dark. He wishes you to take this female to the lumber pile and hide.”

I gaze deeply into the eyes of the Elder. I had fought beside him last Spring. Then hope and victory had been in him, this evening his eyes are dull and lifeless. We are losing and I am being reminded Elder Smith’s first job is to secure the future.

I nod without argument. Turning to the female I say, “Follow me.”

Two adults hop off with us. We arrive at the woodpile without incident. Once there, I reconnoiter. By the time I return, the two adults have chewed several fronds off at the base. We carry them into the crevasse I choose in the woodpile. The grass will tide me and the female over until the swarm passes.

Without a word, the two adults hop back to the Elder Council.

 

It begins as an echo on the breeze, an indecipherable cacophony that grows louder with each passing moment. Fleeing grasshoppers, staying on the ground only long enough to relaunch themselves, pass through this corner of the field in increasing numbers.

One stops long enough to call out. “They’re monsters! They’re eating everything in their path, even us.” She hops on.

The female next to me sniffles, “That was my friend Jenny.”

Cannibalistic. I shiver in fear and revulsion. The Fringers are now full-on locusts without the possibility of redemption. In their zombie-like state, they will eat everything in their path. “Let’s get into the woodpile.”

I had discovered a nice cavity that would fit us both. It will be a tight fit, but the grass fronds will prohibit any touching. We can protect each other from spiders, except maybe the brown loners or widow makers. One never totally escapes danger.

I linger at the entrance. The symphony of chaos grows louder. Mixed in with primal screams is a mindless chant, “Eat, eat, eat!”

Like a rolling cloud, grasshoppers and locusts fill this section of the field. The Elder patrol no longer battle with the locusts. Instead, they herd the fleeing grasshoppers, urging them to hop faster.

I back deeper into the wood pile to escape being seen.

Elder Smith comes into view. Two locusts jump on his back. I peer closer. Bile roils in my stomach. One is Lucy, or what Lucy has become. A dark brown ichor drips from her mandibles.

“Eat, eat, eat!” she screams. She moves in front of the second locust and grasps Elder Smith by his shoulders. The second locust grabs Lucy and sinks her mandibles deep into Lucy’s back. I don’t believe Lucy is even aware as she bites down on Elder Smith.

Her eyes meet mine. A light of madness sparkles through the multiple facets. There is not a spark remaining of my intended. A chasm opens within me. Once filled with joy and optimism, love and devotion, I am now an empty vessel.

God Why?

“Eat, eat, eat!” she screams.

Whatever caring and compassion I had inside of me is ripped out as surely as the second locust rips out chunk after chunk of Lucy’s abdomen.

Lucy, I am so sorry. I failed you.

The light in her eyes extinguishes.

I now recognize the second locust as Lucy’s friend, Jan. “Eat, eat, eat!” she screams and flies off in search of more prey.

I back into the woodpile and take my place with the female. Her antennae wave back and forth nervously. I motion for silence. The noise outside the woodpile rises to a crescendo and then tapers off. We stay in the cavity until morning.

Grasshoppers sleep little. I sleep even less that night, but I must have dozed off. When the day dawns, I am alone. I creep out. Knowing what has occurred does not lessen the awe or utter doom before me.

Every green thing in the field is gone. I flatten against the wood and close my eyes. Gone. It is all gone. The tall fronds, my friends in the Patrol, Elder Smith, and Lucy. The bareness numbs by soul. An uncontrollable shuddering overtakes me. I have nothing left, nothing and no one.

“It is done.”

I force my eyes open. The female, small dirt particles still clinging to her lower abdomen, hops up from her egg-filled hole. She settles not too close to me and tries to look inviting.

In the Spring, hatchlings will come forth. New grass will grow. Tall fronds will return to the field. But no joy, not for me. My eyes see only pale shadows of what once was, ghosts of lost loves. Everything I held dear, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been taken from me by the Fringers.

I no longer care. I hate them all.

 

The end


Submitted: July 26, 2022

© Copyright 2022 bill eckel. All rights reserved.

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