The Month of the Locust

JOSEPHINE JOHNSON is a native of Missouri whose first short story appeared in the Atlantic and who won the Pulitzer Prize with her beautifully descriptive novel, Now in November. Some time ago, she and her husband, Grant Cannon, bought three acres on the outskirts of Cincinnati and a majestic house a hundred and thirty years old. There were bats in the atticuncounted thousands who did not wish to be dislodged; and that struggle Miss Johnson described in her memorable article, “Tenants of the House(August, 1952). Now, in a series of fresh essays, she depicts the explorations which she and her children have carried out in the summer and early autumn.

by JOSEPHINE JOHNSON

1

YEARS ago we bought a homestead in Ohio. I say a homestead because it is more than a house of fourteen rooms and a history that goes back a hundred and thirty years. It is also three acres, great maple trees, a swamp, an icehouse ruined and covered with ivy, a second building that was once a servants’ quarters, a smokehouse, a view of alfalfa fields and corn, and the endless surf-like sound of quarry pits a half mile away.

The old house is beautiful and majestic in the way that houses never are any more, and it is also in need of eternal vigilance as are old and crumbling people, beautiful and majestic though they be in age. It is inhabited by memories and by insects, and formerly by four thousand bats, by mice and a flower-loving rat, and by odd noises like the indigestion of old people. When we first came it was porous to the winter wind, and the winter turned out to be the coldest in twenty years. I wore mittens and galoshes and a woolen cap in the kitchen, and the mercury dropped down to zero in the moonlit starbright nights. The children, Terry twelve and Annie nine, have grown accustomed to the vast uncoziness of all the rooms; to the height space which equals the floor space, and one only hopes their souls will grow in proportion to the unlimited freedom of their ceiling skies. Were one to paint a moon on the ceiling there would seem to be no roof at all.

In a shoe box full of sand by the western window live four lions. Probably the ugliest and most tedious pets a family ever chose to shelter. They have fat gray bodies and a big pair of falcate pinchers on their heads, and the whole setup reminds me of the great Whipsnade Zoo which I once overheard two old gentlemen discussing on an English train as “the most frightfully boring place - the animals never come out, you know!

Well, these creatures never come out, unless they come at night when no one can see them, and remain most of their lives, hidden except for their claws, in their little pits of sand, poised and tense, waiting for ants to come scurrying along, singlemindedly bent on business of their own, intent and unaware. The ant lion is the gray larva of a winged thing something like a dragonfly, spindle-shaped and small with mandibulo-suctorial type jaws, with one small skill, the making of a pit in sand by backing downward, and one great gift, the ability to wait for days for food to come along.

But in their shoe-box home no ants come naturally scurrying to fall into the pit and be trapped by the sliding sand as they try to struggle upward; and even the lovely termite queens with juicy bodies and white luminous wings that suddenly materialized like ectoplasm from nowhere and glided over the living-room floor a few months ago are long gone about their dark and secret business under the earth, undermining the cellar beams. Food must be artificially imported for the ant lions, and members of the family seen wandering about in the sun and rain, staring idly at their feet, are not moody, thoughtful, or half-witted, but only hunting food for the myrmeleonidae.

This task was once much simpler when the route of an ant colony established in the roots of a maple tree crossed the concrete path of our sidewalk on their endless traveling to a willow tree where their aphis herd was pastured. Ants, black and large as ponies, galloped back and forth all day long, undeterred by storms that turned the walk into a Niagara, and washed their bodies out to sea, and the willow leaves were full of herdsmen tending to their silent sticky little kine through all the daylight hours. Then suddenly, for some mysterious reason, they abandoned the route. The small dark beaten path under the grass is still there, worn smooth by countless chitined feet that hurried madly as most insects hurry. (What a relief to watch the mantis that moves with deadly dignity like a great sloth, or the still, armored immobility of the assassin bugs. Bees, ants, all the nervous zilzit things that fly and buzz and scurry, possessed of demon souls in the knowledge of the shortness of their lives, they can drive you crazy.)

The path is still there but not an ant soul gallops over it. Perhaps reports of the great moon-headed hawks that suddenly swooped downward on the herdsmen eventually got back into the colony, or — a slightly more scientific explanation — they may merely have moved the herd to greener pastures for fear of overgrazing. Too many aphids, not enough honey. At all events, as the summer draws down to a close, ants seem to get scarcer and scarcer, and the spring throngs that fought all over the kitchen and blackened or reddened the laundry floor like Pharaoh’s army have long since disappeared. It is high time for the lions to get busy on some metamorphosis into winged things or else curl up and go to sleep.

We found the ant lions in a pile of sand back on the farm in Missouri where they had written some obscure message on the sand in wandering hieroglyphics between the little pits, and brought them home when we went to get the children, who spend their summers where I spent most of my own childhood.

It is usually a mistake to go back to childhood places after a long absence. Time does curious and dreadful things to the well-beloved, and one is saddened with real grief, or saddened by what is worse, one’s own indifference and chill detachment to the change. Some spots at “home" in Missouri had not changed, however, other than to grow more as they were in the beginning; and the curve in the creek where my heart as a child literally stood still at the sight of a muddy muskrat slopping up the bank with a mouthful of grass was the same with its long stretches of rock and pools of captured water, the stream trickling through legions of purple waterweeds, whose name I once knew well, and the willows’ tangles that advanced and retreated as the course of the creek changed with each storm.

We all trooped down the hills in the morning heat, climbed the Never-Sag gate, and hunted for raccoon tracks in the brown gravelly mud. Annie had read a book on the preservation of tracks in paraffin, and so accordingly we carried with us a doubleboiler bottom, still warm from the stove, with paraffin, rolls of cardboard for holding up the paraffin, and boxes for preserving the preserved tracks. The sun was hot on the flat muddy stones, a great melon vine escaped from the field in the bottom land wandered down to the water’s edge under the willows with a few gold blossoms among its massive leaves. Annie waded into the brown water and followed the bank, some instinct telling her what a raccoon would do, and there on the creek’s edge were the marks of little hand-like paws that had come down to the crawfish shallows.

So like human hands are the paws that once when I discovered an old and graying raccoon dead by the roadside, the little out-stretched hands seemed encased in the small black leather gloves, genteel and slightly striated, that old ladies used to wear, and I almost felt a pair of gold-rimmed glasses should be lying there too, shattered on the road.

After the tracks were found it developed that the paraffin was too cool by now and so a small fire of leaves and twigs was painfully built in the mud and all the adult nature-lovers gathered in a circle like sachems on the bank, with endless flowing advice on which was the best track, which the best way to fold cardboard and pour paraffin, and whether the sun was at the right angle of incidence.

Annie, with the beautiful calm and native deafness of the nine-year-old child, ignored this barrage of ancient sagacity, and lying up to her waist in water, covered with mud like a muskrat, silently followed the step-by-step instructions in her howto-do-it book, circled the track with a collar of cardboard, and poured the paraffin there-in. The result a short time later was a beautiful clear print of raccoon paw with all five fingers and a life-like little cushioned palm in the center.

The children had also organized a neat “insect killing kit" from some magazine instructions and had so far chloroformed and impaled three ants and a fly. We went on an insect-hunting expedition to find more specimens for their collection, but it turned out that neither of the children wished to kill anything any more, and the Kit being accomplished was now regarded with considerable horror like the sight of an Iron Maiden. And they refused to have anything to do with the death of a walking stick, which Grant, with man’s love of the laboratory tools, could not forbear to accomplish, since the Kit was all set up and arranged so neatly. It now lies abandoned somewhere gathering dust, and nobody has any idea where it is.

2

THIS was the month of the emerging locust, and the dry whirring sound, one of the most evocative of all sounds, wiping out thirty years in a second, creating again the sense of summer in childhood with an almost unbearable reality, came from all the trees in the late afternoon, and the little ghostly shells were scattered in the warm grass or clung brittle and brown to the bark where they had climbed. Quite often there is an odd regularity about their clinging, and when you find one ridged ghost a few feet up from the ground, directly above it will be another, and then a third above this one on the under side of a limb as though the same cicada had shed three shells in its long climb. For some reason children have never been afraid of these quaint and brittle things which are actually the exoskeletons of nymphs, and their empty honey-colored eyes hold no terrors; and so instead of snuffing out more insects, Annie gathered the innumerable pale shells until her basket held almost a pint of little ghosts, and a pint is the limit of a connoisseur; after that, one might as well rake leaves and call his pile a “collection.”

We found the pale gray toadstools with fluted silk and the stair-step fungus that grows on trees, first soft and ominously white, and then turning brown and green and bark-like, and taking on the shape and color of a grouse’s tail. The acorns had started to fall and were green and satiny with a peach-like fuzz. Some were still joined with their green cheeks pressed together just as they had plummeted from the rejecting twig above. Left alone they would dry and shrink and roll away from each other on the blind business of getting born, leaving their small scalloped platters still joined like the abandoned hats of children.

In August last year came an incident which took place not on the farm in Missouri, nor on our insect-stocked three acres in Ohio, but in an icecube-sized apartment in New York, where, in the heart of the city, my sister Marjorie raises a window garden of such magnitude that she claims not even Gene Stratton Porter had such favorable “conditions" for nature watching. Among pots of horehound, lilies of the valley, alyssum, sweet basil, mint, lace vines, bracken fern, sage and coriander, not to mention sweet peas, marjoram, plantain lilies, ruta, and thyme, she grew a plot of parsley. And from thence came the phenomenon of which she writes — the changing of a swallowtail worm into a chrysalis, that little living tomb in which it spends its time before emerging as a butterfly.

“I am compelled to write you of an incident, which in its small way was as terrifying as any I have ever experienced. Of how, after twenty years of Nature Watching in more appropriate places— on a window sill, where sound is drowned by the roar of buses, I was at last accorded the fearful privilege of Intimacy with Creation; and the thing is this: —

“Some weeks ago we were distressed to find the small patch of parsley in the garden was being absolutely denuded by parsley worms — the beautiful green and black-striped ones you no doubt remember. First a black stripe, then pale green, then a black stripe dotted with yellow. . . . The kind of worm which can be translated by illustrations of German gnome and fairy stories into a cheerful, if enigmatic, habitant of magnified leaves and flowers, or by the puppet maker into a jolly clown, easily identified by bright splashes of stripes, and the object of admiration for its ingenious construction. (Usually a spring, covered with an enviable bit of velvet.)

“. . . It was difficult to do away with four such jeweled creatures, and so we housed them in a glass jar and bought them a handsome bunch of parsley. (A bunch much too large for ordinary household use was only 12¢.) For several days they ate, devouring not only the leaf but the stem, until their delicate jaws sensed things were getting too tough and it was time to travel.

“Then one day, although a new bouquet was bought, the water changed, the emerald fecula carefully removed, they became restless and hurried around the jar looking for something that ev idently was not there. We responded with twigs (is it not wonderful that they will accept nothing that will with or break or freeze?), and after they bad each fastened themselves by three silken threads they hung all day on the twigs absolutely quiet, their color only slightly changed, their bodies only slightly shrunken.

“At five-thirty in the evening the last worm to anchor himself to the twig began to move again, weaving his head back and forth, and we wondered if he had changed his mind, or was not yet ready for the little death. And whether, as sometimes with one who has taken an overdose of sleeping pills, he could yet be roused and made to walk again. At five forty-five I happened to look again, and what I saw has really shaken me for two days.

“Stretching, pulsing, his face had dissolved! The weird face of the worm had become a fibrous, flat green mask of a cat, the two horns protruding upright like pointed ears. A mass of tiny knobs had burst from the shoulder area. The feet had gone entirely, leaving only a smooth green casing in the front, though the body was still marked in rings.

“The whole object stretched, expanded, shrank again, as though it were a body which could feel the pain of corruption after death, or a Pharoah, strongwilled enough to pump his soul through the tiny ventricles of linen and spice. The wings, wet with a solution of dissolved matter, lengthened and thickened, changing from a ring-marked mass to a smooth wing shape, as though to be prepared for instant flight with the expected verdict on judgment day.

“By six-thirty the movements became slower and slower, only a little pulling, a little stretching. The outer case became smoother, the wing shapes folded close to the body, a swelling appeared in the abdomen— and then all movement ceased, the little thing dropped closer to the stem, lying against its binding threads, to shrink and wait.

“It was, perhaps, a fitting finish to those creatures who alternately fascinated and terrified me. But I shall not feed safe until Osiris calls them up, past the brief humiliation that even a god must suffer as he passes through too small a door, to the light where only the bars on their lovely wings will remind them of their other selves.”