The hoppers sound like an engine that does not yet exist on earth, not even in the imaginations of the kids asleep in the sod house. One of those boys, before he dies, will see B-52’s fly over Germany on newsreels in a California movie theater. He will be in his eighties then. He’ll be shivering in the cinema dark, hearing through hidden speakers a B-52’s furry roar. It’ll remind him at once of the hopper swarm of 1871, the year they razed prairie grass standing taller than their tallest horse, and broke sod with ten thousand hacks of the hoe, and planted corn, it seemed, for the first time in the history of mankind. The corn did grow, unfurled green and lush. The sun rose and set, dogs barked out the sound of sure prosperity. Somewhere in Kansas men were raising a church, a barn, a schoolhouse. Somewhere babies were being baptized in old springs.
And then the hoppers came. At first, only a gentle breeze of sound, then a wind, then a scream from the ancient prairie dark. Giant hoppers smacked against the wood door, against the roof. As the humans shuffled gropingly into the yard, the hoppers hit their cheeks and throats. Like nothing they’d known before: the crunch of exoskeleton beneath their feet, the sight of a moonlit cloud diving into the corn, sucking up the precious crop. This was a new element. Neither air nor fire, nor land, nor water; all wing, motion, appetite.
Father and Mother stood in the yard. He held a rifle, she a hoe. This is the malice of God, she thought calmly. She called for the children. When they ventured out, their heads and necks disappeared into the swarm. Nothing to be saved but cabbage, she shouted at them. Get it, haul it, hide it in the wagon—move!
They worked for hours in the dark. Yanked up six long rows of Dutch cabbage as the hoppers battered their faces and backs. The crop made a heap under the canvas in the wagon. The children sat atop it, whipping aprons to scare the damn hoppers away.
Morning: a ruin. As for the corn, the theft was total. They had to smile. They’d never forget how the earth had looked before they’d civilized it with their hoes. Someone said, We’ll starve. Someone else said, The sorghum. The hoppers took the leaves, but we still got the stalks. Kraut from the cabbage, molasses from the sorghum. Imagine how they’d have to scheme that winter.
In 1944, B-52s in cinema newsreels. Hoppers to bombers. Molasses to popcorn. Progress, isn’t it? He wants to think so. He has a right to. But he has in mind the sweet molasses kraut he cooked into pancakes with year-old meal and ate on the dirt floor of a sod house that smelled more like America than anything ever has.
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Paul Jaskunas is the author of Hidden, a novel, which received the Friends of American Writers Award in 2005. He is on the faculty of the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he teaches creative writing and literature.