We always knew two days before. The giant cloud of dust the feed trucks kicked up behind them would appear in the early evening, after all the deliveries were done. Father would stop whatever he was doing and yell at Mother to get some drinks ready. The truck driver always looked tired and resigned as he drove up, but regardless, his eyes would smile at Father as he helped him off the truck. They’d known each other long before either was a truck driver or a farmer.
They spoke in hushed tones all the way to the house. Drinks would be served and Father would beg the driver to stay for dinner. He’d refuse. His wife would kill him if he shirked one of her meals. Mother would hover over them with a worried look in her face, never saying a thing. Father would ask his questions and the driver would answer them as best he could. The conversation never lasted longer than fifteen minutes.
Before the truck driver got back in his truck, Father would reach into his pocket, pull out his billfold, and offer up whatever he could spare. This too the driver always refused. If anything were to happen to Father or his farm, he too would lose. He depended on the farmers just as much as they did him.
Not long after the dust cloud settled, the bell would be rung. The employees would slowly gather on the front porch. Mother would set out glasses and a pitcher of cool water. She also set out a chair for Father, which he never used. Even her worried face couldn’t make her any less charming. Father would kiss her gently and reassure her that there would be more than enough wood.
He spoke calmly, as always —it wasn’t until he was dead that Mother told me he wouldn’t sleep those nights. He stood on the porch and told them what most of them already knew. They would start the fires before dawn. One fire every hundred yards, pray that the wind doesn’t kick up and make it harder. A quarter of the wood was to go into the animal’s water basins and soaked for as long as possible. Then they would harvest. It was almost a month too early to harvest the corn. The most experienced workers would run through field looking for the ripest stalks. The rest would harvest coffee, as quickly as possible. When the time came, everything would be dropped. Only the men would fuel the fires.
They slept as long as they could before their nerves sent them into the kitchen to make the bitterest coffee they could manage. Even the children roamed the house early, eerily quiet.
Father would open the woodshed doors, knowing they had stockpiled more than enough wood, but checking nonetheless; mostly for the benefit of Mother. The men would slowly gather in front of it, chatting quietly. Eventually one of them would grab a load of wood and begin his slow march to the fields.
The women would make one last futile effort to herd the children into bed before they too began making their march to the field, harvesting bags in hand.
Father stood with his hands in his pocket, studying the landscape. The fires had been lit for only an hour. He took a long, slow drink of coffee and sighed. The time had come.
I never understood how Father knew that they were coming. Maybe it was a slight change in the wind or a sound only he could hear. Whatever it was, it was a gift that saved his family and he always silently thanked God before he rang the warning bell.
The wet wood was piled onto the fires. The sweat on the men’s faces dripping and evaporating instantly on the stones which held the fire in check. Plumes of smoke rose swiftly from the fires, swaying to an evil rhythm and disappearing high above the fields. They piled the wood as high as they dare and then they ran.
From far away you could confuse it for another cloud of smoke. It wasn’t until it grew larger —when you could hear the buzzing— that you knew that this was it. Locusts. A hundred thousand of them swarming through the valley; touching it with famine and anguish.
Father and I stood by the window and watched. Wishing the black cloud pass over our fields and leave them untouched. Hoping that the plumes of smoke danced heartily —like the devil in May, Father would say— and drive them in another direction. Praying that we would have something to eat this summer.
They took their share. They always did. Sometimes they took more than we could spare. Sometimes they took a few days meals. Whatever they took, it was their share.
My Father liked to say quietly —so only those who listened closely could hear— “They came and went. And so shall we. Thank god for that.”