THE GLITTERING CLOUD
Now the wheat was almost ready to cut. Every day Pa looked at it. Every night he talked about it, and showed Laura some long, stiff wheat-heads. The plump grains were getting harder in their little husks. Pa said the weather was perfect for ripening wheat.
“If this keeps up,” he said, “we’ll start harvesting next week.”
The weather was very hot. The thin, high sky was too hot to look at. Air rose up in waves from the whole prairie, as it does from a hot stove. In the schoolhouse the children panted like lizards, and the sticky pine-juice dripped down the board walls.
Saturday morning Laura went walking with Pa to look at the wheat. It was almost as tall as Pa. He lifted her onto his shoulder so that she could see over the heavy, bending tops. The field was greeny-gold.
At the dinner table Pa told Ma about it. He had never seen such a crop. There were forty bushels to the acre, and wheat was a dollar a bushel. They were rich now. This was a wonderful country. Now they could have anything they wanted. Laura listened and thought, now Pa would get his new boots.
She sat facing the open door and the sunshine streaming through it. Something seemed to dim the sunshine. Laura rubbed her eyes and looked again. The sunshine really was dim. It grew dimmer until there was no sunshine.
“I do believe a storm is coming up,” said Ma. “There must be a cloud over the sun.”
Pa got up quickly and went to the door. A storm might hurt the wheat. He looked out, then he went out.
The light was queer. It was not like the changed light before a storm. The air did not press down as it did before a storm. Laura was frightened, she did not know why.
She ran outdoors, where Pa stood looking up at the sky. Ma and Mary came out, too, and Pa asked, “What do you make of that, Caroline?”
A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle.
There was no wind. The grasses were still, and the hot air did not stir, but the edge of the cloud came on across the sky faster than wind. The hair stood up on Jack’s neck. All at once he made a frightful sound up at that cloud, a growl and a whine.
Plunk! Something hit Laura’s head and fell to the ground. She looked down and saw the largest grasshopper she had ever seen. Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms. They came thudding down like hail.
The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hail- storm.
Laura tried to beat them off. Their claws clung to her skin and her dress. They looked at her with bulging eyes, turning their heads this way and that. Mary ran screaming into the house. Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet.
Ma was slamming the windows shut, all around the house. Pa came and stood just inside the front door, looking out. Laura and Jack stood close beside him. Grasshoppers beat down from the sky and swarmed thick over the ground. Their long wings were folded, and their strong legs took them hopping everywhere. The air whirred and the roof went on sounding like a roof in a hail- storm.
Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings. “The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat-field.
The grasshoppers were eating. You could not hear one grasshopper eat, unless you listened very carefully while you held him and fed him grass. Millions and millions of grasshoppers were eating now. You could hear the millions of jaws biting and chewing.
Pa came running back to the stable. Through the window Laura saw him hitching Sam and David to the wagon. He began pitching old dirty hay from the manure-pile into the wagon, as fast as he could. Ma ran out, took the other pitchfork, and helped him. Then he drove away to the wheat-field and Ma followed the wagon.
Pa drove around the field, throwing out little piles of stuff as he went. Ma stooped over one, then a thread of smoke rose from it and spread. Ma lighted pile after pile. Laura watched till a smudge of smoke hid the field and Ma and Pa and the wagon.
Grasshoppers were still falling from the sky. The light was still dim because grasshoppers covered the sun.
Ma came back to the house, and in the closed lean-to she took off her dress and her petticoats and killed the grasshoppers she shook out of them. She had lighted fires all around the wheat- field. Perhaps smoke would keep the grasshop- pers from eating the wheat.
Ma and Mary and Laura were quiet in the shut, smothery house. Carrie was so little that she cried, even in Ma’s arms. She cried herself to sleep. Through the walls came the sound of grasshoppers eating.
The darkness went away. The sun shone again. All over the ground was a crawling, hop- ping mass of grasshoppers. They were eating all the soft, short grass off the knoll. The tall prairie grasses swayed and bent and fell.
“Oh, look,” Laura said, low, at the window. They were eating the willow tops. The willows’ leaves were thin and bare twigs stuck out. Then whole branches were bare, and knobby with masses of grasshoppers.
“I don’t want to look any more,” Mary said, and she went away from the window. Laura did not want to look any more, either, but she could not stop looking.
The hens were funny. The two hens and their gawky pullets were eating grasshoppers with all their might. They were used to stretching their necks out low and running fast after grasshoppers and not catching them. Every time they stretched out now, they got a grasshopper right then. They were surprised. They kept stretching out their necks and trying to turn in all directions at once.
“Well, we won’t have to buy feed for the hens,” said Ma. “There’s no great loss without some gain.”
The green garden rows were wilting down. The potatoes, the carrots, the beets and beans were being eaten away. The long leaves were eaten off the cornstalks, and the tassels, and the ears of young corn in their green husks fell covered with grasshoppers.
There was nothing anybody could do about it. Smoke still hid the wheat-field. Sometimes Laura saw Pa moving dimly in it. He stirred up the smoldering fires and thick smoke hid him again.
When it was time to go for Spot, Laura put on stockings and shoes and a shawl. Spot was standing in the old ford of Plum Creek, shaking her skin and switching her tail. The herd went mournfully lowing beyond the old dugout. Laura was sure that cattle could not eat grass so full of grasshoppers. If the grasshoppers ate all the grass, the cattle would starve.
Grasshoppers were thick under her petticoats and on her dress and shawl. She kept striking them off her face and hands. Her shoes and Spot’s feet crunched grasshoppers.
Ma came out in a shawl to do the milking. Laura helped her. They could not keep grasshop- pers out of the milk. Ma had brought a cloth to cover the pail, but they could not keep it covered while they milked into it. Ma skimmed out the grasshoppers with a tin cup.
Grasshoppers went into the house with them. Their clothes were full of grasshoppers. Some jumped onto the hot stove where Mary was starting supper. Ma covered the food till they had chased and smashed every grasshopper. She swept them up and shoveled them into the stove. Pa came into the house long enough to eat supper while Sam and David were eating theirs. Ma did not ask him what was happening to the wheat. She only smiled and said: “Don’t worry, Charles. We’ve always got along.”
Pa’s throat rasped and Ma said: “Have another cup of tea, Charles. It will help get the smoke out of your throat.”
When Pa had drunk the tea, he went back to the wheat-field with another load of old hay and manure.
In bed, Laura and Mary could still hear the whirring and snipping and chewing. Laura felt claws crawling on her. There were no grasshop- pers in bed, but she could not brush the feeling off her arms and cheeks. In the dark she saw grasshoppers’ bulging eyes and felt their claws crawling until she went to sleep.
Pa was not downstairs next morning. All night he had been working to keep the smoke over the wheat, and he did not come to breakfast. He was still working.
The whole prairie was changed. The grasses did not wave; they had fallen in ridges. The rising sun made all the prairie rough with shadows where the tall grasses had sunk against each other.
The willow trees were bare. In the plum thickets only a few plumpits hung to the leafless branches. The nipping, clicking, gnawing sound of the grasshoppers’ eating was still going on.
At noon Pa came driving the wagon out of the smoke. He put Sam and David into the stable, and slowly came to the house. His face was black with smoke and his eyeballs were red. He hung his hat on the nail behind the door and sat down at the table.
“It’s no use, Caroline,” he said. “Smoke won’t stop them. They keep dropping down through it and hopping in from all sides. The wheat is falling now. They’re cutting it off like a scythe. And eating it, straw and all.”
He put his elbows on the table and hid his face with his hands. Laura and Mary sat still. Only Carrie on her high stool rattled her spoon and reached her little hand toward the bread. She was too young to understand.
“Never mind, Charles,” Ma said. “We’ve been through hard times before.”
Laura looked down at Pa’s patched boots un- der the table and her throat swelled and ached. Pa could not have new boots now.
Pa’s hands came down from his face and he picked up his knife and fork. His beard smiled, but his eyes would not twinkle. They were dull and dim.
“Don’t worry, Caroline,” he said. “We did all we could, and we’ll pull through somehow.”
Then Laura remembered that the new house was not paid for. Pa had said he would pay for it when he harvested the wheat.
It was a quiet meal, and when it was over Pa lay down on the floor and went to sleep. Ma slipped a pillow under his head and laid her finger on her lips to tell Laura and Mary to be still.
They took Carrie into the bedroom and kept her quiet with their paper dolls. The only sound was the sound of the grasshoppers’ eating.
Day after day the grasshoppers kept on eating. They ate all the wheat and the oats. They ate every green thing—all the garden and all the prairie grass.
“Oh, Pa, what will the rabbits do?” Laura asked. “And the poor birds?”
“Look around you, Laura,” Pa said.
The rabbits had all gone away. The little birds of the grass tops were gone. The birds that were left were eating grasshoppers. And prairie hens ran with outstretched necks, gobbling grasshop- pers.
When Sunday came, Pa and Laura and Mary walked to Sunday school. The sun shone so bright and hot that Ma said she would stay at home with Carrie, and Pa left Sam and David in the shady stable.
There had been no rain for so long that Laura walked across Plum Creek on dry stones. The whole prairie was bare and brown. Millions of brown grasshoppers whirred low over it. Not a green thing was in sight anywhere.
All the way, Laura and Mary brushed off grasshoppers. When they came to the church, brown grasshoppers were thick on their petti-coats. They lifted their skirts and brushed them off before they went in. But careful as they were, the grasshoppers had spit tobacco-juice on their best Sunday dresses.
Nothing would take out the horrid stains. They would have to wear their best dresses with the brown spots on them.
Many people in town were going back east. Christy and Cassie had to go. Laura said good-by to Christy and Mary said good-by to Cassie, their best friends.
They did not go to school anymore. They must save their shoes for winter and they could not bear to walk barefooted on grasshoppers. School would be ended soon anyway, and Ma said she would teach them through the winter so they would not be behind their classes when school opened again next spring.
Pa worked for Mr. Nelson and earned the use of Mr. Nelson’s plow. He began to plow the bare wheat-field, to make it ready for next year’s wheat crop.