Saturday, June 18, 2011


I haven't had time to write or draw much today, I'm afraid. A swarm of locusts arrived in SuyMaTmakk this morning. This happens periodically - perhaps once every month or two, in the Summer. It always becomes a contest: the locusts eat the city, and the city eats the locusts.

As in Twokk, locusts are something of a staple food here, along with fish, potatoes, wig-root, and a few species of grains. Cooking on the Scalps tends to be full of crunchy bits and the nutty taste of insect meat. Every swarm that comes within a mile of SuyMaTmakk stops for a snack; apparently, all these wicker buildings are too appetizing to resist. (In addition to being the most available building material on the Scalps, grass also seems to make excellent bait.) Once the locusts arrive, descending insatiably on the city, the people of the city descend on them. Wielding scythes, hammers, hatchets, badminton rackets, or whatever else they can lay their hands on - often just their own claws and teeth - they swat and smash the locusts from the air and walls of the city. The best climbers sweep them from the rooftops. I caught a glimpse of Emiline and Katal at one point, cleaving their way through the swarm. Katal swung her trangaban in whistling, deadly arcs; Emiline took a sword she'd gotten somewhere and became a glittering blur too fast for the eye to follow. I can see why they've been so successful at hunting. Everyone tried to stay out of their way.

Other people, the ones less willing to kill things in such large numbers, gather the dead insects as they pile up on the ground. This was what I did all day. I dislike killing things for any reason, and though their numbers and appetite can make them a plague, locusts are still beautiful animals. Fortunately, they're tasty as well. It was easier if I reminded myself that I was gathering food.

It took all day. Everything else in the city stops when a swarm arrives; the locusts have to be caught as fast as they land, or they'll eat the buildings. In the past, when the city hasn't reacted fast enough, whole blocks have simply vanished down a thousand tiny throats. Everyone comes out to catch locusts, taking only occasional breaks when the heat and the noise become overwhelming. The air is filled with spiny legs and hungry jaws and the incessant rattle of insect wings. It's impossible to hear anything else; even Hmakk is inaudible over the noise. The people of the Scalps have developed a sort of sign language to use during swarms. Unfortunately, I don't know it, so I just went where people pointed.

Up in the air, the avians of the city - those capable of flight - cut swathes through the clouds of locusts, using claws or beaks or antique weapons left over from more warlike centuries. A black-feathered man named Katahweet was particularly skilled; he used a saber passed down from his grandmother, and the sky rained bisected insects wherever he flew. Everyone tried to stay out from under him. A few of the other avians have discovered a particular note, inaudible to most vertebrates, that knocks locusts unconscious when sung. They only use it when they're too high to hear from the ground, so that they don't knock out the city's chitinous citizens as well.

Only the herbivores took any breaks for meals. Most of them don't eat insects. When the rest of us got hungry, we just ate the locusts as we caught them.

It was sundown before the swarm was gone. The fastest and nimblest locusts ate their fill and flew on, clattering away in a much smaller swarm than when they arrived. Their fallen comrades remained behind, piled on the street, filling barrels and baskets and a great many stomachs. The buildings around us were in surprisingly good condition; they were a bit chewed around the edges, but nothing a few days' patching won't fix. Most of the locusts hadn't had time to eat much. The people of SuyMaTmakk have had a long time to get good at this.

About half the people went home, exhausted, to rest until tomorrow. The rest of us spent the next few hours gathering the remaining locusts and carting them off to the city's storehouses. These are enormous subterranean buildings built solely to hold locusts; they're called Hlatakanit (from hlataka, the Hmakk word for locust), and they're as large as the city's granaries. Over the next month or two, the heaps of locusts gathered today will be dried, stored, and gradually reintroduced as breakfast, lunch, and supper.

I've eaten a lot of locust dishes in my time on the Scalps, but tonight's supper was the best yet. I don't know whether the reason was freshness or satisfaction. Food always tastes better when you catch it yourself.

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