Thursday, December 18, 2008

Three Plagues

"These are unclean to you among all that creep: whosoever doth touch them, shall be unclean until the evening." -- Leviticus 11:31.

Plague by Air
We were living in a small house near the beach in La Selva, a quiet, lovely place set in a grove of pines, fringed with flowering bougainvillea and ivy. In the stillness of morning and the dark, foggy eves you could hear the waves breaking on the beach below. On days when the fog backed out, the sun baked down on the houses and you could hear the wooden beams swelling and moaning in the still air.

One Sunday we were having coffee on the deck when we noticed a few bees darting among the trees. Then we saw more coming, sifting in between the pine needles in the dappled light, growing slowly in number until there were quite many of them. Diana went back into the house. It wasn't long before I followed, as a single bee sting can send me to the emergency room.

Shadows appeared out the windows over the tops of the hedges. Then thousands of bees circled the house and we raced to shut the flue on the fireplace. You could see out the windows, but the day had turned into dark ribbons of yellow and brown. I phoned the police, who referred me to the firehouse, where I was given the phone number of a bee keeper from Aptos.

That night, in the cooling dark, the keeper came out and shook the solid mass that had roosted in the tree in the center of the yard, and all the bees fell into a box and were gone.

Plague by Land
I was traveling across America in a Greyhound bus, maximizing my journey between California and Florida through a special fare that allowed you to move about for several weeks without restrictions. When you ride the bus, you're treated to desert way-stations in tiny shacks under a brutal sun, to inner city slum-terminals where panhandlers lean into you, or gas stations lit by a single lamp in the icy mood of a mountain snowflurry.

This particular night, we had stopped in a small Texas store and post office outside San Angelo. It was hot and stifling, and we waited just long enough for two riders to depart and an elderly Black woman to climb aboard with a shopping bag filled with clothing and a lunchbox. She took the seat directly behind my own and after a while she was asleep.

The next stop seemed further out in dark spaces of prairie, at a gas station flooded by arc lights where the bus pulled up with a whoosh of brakes and the driver opened the door. "Ten minutes," he called out.

I was in my stocking feet, half asleep, and went out to find a restroom. My socks got wet. Only when I had reached the sidewalk that fronted the store did I notice that the surface swarmed with dark brown beetles. Not only was the walk a sea of pulsing bodies, the wall itself was stuccoed with living, hard-shelled varmints. Around the side of the building, an attendant used a push broom to carve a path between the beetles and the doors to the restrooms.

I decided to hold my water and tiptoed back to the bus. I found a clean pair of socks in my backpack and put them on. A short while later, we were heading down the dark highway when the woman behind me screamed. A stowaway had found a home in her hair.

Plague by Stealth
We had been driving all day, following days filled with drives, when we gave up on reaching Alabama and took a motel room in Coldwater, Mississippi. It was hot and muggy and crickets filled the air with their cadence. We chose the motel because it had a swimming pool. So said the sign out front.

After unpacking, we went into the cafe and ordered sandwiches. In this part of the world, maybe only in this part of Mississippi, they served barbecue pork on white bread with a scoop of cole slaw plopped directly on the meat.

I couldn't wait to get back to the room, change into my suit, and cool off in the pool. I should have noticed the smaller signs of trouble, but walked right past them. The pool area was fenced in, set up against a forest of kudzu vines that looked like green frosting on the trees. I tossed my towel to the chair and dove straight in.

The pool was thick with tiny green frogs. Hundreds of frogs. Thousands of frogs. Chock-to-jaw with frogs. I had jumped into a vat of frog-flavored pudding.

On my way back to the room and the shower, I paid closer attention to what I had seen all along: the hallways and narrow paths of the motel were filled with the little guys, scampering around in the dusk, doing their froggy things.

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