Night of the Cicadas

A short story by Herman Labuschagne

Glentana, 10 July 2013

 

The night became deadly quiet, even tough the cicadas were hysterical. On the western horizon the darkness was flickering ominously. Beneath the ancient sycamore trees the night was double-thick and moist with expectation. Even the blind could tell that that there were more rains were on their way. They should have left weeks ago already. But the Zarps had been seen at Schoemandsdal. It was still too early. Much too early to be safe. With those tough-as-nails policemen it was better to be cautious.

 

He had a habit of flicking a corner of his cards with a chipped nail when he was thinking. With his other hand he lifted the tumbler to his cracking lips. A small trickle dribbled down this salt-and pepper stubble. He wiped it with the back of his hand. Slowly. Thoughtfully.

 

“I’ll see you,” he growled. “And I’ll raise you…”

It sounded like a voice form the grave. Across the rim of his glass his eyes were shot with varicose veins, like lighting against blue sky. They were gleaming, like fragments of glass that were pressed into a mask of smoky leather. He almost grinned, but that was just the way he pursed his lips when he swirled the mist upon his tongue.

 

“Raise me with what?” the thin man squinted. Then added laconically – almost insultingly: “You’re broke now.”

 

The dilated blue eyes narrowed. He studied the thin man across the wooden crate that served as a table for a long time. His head wobbled slightly as he struggled to concentrate.

“I raise you a watch,” the bigger man finally said, this time allowing a feint smile to wrinkle the corners of his eyes.

 

He waited motionlessly for the thin man’s reaction. The skinny man had grown weary. They played their game almost every night. But tonight was different. The wild-eyed one had grown obsessive. He was out of money. And they had drunk more than usual. The thin man had seen his companion like this before. That time near Machadodorp. The night when he had lost his temper and they had to flee town in such a hurry. He had seen him angry with a broken bottle neck once…

 

“A watch…?” the thin perspiring man spoke, blinking slowly as he absent-mindedly tapped the small pile of dirty shilling notes before him. His fingers were knobbly and his nails were long and dirty. They were the hands of a man who was starving – but not from a lack of food.

“You don’t h-have a watch,” he smirked.

 

The dead blue eyes surveyed him for a moment, and then allowed a genuine smile to crack his mouth. He leaned forward heavily and with slow effort reached across the table to offer the bottle of Square Face gin to his opponent. The thin man instinctively held out his hand, battling to keep it steady while the colourless liquid splashed clumsily into his glass. He set it down heavily, and looked at the blue eyes again. He was waiting.

“I don’t have a watch, you say?” he chuckled. Then his smile widened as he added, “Maybe not, but Frank does…”

 

For a moment the thin man had to force his brain to comprehend. Then he turned very slowly towards the dark rear wall of their shack. The bundle against the wall was lying very quietly. Around him a single blanket lay discarded. His entire form was glistening with the stinking sweat that came towards the end of blackwater fever.

 

“I think—“ the thin man began. “I think…” he seemed to lose his thought for a moment, but with drooping eyelids he willed the thought to come back so he could complete it: “I… think… Frank would… object,” he said, very slowly.

 

The blue eyes studied his face for a few seconds to judge his reaction. His eyes dangerous, but they contained an unexpected element of humour at the same time.

 

“Frank is dead,” the big man softly replied, stating the words with sober simplicity which gave them profound weight in the featureless shack that they were sharing.

 

Across the table the thin man allowed the words to settle within the murky waters of his tired mind. Then he sobered up one degree and straightened his posture somewhat.

“Frank is… Frank is… not… dead…” he simply retorted, while attempting to make a feeble gesture with his hand that was meant to reinforce his words.

 

Giving the unconscious figure a brief disdainful look, the blues eyes growled: “Yes, but he soon will be…”

 

An oily smear of sweat slipped from the thin man’s plastered hair and crawled down his bony face. He wiped it smooth with an absent-minded gesture.

“You can’t bet his watch until he’s dead,” he declared.

There was an air of finality in his declaration. He was nervous about the blue eyes’ reaction, but now that he had said it he felt oddly brave about it.

 

Together they surveyed the silent figure’s emaciated body for a long while. The seconds ticked by in an unreal way as half a dozen light-crazed moths pinged against the lampshade on the table. It felt like half an hour even though only seconds passed.

Then the bigger man spoke again – almost reverently: “I think he’s dead now…”

 

In the silence that followed, the thin man could see that this was not so. Dead men did not perspire. The chest of a dead man also did not move faintly.

“I can hear him breathe!” the thin man protested.

 

“Breathe?” the blue eyes said, assuming a look of surprise. “Are you sure?”

Then, without waiting for further reaction he heavily scraped the biscuit tin on which he was sitting back across the dirt floor. He carefully placed his cards face side down upon the table, knowing that the thin man would not dare to touch them. In getting up he bumped the box table so that both the lamp and the gin bottle wobbled dangerously. The thin man held out a hand and steadied the bottle before it could topple. There was too little liquid left in the base, he thought. But the lamp was heavy enough to stand.

 

Blue eyes felt stiff and giddy. They had been playing for too long. Through the fog around him, he managed to remain focused upon the bundle across the room. He stumbled towards it drunkenly, taking care not to spill from the glass he was till holding in one hand. Then, bending across the silent figure he paused to listen carefully by the silent figure’s nose.

“I think you’re right,” he whispered theatrically, pulling his mouth into an inverted smile. “But only barely. It’s too weak to count, though. He’s as good as dead already.”

 

“Well if he’s breathing he’s still alive,” the thin man declared, more boldly this time. “And you can’t bet his watch if he’s still with us.”

He felt encouraged by the blue eyed man’s own admission that there was still some life left within the malarial patient.

 

The blue eyes squinted into the darkness of the shadow that his own body cast against the wall. With searching gaze he surveyed the figure again. Then, without looking back for the thin man’s approval, he slowly lifted his glass.

“I think Frank’s thirsty,” he said simply.

As if to illustrate his point, he pulled the prostrated man’s jaw open and started pouring gin down his mouth. With the unsteadiness of his hand he spilled some of it, splashing it down the sick man’s nose as well. At once the hitherto immobile figure started gasping. A weak, but sickening rattle rose from his withered mouth, but the bigger man continued pouring steadily.

 

The thin man could not move. He wanted to, but his legs felt heavy. And his arms too. All he could do was silently sit and watch as the blue eyed man with the leather face kept pouring the contents of his glass into the dying man’s mouth with agonizing slowness. His choking sounds and gurgling agony seemed hollow and distant. It was almost lost in the far-distant thunder that could be sensed, rather than heard on the western horizon. As he continued to stare with morbid fascination, Frank’s body began making feeble spasms. His hands attempted to move, but he was too weak to lift them. His struggles were upsetting to watch, but the blue eyed man was not perturbed. With his one hand he pressed the dying man’s nose shut, and with the other he softly patted his cheek.

“There now, there now…” he purred. “Just a spash of white smoke to make the journey out of here a little more… a little more pleasant…”

 

The flame from the lamp reflected eerily within the thin man’s wide-spread eyes as he watched. The struggles grew feinter, and then very slowly ceased altogether. The blue eyed man leaned forward heavily once more and placed his ear in front of Frank’s mouth.

“Poor Frank,” he mused. “I think he’s passed…”

 

The thin man was still speechless. His numb mind tried to tell him something, but all he could think of was to take another swallow. A big one, which made him wince and caused his eyes to water.

 

Then, with dumb fingers, the blue eyes felt beneath Frank’s mattress. He fumbled for a while, and then grunted as he found what he was looking for. He swayed a little as he held it up to the light to survey it. It hung like a round crucifix on a cheap silver chain. A dented old Elgin watch with a slightly cracked dial face.

 

On the back plate dirt had filled the letters where the words were engraved to read: “To my darling boy Franklin. Stay within the light always.”

But the blue eyes did not see the letters. All he could see was how the lamp reflected upon his dangling prize. The watch was cheap, but it would do. It would enable him to continue the game.

 

It took some effort to find his seat again. He completed the three pace distance in four and a half. When he sat down, he did so heavily. When he was settled he dropped the watch upon the table clumsily. It lay between them like a silent testimony. It looked pretty in the yellow light, but the thin man regarded it with distant loathing. As thought it were a dead serpent, he could not bring himself to touch it.

 

“As I was saying,” the blue eyes continued, “I see you – and I raise you… with this watch…”

 

In the stale darkness of the sweltering room, nobody heard as the tiny figure of an Anopheles mosquito rose in a curved trajectory from the dead man’s arm. It had drawn just a little blood – not enough to satisfy. But it could already sense the taste of death. It had arrived too late. This man’s blood would not provide the meal that she required. She would have to find another. The tiny creature might as well have been invisible as it lazily crossed the room. Even if blurry eyes could see her, they would have paid her no attention. As for her, half a meal from a dead man didn’t matter. There were other opportunities. She could sense the breath of more living things nearby – and there was body heat. Hot exposed flesh that was clammy with perspiration. So conveniently positioned next to the source of light.

 

In Crooks’ Corner on sweltering banks of the Limpopo River the night had grown alive with sound. The cicadas knew the rain was coming and they were overjoyed. They screamed with a soprano din that drove the very reason from a man’s brain. It almost hurt to try to think. Impatiently, the blue eyed man scratched at his neck. Long, slow strokes. Where he had scratched, his chipped fingernails left four red lines upon his clammy skin. Anopheles had been disturbed but she was satisfied. She had injected her anti-coagulant and drunk her fill. Upsize-down she alighted on the thatch with bloated abdomen, rubbing two legs together repeatedly. It had been enough. The cycle could continue.

 

Beneath her, trapped within the feeble yellow circle of light a set of feverish blue eyes looked approvingly at the watch that lay within his palm. He’d known his luck would change with that one last card. It was good to have some cash again – and the silver watch. He focused with difficulty upon its spinning dial. The cicadas were screaming an unbelievable crescendo. Like a blood-crazed crowd along a colosseum. Could it be? It was midnight already.  How quickly passes when there is nothing else to do…?

 

Notes: Crooks Corner is the name of a piece of land which is now in the northern extremity in the Kruger National Park of South Africa. During the latter decades of the 18th century and early 1900’s this used to be a favourite haunt of fugitives and outlaws. Living along the banks of the Limpopo river where Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Transvaal Republic (now South Africa) and Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) met, they were always able to slip across the border into a different country, depending on which direction the law came after them from.