I took a hot air balloon trip when I was little and I loved the view of the houses turning into tiny boxes and the trees turning into broccoli stalks. The air was warm from the fwooshing burners and the sky was a dazzling blue and orange haze. I never knew how far things stretched out until I went higher than I’d ever been.
When I flew in the hot air balloon there were eight of us in the wicker basket, and I was afraid the bottom would give in and I’d make a hole in the ground. I was scared and almost excited thinking about falling. You don’t die from falling.
I think it’s the feeling of boundlessness, the rush of disconnected intimacy in having nothing to hold and grasp which made me think about falling, about getting high enough to fall. I think it’s because I wanted to avoid people, I never wanted to blow them up. I think should’ve mentioned freedom or something. That’s a given I guess.
I never felt like a pioneer when I flew. I felt like I was intruding on something sacred.
Early in the morning, the wet leaves of growing spuds glinting in the sun, the farmers of the eastern plains stirred to life. The birdsongs woke them.
They shambled half-naked out of their straw cots, scratching the fuzz on their wrinkled chins. They downed their spiked teas and headed outdoors. They squatted full heeled on the ground and ran their fingers through the black dirt, taking in the earthy soil smell and the distant sounds of rustling poplars swaying in the wind.
Petr grew government subsidized sugar beets. Yura tried growing corn, what a fool. Leonid grew potatoes. The spud leaves stretched out for miles over slow-rising hills in green rows like the scalps of dead Rastafarians.
Leonid stuck his fingers in the humus feeling for his growing potatoes. Another week and the potatoes would be ready for harvest, ready to be sold at state-fixed prices and the profits distributed evenly among the kolkhoz. Such is life. Still, there was pride in his labor. Pride from his toil and sweat and the knee cramps he soothed with booze. The air was cool and the sky was awash in a radiant glow, the light was new.
But Leonid heard the buzzing of distant engines, he saw the shadows, then far off, trailing the ground, coming for him. They were the shadows of planes. More shadows would follow.
“Freedom. We’re fighting for freedom. Right now we’re just staring the godless heathens in the eyes waiting for them to flinch but the fight’s gonna come, and whether it lasts twenty years or twenty minutes we got to be ready. Because nothing’s more important than freedom. The right to feel free, to act free, to be free.
“Free from bad things, and the freedom to have good things. That’s freedom you can get at a supermarket. The freedom to have a sexy fucking tan. That’s freedom you get sunning in the Carolina sunshine.
“They hate that we have something they don’t. They’re the foxes trying to climb up the tree of liberty seeking our grapes of freedom, but the tart juices of our guns and our patriotism repel their fox tongues from ever getting a taste. So they whine. So they bluster.
“And don’t you ever underestimate the enemy’s unwavering capacity for cruelty and freedom-hating. Freedom isn’t something that’s just there when you’re born, it has to be fought for, it has to be earned.
“Do you think the freedom of the businessman, the entrepreneur, or the inventor was given to him by his mommy and daddy. By his community? No, he harvested that freedom from all the hard work he had sown. It’s the same for you and me.
Failure just means you weren’t free enough.”
I looked out of the cockpit bubble and saw green patchwork fields laid out from horizon to horizon. The sky was clear and cloudless, everyone below could see us flying in.
I talked to Jen through the comm. “Yep,” he said. “Thats our target, army says they’re growing potatoes and... sugar beets? What are those?”
They told him to cut the chatter.
Even through the din of the wind and the propellers I could still hear the payload simmering at the back. It sounded like rain hitting a tin roof, or a million marbles running down the stairs. They usually freeze dried the beetles and let them defrost once they hit the fields but the farmers grew smart. We’d drop them at night, and they’d wait in the dark and light their lanterns to pick the frozen beetles off their plants like salmonberries. Now we dropped them live. They’re not that fast, but we drop enough of them and they’ll eat through a thousand miles of potatoes before they die.
Sometimes I wonder what’s the point. I don’t feel more free when they eat less spuds. I had to double mortgage my house to fly a Cessna. God they’re expensive.
“Jesus Christ,” cried Jen, “There’s one creeping up my arm. It’s in my sleeve.” He shook his limbs. A few of the bugs had latched themselves onto the flight instrument switches, like spindly Christmas ornaments. Some of them must’ve crawled out of their nets. I flicked them away, or else they’d mess up the controls.
Leonid heard the cries coming from the men on horseback. Kolorady! Kolorady! The planes hadn’t come the week before. The villagers thought the planes had left their land alone for good, but now they had come to rouse the calloused hand proles from their sleep. Up above the planes looked like tiny crosses floating in the sky. Their shadows trailed them.
Their bomb doors opened, spraying millions of beetles across peasant fields and peasant homes. Sheets of bugs blanketed their land, covering their leafy greens and hitting children in the eyes. The farmers scrambled for their umbrellas. Some bugs sneaked into women’s blouses, and other bugs found their way down men’s trousers.
A beetle landed inside Leonid’s ear. He screamed, and he jumped up and down, head tilted to the ground, to force the bug out of his ear canal. Another beetle fell from the sky, diving into his other, uncovered ear. He heard nothing but the beetles lodged deep inside him. Scraping insect wings drowned out the sounds of his own screams.
It rained beetles. They hid the sunlight like Xerxes’ arrows, like a swarm of orange gnats the size of thumbs drenching every man, women and child in a billion bug legs. The bugs were orgasmic. This was their American heaven.
Pvt. Kolev felt stiff and robotic in his starched dress uniform. He held his rifle close to his chest, and he circled the outpost on the eastern plains, scanning the horizon for counterrevolutionaries, and the sky for enemy jets.
Most days he’d sit on an ammo box and strum his beat-up guitar, singing sad folk dirges while his fellow soldiers slept on their machine guns or drank. The two outpost’s officers would walk into the local village and woo the local women with the medals pinned on their chest. Their outpost was remote and neglected, a couple tents, some sandbag walls, and for the most part no one official cared enough to bother them. Today was different. Today they’d get a visit from the fat commissar. Kolev had to dress properly, his wife ironed his uniform for the occasion.
The fat commissar stepped out of his truck, accompanied by two burly guards sporting shades. He scanned the outpost for any deficiencies in efficiency and effectiveness, as was his bureaucratic duty. He had little clue what efficiency and effectiveness entailed, but he had his job.
Kolev watched the fat commissar almost tiptoe over the muddy ground. He stepped on patches of grass to keep his shiny dress shoes dry, and he yelped when he heard the crunch of a beetle squished under his left sole.
The beetles didn't know hate, but they had their hunger. They knew their purpose better than we did. There faith wore no excuses and needed no justice. There faith was singleminded, and there cause was pure. Eat anything that smells like, looks like, sounds like potato.
We had another beetle run thirty minutes south, the farmers there grew flax for making linseed oil. One tactical strike against the enemy could cripple their linoleum exports for weeks.
One of the beetles crawled up the control wheel. I saw the bug up close, bright egg yellow with black stripes running down its shell. I tried flicking it off, but the beetle stayed put.
“I got one of them stuck to the radar,” said Jen on the lower deck. “Get outta there, shoo, shoo.”
I tried pinching the bug, but it scurried off too fast for me to grab it. I got angry. It flared its wings and hovered just over my nose. I swiped it, and it landed on the wheel again. I shoved the beetle off with my open palm. Without knowing I pushed the yoke forward, and the plane pitched down gently. I heard the bomb bay nets snapping. The beetles were free.
“Yes, yes, you all know why I’m here. Let’s just get this done.” The commissar scraped his left shoe on a rock. The two officers stood at attention. Pvt. Kolev and the other grunts stood at attention.
The fat commissar approached Kolev to reprimand him for the unsightly crease on the left arm of his uniform. Kolev had made the fatal error of moving his arms while on duty. The commissar grabbed his elbow and said, “There is a wrinkle here.”
“I see, sir,” Kolev answered. Kolev could smell the oranges and pork in the fat commissar’s breath.
He held onto Kolev’s wrinkled elbow, even as his fat neck craned looking side to side. He let go when he saw a plane rise above some hills to the north. Up in the sky, it sounded like a million forced whistles from a man who can’t whistle.
“What in God’s green Earth is that?” asked the commissar.
“A plane, sir,” said Kolev.
Sgt. Sobol added, “Judging from the wing span and the severity of the noise coming from the propellers, I suspect that it is a very large, very big plane, sir.” The glare from Sobol’s gratuitous medals forced Kolev to squint.
Strange, thought Kolev. The beetle planes never come this late.
The plane’s turret guns rattled over the eastern plains. Tufts of dirt and dust sprouted over the ground near Kolev’s feet as the beetle plane’s rotary cannons rolled their r’s and shot hot lead at the hapless soldiers. Kolev ran for cover and ducked under a pile of toppled over sandbags.
The fat commissar shouted, “Someone, anyone, for the love of God, stop this plane!” A bullet tore through the commissar’s ankle, severing his foot from his leg. He screamed and cradled the red stump where his bones jutted.
A bullet whizzed right past Kolev’s ear. He ran from the sandbags and leaped into a foxhole. He was drenched in mud. Kolev tried rubbing the dirt out of his pants, he had a vision of his wife weeping over his mud splattered dress trousers. The water came up to his heels. He pressed himself against the foxhole’s dirt walls. He dug himself deeper into the earth when he heard the guns go off, and he cried, knowing the earth couldn’t hide him deep enough. He peered out of the foxhole and saw the plane, pitched almost straight up nose to tail, facing heaven. Its guns were shooting the sky.
Jen tried to shout but the beetles had taken his voice. He gasped and horked and tried to vomit but the beetles latched on, and each time he cried out for help the bugs were pushed deeper inside him. They snuffed the light out of him.
I felt the beetles crawling at the nape of my neck. They were creeping up my arms and up my thighs. I stumbled out of my seat and flailed my arms around. The warning lights on the instruments blinked, I couldn’t hear the alarms over the sound of chittering buglegs. The beetles clung to the controls. The plane jerked hard to the left. I got tossed and turned inside the cockpit. I heard the air guns firing. I saw foreign soldiers ducking from the turret fire.
The plane almost scraped the ground. My balance off, I ran to the control wheel, shoved by waves of beetles pooling around my feet. I grabbed the wheel with my right hand, feeling the beetle shells squished under my fingers. I pulled on the wheel. The plane tilted up, higher and higher, away from the ground. I held onto the control wheel, but the beetles shoved their insect legs under my fingernails. I squeezed harder. The plane stalled, I lost my grip. We would swandive into the Earth.
For a brief instant I felt weightless, I was floating. I saw Jen, unmoving, his skin pockmarked with millions of tiny indentions where the beetles bit him. His face had been eaten away, his eyes, ears and mouth were gone. It looked like someone took his skull and layered it with thin slices of prosciutto. I was jerked upwards when the plane descended, and I grabbed the roof of Jen’s gaping mouth, holding on to anything I could.
My mother told me, “Why aren't you like your sister? She’s a lineman for General Electric. Why last week she fixed the AC in your father’s summer home. The repairman he called said we’d have to replace the entire unit. She saved us two thousand and something dollars, you know they just want your money, they don’t care about the recession going on.”
I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I touched my face and felt the hard carapace of a beetle’s mandibles, right where my cheeks would be. Spooky.
The plane skimmed the ground and burst into a brilliant billowing ball of hot orange and white. Kolev heard the crash, he listened to the last echoes of the rotary guns fade away. Drenched in mud he climbed out of his foxhole, clutching his rifle close to his heart.
Kolev edged towards the wreckage. He smelled burnt plastic and gagged as the winds blew ash and smoke toward him. He covered his mouth and nose with the flappy end of his sleeve. Ahead of him, Sgt. Sobol was lying facedown on the earth. His face was red. Kolev knelt on the ground and tried flipping Sobol over, but he jerked backwards and landed on his rear when some of Sobol’s snaky guts spilled out of his abdomen. Kolev kicked himself away and stumbled as he rose to his feet. Kolev retched when he smelled bile. He lost his lunch.
Kolev stepped on a charred beetle. He screamed. He kicked the dirt. A few beetles scurried away from the burning wreckage. Kolev shot at them with his rifle. The shots echoed far away until the sounds of gunfire melded with the wind.
Kolev could make out the form of a dead man lying on his side. The beetles left none of his skin bare. Kolev dropped his rifle. The beetles scurried off and left a misshapen pile of red bones bent in unusual angles.
When he breathed the smoke went to his throat. He coughed harshly, tasting iron. He could hear someone groan faintly, not too far from where the dead man lied.
When I came to, I was lying flat on my back, my face was slick with sweat. I smelled bad. Someone was standing by my right. His dress pants were ruined. Why was he wearing dress pants? I tried to move away, but I felt some resistance from my right arm. It was pinned down by what looked like a jagged piece of plane hull. It felt warm from where my elbow would be.
Fancy pants man saw me move, I heard him say something foreign, which I thought was probably his version of, “What the fuck?” He said it with some surprise. He backed off and turned towards the line of jeeps streaking down from the horizon. He screamed, something like “Over here!” He waved his arms.
He turned back to me, he said something I couldn’t understand, he said it with the tone of someone scared trying not to be. I pulled on my right arm, I heard something tore, it was the sleeve end of my flight suit. The ends were red and ragged, and my hand down to my elbow was missing. Jesus fucking Christ fuck. I screamed.Fancy pants knelt beside me again. I tried pushing myself away with my hands and feet but my shoes couldn’t grip the ground. I slid. And I was missing a hand. The dull ache in my elbow grew warmer.