|early 20th-century poster|
The spang! of insect cries, fused into a single vibrating note, soared into the sky where Pip thought perhaps he could see its shrillness when he looked straight into the burning sun—and saw something like a rope made of gold, its frizzled threads on fire. The sound and the light jabbed at his eyes, and he ducked his head.
For three days now he had understood nothing except that confession gripped the glances of men. On the farm he had known it for the first time. When taken into town to make a deposition, he had seen it again. From one cast stone of wrong, the circles ran outward forever, widening to hold the world, which was itself like a single blue eye decked with green and set in a socket of darkness.
What could a boy do about such evil? Pip thought about the chain of days, spaced through the summer, daybreak to sunset spent in mopping cotton to kill cotton-worms and boll weevils. At dawn his right arm had been powdered white from lead salt, what the feed store men called arsenic of lead. For weeks in early summer, he and Otto had trailed down the rows, smearing molasses laced with lead on the stalks with cloth-tipped sticks. Later on it was the young blossoms and then the bolls that needed mopping. Gangs of honeybees and wasps and what seemed a thousand different insects clouded the air behind them, pursuing sweetness, bumbling into ears and lashes as if the boys might be molded from sugar. In the morning they would have to scrape flies and wasps from their overalls. At the end of each round of poison when the work was entirely done, Miss Versie would plunge the children’s clothes, coated with sticky residue, into her boiling pot, skimming dead bees from the water with a ladle. Mopping cotton was a job that sickened Pip, with his hatred of sweet odors, but it had to be done. The bucket was too heavy for Otto, so it was Pip who had to heft and swing its weight, the stink of hot molasses in his nose. At least it was not as cloying as the smell of hedge.
Was there a medicine good against a man-worm, against the weevil at his core? What a job it would be to mop every boy in the world, dabbing poison on his arms and head so that he could grow right without that look of fire in his eyes.