“Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content… For example, the composition of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids in mealworms is comparable with that in fish (and higher than in cattle and pigs), and the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat.”
— “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013)
They stumble down from the compost heaps, a hundred feet up. They climb out of the dirt tunnels, five levels down. For all the world, they look like bugs, from where Jezki stands. They don’t wash despite being coated with grime and excrement, because there’s no water to spare, and everybody’s used to being dirty all the time. They emerge from their filth even before the whistle starts to sound, because they know it’s time to watch Jezki perform, and they’ve been waiting all day for this.
Jezki doesn’t get nervous any more. She gets a twisty stomach, and her vision gets monofocused, and she keeps going over the same few words in her head, but she doesn’t get nervous, as such. She’s done this a thousand times, but each time she fears this could be the time she falls off the tightrope. Nobody gets to be the Clown forever. Jezki assembles a smile, because she wants everyone else to smile back, which is a prelude to laughter, and because she keeps reminding herself that she’s damn lucky to have this job, which means she only spends half her time down in the dirt.
But when Jezki gets out there to greet her Public in the red-clay Amphitheater, her smile won’t hold. They’re all so gaunt, their eyes squinting with desperation over loose-hanging cheek skin, their clothes too big. Jezki keeps hearing rumors that the worm harvest is way down, the larvae just haven’t come through this time, the mealworms aren’t hatching in enough numbers, the crickets are pitiful. It takes a lot of vermin to feed a settlement this size.
The bleachers aren’t spacious enough to accommodate them in their thousands. They’re mostly divided into groups, according to job: the sewage reclamation crews in their red jumpsuits, still filthy despite the protective outer garments; the mealworm-tenders, in their lightweight pale shifts for working in the punishing sun; the vermiculture experts, in black fatigues; the water management technicians in white; the cricket-heads in pale blue; and so on. And looking down at them, from the skybox, the plump, wheezy Governor Marshall and her councilors and lieutenants, wearing brightly colored silk clothes with billowing sleeves that haven’t ever made any contact with sewage or mud. The skybox is covered with carvings of mythic animals from ancient history: cows, sheep, horses.
Jezki can tell see at a glance that the people who have to wake up at dawn to hydrate the mealworms are side-eying the beetle workers, the sewage workers glare at the water techs — and everybody casts nervous glances up at the skybox. It’s Jezki’s job to try and cool them down by making everybody laugh. As usual, right before stepping out wearing her rainbow-colored suit, with her ridiculous sky-blue wig and too-big shoes, Jezki thinks of herself as belonging to a proud tradition: tricksters, jesters, comical truth-tellers. Her ancestors, who roamed the plains, centuries ago. She tries to get strength from that, or at least something she can use to help channel her fear into energy.
Jezki takes a deep breath of the foul air and leaps out in front of the audience, landing on her hands and then stumbling so that she falls on her face. “Sorry!” she shouts. “I had a li’l too much of that root whiskey, y’ know? Too much is never enough, right?” She keeps up the patter and slides into a joke about the worst ways to try and flirt with one of the grub girls. She mimes trying to dance with a grub girl but misjudges the girl’s center of gravity, because the grub girl spends her whole day hunched over. Everybody is laughing, but a little hesitantly. They’re waiting for Jezki to get more real.
It’s like when you’ve got a valve on one of the high-pressure methane vents, Jezki thinks: you open it slowly, letting out a little pressure at a time. You open too fast, everything blows up in your face. It’s delicate. She has to keep jumping around her little space in the middle of the amphitheater, cracking jokes and pretending to be drunk, while teasing the audience with what she’s building up to: poking fun at Marshall and her council, and all of the bosses and overseers — the whole clean, pretty, shiny palanquin riding on top of the piles of dirt and feces that everybody else lives in. They know she’ll get there, just like Marshall and the others know she’ll get there, but she has to loosen everyone up first.
Finally, Jezki has worked her way through her tamer jokes: “That mealworm that went up your nose, Robin? I heard it’s still up there! You have a friend at last!” She does a skit about the bad batch of root whiskey that led to some naked dance routines at the last harvest fest.
Then she starts in on a dead-on rendition of the stilted way Marshall talks: the high quaver on the vowels, the slight lisp that gets more pronounced when Marshall is about to order another exile or execution.
Anybody else who made fun of Marshall this way would be worm-food, but Marshall nods from her skybox as Jezki invents a scenario where Governor Marshall tries to flirt with one of the worm-tenders, saying, “Perhaaaaps you would like to come baaack to my executive bungalow and see my faaaarming projections.” People are guffawing, a little nervously but also giddily. This never stops feeling like a forbidden thrill, even though the audience knows this is Jezki’s job.
Jezki feels like she’s standing on an unstable pile of compost that
could collapse at any moment. Every time she goes out here, she worries it’s going to be the time that she screws up and goes too far. The last Clown, a guy named Reb, made a joke about the Governor’s ostomy bag that hit a little too close to home, and the next day he got reassigned to the mulch-pits. A few months later, Reb had a fatal accident at work. So Jezki tries to keep her spoofs of the Governor ridiculous, obviously not based on Marshall’s real failings. She bounces around, doing handstands, and somersaults into a perfect imitation of Councilor Brahami and his way of gesturing with his elbows when he talks about how we all have to make sacrifices.
Everybody is laughing, snorting and howling, even, and Jezki feels like she’s home free. She’s gotten through another one of these without kicking herself in the face — until she utters the words, “The Great Worm Famine.” She says them in the middle of a monologue in the voice of Governor Marshall about the burdens of leadership, and she doesn’t mean to put those words together, in that order.
The moment she says the phrase, Jezki knows it’s over. You can joke about drunkenness, sex — even the almighty Patchwork Church — but you do not joke about the fact that the food supplies are drying up, because if it’s not the parasites, it’s the weird blights that nobody can solve.
The silence is bone-deep. Jezki feels a heaviness in her guts that’s like the end state of the nervous grind she feels before each performance. She feels like making a run for it, as if she could get out of this amphitheater and find a hole to stay in until the hate dies down.
A weird sound — like a drunk man farting — punctures the silence. The noise comes from directly overhead, and it takes Jezki a minute to realize: it’s Governor Marshall, laughing, as if Jezki has said the funniest thing ever. Marshall’s big pink-and-gray face is split open as she hoots. All of Governor Marshall’s toadies realize what’s happening and start laughing too. Below, nobody wants to be the one who’s not laughing along with the Governor. Soon, the entire crowd is guffawing.
Jezki picks up where she left off, talking about the worms — they’re crazy, those worms, why are they so high-maintenance, anyway? Are they just holding out for a better offer? — but she’s distracted by trying to figure out what just happened.
Governor Marshall just saved my life. Was it because Marshall actually likes Jezki? Or she just doesn’t want to do without a Clown right now? Or she figures the next Clown could be even worse?
It hits her: maybe people needed to hear the word “famine” spoken aloud, without panic ensuing. They needed to get used to hearing it, because they’re going to be hearing it a lot. Jezki feels like the ground has rearranged itself under her feet, but she’s still standing somehow.
When Jezki gets to her last bit, about the storybook days and the tall metaltowns where people raced around in circles in their individual smoketrains, which sometimes crashed into each other, she looks up at the skybox just in time to see Marshall give her a slight nod and a tart smile. That’s the moment she realizes that Marshall didn’t save her after all, because what’s coming next will be much worse than death.
Thanks to Nico Franz with Arizona State University for assistance with entomology.
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