Sonia Bernac

The Trials of Mosquitoes

That spring, shortly before the annual Plague, the Chief announced the arrival of a fair Prince and Princess. We had been expecting them, as people from other villages had spoken of a princely couple, bearing warmth and good deeds. Some of us believed it was a kind of divine retribution, others that it was simply our turn.

The day they arrived nobody went to the factory; people abandoned their usual activities and gathered outside the Chief’s house to see them with their own eyes. If the truth be told, we were quite disappointed. It turned out the Prince couldn’t bend metal bars with his bare hands, nor kindle the wind with his powerful breath, or start a fire with his intense gaze. Quite the opposite in fact: firewood and water had to be brought to his room, he burnt his eyebrows when he tried to light the stove and he did not know how to prepare a pot of simple fare.

As for the the Princess, she couldn’t prove that all knots untangle between her fingers nor was there any evidence that smog could be dispelled by her smile. To be fair, we expected as much, because we had heard all this from a butcher in the village over the River and everybody knows that they lie through their teeth over there, so much so that when a wife asks her husband if he is hungry, he would rather go to the factory on bread and water than tell her the truth.

They both had yellow locks, skin washed of colour like pickled mushrooms and round translucent eyes. They constantly smiled at everyone and everything, talked to people in their chirping tongue, peeped through the windows and touched everything – but they were of little use to anybody.

The Chief saddened by their ineptitude, glowered at us before slowly pointing at me. What could I possibly say? After all, the Chief had helped me the previous spring, when mosquitoes swarmed from the bogs and took a special liking to my field. The time had come to pay my dues… the princely couple moved in to my cottage. We cleaned the chambers and brought a bed, a table, a bowl and a chamber pot… then again a bed, a table, a bowl and another chamber pot, as it turned out the princely couple had to have everything separately, even though they were a couple? I even felt slightly sorry for them because it must be so sad to do everything independently. It was as if they had scabies, symptoms familiar to The Bitten, who live, sleep, eat and shit alone because nobody in the village will have anything to do with them.

Nevertheless, The Prince and the Princess did not look unhappy and nothing seemed to wipe the smiles off their faces. Everything delighted them and their eyes became even rounder and more protuberant. They were enraptured by the petrol swamp, by small weeds growing on rooftops and even parts of broken machines in the half-dried river. The Prince was particularly interested in our bowls decorated with simple mosquito ornaments, and our coarse blankets embellished with mosquitty patterns and mosquito beads. The Princess was even more foolish, amply feeding the village mongrels with a dumb smile. After that the fat bastards were glued to the doorstep, sitting motionlessly in the afternoon sun, grotesquely enlarged by their own shadows. They barked impudently when I tried to chase them off. The amount of leftovers and potatoes they devoured was enough to feed a decent herd of pigs.

That being said, I had no time to worry about the dogs because the couple would not let us forget about them. Once, the dogs’ fleas attacked the Princess and she scratched herself so passionately and shamelessly that all the village men were distracted from their tasks and came to ogle at her. We had to send for Wise Abbe from the other village who came on his rusty scooter. Even though we paid him back for petrol we still owe him. And who knows what a wise man like Abbe might request in return?

Another time, the Prince wandered off and failed to notice a tuft of copper grass, even though everybody warned him about them. We found him crying in a bush and Crooked Widow had to remove all the leaf blades from his ankles and bathe him in precious mosquito ointment. She had to use such a huge amount— enough for a dozen children. Another time the Princess collected the green stones in a river and almost lost her chubby fingers. Thank God somebody noticed her before it was too late. But again we had to sent for Abbe.

We could not get on with any work because we had to keep an eye on them all the time. What was even worse, their obsession with mosquitoes started spreading in ever-widening circles. When they saw even the smallest mosquitty trace, drawing or a pattern, they immediately took out their prickly pencils and scribbled furiously in little notebooks. They spoke with such animation and excitement that the chirping sound of their language made our ears itch inside. They pursued their mosquito investigation restlessly but, fortunately, nobody wanted to talk with them about it. We all tried to brush them off, distracting them by showing other things. Initially, it worked with the scatterbrained Princess, who liked little shiny objects, moving toys and stationary. However, the Prince—aware of the our resistance—started feeding sweets to children, offering scented cigarettes to women and fragrant beverages to men. After a while, the venal locals broke, trading precious pieces of information for overseas goods. The princely couple had no shame and they even bothered the Bitten. The whole village fretted over it but the Prince and the Princess continued, measuring the Bitten’s knotted fingers and poring over the confusing signs on their skin. They touched and patted them, trying to invite them to my house …what a disgrace.

They even examined Stupid Ced, who is also one of the Bitten. Everybody knows that he only has himself to blame, because he went to the swamp on the day of Plague. The mosquitoes just did their thing. However the Princess carefully contemplated each sign on his skin and each knot in his fingers, whilst Stupid Ced grinned at her happily, baring his big horse-like teeth. He has not said a word since a day of the Bite. And thank God for that…

After the examination the princely couple did not leave the house for a few days. Village life went back to normal but work was heavy going, for everybody was full of grim forebodings. And we were right. When they eventually surfaced they were even more radiant than before. They proudly announced that they would save our village from the Plague. Everybody seized up with fear as only Stupid Ced and the dumbest of the village mongrels could not understand that nothing good could come out of it.

Everybody held their breath the next morning or rather around noon because the princely couple slept so long that Crooked Widow—the cook—managed to go to the fields, feed the kids, chase the dogs, and prepare a decent breakfast, all before they woke up. Our guests left the house when the sun was high in the sky, clad in silvery armour, looking like everything we imagined a princely couple to look like. Everybody gathered outside the house and people did not go to the factory again. The Princess took her helmet off and gave the most radiant of smiles, but our spirits did not rise. She announced that she and the Prince were to go to the mosquitoes’ nest, destroy them and free us from the Plague, so nobody would become Bitten again. Our life from now on would be calm and affluent they said. Again, I quivered in fear, hoping that they would lose their way in the thicket or get stuck in the bog.

We walked the Prince and the Princess to the gates of the village, screaming and lamenting. The children accompanied them to the end of the field and the yapping dogs to the black wall of the forest. But eventually even the village mongrels ran away with their tails between their legs. For hours the whole village froze, glancing nervously at the fidgeting thicket. The dogs gluttonously chased each other’s tails for they were now to fat to bend round and chase their own, but soon slumped in fleshy piles on the floor and wondered what we all were staring at.

Eventually, when it was growing dark, two silhouettes silvered against the dark backdrop of the forest. Even from a distance, we saw their radiant smiles which shone like the lanterns that announce the end of the Plague. They succeeded. The Chief sighed heavily and announced the celebrations. The feast lasted till dawn as our “saviours” were supposed to leave us the next morning.

The time had come to say goodbye to the princely couple, who kissed and embraced everybody… including the Bitten. The Prince threw golden coins into the crowd, The Princess was sobbing hysterically, feeding sweets to the children and shoving large chunks of meat towards the dogs. The dogs were howling, the kids were screaming and nobody went to the factory again.

After the dust clouds settled behind the carriage, we looked at each other in silence, for we all knew we needed to visit the mosquito’s lair. After forcing our way through the marshes, we found only empty quiet instead of the familiar baleful buzz. Dead mosquitoes were piled everywhere, evidence of their conquest. They crunched underfoot, whilst the wind blew them over each other with a quiet rustle. All of a sudden the Chief knelt down and picked something from the ground. Crooked Widow and Wide Abbe followed him. I too lowered myself to my knees and traced the few weak insects moving feebly in the grass. We spent the whole day nurturing them back to life. After one week the bog was buzzing again, resonant with mosquitoes.

The harvest was not plentiful that year. Wise Abbe spent the whole autumn removing the decayed teeth of the village kids fed sweets by the Princess. Stupid Ced, who had completely lost his mind, started pestering people on the street and the other Bitten—envious of his human contact— followed suit. We could think of nothing else but to chase them out of the village, bashing them with sticks so they knew their place. We had a few bloody skirmishes with the hungry village dogs that, spoilt on princely meals, had started hunting the old and the weak. We killed and ate some of them, but the most aggressive and virulent fled to the mountains under the command of a one-eyed spotted mongrel. From what we’ve heard, they are now hunting travellers there, which means that every time we need to visit the town, we must brave the mountain pass.

Eventually the seasonal Plague struck again… even the elders couldn’t recall a swarm that ravaged the village as much as this one. The enraged mosquitoes ambushed the fields in a furious, buzzing cloud. More than a dozen became Bitten that year.

The butcher from the other village said the Prince and the Princess moved on to the lowlands, to save new souls on the other side of the mountains. But would a wise man listen to him? Everybody knows that people from over the river lie through their teeth, so much so that if you ask the ill if they feel better, they prefer to die than tell the truth.