by Eva Ferry
Imagine a country it would take you a whole night, from sunrise to sunset, to drive through. It is a young country too: even in the dark you can almost see strands of change flickering underneath the soil as it goes from arid crust to meadows to collected pine forest. At the end, at dawn, you feel rejuvenated. You could turn around and drive back the whole day long to where you started.
That’s how I thought it would be like the first time I drove through my country, from South to North, to see my family. It wasn’t. Things were changing underneath the soil, but they did so too rapidly or too chaotically, so that they ended up not being anything like they were supposed to in the first place.
After the first time, I decided that I would never drive through the country again, but save and buy a plane ticket. An airport had been built thirty miles from where I lived, another one forty miles from my parents’ house. It seemed a shame not to use them.
But one evening I made the mistake of phoning my mother.
“Isn’t Friday a bank holiday there in the South?,” she asked.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“See, I had lots of expenses this month. A sofa. Driving takes ages, and the plane -”
“I cannot believe you won’t even do that for us, Meri. And I’m not talking about myself - you won’t even do that for your father!”
What mum knew about the car trip is that it took a whole night; nothing more than that. There were other things that she didn’t know those days - that I had salvaged the sofa was from the flea market and that most of my salary those days went to theatre tickets (every two nights, for myself only). Sometimes, a gin and tonic too at my flat after the play. I too was young, new, ever-changing. I needed to develop some rituals. Theatre and gin and tonic I regarded as my first.
Those days, mums didn’t need to know those things.
The day after the phone call, I went round my flat gathering coins and notes. One coin I had to fish from a crack humidity had opened between the toilet and the floor. I then drove to the petrol station before my classes started and loaded up the deposit.
Before I set out I thought of my journey as a needle - a foreign body - penetrating into infinitely layered arteries. Some roads still smelt of tar, which excited my senses. So did, but in a different way, the pungent smell of cattle in others. Hundreds of hamlets stood between me and home. Those days hardly a week went past without some elder or another warning us from the television screen that hamlets were dying out as he spoke, and as I drove I marveled that a person could spout such drivel without seemingly any embarrassment - how could hamlets be on the verge of dying out, if I could almost see them sprouting as I drove?
I meandered some of the hamlets, cut right through others. Forged iron balconies, round mirrors placed high in narrow crossings for the benefit of drivers: they passed by too close to me, and every now and then I feared that they would smash my window, then my face.
A road brothel’s neon lights made me blink, then smile: they were so paltry, but also so comforting in the dark. I had always thought those places would reek of sex from miles away. My first trip across the country revealed that they didn’t.
I drove on. The grasshopper waited at the crossroads, like last time, as if she too had sprouted from the flux of that land. I breathed in and put my foot on the brake.
Long legs bent at the knee, long arms bent at the elbow under a light brown coat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1940s film, bulging eyes, narrow lips: a grasshopper, she couldn’t be anything but a grasshopper - but she was also a woman, chestnut hair tied up in a bun, thick, healthy skin - the skin of a peasant - starting to wrinkle round the sides.
The car came to a halt, and I opened the window.
“I’ve been waiting for you so, so long,” she whined.
“Are you alright?,” I asked. I didn’t know what else to say. Burgundy spots, like pansies, bloomed on the lapel of her coat.
“No. I managed to escape, last time. But they’re after me now.”
Like the first time, she ignored my question. She was too busy opening the passenger’s door, settling on the seat. I drove on. She pursed her lips, elongated hands clinging together. How could I send her away? She moved strangely, head bobbing from left to right. Soon, she became more confident of her surroundings, her left hand fondling the controls of the radio, carefully but purposefully, as if she had never seen one and nothing interested her more than studying the contraption in depth.
I felt sorry for her. But, at the same time, I didn’t trust her not to grab me with her elongated hands and pull out my legs and arms. I had done that to many grasshoppers in my childhood.
After about one hour, she fell asleep. Relief washed over me.
I focused on the road, miles and miles of newly laid gravel and tar - still granular, still fascinating, still interesting. This kept me away - as did the fear at the back of my mind that she might wake up and pull my arms and legs if she caught me off guard.
Three hours later, we bumped into her persecutors. They formed a green, lean, lustrous wall on the road in front of us.
They waited for us right after a sharp bend by a slope, where I wouldn’t be able to reverse (not that I would have thought to do it). The first time they just stood by the road and waved their hands at us.
The grasshopper opened her eyes as I slowed down.
“No!,” she shrieked.
My heart was heavy with sadness for her - but what could I do? It hadn’t the first time, because at that point I still didn’t know her. But it did the second, because I now knew that there wasn’t much that could be done.
The shorter and sturdier of her persecutors - the older, I thought - walked towards my car and bent forwards until his bulging eyes were at a level with mine. Like his colleague, he wore a worn-out hunter’s hat, a hunter’s jacket barely keeping straight on his piked shoulders. (Hunter’s jackets, I thought, weren’t made to be worn by grasshoppers).
“Good evening,” he spoke through the glass. “We understand you’re hiding a fugitive in your car.”
“No,” I blurted out.
“Oh, there is no need to collaborate,” he said. He sounded tired, bureaucratic. “See, in our country - we have ways to deal with fugitives.”
At a sign of his hand, him and his younger companion, whose legs alone stretched to my shoulders, opened our doors, enlarged hands penetrating the crack beneath the handle, then levering aptly. Their feet firmly planted on the tar, no amount of wrestling on our part was going to make them move, and so didn’t even make the first attempt. The old grasshopper’s palms grabbed my shoulders. His jaggy fingers encircled me under the armpits.
“Don’t do it,” begged the woman grasshopper.
“But - what about my arms? My legs?,” I objected.
“Please don’t do it.”
I looked down and closed my eyes and ears, and I was released.
“This won’t be the last time we see each other,” the old grasshopper warned me from outside the car.
Not long after that, I heard their car speed up with a growl and opened my eyes.
I believed him. Not only because the first time he had said that too and he was proved right. Something in his voice made you believe him without questioning.
I didn’t hear her yell this time. For a minute, I secretly nurtured hope. Maybe she knew she wouldn’t escape and found it useless to yell. Or maybe she was dead already, choking among her persecutors’ formidable hands. Maybe I wouldn’t find her again if I decided to drive across my country through the night a third time.
I didn’t want to find out.
Imagine a country that is best seen from a plane’s window. You spot the edges of a forest growing in a perfect circle, a village less perfect, still harmonious (like a drop). You see colours, lines, curves, shapes. The grain is gone, as is the change.
It is almost beautiful.
After my second encounter with the grasshopper, I gave up my first ritual. Instead, I saved so that I was never short of money for a plane ticket. Now I take a taxi to the airport and arrive in plenty of time, check in, have a back coffee while I wait. Then I sit back, I relax, I imagine a country.