In August, auditions for the Fall Pageant begin. Della sings beautifully, as everyone knew she would, but Amelia, Thomas, and Sarah are given the parts of the sweet fox family. A gaggle of boys are handed a set of pitchforks dulled at their points for their roles as farmers. Other Sarah is given the role of Rabbit, and Georgia, the Hare. A few girls are cast as their carrots, but that will require a small bit of dancing, so Della is not upset. But when the stalks of wheat and corn are cast, she knows that only one role is left for her—the Locust.
Each child is given a bundle of fabric and a set of sewing instructions to be taken home to their families. The fabric in Della’s hands is rough and angular. The wings, being the most difficult to make by hand, have already been set out and strung to a beam that does not billow out gracefully. Her flight as a locust will be indelicate.
Rehearsals begin immediately. The fox family is always the first story, and the three children step up to the stage shyly, as if they have slipped into their roles already. There is some concern among the teachers that the fox family should not be mother and father and child, so the three children become the kits of an offstage Mr. and Mrs. Fox. A large, stuffed chicken made of paper-mâché is rolled onto the stage, and the fox children are led through an elaborate chase that will be interrupted by the boy farmers when they take the stage. Then, the three foxes are ushered offstage for their individual singing lessons, and the other children are sent home.
Della goes to bed, having said nothing to her family about the results of the audition, listening to the angry trilling of insects outside of her window. She knows that this is the sound of cicadas, the familiar storm of the warm months, but in her drowsiness, the words storm and swarm are interchangeable, and both are overwhelming.
The next day, Della does not attend rehearsals. She goes to the creek near the school and waits until the time her mother usually expects her back home. At dinner, her mother does not say anything, though the teacher has already called her.
In the morning, the finished locust costume hangs from the staircase near the front door, an unspoken “Do not forget to take this with you.”
During the walk to school, Della holds the costume out in front of her with a locked elbow, but she gets tired of this and strings it over her back. Though she does not like the idea of the locust costume on her, overtaking her from behind, she finds that it is easiest to ignore this way. A car’s horn blares behind her suddenly, and a man leans out of the window to say something crude, but he is struck with a sudden confusion and sinks back into his seat, disappointed in this encounter. Despite being spared some withering insult, Della feels a sort of rejection. She goes through the creek because it will be more private.
Though there hasn’t been a storm in several weeks, the water of the creek moves busily along. Della imagines that it traces all the way to the sea, though she does not know the name of any sea or the fact that she is terribly far inland. She tugs the locust costume from her back and lets go of it. It falls undramatically into the water but is not carried off immediately. The water slowly travels over the fabric, overtaking it and pulling its weight down to the bed. There, it is caught against the rocks, and Della is suddenly aware that it may not be taken to the sea and drowned as she had hoped. She does not breathe. Finally, the current tugs it down the way, clumsily, slowly, perhaps open to bribery, though Della can think of nothing that the creek might want as payment.
At rehearsal, she says simply that her mother has not sewn it yet. Another call home will be made, the director says, and Della stands very still for the rest of rehearsal. The wheat-stalk children are excited to rehearse today, but they have not been dressed in their yellow costumes yet and are pleased with the time to play. They sit in a corner and fold papers into contraptions they can shove into each other’s faces and say, “Let me tell you your future.” A wheat-stalk boy tells Della that she is destined to eat wheat all her life, and while the boy had scribbled the possibility down with no purpose at all, it sours Della’s day all the same.
At the end of rehearsal, Della’s mother arrives at the school, arranging to pick up a new bundle of fabric for Della’s costume.
“I won’t ask what happened to the first,” her mother says kindly, and though Della doesn’t smile, it is a relief. “But I will see you wear this onstage at the end of the week.”
Della nods without looking up at her.
“If any harm comes to this costume, you will go up onstage naked.”
This is an empty threat. Once, Della had gone to school with a rip in her shirt that showed perhaps half an inch of her back, and her mother had fixed it that night, worried anyone had noticed. She had even sent Della to school the next morning with a set of store-bought cupcakes, which she was made to share with her classmates.
She walks Della and the newly-sewn costume to the school herself the next morning. When they enter the auditorium, the director is speaking with the music teacher. She turns around to see Della’s mother.
“Evelyn,” the director says warmly. Della’s mother nods curtly and holds the finished costume out.
The director beams in a way that Della has never seen before. “It’s quite beautiful. You’ll be the most beautiful locust there ever was,” the director smiles down. Della’s mother stares.
Della looks with new interest at the fabric, intrigued at the title of “most beautiful there ever was,” which she had never hoped to win. She thinks of the dance that the director has choreographed for her. Perhaps it will be a lovely flight after all. A ballerina’s leap across the stage. A hummingbird’s hovering.
“Evelyn, you’ve certainly spruced this up. Don’t you wish you had something this beautiful when you were the locust in our play?”
Della looks up to see her mother’s hands clasped together at her waist and the polite smile on her face. It is nothing to the whooping laugh that her mother is known to make at a game of cards. Her eyes remain careful and serene as she nods again. Della’s mother breaks the conversation to look down at Della and say, “Go on to class now.”
Della turns, but looks at the costume in the director’s hands and sees the rows of green and silver sequins that have been applied to the bodice. Emerald swirls into silver and then into the earth and chocolate of the legs. Ruffles of brown fabric were sewn on the sleeves and bottom hem so that they flounced with a little movement.
All day, she thinks of the costume.
When she gets to rehearsals, several of the girls compliment the costume. Della preens it excessively, taking a care that she would not have bothered with in other clothes, though her mother made those as well. Onstage, the wheat-stalk children dance to a song that praises the sun’s warmth and the soil’s scent after a long rain. Della waits patiently at the bottom step of the stairs, stretching her legs. She hopes that the dance will be intricate, and that she can keep up.
She is waved onstage once the wheat-stalk song finishes, and the wheat-stalk children are told to settle in place. They put their hands above them, and they move side to side to imitate the movement of wind. Della is pointed to a spot, and then follows the director’s instructions to weave in and out of the wheat-stalk children as they sing again. Della wants desperately to sing, but she is grateful for the circles she travels onstage.
“Wait. Della, girl, where are the wings for this costume?”
Della looks out at the director blankly. She puts a hand on her back to feel for them but finds nothing. The director’s eyebrow arches. “And here I was just this morning, complimenting your costume. I see that I shouldn’t have spoken so soon.”
Della is taken offstage by another teacher and told to sit. Her mother is called. What is said between her mother and the teacher is a mystery, though the director rolls her eyes when the teacher relays the message in a whisper. Della is told to walk home, though rehearsal is not officially over. She realizes that there is little to practice, given that her part does not speak. Her dance is not half as intricate as she has hoped.
In the living room, her mother has set up a sewing machine on a table in front of the television. She looks up briefly when Della enters, but says nothing. Her mother changes the channel to a children’s show, and on the screen, birds flit in the air, the pawing cat underneath them, sure to find higher ground.
“It’s just not done yet, is all,” her mother says finally.
Della is exhausted from the day. The wheel of excitement that had carried her throughout her classes and then swiftly disappeared at rehearsal left her happy to sit in the armchair. The birds on the show are brown, but have a strange, alluring puff of red feathers across their chests. It reminds her of how once she had blushed in class, and her teacher had called her “Rosy Della” for the rest of the day, and sometimes still said “Rosella” if she was in a mood and needed to be drawn out.
“Do you want to see it?” her mother asks. Della picks the skin around her fingernails. A commercial has replaced the Rosella birds, and there is nothing else to distract her. She looks begrudgingly at her mother who calls her over again with a little flick of her head.
When her mother sits at the sewing table, shoulders hunched over the work, Della is as tall as her. This fact was always a source of private laughter for Della, and mostly her mother didn’t mind that she was being laughed at. Today, Della’s mother tugs her until she leans closely against her mother’s shoulder.
Her mother takes a swath of fabric from the sewing needle’s grip and holds it out for Della to take. In her hands, the fabric glints weakly. It is light gray, and it does little to please Della.
“I’m putting these on,” her mother says, stopping any complaints before they can be made. In her hand is an oblong bead about the size of her fingerprint, and it appears like a shard of glass. Her mother flicks her wrist so that the piece turns several colors at once in the light, and then settles. “It will look nice when you fly.”
Della’s smile comes unwillingly and all at once. Her mother winks before craning her neck back down over the sewing machine. “It’s difficult to apply to the fabric,” she says, “but I’ll get it up and strung on the poles they’ve given me in no time.”
“What is it?” Della asks, picking up another piece of the bead.
Della’s mother shrugs. “I only just found them at the supermarket.” At the supermarket? Della wants to ask, but she knows that it does not carry beads of any kind. These were bought elsewhere, and for some sum that Della couldn’t imagine. So she says nothing and watches her mother’s fingers work deftly.
After a few moments, her mother says, “The wings will be a bit heavier now. What do you think? Can you manage it?”
Della nods, swimming in the kind of happiness that renders everything weightless.
“Well, alright,” her mother says with a single, whooping laugh. She gestures to the television, which has come back from the commercial.
Della rests her hand in the crook of her mother’s arm and watches, sporadically offering comments like, “The wheat-stalk children’s costumes don’t match,” or “Georgia says that there is a difference between a rabbit and a hare, but she won’t say what.”
“Oh?” her mother asks. “What a strange secret to keep.”
Della considers the realm of children’s politics and thinks, Yes, it is, isn’t it? But her mother quickly absolves Georgia of any wrongdoing.
“She must not know the difference. Perhaps her father told her, and she doesn’t remember.”
Della frowns, resentful of her mother’s unwillingness to participate in the activity of gossip. She goes to sit in front of the television again, watching a new show in which a family of frogs are at war with a family of swans over the lake they share.
During a commercial, she asks absently, from somewhere outside of herself, “You were the Locust too?”
“Yes, I was.”
“What was your costume like?”
“I didn’t have one. They said I made a convincing locust as it was.”
Della fingers the ruching of the material on the couch, but her eyebrows knit together. “I’m sorry you didn’t have a costume,” she says finally.
“It’s okay,” her mother says into the whirring of the sewing machine. Della turns to look at her, and her mother gazes back, saying, “I suppose I don’t know the difference between a rabbit or a hare either. If I knew, I would tell you.”
Image: Photo by Biodiversity Heritage Library, via Rawpixel.