Wherein it is shown that patience might be a virtue, were we to wait long enough to find out.
When, midway through their evening meal, the company had begun reminiscing about foods they wished to eat again, once they could return to the stores and buy anything they wished, the cook began his tale.
He had overheard the story from his children’s swim instructor, who had begun to teach swimming online after her epiphany: if her ex could be a dry drunk, her students could be dry swimmers.
Goggles and swimsuit were optional, water was extraneous, drowning impossible. None of the parents bothered to watch, as they did poolside, anxiously trying to interpret erratic flailing motions, asthmatic coughs, and sudden plunges while their eyes flitted from child to child, unsure which was their own. The cook looked up sometimes from the cabbage and squash he was dicing—he noted in the background other parents on sewing machines, sifting flour, or sharpening knives—and listened.
One girl used a blue yoga mat as her water. Another had a beach towel. A boy was in what looked like a yurt and wearing a fur hat with flaps. In the screen square beside him a boy stood in a bathtub with a full-face snorkel mask, for which the instructor admonished him.
Today we are going to learn how to breathe while you swim. But first, I will demonstrate how to use your arms. This is freestyle.
She raised her short sleeve, revealing her tattoo—Don’t Sink, Swim—and pointed to her tricep. This is all you use, this muscle here. Everything else is relaxed. Your shoulders down.
You do not cup your hands. This is not 1952. Look at Michael Phelps—your hand is flat, fingers together, your wrist is firm. Your hands are there to balance you in the water. Same with your feet. She demonstrated a few strokes in the air, firm, convincing.
When you need to take a breath you go up as your hips turn, your body rolls, you open your mouth, you close it before your hips shift back. You have to be patient. If you are patient, water won’t get in your mouth.
Do you know what patience is?
Waiting, one boy said, before the others could speak.
The instructor waited. No one else spoke. After a minute she said, That’s patience. Not rushing. Letting it come to you.
Patience is a virtue. Do you know what that means? It means it’s good. It’s a good thing. You want to have it. Can anyone think of a time you have been patient?
When I was sick.
Waiting for cookies to come out of the oven.
Waiting for my birthday.
Uh-huh. When is your birthday?
I see. That’s four months. That’s a lot of patience. Good. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story I read in a book when I was a child, but I don’t know what the book was. I’m going to call it The Three Farmers. They lived in the Fertile Crescent. The Cradle of Civilization. That’s where life started to get complex. People started to depend on each other in complicated ways. Like if you don’t pay for this swim lesson, I don’t have enough money to pay the rent, and then my landlord can’t fix his septic system and there’s poop everywhere and yuck, right?
So back then in the Fertile Crescent there were three wheat farmers. The year before had been a bad harvest, there had been a plague of locusts, and at the end of the summer the locusts laid eggs and died and now the eggs were waiting to hatch again, just in time to destroy this year’s harvest.
The locusts are patient, one girl spoke up.
Yes, the instructor laughed loudly, yes they are.
I don’t think it counts if they didn’t know they were waiting, a boy argued. Like if you are sleeping. Sometimes I try to sleep so I don’t have to wait. Like for school to start.
You can’t sleep for a year, the girl said.
Right, the instructor said. So the farmers consulted the wise man, every village had one, always a man, and the farmers were men too, that’s just how it was, somehow they muddled through, and the wise man said, Plant your wheat crop two months late this year. Prepare beside your fields nesting spots for the locust bird—I don’t know what kind of bird that is, but they eat locusts, this is me talking, not the wise man—and when the birds have hatched and fledged—meaning they can fly—they will eat the baby locusts before they can ruin the crop.
The farmers grumbled about waiting two months, because there was a risk the crop wouldn’t be ripe before the nights got too cold. One of the farmers decided not to wait, another waited just one month, and the third waited the whole two months. They all built rows of straw-lined birdhouses on poles and soon the locust birds were nesting all around the fields, and the nests were full of eggs.
The first farmer kept checking on the eggs, and after a week he thought something was wrong and maybe the shells were too tough for the birds to open. So he cracked one and saw the shriveled form with its folded wings and wet feathers, have you ever seen that? Uh-huh, so you know what I’m talking about. He decided he had waited too long, and the bird had drowned inside the egg. He cracked all the other eggs, and he had waited too long for all of them. None of the chicks lived.
But— one girl began. The instructor held up her hand. We’ll get there.
Another farmer waited two weeks and the eggs hatched, and he watched the parents bring grubs to the nest, but as days went by and the nestlings did not fly, he looked at their small wings and worried they were atrophying, getting weak, from lack of use. The feathers were still soft, like plant starts that haven’t been hardened by the sun and wind. He pushed one from the nest and it fell to the ground without using its wings. He rushed from nest to nest, afraid it would be too late for all the others, and pushed the baby birds out, and they all fell to the ground and didn’t move. He had waited too long.
No he hadn’t, the children stamped and shook their heads. The instructor held up her hand. Patience.
The third farmer waited for the fledglings to fly on their own, and they swooped over the fields just as the eggs were hatching into little baby locusts, and ate them all up. Success, right? But by then the locusts from the others’ farmers’ fields had hatched and they began to grow and soon ate up all their wheat and then came after the third farmer’s field. His birds could not keep up with them all, now that the locusts were ten times as big and ravenous, and only a small part of the harvest was saved, and the wheat kernels were smaller because the crop had been planted late. So the farmer had only enough to save for seed for the next year.
The first and second farmers said, See, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we had waited. The birds couldn’t do anything against the locusts. We will all starve anyway.
They could eat the birds, the yurt boy said. Or the locusts.
They could sift the bugs out of last year’s flour, one of the girls said.
They could dig up roots, the other said.
Do you want to hear what they did? the instructor asked.
But before she could finish the story, three of the children were called to wash their hands so they could eat eggless date-paste cookies, pickle sunchokes, and punch down the bread dough before it rose one last time.
Only the boy in the yurt was still on the screen, objecting to the plate that had been put in front of him. He didn’t want sausage.
It’s different from yesterday, the father was saying. I did something different to it.
I’ll eat it, the instructor said. Pass some to me.
It’s our goat, the father explained, his face looming larger and larger in the screen until all the cook could see was the black rectangle of his pupil, deep enough to drown in.