By Michael Wehunt
Illustration by Linda Saboe
1. Certain broods of periodical cicadas emerge in either thirteen- or seventeen-year cycles. This is thought to be an evolutionary response to predation.
2. In this way, periodical cicadas, including the North American genus magicicada, rely upon predator satiation rather than defense in order to reproduce, clawing out of the loose earth synchronously in numbers up to one-and-a-half million per acre.
3. They bookend Paul’s time with Annie, singing as the boy first meets the girl. Years passing like water through his fingers, their offspring mourning her when it is their turn to sing from the trees.
The girl lay with her knees folded up toward the swollen night. “It’s different when there’s so many of them,” she said. “They sound like everything at the same time.”
The boy, just past nineteen and already half in love after the first sweet hour, watched their hands draw closer, a slow grace across the quilt laid out on the brink of the forest. He’d never met a girl so small and full of easy wonder. She couldn’t have been more than five-foot-two, and he wondered how it would be to fold her against him. Too often he let his eyes take quick sips of her face, the roundness of her cheeks even when she wasn’t smiling, the tight curls of her hair cropped close. His pale skin seemed to glow in the dark beside hers.
“I hear frogs,” he said, thinking of the creek alongside his mother’s house in Tennessee, “like the same one coming out of a million speakers.”
“Or all the phones in the world calling with terrible news.” She plucked at the quilt with her left hand, nearer to his hip. “But it’s peaceful, somehow.”
Behind them, buried in the cicada song, the clink of beer bottles and laughter. Three friends of hers, two of his, one of them mutual. The boy blessed the latter under his breath.
“Sleigh bells,” he said. “Your turn.”
“There’s a giant refrigerator. Skyscraper big. You can hear the hum underneath.”
“Oh God, Paul, you’re right. Don’t say that.” And she laughed, soft and almost a secret, a sound he would come to know better than his own. He would find himself waiting to hear it, hoping to coax it out of her.
“The emissaries have come,” he said, raising his arms. She slapped his thigh above where the skin met frayed khaki, laughing again, and returned her hand to the quilt, closer still to him. He let his fingers brush against hers with the faint electricity of new touch. They stayed like that for a while. He guessed part of them never left.
There behind the house it should have been a peaceable dark, waking to the chirr of hidden life, the sky close and damp and wide with stars cluttered in its net. Paul stood within and under it all thirteen years later, winding his courage into a tight knot before he returned to the house. He wished on those pitiless stars that somehow he could be wrong, that Annie had survived the birth. But she had not and the baby was crying again, like a wounded thing, drowning out the crickets even through the shut window.
He ignored it and leaned into the hot breath of the world, the weight of his decision. Fifteen days and he hadn’t been anywhere except the cremation facility. The phone in the house was unplugged and no one took part in his bereavement.
The clay urn lay on her pillow, her ashes nestled in the space her head had made. It was cold when he reached for it in his sleep. He didn’t know how to have anything but Annie. He just stood there at the mouth of the forest waiting for a sign, a music the infant could never penetrate. It had rained heavily all afternoon, cutting off the cicadas’ grand performance. The grass widened into a proper field to the west, where the last of the rose siphoned from the sky. He watched the gathered trees before him, northeastward, thinking that if he walked in a straight line he would emerge from the woods, some half hour later, in the place where he and Annie had once sat on a quilt. Before either had middle names or smells or gasps in the dark.
After a time, in among the scrub pines and oaks, the first cicadas tuned up, a hesitant, searching percussion. The crickets paused as though in the knowledge they would soon be overcome. Paul listened with a bitter clarity, having waited these thirteen years to hear them again, the milestone, the circle, but now it all had broken and caught him in its quick ruin.
Behind him from the house the baby wailed its thin siren, an unending shrill thread drawn through the evening fabric. Paul had given it until tonight, its original due date. Since its mother’s death had been scrubbed from its new skin, it had cried. Since he brought it home and dropped it into the crib, it had cried.
He ran his hands through his thinning hair, pulling it into vague distracted wings. His teeth clenched and he went back into the house, passing through the hallway and into the spare room. The baby’s pinched screaming face the violet of a new bruise. Paul looked down at it, his gut pained to be in here, pressed in by walls the color of muted cantaloupe, his and Annie’s dreams folded away in the low antique dresser and hanging as stars and quarter moons from the speckled ceiling. He’d hung that galaxy himself. His fingers squeezed the rail of the crib they’d picked out years ago just in case Annie got pregnant. The crib was a solid piece, good dark oak, but he wished to God it was empty.
He could only stand there so long in the noise and stink, peering down at the small shape of his wife’s upturned nose. Annie’s eyes, too, an inexplicable meeting of brown and pale gray, though its skin was closer to the cream of his own, with only a hint of Annie’s burnish. He felt one of the heavy black moments and cleared his throat, wet and ready, to spit on the baby. The verge, the tipping point, and at last he swallowed it back and fled the house wishing he could crave liquor the way some men did.
More cicadas had ratcheted into sound. Soon endless masses in crescendo, leveling off into the irrepressible monotone. Paul whispered all the things they sounded like. Washed in the tidal ocean of winding clockwork springs and burrs. He tried to make it feel like a baptism.
4. They live underground as nymphs for nearly all of their cycle, at depths of one to eight feet, feeding from the roots of deciduous trees along the eastern swath of the United States. On a spring evening, the signal warmth sinking down far enough into the soil, they carve exit tunnels to the surface. There they roost, immobile and entirely vulnerable, upon tree bark, porch eaves, the planks of barn walls. There is all the time in the world for them to fall prey; they have given their bodies to chance.
Toward the end of that first night, they made a list of what the cicadas called to their minds. He used a receipt he found in his pocket, the ink long rubbed away with friction. They added faraway screeching tires, new chalk on blackboards, rusted robot armies. A dozen others, each more grasping than the last, wondering what the insects thought of all those years waiting in the dirt.
On the yellow rim of dawn — their friends long steeped in alcohol, slumped in beds back in the farmhouse — he looked away from her into the trees, anywhere but right at her, and almost asked her what a girl like her was doing in Blairs, with only nine hundred other folks. He’d only come for a job referral at the Mazda plant in Danville. But instead he asked if he could see her again.
“How long will these little guys be around?” She swept her arm toward the woods. They stood for a moment picking out the red-eyed cicadas coating nearby trunks like scales in the waking light.
“I can find out, if it depends on them.” He turned to her now. She looked up at him and he surprised himself with a smile that felt almost sly. Sweat gleamed on their skin even at this late hour, the two of them in the humidity so long they would each look somehow different to the other the next time they met, fresh and clean.
“Better hurry. Cause if not we might have to wait until they come back.” She grinned. “The return of the emissaries. Would you wait that many years for me?”
He nodded, tried to look serious. “I feel like I would.”
“Then we’ll see.” He took her hand for a moment — as small as the rest of her, the palm almost stark white, as though his fingers were bleaching it — then let her drift into the morning. The beatific grin he’d been holding back was at last able to bloom. He heard her truck cough and grumble, listened to the crunch of gravel under the tires until the cicada song covered it all.
The two of them like the stylus of the record player they would buy in three years, lifting itself from the crackling vinyl and easing back onto the outer edge. From the start, woven into the cycle.
5. And so the singing. Different species each produce a characteristic call, but generally it is all considered soothing, contemplative. Many nature sound audio compilations feature cicada song.
6. The female possesses tympana, membranes stretched across a frame to detect sound. The male, alone equipped with tymbals, calls to her, muscle pushing against the hollow cavity to produce four to six thousand clicks a minute.
He took a shovel with him into the trees. In the overwhelming rattle of song he remembered a story Annie had told him years ago, of her parents getting lost on an island. She’d heard it equidistant in time, a year after her father died and a year before emphysema took her mother to be with him.
Her parents had honeymooned in Acadia National Park. They stood on beaches of stones shaped by eons into smooth eggs. Hiked through October forests, the violent and vast Maine colors a second ocean hissing like fire against the first.
Well before dawn on the second night, having not slept — Paul could hear Annie’s laugh as she remembered how her mother blushed at this part — the newlyweds decided to climb Cadillac Mountain, from which they would be among the first few in the country to see the sunrise. A thunderstorm wrapped the island as they ascended. They sought cover in a denser part of the forest and did not find their way out of the surprising wilderness until two days later, hypothermic and weak with a bittersweet anecdote.
Nature had swallowed them. It had given them back.
The idea of losing his way even on an island soothed Paul as he loosened the earth beneath the pine straw and flung it away. He longed to be lost. But though he dug within an impressive acreage he knew where he was. The compass needle swung in his mind. He closed his eyes and spun in a slow circle with his arms held out, the shovel gripped in one fist. When he stopped, swaying like a clapper in a great bell of sound, he sensed direction. The house was now to his right, and he felt a sudden urge to check on the baby. It hadn’t been fed since yesterday. He hadn’t touched it since yesterday.
But he returned to his digging. The cavity deepened at the base of a tree, from the size of his wife’s urn to a womb in which he might curl himself, and he imagined he could trace the tunnels the nymphs had dug on their way to the air and the light.
He wished he could see Acadia — so close to cicada he felt he should — hunched across Mount Desert Island, a place made of images that wouldn’t fit together in his mind. Blairs, a pocket town of four sparse wooded miles, was the farthest north he’d ever been. He and Annie had often walked the length of it, never once pretending they were leaving it behind. He thought of her parents huddled beneath the old growth canopy, grains amidst the earth, telling each other they were okay, if they only walked in a straight line they’d have to come to the ocean. But how real was a memory when those who had lived it were all gone, when the only one to carry it had lost the last link in their chain?
He stopped and looked back toward the house. The baby was a part of that chain, if only an end to it. He imagined himself telling the story to it one day and his mouth went sour. The taste could have been disgust or guilt or an impotent rage. It was hard to know anymore.
He would have given anything to hear the secret laugh one last time. Annie, Annie, Annie. He called to her, his voice nothing like a song in the roar of cicadas, and listened to them repeat it, rippling out into the world in millions of waves. Knowing that even were he to see her among the trees, she would be mute, unable to answer as herself or anything on their list.
Other, sweeter music scored those good years in between. The cicadas became their story, their glue. When they moved into the house, he found a weathered shadow box and set it on the fireplace mantel with their old scribbled receipt leaned back inside. As if it needed space to breathe.
Their jobs down in Danville, prosaic but satisfying, filled the days. She managed accounts at the bank and he made passenger doors for a hatchback coupe. They carpooled and met for park lunches. Cold nights they would play dusty records, lie pressed together on that same old quilt and plan, those plans full of little feet running through the house. For too long those plans were a few shades brighter than reality but no less considered or warm there by the fire.
On the top corners of the frame hung two cicada husks. She liked to tell him that was what he looked like before he met her.
7. Having left behind the brittle souvenirs of their exoskeletons, they sing and respond with little pause, continuing to embody pacifism, benign to predators and bystanders. Defense mechanisms are typically absent (see predator satiation).
8. They exist in the open for up to six weeks, a brief coda in such contrast to their lives within the dark soil.
He had no stories of his own parents with which to stall his return to the house. Just more Annie moments, Annie events, all those pieces he couldn’t see yet through the glaze of anger. His father was an absence, less than a ghost, and he hadn’t spoken to his mother in ten years, since the afternoon when she had blurted out that, honestly and before God, Paul could do so much better than a black girl. Silence like the inside of a seashell filled the kitchen as he stared at her back, and for a minute there was only the mutter of frying eggs in the pan where she stood at the stove.
He was born a bit after the sixties, he told her. Unlike here in Knoxville (or more likely just this house), in his flat little part of Virginia there was such a thing as progress. And why hadn’t she cleared the air during the past three years, even if it would only add her stink to it? Dad was as white as she was and he hadn’t exactly seen him around in the past decade.
The pan had somersaulted toward him, the eggs hitting the floor and a rope of vegetable oil spattering his bare shins. He left his suitcase in the upstairs room — his old posters still on the wall, only the fresh wall calendar marking the years — and was back in Virginia before dark, pressing Annie against his chest.
At that, he wrenched shut the valve of memory, plucked a cicada off the bark of a pine, held it close to his face. Red eyes like fish eggs, tapered bullet body under the cellophane wings. It did not move but to sing between his fingers, martyred to the fate Paul would give it. Its muffled clicks tapped like hummingbird heartbeats against his skin.
He placed it back on the tree then crushed it with the flat of his hand. It popped as he ground it against the rough bark, showing his teeth. “It’s not just the baby that did it,” he said. “Why couldn’t she get pregnant until just before you came back?”
Soon the first tree was smeared with their innards, like weeping sap, so he moved to another. As each of the insects broke open under his palm, he thought of the birth. Three weeks early but smooth sailing, the doctor assured them, Annie’s breaths coming as even and forceful as a locomotive. Until the blood. He saw it bloom on the white sheet between her legs, saw her wide eyes darting, finding him, pinning him with her dawning fear that something was wrong.
He stumbled from tree to tree. He’d stumbled into the hallway outside the delivery room, shoved out by a nurse as Annie’s shouts thickened into something deeper and the doctor began barking orders. The door swung in an arc and through its weakening gaps he watched the blood. It pattered on the floor and he only thought of hot oil from a pan here, now, hammering his fists at the impossible numbers of cicadas, the patient emissaries. He did not know if he was prey or predator, for they sang on without acknowledging his presence.
The faithful compass led him right into his own yard, the house looming, the baby’s cries finding every crack in the walls and sills and leaking out to him. The shovel fell from his hand. “I have to feed it first,” he said, and didn’t recognize his own voice through his hoarse sobs. “I have to feed it, at least.” But he passed through the kitchen into the living room, where he grabbed the shadow box from the mantel and hurled it into a wall. A cicada husk landed in front of him and he relished the dry crunch of it under his boot.
He turned back to the kitchen but stopped, looking down at the quilt spread out on the floor, waiting. He wadded it into a checkered ball and stood squeezing it, looking down the hall toward the spare room.
For a long moment he considered leaving the hole he’d made in the forest an open wound. He could strap the baby in the carrier, the tags still hanging from its handle, and drive the six hours to Knoxville. Leave it on the doorstep so its grandmother would bear the fruits of her bigotry. But he pictured the blood pooling on the shining tiles of the delivery room floor as the door sighed toward and away from him. His arms too numb to even reach out and push it.
He walked down the hall and stood in the guest room doorway, watching the wailing silhouette in the crib. The smell of it clouded the air with rank sweetness. He moved his arms forward and the quilt eclipsed the baby. Better if he couldn’t see. When he pressed the quilt down over it, a blessed silence resounded until the cicada song crept into the room. He tried to bare his teeth again but couldn’t.
There was not enough life in it yet to struggle. But the muscles in his arms strained as though wrestling a feral thing. Could he blame it for wanting to be born, even as it left the husk of its mother behind? Could he blame the cicadas for the same blind need? He carried this blame with him, a thing of such grave weight, as if to fit it into every mold to find where it belonged.
He lifted the quilt away, for a moment certain it was dead. His heart stuttered and fought to regain its rhythm. When the baby’s face twisted and the cries burst out of it louder than before, he wept with a relief that awed him. He should feed it first. Wash it. He owed that much to the future he and Annie were supposed to have.
9. But in that coda, they, like all things, live so that their young may live. They have tapped into the slow vein of evolution for their young. It is why the male sings. It is why the female listens to the words.
After the bottle of formula was gone, he ran an inch of warm water in the tub and laid the baby down, cupping a hand behind the soft down of its head. Its cries were reedy, magnified in the tiled space. One by one, stained washcloths filled the small wire trashcan beside the sink. His cheeks burned with shame at the angry rash coating the insides of its legs, at the clotted brown bathwater swirling down the drain. He wrapped the baby in a towel and sat on the toilet, patting it dry. “Her,” he said. She lay across his lap, curling her fingers. “She.” One of his eyes was visible in the bottom corner of the mirror. He returned its stare for a long time, thinking of links in chains.
He came out of the bathroom, the baby clean and soft and fitted into the crook of his arm. She had fallen into silence, her eyes closed. He looked through the picture window, where the trees were indistinct as ink clouding the bathwater. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked.
The cicada song was muted inside the house but still persistently there. He focused on the open hum underneath. Did they long for light all those years, of air to hold their song? “I would have to give you a name,” he said, lifting the baby so that her smell filled his nostrils. Soap and something else he couldn’t name. Annie had refused to trade suggestions for names; she insisted on waiting until she saw their daughter for the first time. The baby would name herself in that moment. One word, Alina, opened in his mind like petals. It was a nice name, he thought. Annie would love it, would say it had a little of both of them in it. But he couldn’t bring himself to pronounce it, feel the wings of it in his mouth before setting it loose.
“What am I supposed to do?” he said again. His lips touched the curve of her forehead. He left them there, humming a refrain that was part melody and part memory. His mouth against her fresh raw skin, he felt his own semblance of song vibrate against his teeth. He tried to imagine keeping the baby for thirteen years, tried to picture her in some far morning, the very first to see the sunrise glance around the rim of the world. Finally he looked up and out the window, said into the green darkness, “I could do that. Then they’ll come back. Then we’ll see.”
10. In the minutes after molting, their wings inflate. The white bodies soon darken with life.