Issue 112, Winter 1989
In the late spring, at the end of a day that was marked by nothing in particular, something just under the surface of the ground changed. Some degree of warmth was reached, or some level of moisture. Something vague and ill-defined became essential and made its way like a signal along the lace of tree roots in the backyard. By the next afternoon, the ground was pocked with small holes and the trees were full of cicadas which had emerged from underground cocoons as nymphs, wrestled out of their fifth and last impermanent skins, and, with perfect and mature tenacity, attached themselves to branches. Late in the day, the cicadas got in a few good minutes of song. Echoing between four young trees my father had planted the year before, the rasping crescendos of this insect declaration suddenly filled the backyard with a great noise. We stood as a family at the kitchen window. There was nothing to see except the last wash of daylight giving over to night. When, all at once, it was black outside, the cicadas were silent.
They were screaming again when I woke the next morning. It was their first full day as adults. When I came out of my room, my father was walking resolutely down the stairs. Without breaking stride he lit his first cigarette of the day The plume of smoke shifted in his wake and rolled up the stairs as he continued down to the back door. I joined my mother in the kitchen. She was at the window in a long cotton wrapper, her arms held tightly around her waist.
“What’s Daddy doing?” I asked. I leaned on the windowsill and pressed my nose to the screen.
“Don’t get too close,” she said, releasing one of her arms to pull me back.
“Why?” I asked, trying to shrug off her hand.
“I just don’t like those bugs.”
“Mom, there’s a screen.”
“Just don’t get too close,” she said. But she let me be; my father had come into view.
He was wearing his pointy leather shoes and his tailored brown suit which had a sharp iridescence, like the back of a Japanese beetle. He looked strong and careless, and his suit shimmered as he walked. He looked out of place in our backyard which was new and unadorned. The four trees defined a box inside the box shape of the yard. Along the property line were shrubs which someday would be beautiful and give us privacy. They were green tufts now; one or two of them had a few flowers sticking out at angles. My father looked at them impatiently as he approached one of the trees.
“My God, they’re awful looking,” my mother said.
“Daddy said they don’t bite or anything.”
“Maybe not, but, my God, they’re ugly.” She pulled her arms more tightly around herself. “And they have a very funny smell. Do you smell it?” I took a deep breath but I didn’t smell anything.
Outside, my father was standing under the pin oak whose branches usually had the delicacy of a pen and ink drawing. Now they looked gnarly, abraded. It was the cicadas, sucking sap and shrieking. My father stared up into the small canopy of the tree. His cigarette was clamped in his teeth and he was squinting against the smoke rising into his eyes.
“He’ll go deaf, for God’s sake,” my mother said.
The trunk of the tree was studded with the abandoned skins of the cicadas. Even from the kitchen, through the screen, they looked ghostly: perfect replicas of the insects, but empty and silent. My father brushed some of the skins away. They shattered and floated to the ground glinting in the sunlight. He grasped the tree trunk, so narrow his fingertips almost touched, and shook. His body rocked with the force he unleashed against the tree. For a minute, the tree itself was still, but then it began to undulate: from the trunk under his hands to the uppermost leaves as if it were a piece of stiff cloth being unfurled. My father leaned into the task and made the branches dance.
I began to hear a different sound inside the cicadas’ scream: a dull scratching that had silence in it as well. It was the insect-laden branches rattling against each other. Slowly, as one by one the insects put all their energy into hanging on, the rattle replaced the scream. In all the other trees the cicadas were singing, but in the pin oak they had been quieted. Now, they made an unwitting noise, a clumsy music. My father shook harder. Suddenly, as if the signal had come up from the roots into the sap, the cicadas burst from the tree. They rose like a fiery explosion and then converged into a sinuous plume, their wings crackling, as they followed each other to a different roost. My father shook the pin oak until it ran dry of the insects and settled back into its own green. Then he moved to the next tree and the next until each of the four young trees was unburdened. Each tree sent up its swarm in a huge burst and with each burst the air came to life and then stilled into the hot blue morning which went on being full of the cicadas’ scream.