Cicada Days

This is an excerpt from a short story I wrote after my town was visited by 17-year periodic cicadas, back in 2004. Since another brood has just emerged this year, I thought it would be good to share.

Annie waited for her father in the shade of the dogwood tree.  He would be home from work soon, so she sat on the concrete steps leading to her front door, listening to the cicada noise.  The insects made a sound that was remarkable to her five-year-old ears.  She listened closely.  Sometimes it was a soft, background whir; sometimes it was a loud, throbbing buzz.  Sometimes it was both, the sounds layered one on top of the other, creating a two-tone droning chorus of insects.  The buzz undulated in and out with a sonic frequency only the bugs understood.  The whir, though, was constant, continuing deep into the night long after the buzz had died down.

Annie watched the cicadas around her, on the tree branches, the bushes, the blades of grass.  There were always a few in the air, flying awkwardly, seeking a better place, one less crowded perhaps, or maybe one bright with insect life.  When a cicada would land at her feet, she’d hold her finger out to let it crawl onto her hand so she could bring it close to her eyes.  They did not seem to be very smart, she thought, as each would just stand on her hand or move slowly up her arm.  With a bulky body, black triangular face, round red eyes, long, orange-rimmed transparent wings, to her they were both fascinating and a little scary.  She’d let them crawl on her bare arm a few seconds, until she could no longer stand the prickly little insect feet against her skin, then brushed them off and watched as they flew on to wherever they needed to be.

On the steps in front of her, cicadas were scattered randomly here and there.  It was hard to tell the live ones from the dead until one moved.  There were so many dead.  Some never emerged completely, expiring while only half out of their skin.  Others appeared to be normal, except they were dead.  From where she sat, Annie could see the surface of the street that ran past the end of her driveway.  There, hundreds of bugs lay smashed by passing cars, their bulbous bodies flattened, their lifeless wings fluttering in the wind like feathers or leaves or maple tree seeds.

But even with so many dead, there were still enough alive to make the noise that surrounded her, that filled the hot, humid air.  It was impossible for her to know just how many cicadas were in the trees around her.  She imagined it was one creature that produced the sound, distinct from the goofy black bugs crawling around at her feet.  It was hypnotizing, and unbearable.  She closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears.

bug girlAnnie felt something touch the top of her head and she flinched, swatting with her hand.  She then opened her eyes to find her father standing on the step in front of her, stroking her hair.  She took her hands away from her ears.

“Hi, bug-girl,” he said, smiling.

“Hey Dad,” she greeted him.  Then, quickly, she said, “Dad, I gotta tell you something.”

“Yes, honey?”

“There are so many dead ones.”

“Dead what?”

“Cicadas.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “But there are so many more alive.  Millions and millions.  Think about that.  The dead ones aren’t so many, then, right?”

“Yeah,” Annie said. “But the dead ones still make me sad.”

“Don’t be sad.  It is part of nature,” he replied.  “It is how things are.”

She was quiet for a moment, watching a cicada crawl toward her father’s shiny black shoe.

“Nice shoes Dad,” she said.  “Don’t step on the cicada.”

She stood up and instinctively sought his hand with hers.  Together, they walked up the remaining steps to the front door of the house, threading their way through the insects.

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