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?”


“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.

The Virtue of a Pigeon

I pass the same pigeon on my way to work each day. Her plumage is white with brown patches the color of wheat toast. When I approach her, she does not startle and bolt, or dodder around goofily like most pigeons.  She just calmly keeps doing what she is doing, pecking and scratching for whatever bounty city grass might provide.

Photo: Alexander James Stock Photography

Photo: Alexander James Stock Photography

But all pigeons are the same, you say.  They look the same and they act the same.  They even seem to think the same, with a collective consciousness that, like The Borg on Star Trek, give them no identity, no individuality.  But this one is different.

She has a beau, I think.  He’s a typical black-grey-and-white pigeon who is always nearby.  He’s the one who looks ready to burst into crazy-eyed flight when I walk past, but not her.  She’s the sensible one.

As a species, pigeons (Columba livia) suffer from a bad reputation.  Originally imported to this country for food, they’ve now become naturalized citizens, inhabiting the gritty spaces of urban America. A biology professor of mine once called them the rats of the bird world.  In some cities, peregrine falcons hunt them as a means of population control. People are happy to let this happen because falcons, after all, are much cooler than pigeons.  When I lived in Burlington, Vermont, in the early 1990s, the city government decided to poison the town’s pigeons but underestimated the dose.  For several days, dazed and dying pigeons wandered the streets like intoxicated homeless people.

Such malice arises from a contempt bred by familiarity. But if you can see beyond it, you’ll find that pigeons have their virtues too. For instance, they are amazingly skilled flyers.  Watch them slicing through narrow city spaces, under bridges and around cars, and you’ll know what I mean.  Also, they have the ability, thanks to their fantastic breast muscles, to become airborne from a standstill.  Imagine suspending your entire weight in thin air with a single downbeat of wings. It sounds impossible, yet pigeons do it every day.

That is not to say they are particularly smart.  In Burlington, a pair of pigeons would nest on the stone window sill outside the office where I worked.  The nest was spare, so their egg would essentially sit on the stone.  If the egg happened to roll off, they would just lay again in the same place.  Another time, in Oakland, California, my soon-to-be-wife and I were entering the courthouse to purchase a marriage license when we heard a dull thunk from above.  A pigeon flying full-throttle had collided with the large windows above the entrance, dropping dead at our feet.  We chose not to take it as an omen concerning our marriage.

Perhaps if pigeons were smart, they would become dissatisfied with their station in life and we would have a great pigeon revolt on our hands.  Cities the world over would have to mobilize to quash the rebellion.  Overnight, squab would become a featured entrée on restaurant menus.

But my pigeon seems happy.  She looks healthy, and perhaps that is happiness to a pigeon.  She has companionship aplenty in this town.  In addition to her suitor, pigeons by the scores socialize at virtually every public space with a statue where birds can congregate.

My pigeon most likely was born in this town and will die in this town.  She will raise a few babies and scratch out a living.  She will do what she can to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but her life will pass quickly by, not remarked by anyone.

Anyone except me, that is.  I’ve noticed her, and perhaps she has noticed me.  Each day, we nod greetings to each other and then go our separate ways.

Note: It has been several years since I first wrote this. My pigeon is most likely long gone.