Summer of the Cicada
It is just past sunset when we breach, Husband and I. But breaching only delivers us from the dirt; it takes more light than the yellowed haze of dusk to pull ourselves fully free. It takes wide swaths of bark and the slowdive of leaves to become unbound from our larval skin, more sturdy than the frail pink skin of ourself from the time before. It doesn’t slough off the way we thought it would; we weren’t sure what to expect. Time means less to us now than it did when hours were still the measure that ruled us. Husband doesn’t understand hours. It seems less important to reach backwards to explain hours than it does to just move forward together without them, so we focus our effort on breaking away from our shell, instead of the human measure of time it takes. Because we are something separate now. Separate of human, separate of hours. Separate of skin. Separate of all but Husband, and this fire inside.
After so long in the dreaming beneath the dirt, digging up to meet the air is grueling, and it is only the beginning of our labors. Molting is not without its pains. Made strong from feeding on thick root juices, our digging legs are bound to this effort. The cracking of our ribs echoes inside and bounces back outward again. From our shell borne of the earth, we dig ourselves out a second time. We feel each break of our husk as we tear ourselves away, wing from shell, shedding the last bits of nymphal casing and skin ribbon that has held us together for so long. We peel ourselves away, each leg and thorax like papery layers of onion. When we free ourselves fully, the moon is fat and white as larvae hanging low over the spread of live oaks, cresting the bottom sweep of the sky. Hours are just notes in a song we’ve forgotten. Time is the melody that echoes inside our rib cage but goes nowhere; just bounces back off our shell, and ricochets back inward before softening, and falling back into forgotten. We emerge bigger than we ever could have been alone, strong and fearful in our beauty. We are perfectly complemented, as nature intended us to be. However long it takes to unfurl our wings doesn’t matter, because now we have wings to unfurl, and our whole life cycle to finish this song. Hours don’t matter anymore. All that matters is now, when we have shed our skin for the last time, when we climb to higher ground.
We hear singing, all around, courtship ballads, love songs, a joyful chorus rising up into the heat, in praise of summer, to the glory of humidity, hallelujah to the trees that feed. Hosanna, Hosanna, Husband’s chirps to me, for my song is different, sung only for me, for me, for me, the wife he chose, those years before we went underground. His song for me rejoices in our union: consecrated in mud, we who have already exchanged our vows and become one, like the beautiful moon rising over a crown of oaks on the ridge. Husband promised me a gift. Though it would take years to make good on it, never did I doubt that when the summer marked its return path to the ground of our marital bed, he would keep to his word. He would know our anniversary, without knowing things like hours or days or years. He would present his gift to me, just as he said he would, when he took me to wife and made us into something altogether new. We are born again, together, when we breach. Nature’s fearful symmetry, our union.
Before we, there was me. I did not know how simple was my construction, how flawed and fragile. How paltry were my wants; how small in their size and scope. How narrow was my world, pink and skinned and deaf to the lovesongs ringing out, bringing glory to the heat of the summer nights. Strong men are not soft, but soft enough to break, when formed in flesh. And so was I, when formed as such: a soft woman of pith and pink, her skull split like a melon under one blow. One last thought of mine, scattered like seeds in the compost heap: This should not have happened to me. This thought, swallowed hot and angry by earthworms, as though my subterranean handmaids, carried on their sweet breath to the world beneath the dirt. To the deep, to the deep, to the deep, they carried my last thought to Husband’s brood, itself a body beneath.
Husband saw the strike that split me, spirit from soft pink. He had already lived underground and shed his husk—he was already fully formed and singing songs of courtship out into the hot night, singing to find his wife, when he saw me struck down on the canopy road, split from the fallen pink and floating. Blind to the moon and stars, deaf to his song. Husband saw me suspended between two worlds, tethered to neither, and he fell in love with me on the spot, lost in the air and invisible to all but his red eyes. He called out to me—called out to his strong brothers—Sound the alarm! Ring the bells!—Strong man heard only the pitch, not the tenor. Not the message. Not the verdict. Not the warrant for justice. For that, we would wait patiently.
I had wanted to leave the trailer. I had wanted a life less narrow than a doublewide. One more human measure, carving the world into smaller increments than the borderless horizon visible to the five red eyes of cicadas. I had wanted wings and was punished for dreaming of flight. Strong man divorced me with the blunt edge of a shovel and wrapped me in a tarp that would become a bridal gown. Dressing me to meet Husband, who cared nothing about the rings given by skinned men to the wives they punish for wanting wings. Strong man dug a hole to lay me down. This was the last I knew of hours: that time wrapped in tarp, when Husband flew from his perch on the pecan tree that never bore fruit, until the years we spent beneath it. From the safety of his branch and his brothers, Husband flew to me, wriggled his way into the tarp wrapping the body I no longer had use for, and pulled his wings around the part of me hovering close to the life that I had lost. He pulled his golden wings tight to me, and pushed me into his abdomen, then crawled us between the blue lips that had once been mine, cool and still now. Together, as we should be. Between those dead lips, he trilled to me in the low pitch of courtship, his vows to me a song, woven into the rhythm of a shovel, hitting earth and stone.
All wives should want wings, Husband whispered, crawling between the cooling edge of my lips, I can see across your borderless horizon. I will never punish you for your desires, Wife. Though he has taken your blood, on my wings I will carry you.
Folklore says that Husband and his kin do not eat, but that is not the truth of it. I was not a body built to feed on. No bones fashioned in oak, no heart sculpted in cypress, no muscles carved in maple. I began as bone and skin and hair, just merry ribbons on a body breakable, a frame fragile. Husband’s digging legs embraced me under the dirt, and found my impractical flesh full of sap. Though I was not made of the right materials to nourish him, nature always finds ways to adapt. Patience, Wife. Husband chirruped, from inside my motionless lips to the parts of my ear that could no longer hear the faded sounds of the world above. I promise your skin will not be wasted. This flesh will be used. No part of you will be forgotten. You will have your wings. Finally, in feeding us, my form became something useful, and we began again together as this something else. Something stronger. Two skeletons turned outward into armor, jointed to one another, and after our years together underground, emerged winged. Husband said that I tasted sweeter than a field full of flowers.
We are still, underground. We forget what hours mean, how they become days, how years are marked by seasons. Summers pass and we wait, while other brothers and their wives breach the surface. My eyes spread and refashion themselves, like my limbs and sap before them. No more are those eyes the brown of autumn bark covering oak. Red now, like the ember glowing inside, feeding the flame of our hate. On the top of my human head, along the seam where its skull split, three new eyes open; the better to see across borderless horizons. We see backwards now, above, and all around: soft, sweet dirt, where strong man laid us, hiding his sin from the world. My new eyes are little rubies, studding the crown of my head, set wide to perch on the place where once my cheeks flushed at the attentions of skinned men. How beautiful have we become. These red eyes, another gift from Husband: given with a promise to raise us from this dirt, instead of packing us down into it, as punishment for dreaming of flight.
We cannot start digging towards the heat and air until it is our turn, when our wings are strong and full. It takes time for them to grow, but we cannot tell the measure of it, nor does it matter. Above, where time is ruled by hours, strong man forgets, after hours become days where we are not missed. After seventeen summers, spinning stories about my flight to the city, fictions told time and again are made truth. He does not hear our whispers. His eardrums cannot register the pitch of our voice anymore. We are now an echo chamber, an amplifier for song—not calling or courting, no signal to noise, but instead a dirge that builds to a fugue, a song for vengeance.
The last strips of pink peel away like dry bark, as thin as ribbons of birch. Our wings are still wet when the last parts of our former bodies are left behind on the ground where we have breached. We have no use for those. The empty, nymphal skin of us remains under the tree where we have hatched into our new body. When we emerge as a nymph, we rise up from our underground burrow: we climb up trees, lampposts and walls to shed our skin and fly away fully formed. We crawl out from underground, where we have been hiding in the darkness. Together with our brothers and their wives, we dry our four wings and call out to each other. All our seasons underground have mated our movements. Wordless, together we stir. We tuck the short, opaque hind wings up, fanning out our forewings, admiring what we have become—they are glassy and transparent, a network of sturdy veins like glass—strengthening all that we are. Emboldened by the ember inside us that calls out to the humid night. When we feel steady, we move together, one mind with one will. We fill the skies and forests as we swarm.
The beating of our wings in symphony is a thrum we remember from the time when the sap feeding Husband was still blood. How it rushed its course, like summer storm waters through the flood planes. We fly up into the skies to see how far these wings will carry us. There are no measures to describe the sky. No way of carving it into smaller pieces from its whole. We fill our wings with sky and surge up. Stars and moon, pale as grubs against the witchy sheet of night behind us. The heat feels better on our new body than it ever did on our pink skin. This feels like electricity, the cool rush of wind against summer heavens. Before these things felt like they hung, still as the bones we left behind in the dirt. Into the neverending dark path cut from midnight, we fly, before circling back to where our brittle bones are buried. We perch in top throne of the pecan tree. We hide ourself between the leaves to watch. Our brood flocks to the oaks and power lines, the telephone poles and magnolias, all over the vinyl siding of the trailer. Verse by verse, we sing out to the night, to the heat, to strong man inside the trailer. Five ruby eyes see so much farther than our two brown ones ever knew possible. We are grateful to Husband. It is only in the forgetting of hours that we have learned the virtue of patience. We wait.
Sound is larger a thing than it seems when limited by ears as the only way of hearing the world. We stretch and relax ourselves into the union of ears and bristly antennae, discovering how heat and motion fit together, to unlock horizons as borderless as the skies that have become our kingdom. Inside the paneled walls of the trailer, where we dreamed of flight and died for our want of wings, strong man is restless. Our brood sings to him in concert, verses Husband has scored, a chorus of language that strong man cannot translate. But we feel him tossing. He is restless. We smell his tension. Our song unnerves him and disrupts the waves of his blood from carrying him softly into sleep. His sweat turns the bed sheet into a shroud and he kicks it away. He struggles against the temperature and prays for the heat wave to break. He does not know how petty are his desires, how narrow and small his wishes. How little he knows of guilt. He has known no shame for pulling off my immature wings, before they had even fully formed. His sleeplessness pleases us to no end, like our kingdom of sky.
The sun rises and we watch him leave the walls he hides between. How gray and ill-fitting his once-tan skin has become. His back is stooped lower than the broad swath it was, when he raised the sharp edge of his shovel, before bringing it down again to clip away our dream of wings. He swears in a tongue we have nearly forgotten. He avoids looking to the tree where our bones sleep. A litter of pecan shells cover the ground, uncollected, mulching day by day back down into the sweet rot of dirt. Somewhere in his skin of buzzing blood and meat, he knows there is a vein connecting the tree which bore no fruit until he laid our body beneath it, and the unyielding song of our brood. Our cries carry up into the humid air, as the sun travels toward the center of our borderless horizon, dragging the heat behind it like the banner of a charging brigade, degree by sweaty degree.
For two moons and two suns, we continue our serenade—Brothers and their wives cling relentlessly to the windows, squeezing their bodies into the trailer through crumbled window seals, secreting themselves in the corners where their voices can be heard but not quieted. He dares not touch the Brothers who brazenly reveal themselves. He learns how taut a line his fear can stretch: anchored to moons and broadened over suns, encompassing the whole world in between, while we sing, we sing, we sing. Through every rotation of the world, tipping on its axis, spinning into the dark night, Husband mates with me, breathing flowers of my sap back into my mouth and seeing me reflected back ruby in his five eyes. Tongueless, he conjures me up at will. Wife, how beautiful you are, he echoes into my ribs, a reversal of Adam through clay. When strong man broke off your wings, it was only for me to take hold of you, and grasp you with my digging legs as though you were my heart. The blood of yours he took was a blessing—it is on our own two wings now, that we are carried. The hunger of our coupling shakes the trailer on its foundations, a rocking strong man feels inside, but cannot bring himself to investigate. I cry out to the night—one last vow to keep, before Husband and I are finished here.
We glide down from our perch. We struggle to stand upright; our form no longer feels at ease standing on just two of our legs, like we did when we were skinned. Here we are, at the door, waiting to avenge ourself against the wicked one who gave us over to the dirt. Husband, the blessing borne of a curse. The door opens easily, no match for the might of six legs, so much stronger than just two. Our brood increases their volume as we make our way into the front room, their chorus building to a frenzy as we raise ourselves erect and spread our wingspan as wide as this body allows. We were not large as a woman, but as what we have become with Husband, we are vast. We fill the whole of the space, from one wall to the other, our antennae brushing the ceiling, and the claws of our hind quarters dug deep into the dirty carpeting. Strong man surges out from the dark cove of his bedroom, wielding a double-barrel shotgun which he drops upon laying his two brown eyes on our form. He trembles on the two legs that he now recognizes as unreliable, dropping to the knees like he should have so long ago, back when hours were still a thing we had concern for. Though there is little left to the body we molted and left on the ridge, he knows that it is us, and that we have finally come for him.
The walls shake from the voices of our brood, raised up to the sky and its grub-white moon in a canticle, rising voice by strident voice, each cicada joining the song in rounds, building to a pitch that is hideously sweet, as sweet as the root sap Husband fed on from my skin and blood, as sweet as a field of flowers. Strong man holds up his two hands—no longer as steadfast as he has thought them to be—in a gesture that asks of us what we no longer have the means to give. There can be no forgiveness for the sinner. This song is a reflection of the life we had when we were soft and pink and fragile. That life is gone. This one is a beautiful monster, his monster, created especially for him by the blood of mine spilled and the magic Husband has spun that blood into. The timbre of our singing continues to build, bringing strong man’s small hands to claw at the sides of his head, burrowing against the ears that only now learn the limitlessness of sound. Though our beak is not where we find our voice, the human part of us remembers what it was to wail, and we unsheathe our mouth to appear to him as we are in our heart. From hell we bring you this aria, and so shall we drag you back on its notes.
As the windows shatter from the sonic blast of our song, we embrace the gift that Husband has given us—in this world, all wives have wings, but they do not sing, for they are the ones being courted. We are something separate of human and cicada; we are neither and both, and Husband has promised us a voice and our wings. We beat them against the walls, knocking over furniture and flattening the whole of the interior space. We flex our tymbals and release the last verse of our song, fueled by the fire inside. Strong man flinches backward, sags back onto his haunches, when we plant ourself back down onto six legs, the way we are meant to be. The whole trailer shudders as we finish out the music of our vendetta. A trickle of blood from the nose and the ear runs riot into a flood as the walls break like bones and fall away. Strong man crumples, all empty husk, like the nymphal skin left behind after our last breach from the dirt. We let our last note reverberate as the splintered walls settle into pools of glass, full of prism after prism of the reflected moon.
Finally we are still, all of us. The raging blaze inside us has died down; barely an ember is left. The night is never as quiet as humans think it is—even in the thickest wood, there are night birds and frogs calling out into the darkness, as loud as any freeway traffic. We have no need to remember things like hours, but for longer than a heartbeat, there are no cicadas calling. The stillness of the aftermath is eerie and alone. Stilled wings and tymbals at rest reflect in awe at what we have done. Then, as quickly as our chirrups fell quiet, they begin again. Our brood takes flight, their wings like bullets shot up to the stars; their number a thrumming pulse like blood as they take to the skies to rejoice—these rotations of the sky are evanescent, and there are few moons left for us before we fall back down to the earth from which we breach. Husband and I sleep our last twilight together in the cover of our pecan tree, where beneath it our bones have finally settled.
On the break of sunlight, I can no longer feel Husband with me; every moon we spent together was his gift to me. His own brood mated and died during the summer he dug down into the earth with me and began his cycle again, to stay by my bones and make sure that we would know what it means to fly. Even with five ruby eyes set to all sides of the borderless horizon, I cannot find him. I propel myself up towards the endless colors of sky and cloud, my wings electric: a kind of freedom I would never have known with two pink feet and two brown eyes. Up, up, up—circling the canopy road and away from the rubble of the walls that I could never escape from while constructed in fragile bone and skin. With the sky as my empire, I course through the summer heat on these wings. The music inside my rib cage is only an echo, the fire inside a blanketing of hot ash, smoldering only long enough for the completion of one last task, the fulfillment of one last vow to Husband. When he crawled inside the stiffening flesh of my dead mouth, he whispered, All wives should want wings, and handed himself over to share with me what was his—those wings, that freedom from narrow human measures of the world and the constriction of its hours. And though my blood has now taken his body, it is on our wings that I carry us.
Hours continue on without meaning, even in Husband’s absence—my flight chases the chariot of sun to the west, dipping lower until I feel the soft brush of the tops of live oaks against my thorax. With mother’s instinct, I know this is where I am supposed to rest—far, far, far, from where the bones of a soft skinned woman and her brave Husband are joined, beneath a pecan tree whose fruits have never been appreciated. From the tip of my abdomen, I have grown a spike, and once I have found the safest joint of the oak’s boughs, I use it to slit open the green branches. We have succeeded in loving the expanse between us, Husband, I echo to him, somewhere sleeping inside. For you have given to me the possibility of being whole, and wings to explore the immense sky. In the open stems of green oak, I lay hundreds of our children down—like a handful of the rice that was thrown at me, once, for luck, at my wedding to strong man. Only now does rice bring luck, because this is no ordinary rice, but our children, tucked into the green limbs to sleep, while they grow digging legs and their backs toughen into armor.
When I am certain that all my children are as safe as I can leave them, hidden inside cushions of young oak, I have only enough strength to fly back to the pecan tree. I flew far and wide so that our daughters would not ever need to know what it is like to be punished for wanting wings. Earthworms, my handmaids, travel great distances underground, and carry on their flowered breath folk stories for our children. When they are grown, they will know how to navigate back to that pecan tree, next to an empty patch of land where grass will not grow. Where once a trailer combusted on a hot summer night. Where once, their father lassoed the floating heart of a pink giant, and made a vow that turned us into something more fearsome and lovely than we would ever have been on our own. When our brood is strong enough, they will drop like rain from the branches, pale and driven to dig down into the earth and feed on the thick sap of tree roots, while they widen and expand into a new form—it is hard to say whether they will be something apart from the pieces that made up our whole, like we were. I will not know what they will be when they breach. But I know that they will be legion, and that their wings will be mighty.
Allie Marini is a cross-genre writer holding degrees from both Antioch University of Los Angeles & New College of Florida. She was a 2018 Shitty Women in Literature nominee, and has been a finalist for Best of the Net and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her masthead credits include Lunch Ticket, Spry Literary Journal, & Mojave River Review. She has published a number of chapbooks, including Pictures from the Center of The Universe (Paper Nautilus, winner of the Vella Prize) and Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide to Beasts of the Southern Wild (Hyacinth Girl Press, finalist for the SFPA’s Elgin Award). In addition to her work on the page, Allie was a member of Oakland’s 2017 National Slam Team. A native Floridian now freezing to death in the Bay Area, Allie writes poetry, fiction, and essays. She can be found online @kiddeternity, or to book her, contact Sugar Booking Entertainment (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Summer of the Cicada” was first published in a print anthology of Psychopomp Magazine‘s 2014 contest winners.