A Cicada Left This Letter




Kindly allow me to apologize for my behavior Saturday morning. I now know there is a loud, throbbing machine that sends shock waves through the grass into the ground. I mistook this phenomenon for a love song from what surely must have been a fine male specimen—and promptly humiliated myself.

A lady tried to make me feel better, saying it was easy to misread romantic cues, and once a guy said they should “get together” and she thought he meant “get together.” I gave her my blankest bug-eyed stare, but she must not recognize our facial expressions, because she just kept talking, trying to reassure me. You all should be more careful with your words. Some of your distinctions are too subtle to make sense.

Cicada world is delicate but far from subtle. Once we have burrowed our way up to the light and shed our exoskeletons, it is time. The males expand and contract a membrane in their abdomen (not what you are thinking) to call us. There is a vibration in the air, I suspect akin to what you mean when you say “The earth moved.” We females click in response, the way you mmm and aahhh and groan.

I clicked yesterday. To my mortification, my amorous partner was a rusty lawn mower. Now I am embarrassed and all fluttery inside, extra sensitive. Had the lawn mower been a cicada, we would have conjoined, and afterward, calmed, I would lay eggs, maybe high in that oak tree over there.

When my eggs hatch—because I will manage to do this, perhaps even this evening if I hear the right call—they fall to earth, and our progeny go underground to wait. Is that so terrifying?

Perhaps there are simply too many of us at once, reminding you of your horror movies. You call us a “swarm” and distrust our ability to act en masse, I think because when your species does this, it trades away sanity. But we are not like you. We understand the rhythms of a larger world and cooperate, together, on our part of the pattern.

Not to sound petty, but I made myself read The Infested Mind: Why Humans, Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects. There was hardly anything about the love part.

Now that I am reading your words, though, it occurs to me to wonder: is all your hysteria perhaps a projection? The lady who keeps texting her friends, “Oh, my God, they’re everywhere!” and posting recipes for medieval herbalist concoctions to repel cicadas—perhaps what really haunts her is the possibility of a political takeover, or a break-in, or a demonstration that gets out of control? Because all we do is hop around. Or sit on a leaf. Maybe take a ride on your shoulder if we are feeling frisky.

We do not, for the record, want to drink your blood. It is too thick, rich, and viscuous, like a boozy milkshake with extra butterfat. We sip only watered-down tree sap.

Have you noticed the sheen of gold on our lacy wings? The bright orange-red, color of a hot sun at sunset, that covers our eyeballs? Surely you can appreciate the brave resolve that sends us underground to protect ourselves, and the conscientiousness that brings us back right on time on the seventeenth year, strong and fit from chomping the dried roots of your failed garden. Not your crops, for God’s sake; how many times do we have to tell you that it is locusts who eat crops? We do not eat your roses or your daisies; we do not sting you; we have no jaws thus cannot tear and chew flesh.

One guy, one, seemed to get it. He bent close and said softly, “The world must be scary, buddy, after all that time underground in the dark and the quiet.” I would have let that man pick me up, feel my vibrations. I feel sure he would not have squeezed me with a closed fist and shortened my already doomed life. But the rest of you! “Freaked out” by our evening concert, when you kill entire planets in your spare time? You call us “beady-eyed” and speak of us as “buzzing hordes” and say our presence is “a nightmare.”

Granted, it is unfortunate that the song of our males hits the same silvery, whining pitch as human anxiety. Multiplied by the thousands, I suppose it could be unsettling. But in a month, we will be gone. The laziest of us will not outlast July. Is it too much to ask for a little fresh air and daylight every seventeen years? Your murderers get to walk the yard every day. And those are the ones who kill other humans. Killing us is apparently deemed a societal benefit. You are amused when we crunch.

While we are on that painful subject, FYI—we know how you love those winky abbreviations—we are not flattered by the Chinese insistence that we are a delicacy. Have you ever been deep fried? And that Golden Cicadas recipe that kills our children and plucks off their legs and wings? No need to wonder why our concerts are eerie and sad.

At least the Chinese understand our life cycle. Pronouncing us symbols of rebirth, they carve our image from jade and place these precious little fakes on the tongues of their beloved dead to bring them immortality. They could have just asked us, but no. We are shunned.

Our corpses enrich your gardens, aerate your lawns, and plump your birds. Yet you see us as a plague and a punishment. When the Muses saw men who were obsessed with the beauty of their own voices, they turned those men into…us. And when the Greek goddess Eos forgot to ask Zeus to keep her immortal lover young, he aged and withered and shrank and dried out and—this is what you think of us—turned into a tiny cicada. Who, presumably, was not much good to her any longer.

Therein lies the real problem. Humans, as well as their gods, have zero tolerance for any incursion of nature that cannot be manipulated for benefit or cash value. Well, too bad. We answer only to ourselves; we live and die by our own rhythms. Matsuo Bashō, the legendary master of haiku, once observed, “Nothing in the cry of cicadas suggests they are about to die.”

Your lawn mowers should be so brave.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.