School would be out in less than two weeks. Lee was already feeling the approaching freedom. He was certainly glad his dad had bought a house on the last street inside the city limits of Memphis. Just across his street was a boy’s paradise. River bottoms! He could spend the whole summer playing in the Wolf River bottoms.
Lee’s parents both worked day jobs, and they had a maid five full days a week so that the boys would be supervised during the summer. Lee already knew that Mrs. Oliver could never keep him from sneaking down to the bottoms. It was easy to trick her. All a boy had to do was take his ball glove and announce that he was going a block over to play ball with some friends. Playing ball was allowed, while visits to the bottoms usually weren’t.
Who knows what it is in a boy that causes him to do something he knows his parents do not wish him to do? Some say that can be a good thing for some boys, and a bad thing for others. Then some folk say it is plain bad to sneak around one’s parents, no matter what kind of a boy one was. Lee didn’t worry about it. His natural feelings about being as alive as he was kept him three steps ahead of what the growns were thinking anyway. Well, mostly.
If Lee did by chance happen to get caught doing something he knew he was not supposed to do, he knew the whipping was certain. But whippings were usually forgotten by the next morning, and ultimately would remain forgotten by his preferences until the next one showed up. He tried to be careful. He learned to think by needing to find ways to outdo his parents. Why? Why, because they had no appreciation for snakes and lizards, turtles and frogs. And according to their religion, weekend fishin’ was enough fishin’ to hold a person all week, so there didn’t need to be any after-school excursions to the bottoms. In short, they had forgotten their childhood values, and simply had to be over-looked and ignored at times.
It had made a problem just last week, when his mother came home from work to find a wash tub under the back yard faucet with a two-pound catfish swimming around in it. Lee had known the whipping was coming, but this fish was too big and beautiful to let go without showing his brothers and a few neighborhood friends. The whipping would be worth it, like an appendage of pain that sometimes came with having natural fun. This was the biggest fish he had ever caught.
But today was a fair day in May, and a Friday at that. The school year was nearly over, and his mother had already agreed to let him go to the bottoms after school this afternoon. With permission! It was taking the classroom clock forever to get to the last buzzer.
Geometry was going on in the classroom, but Lee was already out the window, across the grounds and down by the river. Lee was already picking up his cane pole from it’s hiding place in the tall brush. He would catch grasshoppers for bait. He would stare into the murk of stilled backwaters, marvel at the sky’s reflection around his line in the waters. He would become absorbed by the waters and time would stop but he would still be there in his world, with everything wild and beautiful, and there would be no thought at all of where or when or what he was “supposed” to be. He would become entranced, and would be a part of the fields and the sloughs, the mosquitoes and bees, the birds and everything which dwelt about the large shallow stands of backwater. Cranes, bitterns, mink and squirrel; fish, frogs, turtles and snakes; trees, mud, river currents and weathers all were special types of life in Nature, and when he was alone with them and undisturbed, they all knew he was part of their Nature too.
Of course, he understood, it was like a fantasy; it was a trance-like state of mind, as Lee had been reminded often enough. But to Lee it was the best fantasy going.
It’s reality was so unexplainably alien to the world of the growns that they had discounted it as a given. Nature was not something to get caught up in at the expense of getting ahead in the world. In the fifties, everybody was interested in getting ahead in the world. Everyone except Lee. He and a few other youngsters he knew were not really interested in getting ahead in the world. He was the sort of person who enters the world stunned that he finally got here anyway, so why, he would wonder, would he want to get ahead in it? Why not just be a part of it, and keep one’s innocence?
Besides, when one really learned how to be quiet and still one could feel maybe the tiniest buzzing inside with the vibrations of the water and earth and the dank, mucky air, and all the animal life which filled them and all the feelings welling up inside one as mud squished between one’s toes beside a bubbled mass of frog eggs…..well, when one could become a part of all that, one knew one was accepted. There was a feeling of it. One knew the crawdad or the mantid understood. Then, the kingfisher on a dead bough above mirror-smooth old backwaters knew one was not like the other people, and accepted one as a peaceful and rightful inclusion of the world……
“Lee Sappler!” the teacher’s voice echoed into the river bottoms, ringing through the forest and across the fields, and suddenly the whole spell of it broke, and he was back in the classroom. “Well I’m glad you are back with us. Did you bring your project to class?”
“Well then, would you like to pass it forward, as the other students have already done while you were daydreaming out the window?”
Lee was flushed in embarrassment, but he got his project out of his pack and timidly passed it over the shoulder of the girl in front of him. A glance at the clock, noticed also by Mrs. Hunsaker, assured him there were only eight minutes left in the school day. He inhaled deeply and held it long, then released his breath slowly, imperceptibly. He would make it.
And he did. Depositing his books at home, and raiding the refrigerator on the run, he was soon crossing the goldenrod field over gumbo clay en route to his fishing pole and his free breath of the pre-pastel heaviness of the warm river bottoms air.
But well before he got to his stashed fishing pole he knew that everything was different. It was a shrill and high-pitched screeching, an amazing, sustained pitch of electrical vibrating coming from across the slough, at the edge of the woods beyond. More like a powerful buzz, actually. It was a noise he had never heard before, and it was an obtrusive disturbance when one first heard it. Lee left his pole where it lay, and waded the slough to the other side, almost catching a slider as he went. The mud bottom felt good to his bare feet, if somewhat of a guess with each step. Walking up the dried farther bank, he was so close to the origin of the noise he could begin to feel the wondrous thing of it in the air. It was not a “something” making the raging buzz. It was millions of “somethings”. It was like millions of insects belting it out in unison, and, as Lee quickly found, those insects were cicadas.
But they were not the usual kind of cicadas Lee knew about. These cicadas were black all over their bodies, and had orange-veined transparent wings, and, incredibly, their rounded little eyes were orange. These were bright little Halloween cicadas, Lee figured, only it certainly wasn’t anywhere close to Halloween. The orange and black were very rich colors, and perfect in their light. But the most amazing thing about them was how many of them there were. They were on everything that didn’t move. There were, literally, millions of them.
The earth had been pierced millions of time and had given up the clumsy pupae of the Thirteen-year Cicada in world crashing millions, all at once. The little creatures were crawling onto anything they could find and setting their claw-like “feet” in a brace, from which they would begin the stretching slit down the back of their used-up skins, down the middle of their abdomen and thorax, and they would squeeze themselves with a struggle out of their skin of thirteen underground years. (We’ve all seen the transparent- brown hollow hulls of shed cicada skins, at least those dried skins of the annual cicada, which is the biggest of all the cicadas. But these thirteen-year cicadas were but half the size of the annual giants, maybe less. And they can only be found once every thirteen years.)
That was when they would notice that they had been suddenly born into a world of color and light and every sensory delight, and had wings to boot. They just had to let those wings dry a bit before they could know the bliss of flight. And then they could be off to a `cicada heaven’ after thirteen years as a wingless grub condemned to the darkness of a rooted earth. Then they could fly high into the tops of trees, or across ponds and fields, and could know the richness of the terra. It was all quite a miracle, this sudden culmination of a years-long metamorphosis, and a joy which kept each cicada this afternoon buzzing at his highest peak.
But there was a burden to this miracle for a cicada. It would not last long. Maybe two weeks, if one was lucky. A mere blink, when compared to thirteen years of darkness, eating dirt and whatever was in it, blind, buried, and bored. Thirteen years for two weeks, maybe. But, graciously, on the day of a cicada’s hatching, he is much too excited and busy to dwell on his approaching doom.
Lee was bewildered. The hordes of the little bugs had spilled over the forest’s edge and into the tall grasses between the slough and the treeline. The weeds were covered with cicadas drying their wings. One could not walk through the brief field for fear of stepping on and crushing them. He reached down and picked one up, using his thumb and forefinger on either side of the thorax, a grip which did not pinch the wings, but did keep them in the safe fold down the sides with which the insect had held them for drying. He inspected the little creature closely. It’s skinny orange legs were working, wanting a traction but finding none. It’s orange eyes were fixed at the corners of its broad head like those of an ocean crab.It’s face was a face of resolve.
The cicada was beautiful. It’s broad-headed determination kept it’s legs churning and Lee could feel the wing sockets vibrate with efforts to move. Lee decided he was making the cicada nervous so he replaced it on a twig and stepped back toward the slough. It occurred to him that he must dash home and return with a quart jar. He must “collect” up a number of these marvelous insects for his collection. And so he did. Fishing could wait until tomorrow.
After he had more than enough of the bugs, he stood and listened to the extreme pitch of their unified chorus. They were so loud they almost colored the air with the heaviness of their sound. He watched them filling the air as more and more of them lifted up on dried new wings. When he had registered the phenomenon well enough, Lee returned home with his prize specimen. His parents were not home, and his brothers were in the garage working on their bikes. Lee went into his room and closed the door. He sat the quart jar of cicadas on his flat desk and took his seat there.
Lee had been collecting insects for about four years. He had “spread boards”, the ususal pins and papers and such. He had a cyanide jar. He had collection display cases and trays. His specimen included beetles, bees, wasps and family, butterflies, moths, true bugs, and many mysterious individuals for which he was yet seeking identification. He had a few books about insects, and he knew that he didn’t know as much as an amateur entomologist should know. Today’s discovery was a good example of that. Meanwhile, the group of doomed cicadas in his quart jar milled and teemed, each wanting to get free of the confinement. None of them seemed to know that they were shortly going to die.
Lee decided against using the cyanide jar, figuring instead to try his newest experimental project, a plan he had heard from another student at school, who had heard it from his father. The idea was to inject an insect with a cc of jelled alcohol, which would hopefully assist in the “curing” of the abdomen and thorax, and minimize shrinkage as the insect dried on the mounting board. He prepared his syringe, and carefully removed the jar’s lid. Reaching into the jar, he carefully picked one of the cicadas and placed the lid back on the jar quickly. He injected the luckless creature, and it died instantly. He spread it’s wings on the curing board, and fixed them with delicate pins. He arranged the legs uniformly. Then he took another out of the jar and did the same operation. He did several more.
His conscience bothered him for just one fleeting instant. It told him he should have looked for specimen which were already dead, so he wouldn’t have to kill living things to add to his collection. But he rationalized that there had been so many of them that the world would not miss his unlucky few. He thusly dismissed his guilt, and continued his killing.
He did notice as he worked that one of the cicadas in the jar seemed to scurry away from his grasp each time he put his hand into the jar. That one cicada seemed to be paying attention to what he was doing with each victim he withdrew from the jar. It was almost uncanny to think that a silly bug would be able to observe and make conclusions about what was happening to his friends when they were lifted outside the jar. Yet this particular cicada, front legs raised against the curved glass wall, appeared to actually be watching Lee as he prepared and mounted his specimen. It acted alarmed and fearful each time his fingers poked inside the jar and plucked up one of its brothers. It scurried and scampered however it could to avoid being caught. And soon it was the last one in the jar.
As the cicada was especially fast, Lee finally used the slick finish of the glass jar by tilting it end-up and sliding the cicada out into his hand. He quickly but gently flipped his palm to his desk, cupping and holding the cicada still. He then removed his hand but for one finger tip on the back of the thwarted bug. The cicada pushed up against that finger mightily several times, only to find that it knew it was had. To this little orange and black bug, it looked like the end.
Finally, in the rage of frustration and desperation, the little cicada hollered up at Lee’s facial immenseness in the desklamp’s yellow ambience. “Get OFF me!”
It was a tiny voice, but surprisingly resonant and audible. It did smack of an insect-like pitch, but it was mostly a voice. It was totally unexpected, and Lee snapped his head back a bit. But he had enough presence of mind to keep his finger on the bug’s back. He had always known that Nature is full of surprises, and he had evolved his own style of alertness. But he had never been talked to by an insect before, and this was an alarming surprise.
“Get off! Get off!” the angry cicada hollered again.
“And why should I, when as soon as I do you’re going to try to get away from me?” Lee ventured.
“Because it is the decent thing to do. How can I reason with you while I’m under your finger?”
“What is there to reason about?” Lee participated. Lee was already calculating…. he had closed the door to his room, but the single window across the room was ajar about eight inches, and had no screen, owing to his needing to slip in and out that window sometimes. If he let the cicada go, it could get out the window and make it’s escape. He was wondering if the cicada already had such a thought in mind. Things were becoming clearer now. The cicada’s tactics in avoiding being picked until last stood for something, just as it stood for something that it was now talking in a funny little bug voice. And it stood for something that the bug recognized the direness of his plight and did not want to die. Lee did not know just what that all stood for, but he did see positively that the little creature was a real creature with real concerns. That in itself went against everything Lee had ever heard or thought. He composed himself to the startling developments however, and engaged with the cicada’s conversation.
“And what if I do take my finger off your back? What will you do then?”
“Why don’t you just do it and let me talk to you. Shouldn’t any condemned soul have the grace of having a last say? I just want to talk to you before you kill me.”
Lee realized this could just be a cicada trick, but he did have ample specimen, and he could go back to the bottoms tomorrow if he needed another. Still, he didn’t want to let a bug get the best of him in a contest, so he bargained hard as he took the gamble and gradually released the cicada.
“Okay, I’m gonna trust you not to make any fast moves, y’ hear?” Lee lifted his finger.
The cicada immediately gathered himself to his fullest height, stretching it’s legs as if trying to tip-toe. It looked about and saw that both Lee’s hands were at the edge of the desk. He looked carefully about the room, and sure enough, it noticed the slightly-opened window across the floor of the room. Then he looked back at Lee, looked him right in the eyes. He raised his two front legs into the air in a gesture and said, “Thank you. That is much more civil of you.”
Lee was beside himself with amusement at the little black bug with orange eyes and long clear wings with orange veins. But Lee was young, and the world was still very new to him, and unexpected surprises were not uncommon to him. He had learned already to accept new revelations from mysterious Nature. So he spoke with the insect easily. He said, “Well, of course I can be civil when I wish to be. But tell me, how did you learn to talk?”
“That is a long story, and I’ll not trouble you to hear it. I’d rather tell you why you should not kill me, if it’s all the same to you.” The bug said that last sentence like a statement, but intoned it as a question.
Lee picked up on that. He replied,”Well, I was going to put you in my collection, you know. So if you don’t want to become a part of that, then I think you should explain to me just why you should be allowed your freedom.”
“And I greatly appreciate the opportunity to do just that!” began the bug. “You see, I have just climbed up out of the darkest place you can imagine. Underground with a million roots and other dark things. I’ve been buried down there in the earth for thirteen years. Just think about that for a minute. I’ll bet you would not even want to spend a short night buried under the earth in total darkness!”
“Well, I think I can agree with that. But aren’t you supposed to be in the earth all those years? I mean, who made you be down there, if not your maker? And aren’t you supposed to be what you were made to be?”
“Of course, you boy. And that’s at the heart of the matter here. I was made to live in darkness for thirteen years, made to eat dirt, to be blinded by darkness all those years. I had to roll around in dirt, move dirt to get anywhere. And when I did get somewhere, it was just another place packed with dirt. So I never went very far, not even in thirteen years. Down there in the earth there is little use for smelling, or for seeing, though I did learn to do a little tasting and feeling and hearing. But if you can just imagine, it was a horribly bare existence. I mean, sometimes I might come across an ant tunnel, or a beetle, or another grub of some sort. But the whole boring existence inside the earth seemed a drab and dull affair. And it seemed as if it would never end. You’ll never know how many times I wondered why I had to live such a life!”
“Well, when you put it that way, I can imagine that it wasn’t much fun!” interjected Lee.
“Fun! That must be a human thing. We insects of the soil are not familiar with `fun’. All I knew was a thirteen-years-long, painfully slow metamorphosis! No hope in sight, no relief, no pleasure, no color. Nothing, nothing, nothing! It was not pleasant at all, I assure you.”
Lee was beginning to feel a little empathy with this creature. He could tell that the bug was speaking earnestly. His hands remained at the edge of the desk as he allowed the cicada to continue speaking.
“But then today finally arrived in my life, same as it did for yours. Only, unlike your day, which is just another of many years’ worth of days, this day was a miracle for me. Suddenly something deep within my center of being compelled me to dig my way up to the surface of the earth and crawl out into the light of this day. I did not know why this was happening. I just was following some impulses inside myself. And after I got up out of darkness into the light, another impulse told me to gather myself within myself and make a big tension of myself. And when I did that, what of all things happened? My word! My skin ripped itself all the way down my back! Then I wriggled out of the skin and can you even imagine it? I discovered that I could see! And hear! And I saw that I had a new pair of wings! Oh my! Suddenly I was free from the darkness of the earth, but more; suddenly I was a part of a living world of color and form, beauty and expression. My goodness! You can’t believe how shocking it all was after so many years of deprivation!”
“Well, I can guess it was a surprise for you.” said Lee.
“Surprise at least. I mean, I went from years of nothingness to a moment of everything! It was tremendous, startling, overwhelming! And then, just before my wings got dry enough to let me take off and soar above this beautiful, wonderful new world, you came along and plopped me into your jar. Worse, you planned to kill me!”
“Well, we may negotiate that, later.” offered Lee. He was beginning to soften up a little for this bug.
“I truly hope so.” said the cicada. “Because if you just stop to think about it, I mean if you put yourself in my place for an instant, it is perfectly obvious that all life wants me to fly into the air, if for no other reason than to justify Nature’s plan. You see, I’m not afraid to die. I already know I won’t be alive two weeks from now. That is in the plan of things. But to die without making my flight, well, that’s a different matter! I must fly. At least once!”
“Well I can certainly understand that. You were a grub for a long time, and it would be a pity to have gone through what you did for all those years, then get on the verge of having your flight only to have it stripped away from you before you could take it. So maybe I will let you fly. Around this room. What would you trade me for letting you fly?”
The cicada thought for a moment, then said. “I’ll give you a cicada secret. It’s a song we sometimes sang when we were underground. That will be my gift to you. My flight can be your gift to me.”
“Okay” said Lee. “Let’s hear it”.
The cicada braced himself to recite the secret song. He paused briefly, looked about again, then said:
“Heirs to self knowledge
shed gently their fears
like old, cramping skins;
a new world appears….
the bloom of a sunrise
is yesterday’s pardon!”
And with that, the cicada launched himself up off Lee’s desk, lurched into the air suddenly. He circled Lee’s head once, then circled the room, then flew right out that open window to his freedom and was gone.
Lee had not even tried to stop the cicada. He wrote down the lines of the cicada secret while he could still remember them, thinking they might make sense to him some day when he was older. Now, forty years later, Lee is older.
He still has his insect collection, and that collection still features several thirteen-year cicadas. To this day, Lee remembers the one who talked it’s way to freedom, and the secret the little bug left in it’s leaving.
© Elias Alias 1999, 2011