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The Sound of Cicadas

 

The night air felt warm and damp to the skin — it hung heavy around us as we walked underneath stray beams of lamplight. The cicadas droned, ceaseless, as our footsteps sounded like a drumbeat. To our left stretched the black curving shape of the river, lamplight striking across its dark surface like lightning. 


I skipped ahead of my uncle, my hair bouncing as I looked out across the water. I didn’t smile. My latest fascination was friction, and the fact that if an asteroid went through space long enough, friction would reduce it to nothing but space dust. 


My uncle had told me about that. My uncle had nothing but intriguing things to say. I was always searching for something intriguing enough to observe—everything beyond the intriguing faded from my world, relegated to the category of nonexistence. 


As I skipped, a black shape caught my attention—I skidded to a halt. It lay a few inches from my tennis shoe. The shape belonged to an insect with bulbous black eyes, its paper-like wings unmoving. I stared at it for a long time, intensely curious, giving my uncle enough time to stride up. 


He looked over my shoulder. “That’s a cicada.” 


“A cicada?” I didn’t look up. 


“Do you hear the humming? Cicadas make that noise.” 


The cicada lay on its back. I wanted to crouch; I even wanted to poke it, but I didn’t have 

the courage. Something about it disturbed me. 


“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. 


“What do you mean?” He crouched down to look at it, giving it his distinctive look-over-the-glasses examination. “This is what a cicada looks like.” 


“No,” I said. “There’s something wrong with it.” 


He looked up at me, and then he understood. “It’s not alive anymore.” 


I looked over it again. Nothing else seemed wrong with it, except for the fact that it wasn’t moving. 


“It’s dead,” my uncle said. 


I stood without moving, hands hanging at my sides. Dead. The hum of the cicadas, which had grown quiet, now strengthened to a tireless droning. 

 

 

They had sent me to the “gifted learners” class only a few months prior to the second semester of third grade, a place where I felt neither belonging nor capability, where they isolated me from friendship—I felt not as a partaker but as an observer. 


I sat at my desk, penciling away at an assignment, absent-minded. Sunlight filtered 

through the blinds, striking dust in a way that distracted me from my work. Outside, the sun shone on rolling hills hemmed in by a curtain of forest. Acres of property belonged to Southview Elementary school. I wanted nothing more than to walk the hills, alone. My pencil had worked itself down to a dull point. I stared at its tip, sighed, and stood to sharpen it at the pencil sharpener affixed to a pillar. Everyone was bent over their work, cutting away strips of paper with scissors and then dabbing at them with Elmer’s glue sticks. 


I stuck my pencil into the hole, staring at a speck of dirt on the white floors, thinking about the hills. Were there tadpoles in the pond? More than anything, I wanted to cup a puddle of tadpoles in my palms and to smile at them. The way tadpoles swam in the water intrigued me, black shapes flitting from place to place, so fragile and alien. The pencil sharpener

ground away my pencil to a fine point.  


I took my pencil out, examined it, and backed up—only to collide with something behind me. I spun, startled, to see Emma. A classmate. Her frizzy mouse-brown hair was tied back into a ponytail, and the sun illuminated her freckled skin with a faint shine. 


“Sorry,” I said. 


I met her eyes. 


I cannot describe what I felt, except that I was rooted to the spot. I stood in perfect awe. The sun shone on her eyes, brown and bright and brilliant eyes, as deep and as mysterious as the pond with the tadpoles. They struck me with a fascinated fright. For the first time, I saw beauty in a girl’s eyes. 

 

2008. 

The mouth of the Appalachian Mountains was crowned by sunlight. Golden and bright, the sun 

was a great eye. Dad’s eyes were on the road. 

Mom was silent, looking out the window. 

A question lay somewhere beyond the reach of my thoughts. 

It had come up from the deep. It lingered in the back of my mind. 

It haunted me. It intrigued me. 

Dad? I asked. 

Yes? 

Is the devil real? 

 

Thoughts of exploring hills and cupping tadpoles were swept away. Emma’s eyes were my world. She wore a slight smile, giving me a confused but confident expression. I hadn’t fallen for her, but I had fallen for her eyes. I had never seen anything so powerfully beautiful. 


“I, uh . . .” I struggled for words. I never struggled for words. 


She frowned and laid a hand on my elbow. “Are you okay?” 


“Um, well . . .” My ears grew hot, and I swallowed. “Your eyes look like my dog’s eyes.” 


She arched an eyebrow and removed her hand. 


I held out my palms. “I meant it as a good thing! I like my dog’s eyes.” 


“Oh.” 


“I meant your eyes are beautiful." 


“Oh . . .” 


Now my face burned. I managed a few sorrys. 


She grinned and gave me a playful look, stepping past me and back to her desk. I watched her go, transfixed. For the first time, a girl had made me speechless. My belly swam with feelings I had never known. I wondered, why do I feel this way? I had no answer. My mother picked me up late in the evening, and silence fell over the drive home. Our dog, Lewis, a German Shepherd with pretty brown eyes, lay in the barn. He had suffered a stroke and could no longer live inside with us. 


“Want to say goodnight to Lewis?” Mom asked as we climbed the stairs to our cabin. 


“No,” I muttered. Emma’s eyes had arrested my thoughts. 


“You never know when his last night will be,” she said. 


That reminded me of something I had long forgotten. The sound of cicadas and my uncle 

looking over my shoulder, telling me about death. The memory was swept away by the image of her sunstruck brown eyes. They had been a world unto themselves. 


“I’ll see him tomorrow,” I said. 

 


Lewis died in his sleep. The next day, Dad shoveled dirt over his body. He lay within a deep hole in the earth, roots shooting like little fingers along the dirt walls. Lewis’ fur was black and tan. His face was regal but soft, the face I had held in my lap since toddlerhood. His face laid against the dirt now, as though he were just sleeping, as I had seen him sleep all the life that I could remember. 


I still thought about Emma’s eyes, but that thought carried different emotions. They were just there, in the back of my mind, watching as I watched. The memory of the sound of the cicadas had taken over her eyes, yet I still struggled to remember. What had my uncle said? What had he said about the cicada on the ground? 


Mom was trying to hide her tears, trying her best not to sob. Dad was bent over his work, focused on the task, eyes dry and face expressionless but for the way his lips curled when he planted the shovel into the ground. His pain rested somewhere deeper than his face, I thought, added to the pile in the deep. 


“He was a good dog,” Dad said between shovel strokes. 


Mom nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “The most loyal dog we’ve had.” 


Dad nodded. “A gift from God.” 

 

2021. 

I drove under a banner of stars. Out there, the devil waited. I pulled over, tires crunching gravel. 

The corn had been harvested. 

Just a muddy field now, which I knelt in. 

I listened to the cicadas. 

What were they saying? 

Were they telling me where my loves had gone? 

 

I didn’t look at my parents. Just in the hole. Down there, where it was dark and grimy, Lewis’ body was being consumed by dirt. I watched him be swallowed up. His collar shone, its tag metal, reflecting the sunlight. As I watched him disappear from my life, I realized something felt very wrong. 


It wasn’t just me staring into the hole, something was staring up out of it. There were eyes down there, reflecting off the tag. They were my eyes. I was staring up out of the hole, staring at myself through the reflection, and I could hear the cicadas. They droned in my ears, as Dad dropped the last shovel-load of dirt over Lewis’ face. 


I remembered, then. I had asked, as I stared at the cicada, if there was something wrong. with it. My uncle had answered, although he had given me no real answer. I remembered who had actually answered. 

 

2021 cont. 

As I looked up at the stars, I couldn't remember the women’s eyes. 

My grandma’s. My great grandma’s. 

My love’s. My love’s before her. 

My knees were muddy. 

We look into the hole, 

and within it our eyes stare back. 

Is the answer without? 

It wasn’t my uncle who had answered. Neither was it the cicadas. 

I couldn't remember Emma's eyes. 

I smiled and laughed. 

You've already found the answer, came His voice. 

I’ve seen the devil, but that doesn’t matter. 

I think I saw God in that field, 

and maybe in Emma’s eyes too. 

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