2011, Year of the Magicicada

I packed my clothes and moved out in the year of the cicadas, that illustrious year of the Great Southern Brood XIX.

Every staggered thirteen and seventeen years they come, like an Egyptian plague. Most of the North American species hail from the genus Tibicen and are known as the jar fly or, my favorite cognomen, the dog-day cicada (so named because they emerge in late July and August). Those are annual and mingle their voices with the crickets, whipporwills, and peepers, those darling little chorus frogs.

The best-known North American genus is Magicicada, however. Those are the ones of magical longevity, the ones that come out en masse. There are, specifically, two versions: one sort lives for thirteen years and the other for seventeen. Beyond that and a minor difference in sound, they are much the same. Tithonos in Greek legend was granted immortal life by Zeus but neglected to tack on an eternal youth addendum.

  “[B]ut when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.” (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite)

In later lore, Zeus turned him into a cicada and every year, crazed with sorrow, Tithonos climbs into the trees and calls out for death.

Apparently they don’t even plow the earth like earthworms. They just hang out, sucking down root juice and burrowing as far down as eight feet. They come up for air at the end of their lives to lay eggs and die in a matter of weeks. Their exits are those small black holes which appear mysteriously after a rain. I learned this from the neighbors and was shocked. Thirteen years is a long time to be a grub, I said. Immediately of course I began drawing parallels and getting morose.

Maybe it was a subconscious push to get out, to leave him. The drone put  me on edge right from the start. It was high-pitched and shrill, a distant alarum and excursion. When I first heard it I thought the fire station in town was having a drill. One of those frightening, surreal drills that recall Orson Welles and the end of the world. It’s a peculiar, eerie sound; I didn’t remember the last time it happened but it wasn’t soothing like the crickets or the katydids or the whippoorwills. That fretful summer my teeth were set on edge while Annie collected and reckoned up carapaces like cowries in the humid orange evensong.

Next time I hear this sound, I swore to myself, it’ll be evocative but no longer despairing.

***

I said I was sorry. The nights are long, studded with 2-bit dreams. The therapists are many different ways. A white woman, a black woman and a white man. But there are so many shades of grey. It would take a genius to delineate, or maybe it only takes me. I know what’s not genius, is my ontic fear. It’s been said that fear of death often masks an emptiness in one’s own life. I buy that. In the past week I’ve had fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, cancer, and a brief, half-hour flirtation with multiple sclerosis. It has to end. I’ve got to learn to fill the void.

Therapist M sketches parallels. I’m sketching a dotted line outta here.

***

In the year of the cicadas, that Great Southern Brood XIX, something inside picked me up by the scruff of my neck and deposited me, spitting and mewling, on the bank of a river, by the general store in Saxapahaw. It was the beginning of a diaspora and my first venture above ground in some time.

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