Underground, they are waiting, clustered around the roots of sycamores and black walnuts. Since 1953 they’ve measured the passing of seasons by the temperature of tree sap, blood-warm in a Southern summer, frozen like glass in an Appalachian winter. Only now they’ve started tunneling their way up, up, through six or seven feet of brick-red Georgia clay. Almost to the surface. In DC they’re just a couple of inches below the White House lawn. If you’re kneeling underneath the St. Louis arch, you could dig your hands deep into the rich, black, loamy Midwestern soil and find them. In Connecticut and New Jersey and even in Michigan they are on their way, just a little bit behind the others. But the southern regiment is at the front. Somehow they’ve counted, in unison, 14… 15… 16… and now they’re just waiting for the sign.
Walking helps. If it doesn’t quite ease the squeezing, vise-grip cramps in her belly and across her back, at least it takes her mind off of them. For a little while. Until the next one hits, makes her see red, makes her lose her breath. Keep walking. She leans on a stick to steady herself. She doesn’t want to take a chance on falling out here on the uneven ground. Carefully she picks her way down another row of tombstones, steering her massive roundness between two blackened marble monuments. She’s still not used to the heft of it. It makes her clumsy.
The stick has another purpose as well. She lurches, makes her way to a stout live oak at the edge of the cemetery. Supporting herself against the tree, she uses the stick to brush dead leaves away from its roots. She studies the ground, wishing she could still squat down to get a closer look, but she can see it’s hopeless. No little holes. No chimneys. And on the tree itself, no shells.
The pain takes her again, forcing tears from her eyes. She imagines herself splitting apart like the magicicada from its nymph skin. Bursting open from the inside, becoming something else. The timing is so ridiculous she really ought to laugh. She’d planned on metamorphosis, all right. She was going to emerge from two years researching periodical cicadas transformed from a harried grad student to the entomology department’s first female doctoral candidate. But then, course work completed, all but dissertation, she gets knocked up just before Brood X makes its appearance. Oh sure, no big deal. She can wait another seventeen years!
The jokes from the department. This is biology. You know what causes pregnancy, right? She did know. In this case, an adjunct English professor who taught Renaissance poetry in the classroom next to her office last year. He played Simon and Garfunkel songs on his guitar and wooed her with interesting bugs he caught in his apartment. To his credit, he’s stuck around, and claims to be excited about the baby. Talks about a wedding.
He cannot, however, understand why she’s so disappointed about missing magicicada. There will be another brood. And he’s right. But this is the Great Eastern Brood, David. The big one. Benjamin Franklin wrote about this one in 1732. The same one, on a 17 year cycle. The cicadas that are hatching this spring are the descendants of those that covered this country before it even was a country. And as a little girl in Pennsylvania in ‘53, she let a cicada from Brood X crawl on her finger. She put it safely on a tree limb and decided right then and there she wanted to study insects when she grew up. At least that’s the story she tells herself. The story she planned to tell her children.
Another wrenching, twisting cramp, and this time, she feels a sudden gush of warm liquid rushing from between her legs. She knew to expect it, but it’s still a surprise. There’s just so much of it. She can’t help feeling ashamed, at first, as if she’s wet herself in public. And then she realizes she can’t deny any longer what’s happening to her. In her sopping skirt, with her walking stick, she lumbers out of the cemetery and across the street to a phone booth.
The dry pink dust of the cemetery path soaks up the spill and absorbs it, turning the clay blood red. Magicicada nymphs catch the signal. …17. They break the surface.
A janitor arriving for his night shift at the hospital finishes his cigarette and stubs it out under his white rubber sole. Just as he approaches the double doors at Emergency, he hears a sound behind him, a buzzing roar and an otherworldly hum. It makes him think of this flick he saw a couple of years ago at Howell’s Drive-In. It was supposed to be cool, something dumb like “Day of the Triffids” that might make Sondra yelp and jump in his lap. Instead it was a weird movie that started out with these apes and ended with this astronaut that turned into a baby. Sondra didn’t even want to make out. She fell asleep before it was halfway over. What a waste of two bucks that was. But there is something about that noise now that reminds him of that big old rock in the movie. And it sounds like it’s getting closer.
He turns around, and his eyes widen. He starts to run for the double doors, stumbles in the parking lot, falls and scrapes the palms of his hands on the asphalt. The UFO sound is deafening, wee-ooo, wee-ooo. It’s coming from the dark cloud behind him, something he might have seen once in a B-movie. And it’s coming right for him. He gets to his feet again and sprints, dashes, hurls himself at those doors. EMERGENCY is the word he sees before he is safe inside.
But not alone.
A nurse is already on her feet and halfway around the reception desk. Her instinct is to check on the janitor. Before she can ask if he’s okay, she covers her mouth with her hand in shock. Some two or three hundred black-and-orange roaches with blazing red eyes buzz through the air. Thousands more outside slam themselves against the glass.
The janitor sprawls on the floor, covering his head with his arms. The insectoid invaders aren’t interested in him after all. A few bump against the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. One or two swoop and dive at the concussed heads and dog-bitten limbs in the waiting room.
The vast majority of them, however, stay together in a more-or-less organized swarm. With a sound like two thousand baby rattles falling downstairs, they move purposefully through the corridors. In their wake are curses and crashed carts and dropped clipboards, surgeons swearing about sanitation, patients screaming about plagues.
They even cause one poetry professor to spill his Styrofoam cup of coffee as they zip past him just before they flatten themselves against the window of a nearby hospital room. The hospital room where the poetry professor's girlfriend is giving birth at that moment to a baby with ruby-red eyes.
One month later, the poetry professor
It’s not his fault.
He tried. Everyone said he tried.
He’d have married her, even, if she wanted. Which isn’t required or even expected these days, but he totally would have. He could have dug that whole scene. The wife and the kid. Not that it’s easy on an adjunct’s salary, but things were looking up at the college. He had a good feeling a permanent gig was on the horizon.
It was just the bugs, man.
It was okay when they were just fooling around. It was kind of perfect, gave him an opening to quote “The Flea” to her, which she found hilarious, by the way. If she liked John Donne and she liked Simon and Garfunkel, he could put up with the fact that she had a fondness for creepy-crawlies.
But since the baby came, it’s all been too much. Those orange and black flying crickets are everywhere. They cover the walls of the house. They cover the car. He can’t go anywhere without stepping on them, crunching them under his feet like popcorn. The little klutzes are always dive-bombing him, smacking him in the face when he goes outside for a smoke or a toke or just to clear his head for a second.
And that’s just outside. The worst is that she’ll let them in the house. She says she doesn’t do it on purpose, but he swears it’s a magic cicada zoo in that place, and the baby’s room is the worst. It’s like something out of a horror movie. Those nicey-nice roaches fucking all over the place, fucking and flying around in circles over his daughter’s crib. And the baby laughs at them like they’re her goddamn mobile. It’s disgusting. It’s not safe. Really, what he ought to do is get his little girl out of there. But he just couldn’t take her away from her mama, could he?
Besides, truth be told, he’s not all that sure she’s even his kid after all. He would never say it, but… those red eyes. Those eyes are weird, right? Rosemary’s Baby weird.
All things considered, it’s probably for the best if he just moves on. She’ll understand. She’s just that kind of woman. They have that kind of connection, like Donne’s twin compasses. He’s writing it all down for her now. “Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun.
“ Magicicada going bye-bye, baby. Wave bye-bye, sweetie. This one is sleepy, see? Mommy can catch it on her finger. Let’s leave her on this tree. She has to lay her eggs now. Bye-bye, cicada. Bye-bye.”
They’ve been underground since 1970. Building tunnels and dining on the choicest sap of the finest deciduous trees from New York to Georgia, from Missouri to Boston, Massachusetts. They haven’t seen the sunlight since Elvis was alive, since Michael Jackson sang with his brothers, since the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” topped the charts and consoled fans devastated over breakup rumors.
The nymphs were tiny then, just hatched from eggs the size of individual grains of rice. They’d barely gotten a glimpse of the surface world before they had to dig deep for safety. All this time they’ve just been waiting for their chance. Now, finally, they’re ready. Their season has come. Time to begin that slow crawl up, toward the warmth. Up, toward the light. And for as many as can, toward her.
It hasn’t been easy growing up with red eyes, but for the most part she’s managed to fly under the radar. She’s gotten used to looking down, never meeting people’s gaze so she doesn’t have to answer impossible questions. They always assume she’s shy. When she was in fifth grade, her mother found out they made contact lenses that changed your eye color and went to extravagant lengths to get her an early pair. She’s had brown eyes now for six years, and only occasionally does she still hear “red-eyed freak” in the hall.
Most of the time, she’s ignored. She does well in school, but not so well as to attract attention from her teachers. She tries not to show too much interest in anything that might draw fire from her classmates, especially not anything weird like the cello or comic books. Or bugs. Her mom is always falling asleep over some bug book when she gets home from her bartending shift. If the girl has a hobby, it’s trying to turn herself invisible.
Which is why she is kicking herself for being here tonight, in her high school gymnasium, in a Gunne Sax dress and dyeable satin shoes, surely the most uncomfortable shoes known to womankind. Listening to a DJ in a white tuxedo spin “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” while a boy she barely knows holds onto her hips and sways from side to side. She never should have said yes when he asked her. She was so stunned she didn’t have time to think. But her mother said a girl shouldn’t miss her prom. So here she is.
He asks her if she’d like to take a walk, and she agrees, even though her feet are hurting. They step outside and make their way through the gauntlet of smokers. She can tell he’s trying to talk to her, but all she can do is smile and nod; the music is still far too loud. They walk around the corner of the school. She sees the gate to the football stadium is open. Another couple in formalwear has just walked inside.
She knows it’s a mistake, and starts to turn back. The boy’s insistent. His friends are all here. They’ve planned this. Two boys are on the field, tossing the ball back and forth in their rented tuxes. Others are clustered with their dates in a small group, passing around a bottle. A couple is lying down on the 50-yard line, kissing.
The boy tries to pull her by her hand onto the football field. When she won’t come, he grabs her arm and yanks her. His hand can close around her upper arm. It hurts. She’s pulled off balance. She puts one foot on the football field.
The nymphs are tunneling upward where the maples grow outside the parking lot. They stop.
She pulls against his hold, tries to run away. He picks her up, throws her over his shoulder. The football boys whoop at him. He carries her across the field while the other couples laugh. Her face is burning. She’s too embarrassed to call out. They think it’s a joke. Maybe he is only joking. He puts her down on the far side, pushes her back on the ground.
The nymphs change direction.
One of the other guys asks if he needs a rubber. He laughs. This time maybe the girls don’t. It’s hard to tell. He’s torn her dress now, ripped it. She can’t go back inside now. She looks at the tops of the maple trees and decides to go there. She’ll imagine herself there, just hide there and wait until this is all over. Her contact lens is falling out. A tear slides down her cheek and hits the dirt.
Now. They burst out of the ground. Magicicada Brood X. Only instead of climbing a tree, they swarm the boy. Two of them pierce his eyes as if they were a tender young sapling. He opens his mouth, sucking in more bugs than air to scream. Now he’s not only blind but choking, his mouth full of new wriggling life eager to explore. The other boys and girls hear his distress and instinctively scatter. Nymphs are swarming down the collar of his rented shirt, into the waistband of his briefs, looking for someplace to sink themselves inside. Others climb the goalpost and use that for a base as they break free from their shells and spread their wings at last.
The boy rolls on the ground, clawing at his eyes and writhing in pain. For the rest of his life he will hear the sound of cicadas as ten thousand rattlesnakes, as the trees themselves screeching in laughter.
The girl, shakily, manages to stand. Her dress, ruined, falls around her feet, but the magicicada surround her, cling to her and cover her. She totters on her heels at first, but quickly gathers strength from thousands of tiny hearts in open circulatory flow. They love her. They protect her. Their new shiny exoskeletons harden into armor for themselves and for her as well.
“There is freedom within, there is freedom without…”
From halfway across the football field she can hear the DJ’s music. She can feel her heels sink into the turf. But the terror from moments before has dissipated. Even the jitters are gone. With each step, she’s only getting stronger. She no longer hears anything from the dance, not the ballad from the speakers or the chatter from the teenagers clustered outside smoking in their rented tuxes. She doesn’t hear or feel her shoes hitting the ground, barely feels her hand on the door.
But her classmates feel the air shift when she comes in. One by one, they turn their heads to look at her, the red-eyed freak. And they think, as one, Damn. She looks amazing. In her skin-tight dress of black and gold lace, delicate as an insect’s wings, studded with tiny red jewels. The kids feel strangely off-balance. One boy rubs his eyes furiously, as if he were Paul on the road to Damascus. They don’t understand. How can they have known her all their lives and only now, after 17 years, really see her?
She doesn’t see them. Her ruby eyes are closed, a dreamy smile on her face, the sound of a thousand maracas in her ears. The DJ can play whatever he wants. She only dances to the music of the cicadas.