17 Year Cicadas

The spring of 1981 in Prairie Village, Kansas was a noisy one. A brood of 17-year cicadas  emerged from their nests and the air was thick with the mechanical sound of their wings drying out. Our lawn was littered with their empty shells, a perfect translucent mold of their big buggy bodies and just as terrifying as the live ones for a six year old girl who froze at the sight of anything bug like. There were so many of them you could hear them crunching underfoot, collecting in the gutters of the streets.

My dad tells a story of a cicada swarm when he worked on a kids show at a television station in Arizona. They had the host of the show, Wallace, or maybe Ladmo, tell the kids they’d lost their pet cicada and could they all be on the lookout for it and if they found it, would they be so kind as to send it to the station? Within days the studio was filled with rolling canvas mail bins stuffed with envelopes containing the carcasses of once lumbering cicadas. He told the story like it was funny, like his terrified six year old daughter would laugh at the thought of hundreds of number 10 envelopes stained with goo from smashed bugs. I had nightmares for weeks.

In the spring of 1981 I was sent to bed while it was still light out, the cicadas humming along, the breeze fluttering the curtains in the room I shared with my sister. I slept on a trundle bed that pulled out below hers, my face searching for a cool spot as I flipped and flopped to get comfortable. If I close my eyes I can still see that summer sky, the pale blue fading into a sunset pink and then deepening in color, the cicadas getting louder, the smell of the honeysuckle bush just underneath the smell of lilacs and irises. In my mind they all bloomed at once and filled the air with a distinct scent of purple and white.

My older brother collected cicada shells in a box for safe keeping. He’d pull one out and place it on the door to my bedroom and I would scream for my mother who would roll her eyes and pick it up and scoot me into my room, my hearth thumping in my chest, afraid of the remnants of a bug that would soon fade away for another 17 years. I wasn’t afraid of everything, just things with tiny legs I imagined crawling over my body while I slept. I’m still afraid of those things, wrangling my husband to collect the tiny bugs and spiders I find lurking in the corners of the ceiling, my near sighted eyes somehow finding them even without my glasses.

When lightning bugs were plentiful, we’d watch as they lit up the backyard and then chase them around to collect them in a jar. I was still scared but wanted to have a jar of bugs to light up my room too. I watched as my brother and sister cupped their hands around their bright little bodies, but when I tried, my fear instinct took over and I smashed my hands together. The little light blinking out as I peeled open my fingers, their insides smeared across my palms. I had become death, destroyer of bugs and sat on the back stoop with my chin resting in my freshly scrubbed hands.

Tadpoles didn’t scare me though, and when my sister had a fish bowl with a few swimming around in the water, I didn’t hesitate, I plunged my little hand into the cool water and fanned out my fingers until I felt one swim by. Slowly, gently, I closed my hand a little and felt its slick body wriggle against my skin and then swim away. I don’t remember why she had them, maybe a project for school, or maybe they were from the woman who lived down the street and worked at the zoo. I never saw their transformation into frogs but I remember their dark brown bodies zooming around the bowl.

In the spring of 1981, I didn’t know what panic attacks were, but I started crying myself to sleep after the walkway of the Hyatt collapsed that summer, worried it would happen again, scared my parents would never come home from dinner. Lying in my bed and listening for the cicadas that were already gone, waiting 17 years to emerge again.

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