It was a Washington Post article I read last fall that first warned me of the Brood X cicadas returning to Northern Virginia. I honestly didn’t give it a lot of thought because I’d been a bit desensitized by the news at the time. Global pandemics, political and racial division, murder hornet infestations…
I’d largely forgotten about the cicadas’ emergence until a few weeks ago, when I was on a walk in the neighborhood and heard what I thought was the unrelenting wail of a car alarm. A mile later, I could still hear it over the podcast in my headphones, and I realized it wasn’t an alarm, but the collective din of an all-out cicada orgy.
For those who’ve never heard it, cicadas create an ominous sound that’s hard to describe. It’s not quite a chirp, like a cricket, but it’s also not a whine. It’s the kind of incessant, ubiquitous noise you’d hear if you had a brain tumor.
Cicadas make their homes all over the U.S., but their numbers are more concentrated in specific geographic regions, like good pizza or casual racism. Brood X only emerges every 17 years, when they take to the trees to chat it up with their buddies, take a special someone home to make cicada babies, and, in four-to-six weeks, die. This is all information I learned from a covert Wikipedia search I conducted when I wanted to sound smart in front of my kids.
“What do they do underground for 17 years?” my 12 year-old son Dominic asked.
“Probably the same thing you do in your room,” I said. “Watch YouTube, fart, leave the lid off the Goldfish so they go stale.”
I didn’t particularly enjoy college, and since I’ve largely blocked out those four years of my life, I have no recollection of cicadas. It’s probable I dodged them on my way to take final exams for classes I’d only attended twice all semester.
My wife Melinda’s memory of the brood’s last visit is also foggy. It was the summer she’d moved to Virginia from Buffalo to live with a man she’d eventually marry and then, 8 years later, divorce. “I remember seeing these things flying through the air and thinking ‘where am I? What did I just get myself into?’” she said.
I said it was funny how much of our lives we’d rather forget, how many things seem good at the time, only to be buried in our memories by the lessons of hindsight.
Wikipedia informed me cicadas are definitely not locusts, but it’s hard not to associate some Biblical symbolism to their presence.
As their numbers grew the last few weeks, the cicadas transformed from an anonymous, omnipresent sound to an unavoidable sight as well. You cannot walk from your front door to your car without seeing at least a dozen; they’re clinging to your bushes, your screen door, your t-shirt. More still litter the ground, causing you to serpentine on the sidewalk like you’re ducking sniper fire. I try to avoid stepping on them, not out of a sense of humanity, but because the crunch of their bodies underfoot is sickening; a cross between a potato chip and a wet, crisp stalk of celery.
She’s lived the last month like a teenager in a slasher flick.
Before going outside, she’ll stand in the doorway, pump herself up like a racer in the blocks, and sprint to her destination, screaming the whole time.
Last week I made the kids go outside because they were bugging the shit out of me, and Josephine refused. With a little coaxing, she mustered the courage to get on the swing set, but her nerve failed her when she saw a moth on the other side of the yard. She lapsed into hysterics.
“Josephine, relax,” Dominic said. “That was just a moth, and it was WAY over there.”
“You don’t understand!” Jo fired back with the fervor of someone wearing a tinfoil hat. “You don’t understand ANYTHING!”
Melinda is slightly less afraid of them, keeping a stiff upper lip in front of the kids, but still wincing each time a giant ugly cicada splats the windshield.
Fortunately, I’m equipped to support such a fearful family, having been conditioned not to worry about bugs from a young age.
When I was little and would scream about a spider dangling from my ceiling, my dad would grab it, pluck its legs off, and eat it.
“See?” he’d say. “Nothing to be afraid of.”
This was a party trick he continued to employ in his career as an elementary school science teacher, showing his sixth graders flies and beetles were actually quite nutritious. “Lots of protein,” he’d say.
Over the years his talent for consuming insects became legendary, to the point where students from all over the building would bring him arthropodal offerings, and he’d make a show of gobbling them up.
I haven’t resorted to swallowing cicadas like a circus act in order to quell my family’s concerns, but I have tried to comfort them by reading relevant headlines.
“See here? It says cicadas taste like shrimp!” I said one night at dinner. “There’s a whole festival this summer for people who cook them!”
I was summarily discouraged from purchasing tickets.
We said unlike last time, when we experienced things that have been pushed into deep memory storage, this would be a year we’d look back fondly on as a turning point. THIS cicada summer would be the one where we left our old lives behind: moving into a new house, getting new jobs, coming through a pandemic and emerging from our darkened, fart-smelling underground bedrooms to fly free.
Last week, two days before closing on our new house, I mowed the lawn for the last time at our old property. I tried not to attach too much meaning to it, but I’m not great at shirking sentimentality, so I sat there on the tractor, soaking in the moment like I was watching the end of The Notebook.
I read somewhere that female cicadas are attracted to lawn mowers because the engine sounds like a mating call to them.
I could’ve been bummed by their presence, all those horny cicadas attacking my head and torso and legs, but I tried to stay positive. Ladies, ladies, please! There’s plenty to go around!
I thought about the next time the cicadas would visit in 2038. I’ll be 53; Dominic and Josephine will be well into their 20s; my 1 year-old son Robert will be graduating from high school. Where will the cicadas be attacking me? What terrors and wonders does the world have in store for me in the interim?
For all their incessant chatter and their carcasses littering my driveway, I kind of like that the Brood X cicadas are another way to mark time; a way to remember where we’ve been and where we’re going.