A tractor, a big tractor, its diesel motor droning from across a distant field. That's what it sounded like. Or a box fan, turned on high, held in place by a window sash pulled down tight on its metal frame and blowing out into the hot summer night to create a draft for the rest of the open windows in the house. That's what it sounded like. Or the jet engine of a DC-10 making its final approach to Hartsfield, its shadow an immense gray bird falling over the cars on I-75. That, too, is what it sounded like.
But it was none of those things. None of those mechanical, manufactured, man-marked sounds. The hum that swelled into the air and surged through the trees and surrounded me like a tight sweater was thousands — tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? — of cicadas serenading themselves and anything within at least half a mile with the song they get to sing only once every 13 years.
The friend I was visiting had warned me, but I was not prepared for the depth of the rumbling that greeted me when I walked outside into sunshine that had warmed the cicadas up enough to begin the performance. The sound vibrations were coming at me from every direction and I could almost feel myself pulsing in time with the buzz. It was confusing and calming, discordant and melodic, repulsive and enticing, all at the same time.
Given the fact that they appear so seldom and not at all in south Georgia, chances were that this would be my only chance to see one, so I set off into the woods at the edge of the yard, scanning the landscape, certain I would be able to find one fairly easily. I did not. I scoped out the pine trees I'd been told they preferred, alert for the bulbous red eyes that distinguish them from their cousins who show up every summer. Nothing. I surveyed the undergrowth, stirring it up a little with my shoes. Still nothing.
"Oh, well," I sighed to my friend who was graciously helping me search, "at least I got to hear them." And at just that moment, that exact moment, I looked down and there, on the arm of a teak garden bench, was a cicada. A 13-year cicada. A cicada with eyes that looked like clown noses. A cicada with diaphanous wings that shimmered as though dusted with gold.
I picked it up. Its thin legs clamped onto my finger, I twisted and turned it in the morning sunshine and watched the light reflect off the veins in its wings. It made not a sound while all around us the cacophony played on. A moment later it surprised me how hard it was to loosen its grip from my knuckle.
My friend and I had things to do and, to be honest, it seemed almost rude to just stand there and gawk, just stand there with my head tilted first one way and then the other, just stand there like an eavesdropper. So we left.
Later, of course, I had to do a little research, had to add a few facts to the anecdotal evidence I'd collected on my own, had to legitimize my experience with that of scientists. I found out that the 13-year and 17-year-cicadas are called periodical cicadas, as distinguished from the ordinary annual cicadas, and that only the males sing, producing "acoustic signals" from a structure called a tymbal, which is located on the little fellows' abdomens. All very interesting.
But the best part, the piece of information that made me tremble again, just as if I'd been surrounded by a whole room full of cicadas, was this: "Periodical cicadas ... belong to the genus Magicicada." Magicicada? Magic cicada? Really?
It's easy — when tornadoes are erasing entire towns, when gas is nearly $4.00 a gallon, when memories of 9/11 are newly-stirred — to see the
darkness that frames every vision, to feel the heaviness that weighs every offering, to smell the decay that accompanies every blossom, to believe that magic has died. Easy to draw the curtains, slam the doors, seal the borders of our hearts and close down our minds. The other option — to stay open to possibility, to hang on to hope, to believe that truth will ultimately win — that's hard.
I imagine, though, that it's hard to stay underground for 13 years, to rein in anticipation for 13 years, to hold back a song for 13 years. Somehow, though, the cicadas — magic cicadas — do that hard thing. And there is something in their song that makes me think we can, too.