Audience Participation Friday always astonishes me. I say, “Let’s write about X,” and a good many of you say, “OK,” and you pour tremendous creativity into the thing and produce some really good writing. I didn’t always (or even usually) get that when I taught college English and could give people Fs if they didn’t try. I didn’t get the impression that many of you already had cicada stories and poems in your back pockets ready to whip out in the event that somebody should put together a cicada lit contest. No, you said, “Cicada literature? Sounds good to me,” and you put your shoulder to the wheel. Or your hand to the plow, for those of you who prefer agricultural metaphors.
The last entry came in at 11:51 last night, eight minutes before the deadline. There was a good bit of variety among the entries, from Madeleine’s free verse, reminiscent of e.e. cummings, to luaphicam’s very thoughtful personal essay. Jess, our first entrant, got things rolling with a poem that reflects on what it would be like to live in the mud for thirteen years, finally coming out to sunshine and beauty–not just seeing beauty, but being beautiful. We had two personal memoirs: Loren’s on Pennsylvania summers, Melinda’s on the great King Cicada of the Lone Star State.
Hannah Webb submitted a haiku, which the prize committee dismissed out of hand (you were warned, Hannah). Hannah Joy submitted a poem that was openly anti-cicada and gleeful in its description of cicadas’ destruction. The prize committee urges her to open her mind–and her heart–a little bit. Dan “One-Trick Pony” Kulp offered up another clerihew. We would have been very disappointed if he hadn’t. This one rhymes “made of” and “cicada,” which definitely earned him extra points with the committee but didn’t quite lift him up to the winner’s circle.
Rebecca, the artist formerly known as BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck, transcribed a cicada song she overheard. Apparently the cicada in question was the Weird Al Yankovich of the cicada world, parodying one of Paul Simon’s new songs. It was very clever indeed, but a transcript of a knockoff of a Weird Al knockoff of a Paul Simon song? The committee decided it was just too derivative and disqualified Rebecca altogether. They agreed, however, that if they could find the cicada or Paul Simon, either one would be eligible for the prize.
Special recognition has to go to our youngest entrant, Joe Thacker’s son Julian. He was the only contestant to illustrate his story, which you can see on the right. The story is only two sentences long, but I’d like to draw attention to the second sentence:
When he stood still the cicadas would cling to him.
It is one syllable away from being perfect iambic pentameter. Change “would cling” to “clung,” and it is a line straight out of Shakespeare.
Well, anyway, the prize committee met through the night, and after much wrangling, politicking, and back-door deal-making, they emerged from the smoke-filled room with the envelope. They resolved an hours-long deadlock by finally deciding to declare two winners. The first prize goes to livingoakheart, whose “Cicada’s Diary” tells a very funny story of a rebellious younger generation trying and failing to overthrow their parents’ generation–failing for the simple reason that their parents’ generation is all dead. The poor cicadas emerge from their underground imprisonment only to discover that they are the establishment. Very clever stuff. Here’s the piece, in case you missed it:
Year 13, Spring, day 1
Our day will come. You thought we would remain happy in our little underground caves, didn’t you? No longer! This dark oppression must end!
Is getting warmer. Have twenty-three hundred or so who will stand with me when the day comes. We shall overthrow the oppressive older generation who forced us to accept these squalid burrows of comfort!
Realized that I don’t remember what the older generation look like. Will consult with others.
TODAY IS THE DAY!!! I pen this hastily, as we are preparing our migration to the sun. Soon WE will be the ones in control!
We have not been able to locate the older ones. Our time of opportunity is almost over. We have to lay our eggs soon.
GREAT SCOTT! They all died! Our glorious revolution has no one to revolt against! What can this mean? What sort of cataclysm wiped out an entire generation?
Am feeling strangely weak. Noticed Harold becoming sluggish. Did we eat something?
I know what happened to them…
Our other winner is Charles Atkinson. His was the entry that came in eight minutes before the deadline. This short story captures the idea that even where wonder seems to have fled, it’s still there, underground, waiting to bust out and make itself seen and heard. It’s much longer than the other entries, but well worth your time.
You may read all the entries in the comments to the previous post. Congratulations to livingoakheart and Charles Atkinson, who will each receive a signed copy of The World According to Narnia with a genuine remainder mark, shipped Media Mail. Only the best for my blog readers! And thanks to everybody who entered the Cicada Lit contest. Start thinking now about your entries for the next contest, which will be held in thirteen years.
Meanwhile, Here’s Charles Atkinson’s outstanding cicada story:
My friend, an avid bird watcher and hiker, found a bundle of parchments under a rock in the Tennessee Forest after following when he described as “the shrillest, and strangest bird call I have ever heard!” When he heard about your search for cicada lore he immediately shipped it to me overnight. Here are the contents:
Not far from where Route 70 meets Stewarts Ferry Pike is the good town of Gladeville, Tennessee, although it has only been remembered by these names for a short while. About an afternoon’s hike away, on the other side of the overpass, lies the Cedars of Lebanon State Forest of Wilson County, which is where I remember encountering what I thought was the last man who ever listened to the forest: James V. Drake.
It was the summer of 1868, before that concrete river of a highway had been forced on the land, and Drake was working on a history of Wilson County (because “One of the chief distinctions between a civilized and a savage people consists in a record — the one being known by a written history, the other by a tradition. The people of Wilson County are not savages“).
I watched him through the foliage with curiosity as he trotted through the thick woods, I think fancying himself as one of the great pioneer. He had picked the right time to visit our lands, for the cicada arrival of 1868 was one of the last truly great dances. The whole forest valley was vibrating louder and louder with the fecund overtones of the cicada brood’s chorus (and the rest of the wood folk accompanying it). I myself couldn’t resist joining in, even as I kept an eye on Drake. But I wasn’t as used to man-folk as I am now and underestimated how attentive they can be when they want to be. He immediately stopped on the trail, ears quivering, and muttered to himself – “Fantastic! I could’ve sworn I heard the Scotch bagpipe,” and then adjusting his rucksack he continued on, shaking his head, “wonderful country – just wonderful!”
The speed at which man-folk change (themselves and their surroundings) has always been an amazement to me. Only eleven cicada dances have come and gone since that woodland encounter with Drake, but nowadays I could hazard a stroll down the cement streets of McCrary Road in broad daylight without worrying about being noticed by a man-cub. The young ones used to be the only ones with the eyesight soft enough to see us forest-folk in the sun, but now their eyes are all taken
up by these strange, smooth, white rock-type things, whose glow always seems to have them captivated. Whatever these things tell them, it must be very important because I’ve seen man-cubs so taken up with them that they completely lose their trail (and the dull, straight concrete trails, at that!).
I was almost ready to give up on these folks of Gladeville, Tennessee (they had forgotten how to listen so easily), but just the other day I witnessed something which gave me hope for the Gladevillians. I really owe this hope to a particular cicada, whom I befriended as a larva at the end of the last cicada dance thirteen summers ago. I recognized him at once as a Rememberer, one of the few cicadas that actually know their own name.
Generally, if you ask a cicada for his name, he would not be able to tell you. Not because he doesn’t have one, but because he is part of a brood, which possesses something of a group consciousness. The entire brood moves to the same rhythm and flow throughout their 13 earth-cycle lives. Even when millions of them are burrowing underground for the first time, they do it as one, always aware of the others. A cicada sucking the juice out of a tree root at one end is aware of his neighbor cicada’s pull on the juice at the other end of the tree’s root system. And so for moons unseen, they push and pull, back and forth, pumping the trees life giving sap to complex rhythm hidden just a few meters below the grass. This way of life does not leave much time for individual names.
But I’m getting off track. This particular cicada, my friend, was a trifle more self-conscious than the rest and he knew his own name, though giving it would be impossible, since it is quite untranslatable into English, or any other man-folk language for that matter (the Old Greeks came closest when they named their cicadas the tettix). However, in order to tell this story we really must give a name (even imperfectly) to our friend, so we shall call him Christopher, which is the closest English equivalent, I think.
As I said, Christopher was one of the Rememberers. You see, each mother cicada, after laying her eggs inside the deep cuts she made in a twig or sapling, would whisper the tale of the Great Dance to her young, in the hopes that a few (of the several hundred) of her young may remember and pass it on . None of them question why they keep telling the tale, it is just part of the rhythm of their ways, though few actually believe it anymore (cicadas do not have as long a memory as fauns). Of the Rememberers (which was already only a few of the brood) Christopher was of the even smaller handful who actually believed in the stories of the Great Dance. He, like the rest of the brood, had a lot of time to think during their long retreat underground. He had many a good think beneath the cold earth, imagining what the dance would be like and repeating to himself what his mother had told him.
In the old days, the arrival of the brood above ground was something met with great anticipation, not the usual surprise and disgust with which is met today. This was back when Pan still reigned over all of the Woodlands. [ He is still alive, mind you, and powerful, too. He just sleeps more these days. And he spends less time than he used to on the edge of the wood, and more time in the deep, dark depths of his sylvan kingdom where there are still some who listen to him (but again I am getting off target, and should stick to the story).]
Pan used to preside over the Feast of the Dance. All the wood nymphs would come (dressed in their best leafery) and help the tree spirits prepare for the brood’s arrival. The older trees, especially the Oak and Hickory of our particular forest, were always quite delighted to be rid of their sap-sucking friends, but the younger saplings and shrubs which were to provide homes for the next generation of cicadas needed some convincing. One especially persuasive Oak would usually begin, “We have done our bit and it’s only fair for you to take your turn.” Then a dogmatic Dogwood would chime in, “Pan said so, and his word is law, after all.” But what always worked best was: “You don’t want to miss the Dance!” And at that the reluctant young dryads ran back into their larders to fetch that special dessert they had been hoarding (usually a gourd of sugary sap or a vial of sweet morning dew) and proudly set it on the table for the Feast.
And then it began. The trees started shaking their roots, moving up and down like a man stuck in a bog, churning up the soil and heating the ground until the first beady heads of the brood rose up out of the soil. Then, as the brood began their slow ascent up the welcoming bark of the trees, the feast commenced. The rest of the forest folk came pouring in- Naiads, dryads, a great many fauns, and a few friendly trolls. They paid their respects to Pan, presiding at the head of the table, and tucked into a delectable meal of roasted chestnuts and acorns, heaps of wild berries, radishes and roots, steamed mushrooms, and, of course, the young dryads’ desserts. And once the wine began flowing, without fail, Dionysus would show up, invited or not and it turned into a rather wild, raucous kind of gathering. Not particularly safe, but full of excitement as they waited for the brood to take flight.
Only Pan knew when the cicadas were prepared to emerge from their shells. When that moment arrived, he put his pipes to his lips and began the melody, softly and slowly at first as the adult cicadas came forth from their shells and hung there for a moment, graceful, like a diving bird, frozen in time. Then, the music quickened, their wings spread, trembling with life, and with a resounding stamp of Pan’s hoof on the forest floor, the brood rode the wind into the sky with one will – the dance had begun!
Birds swooped in and out, hungry for lunch but overwhelmed by the sheer number of cicadas. The wind picked up the leaves of the trees and the petals of the flowers and weaved them among the brood in fantastic shapes. The beautiful woodland nymphs and naiads, and the dryads of all shapes and sizes from Chestnut to Cherry, began an elaborate dance, somewhat akin to the man-folk’s square dance, only much faster and with everybody singing as loud as he can.
The music rose with a great rolling of ten thousand bagpipe drones as the chorus began. The tymbals of each cicada clicked in and out, each a unique sound, blending with the whole brood into an orchestra of one million percussionists. Pan stood majestically on the height of a tall rock and conducted his sylvan symphony. The footwork of the forest-folk moved faster. The wind whipped around the edges of the valley and tossed up the cool spray of the wild streams. The Great Dance would continue for weeks until the twigs and saplings were filled with millions of eggs whispered to, and even Dionysus was exhausted, sleeping on the grass among the empty shells left behind.
This was the story that Christopher remembered from his mother’s last words to him. For twelve summers he kept it alive within him and told it and retold it to the brood. Sometimes he was humored, other times mocked for believing in empty stories, but as each summer drew closer to their turn for the dance, the entire brood began anticipating their release from the Earth’s dark loam.
It was this summer (roughly the two thousand eleventh since a different, and much more important, Release) that marked Christopher’s thirteenth and final summer. When his brood emerged, curious, blinking (as far as cicadas blink) in the bright sunlight for the first time, they were rather confused. There was no feast to greet them, here at the man-settlements. Many arrived in the man-folk’s “front yard” (an untidy affair of cut grass and chemicals) where they were expecting forest. There was nobody to hold the baton to begin the dance. The brood, having at last found tree or shrub to latch onto, uneasily moved within their shells, ready to fall out, but unsure as to when. For a moment, I thought I was witnessing the end of the Dance. The highway had replaced the drones of the faun’s bagpipe. No longer accompanying buzz of the cicada’s tymbals, the low roar of the automobile took no notice of nature’s ways. It was over.
Who knows, perhaps the cicadas would’ve just hung there for weeks without knowing how to begin, and slink back underground, still in their old shells, cursing the old stories that deceived them, had not Christopher remembered. He was waiting, listening for the pipe. From deep within the forest, Pan had not forgotten them. A single clarion note sounded and echoed from the high rock all the way to Gladeville, and Christopher heard it. Immediately he began struggling against his shell, scraping, scratching, until… the full warmth of the sun’s kiss… and what was this! The wings from the stories were real, too. The metamorphosis was complete. And now, to sing, to fly, to love!
All it took was one member of the brood to trigger the rest. Once Christopher awoke, the entire brood sensed the first movements of the Dance and soon the residents of Gladeville heard the hum begin. It began as a low rumble which was raised to a higher and higher shrill as the winged cicada brood filled the air. The mating, which would last for the next several weeks, had begun.
This was when I spotted two man-folk onlookers coming out one of their square buildings. The deafening rhythm and cadence of the cicada’s dance filled the air. The man looked up from his glowing rock just long enough to say “Disgusting, where do they even come from?” His female companion stood fixed to the spot. Her voice hushed and reverent, “Do you really think so? I think it’s beautiful.” The man did not look up, but his hand didn’t resist her tender grasp as they walked off, arms swinging ever so slightly to the rhythm of the Dance.
I didn’t see Christopher before he died; his few weeks in the sun were spent so quickly, singing the great story as loud as he could. I will not forget him. He taught something vital about remembering that I was in danger of forgetting. Remembering lives by hope and is completed by love. Without either, it is just an empty cicada husk. I would’ve made a great mistake to give up on the man-folk. There will always be those that listen and dance. And there are many more out there that just need a nudge.
Yesterday I dusted off the old pipes and began playing again. The rest can only be said by song, so I commend this letter to you, dear reader, whoever you may be. Though I don’t expect you to believe this, I left these parchments here in the hopes that another listener may find it and remember the Great Dance.
Cedars of Lebanon State Forest, Wilson County, Tennessee,
Pipe Major of the Tennessee Fauns Pipe and Drum Band,
And friend of the good people of Gladeville
 Drake, James V. A Historical Sketch of Wilson County, TN From Its First Settlement to the Present Time. Nashville, Tavel, Eastman & Howell, 1879 [Being a history lover myself, I nabbed a copy from the county library]