Sing and then Mate and then Die
by Buzzy the Cicada
Pssssttt…hey, you down there. Yeah, that’s right. Hi. I’m up here, in the tree. You got a minute?
I hope I’m not keeping you from something. It’s just that my to-do list has shrunk to only three items, with “die” being the third on the agenda. So I’m not in any real hurry to get through numbers one and two. Maybe you’ll let me bend your ear a little?
You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, sitting pretty on the top branch of a sugar maple with the summer sun bouncing off my thorax, but I’m not from around here. Which is to say, I’m not from up here. I wouldn’t want you to think I consider myself your superior just because I’m so high off the ground. Truth is, I’ve spent most of my life under your feet.
Aww, yeah. The cool, dark tunnels of the underworld…where it seemed things would stay the same forever, as if time itself had left town with no forwarding address. Down there in the cozy dirty dark, with nothing to do but find a nearby root and take deep hits off of that sweet, sweet plant juice. I’m not sure how it all went so wrong. I mean…one day everything’s normal, and the next, this kind of shudder goes through the whole brood. Nobody knew what to make of it. One of the guys in my tunnel—Clicky, my best friend—joked that it was the end of the world. I don’t know where Clicky is now.
I was pretty sure I was losing my mind. Up, a voice inside me was screaming. Up. So I started tunneling upwards. Everyone else was doing the same thing. After a while I thought my arms were going to fall off, all six of them. Clicky said I should just relax and enjoy the ride. But the sensation of not being in control, it terrified me. I didn’t even have time to pack. Would there be fresh bedding where we were going? How would I sleep without my favorite pillow? Would there be snacks?
Why the hell was I climbing away from free food, no responsibilities, and the only home I ever knew?
When I finally pulled myself out of the ground, I collapsed onto the sidewalk with my mouthparts hanging open in disbelief. Never before had I wished so strongly that my eyes had closable eyelids. I’m still half-convinced that this is all some kind of nightmare. This cannot be how the world works. There cannot be some giant flaming circle of fire that just hangs in the sky and makes everything warm and bright.
That was the last time that I saw Clicky. He just kept staring at the sky, and wouldn’t answer me when I yelled, and I could see the sanity evaporating from his face. I had to leave him there.
The world has changed so much since I came out of the egg seventeen years ago. I tried to sign in to my CompuServe account, but the modem won’t connect, it just keeps dialing and dialing. My pager doesn’t work. I expected cellular phones to be small enough to wear on your fingers like rings, but instead everybody’s carrying these rectangles almost as big as their hands. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince is just Prince again. Something happened to the World Trade Center. There’s fried chicken without bones and a million kinds of coffee. I’ll never catch up.
I molted the other day, and things got weird. I about halfway up this maple tree and I felt that itch you get when your exoskeleton cracks open, so I squeezed my way out of it the way you do. And I’m hanging there waiting for my new exoskeleton to dry and then I realize, I’m different. I now have these things on my back. No, not things…wrong word, sorry. Wings. I have wings. Me, who spent his entire life crawling beneath the ground. Now I’m supposed to fly? That can’t be right.
I’m dizzy and I don’t like heights. I never knew I didn’t like heights. Up until a few days ago, I had no idea what heights were. None of us did. Yet here we all are in the treetops, my brothers and me, and we’re all singing, and a she-cicada comes swooping by every now and then and one of us changes his tune and goes off with her. I suppose my turn will come eventually. But I can’t imagine that these wings will actually work. I’m sure I’ll just fall to my death. Or maybe my pathetic singing won’t ever convince any female to come near, and I’ll be the last he-cicada left alone at the top of this tree. I honestly don’t know which outcome would be worse.
I wish somebody would help me understand all this. I wish I could climb down and dig my way deep into the soil, where everything is cool and comfortable and quiet. I’ll come right out and say it: I’m scared. That’s really the reason I wanted your attention. I thought if I had someone to talk to, things would seem a little less scary.
We cicadae get just a few weeks above ground, and then it’s all over. I guess that’s why it’s so hard for a cicada to get a mortgage loan. Why didn’t I read more novels? Or write one? Or live the kind of life that characters in novels live? I should have traveled—they say that barely three yards away from our brood’s nest there grew a plum tree with roots so sweet you could get diabetes just by looking at it. I should have helped people. I should have learned to play jazz guitar. I should have said “yes” to more experiences. I never even got to see Gattaca, which I heard was going to be the film that would finally put Ethan Hawke on the map.
All because my comfort zone ended where the topsoil began.
I’ve thought I might try and translate this song we’ve all been singing. I’m sure you know that it’s a mating call. But in the insect kingdom, there are all kinds of choruses. Crickets, for example; you’ve heard their chirping, I’m sure. They have no subtlety. Their songs are all, “I love you, hey, I’m over here, I love you, I love you…” Not very creative if you ask me. Katydids…I can’t even bring myself to tell you the crude and disgusting things they sing to each other, it’s worse than rap. And don’t get me started on lightning bugs…they flash at each other all night long, but what are they really saying? It’s just “Look at me, I’m so pretty, look at me, notice me.” Shal-low.
What we cicadas sing goes something like this:
There’s not much time left now.
There’s not much time.
So…thanks for listening, I know you have to get going. In gratitude, I’d like to share one important thought. Now I realize you have the long, long lifespan of a warm-blooded mammalian vertebrate, with all the time you could possibly need in your life and then some. I know that you’ve got so many days to use up that you needn’t worry about time wasted on the valueless or trivial. But my people have a kind of wisdom all our own, and we know some things maybe you can benefit from. So in the in the interests of cross-species goodwill, let me just say that
Oh. Wait. It’s happening. Oh God. It’s happening. A female, a she-cada, coming right at me. She’s responding to my singing. She likes my singing. She’s flying towards me. Look.
Here she comes.
Oh God. What do I do? Will these wings really work?
It’s such a long way down.
And here I go.
RICK CHILLOT is a former baby and current writer and editor at Quirk Books. He has contributed to magazines such as Psychology Today, Parenting, Mental Floss, and Prevention. In his twenty-plus years in publishing he’s interviewed about a jillion scientists and doctors and therefore had no need to consult any of them for this book.