Carol Jane Remsburg
Yesterday was just another sweltering day that had come in a long string of them. I took a detour from my normal, pre-planned Saturday morning routine of tossing laundry into the washer and routing the dirt and dust from my home. I enjoyed my coffee and morning paper on the back porch.
The heat was already bordering oppressive. What little air was moving seemed to generate only parched whispers from the curling leaves on the trees. The birds themselves had little to sing about but their grumblings could be heard. It was the cicadas that were proclaiming the gloriousness of the day and of life.
With their low-thrumming start, the cicadas increase the pitch and volume inexorably. As everything else in nature seemed to be begging for relief in the form of refreshing rain and cooler temperatures, the cicadas were announcing that this was the best of the best as their mates drew near.
As a child, I remember seeing those hideous looking skins that the nymphs had shed. The adults seemed adept at hiding until their wings dried and hardened enough for flight. It was what emerged from those dried up prickly dead things added lyrics to the sounds of summer. I used to slowly swing beneath the shade of the huge old maples at my grandmother's house out in the countryside and listen to that chittering rusty ballad rise and rise to its crescendo. One would end and another begin. Other sounds of the world seemed blotted out by these tiny little creatures with the big voices.
Normally after the dinner dishes were washed, dried and put away, the adults would wander out to sit in the increasing shade as dusk approached. It was still hot, but tolerable. The lightning bug capture game was over for the year, but the cicada shell game had just begun. Usually there were several of us kids and we would beg for containers of any kind. It was more of a treasure hunt than anything else, but there were rules to follow and the rules were rigid. You couldn't collect the shells during the day because that was too easy. Besides, you might disturb a cicada in its transformation process and that would blow it for you completely. If caught doing that, you were banned from the game—perhaps until next year.
In the deepening of dusk, those dark brown shells were difficult to see even for sharp-eyed little kids. If you were sneaky, as both my older sisters were, they had made mental notes during the day as to just where the little buggers where shedding—remember I was mooning away possibly fruitful hours on the swing listening to them, not actively searching them out for later retrieval. I always came up with less, but my cache were always the cleanest too. Also part of this game was having the "perfect" shell, fully intact without leg-loss.
The grandparents, parents, and the odd aunt and uncle would peruse our catches. Mostly, they were amused. The game kept us out of their hair and I'm sure we were fun to watch. Each child always won for something. One would win for having the "most." That usually felt to my middle sister who mapped out her strategy with all the energy of a wartime general at the front. Another would win for the "largest" specimen. That title would normally fall to our eldest sister because she was smarter than the rest of us knowing it took less effort and time. She was also usually quicker than we were too. However, for the "perfect" shell nearly always went to me. After I had crushed a few my first time out, I learned. Those brittle shells have no give to them and eagerness can mean only ruination for you.
Oh, there were times when there would be more than just my sisters and me. Sometimes it would be an entire clan of us kids, cousins and second cousins. Then the awards would change and multiply. There would be the ones for "the ugliest, the most deformed, the most difficult to retrieve, and . . . " How they lengthened the list to accommodate each child is beyond me, but they managed it. Yet, as a kid, I took those prizes seriously. It was an accolade to be earned. It was also one of the few times I ever slowed down and took gentle care with anything.
As I was bringing in the fresh laundry, I saw it there on the wooden fence. It was a cicada shell and I hadn't even been looking for one. I continued about my duties and forgot about it. This morning it was chilly after the cool front and rain moved through. I brought my daughter outside to see what had been left as a memory of brilliant song. With great care I removed the shell not breaking a leg or crushing the body. Proudly I displayed the ugly thing to my daughter. I looked high and low for another, but it seems that either the rain washed them away or they are hidden in among the higher reaches of the trees.
Each year the cicadas sing their song of joy. Their numbers may have lessened but their impact is still strong. It's time for another generation to play the game and revere their fortitude. Meanwhile, I still hold the title for the "perfect" specimen.