I walk to yoga in the park. It’s only 8:45 in the morning but the air is already ringing with the steady rattle of cicadas. It’s the moment of tension in an opera right before the stab, or the kiss, except this thrumming will go on for hours.
Under a generous beech tree, we spread out our mats. A man sleeps on a bench by the path. The teacher helps a cicada off her mat with her sandal before she starts the class with a round of Om.
A massive cohort of cicadas called Brood X is emerging in D.C. and across the central and eastern U.S. from Ohio to New York. They are not the August singers. These periodical cicadas only come out every 17 years, and when they finally emerge to mate, their life will be almost over.
After school Diana and her neighborhood friends collect cicada exoskeletons. Still clinging to tree trunks and fence posts all over our neighborhood, they are shadows of the nymphs who lived under the earth for 17 years. Now they have transformed themselves into black winged beings. The girls make piles of honey-colored shells and stick them to their shirts like broaches.
We do cobra and cow poses under the beech tree. Its branches reach out to give me shade. The grass underneath bends to hold me. Grips and grooves in the dirt help my feet find balance. In the studio I wobble — here I am a dancer.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the steady ringing has given way to a searing razz. Entire trees are on fire with rattle. Flames of cicada song lick the sky, even though the air is still on this late May day.
On schoolday afternoons, neighborhood girls extend their hands to cicadas in the grass. Diana names the one on her arm ‘Beauty Orange-Eyes Rose’ or ‘Beau-Beau’ for short. And this one, she tells me, is called ‘Matilda Angela Hope.’
What is one of your favorite sounds? was the question we asked at a family meeting this winter. “Frankie’s claws clicking on the floor,” said Diana. “Frankie purring,” said Luke. For Mark it was the sound of the dishwasher, Sofia the whispering in her A.S.M.R. videos. I said mourning doves in spring, but I wished I had thought of my husband’s answer: cicadas.
By now, cicadas litter the sidewalks: crushed, mangled, or partly eaten by birds or squirrels. Alone they are small, but together — in the tens of billions this year — their music has become the air itself.
“Cicadas breathe with their butts,” Diana’s friend explains. “That’s why they can stay alive without their heads.”
I find two cicadas touching, butt to butt, on our driveway. In a month or so, their babies will hatch. They will burrow into the ground like their parents did and feed on tree sap for another 17 years. And then, it will be their turn.
For this pair, all that will be left after their striving is to let go. Let go of the bodies that brought them together, the bodies that sang, that flew, that loved. Let go and return to the nothing and the everything.
It’s 92 degrees in the house and sweat is beading on my husband’s forehead. When I ask him if we should turn on the air conditioning, he says, “No, it’s nice to hear the sound.”
Eventually we give in, sealing ourselves into a box: smooth and predictable, pleasant and very quiet.
In the morning, I will open the windows to hear them again, and when I walk outside, the song of cicadas will tell me, You live in a place humming with aliveness. Here there is harmony and heartbreak, synchronicity and chaos. And underneath it all, a deep majestic order that requires nothing from you to unfold in perfect timing. Nothing from you, except maybe for you to feel it, to know it.