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Personal History

Cicadian Rhythms

Should the cicadas arrive just in time for your wedding—biblical, unexpected, and yet, routine as clockwork—there’s nothing to do but carry on with the ceremony. Come hell or, in fact, high water.

Cicada Maculata, Westwood, J. O., Drury, Dru, courtesy the New York Public Library.

Magicicada. It’s a fine name for an infestation. Say magicicada septendecim and imagine, not a buzzing, sun-blotting swarm, but a covey of hooded necromancers in flickering candlelight. Some careless headline editors have taken to calling them “magic cicadas.” I studied Latin, and I can count the c’s, and these are not magic cicadas. For one thing, they travel up the I-95 corridor and they are mostly hanging out in Elizabeth, NJ, and Manassas, Va. For another thing, they don’t wear top hats and white gloves. (Though some children’s book illustrator is smacking his forehead right now.)

A magus—ancient, priestly, and sacrosanctis a greater creature than a magician. More reliable than his derivitative offspring, a magus persists across empires and epochs; a magician, only from stage to stage. A magus brings gifts; a magician, only tricks. A magus is named Melchior, and though his journey is long (coming from afar and all that) he arrives on schedule; a magician, well, he’s called Copperfield and his trick is to disappear.

Which is to say that the magicicada spooks us not by magic but by simple scienceemerging on schedule and yet by surprise, its nature so extreme to be almost supernatural. Which is to say that though a cicada eruption is epic, it is also anticipated. Indeed, researchers refer to the study of the cicada’s periodical behavior as “numerology,” for the insect’s very life cycle bears mysteries near-occult. The cicada is not magical. But it has magical timing. It has cicadian rhythm. Yes, I know that’s wrong, too.

 

Here’s what bothered me when I first heard it was going to be a big summer for the cicadas. That the Eastern seaboard from Virginia to Connecticut had it coming. That the biblical bug times were upon us and it was a 17-year thing. Septendecim, baby.

I counted back. On my fingers, even. And couldn’t square it any other way than that the magicicada septendecim had last mowed down the Mid-Atlantic in 1996. And that didn’t square. Because I got married in June 1996 in Rockbridge County, Va., and there were no red-eyed insects in the wedding party. We had guests from Missouri and Moscow, as well as second and third cousins, but none among them were Brood II. I stood under a chuppa and my guy stomped the ground, but it was not to shelter from the swarm and there were no exoskeletons among the broken glass. My wedding was biblical because we included readings from the Torah and my family thought that was exoticbut not because there were locusts and floods. You see, we had those the summer before. It was my sister’s wedding that was plagued, not mine. Which meant somebody’s timing was off.

The magicicada spooks us not by magic but by simple science—emerging on schedule and yet by surprise.

Let’s back up. June 1995. Days from the solstice. My sister, days away from marrying a boy she didn’t want to marry anymore. She knew it and I knew it and my mother knew it. I said, “Don’t do it,” my sister said, “Fuck” and my mother (my mother, whose own mother had once said, “But Nancy, the invitations have already gone out”) snapped at us both, grabbed the broom, and swept the cicada husks out with her anxiety.

We waited them out, those days till the wedding, with a chorus of cicadas, who had emerged a few weeks earlier and were moving further down the mountain every day. That’s how the cicadas do: In the morning they hum low on the sonar but high in the trees. They grow louder as they move lower and later, so that by cocktail hour they drown the conversation and by dark they litter your porch. At their peak they sound like machinery in the middle of the day and they wallpaper the trees. At least this is how the magicicada roll in Rockbridge County. Or at least how they did in 1995.

Or did they? Now that I think about it, I’m apt to decide that the progress of the cicada was two-part. That with each passing day they progressed further down the mountain. But that over the course of the day they moved down from treetops to table. Which of course, doesn’t square either. Since they hatch from the ground. Hatch from the ground and crawl up into the trees to begin their physical and emotional descent into our consciences. So I must have that wrong, too.

Cicadian, circadian—there was a pattern. And an exception to that pattern. And my own subtly reconstructed memories interfering with both.

 

An item on the FAQ of the cicadamania.com website deals with the concern: Will cicadas ruin my outdoor wedding? The answer provided by the site’s cheeky experts is not necessarily. They provide a complex cicada emergence formula and commonsense advice: “Don’t panic, they are just bugs.” Also this tip: Bagpipes drown out the drone of cicadas.

I think I would have to disagree. Firstly, the mating song of a cicada has many choruses, all produced by internal “tymbals” seasoned and tuned underground for a decade and a half, so that when male cicadas let loose 17 years’ worth of communication they rival wind instruments, brass horns, and even heavy machinery. Extraordinary density, intensity, and potency characterize this particular “acoustic insect.” Not a hum, not a drone, and not a whistle through the wind, the sound of a cicada-pregnant woods is a sonic event.

Secondly, they may just be bugs, and many a bride to be has monsters worse to contend with. But I can still feel the draft of that closing window that was my sister’s chance to back out. And on the eve of anxiety, such a primal demonstration of inevitability is—well, panic inducing. Fate itself was not content to knock on that closing door. It had sent its septendecim. To block the exit hatch.

It was absolutely June 1995 when we had that lovely summer solstice wedding in the woods. There were wildflowers in my sister’s hair and cicadas in mine.

At the bottom of that same cicada wedding planner site also there is a video clip: Scenes From a Cicada Wedding, Brood II, 1996.

But it was certainly June 1995 when my sister cleared out the glade up the hill in the woods of Rockbridge County in preparation of a small wedding party. The boy she was marrying helped out. His parents were arriving any minute, conveyed across country by RV. When they arrived, they could barely navigate the small wood-hewn bridge over the creek but did nevertheless and declared our summer cabin on the river “cute as all get out.” We showed them the glade where the ceremony would be held, and they liked that, too. Then they asked about the racket coming down the mountain. My sister looked pained. I wasn’t sure which coming collision course was worse.

It was absolutely June 1995 when we had that lovely summer solstice wedding in the woods. There were wildflowers in my sister’s hair and cicadas in mine. We had a pig roast and a candlelit dinner and my sister flashed brave smiles throughout, though her lips were stained with red wine.

It was the day after that wedding, in June 1995, when most of the guests left, but I stayed, and the less than happy couple stayed, and the groom’s parents stayed. The cicadas, of course also stayedcemented exoskeletons on the rented chafing dishes, frayed latticed wings scattered across the lawn like the wedding rice we skipped. I remember waking early to the sound of urgency: creatures halfway through their amped up lifecycle with limited time to mate. I remember understanding that the cicadas were done playing around. They had dispensed with their daily warm-up and were at full roar at sunrise. I remember a moment of recognition: that my sister, a sentient, independent young woman had resigned herself to the path of least resistance. And that she had years to regret, reconsider and recover from her life choice. I didn’t think about how many years. About where she would be in 17 years. Or, for that matter, in 18 years.

 

This summer, when the magicicada septendecim forced me to reconsider my memories, I called my sister. She said there was nothing to be confused about: Yes, she was married in 1995. And yes, there were cicadas. They were Brood 1 cicadas, Blue Ridge cicadas, which unlike anything else in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, are ahead of the curve. “They were here last summer, too,” she said. “You just didn’t hear about it in New York. Plus, there weren’t as many as in 1995. Probably because most of them drowned before they mated or laid eggs.”

Ah yes. The flood.

Two days after my sister’s wedding in June 1995, the heavens opened and the river rose. To the west, upriver, they warned of a dam breach. My sister’s new in-laws beat an early retreat, busting the bridge over the creek in their haste. We watched them trundle out from our perch on high ground. Hours later the National Guard was airlifting our neighbors from the roof of their low-lying cabin.

We drank more wine and picked at the leftovers. We hardly noticed that the roar of the river had drowned out the insect drone. That was my sister’s weddingelemental, biorhythmically, dramatic and short-lived.

We remembered these things over the phoneI in New York, where Brood II is just appearing and my sister from her porch in Rockbridge County500 yards down the road from where she shared an anniversary with Brood I, which won’t be back until 2029. As we reminisced, she paused intermittently to yell at her three teenage boys. None of them are the sons of the boy she married that summer in 1995. He was gone by June of 1996, when my sister pulled me aside on the night before my own wedding to tell me that her marriage was over.

Among the outpouring of press about this season’s cicada eclosion is a piece in the New York Times that marvels at the “errant cicada,” the straggler caught out between broods, compelled to switch schedules, life-cycles even. Turns out that the magicicada, four million years old, is nimbler than we think. And so there is hope even for us, fickle humans with minimal supernatural talent.

 

My mother has a Mexican nativity crèche that she arranges on the dining room table every Christmas. As kids, we couldn’t keep our hands off the clay figures: Mary and Joseph fit so snugly in the fist; the shepherds and their flock had been fused in the kiln so that the Messiah appeared to shared a bed with mutant sheep; my favorite, the turbaned magi, had smooth, coffee-colored faces, featureless save for a pair of red eyes.

That summer 18 years ago, the summer my sister got married, we plucked hundreds of red-eyed magicicada mid-journey and staged miniature insect soap operas on that same dining room table. Alive, they moved among us like exquisite wind-up toys, the intricate workings of which we never tired of examining. Dead, they left bejeweled husks with wings like leached stained glass. In both states I fancied we saw ourselves: pilgrims of ritual, devoid of real wisdom, moved by a terrestrial compulsion that we have confused as cosmic.

Wise men on a schedule subject to changemuch like our own memories.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem