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Animals

Please, Brood X Cicadas, I Beg You, Shut The Fuck Up

A cicada, screaming endlessly.
Chris Thompson

You see Brood X cicadas before you ever hear them. You’d think this would go the other way: Over a period of days you’d hear this approaching, crescendoing drone, and then a cloud of cicadas would darken the horizon, and then one day there would just be cicadas everywhere, the trees would be full of screeching, devouring cicadas. Not so. Instead, one day you see a single lonely cicada clinging to a wall, dazed and dopey and completely, achingly vulnerable. That guy was in the ground for the last 17 years. All light is brand new to him. Moving air. The very notion of a sky. You are yourself an unfathomably vast and strange monster, many thousands of times larger and more terrifying than anything the cicada has ever encountered, alien and awful and incomprehensible. You are Cthulhu. That first hungover cicada, freshly molted and incapable of respectable flight, doesn’t even bother trying to escape. You could scoop him up as indelicately as a chicken nugget and put him directly into your mouth, and he won’t even so much as flap his wings in protest. Poor guy!

An early cicada from the 2021 brood.Credit: Chris Thompson

It’s days of this before you hear even the first cicada sound, long enough for you to settle into the idea of them as docile, peaceful little visitors, gentle emissaries from a quiet undertown of roots and aquifers and life-supporting nutrients. Maybe you are even happy to see the cicadas, individually, making their slow way up a tree trunk or trying and failing to get those new wings to hold them on an aerial path. Careful there, buddy, you say, with sweet camaraderie in your voice, as a daring little goofball crash-lands on your shirtfront. With almost maternal care you help him to a nearby leaf and watch to make sure he finds a foothold. You fool. You sucker. You absolute traitor. Do you know what you’ve done.

Soon you start to hear them, but quietly. It’s a ghostly, echoey sound that seems to issue from impossible distances. At first the chorus is almost pleasant, if a bit dramatic, somewhere between a whistle and the dona nobis pacem at the climax of the Barber cut of Agnus Dei. Hey, I could get used to this, you say to yourself as you linger on the route from your car to your front door: Every summer should have such a surreal, living score. The few nearby cicadas adding their voice to the mix sound buzzy and hoarse, and it’s hard to connect their raspy little calls to that ethereal background wail.

Just you wait, asshole. The real show is only days away. It happens when enough of the cicadas have made it safely to the upper limbs and branches of the trees, and when the temperatures have held dry and hot long enough that the cicadas are all warm and mobile and full of summertime vigor. Then, oh God, the droning.

The throbbing, endless, ear-splitting, teeth-rattling, sense-annihilating droning.

Everything—every songbird, every cricket, every passing car or airplane, the blood-curdling screams of the poor souls finally driven to madness by the drone, even that ever-present whistling background wail of untold millions of distant cicadas—is obliterated utterly by the impossibly loud screeching of mature cicadas in the treetops around you. The droning never ceases, not while the sun is in the sky, not for an instant. It relaxes only long enough—a few seconds at a time—to build to a new brain-piercing decibel. It penetrates windows and doors, exterior and interior walls, shower curtains, headphones, and pillows which in desperation you have smashed against your head so hard that you have memory foam embedded in your vestibulocochlear nerve. There is no escaping the drone. Not for months.

Every afternoon it reaches a new crescendo, and every afternoon you find yourself retreating as far indoors as your home will permit, just for a moment of silence, which you can never attain. I walked outside this afternoon to water my plants and instantly had a massive, pounding headache. The plants will simply have to suffer in silence until such time as these damned cicadas give it a goddamn rest and/or return to their hell homes in the bowels of the earth. The hostile outer world is utterly dominated by the screeching beasts; suddenly I am the helpless creature down in the hole. While I appreciate the irony of this reversal, I would also like to be run over by as many cars as it takes to send me speeding into the afterlife, immediately.

I am glad that 17-year cicadas are a thing. It’s neat to think of this whole huge community of non-violent creatures emerging together and for a period of a few months making the world significantly different, and then vanishing for just long enough that our memories of what that was like become hazy and fond. I do not wish harm upon these dopey visitors. I simply wish that they would shut the fuck up and let me have some peace and quiet!