Down crannies, runnels of earth,
sixteen Mays have thrust yellow blades
of sunlight, have sighed the news of lilacs.
All the while the white nymphs slept,
listening to ticking in tiny cells
not yet turned on.
On a spring night, soon,
unclenching soil will click
that staccato code only they can hear.
On the dark, grass-crested sea
the cicadas will surface
like thousands of hideous mermaids,
glimmering, quivering, not yet suited
for life in air, looking for any
upthrust to scale, to idle upon
until a breeze billows their wings.
Seventeen Mays ago, my bare leg became
that tree trunk. On warm skin there suddenly
intruded the wet inching of a writhing
white thorax, the brown husk splitting,
red eyes unreal as a goblin’s
in a crazy woman’s dream.
They covered oak bark, myrtle stalks,
phone poles, like a moving rash.
Below them, their ticket of earth
was punched with innumerable holes.
The tymbals of males rattle for mates;
that drone is everywhere.
A billion lawnmowers never
The air thickens with their clumsy flight,
with the threat of winging
To make the journey from house to car
that spring, thirty-four years ago,
I tucked my baby daughter like a football
beneath one arm and ran, pell-mell,
flailing madly the other arm
overhead to shield my face.
Once, a mammoth flapper snarled in my hair,
its buzzsaw tingling my earlobe,
its long wings beating through a tangle
of strands and batting fingers,
knitting a knot between
flying and fleeing.
If one landed on a branch tip,
the branch would dip low and tremble.
Windshields moving through them
bloomed with splatters.
cicadas emerging at densities
as high as 1.5 million per acre.
A single suburban lot might yield
If it had been possible,
I would have stayed indoors.
Fifty-one years ago, they blundered through
open classroom windows,
pelting blackboards, twirling wildly
the crafts suspended from fluorescent lights,
skittering stunned against denim knees, scuffed high-tops.
Boys with their lust for tinkering
plucked the wings,
tossed the buzzing bodies down the dresses
of girls who screamed.
More terrible than the trill of a living
maraca against the spine was
the dread of it.
Shells encrusted stone steps, blacktop, concrete.
They crunched beneath shoes,
crisply, at first,
but later, as they parched,
with only a hiss.
Now, again they are returning. Biblical.
A plague unloosed from a billion
ovipositors long since crumbled to dust.
From corpses wedged beneath wiper blades
of a car I no longer own.
They are crawling out of days
I thought I had forgotten.
The centers of their red eyes
spin with orbits round the sun.
Their skyward dig unearths what was—
in their wing-whipped air.
An archaeology of old Mays riddled
with terror. An excavation
of afternoons that thrummed
with more than one kind of fear.
Melanie McCabe is the author of two books of poems, What The Neighbors Know and History of the Body, as well as a memoir, His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams. Her work has appeared widely, including in The Washington Post, Georgia Review, and Threepenny Review.