The little valley where I live is finally melting under the crust of the two or so feet of snow Winterstorm Jonas dumped on us. Warmer temperatures leave the sound of trickling water in our midst; the earth is sipping deeply to sate an unquenchable thirst born from a core made of fire. But still, in cul-de-sacs and on sidewalks—any space deemed “inessential”—mounds of dirty snow remain, discarded by desperate snowplows. So much of the valley is still impassable.
Today, for the first time in a week, our little dog braved the back yard. We must have looked an odd duo, her leading me along on a string. With her slight frame, she walked atop the frozen snow, but I lumbered along, sinking with each jolting step.
When we arrived at the maple tree, Bonnie found a smell. I waited, looking out over all that untouched white. It could have been a desert—pristine eddies and swirls mimicking land touched only by wind and air. Scratchy footprints whispered rumors of birds under the feeders. One brave rabbit left a loping trail along the edge of my neighbor’s fence.
The ordinary sounds of the back yard were muffled by the snow. I felt the quietude of entering a sleeping place. Suddenly, living creatures became myth. Could anything possibly live under all that snow? Memory of green, scent of honeysuckle, cicada song to welcome the stars. All fairy tales. I can’t remember the cicada’s song.
Just today I read that this spring marks the seventeen-year return of the Magicicada to our region. The Magicicada is the genus of periodical cicadas who spend most of their thirteen- or seventeen-year lives beneath the ground drinking juice from the roots of deciduous trees. They were last seen in this area the summer of 1999.
Standing shin-deep in white, I thought it seemed impossible. Could there really be cicadas beneath me, shivering in their too-tight skins, ready for the shedding?
The cicadas will have shed their exoskeletons five different times throughout their long, dark wait. Each of these developmental stages is called an instar. In the spring when it is time for the final shedding, each nymph will emerge above ground and climb to a safe place, molt one last time, and wait six days for its new exoskeleton to harden.
In Myths of Origin: Four Short Novels, Catherynne M. Valente imagines it like this:
And then it emerges from the earth, shaking dust and damp soil from its skin. It knows nothing but its own passion to ascend—it climbs a high stalk of grass and begins to sing, its special concerto to draw the wing-pattern of its beloved near. And as it sings it leaves its amber skin behind, so that in the end, it has sung itself into a new body in which it will mate, and die.
The cicadas leave their shells everywhere, like a child’s lost buttons. The shells do not understand the mating dance that now occurs in the mountains above it. The shell knows nothing of who it has been, it does not remember the dreaming self, that was warm in the earth. The song emptied it, and now it simply waits for the wind or the rain to carry it away.
In the spring of 1999 I was mothering a busy two-year-old and his brand-new baby brother. My days were spent chasing, making milk, feeding, and trying to learn to sleep in two-hour intervals.
I remember when the cicadas came. How my boy marveled at the amber shells—picked them off trees like fruit. Now that boy is off to college, his younger brother consumed with the wonders of teen social life. The years I spent nursing and teaching and nourishing … So many days, they can feel like a burrowing through the dark under two feet of snow for seventeen years. So many days I feel like the empty shell, left with only the memory of a song. How many instars must a mama undergo?
In China, the multiple shedding of the cicada shell symbolizes the many stages of transformation required to reach enlightenment. Most days I feel like the discarded shell. But some days? Some days, I get a glimpse of how I am becoming. These are the days I rejoice in the ways my boys are growing into fine young men. These are the days I remember a part of me I lost in the lush season of mothering. These are the days I remember that life is teeming beneath the snow.
I am learning to turn my face toward the light. This will not be the last skin I shed. I am not the shell. When the time comes, I will sing.
Laura Boggess writes at Chasing the Blue Flower.