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Original artwork by Neslişah Tilki

A Very Fine Thing

AC Hart

The frost is on the ground.

A week ago the cicada laid down to die by the front door.  When I saw it there, I thought it had already expired, somehow miraculously upright.  I rarely pass by a stationary creature without pausing to give it a gentle poke, and the chartreuse cicada also received this manner of attention from me.  Having never met a cicada in person I was not, at the time, certain as to whether they all possessed such mild dispositions or if, as I suspected, it was knocking on the door to eternity.  As I prodded the cicada with a single fingernail, it stretched forth one long, slender, brittle limb to steady itself.  Alive,  I thought.  I stared at it for a moment longer and went on my way.  Later on, as I returned from my errands, flustered from trying to carry all the groceries and the bags from Target at once in order to save myself a second trip to the car, I was startled to see the long-forgotten cicada sitting by the front door unchanged, the same brittle leg extended like a crutch. 

What miracle of nature makes something like an insect or a lizard sit perfectly still?  In this frenetic society something such as a quiescent insect seems peculiar… almost magical.  I paused over the cicada to examine it.  Immobile, but not inert.  There was something in there still ticking away for some reason, this short and tiny life coming to an end right by the jute welcome mat.  But not there yet.  Still alive.  Still inhabiting that crispy, alien green body.  I marveled over the cicada the next day to see it sitting in the same spot, as though it had become a statue of itself.  The cicada already had the gift of motionlessness just by its very nature, but now it was still because there was nothing left. 

It wasn’t like the body of the handsome goldfinch I found on my way up the dirt road this summer or the lifeless form of my dog, lain low in his youth by some innocuous poison.  The kind of body that troubles you.  What happened?  Why you?  Why did you die?  When I looked at the torpid bug, there was no question.  You have given every breath you had to give, cicada.  You have grown and called and mated and bestowed your eggs upon this wild world.  You have presented your opus.  You have willed your immortality into being, you have called forth the very spirit of life itself.  Children for generations to come will lie in the cool blue shadows of the night listening to the strong voices of these tiny green flames you have kindled.  They will awaken.  You have done it.  You are spent. 

It takes a long time for a spent cicada to die.  On the third day it was still there, extended leg and all.  On the fourth day it was listing, like a great ship at low tide.  On the fifth day. it lay on its side, weedy legs frozen into an awkward dance, the tiny churning engine inside having finally been arrested by the merciless passage of time.  On the sixth day, the wind had skittered its body across the front porch to tangle amongst the dry, twisted petioles of American Elm leaves and other assorted debris lodged against the border of the jute welcome mat.  By the time I returned from walking my dogs, some hungry bird had found the cadaver and pecked away the soft parts, leaving only the carapace and the papery wings, now thrust all akimbo from the intrusion. 

Life is hungry.  And hunger can be a shocking thing.  The desire to consume the form of another, to destroy it and remake it into oneself.  But hunger can also be tender.  Beautiful.  And as I gazed at the mangled form of this cicada, whose grand journey had met its conclusion on my doorstep, I felt deep gratitude that somehow I had been chosen to witness this life coming to an end.  To give my testimony before the wind and the sun and the rain that, yes, here lies cicada.  Here is the green insect who lived and died and gave everything it had.  It even gave its body to a hungry bird.  That bird will use the nourishment to produce more birds to prey upon the cicada’s weaker offspring, thus refining its line for many generations to come, making each new wave of cicadas stronger, more vigorous, more clever, more audaciously alive.  Yes, cicada.  I will witness you.  Your opus is perfect.

Soon after, the first freeze collided with our innocent preoccupation like an ardent lover suddenly transforming into a bitter and hostile stranger.  No one was expecting it.  The mourning doves huddled together inside of the pines, people pulled their scarves up around their faces, gardens moaned with regret.  Shocked apples reeled, green tomatoes turned to mush, all those unfulfilled promises left hanging on the vine.  It seemed that overnight the trees surrendered, turning away from their brave leaves that suddenly became flamboyant and spendthrift.  I tracked the progress of the cicada’s corpse across the porch until one day it was just gone.  After that it snowed.  My body’s seasons are like the Earth’s seasons.  Every month when the blood comes I can see that in the unfolding mystery of death lie the seeds of new strength.  A tiny green stranger saw the words on the mat by the door and found its last refuge there.  Having been given this unusual gift I have decided that a cicada is a Very Fine Thing.

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