Brood X (novel excerpt)

Dan Stockman

It is high summer, when the trees soar and the breeze is slow, the grass deep, and the world is exploding with life. Every square inch seems to be crawling with something, and even the inches themselves are alive—tree bark and plant root and soil. Even the inanimate feels the flow of energy, as vinyl siding expands with the heat of the day and contracts in the cool, asphalt fills its own cracks, and ice cream seems bent on escape from the confines of a cone. Children explode across the landscape, and even adults find new life, discovering both vast reserves of energy and a deeper lust for rest.

Quiet in the middle of this teeming, swarming world lies the egg, small and white, nestled carefully into an incision made into a twig on a tree branch, high above the ground. There is nothing to distinguish it from any of the nearly 600 identical eggs nearby, or the thousands within the locust tree that branch stretches from, or the millions in the branches on the trees lining this city block, or the billions in this neighborhood or the trillions that make up this brood, a community scientists have decided to call Brood X despite names meaning nothing to the brood itself.

The locust tree stands 50 feet tall, its feet hemmed in on one side by street, on the other by sidewalk, with only a narrow strip of grass to itself. Still, it reaches high, its branches arching upward and outward, its leaves a cluster of tiny green flakes on a stem reminiscent of a palm frond. It reaches over the dense, deep foliage of a maple in the boulevard, but seems willing to share its airspace with a similar locust in front of the same house. The two were planted at the same time, after disease killed the elms that had grown there, and seem almost to be a matched pair.

In their upper canopy, the sky seems bluer, the breeze more fragrant, while the noise of the traffic below is clearer but now separated by distance and seems to have less effect.

A closer look at the branches shows curious wounds—slits cut into the bark of the twigs. Like a dugout canoe, the twig seems to wrap around the eggs, its skin sliced open by a female cicada eight weeks earlier.

But today, the relative quiet in the treetops ends for the cicada egg. The day before, one or two of the eggs began hatching, today there will be hundreds. Tomorrow, a few stragglers, and the sliced open twigs of the tree will begin to heal.

There are two dozen eggs in this two-inch slit, and all of them will hatch today. The third one from the end opens in late morning, just as the sun’s rays burst through an opening in the canopy above and warm the branch. Coming out of the egg is a yellowish-white nymph, just one sixteenth-of-an inch long, looking a bit like a tiny, white lobster that has grown straggly hair. It stretches newly released legs for the first time, pausing for a moment in the sun, as if catching its breath before heading out into the world. The pause does not last long: After just a few seconds, the nymph begins running wildly up and down the branch, where upon it almost immediately falls to Earth.

The fall—about 30 feet—would be disastrous to the human body. To an insect of this size, the distance is equivalent to falling a mile, straight down. But the cicada nymph is so small and light, its fall is cushioned by the air itself. It falls like a feather to the grass below.

Immediately, the nymph begins searching the ground for any opening or crevice, but can make its own if needed. This one finds a crack in the dirt where the grass meets the sidewalk. It has no idea what a sidewalk is and no reason to care, it just knows it needs to get underground, and immediately burrows down into the crack in the dirt, digging a tunnel down, down, down almost two feet, tearing away the earth in its way using those lobster-claw-like front legs as shovels. Its journey downward is the equivalent of digging a hole 38-stories deep, but finally, it finds what it is looking for: a tree root.

Not just any root, of course, but a rootlet – the tree root equivalent of a twig. When it finds the rootlet, it stabs the rootlet with its sharp, sucking mouthparts and begins to draw out sap.

It will feed on this for the next 17 years.

On this day, it feeds on the sap until its strength has returned from its tunneling and then returns to work. Only this time, instead of digging out the tunnel, it is closing it up, sealing itself into a tiny chamber, empty except for itself and the rootlet. Unless the chamber floods or is damaged somehow or the rootlet dies, this will be home for almost two decades. It is smooth and nearly round; it will not change except to get bigger as the cicada does.

The cicada nymph feeds the rest of that warm summer and into the fall. Even as fall turns to winter and the sap stops running, the nymph continues to draw sustenance from the rootlet: Its needs are so small and the amount it takes is so minute as its metabolism slows with the cold that whatever sap remains in the rootlet during the winter months is more than enough to sustain it until spring.

In that first spring, however, a change begins: Within his hard, outer shell, his body underneath is beginning to transform. Slowly, away from light and air and everything except the rootlet, the nymph has become something different. Finally, his body seems to withdraw entirely from his exoskeleton until it becomes a suit he can simply remove, instead of an integral skin. When he emerges, he is slightly changed—larger, and less worm like, but not much.

Once his new exoskeleton dries, he returns to the rootlet and begins feeding again, drawing life from the tiny tree branch and waiting for the next change. That will come in two years, and another one will come two years after that. There will be a fourth change three years later, and yet another nine years after that.

With each shedding of the skin, a transformed insect emerges from beneath, the way a born-again Christian emerges from his old shell of sinfulness in a baptismal river. Five times he will change, dramatic leaps as he evolves into something far larger and different than the tiny worm-like creature that emerged from the egg.

And while he waits for each change, the world revolves around his tiny chamber. Presidents come and go. Loves are lost. Children are born and die too young. Old people live on long after they wish they could stop. Careers change, and change again. Entire industries disappear and new ones form. Corporate titans rise to power and are thrown down. Millions become billions; dollars become pennies. Niagara Falls moves closer toward Lake Erie. The Grand Canyon gets deeper in some places, filled in in others.

And still the cicada waits.

The rootlet he sucks on is attached to a root, attached to a trunk that pushes out of the earth and rises nearly five stories into the air. By the time his waiting is done, the tree will have grown another 10 feet, produced and lost more than 3 million leaves and added 17 rings to its girth. The sidewalk it grows next to, where the nymph found a crack in the dirt and began its burrow, will be heaved upward another two inches by the tree’s growth as it pushes its way through the soil.

For seventeen years, he will wait.

The Civil Rights movement needed only 12 years to go from a local bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to a national movement, to see a Nobel Prize for Peace, enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. The cicada will wait in his underground chamber through all of that upheaval and half a decade more before his time comes.

Seasons come, seasons go. Seventeen summers he waits. Seventeen winters. Sixteen springs.

Finally, in the seventeenth spring, something awakens in him and his uncounted brethren spread across 15 states, from New Jersey to Illinois and from Michigan to Georgia. What the call is, how they just seem to know, is a mystery that has evaded humans since the creature was discovered more than 300 years ago.

Whatever the trigger, the cicada breaks out of his chamber and begins digging toward the surface. Once there, he digs an opening but does not emerge. If the ground is wet, he will even construct a small mud cone around the opening to keep the water out of his tunnel. But still he waits just below ground, seeming to anticipate yet another signal.

Finally, on one night in May or early June, they emerge all at once. Billions of cicadas come out of the earth and begin to climb on whatever they can find, seemingly driven to get as far away from the soil as possible. No other creature on the planet is so synchronized.

But the insect that emerges from the ground is a far cry from the tiny bug that entered it 17 years before. This one is nearly two inches long, and looks much like a brown, wingless beetle with huge eyes and legs meant for climbing. At least for now.

This one happens to find the same locust tree he hatched in and fell out of seventeen years ago and begins crawling up the trunk. After climbing about a foot, he stops and his final transformation begins.

He sets his climbing claws deep into the bark so they cannot let go and his skin—a brown, translucent shell now – cracks down his spine as he arches his back. He arches farther and farther, until his head begins to pull out of the shell, followed by his front legs. Soon, he is halfway out of his old exoskeleton; a soft, white cicada emerging from a now dusty, useless brown husk. He is milky white except for his shocking red eyes.

In about an hour, he is free and again transformed. No longer a juvenile nymph, he is now a fully-formed adult complete with something he never needed in his long years underground: Wings.

He again begins climbing, searching for a place to take cover amongst the leaves while his new skin hardens and his wings dry. Once there, he waits again, for up to six days while his new shell forms into a built-in armor. He will feed occasionally—sticking his sharp mouth into twigs to draw sap—but mostly he just waits.

Finally, on the sixth day, he knows his moment is close. For the first time, he spreads his wings, and flies a little—clumsy, erratic flight where he knocks into branches and the tree trunk and even a person on the sidewalk below, but after nearly two decades in a two-inch mud chamber, he feels more glorious than any soaring eagle has ever felt. After a little while, he returns to the tree, eats a little and waits for dusk.

For today, even as he leaped into the air and was carried upon the arms of the wind, he felt yet a new stirring inside him: Something much more powerful than the need to molt and break out of his old skin, more intense than the summons to come up from underground. It was a need that has brought down the powerful and lifted the humble, a call from across the millennia he could not ignore.

He needed to mate.

In his tiny insect brain, he has no idea what mating is. He does not feel a longing for love. He has no knowledge of romance, intimacy or even just raw, animal sex.

But he is filled, consumed with the need to find a female cicada.

For seventeen years he waited underground. Sixty-eight seasons came and went while he waited. He has transformed and left his old casing behind six times. He has grown twenty-four times larger than the nymph that left the egg. The sun has traveled more than 300 million miles in its orbit around the center of the Milky Way while he waited and grew.

But this moment, this time, this identity was what he was waiting for and working toward all those years, this moment, when he would find a female and continue the cycle.

Just behind his head and shoulders sit what appear to be ribbed plates. They are like corrugated drums, attached to muscles, and when those muscles flex, they create a sound like the one made by flexing a dent in an old metal pan. Beneath these drums in his thorax are huge sound chambers, like that of a guitar, for amplifying the noise created. There is one on each side of him, for each drum, plus a third that serves both. Within these sound chambers, amplifying the resonance even further, are disks he can move to modify the notes.

The cicada lifts his head into the night air, and smells the clover mixed in with the grass, the last of the tulips as their once-gorgeous blooms now droop and begin to rot, the heavy, heady scent of hyacinths that line the driveway nearby. He can sense there are hundreds of his brethren near, each of them feeling the same yearning, each with the same understanding of what it means to wait, day after day, year after year for one moment, one perfect, gorgeous summer moment as the sun sets and the trees change from shade to shadow to near black in the warmth of the night.

He looks out into the darkened heavens, reaches into the ache of waiting and longing, and sings, his cry rising out from the leaves where he sits, across the yard, and around windows lit from within. It rises up toward the fading sky, where Venus is taking over for the sun, and echoes through the trees.

For a moment, he sings alone, his shrieks seeming to reverberate across the centuries his species has existed, but he is quickly joined by others, their chorus rising and falling in great, crashing waves of desire – calling, pleading, howling for a soul mate to ease a pain they carried for seventeen years without ever knowing it was there.

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Dan Stockman is a veteran journalist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he lives with his wife, children and neurotic dogs in a house historic for the amount of renovations it seems to require. He is currently working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and his piece, “Brood X,” is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Brood X. Visit www.BroodXbook.com to learn more.