Whatever was in me was escaping, and in that moment I felt very close to the things of the world.
A few weeks after M— left, my son started scaling the sycamore trees that lined the property in search of cicadas. Before she was gone, M— had kept hundreds of mason jars on the shelves of the garage, and whenever my son got his hands on one of the bugs he’d put it in a jar and keep it there until it starved. Most of the cicadas died after only a few days without eating, and I figured the best way to get rid of the bugs without wasting them was by feeding the bodies to bullfrogs. That way I could teach my boy something about how the world works—how everything has a purpose, even after it’s gone.
I set out to catch a few bullfrogs in the pond out front of my house, wading through the lily pads with the long net I used when swinging flies for steelhead in winter, if I was able to save enough money to hit the Trinity River below the little town of Lewiston, nestled into the high Alps there. I saw a few frogs here and there—long legs disappearing into deeper water as I got close—but before I had a chance to catch any, an old hippie van pulled off of the highway onto the shoulder out front of my house. The worn tires on the van skidded, shooting rocks into the tall grass that lined the road, and a woman flew out of the passenger door, landing on her hands and knees in the gravel. The man who drove leaned out of the van, said something I couldn’t hear and slammed the door shut from across the seat, scooted back over to the driver’s side. The woman stood up and yelled something at the man, but he rolled up the window and hit the gas so the van pulled back onto highway, a cloud of dust following the back wheels as they spun in the dirt. The woman tossed an open can of Red Bull at the back of the van as it drove away, then sat on the ground with her legs out flat and her head in her hands.
Thinking of my son, I tried to focus on bullfrogs again, but every time I stepped my boots kicked up mud so I could hardly see through the water, and I glanced at the road, waiting for the muck to clear. The woman brought her head up and removed the band from the bun in her blonde hair so that it fell down past her shoulders. She shook her head back and forth so it splayed out and moved in the breeze. Then she stood up, pressed her palms against her eyes and looked out over the cattle pastures on the other side of the highway, watching thunderheads build over the mountains as they did almost every evening in August. When the woman had seen enough she turned around and faced my house, moving her eyes over the yard until she met my gaze.
“Hey, hey you over there,” the woman shouted, waving one hand above her head. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
But she was already walking toward me before I had a chance to answer. I had the legs of my jeans rolled up above my knees and I was still knee deep in the water. I stepped out onto the grass and rolled my pants back down to my ankles, then stood up straight. A cicada chattered in one of the sycamores in back of my house then, and I heard the back door shut as my son ran out to catch it. I got the urge to run to him, to stop him from climbing whatever tree the bug was in, to tell him to stay inside and stop catching those bugs and letting them die. But the woman was right up to me now and she looked like she needed someone, and I understood what that meant for a woman in her position.
“Hey,” the woman said as she walked up to me, panting as though she’d walked a great distance over rough terrain. “I’m guessing you saw what happened with Vinny and me.”
I nodded and she looked down at the ground, moved a pebble with her foot, then looked back up at me.
“So, okay. It’s just.” She hesitated and bit her lip. “I know people around here call the Sheriff when they see something like that, but you’re not gonna call him, okay? Vinny and me are in a fight, that’s all. We’re gonna work it out, me and him. Don’t worry about us.”
“I won’t say anything,” I said.
The woman smiled and I thought that she seemed very young to me, though from far away she’d looked closer to my age. Up close she looked to be 20, and no older than that. I thought it was strange for a woman of her age to be in such a lonely place in her life, kicked out on the side of the road into the dirt—by a man she loved, no doubt.
“Where were you headed with the guy in the van?” I said to her.
“Nowhere,” the woman’s eyes hardened. “We don’t have any place in mind. We need a fresh start. We’re running from what’s behind us.” She paused, scratched her face. “Neither of us are denying anything. We know what kind of people we are.”
I nodded but said nothing, and we both looked across the valley where Mt. Hough rose and the canyon cut through the smaller mountains, tracing the course of the Feather River down into the Sacramento Valley. I saw lightning flash way off in the distance, far enough away that I couldn’t quite see the bolt itself, but saw the clouds light up as it struck. And I thought of M— and the man she’d met at the hot springs in Sierraville—the same man she left me for—and how distant she seemed to me now, but close at the same time. I felt tears well up in my eyes and looked at the ground to let them clear. To push M— from my head, I started thinking about my son again, about the bullfrogs and the dead cicadas in the garage, and the feeling in my stomach started to fade.
“So,” the woman said, but I didn’t look up. “What were you doing digging around in that pond? It’s not smart to be in the water at this time of day, with a storm like that rolling in. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than you think, you know.”
“I wasn’t doin’ nothin’,” I said. “Just foolin’ around. It’s good for a man to feel the dirt in his toes every once in a while, keep himself grounded.”
“Mmm, that’s like a poem.” The woman smiled sweetly. “That bit at the end. I think I’ve read that somewhere.”
“Probably,” I said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The woman looked down at the ground and scratched the freckles on her face, then ran the tip of her index finger along her lower eyelid and flicked some mascara onto the ground, wiping what was left on the seam of her shorts—which were stained and looked like they hadn’t been washed in some time. Her eyes moved up toward me, and I noticed for the first time that she had been wiping the mascara away to hide the fact that she’d been crying.
The wind hit us then and the woman’s nipples perked up under her thin blue tank-top. I could see the outline in the cloth. And I expected her to adjust her shirt or cross her arms so that I couldn’t see them as M— started doing after our son was born. But the woman left them right out in the open, as though she had nothing to hide, and for the first time in a long time I imagined how a woman other than M— might look without any clothes on.
“My God,” the woman said, pointing up into the trees in my backyard. Her finger was right up close to my face and I could see red polish chipping off the surface of her fingernails. “There’s a boy in that tree! Am I the only one seeing this? Look, he’s all the way up there! My God, if he doesn’t fall and kill himself it’ll be a miracle, especially with this wind.”
“He won’t fall,” I said. “That’s my boy. He’s catchin’ cicadas. He does it all the time—everyday, really. He knows what he’s doin’.”
A sharp look was in the woman’s eyes and her thin lips stretched into a smile over her teeth. She looked down at the ground, a fog falling over her face, and I knew she was thinking about something that had nothing to do with me or my son—nothing to do with the man in the van, even—some feeling in her that I would never understand, a feeling bigger than anything this world could possibly offer a man like me.
“Cicadas, huh.” The woman looked up at me and put both hands on the top of her head, lacing her fingers over her hair. The skin between her eyes was pinched and her freckled nose was wrinkled. Her eyelids drooped low over her eyes, as though they held more weight suddenly and she was having trouble keeping them open. “I knew a man once,” the woman said. “This man was from Georgia, an ex-sweetheart, and he thought cicadas could cure things, but only things of the heart. He was real spiritual when it came to stuff like that—pain that never leaves you, you know. It wasn’t the bugs themselves, I guess, but he said it was more the vibrations their wings make when they chirp that fixed things.”
The woman looked off into the trees and rubbed her thumb over the course of her jaw, then crossed her arms and immediately uncrossed them, bringing her elbow up close to her face so she could see it. A cut leaked a thin trail of blood down the back of her forearm, and she took her finger and ran it up the length of the streak, wiping it on her shorts the way she had with the mascara. The woman probed the cut, digging in deep with her fingernail, and instantly I got the urge to hand her the handkerchief I kept in my back pocket, as I would have for M—, but I didn’t.
“The man said it had a spiritual power or something like that,” the woman said, still looking down at her elbow. “Everything in my head’s foggy now. But I know he told me whenever he was hurting he’d walk through the woods behind his home and listen to cicadas. And every once in a while, when he could catch one, he’d hold it in his palm and let it call. He said he could feel the vibrations running all the way through his body and into the ground, kind of like the thunder out over those mountains. He said that was a nice thing for him.”
The woman quit talking and we stood in silence. She had cleaned most of the dirt out of the cut and stood with her arms by her side as we watched my son climb further up the tree. And for a moment I started to worry that he might fall. He was on a thin branch close to the top and he was crawling slow on his belly—inch by inch, like a hunter in the tundra who doesn’t want to spook his prey. Suddenly his right arm darted fast away from his body, and as he pulled it closer I could see he had something squirming between his fingers. He shimmied right back down the thin branch until he got to one of the thicker branches close to the trunk. He took a moment and placed whatever was pinched in his fingers into the opposite hand and closed the palm. Then he climbed further down the tree and out of sight as he disappeared behind the roof of the house.
“My boy’s got hundreds of ‘em,” I said to the woman. “Cicadas, I mean. Really, hundreds. He has ‘em all up in mason jars in the garage, coverin’ all the shelves. I’m not sure what he does with ‘em. He won’t tell me.” Lightning struck again far off, and my neighbor’s coonhound howled in the distance. “But that’s why I was in the pond, to catch bullfrogs so they can eat all the dead ones. I don’t see the point in wastin’ those bugs, even if they’re dead.”
“I thought you were getting mud on your feet in the pond, and that’s why you said the thing that sounded like a poem.” The woman looked at me like I’d said something wrong, something that had hurt her deeply. “Did you just make that up, or what? I thought that meant something to you.”
“Well, I was,” I said. “That was part of it. The other part was I was tryin’ to catch a bullfrog.”
The woman didn’t say anything for a time and I felt that she was angry and might quit speaking all together. But after a while the woman looked at me and that thin smile crept back on her face.
“So hey, do you think I could take a look at those cicadas? I think it’d be nice to see all those bugs. It’d be nostalgic, in a way. I don’t remember the last time I saw one up close.”
“I don’t care,” I said, “but you’ll have to talk to my son. We can walk around back and ask him.”
“Okay,” the woman said.
Look, he’s all the way up there! My God, if he doesn’t fall and kill himself it’ll be a miracle.
When we made it around to the other side of the house, light was peeking out from under the door of the garage and I could hear a buzzing noise coming from the inside. The woman hadn’t said a thing on the walk over, but she’d put her hair up in a bun and placed a pair of thin glasses on over her eyes. As we walked up to the door, she smiled again with her lips parted and I could see the plaque stains on her teeth—something that happens when you have braces for too long—and I started wondering just how old she was and what she was doing in a town like Quincy; if she was left over from the Hippie Fest or if she was really only passing through.
The humming grew louder as we got closer to the garage and when I opened the door it sounded like a thousand people’s teeth were chattering all at once. To me it felt like the walls were shaking and the air was buzzing. I looked at the woman and she was still smiling and her lips were closed. She walked in slowly, looking from wall to wall, taking everything in as if she had just stepped into a room full of the world’s rarest artifacts and wanted to look at every piece closely. I got the feeling that this was something she’d been waiting to see her whole life.
My son was on the other side of the room sitting at the workbench, tools hanging from the corkboard above his head. His back was turned to us and he was so caught up in whatever he was doing that he didn’t hear us come in. The woman stopped looking around and walked straight across the room and tapped him on the shoulder. He was so startled that he jumped and the mason jar flew out of his hand and shattered on an old V-6 from a Mustang I’d been rebuilding, and the cicada he had caught in the tree flew up into the rafters. He looked at the woman—fists clenched—then looked at me, then back at the woman.
“What the hell!” my boy said. The cicadas were chattering so loud it was hard to hear him. “You know how long it took me to catch that one? I must’ve been up in that tree for an hour.” He paused, then looked at me. “Dad, who the hell is she?”
“I don’t know, Junior,” I said, and realized I hadn’t even gotten her name. “Someone dropped her off on the side of the road. She wanted to come see your cicadas.”
“I’m Juniper,” the woman said, and smiled at my son. “Like the tree. You can call me Juni, too, if you want. Some people like that better.” Junior stared her straight in the face, squinching the skin around his eyes and nose. “I was hoping you might let me look at your bugs for a bit, show me a few of your favorites. I used to catch them too, when I was your age, so I just wanted to see them.”
Junior looked at the woman as though he was really hearing her, and his face softened. Slowly he moved closer to me and said, “What was she on the side of the road for?”
“Well, son,” I said. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. He was at an age where he needed to learn about the stuff of life. “Her boyfriend tossed her out. I guess they got in a fight like me and your mom. That happens when you get older since it’s hard to get along with the woman you love.” I paused. “I don’t think she was causin’ any trouble. She’s just lost now, I guess.”
Juniper’s eyes shot over in my direction, and they were the softest eyes I’d ever seen on a woman—so soft that it seemed as though they belonged to a newborn, or someone who hasn’t seen the world and given it a chance to harden them. They began to droop and well up with tears and her lips quivered slightly—though she was still smiling. In that moment I saw how vulnerable she was, and I knew that I could do more than just imagine her with her clothes off if I wanted, but I wasn’t sure that was the reason she was here, or if it would change anything for either of us.
“Yeah,” Juniper said, moving her eyes back to my son. “We were in a fight, nothing you haven’t seen before. Like when your mom and dad fight about dinner, or something. That’s all it was, just stupid.”
“My mom moved away,” my son said, and that’s all he said. He looked at the ground and kicked dust with his boot and put his hands in his pockets. He took his hat off and put it back on over his shaved blonde hair and looked up at Juniper. Then he grabbed a jar off of the wall, walked back over to the bench and sat down. He gestured at Juniper with his neck and she walked over to him, standing above his shoulder looking down. I stayed back a moment, and he said, “Dad, you come look, too.”
I walked toward him and looked over his other shoulder, on the opposite side of Juniper. The jar in Junior’s hand was full of sycamore leaves and twigs, and I couldn’t see the cicada that was in it. Junior unscrewed the top of the jar, removing the rim before taking off the lid and tossing it to the side. He held the jar upside down and shook everything out onto the table. Then he took his fingers and spread the leaves apart, and once he’d moved everything out of the way I was able to see the cicada. This bug was the biggest I’d ever laid my eyes on. The eyes were huge and red, sticking far off the side of the head like the horns on a bull. The fuzz around the eyes was stark white, but the surface of the exoskeleton was black so the cicada was about the color a man’s hair turns when the years start catching up with him. I noticed how short the legs were, how the back half of the segmented body seemed to rest directly on the wood, and I wondered if the bug was sensitive on the bottom side or if it had armor all over to protect it from hurting.
My son picked the cicada up with two fingers, placing it in his hand, and it was so big that it covered his whole palm. He took his index finger and rubbed the cicada’s back and the rear-end started moving up and down rapidly. A kind of lever shook between the bug’s legs and it started making that clicking sound. Then the cicada stuck one leg out straight, brought it back in toward its body and fluttered its wings. Junior grinned big and looked up at us over his shoulder, his eyes moving from mine to Juniper’s.
“That thing under its belly, between its legs, that’s what makes that sound,” Junior said. “Did you ever know that? It took me a long time to figure that out, but if you hold ‘em just right and pet ‘em you can make ‘em sing.” He held his hand out towards Juniper. “Do you wanna hold him?”
“Sure,” Juniper said. “I’d like to hold him. I really don’t remember the last time I held one. In another life, I guess.”
Juniper put out her hand and Junior placed the cicada in her palm. The bug didn’t move as she held it, and when she put her finger on its back it adjusted its wings and made its call, moving its big eyes around in its head. She moved her finger away and held the thing up close to her face so she could see it more closely. I could see the reflection of the cicada in her pupils.
“Why doesn’t he fly away?” she said. “I remember when I used to catch them they always gave me grief if I tried to get them to stick around. But look at him! He’s so calm. What’s your secret? What do you put in those jars?” She smiled.
“Nothin’,” Junior said.
Junior was smiling too and when Juniper went to hand him the bug he took off his trucker hat, flipped it and dropped the cicada in the bottom of the crown, setting it on the table right side up so it made a sort of prison for the bug. I could still see the cicada through the mesh on the hat, and I watched it stretch its legs and move its wings.
“I don’t poke holes in the top so there isn’t much air in the jar,” Junior said. “It gets so hot that they don’t feel like movin’ when I take ‘em out. Plus they don’t have much air to breathe so they just feel like they need to sleep, I guess. I got locked in a closet once when I was six and that’s kinda how I felt until my mom heard me screaming and found me.” He took a deep breath and looked at the hat. “I’m gonna leave him in the hat for a bit though, let him get some air. I want this one to live longer than a few days since he’s so big.”
“Hmm,” Juniper said. “Okay.”
“I can show you more if you want,” Junior said. His eyes met mine. “Unless you need me for somethin’, Dad.”
“Nah,” I said. They both looked at me and it was as if they had forgotten I was in the room until that moment, as if looking at that bug was more important than anything I had to say, and I didn’t have any problem with that. “I’m gonna get dinner started. Why don’t you guys stay out here and I’ll cook somethin’ up for us. How’s that sound?”
“Yeah,” Junior said. “That’s good.”
My boy stood up and went over to the wall again. I met eyes with Juniper, then walked out of the garage, shutting the door behind me. I looked out across American Valley and lightning flashed somewhere in the distance—though the storm had grown closer to my home and I could see each bolt as it flashed. I opened the door to my house, stepped inside and remembered something M— had said when we first met, back when I was Juniper’s age and I thought I knew something about the world. M— and me were on a backpacking trip and we were in love. We had spent the day climbing granite slopes and slipping down shale cliffs and our legs were dead, so we set up camp on a bluff overlooking a small lake that was situated between two of the highest peaks in the Sierras. We were far above the treeline and all that grew on the bluff was high mountain cypress and juniper—which had been whipped and shredded by the wind—and we set up our tent in a place where we thought we might find some shelter when the stars were out and the air was frozen. Before sunset, we had sex and cooked chili over the fire. On the other side of the lake we saw dark clouds coming our way, rising up over one of the peaks, and we knew a storm could be trouble at that altitude. M— began to worry—admittedly I did too, but it’s never smart to tell a woman when you’re scared—and she started saying something about lightning above 10,000 feet, what it can do to someone that high up when it strikes.
“If you get hit once,” M— had said, “even if you live, you’re more likely to get struck again. I’ve read about this—or maybe somebody told me. Either way, when you get hit your cells rearrange and you attract electricity more easily, which is why you always see trees that’ve been struck more than once.” M— stopped talking for a moment and looked out toward the clouds, and I saw fear not only in her eyes but in the muscles of her cheeks, which were tight around the bones so that her face looked harder than the rest of her body. “I wouldn’t want to live with that sort of fear for the rest of my life. Feeling like I’m gonna get struck all the time. I hope this thing gets blown the other way. I don’t want us to have to live like that. Neither of us could survive. Not even you.” She paused, smiled. “I know you. You’d be dead before me. I guarantee it.”
Back then I wasn’t sure what M— meant, but I knew it was important and I tried to tease it out for a long while before giving up. But now I knew M— was talking about what it means to be abandoned by the person you love—the shock and that feeling of losing control of yourself and everything around you. And I thought maybe Juniper had felt that for the first time with the man in Georgia and his cicadas, that we were both just now discovering how lost we were after so many years of hurting. I didn’t want to feel lost anymore, or as empty as I did as a boy when my mother left me. I wanted to take control of things, get back on my feet and be a man. And as I cooked dinner, I stood above my sink and watched the storm coming and the lightning flash, thinking about how to fix things—both in my own life, and Junior’s—how to forget about M— and push the emptiness so far down I could no longer feel the hurt. I wanted Junior to know what it was to be a man.
She spoke the way a mother speaks to a son, the way Jesus must have spoken to his disciples.
By the time I had dinner ready, the storm was so close that thunder shook the windows, though the heart of the storm hadn’t quite reached my home. I was starving and I ate my food while I sat on the sofa with the television off, but Juniper was still out in the garage with my son. Neither of them had come in to eat and I was starting to worry that something had happened, something out of my control. I grabbed their plates and as soon as I kicked the screen door open with the bottom of my foot, hail the size of golf balls started shooting down out of the clouds, flattening the tall grass in my yard. It pounded on the roof and chunks flew down the chimney, thumping in the fireplace. Thunder rumbled out over the valley, and I walked back into the kitchen, set the plates down and grabbed a metal tray from the oven. I held it over my head as I walked to the garage, ice chunks smacking my hands and taking the skin off my bare knuckles.
When I opened the door to the garage, the place was empty aside from the tools and the engine of the Mustang. I didn’t see anyone until I looked down at the ground. Juniper was laying on her stomach in her underwear—her hands beneath her face, her head cocked to one side, her bare legs in the dirt. There were empty jars all over the floor surrounding her body and she was covered in cicadas—though I could still see her tan skin beneath them. All of the cicadas were different sizes, but none were as big as the one I’d seen earlier, and they were different colors, too—black, green, blue, red, you name it. None of them were moving like the one my son had held in his hand earlier. They just sat on her shoulders, on her back, on the backs of her legs chirping and making that clicking sound so that the only empty part of her body was her head. The ones in the jars on the shelves called so the room felt like it was shaking and fragile enough to collapse if someone breathed the wrong way.
My son walked out from behind a stack of boxes and stood above Juniper in his boxers with a jar in his hand. Before I said anything, I watched him unscrew the lid and pull out a bug, placing it on her lower back at the edge of her light blue thong. He gave it a couple rubs on the back with his index finger to get it calling and put the jar down, then walked back over to the wall, stepping out of sight behind the boxes, and grabbed another one. He walked back over to Juniper and started unscrewing the lid.
“Goddammit, Junior,” I said and my blood was boiling. “What the hell’re you doin’? Who’s idea was this? What the hell’s she been sayin’ to you?”
Junior said nothing and I looked down at Juniper, dropping the metal tray at my feet. I clenched my fists and rubbed my teeth together. I walked past Juniper and over to the workbench, reached up and grabbed a crescent-wrench off of the corkboard. I took it by the handle and smacked it hard against the workbench—so hard that my ears rang and Junior backed up slowly against the wall. Then I let the wrench hang down in one hand by my side, walking over the Juniper—though I knew I wouldn’t hit her and wanted only to scare her, to push her out of my life, to never see her again.
I said, “Get up. Get the hell up. I’m takin’ you to your boyfriend, wherever he is. That’s where you belong. We don’t want you.”
Juniper opened her eyes slowly and moved her head so she could see me. Her eyes were hard now, like someone who’s seen war and come back broken. She smiled softly and ran her tongue over her top lip and blinked a few times, one right after the other, and flared her nostrils. She reached her arm out from under her head and gently touched a mole on her lower back, just above her thong, and a hotness ran through me that I’d never felt before. I got the urge to run to her, to hold her body against mine, to feel her skin on my skin, but I pushed the thought from my head. And I felt then that I knew how she ended up where she was in the world. I knew what eyes like hers could do to someone—how a man might feel when she stopped looking at him that way, and what he might do if she ever looked at someone else.
“Junior told me about Mayfly,” Juniper said, looking right at me. I looked at Junior and he kept his eyes away from mine, staring into the jar in his hands. “He said she met some other man and picked up and took off. He said she didn’t even take her clothes with her, that she was just gone one day when he got home from school. He said you can’t even say her name anymore. He said he’s seen you smelling her underwear and spraying her perfume. He said he’s seen that a few times, and he’s seen more and I bet you didn’t even know it.”
Juniper closed her eyes then and spoke as though she understood the situation better than I ever would or even hoped to. She spoke the way a mother speaks to a son, the way Jesus must have spoken to his disciples. She spoke in a way that made me want to listen.
“I know how you feel,” she said, and paused for a long time. “I’ve been there before, more times than is good for anyone—more times than you, I’m sure, even though I’m younger. And really I’m there now, with what you saw out by the pond. Who knows what’s gonna happen next between me and him. But hey,” she said, and a serious look came over her face. “These cicadas—I’m telling you, they’re making me feel something good. It’s whatever I was saying earlier about those vibrations. It’s like they travel straight through your body into your heart.”
Juniper was still laying on her stomach with her eyes closed. She fidgeted, brought one arm out from beneath her head and scratched her thigh.
“I always knew it would work,” Juniper said. “I just never tried it, never sat in the woods or let one chatter on my skin like that man I knew. But when it’s like this, the energy from the vibrations enters your skin directly, like it’s a part of you. My God, I don’t think he was ever able to do this, to feel what I’m feeling. Men don’t feel things the same as women. They aren’t deep enough. The vibrations would’ve gone straight over his head. But Junior’s not like that,” Juniper said. “He can feel it. He’s got a certain depth to him. The bugs like him best.”
“It works,” Junior said, walking toward me. “It makes you feel a whole lot better, like you’re floatin’, or somethin’ like that.” He paused and seemed to think hard. “I don’t know how to say it, but I felt somethin’, anyway.”
I didn’t say anything to that, but I was no longer angry. I knew there was nothing wrong with any of this, that no harm was meant by it, and that my son might learn something from all of this that I would never understand. Juniper gazed at me, her eyes begging me to make a move, but I stayed standing right where I was, the wrench hanging from my hand towards the ground. The cicadas were calling so loud that it was hard to hear the thunder—though the heart of the storm was close and it sounded like the hail had stopped. Junior started to go back and forth from the wall to Juniper, using a ladder to reach the jars on the top shelf, placing bugs on her back or on her legs. The one wall was almost clear now, though he’d left all the jars with the dead ones on the shelves.
“You should try it,” Juniper said to me, lightning flashing outside in the woods, sending a flood of pale light into the garage. “Putting these bugs on you. I think that’d be good with your wife and all. I think you need to feel something like this.” She quit talking and I didn’t say a thing, but looked down at the wrench in my hand. “Why don’t you take off your clothes and we’ll have Junior start filling you up with bugs. It’ll do wonders for you, I think, feeling the vibrations. I really believe that.”
I didn’t answer her. I got the urge to pick Junior up, put him over my shoulder and leave—forget about Juniper and everything she’d done. To go out in search of his mother. But deep in me I knew that wouldn’t help, though I knew the vibrations from cicadas wouldn’t either, even if they entered my body directly like Juniper said they did.
“I think you should do it, Dad.” Junior looked up at me and he had tears in his eyes and his shoulders were slumped over. “It feels better than you think. Juniper did it for me, and I don’t really know how to explain it. But it makes you feel somethin’.”
I sat at the workbench and thought about M—, imagined Junior watching me sniff her clothes. And I wondered if he had smelled them himself at some point, after seeing me do it. Then I stood up and took off my shirt, unbuckled my belt and slipped my jeans off, folded them and put them on the bench and rolled my shirt up into a ball. I walked over toward Juniper in my boxers to lay down next to her, and as I passed a few bugs were startled and flew up into the rafters off of her back. When I got down on my stomach, I put my face down on the balled-up shirt as though it were a pillow and I looked at Juniper, then up into the air above her head. Everything in the room was buzzing and when thunder shook the garage a few more cicadas took off from her back and flew around the room fast, bouncing off of walls and the old rusted stuff that was hanging from the rafters.
“Those ones that flew away,” she said. “They’ve been out longer than the other ones so they’ve had more room to breathe. I used them on Junior also, when he tried it, so they’ve been out for a while. They’re not as calm as the rest of them, the ones fresh out of the jars. But we decided we’re gonna empty all of them out so there’ll be enough bugs for both of us.”
Junior walked over to me holding an armful of jars and started unscrewing the lids. I was still looking at Juniper but I could hear him digging through the leaves in one of the jars above me. He reached down and placed the first cicada on my back without warning me or saying anything. I felt the legs dig into my back hair, but after that I didn’t feel anything until he put the next one on me. He put down seven bugs—emptying each jar and laying them on the floor—before he went back to the wall for another handful of jars, and I could feel their spiny legs on the surface of my skin. By the time he was done putting the fresh ones on my back, more had flown off of Juniper and I was able to see her skin again. I got the urge to reach out and put my hand on her—on the soft spot of her lower back above her kidneys—since I felt like that would help her more than any bug could, but I decided against it and stopped looking at her altogether.
Junior kept placing bugs on me, taking trips to the wall and coming back with his arms full of jars. Eventually my back was covered and Juniper’s was nearly bare, though the fresh ones on her lower back and on her legs had stuck around. I could hear the buzzing of wings above my head along with chattering from the jars on the walls and from Juniper’s back, though I couldn’t see any cicadas flying around. The bugs on my back weren’t calling and I wondered what the point of all this was, what drove me to lay on the floor like this.
“Alright, Dad,” my son said to me. Lightning flashed outside the window then and thunder crashed hard, shaking the walls of the garage. “I’m gonna make them call, if you’re ready. I think there’s enough now to where you’ll feel somethin’. And I don’t think they’ll fly away since they’re all dug into the hair on your back. But we’ll see.”
Juniper’s eyelids shot open and she smiled. I was waiting for her blue eyes to tell me something—to make me feel, really feel—but she was looking at me in the same way I was looking at her, like she was searching for answers to questions. Neither of us said a thing. Every few seconds, I could feel pressure on my back as my son rubbed a bug between its wings. And then I could feel a sort of buzzing on my skin, and I wasn’t sure it went any deeper than that. And as I laid there, I thought about the crazy things people do when they’re trying to make themselves feel whole, even if all they’re doing is covering up one bad thing with another. I knew that whatever was happening right now had nothing to do with me, but I felt it was helping my son since he believed he was fixing things. He needed that, after everything, and I thought after tonight he might open the doors and let them all fly away. To me, that was a beautiful thing.
For whatever reason I started to cry then—cicadas flying off of my back here and there as my body shook with my sobs. I took the sleeve of the shirt beneath my face and used it to wipe my eyes. I looked up as I cried and watched the cicadas flying in the rafters, and I listened to the sound of their chirping and to the thunder as the storm moved away from us. My son stepped down from the ladder with a handful of jars and he looked down at the closed lids. Then he stopped, looked at me and noticed I was crying, put the jars down and ran over to me, squatting on his hams.
“You alright, Dad?” he said.
I didn’t answer him but continued to cry and looked up at Juniper, whose eyes were still closed. She moved her head over the surface of her knuckles, then opened her eyes wide like she had before.
“Your dad’s fine,” she said to my boy. “He’s feeling the same things you and me did when we had bugs on us, in his own way. That’s all.” She stopped talking for a moment, then said, “Keep going with those cicadas. We’ve gotta get this whole wall cleared. Look how many are left. You can’t stop now.”
“Okay, Juni,” Junior said.
My boy looked down at me as I cried and I didn’t feel ashamed or like I needed to cover myself as I did whenever I wanted to cry growing up. I felt like whatever was in me was escaping, and in that moment I felt very close to the things of the world. I realized there was nothing I could do for my son, now that his mother had left us. She would show up again one day, and then maybe I would leave him like my father did whenever my own mother came back. There was no telling when it came to things of the heart. But what I knew about was the place my son would end up in life. I could almost see him as a grown man when I looked at him through my tears. And there was nothing I could do to stop the world from breaking him down. Feeling empty is what it meant to be a man, and I knew there was nothing wrong with that. And in a way I felt proud thinking about the pain Junior would one day feel, knowing I would be there to teach him how to man up and shove the pain down the way my own father taught me.
“It’s really somethin’, huh Dad,” my son said. “Whatever you feel. Isn’t it somethin’?”
“Yeah,” I said between sobs. “It’s somethin’.”
Shayne Langford is a writer from Northern California. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, and works as a fly fishing guide in Southwestern Colorado, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Header photo by Pexels, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Shayne Langford by Mike Blakeman.