Silence of Cicadas
The feeling of hot, muggy summer air against my face brings me back to my childhood. Somehow, that familiar endless buzzing of the cicadas has always lived in the back of my mind. I am reminded of days long past, memories long forgotten. I spent every summer here with my grandparents till I was five. I haven’t been back to this house since then, but as I step onto the oddly familiar porch, I can’t stop the memories from washing back in like the evening tide.
There’s the bench I used to climb on. I got my head stuck between the bars once and grandpa had to pry it open. I can still see the slight bend in the metal.
And there’s the rocking chair he always used to sit in. He would bounce me on his knee while he read newspaper articles out loud to me. I have a few odd recollections of being there. The world seems strange and distorted in my mind, but I can still feel his scruffy chin, smell his menthol cigar, taste a cold popsicle in my mouth.
He’ll never bounce me on that knee again. I’m adult now, and that old man has died. I flew into town for his funeral. It was a lovely service, but I could hardly connect it with the man I hadn’t seen in years. It wasn’t until grandma and I returned to the house that the memories came flooding back, though I didn’t have the time to ponder them. Grandma was distraught. She needed my help.
I think I’ll be here a while. Grandma keeps calling out for him in the night and addressing me by the wrong name. She shouldn’t be here alone. I’m the only one that can take care of her. My parents were only too happy to shirk the responsibility.
I take a seat in grandpa’s rocking chair, finally able to take a moment for reflection. Yes, being here really brings back the clarity of my earlier memories. They feel almost like a faded dream, but the reality surrounding me is a solid anchor. This is that very porch, those are the same trees, it’s even a hot, sticky, summer evening just as it always was. I take in a deep breath of moist air and follow the smell back to an earlier time.
In the evenings we would come out to this porch, just me and grandpa. I would play in the grass while he strummed melodies on his banjo. It stands out to me in stark contrast to the home I was raised in. Here there was no television. Here there were no toys. We found other ways to entertain ourselves.
I remember lying spread eagle on the floor in my underwear, munching on fresh watermelon to fight the heat, with grandpa always in the background; the scent of grilled meat and smoked pipe filling the air. But more often than not, I remember sitting on his lap and staring out into the deep forest. Oh the stories he would tell. Stories of things I had never heard. I don’t remember many details, but I remember the point.
This forest was old, almost magical. Grandpa always spun tall tales about the keepers of the woods. The last remnants of the world before humans. Elves, sprites and beasts of all sorts. It really filled my young mind with a sense of wonderment for this place, and I feel it now as the night sky falls heavy upon its branches. I’ve been here before.
I glance upon those very trees. They feel even older now, aged along with me. Their shadows grow long in the last rays of the setting sun, dancing along the ground as the trees shake in the soft breeze. I can still feel that same wonder as I stare, becoming lost in the forests depths. For a moment I am that young child again. I can practically hear my grandpa’s droning voice behind me as I scan the foliage for movement.
I can feel the joy, the curiosity, the magic, but then something else bubbles up to the surface.
Why is that there? What had I been afraid of?
Suddenly the shadows of the trees no longer dance. Now they are long fingers reaching out of the darkness for me, slowly inching closer. A sharp breeze shifts the branches, shuffling the leaves and creatures hidden just within them. A cold shiver shoots down my spine despite the heavy heat of the air. What is this feeling?
The door beside me swings open and I almost jump out of my skin.
“Grandma! Uh, sorry. What are you doing up? I thought you were sleeping.” I say to the old woman. She turns to look at me, carefully holding out a plate of food.
“I, uh… I already ate.” I stammer as she approaches me.
“You forgot to put out the offering again, didn’t you Richard?” She says. I cringe at her use of grandpa’s name.
“I’m not Richard, grandma. Remember?” I try, but she doesn’t seem to understand. She only pushes the plate into my hands more persistently.
“Um, what am I supposed to do with this?” I ask. She points to the front steps.
“We have to leave an offering for the king dear. You know this.”
“The king? Who’s the king?”
“The king of the forest of course. Now be good and put that out on the steps for me. I think I’ll go lie down for a little while.” She says while patting me on the head. Without another word she scuffles back inside and closes the door. I look down at the plate of food in my hands.
Sigh, what have I gotten myself into.
Against my better judgement, I set the plate of food down on the front steps. Rather than return to the rocking chair, I decide to take a stroll. There isn’t much out here in the way of civilization. The closest house is a good fifteen minute walk, but I head down the road in that direction anyway. The other way leads deeper into the forest, and I don’t think I want to do that right now.
The buzzing of the cicadas is so loud that it almost drowns out my thoughts as I walk. Their pervasive mating calls penetrate deep into my psyche, a white noise that fills the brain and clouds my mind. I studied them in college. Technically, I know that there are three distinctive calls, but now I can only hear them as a mixture. They come together like dischordent instruments, creating an orchestral sound much greater than the sum of the parts. It’s almost hypnotic.
Before I know it, I can see the lights of a house in the distance. Have I really gone that far already? It feels like only moments since I stepped out onto the road. I continue down the path till the house is in clear sight.
But then, something catches my eye. I freeze in place as I look at their front steps.
Resting on the top stair is a plate of food.
An offering, for the king of the forest.
And suddenly in a flash flood of memories, everything becomes clear. That fateful day, seventeen years ago. I recall it in stark clarity now. I remember.
I was sitting on my grandpa’s knee as he told me of the king of the forest. He explained how it rose from the ground every seventeen years to take a mate, and how it brought the cicadas with it. He said it roamed the forest calling out, and that we must leave an offering of food to appease it.
I saw it on that very day. What had been a regular afternoon took a sinister turn. I looked up from my perch in the grass, stuffed animal firmly grasped in my hand, as the forest suddenly went silent. That ever-present white noise of the cicadas cut off in eerie unison and all other rustlings faded. The only sound left was the soft whistle of the wind through the tips of the trees.
Grandpa jumped out of his chair and raced over to me, scooping me up in his strong arms. He ran back to the porch and wrestled on a pair of large earmuffs. He then put a pair on me, and held them tightly against my ears with his hands. They blocked all noise completely, the world around me was suddenly mute.
Together we stared out into the forest hearing nothing but our own shallow breathing, the slow rhythms of our hearts. I was confused at first by his strange actions, but then I saw it.
I saw him.
The king of the forest.
He stalked through the woods far in the distance, almost too far to see, but I didn’t need to see him up close to realize that something was very wrong. Even though he moved like a man, he didn’t resemble one at all. His skin moved and shifted as though it was alive itself, ever twisting, ever active, and with each step a swarm of insects pulsated and spread around him like breath.
The bringer of cicadas, the king of the forest.
Returning to the present, I whip around on my heels and run back to the house. I don’t want to be out in this forest anymore. I run for a full minute, panting so hard I almost miss the forest’s warning.
But I don’t miss it. I don’t think anyone could. No matter how hard I pant, that white noise of the cicadas drowns out everything for miles. That is, until it doesn’t. It’s almost shocking how sudden it happens, like pulling the plug on television static.
I freeze in place and slam my hands over my ears, more of grandpa’s words coming back to me. He told me what to do when I was little. I remember now.
“When the cicadas go silent, you must not listen. You must cover your ears immediately, and keep them covered. They only go quiet in the presence of their king, so that his call can be heard through the forest. You must not hear it. If you do, he will come and he will take you.”
The flashback leaves me trembling, crouched on the ground with my hands clasped so tightly over my ears I think I might actually go deaf. Is this real? It can’t be, right? But, even though I have only recently remembered them, these memories shine brightly within my mind with the same reality of those other memories I know to be true: my baby blanket was blue, my first stuffed animal was a puppy, and the king of the forest stalks the land on summer nights.
I get back to my feet and begin to run, hands still tightly blocking out all sound. But the forest is dark. The evening air is already growing crisp, and the faint light of the stars isn’t enough to make out the path. I run frantically, but soon I realize I’ve strayed. This isn’t the way to the house. I’m just out in the woods somewhere.
I try to retrace my steps, but the sky begins to grow cloudy. I can hardly see the ground. I remove one hand from my ear to feel for a tree in front of me. This is a mistake.
The cicadas are still silent, but there’s something else. It sounds like the buzzing of many insects, thousands of tiny wings all flapping in unison. Then the smell comes. I almost retch as the smell of molded swamp land hits my nose. It carries with it an unmistakable air of rotten decay, wet spoiled meat.
The clouds part for a moment and the light of the moon illuminates the world for me. I can see the path not too far off, but that’s not all. Behind it I can see something different. Something that has lived in my nightmares for all these years.
I see the king of the forest. He’s coming towards me.
I’m frozen in place for a moment. I can’t tear my eyes from his writhing skin, the hazy cloud of insects surrounding him. The buzzing is louder now. Louder than I can handle. I lift my hands to my ears and plug them tightly, and not a moment too late.
The king lets out a mighty bellow. I can’t hear it, but I don’t need to. I can feel his call in the very air around me. It impacts against me, boring deep inside. I can feel it rattle my very bones. But I do not listen. I cover my ears as tightly as possible and turn to the path.
The clouds come back together, once more cutting off the light from the night sky, but it no longer matters. I’m already sprinting down the dirt road, hands never leaving the sides of my head. I’m sure the king of the forest has been left far behind, though I dare not look back myself.
It feels like hours before I reach the house, but I haven’t slowed down at all. My heart feels ready to explode out of my chest as I run up to the porch, but the adrenaline pushes me onwards. Finally, I drop my hand from my ear to reach for the door handle. I grasp it tightly, but pause before yanking it open.
I can hear again. The cicadas are back. Loud as ever they call out in the distance, looking for a mate in a world designed to stop them. Their wails pierce through the night air and deep into my own mind, but they ring with a new tone. Though I’ve always found them annoying, now I know the truth. They sing the song of safety.
I go inside and take a long shower. The noise of the running water is a good replacement for the cicadas. I let the fear and adrenaline wash through me with the hot water. I’m feeling better afterwards, almost back to normal.
But I still seal my bedroom windows before I sleep. Despite the stifling heat, I cut off my only source of cool air. They do the job. The noise outside cuts off almost entirely. I keep a close watch on the window anyway, certain that something monstrous will approach at any moment, but I’m very tired. I try to stay awake, but my vision of the darkened forest slowly slips into hazy dreams of anxiety and being chased.
I wake the next morning and go outside. The plate of food is completely empty. The king has accepted our offering and passed by our house.
But will he accept it tonight?
To be continued
Submitted October 13, 2018 at 09:28PM by honeybadgerme2