The genesis of “Cicada Month” was a Reddit article about Brood X, a storm of cicadas that emerges every seventeen years. This story is one about cycles—including cycles of our own worst tendencies, how we circle the drain, doomed to repeat each misstep. But I also wanted to fold in a layer of hope, because at the end, the narrator does gain some measure of introspection, a feeling that he might not have done anything differently.
As a child, Ah Gong used to fish cicadas out of the trees in Beijing and bring them home by the bagful for his mother to boil into soup. I didn’t know whether to believe him when he said things like that, and he would bellow with laughter at the expression on my face, his gold tooth spitting back flecks of sun.
Turning somber again, he’d launch into an unsolicited lesson on the paradox of cicadas, how, of the insect family, they live the longest, with a childhood wrapping around the sun multiple times, but, above ground, shedding their mature exoskeletons, they barely last the month.
That month we spent together, right after I had taken a leave from college, I was coming off little white pills I stole and cheeked, stole and cheeked, a rhythm strung together like a necklace, like days molting into each other. I wanted fervently to get better. I blocked texts and phone calls from bad friends. I kept a journal of all my apologies. I forced myself to remember Ma cleaning up my vomit, how withdrawal turned the thinnest bedsheet into long, yellowed fingernails peeling at my skin. Yet, the itchiness for a high never faded. I braced myself for each moment where I would be watching television or washing the dishes or mowing the lawn, and I suddenly couldn’t sit still, everything around me spinning like off-kilter planets.
Ma moved Ah Gong into our house to keep an eye on me when she was at work. In theory, the idea was terrible—how was an eighty-five-year-old supposed to fend me off? I was small for my age, easy pickings for bullies in letterman jackets and gym teachers in high school, but I could be ferocious and mean when I wanted to. Ah Gong and I also hadn’t talked in years. As I watched the airport taxi putter up the driveway and Ah Gong clamber out, hauling just one duffle, I wished I had called him more, just to see how he was doing. Put me on the spot, and I couldn’t tell you his birthday, his favorite food, or even what I was supposed to call him.
Ah Gong, Ma said.
Ah Gong, I repeated. My Mandarin had rusted, and the words felt cotton-thick.
But him staying with us worked, at least for the first two weeks. Every morning, as the cicadas hollered and wailed and gnashed their teeth, Ah Gong and I walked the entire length of our town. Circled around laundromats, car washes, an abandoned auto-manufacturing plant, where men, propped against pick-up trucks or squatting in the shade, stared suspiciously. Wandered past the Burger King. Once, Ah Gong bought one of everything off the dollar menu and took a bite of each, not saying anything, brow furrowed in dismay at the taste of mayo.
We walked around all the crevices and nooks, littered with bottles and trash, where I used to stud my mouth with little white berries to the beat of 80s rock. I gave those spots a wide berth, darting ahead, forcing Ah Gong to stutter-step to catch up.
Man yi dian, he complained.
I didn’t know how much Ah Gong knew, and he never asked.
He seemed preoccupied by the flora and fauna of America, peppering me with questions about what species a certain weed was or pointing at leashed pit bulls in someone’s backyard. The cicadas, he greeted like old friends, snatching a handful off a tree trunk, cupping them against his chest, whispering blessings for their children. Once, we stumbled upon one just as it was emerging from its husk. Ah Gong insisted on watching the whole process unfold. It seemed like tortuous work, the cicada wrestling with itself, pausing every now and then to gather reserves. For
a moment, it gave up entirely, frozen under our scrutiny. I felt sorry for it.
Let me help.
No. Ah Gong brushed away my finger. It needs to learn how to do this on its own. In his words, I detected a mild reprimand. I stood up, shaking away the soreness in my legs.
Ah Gong, come on.
Give me a minute. From the back, squatting there in the dirt in ripped sandals and a pair of shorts I had outgrown, he looked terribly young.
I woke up the next morning with the urge pressing against the back of my throat, like if I could cough hard enough, I could spit it up like a wad of phlegm. I could already see all the steps I would have to take, all the lies unspooling, the furtive scurrying. Later, once a different kind of clarity took hold, I would replay the sequence, trying to pinpoint when exactly things could have turned out differently. Maybe it was when I broke my ankle from skateboarding, requiring a cast and a prescription of a dosage I exceeded little by little. Maybe the first time I acknowledged to myself how good it felt to be cocooned. No, maybe it was the time I ground up the pills into flour, wet a finger, and rubbed it into my gums, not caring Ma was in the other room, telling Ah Gong on the phone that she was worried about me.
Quietly, I padded to Ah Gong’s room in our basement. Ma had apologized profusely for how cramped it was, the boiler taking up half the space, but Ah Gong said it had everything he needed. Now, I traced the treads he had worn into the carpet, surveyed the three books, furry with dust, stacked against the wall, a shaving kit, and his sneakers, kept pristine by spit and toothpaste. In a row along the ledge of his cot were three cicada husks, the whorls of the insect’s body preserved perfectly.
Under the pillow lay a clip of bills. I shoved it into my pocket and turned around, already knowing I had been caught.
Meesh, Ah Gong said, taking a step forward.
Mitch, I responded automatically, like all the times I had corrected him before. It’s pronounced Mitch. Look, I’ll be right back, okay? I’ll just be a few minutes.
I ducked around, but Ah Gong was nimble and cut me off.
Meesh, stop. Please. He held out a hand. I swatted it aside, but he moved closer, then sank to his knees and wrapped his arms around my waist. The sunspots on the crown of his head gleamed in rebuke.
Thinking back, I could have unfastened him easily, the way you pluck a grape from its stem, but for some reason, in the moment, I could only scrabble against his binds and mumble, Let go, let go, until the words smudged together in pitiful, nasal wheezing. Ah Gong didn’t say anything. He just held on. Latched together like that, we stumbled around, until, finally, I yanked my arms free and shoved him backwards, harder than I intended, and he collided with the cot, hands coming down hard on the ledge, snapping it in half.
Ah Gong sat on the floor with his left wrist jutting like a fin. Stop, he said, when I tried to help him up, stop. Just give me a minute.
He told Ma that he had tripped down the steps, and, when she turned to me to confirm, I nodded, the truth dissipating between us. That night, when we were alone and I apologized, he shook his head and said, Sorry counts for even less than that, motioning to the shards of cicada shell.
Ah Gong moved back to Beijing at the end of the month.
I’m tired, he said, tugging at his sling for emphasis, and though Ma immediately blamed me, neither Ah Gong nor I would say anything else. Before he left, he made me promise I’d mind the cicadas, taking care not to step on any that might be lying underfoot, leaving alone the ones that had yet to emerge. And because it was the least I could do, I agreed.
Years later, watching the cicadas leaden the branches, I remembered their lightness, how I could close my fist and they’d ash into nothing. Yet, they had outlived my recklessness, the mistakes I had made over and over again. I thought back to what Ah Gong used to tell me—how cicadas had barely any time between sleep and death, how, in the air, their breaths served as a constant weight inevitably pulling them back down to the dirt.
And still, he’d say, smiling down at his palm. And still.