Ravenous by Christine Spillson
The summer of 2011 in Columbia, MO, they carried with them the same overwhelming plague like proportions one finds in stories of places and peoples being smote by the divine. In the wooded areas, which are common, there could be more than a million cicadas per acre. These were not what are referred to as the “dog-days” cicadas, the type that appear any and every summer. These were the periodic cicadas. Brood 19 to be exact. Also known as The Great Southern Brood. Their cyclical nature had the air of fables where we see time presented in place-holding chunks to move the plot forward. Forty years, forty days, forty nights, etc. For the magicicada in Missouri, the magic number is 13. Every thirteen years, they crawl and claw themselves from the ground so they can shed their nymph exoskeleton to emerge—less butterfly from chrysalis, more one of those things from Alien hatching from someone’s rib cage—leaving behind a crunchy, hollowed, used-up carcass.
I used to find these remnants when I was a child. They were always clinging to trees and I would carefully slide them off the bark and try to attach them to my fingers like puppets. I couldn’t imagine wanting to handle them now, but back then, I didn’t think of them as fragile brittle bodies, or husks of youth, or a sign of imminent insect pestilence. There’s a scene in The Terminator when a tank belonging to the evil machine overlords is rolling over piles of human skulls, and there is a cracking and crunching noise that never failed to come to mind the summer I walked down the sidewalk and heard the crunch of exoskeletons. Later, it was the dead themselves under my feet, and I couldn’t bear to look down to see my own devastation.
That summer, I got to know the song of the cicada by heart. How one combines with one and then another and the next until it’s—not cacophony, no junked-up mash of noise—it’s a monolithic rise and fall, a buzzing, driving wave of aural agony that rides the heat of the season right through skin and into bone. Those bones at the hinge of the jaw first, then the ones behind the ear. Managing to vibrate some part of my brain that had only ever been troubled (inexplicably) by that low bass tone in Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” It creates a feeling like an itching that you might try to get at with the back of your tongue against the back of your throat, but it turns into a throbbing, natural bass. The males use it to attract their silent female counterparts. These males are collectively referred to as a “chorus” of cicadas. If one of the loudest of these performers, topping over 120 decibels, were to land on your shoulder and sing his song in your ear, it could cause hearing loss.
Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of this natural band that had taken up residence in my yard for the summer. The noise made it impossible to get anything done. Conversations were drowned out or rushed to keep pace. There was a constant buzz going in the background, pulsing as if to say, “you are late, you are late, you are late,” even if you had nowhere to be.
As the summer went on, the spent bodies of the adult cicadas started to drop from the air and onto the asphalt and there seemed to be, for some, a sweet satisfaction.
Then some set out to make it sweeter.
Early in the morning on a Wednesday in June, Ashley Nagel, manager of Sparky’s Ice Cream shop, a much beloved institution of Columbia, and several of her employees stepped out of their homes and into their yards and began to scoop.
Sparky’s had a reputation for handcrafting some of the finest, if often unusual, flavors of ice cream that could be had in the area. On my first visit, I got a bourbon-and-sweet-cream-based ice cream with grape nuts, corn flakes, and little pieces of banana throughout: appropriately named “The Morning After.” Many of the times I went into the shop, there were flavors I couldn’t wait to try or one I couldn’t imagine wanting. There was a harmony of humor and pride that went into the production.
The first comment I heard about the cicada ice cream was that the flavor resembled peanuts. “Really, they were just the crunch.”
The employees of Sparky’s had taken the bugs they had scooped from their lawns, brought them to the store in town where they proceeded to de-wing and boil them. A process meant to cleanse, but the image of the roiling water and the violently jumbling dead with their large heads and red eyes, floating and sinking, made me feel queasy. Made me glad that this was not my job.
They chopped them up and coated them in brown sugar and chocolate and mixed them into a brown-sugar-and-butter-flavored base. They had kept some of the wings to use to garnish the top.
The ice cream never made it to the display case.
They sold it too fast to bother.
I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear about it until afterward. Until after the health department had called them up and suggested they stop selling it. They were told that the health code for the city didn’t mention anything specific against the selling of cicadas you had plucked from your yard but it also didn’t address how they should be cooked.
So they stopped selling. They were all out by that time anyway.
They put up a sign: “Next batch for sale in 2024.”
I’ve since had this image in my head of people holding ice cream cones. Slurping and crunching. Laughing at their daring. Their bold flavor choice. Taking part in a celebration of the end of a life cycle. Taking gratuitous pleasure in the frozen silenced cicada song filling their mouths.
Christine Spillson graduated with an M.A in political science from the University of Missouri and currently attends the creative writing M.F.A. program at George Mason University where she is the nonfiction editor for So to Speak, a feminist journal of language and art. Her work has previously appeared in Redivider and The MacGuffin.