She heard Cyrus in the distance. She recognized him from the small digging sounds he made. It was a sort of SCRATCH-scratch sound as if he was giving it a lot of effort at first but then his interest waned. Next came the sound of something being opened, that sound of release, a faint pop. And finally, the slurp of Cyrus drinking.
Cyrus was her age. She had run into him months ago, they were coming at each other and almost collided. Frantically, she had tried to change course but he didn’t and they ended up in an embrace.
“Cyrus, where are you going?”
“I am going to the same place you are, to visit that Elm tree.”
“It is a wonderful Elm, isn’t it?”
“It is what it is.”
“Cyrus, do you remember, years ago, I think it was in the year 14, that wonderful Maple tree?”
“Yes, that was a wonderful tree.”
“Yes, it was. I remember four of us, you and me and Danzig and Saran. I recall Danzig bringing us that sweet syrup and we would cry with joy. The effect was like a hallucination but one that makes you feel vibrant and alive. Saran would do this beautiful dance, shaking her body, sweeping her arms, making small clicks, like whispers, which we could not understand.”
“Yes, but that’s over”
“It was horrible. the Maple was uprooted, so they say, and disappeared from this Earth. And we lost many companions. I have not seen Saran since. I did see Danzig once, but he ran away from me. I’m sure he did.”
Cyrus did not respond and began to move away. She heard him receding, his digging sounds becoming fainter. She might never see him again.
She remembered year 14, that wonderful year, so clearly. There was also, year 8, yes she remembered when the sour taste of grass, which is what she was subsisting on, gave way to the extravagant taste of syrup. She remembered as far back as year 3, when she was groping, looking for anything to eat and becoming desperately hungry. Back in her younger years the earth was booming with the sound of digging.
Her early friends were Zumi and Gongotzon and 5 or 6 others whose names she could not recall. Zumi went off to distant lands, she said. And Gongotzon kept insisting that this soil did not suit him. He needed to go North or South perhaps. He wasn’t sure but he knew he needed to go. She wanted to go with Gongotzon but she was also afraid. After he left, she wept in despair.
Her memories did not go back much farther. There was only that first hazy memory of being small and young and terrified. There were her friends but they were the same age and equally terrified. As they all grew older together, they started to dig and to find grasses to eat. The grasses were nutritious but sour. Eating was a burdensome task. It was much later that they discovered the wonders of tree syrup. That wonderful nectar.
The discovery of a new tree was a great event, a cause for celebration. Each tree had its own distinctive flavor and beauty. And trees were also how you kept track of Time. As the tree changed with the seasons, so did its taste. The taste of summer would give way to the succulent Autumn and then to the Winter. But it was the first taste of Spring that was so sweet and intoxicating, a life-giving sweetness.
Still, trees would age and sometimes die and new trees would have to be found. So they all went, gorging their way through the forests of roots and dirt. Those of her kind that had not wandered away, were getting fatter and bigger.
Aside from them, who had all grown up together, there were others here and about. She had often encountered these others. Others that looked like them but were a bit larger and older. Strangely, they never spoke with them. It was not just reticence on their part or an inability to speak. They clearly spoke with others of their kind but in a way that was incomprehensible to her. They might as well have been beetles, they were so alien.
Once, in year 4 when she was still a small thing, she encountered someone else, someone that looked like them but was enormous with a large head and arms and strange scales on his body. The memory of him was still so vivid. He smelled different than the others. He smelled bad, like decay, the smell of rot. But he spoke to her and she understood him.
“Hello, young thing!”, he said.
“You can speak! What are you?”
“I am a failure. I am about to die. You see, I dug and dug but ended up stuck and backwards and the world must be over and I am upended and useless and now I am ready to die.”
“I don’t understand you. Do you need something to eat?”
“That won’t save me.”
“What are you? You are bigger than me and my friends. You are as big as the beetles and the worms but you look like us and you can speak with us!”
“You must be 4 now. So you have another 13 years in which to live this life. I am 21, believe it or not, a mutant.”
“I have 13 years to live? And why? Can you tell me what is this all about? Who are we, me and my friends? We only discovered this world as nymphs and we have had to discover everything for ourselves, how to find food and eat, how to run from larger animals, how to survive this life. And now you say there is some new danger?”
“We are cicadas. And 17 years is our allotted life. We live and die in great cycles. For thousands, perhaps millions of years this is what we are and this is what we do. I cannot tell you more than that.”
The creature stopped speaking and would not move or eat. She was frightened and had run away. She never saw him again or anything like him. She told some of the others about the bizarre, deformed creature and what he had said she had seen but they found it too difficult to believe. Others like us but that could speak to us? What is supposed to happen in Year 17?
"Now," she thought, "it is year 16 and year 17 is upon us. If I were to believe that creature from long ago, this is the year that I die", she thought. "I do not feel closer to death. If anything, the opposite is true. I feel strong and alive with that impending sense of discovery, of a grand beauty that lies before me. My own sense of power makes me a bit dizzy, frightened but also filled with optimism about the years that lie ahead."
"Perhaps instead of dying, in year 17, we will become truly alive. Perhaps discover what the reason for our existence has been all along. I’d like to think that I may even see old friends. And perhaps for the first time I will not only hear and touch them, but truly see them, their full forms stretched out, as we all emerge from this darkness and are all bathed in light together."
"I dream of digging higher and higher until I reach above the earth, beyond the earth. But I continue going higher, digging into the sky itself. And there in the sky I will see all my old friends, reaching out to the horizon, billions of us. I will see Gongotzon and Zumi will be there too. We will all fly together and fly and fly."