Shrimp of the Dirt
That spring a brood of cicadas some billions strong crawled out from the apron of the mountains and filled the hollow with its call. The Blue Ridge sheltered the town so well from weather, wind, and sunlight that most of the hollow folk had forgotten it could be breached from below until the nymphs burrowed up from their mud turrets and molted. Once they’d taken wing, the cicadas pruned the forest, suckling sap until the limbs lost color and raised brown flags in the canopy. Where they fed, the brood pissed a honeyed rain that clouded the air and clung to clothes and skin like a second sweat. County dogs fattened feasting on the bugs, which the families with western roots dubbed ‘shrimp of the dirt,’ though everyone else called them jarflies. Tasted like boiled peanuts stuffed with crab, they said, good with grits or salted plain if picked before the bodies blackened and the wings crisped to orange cellophane. Townsfolk crushed clumps of them with each step — they swarmed over every door handle, porch, and sidewalk. At dusk, it was possible to gauge the town’s activity by the patterns of the dead. The deepest smears cut around the post office, where patrons placed money orders rather than embrace the nearest bank in Luray. The next deepest tracks cut a crescent in the hill below the rail yard, where passels of hired men paced, spraying black bolls of mating bugs off the track signals for freight trains to Charleston or Norfolk. Each man learned a clumsy snippet of sign language, for there was no point in shouting; the brood’s call swallowed all sound, even the thunder of trains. When a shift ended, they carried home with them a lingering hum in their limbs and ribs, as if long exposure to the trembling air had turned their bones resonant like the steel tines of tuning forks.
They bring in the branch, braceleted in cicada shells, to their mother’s bedroom. She rises slowly, and only after the boys appease her with a game of Good Leg, Bad Leg. It used to be only the one leg was bad, but now scars shimmer in the lumpy skin of both limbs like rivers twining a topographical map. Keepsakes from her falls on the floors of the dog food factory. Each leg starts out mean, kicking at the brothers’ lightest touch. She growls to show them what wild limbs they are. It takes several minutes of rubbing and petting to tame them to the point they’ll let themselves be held. The boys won’t outgrow the game or their mother’s growls for many years.
They show her the branch aglitter in sun-dried husks, and she tells them the shells remind her of little pig figurines. She claims her family kept a sow they vowed to kill every autumn, but each year the old girl lived. Asked how, she tells them the scalding pan lifted off most of the hair, but the children had to peel the strays with can lids that warped from the heat. A good lid lasted two hogs. She is always like this, answering questions they didn’t mean. Her skin reeks of baked kibble.
She sends them out to fill Ziplocs with jarflies still soft from the molt, mumbles she will cook them later. The lawn is alive in the dusk light, a glinting, chattering carpet that drowns out the bellows from the trains across town. The boys know the racket springs from the males, from a hidden drum clicking inside their bodies. They pelt each other with the crunchy ones through air that tastes oddly of honey. Once the bags fill, they see no dent has been made. They can walk barefoot without touching the ground, and wonder how anything could really die surrounded by so much wriggling life.
While they wait for their mother to make dinner, the boys play a new game named Tatoos. They take turns with their arms on the table while the other presses a can lid into the skin to make circles, as they’ve seen their mother do when she cuts biscuits out of dough. The winner is the last one to cry. Their mother sleeps through the noise and the boys go to bed with rings of red tattoos, but no winner. Later, they grow up to be normal young men.
You’ll find them in the icebox, jarflies in a Ziploc fleeced with frost, as you fish about for frozen peas to soothe the swollen eye your brother left. Another fight over what to do with your mother’s house. You still blame yourself as the one who was driving the night of the crash, regret how the pain and bills from his crippled leg have left him bitter and pill hungry, so this time you let him hit you, if only to grant him the relief of working with his hands again. Your mother’s room rests dark. She is three years in the home now, and despite your brother’s broken pleas, you won’t bring yourself to sell.
The bugs make for an ice pack. You take them with you, to the spot on the lawn where the train can be heard most clearly. Dusk creeps out of the ground, dying the greens blue. Your swollen eye can still make out the dead, heart-shaped jarflies shifting inside the Ziploc like white strawberries. They live all but their last days in the dirt, sucking roots of the same trees they were born under. A billion of their lifetimes spent barely moving, and yet you wonder whether they haven’t given up on this place too; seventeen years since you and your brother harvested them as boys, and besides a small showing of dog-day stragglers four summers back, the full brood has yet to turn up.
You wait for the freight to sound, long for the places you might yet visit if you hopped one; places without mountains, or kudzu, or car wrecks. Places without bad legs, or mothers nursing Alzheimer’s. When it comes at last, an eastbound coal train headed for the coast, the howl lifts the hairs on your arms. Somewhere below your heart, maybe below your feet even, a hidden drum beats out a response. For a moment, you can fool yourself into thinking the sound is your own. The train runs on. You carry the bugs back to the house and bury them in the icebox.
Michael Alessi’s work has recently appeared in Paper Darts, Passages North, Mid-American Review, The Cincinnati Review, and other journals. He is the author of The Horribles (Greying Ghost Press) and holds an MFA from Old Dominion University. A native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, he currently lives in Chicago.