“A Song for the Cicada,” Friend, Sept. 1987, 43
Teresa’s sixth birthday was just about over, and as darkness settled slowly over the elm grove and the weedy fencerows, all the insect fiddlers began to tune up for their nightly concert. Teresa listened to their raspy music as she stood by the window of her bedroom, her long blond hair braided neatly to keep it from becoming tangled while she slept.
Being six was a wonderful thing, for tomorrow she would start school, and soon she would know all the town children. But for a moment Teresa wished that she could reach out and hold this day forever in her arms.
Sighing deeply, she turned toward her bed. Her bare feet made no sound as she walked across the worn carpet. But the corn-shuck mattress was very noisy when she slid between the snowy white sheets and made a nest for herself.
The thought of going to school was exciting. There she would learn to read the words to all the songs in the world. Then, when she grew up, she would sing in four languages, like Grandmother Hildah, whose picture rested on the mantel above the fireplace.
Teresa had never seen Grandmother Hildah because Papa and Mama had left Germany, where her grandmother had lived, before Teresa was born. But Mama had a phonograph record of Grandmother’s lilting voice, and some day, Mama said, Teresa would sing like that.
All summer long Teresa had practiced. On sunny days, after the eggs were gathered, she loved to squat like a small brown toad, half-hidden in the elderberry thicket, and listen to the trills of the meadowlarks or the mockingbirds. Then she sang the notes as best she could, adding words as they came to her mind.
In the evenings, while she drove the cow up the long, shady lane and past the row of trumpet vines, Teresa would listen as the crickets and the katydids sawed on their fiddles. Then she would join in their tune.
Once when she heard Teresa singing, Mama said to Papa, “Our daughter sings like Grandmother Hildah already.”
Papa had arched his dark eyebrows. “So!” he said. “In which of the four languages did our daughter sing today?”
Teresa had squealed with laughter and hugged Papa, for she knew that he was teasing.
Now, as she lay snuggled in her warm bed, sleep was slow in coming for Teresa. Outside, the insects were filling the night with their music, almost as if they were afraid dawn might catch them with their songs unfinished.
Morning came rosy pink. Teresa could hardly eat her breakfast or stand still long enough for Mama to comb her hair. Her fingers were all thumbs as she tried to button the new birthday dress that Aunt Gertrude had sent all the way from Pennsylvania.
Papa took Teresa to school on his way to his blacksmith shop, and he introduced her to the teacher, Miss Marcy. When the bell rang, Miss Marcy introduced Teresa to the class. “Most of you know each other already,” she said. “This is Teresa Gruenwahl, children. Her parents came from Germany; let’s make her feel welcome.”
The eyes that stared at Teresa did not make her feel welcome, and she wished that she had not come. And at recess the other children drew off into whispery knots or pushed her away when she tried to join their games. They called her a stupid foreigner and made ugly verses about her living on a farm. Then they pointed their fingers at her, shrieked with laughter, and ran away.
Worse still, the words in the primer just looked like bits of noodles chopped up and scattered out to dry. But she loved singing time, especially when the class sang about the creatures great and small. Teresa could sing louder and higher than any of the other children, and that made her feel better.
The days passed. Fall flowers turned to seed, the odor of ripening apples perfumed the air, and the insect chorus grew more shrill.
One morning on her way to school Teresa caught sight of a cicada clinging to the bark of an elm tree. She had seen cicadas before but never so close. This one’s brown skin was splitting down the back, and its new green one was showing.
As Teresa stopped and watched, the split grew wider and wider. Soon, to her amazement, out popped a “new” cicada, all green and moist and shimmery in the sun. Slowly raising each leg, the cicada stepped daintily away from its old skin and sat down to dry. Teresa was enchanted. Here it was, as green as life. And there was its old, hollow, brown skin still clinging to the tree.
She loved the new cicada, but she didn’t have time to wait for its first song. So she shook out her handkerchief, plucked the insect from the tree, and wrapped it up carefully. Just as carefully she tucked the handkerchief into her pocket and hurried on.
She was late. The cicada’s metamorphosis had taken too much time. Softly she opened the schoolroom door and tiptoed to her seat.
“Teresa, you may stay in during recess,” said Miss Marcy, frowning.
It was nearly recess time when Teresa first heard the sound. It was like the buzzing of a fly trying to free itself from a spider’s web. Then the sound began to spiral upward from her pocket to fill the silence in the room. Zzzeee uh zzzeee uh. The Cicada! Teresa had forgotten about it. It was beginning its first song, and IT WAS LOUD!
All the eyes in the room turned toward her as the song rose higher and higher. Miss Marcy looked up from the story she was reading aloud, laid her book facedown on her desk, and rose slowly to her feet.
There was only one thing to do, so Teresa did it. Thrusting her hand into her pocket, she clutched frantically at her handkerchief in an effort to muffle the vibrant voice. The sound stopped abruptly. Teresa had squeezed too hard. She could feel the handkerchief become damp in her fist, and she felt sick.
Teresa didn’t know how Miss Marcy knew where the song had come from, but as she looked up, the teacher’s eyes were kind.
Slowly, Teresa drew forth the crumpled, green-stained handkerchief and placed it on her desk.
“It was the cicada,” she said softly, her eyes filling with tears. “It was singing too loudly, and I had to make it be quiet. I didn’t mean to …”
At that moment the recess bell rang, but nobody stirred.
“Oh, you poor child,” Miss Marcy murmured, gathering Teresa into her arms. “We must give the cicada a proper burial.” She led the way out into the hall and down the steps into the schoolyard. The children quietly followed as she crossed the yard to where a large elm tree stood.
“Can anyone find a strong stick?” she asked. “We need to dig a grave for the cicada.”
One of the boys found a sturdy twig. He solemnly bent down and scooped out a hole. Teresa placed the shroud-wrapped insect into the hole and covered it up.
“I think we should all sing a song,” Miss Marcy said. She took a pitch pipe from her pocket and blew a single note.
Glancing at Teresa with shy, sympathetic eyes, the children began to sing. “All things bright and beautiful / All creatures great and small, / All things wise and wonderful, / The Lord God made them all.”
And to Teresa the song was sweeter than ever before.