Naked Ladies and Cicadas by Joanna Brichetto

surprise lillies also known as naked ladies plant with a cicada on branch - described as pink megaphones on a stick

 

Whoever planted our “surprise lilies” is gone, but her lilies aren’t. For twenty-three Nashville summers they’ve surprised us in the front yard: pink megaphones on a stick. Hummingbirds love them, but I didn’t till now. Other names are Resurrection lilies, which my family is too Jewish to say, and Naked Ladies, which we think is funny. They are nekkid. The leaves that ought to clothe them come and go in spring, months before fleshy flower stalks stretch.

I must have asked my neighbor what they were. Mrs. Neal liked to chat from her porch as she flung Lean Cuisine leftovers onto the grass “for the birds”. She’d already been in the house next door for 40 years. She would have known Naked Lady, and would have cackled when she said it.

Ours surprised me two days ago. I forgot them, as usual, till pink unfolded.

A cicada found it a day later. As I bent to stick my nose in the flower I saw an empty skin clutching the lowest petal. It was the big, annual “dog-day” cicada. And at that moment, as I squinted over my glasses in search of the curly white thread inside the cicada’s split back (part of its breathing apparatus), right then, morning sun shot through it. The husk was a conduit. Sunshine poured through the eye bubbles, sluiced from the front claws, pricked each chin whisker; and lit the whole miraculous thing on fire. What had been dried-mud-beige, now burned amber, burned my eyes. It was so gorgeous I could not move except to toggle myself toward the best angle of sun through skin.

Exuvia is the proper word: “the cast-off outer skin of an arthropod after a molt.” Exuuuuuuvia. An exuvia exalted.

The nymph had tunneled during the moon-thin night, up through soil soft from a storm, and scaled the first vertical thing it met: a Naked Lady. When it reached the top, it stopped on a petal to do its own unrobing. Scratches show where clawed feet scrabbled for a hold. Cicadas, like butterflies, have to hang just so to give new wings space and gravity to straighten, fill and firm. Surprise: a nekkid bug, resurrected.

Does anyone plant Surprise lilies anymore? Lycoris squamigera is an old flower in old lawns. Nowadays, they could be called Old Lady lilies, or more accurately, Dead Lady lilies, because everyone who planted them is dead. In our neighborhood they still show up, but only in yards not yet gentrified by sod. They thrive on neglect, and will not survive weekly mow ‘n’ blow yard crews. My family is lazy, so we are ideal hosts.

Our fallow yard is good for cicadas, too. They spend most of their lives underground, sucking roots, not doing any harm. Depending on species, they’ll stay two to 17 years in the dark, then emerge to molt into adults: to fly, sing (if male), mate, lay eggs (if female) and a few weeks later, to die.

I worry about the collateral damage new construction wreaks on cicada populations. Nashville is booming. We are a city of cranes. Excavation kills cicadas outright, but my Twilight Zone nightmare is an image of Nashville’s 13-year periodical nymphs tunneling to the surface to find no surface. Instead, they bump whiskered chins against new infill houses planted two per lot, against zero-setback additions and new mixed-use high-rises: obstacles so deep and wide any bug left alive would not feel its way to an edge in time.

After Mrs. Neal left, six successive owners have renovated, landscaped, flipped and otherwise “improved” her property. The side porch where she welcomed us to the neighborhood with buttermilk pie is behind a six-foot privacy fence. Surprise lilies (deliberately) and grubs (incidentally) were grubbed out years ago.

Yesterday’s cicada was male. Where is he now? Did he stay? Is he part of the buzzing chorus in the hackberry trees, singing his chainsaw bootycall for any female within cicada earshot?

Males start calling as the day warms. They sing and sing from tymbal tums, sometimes with vibrato, sometimes tremolo. Vibrato changes pitch, but tremolo—like a guitar pedal, like a metal Purim gragger—stays the pitch but pulses it. Sometimes a cicada waves a pattern in 2/2 time: the downbeat a ratcheting socket wrench, the upbeat a rest. They all crescendo, quicken, fade, repeat.

At dusk, they quiet. Except one, maybe, and maybe he’s mine: my Naked Lady cicada. He stays up late to solo in trees already black, even as robins peent last call from tonight’s roost. And if dark comes early because of cloudcover, fooling the rest of us, he will sing even as the big brown bats start their turn in pewter sky. He will sing with the moon, but I have his skin, which once held the sun.

joanna brischetto in front of wodden fenceJoanna Brichetto is a naturalist and teacher in Nashville, where she writes the urban nature blog Look Around: Nearby Nature. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in storySouth, The Ilanot Review, Animal, November Bees, Jewish Literary Journal, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and The Fourth River.

 

STORY PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR.
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  • Kim Bailey

    One of your greatest gifts is your ability to turn your knowledge and love of nature into gorgeous prose. From one naturalist to another, you shine… like sun through a cicada skin.

    • Oh, Kim, thank you! Just the “from one naturalist to another” would have thrilled me to hear. Thanks for reading it!

    • This is a beautiful comment, Kim. Thank you.

  • Tim Bennett

    Absolutely lovely.

  • Jeanine Pfeiffer

    A Hippocampus author & supporter says BRAVA, you fine writer, you! Looking forward to seeing (and feeling) more of your evocative prose.

    • Jeanine, I am SO happy you found this story. I had thought of you after it went live; happy to see another nature essay in our pages.

    • Thank you! I’m scouring your website right now. So looking forward to reading about your “roadkill habit!”

      • Jeanine Pfeiffer

        Joanna – the piece published in Hippocampus was “Until We Have Loved” (although “My Roadkill Habit” was a finalist for the 2016 Hunger Mountain CNF contest, they never made it accessible to readers.)

        • Yes, I read your wonderful bat piece right away. Then, I clicked on a link in your blog to read the roadkill essay (and thank you for leading me to Hunger Mountain, which looks great), and was taken to a ResearchGate page asking for my name, etc. in order to send a request to the author.

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