Letter from Washington DC

I write from inside the green lungs of an East Coast summer. Let’s call my recent arrival on this side of the continent a periodical return. I grew up four hours away in Pennsylvania, but I had never seen Washington, DC—not even on a school trip, not even for an obligatory look at the civic temples. This place has history, but so little of mine.

This June, as I sit at my old desk in a new upstairs office, I am eye-level with an intricate canopy of mulberry and maple trees, and my first impression of this otherwise-blank slate is something unexpected—a wave of cicadas whose heralds and portents hadn’t reached as far as California while I was searching for rentals and making itineraries, nor while these trillion or so amber-colored grubs pushed their armored bodies upward through a last few feet of dirt, approaching the end of a long vertical journey from their mid-Atlantic underworld. Now, a few weeks after my arrival, the sun rises over the Potomac River and the air fills with something like a collective howl. It’s a shrill sort of noise: as if a flying saucer could punctuate itself with wild exclamation points. Actually, it is the chitinous love song of Brood X, the entomologists’ name for the three subspecies of Magicicada that propagate themselves in a shared, seventeen-year interval, and which have been appearing in bewildered correspondence from America since 1633.

My interest isn’t immediate, let alone any affection. Cicadas are here to party and die. Their bodies have not felt the air in seventeen years, and now rising on stiff cellophane wings, the newcomers heave themselves at the curtain of leaves outside the window with a precarity that reminds me of my first ride on a Lime scooter along the National Mall—shaking, the whole of me focused on an alien mobility, courting slow-motion peril. And all throughout the day, these trillion bad drivers flutter loosely, crookedly, battering into the canopy and creeping along branches. All but two of every hundred will get plucked out of the air by birds or devoured en masse on the ground. Carnage litters the porch each evening; red-eyed heads, thorny legs, an orange-banded, black body that is broken open like a capsule, oozing something white. They’ve shown up to their bacchanal armed with nothing but a drinking straw, facing annihilation one way or another.

Just now, one blunders into the window and clings to the sill, four wings flat out in the dust and lucky to be alive. Its sides do not heave with the effort, which is weird, right? It emerged as a grub perhaps a week ago, probably from the open lot across the street or from the clover and dandelions that choke our front yard, maybe as I was slicing up boxes in the garage or laying out a welcome mat. Intent on its own arrival, indifferent to mine, this nymph would have climbed from its mud chimney wearing an intricate exoskeleton that itched to come off, blocking the tiny, blinking respiratory holes on the sides of its body, suffocating it for the hour or two it required to get free. The fence is studded with these abandoned husks, all of them split down the back, trailing a few rough threads that are, in fact, the inside-out linings of a cicada’s respiratory tracts, such that vacating its shell required something akin to ripping its six tracheas out through its three pairs of nostrils.

On a cellular level, I get it: when you’re suffocating, it’s time to go, no matter how much effort it requires. Enduring the disillusionment of the pandemic, I spent the last year in California trekking around every park I could find, the more remote the better. It was meant to be a search for charismatic predators—owls, coyotes, weasels—but the real obsession was about something other. Self-loss, fresh air, disgust, I couldn’t say. Paying attention to animals was the only way I could locate my affection for anything. Later, watching a cicada strain and arch out of its nymph armor and leave it behind on a fencepost, I thought, that. Have I finally done that? Come all this way, my wife with a new job, to an unfamiliar city as we slough off a dank, stupid interval in hell?

Outside, a dead cicada finally gets the better of me, and I go out to the porch and pick it up. The wings are slick, nature’s plastic. I pry one off and set it on an open notebook, where it seems isolated and clean against the paper. Magicicada. There’s a dusky M in the outer pattern of orange-and-black veins, as if someone penned it there with a fine-tipped marker. Magic isin the name, just a lucky scanning error—magi means many. Is it even possible to love a legion? Fascination prefers the sole specimen. Affection grows from specificity, exception. And my love favors the warm-blooded, the soft, the reciprocal. But it’s a narrowly mammalian way of framing care.

What seizes me now, in a strange new way, is how these cicadas sing together. Magicicada cassinii males perch as one, synchronize for a complete song, then make a brief flight to a fresh perch to sing again. And every member of this chorale is almost completely hollow.

If not affection, call it wonder. The dead cicada lies in sunlight on my desk, exposing a wingless flank and dull silver membrane that looks like an old-fashioned microphone, the hefty sort caressed in speakeasies. When this male was alive, his song came from here, this pair of tymbals amplifying each other up to 100 decibels and using his empty abdomen for an extra boost. What do you do when you are this small and must be heard? There’s a limit to how much I’ll romanticize the reproductive drive, but having spent a lifetime in my own soft-voiced and nondescript body, I linger over the cicada’s deafening song. What if the loudest art comes from being nearly empty? A common scream of love, until we die?

But there are other limits too: on how long I can spend rummaging around a dead cicada, or poking through overheated questions that have no answers.

That first Saturday in June, cicada song pulsed over the city all afternoon and into the evening, and at Arlington Cemetery, it even penetrated the Metro carriage. After spending the day on a letter about these insects, I took my first real excursion in a year, into the old DC gayborhood for the first drag show of Pride. Coming at the tapering off of Covid, it felt like a collective reemergence.

That night’s performance was in the Dupont Underground, a trolley-tunnel-turned-exhibition-space plastered with street art and periodic photographs on the district’s queer history, but I arrived late, and there was already so much cheering that the urge to join it pulled me along the curving tunnel toward the stage and commotion. Music ricocheted off the ceramic tile, making for torrential acoustics, and a goliath drag queen in bumblebee glam danced and hugged people in the crowd to Aretha Franklin, and the cacophony resurrected something dormant: joy, gleeful laughter, a warmth that spread like bourbon, a jangling excitement that we were all there together—a feeling that would linger for the rest of the month, through the Pride walk, the gathering in Freedom Plaza, and evening strolls past porches decorated in rainbows.

My wife and I emerged that night from the show, a bit stunned, ears cottony from too many decibels. The sky was dark and the Dupont Circle grass was all shadows. But bumbling around the streetlamps were comets, these cicadas in the last days of life. In a few weeks their song would yield to a more ordinary backdrop of birdsong and traffic, leaving a hole in the auditory ecosystem; but the next generation is already burrowing. It’s not history in the making, just a long cycle of return.

Sarah Cypher