It was the cicadas. That year was the culmination of their 17 year cycle, when they cover the trees. Ever hear the story of the plague of locusts? You learn to wear hats.
So there we were, me and my very best friend Georgina sittin' on Momma's back porch, sippin' iced tea and talkin' 'bout what movie stars we wanted to marry. We looked up to the sky and wished on every star we found between bursts of conversation.
When you're young conversation is easy to drop and pick up again.
We lived in a neighborhood set back against a forest of maple and oak trees. The houses were ancient giants left over from the Reconstruction, passed down through families even older. Tradition is king in a place like that--even the bugs know it. So when winter broke that year, there was talk of how the cicadas would come. And everyone was fine with that, 'cause tradition is tradition. Everyone except Amy Lou, that is, and her stupid, snobby, country club clan.
Miss Amy Lou Jackson was a direct descendant of General Stonewall Jackson, a fine man who would've won The War for the South had he not been killed accidentally by his own men. A famous bloodline made her family better'n everybody else, or so she thought.
That year, Amy Lou was nine-going-on-thirty. I didn't really know what that meant but my mom said it and it made the other grownups laugh so I figured it was alright by me. Anyway she was going to be ten, really, and so she just had to have the biggest birthday party ever. My invitation came in the mail with a fancy stamp, even though she lived right down the street. It said "the first of May" and "formal dress required" and "tea on the lawn." I tried to burn it before Momma found it.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I don't want to go! You can't make me! That Amy Lou is the worst, Momma, the absolute worst!"
I cried. I screamed. I kicked my legs in those little flipper motions Daddy hated. I was still going.
The next week was a series of desperate attempts for reprieve. I went on a hunger strike, until Momma made fried chicken for dinner. I broke a lamp in the living room so I would be grounded. Sure enough, I was grounded but still going to that stupid party. I faked illness and then death, but it was a lost cause. Soon the cicadas were singing in the trees. I guessed they didn't have to go to Amy Lou's pathetic birthday party.
I guessed wrong.
The day of the party, my mother pulled a long Sears bag out of her closet. Inside was the frilliest, pinkest, itchiest dress I'd ever seen. Before I knew it, she was scrubbin' me in the tub and puttin' her hot curling iron all over my hair and bucklin' fancy shoes to my feet. I cried the way Shirley Temple must have on her first day of filming.
When Momma showed me my reflection in the mirror, I had to squint real hard to see myself. Somewhere under the curls and bows was the knee I'd scabbed the week before, a farmer tan, and a brand new training bra. Just imagine The Good Ship Lollipop meets The Grapes of Wrath. It was small consolation, but Georgina looked just as stupid as I did.
I was in the most sour mood of my life until we got to the party. The expression on Amy Lou's face when she saw me and Georgina was worth the torture. She looked like she'd swallowed a bug. As I stared into that ugly, screwed-up prissy pug face of hers, God sent me divine inspiration. I had to tell Georgina.
I convinced her to help me with a plate of lemon sugar cookies, a week's allowance, and a little white lie that Amy Lou was the one who'd stolen Georgina's Gone with the Wind poster. I took off my sunhat and wiped the sweat from my forehead. The cicadas sang like they knew what we were up to.
Before Amy Lou's momma could grab us to play stupid party games, Georgina and I snuck off into the trees behind the house with our hats tucked under our arms like baseball mitts. We climbed the oaks as quickly as we dared, scared to get dirty and give ourselves away. Whisperin' and gigglin', we plucked cicadas off the trees like we were pickin' peaches.
Nobody'd missed us. When we returned, in fact, Amy Lou was going at her presents like a starving man at a stack of moon pies. When she finished her momma rolled out a three-tiered sparklin' birthday cake, just like we'd planned. What everybody knew was that her cake had come from the finest bakery in the city. What they didn't know was that the top layer had been hollowed out (courtesy of Georgina's massive appetite) and replaced with a hundred angry cicadas.
Nobody was surprised when Amy Lou blew out all the candles in one breath. I can still remember her insisting, "I WANNA CUT THE CAKE, MOMMA! YOU SAID I COULD!" at the top of her lungs. And when her momma handed her that big fancy silver cake knife, she cooed and giggled and set it lightly at the top of the perfect, white icing. Georgina and I fought back snickers.
The oohs and aahs of the crowd turned into shrieks of terror, the loudest of which was Amy Lou's, when she cut open that cake and all those cicadas came flyin' out at her face. They covered her hat and dress and all the ladies around her, singin' and clutchin' on to the expensive fabric.
Half an hour later Amy Lou was still screaming, even though the cicadas were gone. We had to be dragged home--we were laughing so hard we could hardly walk. That evening we could still hear her from the porch, where Momma sat with a glass of lemonade to hide her smile.
I've grown older and left home for bigger adventures, but the sounds of cicadas stay with me. It's not just their singing. It's also that awful high-pitched scream, the sound of a hundred people running over lawn furniture, and my Momma's soft, lazy laugh.