Magicicada by Barbara Black

Editor’s note: This story appears in Barbara Black’s debut short story collection, Music from a Strange Planet: Stories, published by Caitlin Press, 2021. It is reproduced here by her kind permission.

Jean’s eighty-three. She never sleeps through the night anymore. She gets up at five a.m. to swim in Magic Lake.

There are those who swim for pleasure. And those who swim for exercise. Jean is neither. She swims for survival. As a form of prayer. She goes into the water as an unexpectant initiate. The moment she slips into the lake’s green depths in her now thirty-year-old one-piece, she allows her body to be embraced by the water. Sometimes she dips underwater and swims with just her legs, the surface quivering like quicksilver atop. She swims as long or as little as it takes to make her skin feel new. When she’s done, she dries off under the ash trees and walks the fifteen minutes back to her house.

In a wicker chair on her small back deck, she waits for the sun to come up. She used to take a sherry after her swim. No need to toast the dawn anymore. She wants only to hear the song of the emerging seventeen-year cicadas. It may be the last time. A molten band of morning light blooms up from the eastern horizon.

In 1944, the same year Virginia’s seventeen-year Brood I cicadas came out in full force, Jean was thirty-two and married. She had a child, a boy. Her second one, actually. At age twenty-two she’d given birth out of wedlock and given the infant girl away to adoption. That’s what was done, back then. The girl wrote to her a few years ago, but Jean had never answered. Her husband Ted named their son George. Then, as the boy’s medical problems became apparent, promptly left her. He sent money, but not love. The neighbourhood kids called her son Gimpy George. She knew. Those were different times. People grimaced or looked the other way when she pushed him in the pram around town, his loud bellowing belying his small size. In those days you kept a disabled child out of public view. But she didn’t care.

George never learned to walk or talk, but he loved the water. He had good strong arms for a child. In the summer when everyone in the neighbourhood was inside eating dinner, Jean would take George to Magic Lake. She couldn’t remember if this really was the name of the lake or if she had named it that for Georgie’s sake. First they would sit on the dock under the ash tree and listen to the blackbirds. She told him about the day he was born and how everywhere in the woods the Blue Ridge cicada nymphs were crawling up trees in the hundreds to shed their skins and become adults; how this very ash tree had vibrated with the songs of the Magicicada. She wasn’t sure he understood. Then she would carry him to the lake and wade into the shallows. Skimming him across the surface on his back, she pretended he was a boat, or a dolphin, or a shark, and he flopped his arms in delight. Never did she let him feel that he would sink if she let go.

When George turned ten, he was getting too heavy for her to carry and move around. He could sit for hours in his chair and stare out the window at some far-off place. She started to put a piece of paper and pen on the tray in front of him, and he filled the pages with frantic lines and circles. Childish scribbles, but she kept most of them. Later, when she missed him, she would pull one out of the drawer and look at it, feeling the frenetic energy inside his body, studying the pen marks to access the mystery of his thoughts. As he got older, Georgie started to rage at her and strike her in the face. It was as if he knew they would soon have to be separated. Or perhaps it was his way of speaking something urgent. They still got letters from Ted then, and the occasional package with some inappropriate gift for George she always had to give away: a baseball glove, roller skates, team jerseys. It was as if Ted was trying to negate George by sending him normal boy things. When Ted wrote that his “other” son was learning to ride a bike, she cried. But she read the letter out loud to George—even the parts about the boy careering wobbily down the driveway—and he made his funny cronking laugh, as if he saw the whole thing a different way.

 There was a day, years ago, when she gave her son a small mirror to hold in his hand. He was still and stared into it for a long time with an expression of astonishment. She was never sure whether he recognized himself, or whether he felt communion with the reflection of a stranger.

When George was admitted to the Roanoke County Care Home, he was surprisingly quiet. She was pleased to see that his room would look out on a large pond where ducks and geese floated lazily amidst the lily pads. And there were blackbirds. He would like that. Afterwards, when she missed him terribly, she would go to the lake for a swim. This is when the ritual started. A long, slow exhale standing on shore, then—immersion in the landscape, all sound receding. Time in her body, her strokes marking passage, a small splash of each hand as it cut through the lake’s surface. She’d float on her back and listen to the wind in the ash tree. And, in season, the frogs. She heard in their croaks and calls the joy in George’s voice. A language understood by intimates. People said she should have had another child, a “normal” one. They didn’t know about the previous child. But she felt the world she had shared with George was not something to replace.

GEORGE DIED one Sunday afternoon in July, age seventeen. It was hot that summer. The ground was still littered with cicada casings. The woman who phoned from the home seemed evasive. Jean had to jam the receiver against her ear to understand:

“Mrs. Barker?” the woman had said. “George… there was an incident this afternoon… we don’t know how.”

“How what?” Jean had asked, not wanting to hear the answer.

There was a long breath from the other end. “He wheeled out to the pond somehow… he must have dragged himself in.”

“You mean he drowned? Georgie drowned?”

“Yes, Mrs. Barker. I’m sorry. Maybe he wanted to… well, it was an accident.”

She’d hung up the phone. If only she’d been there to hold him up in the water as she used to. Days passed when all she could do was sit in her armchair, remembering those humid days with her son when time hung like thick strands from the trees.

Ted came to the funeral, much to her surprise. “Poor little fella,” he had said. “Now his suffering’s over.” Jean had flown at him in a rage. “He was not little! He was seventeen!” She lashed out at him, spitting out the frustration from years of isolation. The funeral party had instantly dispersed. They had never been a part of Georgie’s world. She stood alone, then, at the grave site. The whirring cicadas filled the trees in the cemetery, their strange humming like the engine of a mothership.

THE SUN has risen. More than risen. She fell asleep waiting. And with the warmth from the light, a single cicada is the first to whirr into song. Gradually more cicadas join, until the sound becomes a high-pitched call orchestrating the morning. It seems to enter her through the soles of her feet, channel up her spine and exit out the top of her head. She is electric field, charged matter, mourning mother all at once. The song energizes at first. And then at a crucial threshold, it enervates. She goes inside.

Her left hip hurts. Her world feels paper-thin, at risk of being torn by the slightest wind. Her feet take her to the dresser in the living room where she retrieves one of Georgie’s last drawings. Still in her bathing suit, she sits down on the couch facing the window, the view he would have had. Outside, the yellow jackets swarm, flying aggressively back and forth between the fruit trees, tracing jagged paths in the air. It looks like the angry scribbles Georgie had made on the paper. In fact, the more she looks, the more she becomes convinced that he was drawing the wasps’ flight path. There are distinct forward-moving vector-lines and intermittent zig-zags, a furious searching and seeking pattern. She looks at the backside of the paper: August 1954. The mad heat of summer. The heavy air. She turns the paper over again, staring at the drawing, feeling what worlds her son had occupied inside his muteness.

She gets up and returns the drawing to the cabinet drawer. At the back is the letter she received two years ago, from her daughter, right around George’s birthday. She had not replied. Then, it had seemed an issue too far in the past to address. But today it feels different.

She pours herself a sherry, sits down at the table and opens the letter. There’s a smaller envelope inside that she had missed the first time. It contains a photo: her adult daughter in a one-piece bathing suit and swim cap, standing by a lake. The caption on the back side reads: Lake Michigan, 60 km Swim Challenge. Jean flips the photo over several times. Even the handwriting looks like hers. She starts writing a response. “Dear Angela. I am sorry it’s taken me so long to write. The facts about your birth are, of course, correct. If you would like to meet me, I live in Virginia, in Roanoke County. Also, I would like you to know that you had a half-brother, George. He lived with me in this house. I don’t know what else to say other than I am very pleased to hear from you after all these years….



Barbara Black is an award-winning writer of fiction, flash fiction and poetry. Her first work of fiction, a short story collection titled Music from a Strange Planet: Stories, is published by Caitlin Press and was longlisted for The Miramichi Reader’s “Very Best Book Awards 2021.” Her writing has been published in Canadian and international magazines and anthologies including the 2020 Bath Flash Fiction Award anthology, The Cincinnati Review, The New Quarterly, The Hong Kong Review, CV2, Geist and Prairie Fire. She was a fiction finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, nominated for the 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2017 Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. Other achievements include Honourable Mention in the 2020 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition; and Longlisted for the 2021 and 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Black lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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