A Love Story
It was a beautiful day in Japan. The remnants of a typhoon had cleared out the day before, leaving a fresh clear air to roast dry in the blazing sun. Yet the temperature was not so bad, as the typhoon had departed to the northeast, leaving in its wake a gout of cool air from the north, a result of the storm’s counterclockwise circulation.
Ants scurried along a metal rail, painted by sailors long departed, just outside the temporary headquarters of the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet. There was a concrete ledge perched along the round of an ancient rock cliff, a location previously developed by the Imperial Japanese Navy with the trademark spongy concrete and incorporation of rocks and trees into the structure. A metal staircase led to a parking lot below, constructed of steel piping and diamond-plate. A wooden picnic table and a few deteriorating benches were the more classy part, with some rejected old chairs left out to die in the elements, contributing their weathered innards to the general funk around what was now a smoking area with a bucket and a trash can.
A cicada buzzed noticeably closer than the others, and was spotted clinging to a skinny twig arising vertically from the joint between two robust branches of a magnificently spreading pine. His song began with a rasping rising call which was repeated, with increasing urgency, until it broke into a syncopated climax, a twee-gaw-ee-awww-weet chorus with ripples of accent.
A cicada is hatched and burrows underground where it lives for seventeen years, or thirteen or eleven, at which point it climbs above ground, climbs a tree, grabs on the the underside of a branch and molts to unfurl its wings. The bug’s heart, such as it is, pumps furiously to inflate its wings which then harden in the fresh air. I do not believe that the bug eats after this, although I could be mistaken. The rest of its life will be dedicated to finding a mate, and its primary mission in life is accomplished, if at all, on the strength of the rasping, buzzing song.
Our cicada continued its set list of rising calls and jazz-fusion codas, taking short breaks between efforts. An animal whose procreation depends upon a single tactic has evolved to perform that task rather well, and the clatter of these bugs can be deafening. This one was no slacker, and the song rebounded from the table, the concrete, the steel rails, so that no two places on the platform seemed to sound the same. But always it was the rising sets, and the disco-strobe aria. Of birds and bees, and flowers and trees, the bug presumably knew nothing. His mission in progress, he gave it everything.
She landed near him on the underside of the larger of the two main branches of the joint. She made no sound — she did not call, nor did she move in any appreciable way. We will forgive ourselves for peering into her motives, and assuming that her silent presence was driven by the same need to find a mate as the boisterous hollering of the male. Her presence had an immediate effect, despite being out of sight below the branch. Our bug of the skinny upright twig changed his tune at once, from the long-practiced pattern of groups within groups to a constant low buzz alternating between two tones, like a heartbeat with no rest.
While continuing the tense low buzz, he gingerly retreated backward down his twig. To an outside observer, the search was over and the hunt was on. He had called to her and she had come. His descent was slow, measured. Foot under foot under foot, he awkwardly backed down the twig until at its base, his stiff wings, extending far behind his blunt body, bumped the stout branch from which the twig issued. He made a few more tentative grabs below his current grasp, but was unable to descend further with his wings stopping his rearward progress.
He began to maneuver his body first this way, then that, without the faculty of reason to work out his problem, but possessing at least enough good sense to try different combinations. He twisted to the right, and lowered himself an additional tiny foot’s worth of progress down the twig, and was thwarted by his wings. He straightened himself up, driving himself back up the twig, and twisted to the left, once more regaining his furthest position, until his wings bumped again. He did this several time, all while he continued to thrum to her, and she continued to wait.
After straightening up again, and after a bit of a pause, he took the time to maneuver his bulky body on its many spindly legs so that he faced downward, in his desperately desired direction of travel. His wings now pointing skyward, he pressed his face against the branch below, and worked himself off the twig and onto the main branch which split at this joint. He was now facing the trunk of the tree, his wings extended behind him in the direction of the patient lady. Perhaps the low rasp was intended for her to home in on. Perhaps it had transfixed her, enthralled, powerless to turn either toward or away.
He cleared the twig and turned around, heading out toward the business end of this story. As he proceeded outbound, he was confronted with a choice. Or more likely he was confronted with no choice at all — he simply continued in what seemed the proper direction. He navigated past the twig whence he had come, and set out along the lesser of the two branches available to him. It may be that he perceived no joint, that there was never any choice to be made, that a cicada’s mental map does not extend so far beyond his feelers to even allow the notion of choosing a branch. He simply walked along the top of the branch, and it was not the branch under which she waited.
She wanted him. She waited for him. She could hear his song, and it pleased her. She never stirred, and he never arrived. He knew she was there, and she still heard his song. He continued along the top of another branch, an entire arboreal world of possibility open to him, but she was no longer in it.
Perhaps he had become disoriented in working himself off the twig. Perhaps it is always this way, and that these bugs are lucky to continue the species despite their best efforts, as they lack the ability to recognize their situation and adapt to it. He had tried valiantly, and was in fact still trying, marching down the wrong branch, singing his song to the lady who still waited.
And perhaps in deeper desperation, he will change his tune back to what once had seemed to work so well. After all, a creature such as this — who no longer craves food, nor shade, nor comfort, but wills only to find a mate or die trying — is well-motivated to try again. Eleven years, or seventeen, or even seventy may seem adequate to all purposes. But time is not kind to these small unsensing animals. Their long lifespan is but a pedestal for a moment, a brief time of flight and song, sunlight and companionship, and the moment had gone.