My daughter points down into the dirt halfway along the trail, and I see it: a nymph wriggling out of a hole the circumference of a dime, bending and bucking, wresting itself from its exoskeleton. Later, on our return to the car, we spot its husk, intact but empty, and after a few more paces, we see a cicada wobbling over a bare root. It hears (far more attuned than we) the clatter, the song of the rest of the brood breaking into a light that—in my human imagining—must be like entering into the afterlife.
That brilliance, that dizzying flurry of wings and backwards sex, the abundance of eggs drilled into branches, is so brief. For a few short weeks, my children and I find evidence of the cicadas’ other metamorphosis: solitary wings floating in the pool, dozens keeled over onto their sides along the bike path, one or two smashed flat beneath a wheel that has rolled onward, somewhere else. There seemingly is no one to care about these dismembered bugs, whether or not they managed to mate or lay eggs before kamikaze-ing into the hazards of human invention—sides of buildings, car windshields, pavement, pools. My children take care not to step on those that are still living, those that smack into our faces and legs, dropping stunned back into the grass after we squeal and dance them off us.
In a few more weeks, there will be no trace of any of them. Without my seeing it, the new nymphs will fall onto the ground and burrow, wending their way deeper beneath our feet, until they find a tree root to suckle. Over the coming months, they will no longer capture our imaginations, except for the odd time when my five-year-old son might ask, “D’you remember the cicadas?” And I will say, “Yes! Weren’t they something?” Maybe we will walk while we are talking, and I will have some awareness that the nymphs are underfoot—six feet, eight feet—a mound of earth between us.
Otherwise, we will forget them until they emerge again in seventeen years. By that time, if we are all still alive, my children will be adults, childhoods shed, and I will turn sixty-something, entering roughly the last third of my life.
If I take after my father, his mother and father before him, my mother’s mother and father, too, my body (by design?) will kaput not too long into that final third. More like seventy-two than ninety-plus. One never knows, but there are few things more important to be realistic about than death. My father, who died a couple of years before the cicadas made their way above ground, had his ashes planted at the roots of two oak trees. I once read that for every living person ambling on earth, there are fifteen who used to live but are now buried, scattered in the wind, consumed by wild animals, sunken into the ocean’s sediment. It is hard not to imagine my father’s body feeding the trees, the trees, in turn, feeding the cicadas, the cicadas’ bodies feeding the birds, my father’s body taking flight.
Maybe it is in this way that we are resurrected—ascending our earthly bodies only to return to dirt—to have our matter repurposed in service of the larger living organism.
• • •
During the same season as the rise and fall of the cicadas, my daughter pulls a butterfly garden from a box, a late birthday gift from my sister-in-law. I hold up a plastic cup to the light and see a half-dozen caterpillars squirming around in a brown mush that I assume is part food, part waste. “Look, Mommy!” My daughter points to a caterpillar turning its head back and forth like a woman taking in the reflection of her face, first one side and then the other. We read the booklet that comes with the garden: “Place your caterpillars in a cool dark place away from sunlight. Be careful not to move the cup once the caterpillars form their chrysalises.” My daughter leaps up and down, and I force a smile, though my stomach turns over with disgust. The caterpillars undulate, half-blind, against the sides of the cup, as though their bodies and their muck could press through the plastic and into my hands. I cannot set down the cup fast enough and tuck it inside the dining room hutch. We read on: “You will be delighted to see your painted lady butterflies emerge in just a few short days after the chrysalises form.” I feel no delight. I understand the transformations promised by the brochure, and still I am overcome by the sense that the cup is a burial vault where the caterpillars’ bodies will stay, entombed mere feet from my dining table. Our painted ladies.
• • •
When my parents named me, they liked the name Gretchen best but chose Monica. Mon-i-ca, three syllables, because my sister’s name is An-dre-a. Our names go together in a sweet singsong. My mother had a cousin, Monica, with whom she had a special connection. She gave me the name of someone she already loved, but who I’ve never met. Most people bear names borne by people who lived before, many of them unknowable, except that their names have been handed down through families, through a common place and language. I will never know what it might have been like to live as Gretchen--German pearl, diminutive of Margaret, cluster of blossoms—rather than as Monica--solitary advisor, sainted long-suﬀering wife, mother to Augustine. I will never be called by a name with a closed door for its final consonant: -en, bringing to mind endings or entropy. Or with a harsh, middle retch conjuring the word wretch. Instead, my name walks me over the gentle hill of its n, leaves me at ah, an exhale without expectation of the next inhale.
1998 was a tough year to have my name. During that fall and winter, I lived and worked in Paris—a dark-haired, white American woman named Monica—not much younger than the suddenly infamous Monica of the blue dress. Up until then, I’d been the only white girl I knew named Monica, which made me feel special, though I’d met a few Mo-niques in France. (This was pre-Google, which obliterated any special feelings I had left about my name, after I searched, many years later, to find records of at least a half-dozen other women with my full name alive in the world: a white-haired one in Wisconsin; a younger, beautiful one on the West Coast.)
That season in Paris, though, Monica Lewinsky’s notoriety caused the first signs of wear on my name, rubbed it out a bit where it had once been etched proudly in the stone of my psyche. To nearly every introduction I made then: “Je m’appelle Monica,” particularly to men who might have had romantic designs, I heard: “Lewin-skee?” in response, a teasing reply. It occurred to no one that I had already heard this joke what seemed like a thousand times. That it was uncomfortable hearing my name tied, again and again, to a woman whose sudden misfortune was to bear a name that irrevocably connoted shame or, more specifically, a shaming.
• • •
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MONICA JUDGE’s essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Albatross, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction was a finalist for the 2020 Stories Out of School contest held in partnership with A Public Space and judged by Jonathan Lethem. She holds a master’s of creative writing from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She is a high school English teacher and a mother of two living in Maryland.