Editor’s Note: Delmarva Review featured Steph Liberatore’s “Bug Girl(s)” to open the nonfiction section of the review’s 16th edition as an example of “flash” nonfiction to concentrate a story’s voice and message. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Author’s Note: I wrote this piece in the summer of 2021, when Brood X descended on my hometown for the first time in 17 years. I was struck by the different ways my daughter and I reacted to the cicadas: She was amazed; I was repulsed. When I wrote this piece, I wanted to dig into that dissonance—and what it might mean.
YOUR DAUGHTER walks up to you in the backyard with her hands clasped beneath her chin, wanting to show you something. You know what’s in there—a handful of cicadas, squirming in her cupped palms—but you act surprised, like you always do. You’ve played this game before.
“What you got in there?” you ask her.
Your daughter unclasps her hands—flinging them wide with dramatic flourish—and ten cicadas fall to the patio, their bodies turned leg-side up on the pavers, wriggling. They try, and fail, to flip themselves over. They beat their wings against the stone.
Your daughter, who’s newly 6, reaches down to pick one up, gently, by its wing. She places the cicada back in her palm and leans her face in toward it. It hums in her hands. The sound it’s making worries you—makes you think maybe the cicada is angry, that it will attack your daughter. Or at least, that it wants to flee from her.
But she says that sound just means that it’s a boy.
You look at the cicada—the one that comes once every seventeen years—upside down in her small hands, its red eyes bulging, and remember your little sister: another young girl who wanted to show you things you didn’t really want to touch.
Together, you’d sit on the driveway of the house you two grew up in, the one that wrapped around your sagging suburban farmhouse like an L. She’d pull the forest tent caterpillars from the oak trees in your front yard, and they’d march up the steeple she made for them with her fingers. The caterpillars were black with white spots on top, blue and yellow on their sides. They had fur protruding from their bodies. What looked like hundreds of legs.
Sometimes, your sister would smash the caterpillars in her hands just to see what they’d do. She didn’t want to hurt them exactly, just understand cause and effect. She wanted to see the green ooze from their crushed bodies drip down her palm onto the smooth asphalt below.
You think of your sister now as you watch your daughter with the cicada. This sister, two years younger than you, who’s lived in San Francisco, New Zealand, New Orleans. Who bought a house by herself. Traveled to places where no one knew her.
While you stayed behind, at home.
“You want to touch him, Mommy?” your daughter asks, as she holds the cicada up to you now in her open palm, her fingers stretching toward you.
Your sister used to ask you the same thing. She wanted to share her caterpillars with you, too. Have you touch them, love them, explore them, as she did.
But you were sickened by their slimy bodies, their green ooze. Scared of their bites. Their hairs.
What would have happened if you’d touched those caterpillars all those years ago? Would you be a different kind of woman now?
You look at the cicada in your daughter’s hand, its wings like fairy nets, the soft square of its feet. You want to be unafraid of the way they’ll feel as they pad across your fingertips.
But you’re not.
“No,” you say to your daughter, smiling. “I don’t.”
You kiss her head and back away, keeping your eyes on her open palms. Making sure that none fly toward you as you move away, retreating.
Steph Liberatore is the Featured Writer for Nonfiction in Volume 16 of the review. Her essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Cream City Review, and Inside Higher Ed. When she isn’t working on her first book—an investigative memoir—or chasing after her two young kids in Silver Spring, Maryland, she teaches writing at George Mason University. Website: www.stephliberatore.com
Delmarva Review, a national literary journal with strong local roots in the Delmarva Peninsula, has published the outstanding new writing of 550 authors in its sixteen-year history. Editors cull through thousands of submissions annually to select the most compelling new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. About half are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region. It is available in paperback and digital editions from online booksellers and regional specialty bookstores. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org