The schoolyard was sunbeaten and drowsy when Mrs. Halderson’s first-grade class filed out for recess. The world just went on producing more summer, even though school had started. After wandering a while I drifted into the shaded alcove of one of the classroom doors that no one ever used or opened. On the cool concrete slab I saw an insect big enough to run a startled twinge through my insides. I leaned down to see.
The creature was enormous compared to most bugs I caught. It was the first time I’d seen a live one, but since I’d already graduated from kid’s bug books to thick identification guides, I recognized it as a cicada—the insects that made that hot electric whine way up in the trees. It had a squat, toadlike body, with eyes set too widely at the far corners of an inscrutable face. Its wings looked stolen, too long and delicate to belong to it. Thick-veined, they were like stained-glass windows without the color. They trailed out behind its stumpy body. I touched the beast gently to see whether it would fly but it hardly moved, content to park there looking alien. I knew it had lived silent and secret under the ground for years, longer than I’d been alive even. Until this very summer, when it’d clawed its way up to the air to live a few months as a flying, chittering thing, then die at season’s end.
My intent crouch, the posture of discovery, drew classmates to see what I’d found. A semicircle of skinny legs and dirty knees assembled around the oddity, with exclamations and queries of what is that thing? My mouth was open to answer when a sneakered foot slammed down on the cicada.
I looked up at Luke Henson, who grinned around at the rest of us, his eyes sparkling with pride and excitement as if he’d just pulled off something terrifically dangerous and impressive. He lifted his shoe to reveal the fragment-studded goo that was left. The other kids made appreciative moans of disgust, and then, with nothing more to see, ran off to talk about baseball stats or dirt bikes, Luke among them.
I remained kneeling by the grotesque oily smear. I’d never seen a person destroy a living thing without some reason. I now realized that needing a reason wouldn’t occur to some people, as if the thing living wasn’t its own reason for being there. I sensed that something good had gone out of the world, made it smaller and shabbier. And not just the cicada. I remembered the triumph in Luke’s face, and felt him more alien than the insect had ever looked. Like he was a thing as different from me as I was from the bug.
The next day, and every day after, I roamed the schoolyard as always. But when I found a caterpillar, a bird’s egg, a treefrog camouflaged on mossy bark, I played at doing anything else but inspecting it, and moved on as soon as I could force myself.