Seven years ago I cleaned the bedrooms of an Appalachian craft school: labor in trade for classes in basket weaving. Framed on one of the walls was a black and tan drawing of a cloud of cicadas, wings outstretched and illuminated in scientific detail. Underneath the drawing the script read: “Cicada song: you are the heartbeat of the South, my dying mother.”
On early evenings most summers, in this Southern Appalachian valley where I live, you can hear the sound of cicadas screaming. At times the sound is so loud, people stop their conversations and turn their eyes to the trees, looking for the bullet shaped insects. Sometimes you see one clinging to the bark, betraying itself with a grating wail. Other times, when the trees are full in the evening, the rise and fall is much like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby; it’s everywhere and everything, inescapable and indispensable, all at the same time.
A few days ago, an old friend walked into our kitchen while my one-year-old son banged a red saucepot against the cabinet door. My friend held out his hand, fingers closed in a loose fist. “I brought you something,” he said. He dropped a lifeless cicada into my cupped fingers, heavy as a marble and hard, with wings that rustled against the ridges of my fingertips. The back of the cicada was green, iridescent, armored—as impenetrable as I have tried to become.
And yet, cicadas know how to wail.
Once, gathered in metal folding chairs under a tall white tent on a patch of family farmland in Southern Kentucky, twenty-three people wailed like cicadas. One by one, we placed a stone or a bit of wood in a growing pile and named what we mourn:
“The children who are born without a chance to know what it feels like to live in a healthy body.”
“The rivers that are dead from coal sludge.”
These things were said, and then it was my turn.
I held in my hand a mottled yellow leaf. I laid it carefully on top of the sticks and river stones and heads of ragweed piled on the muddy grass.
“I’m not quite ready to say what I’m mourning.”
I thought I mourned because I’d recently left my partner, or because I was seven months pregnant. Perhaps I mourned because I was determined to have this baby, but not sure how to do it alone. Across from me, a woman with a long dark braid tilted her head back and through her sobs I could see two rows of strong white teeth.
I started crying when the first stone was placed on the wet grass. Hours passed before I stopped. Tears don’t come easily, or often, to Good Southern Women. In this South we fix our make-up, fix a casserole for the potluck, say, “Bless her little heart,” and pour another sweet tea and whisky on the front porch. We act nice, we keep our pain to ourselves, and we certainly do not wail. At least not in public. Wailing happens only when it is absolutely unavoidable, and then it takes place in secret: clutching a purple washcloth on the cold tiles in the bathroom, in your car driving a winding county road, standing at the kitchen sink when no one else is home.
My son’s father used to ride trains. When I met him, the May that I finished my undergraduate degree, he was sleeping in a truck, under a bridge that brings traffic over the Tennessee River. “You can park your truck in our yard, if you want,” I told him. “You can use our shower, our kitchen.” Because good, Southern, women act nice, because we’re supposed to help everyone out.
These are the facts: The abuse started immediately. Within two weeks we were sleeping together every night. By October I’d moved to Idaho with him. By Christmas day, I knew I was pregnant.
One night, after we’d broken up for the third or fourth time, I sat next to him under the electric blanket in the RV he’d rented when he moved out, watching a movie playing on the tiny TV screen, He’d been steadily drinking a growler of beer, then began throwing things against the wall: a glass jar of Planter’s Peanuts, the remote. I thought about getting up and going home, but it was winter and bitter cold outside. I still believed if I was good enough, he would love me and the abuse would stop.
This is the PG version of the story.
There are no cicadas in Idaho, only snow and grey sagebrush on the hills. When I left the hospital the day I saw my baby’s heartbeat, I knew I’d have to go back to my Southern Appalachian Valley alone.
Last month millions of women told their stories of sexual abuse, assault, and dehumanization under the Twitter #NotOkay. Through social media and conversations with loved ones, there was an outpouring spurned by the release of an Access Hollywood tape wherein Donald Trump boasted about sexual assault.
On that day under the white tent, I placed a stone on the pile, yet I did not have the courage to name what I mourned. But today I find the courage to wail. I find this courage because I’m surrounded by the voices of brave and extraordinary women who are telling their stories. I find the courage to wail because I have a responsibility to let my pain show. Because we live in a world where women do not wonder if we will experience sexual abuse or domestic violence or assault, but when and how bad it will be. Because nobody deserves to be treated this way: not me, not you, not women, nor any man. Because none of us are free until all of us are free.
You may have heard the myth of the thirteen-year cicadas, that they spend more than a decade underground feeding on the roots of trees, emerging once every thirteen years, all at the same time, and in tremendous numbers. I’m here to tell you, I’ve seen it happen. Their wailing is unbelievable. People give up their polite conversations and just sit, glasses of iced tea sweating in their hands, listening.
This is what our stories have the power to do. Spoken together, they have the power to be heard.
Here is what I know: In a certain time of year, at a certain time of day, in this Southern Appalachian valley, cicadas fill the trees. And their wailing is much like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby; it’s everywhere and everything, inescapable and indispensable, all at the very same time.