A heat wave rolled into the city, and reports of elderly heatstroke victims streamed in continually. Sirens wailed, and pet dogs lay panting in the shade.
It was much better in the suburbs, where tall poplars and willows provided shade. All day long, cicadas sang in the trees. After it rained, toads chimed in with their bass voices. The numerous sparrows and magpies leaped lightheartedly among the branches and in the thickets. All of them affectionately shared their food, with only occasional brief clashes. Magpie couples were living on the crowns of a few old sky-skimming poplars. A little lower was the cicadas’ paradise. Not far away were picturesque multi-storey buildings. The cicadas sang continuously, never interrupted by the glum people going in and out of these buildings. Their loud singing was proud, intense, and aggressive, filled with the high spirits prompted by the summer heat. It’s true that some people were deeply annoyed by these singers. They glared with hatred at the old poplar tree above the bicycle shed. But what could they do? Year after year, the cicadas had a symbiotic relationship with the poplars and willows. The cicadas could be destroyed only if you cut down all the large trees. And if you did that, the temperature of the residential district would rise many degrees. The cicadas didn’t know this. They sang from an excess of enthusiasm—because of love, because of the urge to procreate. They drank their fill of the sap generously provided by the large trees and found the blazing heat wonderful. Especially when the humidity rose, the thickening layers of clouds hinted at a certain ancient memory, and they burst into song. Their leader was generally the elderly cicada squatting on the highest branch. The other cicadas admired him greatly, and even the magpie couples listened attentively to his song. Before long, the chorus rose like surging waves and occupied the sky above.
The old cicada, whose body was both dark and bright, had sturdy wings, but seldom used them. He always stayed in the same place—the strong branch a little below the magpies’ nest. He was a loner, immersed in memories. He had stayed underground for a long time—precisely eight years, according to the magpie couple. Everyone knew he was very old. Still, his energy hadn’t diminished. But why was he so solitary? Was he was still living in his memories, sensing neither the fellows all around nor the vast blue sky? Cicadas seldom live underground for eight years. That time had completely shaped his character.
He was an old bachelor who’d never had a love life. After eight years, he had emerged from under the ground, climbed up the tree, and assumed his present form. Everyone felt that he was extraordinary.
It was an extremely hot and humid day. Even in the suburbs, people were sweltering. Air conditioners buzzed, and people were light-headed. Going outside was like plunging into a huge oven. The corner of the bicycle shed on this side was cooler, but because of the intense sunlight and the still air, these large trees still seemed tense, and the old bachelor just stayed where he was. His thoughts entered a place beyond his colony. He felt a little sentimental and a little distracted. He quietly lifted his right leg, and suddenly heard a jumble of singing all around. The racket surprised him a little, because he had never paid attention to this singing. He lowered his head and thought. And then, faltering and stumbling, he began to sing. He thought that his song was a little different this time. Everyone else stopped singing. His voice seemed strange even to him, yet he went on with even less restraint. As soon as he stopped singing, the chorus between heaven and earth rose. The old bachelor almost fainted. Of course he didn’t feel ill. Quite the opposite: he was extremely moved and joyful.
This was how he became the cantor. And although he was the cantor, he was still a loner. He didn’t talk with anyone and closed himself off from anyone else.
He knew that some of the residents here wanted to get rid of him. Some people lingered at the foot of the tree for a long time, eyeing his branch. And a young kid always aimed a precisely calibrated slingshot at him. The pellets had whizzed by him many times—and each time, the old bachelor felt empty inside. He didn’t know how to avoid humans’ hostility, for he had never avoided anything. He was still calm as he led the chorus. It was only when a pellet flew by that he suddenly stopped for a second. Then, once more, he continued. There were so many of his kind, and all of them listened respectfully to him and followed him. How could he slack off? When he thought of the colony, his golden legs and belly emitted dazzling white light, and he would grow very excited. At such times, people would mistake him for a meteor.
There were so many cicadas in back of the courtyard in this apartment complex, and people didn’t welcome their singing. But they felt entitled to sing under this beautiful sky. They wouldn’t change for humans. Trees—both large and small—were immersed in this passionate singing. These trees voluntarily provided the cicadas with food; they loved these little living things. Although the old bachelor didn’t interact with his congeners, he felt anxious about their future. From his highest perch, he scanned the area and saw their silhouettes in the massed green leaves. He felt that they trusted this secular existence and were content with it. Yet, this was precisely his greatest worry. But he had no way to transmit his greatest worry to the others. Singing was the only way he could communicate with them. From the very beginning, he had been strict and cautious, never talking with anyone. He was stately, admired by the younger ones. His branch was his alone. From the time he began leading the chorus, everyone loved him, but none dared approach him, much less discuss anything with him.
From that branch, he could see in all directions. He had been aware of the spider for a long time, and this discovery certainly didn’t make him happy. In the corner of the bicycle shed, this spider had spun a large web between the eaves and an old wall. On the other side of the wall was a storage room heaped with blurry indeterminate gray things. Most of the time, the old spider hid behind the storage room’s wooden window frame. When his quarry was caught in the web, he pounced like lightning and did away with the victim in fewer than thirty seconds. Insect remains were scattered under the gloomy gray web. Inside the victim were flies, ladybugs, grasshoppers, and other insects. Occasionally, there were cicadas, too. The old bachelor had already seen one of his congeners murdered. He would remember that as long as he lived. He was depressed for two days. He even flew to the willow tree next to the shed and looked carefully at the remains on the ground. While he was doing that, he thudded to the ground. Then he stood up and slowly circled the pile of things. It was like mourning, and it was like a search. When he flew away, the air he fanned echoed heavily—like a small whirlybird. The spider behind the wooden window frame inclined its head, thinking about this mystery, and reached no conclusion.
The old toad finally died at the hands of the kid with the slingshot. It was raining a little that day. Beneath its large stone, the toad poured out its memories of love. This disturbed the entire apartment complex most of the night. At sunrise, the toad was still filled with so much ardor that it actually jumped to the foot of the tree. Three pellets in a row hit and killed it. The youngster cheered and took away its carcass. The cicadas could not comprehend why, though they had heard of people eating toads. Even so, the old bachelor didn’t think the toad’s fate was a sad one. Someone who had been so passionate all night long must have experienced genuine blessings. The cicada’s song became clearer and lighter. The other cicadas were a little surprised, and then they cheered up. After the rain, the chorus was irresistible.
The spider’s huge web caught two more cicadas, inexperienced young explorers. The old bachelor watched the spider deal with them like lightning. But the victims couldn’t have suffered too much, since the spider’s poison was very strong.
The old bachelor made strange, broken sounds in the direction of his fellow cicadas. But he remained aloof. His congeners could understand only his singing, so no one responded. A young female cicada fell into the web; the old bachelor heard her brief, distinct moans, and fell into a trance for days: What did her moans really mean? Sometimes, he thought it was suffering; sometimes, he thought it was not only suffering, but also a certain kind of extreme excitement. Could the female cicada have sought her own destruction? He felt numb all over. He saw the leering youth approach. He dodged, and the pellet whizzed past him. When he’d encountered this in the past, he’d been calm. But this time he agonized.
Why was he drawn to the slingshot? Had he felt this temptation in the past or had it come upon him just now? He tried to call out. Once, twice, three times—his voice was stiff and dry. Not one person noticed this. Even the youth with the slingshot was only briefly distracted, and then he walked away indifferently. The old bachelor was ashamed. In order to understand the temptation, he stopped singing for three days and let himself drift. He slept and awakened, awakened and slept, and he always heard the call of the toad that the youth had killed. Its calls were shockingly loud. Each time he opened his eyes, he saw dazzling light flashing between heaven and earth. It made him dizzy, and he had to close his eyes. Ah. How could toad be so strong? When he closed his eyes, he even saw the old toad approach him, as if it wanted to pass on to him a mysterious affection. Its protruding eyes seemed extremely eager. When he opened his eyes, the toad had vanished.
It was raining. Still dazed, the bachelor didn’t hear the thunder, nor was he aware of the heavy rain falling on him. He didn’t know how much time had passed when the southeast wind carried the indistinct sounds of the old toad and his fellow cicadas’ singing. It was strange, he thought, that the two different songs could harmonize. It was even stranger when he considered that it hadn’t stopped raining, so where were they singing? As he listened more attentively, he thought the singing was coming from between deep layers of clouds. When he looked through the curtain of rain, he saw that the old spider on the wooden window frame was also absorbed in looking at the rain. He seemed to see himself in the old spider’s manner.
The remains under the spiderweb attracted the residents of this complex. The old bachelor’s remains were quite unusual. Although they had already broken into four pieces, if you reassembled the pieces, it was still a complete cicada—and his body was twice the size of ordinary cicadas. But his head had vanished. What sort of fierce fight had taken place?
The spider had vanished, too. The youth had seen the spider, and he looked for it behind the wooden window frame, but found no trace of it. He thought to himself: Could they have died together? Where had the cicada’s head gone?
The cicadas’ chorus rose again. The young cantor’s voice was jerky and faltering. He sang hesitantly for a short while and then stopped, and the whole chorus slumped into silence. Then this unusually prolonged silence was broken abruptly by an enthusiastic chorus like the surf. It had never been silent before. Was this silence an awakening? All the cicadas turned their gaze toward that high branch. A grotesque old cicada stood in that familiar place. Everyone saw the gigantic head and the disproportionately small body. It was he: he had struggled to come back. He had grown another body and was in the midst of his idiodynamic body-developing. His fellow cicadas knew that if he put his mind to it, he would succeed.
Then what was the significance of his body breaking apart? Maybe in those split seconds, he was demonstrating this to his opponent, and letting the sense of ultimate emptiness deflate its arrogance? Or the opposite: Was he regarding the spider as his witness, and would he reveal to it the secret of rebirth? Some young cicadas inspected below the spider web. They were thinking to themselves that no matter what kind of fight it was, it veiled a frightening suicidal instinct. They thought it was heroic and moving, and they also found it quite stimulating.
The old cicada didn’t have time to complete growing his new body before the season changed. He squatted unmoving on the branch all day long. He dreamed of tender leaves, of flower petals, of the tadpoles in the ditches and the water lilies in the mountain ponds. Since he had lost his amplifier, he had no way to communicate his ardor to the other cicadas, but in the last days before the chill of autumn, he sensed an unusual happiness every day. He could see whatever he wanted to see. Without even turning his head, he saw the newly arrived pair of magpies cavorting in the small garden. Sometimes, he would also think of the spider, and when he did, his new little legs would exude some poisonous juices, and he would weakly call out. He was murmuring: “Who is the spider? Isn’t it simply me . . . ?”
He became cemented to that branch.
The autumn wind destroyed the spider web and blew away the old cicada’s remains. At last the sweltering heat subsided. The lonely poplar leaves took on a nostalgic yellow color. Now only the magpies and sparrows were still singing. They sang brokenly, off and on, artlessly, forgettably. What those old poplars remembered was the majestic, splendid chorus. Sometimes when the chilly wind blew in, they couldn’t help humming a little, but—startled by their own voices—they returned to their silence and their daydreaming. The youth with the slingshot passed by under the poplars, his expression complicated by his bizarre thoughts.
© Can Xue. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. All rights reserved.