I watched as my younger sister Gertie reached out to grab the cicada. I can see it now, plain as day, the copper-veined wings, the devil-red eyes. It was sitting on the woodpile against the side of our house. I was standing right at her shoulder when it happened. It was my idea to catch the cicada in the first place.
Neither of us had ever seen one before that summer, at least not in the flesh. We found their crunchy brown shells clinging to the trees or in the a piles of leaves, the fat grubs, with their long, clinging insect arms, hollow, split down the back where they crawled out and left behind their outgrown suits. We found these shells, and we heard them singing up in the trees.
When I was even younger, if I couldn’t sleep, my mother would tell me to listen to the harvestflies outside, and I’d drift off to their droning. We called them harvestflies back then. It wasn’t until I came back from the war, and went back to school that I ever even heard the word cicada.
That summer, 1933, there was this explosion of cicadas in the woods all around our homestead. I turned 13 that summer, and Gertie must have been six. The next month, I was going to start at the new school up in Jasper instead of going back to the schoolhouse in town.
Before school started though, there was this invasion, and all of us – Gertie, our two younger brothers, me – we saw cicadas everywhere. They were mostly on the trees, but we’d seen one eaten alive by ants, and another partially crushed on the path into town. Jack and Bill and I had caught lots of them, had even started a collection in one of our mother’s mason jars, though that didn’t last. All summer we hunted for them when there was nothing better to do. They sort of buzzed in your hand, like wind-up toys. But Gertie said she wouldn’t touch one. She said they looked like little monsters.
She was mostly right.
My father always called them locusts, even though they weren’t.
All the ones we caught that summer were coal black, with wide-set, bright red eyes, and they had great, sweeping wings, cellophane-clear with metallic orange veins.
It was at the end of a long August day and I was watching Gertie out in the yard. I decided to have some fun with her. I told her, “Look, if you catch a harvestfly for me, I’ll eat it, the whole thing, in one bite.”
“No you will not,” she said. She was probably right. But the challenge had been set, and she wasn’t that squeamish about them, really, so she started hunting for one.
It didn’t take her long before she found the one on the woodpile and called out, “Lou! it’s time for your supper!”
I laughed, and walked up beside her.
She was reaching toward the woodpile, her hand shaking, like she was still nervous to touch the little monster.
When the snake struck it was like nothing I’d ever seen.
Unbelievably fast, like someone cut out frames from the movie. There’s her hand, there’s the cicada, the woodpile, and then there’s the copperhead clamped on her arm, between her thin little wrist and elbow.
Gertie screamed and did a jerky little dance.
I jumped back and grabbed her by the waist, and yanking her away like she was a rag doll, the snake already let go and disappeared into the recesses.
I got a good look at it before it was gone. Big for a copperhead, maybe three feet long, and in the middle at least a thin wrist thick.
It was beautiful, alternating sinuous blotches of creamy sand and brick red. It was sitting right there in the leaf litter on top of the woodpile the whole time Gertie stalked the harvestbug, perfectly invisible.
Gertie continued to scream, her arm stuck out in front of her waving frantically, like there was a snake still there. I rushed her toward the house.
When I reached the door, our mother was already opening it, coming to see what the screaming was about.
Gertie stopped screaming, and instead sucked for air like a fish, gasping with tears running down her cheeks. She had her arm tucked up against her chest.
Mama grabbed her from me at the doorway, took her wrist in hand and slowly but firmly pried her arm away from her body exposing the twin red pinholes on her forearm. All I could manage to say was, “It was a copperhead, around the side of the house.”
Mama just nodded. “Fetch your father,” she said.
My father hurried into town to bring Dr. Fischer. But I knew just as well as she did, that it might easily be an hour before the doctor arrived. We had no car to drive my sister to the hospital. And even if we had, the closest hospital was in Fayetteville, and they couldn’t have done much for her back then anyway.
Read the full story in our Winter 2014 issue.