When the grandfather clock standing behind her strikes four, Hannah Strawhecker sets aside the quilt she is making for her father-in-law. Four o’clock means it’s time for his milk. The Mason jar is still upstairs on the bedside table. She always has him drink out of the same one. If the jar ever breaks she will see it as a portent, then laugh at herself and go down to the cellar to get another one.
Running her hand up the smooth banister, she thinks of all the hands of her husband’s family, their rights going up, their lefts coming down. Upstairs she places her ear to the door, stops her breathing to listen to his. It’s July and he’s dying in his grandson’s bed. Aden gave up his room back in May when it was decided Hannah would take care of Pug through the summer. Hannah’s father died three years ago and there was nothing she could do to save him. While she knows there’s nothing she can do to save her husband’s father either, she can at least bring him a glass of milk, one in the morning and one in the evening, when the grandfather clock tells her to. She opens the door.
How many nights of her life she’s opened it as softly to see Aden sleeping, and now here’s her son’s father’s father’s diminished body buried under the quilt she made the summer she was pregnant with Aden. That was the last summer the cicadas emerged, and now seventeen summers later they’ve emerged again, like a dream recurring after almost two decades, both familiar and strange. They seem to make the whole house shake and she’s worried they’re in the walls. When she mentioned this to her husband, Ethan said, “They’re not in the walls, Hannah. They’re not termites. They have three hundred acres of grass to live in, if it would ever rain.”
She’s not surprised to see there’s still a little milk in the Mason jar. He never seems quite able to finish it. He’s so slight under the quilt, like a drift of snow that won’t last the day. She picks the jar off the bedside table and it makes a peculiar glassy sound, as if some part of it had begun merging with the wood. She finishes the milk without much thought. It is the exact temperature of the room, warm despite the open window and the oscillating fan that stands in the corner, shaking its head. But if he’s under the quilt it must be a little cool for him. She goes over to the open window and tries to close it with one hand but has to set the jar down on the sill, and even using all her strength it’s hard to close. The room is quieter now and she worries he’ll wake from the quiet. Then it grows loud again. For a moment she thinks it’s the cicadas. But then Aden comes around the side of the house on the riding lawnmower. She watches him mow the bank that slopes down to the willow pond. It always makes her nervous watching him mow there. He leans hard against the slope to balance the weight, barefoot, wearing shorts, and in a flash she sees his beautiful legs mangled.
Downstairs she rinses the jar out and without bothering to tie the laces, slips on her thick-tongued boots and heads out the door to the milking barn to fill the jar. They’re everywhere, in every tree, in the grass where Ethan said they should be, in the air. From everywhere and nowhere comes their electric trilling, so loud and synchronized it makes an undulate wow-wow-wow like big power lines make. At times the noise pitches into a high whine she feels in her teeth. All of Aden’s life they’ve slumbered in the earth only to emerge now like some consciousness or testament.
She hadn’t had a migraine since college until she had one, then another, in the last month. Between the din of the cicadas and the perpetual mowing, the farm is louder than a farm ought to be. Aden spends at least two hours a day on the lawnmower. There’s a lot of lawn to mow, but he makes it harder on himself by keeping the deck raised three inches too high. When Aden was seven, he was sitting on his father’s lap one evening, believing he was steering the lawnmower, when the blades hacked apart a nest of baby rabbits. When Aden was old enough to start mowing, he insisted on keeping the deck raised higher so as not to harm any living creature that might be harbored in the grass.
That this inconvenient compassion frustrates her husband is clear to Hannah. Though Ethan felt as sorry about the rabbits as she imagines any grown man could feel, she knows that he is, at best, mystified by his only son and, at worst, disappointed. They had four daughters before Aden, the youngest of whom, Jessica, is home from her sophomore year at U of I, scooping ice cream down at the Union Dairy. She worries that Jessica thinks her birth was just the fourth failed attempt to have a son, and in trying to compensate for this fear Hannah makes things worse.
As for Aden, that their son should turn out to be more effeminate than masculine makes perfect sense to Hannah. It is as if, after four girls, they had a fifth girl born into a boy’s body. Hannah hadn’t been surprised when he decided to run cross-country after his obligatory freshman year of football. He told her once after winning a race that when he runs he takes on the suffering of everything and that this is why he can suffer more than other runners can, because he doesn’t think of the pain as his own.
She feels sorry for her husband, who sits apart from the other fathers on Friday nights in the fall because he doesn’t have an away uniform to wear or a son on the field. Still, not many fathers would let their sons mow the lawn with the deck raised, burning gallons of gas and never getting the grass cut short enough. And now, because the cicadas have emerged to live in that grass, Aden has fashioned a sweeper out of old wire paneling and attached it to the front of the lawnmower. It looks like the very barest structure of a beak and combs the grass in advance of the blades, forcing the cicadas up in a disparate cloud. This, too, Ethan allows with a shrug, saying, “Maybe he should give up the veterinarian idea and become an engineer.”