It’s hot out, and I’m trying to explain exoskeletons to a five-year-old.
My oldest plucks cicada skins from the cypress bark and drops them into a repurposed pickle jar like an old woman picking fruit, determined and full of purpose.
The little one asks why, and I answer:
Because they didn’t need them anymore. They were babies, living underground and drinking root juice. Now they have wings, and they’re living high up in the trees, singing.
We move over to an oak tree and the little one asks why, and I answer:
Because that’s how they find each other. They only have a little bit of time to find each other and lay eggs, so they sing. Then their eggs will hatch, and the babies will fall, and down dig the babies, to live underground.
My girls, they dump their jar of bug husks on the porch and set the empty shells in a circle. The shells are like ghosts around a campfire; shy ghosts with brittle little claw feet curled meekly below their chinless eyes, or rather, where their bug eyes were. Different versions of them are above us, filling the whole world with their relentless scream-singing.
My husband is napping on the couch beneath a wall of photographs; our wedding day, first birthdays and countless Christmases. It’s a nice home. We have a ficus.
The cicadas call and I think about my walk-in closet, about the dark corner where my garment bag hangs. Maybe someday I will take it down and show my girls all my other skins; wingless and shy, tattooed and wide-mouthed, regal and wise, all hollow and used and split up the backside.
I scratch the crisp skin at the nape of my neck and wonder if I’ll have the chance to watch them see.
My husband sleeps and my girls discuss seating arrangements as I listen to the siren song of cicadas.
* * *
The girls are screaming.
The sun is rising behind the trees and I’m crouched down in the grass, waiting for my new skin to dry.
I imagine them wide-eyed and gaping at the shell of their mother, empty and lifeless, in the bed. It is my own fault. I knew better than to stay so long.
The sirens are approaching. The flashing lights illuminate the driveway in waves of red and blue. I slink into the shadows of the cypress and the oak, running my still shining fingers over the rough bark in a gentle farewell to tea parties in their shade.
* * *
The apartment is filthy and dark and damp and full of sleepers. They are scattered about, their rhythms out of sync with one another so all that can be heard is the low, steady whisper-exodus of breath; one long, constant exhale.
I sit on the floor, my body curled into a corner of the room, and draw pictures of little girls with a stub of pencil. It is too dark to see. My fingers are guided by memory over brow ridges and around the edges of chipped tea cups.
A dog silently pads through the maze of bodies and finds me. It licks my hands, my wounds. The dog is right. There are no little girls here, only wood pulp and graphite.
* * *
I go to the Halloween party dressed as a zombie, an undead. It feels appropriate. I’ve cut my clothes, exposing as much cleavage and thigh as society will allow. The band plays Monster Mash and eager singles crowd the bar, pressing their bodies against one another as they order drinks with names like Bloody Mary or Dark and Stormy, drinks to suit the occasion.
A man in a vampire cape moves in close and we dance. Life is short. We don’t have a lot of time, so we dance.
* * *
The baby stays asleep as I bend down and place a soft kiss on her forehead. It never felt like abandonment before the tea parties and the cicada skins, but now the infantile smell pulls me in and doesn’t want to let me go.
But I know better than to stay too long.
My husband is snoring in the bedroom. I creep down the hallway, as I have on so many nights, and lock the door behind me for the last time.
I follow the moon eight blocks to the old house.
My fingers caress the cypress as I pass through its shadow. The windows are dark, but I’ve seen, on my early evening walks, the silhouette of the bunk beds in which the girls now sleep. I sit on the grass beneath the closest window.
I wonder how they remember me, whether they think of afternoons spent spinning around and around until we lost our balance and fell to the ground, or only as a hollow skin, devoid of warmth and motherly love.
They will understand, I tell myself. When the time comes, when they grow beyond the limits of themselves and fly into the world, they will remember me. I tell myself this. Maybe it is true.
Until then, I offer the only apology I know how to give. I sit like a shy ghost in the light of the moon and, with my eyes turned to the window, I sing.