Robert Gwaltney

The Deep Down

A storm was coming.

Way off in the distance, its inky edges began to spoil the late morning sky. A low roll of thunder grumbled from the ground tickling the bottom of my bare feet.

“How many more?” Etta Mae said, holding the front of her dress out before her like a basket.

“A bushel or two,” I said, plucking another cicada shell from the bark of a pine that grew in the far corner of Mama’s old thinking spot.

Etta Mae giggled. “I love you a bushel and a peck,” she sang. Her voice held a sort of magic, like winter static, shooting clean through anyone who listened.

I smiled, the corners of my mouth pulling back from the lovely sound. “Just a bushel and a peck?” I said, laying the shell gently to rest with the others.

Etta Mae blinked down into the mound of casings. “Where did they come from?”

I spooled a length of my hair around my finger. “From the ground.” I pulled my finger free, leaving a perfect curl down the front of my blouse. “That’s what your granny said.” I stood tall, my hands upon my hips, speaking deep in my best Miss Wessie voice. “They needs room to grow.” Etta Mae squinted her eyes and giggled.

Thirteen years had passed. Thirteen long years since the cicadas last came, years before Etta Mae and I were born. And now they returned, digging loose from the earth, attaching themselves to trees, leaving behind a fragile crop of amber-tinted shells.

It was the cicada’s singing I remember best—their courting song, this frenetic beckoning for the affection of another that stirred the humid air to reckless speeds that summer, the summer I turned eleven.

The earth grumbled again. “Sure must be a dark lonely place down there,” Etta Mae said.

“I reckon so,” I managed, eyeing a shell as big as a ping-pong ball. Etta Mae hummed slow and sad, the quality of it, a drape that blocked away the happy. I knew then, before she would speak, of whom she was thinking.

“Poor sweet Mama,” she said, looking down at the ground. “Dark and lonely.”

“Analeise Newell! Etta Mae Johnston!” Miss Wessie yelled from the back porch. “Get your little fannies back on in this house.”

Etta Mae’s eyes widened. “Shhhh,” I sounded softly, touching my finger to Etta Mae’s lips.

That had been a game of ours, evading Miss Wessie, our warden that summer and three before. Our mamas had come to know one another packing pickles into jars at the Mayfield Pickle Company, my Mama at the white table, and Etta Mae’s at the colored.

“You’ve got until I drop these biscuits to dumplings,” she said. “Then I’m breaking off a switch.”

“Then I’m breaking off a switch,” I mimicked, puffing up my chest, grabbing hold of my hips, hoping to bring Etta Mae back from thoughts of her poor dead mama, to dissolve the sadness she sang into the air.

A gust of wind swept across the ruined garden. Dozens of husks blew free from Etta Mae’s apron. “Best hurry,” she said.

“Get on over to the bench,” I said, motioning toward the rickety seat. Etta Mae settled herself on the splitting wood, mindful of the delicate cargo gathered up in the front of her dress.

“I wish you didn’t have to go.”

“Me neither,” she said smiling, but I knew it was only half true. I was certain it was singing she loved best, even more than me. Even if it was singing at a stranger’s funeral.

“I’m ready.”

I nodded, glancing off into the horizon, a swirl of smoky clouds moving across a perfect plain of blue. “This one first,” I said, positioning the prickly appendages of a spectacular cicada shell into a course plait atop the center of her head. I then made busy, placing several more.

“How’s it looking?”

I stepped back regarding my work. “Just one more,” I said.

“Girls,” Mama hollered from the house. “Wessie’s done dropped the last dumpling.”

Etta Mae took in a quick breath of air. I dropped the cicada shell into the pocket of my dress.

“You look beautiful,” I said, admiring the crown I fashioned. “Miss Cicada Bug, 1956.” I bent to kiss her cheek.

“We best get.” Etta Mae touched her hand to her face. “Granny’s done dropped the last . . .”

She hopped from the bench, letting loose the hem of her dress, our work released to the rising wind.   “Come on,” she said, grabbing hold of my hand. A whirl of storm blew my hair all about my face.

“Scoot,” she said, pulling at me. I held firm, my toes pinching the ground. An errant shell grabbed hold and clung to the end of a tangle in my hair. I watched it riding the strands, bucking in the gale, until it let loose at last, lifted by the current, sucked away into the newly darkened sky.

A shiver shot up my back. Only then did I loosen my toes from the earth, letting Etta Mae untether me from the spot. Only once did I turn back, just long enough to watch the first lightning strike, that moment the sky caught fire.

The sky boomed, rattling the walls of our clapboard house, jostling the windows in their shoddy frames. Etta Mae and I passed the hour at Daddy’s old upright, attempting to rehearse the stranger’s funeral song. Etta’s Mae’s gift was singing, and mine, the piano—each of us the perfect accompaniment to the other.

I always had known how to play, where my fingers should go, an instinct planted way down deep—just as easy as breathing. Daddy thought it had been he who taught me, but I knew long before, back before I first opened my eyes to the world. It was easy pretending, just a little lie, a reason to be close—if just for a spell. But that was when he loved us, Mama and me. Before he drank all the good away.

“Sure is pretty,” Miss Wessie hollered from the kitchen. “The two of you could coax an angel right down from heaven.” Etta Mae smiled her pretty smile.

“Don’t it make you sad?” I said. “Singing for dead folks?”

She sucked in her bottom lip, then turned it loose. “No, not really.” She cast her green-flecked eyes down at her hands, running them the length of her fingers. But I knew the truth of it. Somewhere in that deep-down spot where the music lived and swirled, I knew when she sang, she sang for her poor sweet mama.

Percussion rolled above us, vibrating the floor boards. Piano keys shivered. Everywhere was music, even in the clink of Mama’s jelly jar vase. Could the others hear it too, or was it meant only for me? “Wish I could go with you,” I said, my voice sounding peculiar amidst the storm’s refrain.

“Me too.” Etta Mae sat down next to me on the piano bench, leaning her head against my shoulder.

“One more time,” Miss Wessie said from the kitchen. “Then its dressing time.”

The rain dissipated, the weight of Miss Wessie’s feet across the floor boards audible once more. Etta Mae lifted her head from my shoulder. The cicada shell shifted in my pocket, the sharp tips of its legs sticking into my skin, grabbing hold around my finger. I flicked at the thing until it turned loose, my fingers then finding their place on the keys.

Etta Mae did not wait for my music, finding the song within in her without the help of a single note of mine. I pulled my hands from the piano listening to the sorrow seeping from the perfect pitch of her soprano. I sat, eyes shut, letting her enchantment settle over me, feeling a tingle just under my skin, the weight of the thing growing until it sat heavy pressing against my insides, until there was nothing left for me to do but cry.

Rain fell against the tin—at first a smattering, the tempo gaining speed, the force greater until there was no other sound. Nothing left of the music but a deafening whir and the vinegary taste of sadness on my tongue.

Robert Gwaltney, a graduate of Florida State University, was raised in the rash-inducing, humid subtropical climate of Cairo Georgia.  Having successfully traversed the perils of cottonmouth water moccasins, chigger bites, and a personal disinterest in football, he now resides safely in Atlanta Georgia where he serves as Vice President of Easter Seals’ North Georgia, Inc., Children Services, a large non-profit providing services to children with disabilities or other special needs.  In all the hours between, Robert is a fiction writer and active member of the Atlanta literary community with affiliations including the Atlanta Writers Club and Decatur Writers Studio.  He is the recipient of the Atlanta Writers Club Award for Flash Fiction, and has just completed writing his first novel, The Cicada Tree.

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