“There’s a name for the animal / love makes of us—named, I think, / like rain, for the sound it makes.”
–Nicole Sealey, “Object Permanence”
I planned on moving these boxes into my new apartment in Alabama with my beloved, but when I drove to DC to pick my beloved up they were stiff as I hugged them hello. When we went for walks to the grocery store or their favorite spot for jollof rice or the MetroPCS store that played go-go music all day and night, my beloved looked past me. They sat at a distance, they slouched in their chair, they walked paces ahead of me. They made their body a deer in the front yard—a good thing that I know I cannot touch. When it was time to go back down south, my beloved did not get in the car. They told me to drive safely. I hear that my beloved is thriving. I hear they are planting a garden or maybe they finally went to Paris, but they are lost to me and I am lost in the ticking of the days, lost in my own skin, and lost in the state of Alabama without my beloved who smelled of vetiver and came to me in every dream for months.
Carrying boxes alone, I learn quickly that summer is the body’s season in the South, where the air becomes so heavy and wet it is impossible not to feel as if you are moving through a massive respirating organism every time you step outside. In this massive body, I am a wild germ, a restless impulse. I feel myself becoming something with less weight, that speaks less, that lays lighter on the earth. I stop sleeping. I eat only when it occurs to me that it has been far too long since I ate last. I feel a cavern open up inside of me, and suddenly there is so much air. When I tell my mother about it on the phone, she says she’s very concerned. I can’t make her understand that she doesn’t need to worry. I am not leaving the light of this world; the light of this world has left me, and here in the strange benthic expanse of a broken heart and an empty apartment in a new city, I will become a different creature. I will become a creature shaped by the heat of the Deep South and the demands of the wilderness that is losing a first great love. I will grow a new life for myself, inside of myself, cobbled together from memory, obsession, confession, and a starving need to know the name of the thing that I’ve become.
I spent my girlhood barefoot, running up hillsides covered in thistles and sharp stones. I knew the land in every bit of my body; I knew the land without language for it. I didn’t have to learn that the branches I sat in belonged to a valley oak. These trees were mine and that was the only name I needed for them. But in Alabama, none of the names that I know will suffice.
I buy books from the thrift store on Skyland Boulevard, with titles like Common Southeastern Flowering Trees and Five Hundred Insects: A Visual Reference. I am trying to learn the words for the place I am making a home of, as if by learning the land’s names I might coax it into something that I can own and be made whole by. I know that this is a violent impulse—to take a name and use that name to confine some bit of wildness so that I might feel more safe, more welcome.
I try anyway. I walk by the river and take leaves home so that I can fit the angles of them to the drawings in my books. I take photos of a little red bug that looks like it is wearing a cape, and spend an hour finding its name in the pages: the soft-winged flower beetle. I love each leaf, I love each beetle and fly. I add each name to my growing taxonomy: Ash-Tip Borer Moth, Bagworm Moth, Big Dipper Firefly. These are all things that are not called mine.
The first time my beloved and I kissed I felt the word mine ring in me. We were standing in a kitchen in a borrowed apartment that was far away from both of our homes. Our love spanned the eastern seaboard, we commuted for each other, we crawled for each other, and I wanted every encounter to be a roving feast.
Look: They are beautiful there, in the kitchen, the little box window with blue tile behind them. My beloved has hands that look like they should always be dirty, and yet I have never seen those hands short of immaculate—even moments after they had rubbed chicken in rosemary and oil, or re-potted a lily that I would have given up on. My beloved thinks more sharply than anyone I’ve ever met, and we stay up all night talking on the phone about jazz and remembered weather and Fred Moten and family myths. They have a tattoo across their knuckles that says SIR and I lace my fingers through the word when we hold hands on the street. Their life taught them to hold their body at a distance from people who wanted to name it, to make it, to unmake it.
In the summers of my northern California girlhood, I was a body among many bodies that bloomed and renamed themselves—the air sounding a swarming buzz, the rice flies hatching in the hot hands of algae spreading out atop the July lake, frogs croaking a celebration of their new legs. In the spinning hours of heartbroken summer afternoons in Alabama, I recognize a velocity from that girlhood spent knee-deep in tule reeds down by the slough. I recognize the signs of a new life beginning to kick inside of me.
It is mid-June now and my air conditioner is too expensive to run, so I sit by a fan in my empty apartment and rub ice cubes down my neck and up my thighs. I must find something to do with all this loud heat in my body. My stomach hurts every day. I start eating fast food and ice cream and all the foods my beloved would never eat. I try to fill up a stomach that sits in me like an animal apart, a ravenous maw at my center. I take notes on how the day proceeds, I diligently watch for new bugs or leaves with unfamiliar scalloped edges. I try to bring structure to the dull chaos of my days by molding this season into a study, a collection, a taxonomy of new life.
During the middle of a June morning that is already too hot to have been made by a benevolent God, the squirrels on the tree limbs look wolfish. I wonder how they survive these black-belt summers in their furs, and then I wonder briefly what it feels like to be skinned. I am looking closely at the sidewalk, watching a line of black ants move toward some unknown destination. I follow their procession to my front doorstep, where I see that they are carrying off bits of an insect’s moulted exoskeleton. It is as big as half my thumb and I am struck by how strange and fragile it looks, so clearly empty of whatever once animated it. The corpse not of a dead insect, but of an abandoned period of that insect’s life. It looks like a piece of blown amber glass, thin as a sheet of rice paper. I pick it up, blow an ant off of its tattered wing, and carry it home with me cupped in both hands.
I lay the insect’s husk on my desk and turn my fans off to keep it steady. I learn that the little residue of a life that sits on my desk is the left-behind shell of a cicada (a superfamily, the Cicadoidea) in the order Hemiptera (true bugs). If these true bugs could be said to have faces, those faces could be said to resemble a kind of death mask. Huge eyes set wide apart, unmoved. It is the lack of expression, the lack of emotive capacity on the small faces, that I am transfixed by first. It is the possibility that at some point beneath these features, a roiling new life was emerging with no external sign. I know that I have found my totem.
When I do sleep, I dream in tattered maps:
Leave your house, it does not love you. Go to the forest and stand beneath the tallest tree. Stay very, very still. Take stock of your surroundings. Taste the air. Inhale deeply the smell of the soil. Practice moving your eyeballs in slow panoramic semi-circles, trying each time to see a little further. Keep standing. Keep waiting. Let the seasons change. Let your blood run down your legs and into the dirt so many times you color the earth red as your rage red as your broken heart red as every humiliating moment you begged to be loved back. Let the wolves come to sniff at you. Fear no teeth in the forest. Don’t move until you are sure that everyone you’ve ever met has forgotten who you were before.
As I read the entry in my insect identification book about the cicada and how it is known by the sound it makes, I realize that these bugs have been with me, unseen, all summer. When I moved down south with my heartache, these insects were singing along. They were the sound of long pink dusks spent sitting alone on my back porch, and the sound of driving down the interstate going nowhere in particular with the windows down trying to think of anything but my beloved’s hands. Before Alabama, before I lost my beloved, I had never heard the strange metallic drone their bodies make, and I could not imagine that such a sound could emanate from the life that once lived in this improbable sheath.
I am embarrassed by our language, by the way it makes a mess of us. I am embarrassed by my pronouns: she/her/hers. How she truncates, sounds like sure, sounds just as agreeable as I wish I was not. How her or hers almost purrs. I preferred my beloved’s pronouns: they/them/theirs. I told them I thought of their pronouns like a big-tent revival. Beneath that tent, so many different ecstasies, transformations, clandestine multitudes could be present, in motion, fluxing, a flight.
She is static, she has already happened. They are dynamic, they have already moved on before you can pin them to a single point. She is a pinned and preserved specimen. They are in flight.
My beloved, who is not my beloved any longer, perhaps and probably was never mine at all. They were never hers, she was never theirs. I am ashamed of how much the possessive pronoun gives away about my failure to love without the need to own.
I learn that cicadas begin their lives as eggs that look like a grain of rice. Their mother deposits them in a slit she makes in the bark of a tree. When the cicadas hatch, they are translucent, helpless, starving. In order to survive, they must fall from the tree and—once they land in the soil, blind and somehow unbroken—tunnel down into the earth until they find a root to suck sap from. They stay buried like that for years, hooked into the root of a tree that does not notice their hunger.
Of the many species of cicada from all over the world, I pick favorites. All through the first month of my grief, I love the Huechys sanguinea. This species is more commonly known as the black and scarlet cicada, or the “red medicinal cicada” because of its crimson eyes that look like a trapped fire. Its red eyes bulge poisonously and its body looks like a flake of the obsidian my brother and I would dig up from the volcanic soil in our front yard as children. According to Chou Io in A History of Chinese Entomology, in ancient China the exuviae of these cicadas were used to treat fever, their bodies crushed up to temper the heat of another animal.
When I do sleep, I dream of shedding everything I can no longer hold: I empty my body of everything extra. I make space in me. Spit until my mouth is dry. Swallow gallons of salt water until my intestines are slick and pearly. Empty my mind of all my guilt, the weight of memory, of ego. I confess.
Before the first kiss in the borrowed apartment, I said, please, just kiss me, just one time. We have been together for days and I can’t bear it. I was crying because I wanted their touch so badly, I was ashamed of myself and maybe they were ashamed of me too. I could not wait. I stood with my back against the kitchen island. They slouched on the counter with the hood of their sweatshirt up, next to the fancy knives and the wooden cutting board. They explained that touch was difficult for them, that it took time, and why couldn’t I give us both the space to grow toward one another?
They were so human, pulling their sleeves down to cover their thumbs. In that moment, I was savaged by their softness, their vulnerability, the way they held themselves together and put language in the space between us, while I had run out of words for my need. This changed me. I felt unmoored from language, from compromise. I felt myself as the animal I was then, in proximity to another animal. Close enough to kill, but not. Close enough to fuck, but not. We were just these wild upright skins draped over bones, animated by a mutually unknowable program of language, fear, desire.
My life taught me that love was something you pulled out of the body of another. My life taught me that to love someone, I had to make them into something small enough to fit in my closed hands, like a captured bug. I wonder at how many ways we use other bodies—their meat, their labor, their love—to continue occupying our own. I think of the red medicinal cicada’s fire-colored eyes. Who started the flame that cannot get out? How many bodies do we swallow up, filling ourselves with the living and dying of other creatures? Name me after every ant I’ve swallowed, every roast chicken, every root and every lover whom I drank from.
In July, I begin to feel the ache migrate from my chest and belly to the bowl of my pelvis. I am pulsing all the time like a beacon, begging. After the cicada spends its long night in the soil, it digs its way up to the surface as a nymph during the warmer months of the year. Nymphs emerge grubby, repulsive in their too-tight skin. In this debased state, the nymph must climb the nearest tree, forgetting what it felt like to plummet from a high branch. Then the insect sheds its skin, its body inflates, and its wings plump with fluid.
Of all the cicadas I study, the Australian Double Drummer, or Thopa saccata, is the most operatic, insistent. These cicadas are made so loud with their desire that their song is said to reach 120 decibels—deafening at close range. All species of cicada are cryptic, from the Greek root crypsis, meaning hidden. Their song endangers them, and so they sing only once the sun sets. In the treetops, their silence hides them from hungry beaks and sharp eyes that scan the forest for easy prey. But come dusk, the male cicadas break open with sound, calling mates to their trees. The sound is made by the vibration of tiny tymbals, a pair of which lie below each side of the anterior abdominal region. They buckle and unbuckle these tymbals to generate the outsized sound. The bulk of their thorax is hollow; the body is a sound box. They will shatter the air with their longing: Please, please, please come to me, please, please, please make me. They sing for a mate to come and give them reprieve.
I make love like a cicada through July to someone whom I do not love, to someone whose body I cannot look at. I hope he doesn’t notice. I hope he can’t see the way I shut my eyes when his scent gets in my mouth. He is a good person, and I am sorry that I have allowed him to fuck my shell. I tell him that it is okay that he probably won’t be able to make me come. But as he’s trying, behind my eyelids I am somewhere else—
I am in a bed in New Orleans falling asleep with my beloved, who said my name like they were tying one on, after we have been fucking for hours. It is our last night together.
Every day before this, they kept their distance from me, moving around the house in sockfeet. I would wake up in the morning to an empty bed and find them in the kitchen writing poems. These poems were not about me. They were about deer, and jazz, and sometimes other women they loved before and still. I would walk up behind them, careful to step in a way that didn’t seem too eager, and put my hands on their shoulders without asking. I would lean into their hair, looking for their ear with my lips. They would take my hands away and hold them. They would tell me they were writing right now, and ask me if I wanted some breakfast, or coffee, or to go for a walk when they were done. I did not want coffee. I wanted their hands on my shoulders without asking. I wanted to feel their morning lips looking through my hair for my earlobe. I wanted them to please, please come to me, please, please come for me. The days passed, pregnant with my waiting.
All along, I was waiting for the night to come, when sometimes they would hold me in our rented bed, and put their lips to my neck and I would press my ass into the bones of their pelvis and they would slide their hands up my thigh. Once, I turned around to kiss them deep and moved my hand up to the heat at their center and for a moment I pressed the heel of my palm into them and I felt their hair through their briefs and then, again, they moved my hand away.
But tonight, the air smells of wet white flowers, so vulgar in their unfurling. Tonight, I will hear their breath cut new paths through their body. I will tell them I want to fall asleep with them inside of me and I’ll guide the strap-on in and rock against them. When I finally come the sun will have just turned the world the color of a pried-open grapefruit. I’ll cry out like a bird waking at dawn and hear myself as one voice in a chorus of morning birds. We’ll say to each other
just thirty minutes,
we’ll just sleep for thirty minutes,
but I will fall deeply asleep for two hours and miss my train home. When I go to catch a later bus that day, they will kiss me and tell me they love me for the first time and I will feel them inside me as they say it, even though we are fully clothed and upright. We will stand in the street and they will say those words and I will remember the feeling of them pushing into me when they say the word, you. You, the word we call the person we are speaking to—not of, not near. You is an invitation, you is a song, you is mine and, for the first time, I am you. I hold that memory, the image of their face forming those words I love you, backlit by a haint-blue morning sky—
then it is mid-June again in Alabama, and I am coming, loudly, with this man who is not my beloved, but is the person diligently kneeling in front of me. My body is two bodies at once, rocking and rocking.
As the summer wanes, I stop sleeping with the man I do not love. Every time he touched me, I shut my eyes, returned to New Orleans, to the sound of the birds, to the smell of my beloved’s breath, but I could never stay. This man was not a highway, he couldn’t take me where I needed to go. I began to want a way forward when it became clear that there was no way back.
In tombs dated to the Han period of Chinese antiquity, jade carvings of cicadas were ubiquitous. In my research, I gathered images of these smooth carved jade pieces called tongue amulets that were placed in the mouths of the dead. The carvings bear the stylized shuttered wing, the body of the cicada smoothed to an elegant curve just wide enough to cover the tongue. Jade is considered the perfectly pure embodiment of masculine energy, yang, which is understood as the energy that would be necessary to break through the veil of death and emerge into a new life.
Some texts, written by British art historians in the 1950s who were fascinated by the tongue amulets, suggest that they were objects meant to activate a sympathetic resonance, a kind of alchemical detonator, which would bring forth a new life from a corporeal husk. According to these historians, Taoist sages believed that through breath and prayer they could create a new immortal personality, which grew in them as in a cocoon after the fashion of the cicada. When the sage died, it was thought that the body of the sage would burst open and release this child, who was the sage and not the sage at once. This child’s impossible body would be two bodies, the body of the sage that the child is of and from, and this new body made of a fresh skin. In this tradition, the cicada represents death rendered not as a tragedy, but as a volta.
In early August, I take to sitting barefoot on my back porch with a jar of lemonade to watch the sun sink behind the two- and three-story buildings that make up downtown Tuscaloosa. I spend the day unwrapping drinking glasses and putting spoons in drawers. The air is crisp at 7 p.m. and the cicadas are louder than the train whistles, but it will be too cold for them soon. Last year on nights like this, when my beloved and I grew soft and sleepy with the hours we had spent on the phone, we would talk about having children together. We would talk about how if we just practiced, if we stayed in tune with the light coursing through our bodies and fucked just right, then these miraculous, impossible new lives might start forming inside me.
Sometimes, when I got off the phone with them, I would touch myself thinking about their body against mine, their mouth on my skin, their breath in my ear, their fingers on my tongue as I tasted myself. And I would lay in the dark of my bedroom with my hand on my belly, hoping that somehow we might speak a child into me, speak a future for us into the world.
My beloved gave me language instead of seed. My beloved’s language still lived in me even after they were gone from me. All summer, I let this language grow in the places where my loss emptied me out. For forty days, I took my temperature and made myself ready—in this womb, a whole world was settling. The weather of my womb was the wet heat of New Orleans, all the walls were the color of that morning sky, and mangoes grew from every tree. I made a place for the child my lover spoke into me. There was good gumbo being made the right way. My beloved told me once: First you make the roux, the key is in the roux, it is a hundred-dollar meal, they said. You have to buy all the andouille sausage, the shrimp. But the base of the gumbo is a good roux.
I never got the full recipe. Never tasted the gumbo they loved. There is a kitchen in me, with a hundred dollars of sausage stacked on the counter, going to flies and putrid. In this kitchen, the little homunculus made of my beloved’s language is pouring bits of flour into a cast iron skillet of hot butter and whisking and whisking and pouring and whisking, not knowing what to do next. By the third Sunday in August, I have nothing left to feed the child, no more blood to give. The roux burns on the stove, I give birth to a stone. All summer, with my cicadas and my books and my shed skins cluttering all the surfaces in my house, I realize that I have been trying to feed a dead thing, an impossible thing, a thing that never wanted to live inside me.
Preformationism, in its most basic sense, holds that animals develop from tiny versions of themselves. Or, that the form of a living thing exists in whole and complete terms, prior to its emergence. According to preformationism, sperm holds within it an entire small human, a homunculus. In the world according to preformationism, every male’s body contains countless other fully-formed bodies. Entire lineages roil in the man’s lap. Paracelsus writes that a man’s sperm should be putrefied by itself in a sealed container, preferably in a horse’s womb, which would function as a stand-in for that of a human female. The sperm should ripen there for at least forty days, or as long as it takes for the little life to move on its own. Preformationists saw the female body as an incubator, the vessel in which life could be formed, but not a body imbued with the company of countless other fully-formed bodies inside it.
I plant a nymph in the soil of myself. The nymph has fallen from a high limb. It looks just like me. It has my hair and all my teeth. It has my hands, it sighs like me, it is brave and it wants to live. The preformationists wouldn’t have believed their eyes, watching a woman plant a life in herself, no one’s spent sex in sight, no beloved to make a home out of her. She will not take up the heat of a horse’s womb, she has the heat she needs. For weeks, she will feed herself cashews and take long swims in Lake Nichol to remind herself of what it feels like to float. She speaks to herself every morning. She says, I love you, with her hand on her belly. You is the name we call the animals we want to keep. Every morning she is you. She is not as static as she once thought, staring at a cicada’s shell in June. Come August, she is teeming with herself and herself and herself.
I dream I am not so alone:
You are growing big with yourself now. Every space in you is expanding. When you open your mouth, you hear the faint sputter and start of a new voice, a voice that sings from your belly. Give a name to your new little self, make your vocal cords bloom with it. Every breath now is this name. Eat the meats of animals you admire, it is best you kill them yourself. It is best if you look them in the eyes. Every time you swallow, gulp twice. Teach the little self to be better than you. Teach it to lose more gracefully. Teach it never be so foolish as to hope to stop losing. You are almost ready. Cut all the curtains from their rods. Let the faucets run. Throw open every door. Surround yourself with proof that everything that can close can also open.
It is almost autumn now, and the first breezy Sunday of September comes as a surprise. I put the jar that holds my first cicada husk next to a pencil cup. Soon, vases full of heleniums cut from my neighbor’s garden crowd around the pencil cup. Then a stray cat comes to live in my apartment and curls into my ribs while we nap through the afternoons, so I move the cicada’s jar to the top of my bookcase where the cat can’t get it. He is all skin and bones when he comes to me, rangy and hungry and afraid when I reach for him. Eventually, he lets me brush his fur with a special comb designed to remove mats without causing pain. I give him a flea bath and I give him a name.
We wake at sunrise and the cat chases me into the kitchen so that I can put food in the bowl that belongs to him. I leave the back door open at night, in case he wants to leave. It seems only right that he would get to choose. Most nights, I find him on the kitchen table, lying in his favorite cardboard box that once held my frying pans, where he watches the squirrels run along the telephone lines, watches robins dart from tree to tree. Some nights, he slips out and he doesn’t come back when I call him. On these nights, I cannot bring myself to close the back door.