When Anna Wei walked outside the door of her townhouse in Cockeysville, Maryland, all she could see, coating every inch of the sidewalk, were bodies.
Bodies of cicadas, that is.
Anna was four years old, living just outside of Baltimore with her parents, sister Cindy and brother Daniel. They moved a year later, to Charlotte, North Carolina.
But when she looks back on her childhood in Maryland, her main memories center on the summer of 2004; and the dead bugs that covered the concrete until she couldn’t even see the pavement. She remembers being petrified.
She convinced herself it couldn’t have been real— a fever dream, or some nightmare her child self had concocted and planted in her subconscious — that is, until 2021, when she saw a tweet about the return of the Brood X of cicadas set for this summer.
The return of Brood X happens every 17 years. The life expectancy of someone living in the United States is 78, meaning one might live through four or five Brood X events.
The low hum or shrill shriek of a cicada may seem to be just another sound of summer, like waves crashing against the shore or the opening chords to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” But among all the generations of cicadas, Brood X is the biggest — and the loudest.
The life of a cicada is short, but fruitful. The brood first emerges between April and May. Then, they sing. The shrieks, the hums and buzzes are all variations of the cicada’s mating call. Then, with the eggs safely buried in the branches of trees, about three weeks after they first emerge, they die.
The total number of cicadas that will awaken in one cycle is in the trillions. In a hotspot like Maryland, cicadas gather in hordes of 1.5 million per acre on average. Ground zero for Brood X is officially Washington, D.C., but the bugs blanket far into the South and Midwest. Most are found in wooded areas and older homes.
Woods were all Bridget Sheehey knew growing up in Green Hills, Ohio.
“There couldn’t be a place on Earth with more cicadas than we had growing up,” she said.
Bridget was 7 in 1970, the first summer she encountered cicadas en masse. On one large tree in her front yard, known as the “locust tree” among her and seven siblings, at any given time, there would be as many as 30 golden-brown shells stuck to the branches.
“We were never, ever afraid,” she said. “They could be swarming, but we were more fascinated in trying to catch them without breaking them.”
To catch a cicada, she would stretch her hand into the swarm and brush against a wing until she could close her fingers and hold one.
“They’d make this incredibly loud noise until you finally let them go,” she said.
The next time Bridget witnessed the cicadas, she was married one year, living in an old, rented house in Ohio — it was 1987. When her husband Phil tried to cut the grass that summer, the engine’s noise instantly attracted a swarm, as they mistook its whirr for a mating call. And when the cicadas swarmed, Phil would run.
“He’s a city boy,” Bridget said.
To mow the lawn, Phil would wrap a T-shirt around his head, with eye holes cut out so he could see without risk of being surrounded by the bugs. Bridget just watched the cicadas in fascination, still reaching her hand out, trying to catch one.
When 17 years passed, again, Bridget was living in Baltimore, Maryland, with Phil and their four children. One of the family’s favorite playgrounds was Seminary Park. One day that summer, Bridget brought three of her children, including four-year-old, Maeve, to the park.
A few of the cicadas were scattered on the ground. This was her chance, Bridget though, to impart her childhood love of cicadas onto her kids. She picked up one by its wings to show that they aren’t scary. But of course, it buzzed.
“Maeve freaked out, and from that moment on, I had blown it,” she said.
Maeve remembers things differently.
She said the summer of 2004 was the summer of the bug collector. She would throw the lime-green strap over her shoulder, screw off the top and put the bodies of dead cicadas inside. As she tried to collect them, she remembers her brother Conor picking up their bodies and hitting them with a wiffle ball bat.
But something Bridget and Maeve both remember is the cicada-shell charm that stayed in the family’s red mini-van for months.
The oldest, Riley, was just about to start driver’s education classes. She was practice driving with Bridget when she noticed a dead cicada perched on the corner of the dashboard. Only the driver or passenger could see it if they leaned forward.
Riley was the one who initially insisted on keeping the cicada shell. “It’ll be like our pet,” Riley said.
As the seasons changed, the cicada became one of the last remnants of the summer of 2004. Bridget had no intention of ever moving it. That is, until the day Phil tried to surprise Bridget.
“I cleaned your van today — guess what was stuck in there still?” Phil said.
“You didn’t take it,” Bridget pleaded, “You didn’t take the cicada.”
“Bridge, that is sick.”
The summer of 2004 was eventful for Lee Pedersen, now 83, who knew the cicada’s song from his Catoosa, Oklahoma, childhood.
Lee was a professor in the chemistry department at UNC. Before he started his 8 a.m. class on quantum mechanics, he would always pour himself a cup of hot water and stir in ovaltine. Each day, the same drink.
He would walk the few steps to the classroom, where on this particular day, his class of eight people were already preparing for the discussion. Normally he would sip on the drink as the class continued on — it gave him something to look forward to.
But this day, when he raised the cup to his lips to take his first sip, he wasn’t met with the chocolate milk taste he had been accustomed to. No, he felt something rough.
It was the shell of a dead cicada floating in his coffee cup.
“As I finished the lecture, I didn’t have any more sips,” he said.
The cicada likely came in through the open window of his office. Lee said he thought a fellow professor may have put it there as a prank.
“But nobody ever owned up to it,” Lee said.
In 2004, his office overlooked a swath of trees. They would eventually be torn down for the construction of Caudill Labs, a building now well-established as the cicadas are set to return.
Looking back on her cicada-filled summers, each one stands out for a different reason in Bridget’s mind.
“I swear you just blink,” she said.
Now, just a few weeks before her fourth time witnessing the emergence of Brood X of the cicadas, Bridget is on vacation.
Sitting poolside in Naples, Florida, she recently called some of her siblings as news of the return of Brood X spread. Each shared different memories of their childhood, all centered around the summer of the cicadas.
“How weird is it to think that we were just these little kids running around in the woods, and then the very next time, we were engaged? And then we have these toddlers ourselves, and all the sudden, boom, we’re old, dare I say,” her sister said to Bridget as they reminisced.
Maybe reminiscing over cicadas is making meaning out of cicada-corpse hills. But in 17 years, they’ll be back; meeting a world already so different than before.
“What I don’t want to think about is how old I’ll be the next time around,” Bridget said with a laugh. “That’s really creepy.”
Edited by Suzannah Perry