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Cicada Shells

Grey Curcio

I linger on the steps of my church’s baptismal font, my confession of love for our lord and savior still echoing off the full, wooden pews of Walnut Street Church of Christ. The eyes of a hundred people are pinned to me, familiar eyes so watchful they burn with the strength of their attention. My family is here too, staring, watching. I think my grandmother is crying. I step down into the water of the baptismal font. It’s warm around my ankles, my knees, my waist. In the middle of the pool, Bob Spencer, youth group leader, is waiting for me, a starched white shirt hidden under a pair of waterproof overalls. A shaky, solemn silence seems to hang off of the two of us. He says words, and I nod, pinching my nose with cold shivering fingers. I go under. All I hear is silence. It’s quiet underwater, and time has stopped. My grandparents owned a sizeable amount of land when I was younger. I used to spend my summers exploring there: climbing in the tree house they had built, swinging on rope swings, wading through the creek on the edge of the property. It was nice, peaceful. Over the years, we had loved and lost family pets who found their final resting place on the property: Rocco, Daisy, Belka. Each pet had little rock piles over their respective graves; the only one whose funeral I remember is Belka. It was uneventful, but we read verses from the Bible. My grandmother cried. Belka ate carpet and a pen cap, which in turn got wrapped around each other and blocked her small intestine. She was a terrible dog: always pooping and peeing spitefully in my mother’s favorite chair. She was so small that we were constantly afraid of an attack by a hawk or other bird of prey. And she ate pen caps, which I found irritating.

One summer day, I was playing on the outskirts of the property. Stepping across stones half submerged in the creek, leaping from rock to rock, the cold water splashing across my muddy feet. They were cold. I was poised to jump off the rock I was on, but stopped when I saw a rotting squirrel body on the next rock. Definitely dead. Body prostrate. Tail matted, hair flaking off it like leaves off a tree. Its eyes: black and gold bugs and flies swarmed around its body, which was bloated, wrong, and leaked fluids that caked into the rock it lay on. I stood and stared for what felt like hours. It stared back with its empty sockets that were swarming with so many flies they looked like eyes. I screamed. Ran. Jumped out of the creek, along the bank, across the Tennessee grass, and up into my grandmother’s house. At one time, my grandmother considered donating her body to science. However, in the end, my mother decided to have her cremated and placed in a jar—filled with sand, shells, and ash—in the living room. At her funeral, I sat numbly in the front pew. Unlike all the other funerals I had been to, there was no open casket. I wanted to see her again, but at the same time, thinking about her laying cold and full of chemicals made me uneasy. I didn’t want to think about what happened after her burial, after she was left alone in the ground. We had discussed it in my freshman science class earlier that year. There are five stages of decomposition: fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry remains. My squirrel, I now knew, was just in the second stage: bloat. Its body had begun to accumulate gases, such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen. These gases caused the body to swell and caused some tissues to liquefy and leak out of its orifices. Although I didn’t spot them at the time, maggots had most likely made their home in its body and would hatch at the beginning of the next stage; Then, they would begin to feed on the rapidly decaying body. In the final stage of decomposition, the dead body reaches a near skeletonized state. All that remains at this stage are bones, teeth, cartilage. Small bits of flesh make the body partially skeletonized, bones peeking through soft tissue left behind by bugs. But my grandmother will never undergo these processes. She is ash, resting on a sunny windowsill in a jar filled with sand and shells. I began to take antidepressants my freshman year of high school. My strange, almost alien body, had been growing and changing for a few years. But, as I entered high school, my body became almost entirely unfamiliar to me. My mind changed, too—I suddenly found it more difficult to concentrate in classes and sit down for long periods to work. These new feelings—along with painful and self-destructive habits—resulted in a tangle of emotions, and my parents had no idea what to do with them. So I went on meds. Later, my mother told me it was like someone had flipped a switch in my brain. Truthfully, she picked a terrible time to share this observation. Although, I expect this behavior from both of my parents now. We were on a tour of Versailles, part of a birthday trip to Paris. We walked in near silence through the lavishly ornate, beautiful rooms, each delicate mirror and gold decoration catching the sun as it shone through the massive windows. The garden was even more beautiful, preserved in its original state. The wall overlooking the garden was made of precisely carved marble: white and sleek. My mother, inexplicably, chose to start a conversation about my meds while we were walking next to the marble wall. At this time in my life, I was easily irritated or brought to tears. I still am this way. The conversation didn’t go well. “I just don’t want to try again, Mom. I hate relying on something to be normal. Aren’t I fine just the way I am, naturally?” 

“You just seem better…happier, easier to talk to,” she said, “I’ve missed my daughter.” I spluttered out a shocked, outraged laugh, my brain piecing together thoughts. “So, what, do you like me better on my meds?” She hesitated, her eyes watering from the cold French wind, “Honestly, yes. You just seem more like yourself.” This conversation has played over and over again in the theatre of my mind for years. Who was I, behind the protective shell of medication? Was I still myself? With it, did I become some new, more palatable creature, reborn into a false version of myself? Sometimes, when I go back to Tennessee, I want to bury myself in the dirt and tie my heart, chamber by chamber, into the safe ground where I grew up. But I didn’t really grow up there, and I wasn’t really ever safe.

One summer, the youth group piled into the ancient, stuttering, blue bus owned by our church and was driven down the street to Stewart Lumber Mill (an even more ancient business owned and operated by my great uncle Bill). Our motley crew of about 70-odd teenagers was unloaded into a dusty lot near the backside of the mill and told to wait patiently until everyone was there. A slow trickle of teenagers gathered around the dull, dented, steel door that Mr. Bob stood in front of, impatiently waiting for the devotional we knew was soon to follow.“ For those of you who have a Bible, please turn to Matthew, Chapter 13, Verse 49.” He stopped to clear his throat and briefly leafed through his leatherbound Bible, turning to the suggested passage. “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He paused for a moment and looked up from his book. “As Christians, we are safe from death and hell, but whoever is not saved will suffer the consequences of sin.” He gestured to his right. “Now, this building here is an industrial kiln. This kiln can get up to 190 degrees; inside, there are no lights, and while it’s running, people can only stay inside for less than a minute. Now, as bad and scary as this kiln seems, hell is a thousand times worse.” 

He stepped to the side and opened a dull, steel door in the side of the building, inviting kids to step inside and see for themselves what hell would be like. Kids, no older than 17, were separated into groups of three or four and ushered into the kiln. I was in one of the last groups to enter.

It was hot and dark. The electrical buzz of the heaters overpowered any other sound that was made in there. Without it, I suspect I would have heard the frantic escape attempts of wood-boring bugs and the creaking of drying maple. The heat was a dry kind, the kind that made your skin feel like it was shriveling up and drying out, like it had begun to stick to your bones before it started to peel away. During those summers at my grandmother’s house, we had a rotating cast of visitors, including my aunt. We would play together out by the tree house, collecting the discarded exoskeletons of cicadas. That summer, they were particularly plentiful, and I remember her plucking a cicada off the wooden posts that supported the tree house on the property. She would smile and show me the shell, pointing out the cicada’s creepy little eyes and sharp legs with delicately painted nails. When I was finished looking, she would dig the sharp claws of the cicada into my shirt or sweater, pinning the brittle creature to my chest like a brooch. My grandmother thought the whole process was macabre; for years after, I continued to collect cicada shells. Sometimes, when I ask nicely, Mom will talk about her father. Without fail, she’ll start with the story about a particular April Fool’s Day where P.K. (her dad, Paul Keith’s, nickname) ran in screaming about a burning ball of fire in the sky, later revealed to be the sun. But today, she talks about his funeral. 

“Your Fefe thought it was important that I see the body,” she once said, shifting uncomfortably in the chair she was sitting in, “So I went up and looked for a long time and—” she broke off and sighed, “I didn’t like it. It didn’t look like my dad.”

The stories she tells about him are exciting. The son of a preacher, P.K. was charming and handsome, and had a talent for acting. She claims that he got Clint Eastwood’s part in Rawhide, but had to give it up because he was afraid of being drafted. Other claims include a tenuous familial connection to Pocahontas and a possible exploration of his bisexuality during his time in Hollywood. “He would have loved you,” she says, “With all that theater and creative stuff, he would have just adored you.” He died when my mother was nine years old: a sudden heart attack that claimed him right in the front driveway on a sunny Saturday morning. Sometimes I wonder whether he would really like me. On paper, it makes sense: two creative, ambiguously gay southerners would get along like butter on grits. Would we have talked? About theater? About LA? About the South? What would his presence spark in me, what fire would have been encouraged to grow? It was my father’s reaction to me starting medication that comforted me, oddly enough. I remember our conversation well. It stands out as one of few moments my father handled with grace. 

“Well, you know, we have a history of mental illness in our family. Your great grandfather was institutionalized. Did you know that?” I didn’t. “Your grandmother and grandfather have had their struggles too.” I didn’t know that either, but, when prodded, he just shook his head and stayed silent. And then time starts again. My heart kicks back into motion, and it is no longer silent under the water of the baptismal font. The congregation is singing, and the noise from their combined voices reaches me under the water. I want to open my eyes to see, to absorb this moment, but I worry I’ll be blinded by the chlorine. Then, before I can think, before I can take this in, I start to rise again, pulled upward by the arms of Mr. Bob. My head breaks the surface of the water, and the cacophony of music shocks my ears. They’re singing Amazing Grace. I blink the water from my eyes and look out over the congregation. My chest is a tangle of emotions and fears. I don’t really remember the rest of the night—only the long strings of people that came to congratulate me on my decision. Was I supposed to feel new? To feel reborn, newly safe from pain and death and sin and all the otherworldly monstrosities that life has in store? If that was the desired outcome, it turned out pretty well. For a few brief moments, I felt pure and clean—all of my bad thoughts and memories and feelings washed away. But it didn’t last. The dirt and grime and grit of life covered me again within the hour. Sin crept in like kudzu vines, eating me like the invasive vine eats southern highways and forests. I still feel surrounded by my past. Even now, years later, moments and feelings still cling to me like a second skin. They follow me. I cannot shed them, cannot leave them behind. Some might loathe the fact that they can’t get clean. But I don’t mind anymore. My memories form me, shape me. My metamorphosis is never ending, my body and mind are always shifting and changing within my own shell. I was never the same. I will never be the same again. For that, I am grateful.

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