The Disciple

by David Keith

Recently a colleague of mine, I recognized him as the Master in disguise, on one of his expeditions among the disciples, proposed, "The cicada is the insect of choice." I understood this to be a test. The Master is always testing us disciples, and he always works in cicadas any way he can. They appear in all his parables, all his oratories, all his tirades, all his tests, all his prayers and poems.

I gave the Master my best knowing look and said, "You know it."

I went home early that day. I walked down the green steps of the old building, and climbed into my old green pick-up. I let off the brake and rolled backwards into the street. I put her in first, then second, then third, stayed in third most of the way home, whistling between my teeth.

I rolled onto the front yard and tooted the horn to say hello to LaTanya, who was there on the porch, sitting in an unconventional way, wearing loose-fitting and modest cotton clothing. I went into the kitchen and popped open an American beer, wondering how I had done on the test. I took a piece of cheddar cheese and went to go look at my wife.

I go, "The cicada is the insect of choice."

She goes, "Especially around these parts."

How perfectly lucid! How genuine and effortless!

Roy and Sue came to do the cooking, black-eyed peas. Roy and Sue were good friends of ours, and the fact that they were cooking black-eyed peas was supposed to be a joke, based on our history of being friends and eating together. But now I can't remember the joke. It was just "Black-eyed peas! Ha ha ha!"

Soon everyone was as drunk as I was, and I slept with Sue and Roy slept with LaTanya. At about three a.m. Sue was muttering in her groggy sleep, "Wum awah guffah like--I don't know--like a cicada--warrabaluu!" And she gave an eerie half-giggle. I got up and vomited. I went to the special room where I keep a picture of the Master and cried, "Why are you doing this to me? What are you trying to say? What's with you and cicadas, anyway?" From under the door I saw a blue ephemeral light, which I understood to be LaTanya, my wife, who glows at night in her perfect lucidity. She was in the kitchen getting a glass of milk.

"Hey," she said gently.


"Want some milk?"

We stared into each other's eyes until dawn and were completely unaware of Roy and Sue leaving.

The house was flooded with a dozen rich organic smells, some sharp, some dull, some fresh, some foul, some familiar, some strange, some from my own body, some from LaTanya's body. We made coffee and opened the windows and doors and turned on the attic fan. I took a bath and when I came out LaTanya was moving furniture and sweeping. We have a joke that I am like a terrified pet when she cleans, and I go hide some place. So I go hide under the bed where she and Roy slept. I lay there a while, until the unfunniness of it struck me, and crawled out and dusted off.

I had the day off and decided to get my truck fixed. So I drove on over to Roy and Sue's, because Roy was just that sort of guy, an old pick-up fixer. Roy was working in his shop, doing things with his many machines and tools. He was wearing goggles and sparks were flying everywhere. I recognized him to be the Master in disguise. What a blessing! Twice in two days!

I delivered my indifferent posture. Now I had long-since mastered an air of indifference with regard to extraordinary phenomena, but I also knew this to be insufficient in itself, in the end. Was not the same as the perfect lucidity my own wife had so effortlessly attained. I could fool Roy, but I could not fool the Master or myself. Still, I preferred to be on terra cognita for once.

"Say Billy," said 'Roy'.

"Say Roy," I said.

Sparks were flying everywhere, with no machine activity to account for it.

"Reckon we best have a look at that ol' transmission," he said.

"Reckon we best," I said, indifferently.

A banal dialogue occurred, always in dialect, as 'Roy' worked on the transmission. Cicadas, goggles, and dialect. Things that please the Master. I made a note of it. "Hell, there's your problem," 'Roy' said. He pulled out from the bowels of the engine the hollow but perfectly in tact shell of a cicada, three inches or so long. "Now how the hell...?" said Roy, holding the cicada body with a pair of pliers, scratching his bald head, utterly mystified. Roy was Roy again. A miracle had occurred.

I took the cicada shell and set it on the dashboard, planning to make a little automotive shrine to it later. I started the truck and threw her into reverse and rolled easily backwards. The clutch had an easier action to it. "Thanks Roy!" I said.

A great day!

For days, weeks after that, I noticed endless references to cicadas, especially in print media. In poems, stories, letters to the editor, even mainstream journalism, worked in in the most far-fetched ways, but most often as a metaphor. " a cicada," was frequent. All sorts of things were compared to the cicada, in extravagant and unlikely ways. Other times its use was not metaphorical, but literal, found often in descriptive passages, set most often in the Deep South or Mid-West ("I hear the sweet song of the cicada and nothing more..." was found in some form or another in a number of sources.) It took on a political meaning, astonishingly enough, and was used rather frequently to refer to events in Eastern Europe ("the cry of the cicada" meant something like the cyclical plague-like nature of recurrent nationalism, approximately).

The actual plague itself, when it finally came, was for me a joyous event, though the sky was black, the noise was horrible, and the crops were ruined. The leaves of the trees were chewed away. There were cases of small children and dogs being bitten to death (a variation on the same problem we had been having with alligators). It lasted a few days and the landscape was transformed. The national media was slow getting down here (there was a typhoon in Bangladesh, and China had tested another hydrogen bomb the same week) but a friend of mine in Japan called to ask if everything was all right. Evidently in Japan, where the people are mortified at the thought of such a plague, the media just ate it up. He said that for a moment, the Japanese were more concerned about the possibility of a plague of locusts in their country that about China's having the bomb.

The sight made for good news footage. I saw an aerial shot of our city, which was blanketed in cicada shit and cicada shells. We finally got the national guard. Slow to mobilize, seeing as they are based only 35 miles down the highway from here. National guard, national media, zillions of dollars in emergency aid (it is an election year and the South promises to be a battleground).

It's fun.

We love disaster in these parts. Brings out the strong in us all. People, once they got over their initial disgust, started throwing block parties. We're hurricane-tested, you understand. Soon the power was back on , the looting only a shameful memory. Soon I noticed a blue light, shining behind me, casting a long, blue shadow in the form of my body before me. I would turn, but the light always remained behind me. It was dim at first, but would become more intense when LaTanya was near. She recommended that I drink lots of milk, so I did. My sense of smell heightened, and I felt I was getting somewhere.

I was called back to work. Work had seemed so utterly insignificant, yet I was curious to pass in my new state through the banalities of my old life. I tacked away merrily at the computer, I marked big blue X's through someone's earnest copy, I agreed, I was persuaded, I barked orders, I made lewd comments. I was Action Jackson.

"Billy! Wuhl, what's gotten into you?" they said.

But a terrible thing happened. A kind of seizure. I could sense that my light, though invisible, had turned an ugly brown. I felt cold and collapsed in the middle of a meeting. I had a bowel movement on the floor. I came in and out of consciousness, and was aware of my staff feeding me coffee creamers, pouring the drops of sugary cream into my gasping mouth.

Later, when I was myself again, one of my colleagues, I recognized him as the Master in disguise, on one of his expeditions among the disciples, wearing goggles and clutching AP wire reports in one hand and Wall Street trading reports in the other hand, goes, "You know, man, scraps of consciousness, writing like we think, man. It's brilliant! Scraps! You know. Who thinks in streams anymore?"

Yes. Who swoons? Who dies of consumption? Who speaks in tongues? Who drinks spirits? Who? Alas! Who?

Copyright © 1996
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