Six Notes of Cicada Songs
A new short story by Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, recommended by Electric Literature
AN INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
Perhaps the most striking feature of “Six Notes of Cicada Songs” is that the story itself feels so much like a piece of oral history, a song meant to contain a vanished time and place — a Japanese internment camp during World War II — so that we never forget what has transpired.
But this is the purpose of storytelling.
“Six Notes of Cicada Songs” is about a girl who finds a cicada near the camp where she lives with her parents, though I suppose there is also a case for describing it as the story of a cicada who finds a family, rises to prominence as a singer, and is thrust into the center of a struggle for ownership and power. Both descriptions only tell a tiny piece of the story, and while there are have been many stories about young girls and their animal companions, there has never been one quite like this.
Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi has written a story that is part fable, part family history (which in many ways is its own kind of mythmaking), part drama. This is a story that lingers. With startling ease, Kiik guides us into this world which seems to sit catty-corner to reality. He refuses the familiar vocabulary that we have been given to describe the lives of people suffering injustice and has instead created a symphony from the mundane. The cicada’s voice is “a shattering sound, like that of the mussels being emptied into a high, metal stockpot,” and in a moment of tension, “the air grew heavy and crowded with vibrations.”
Kiik has no patience for the kind of laziness that can flatten a story into mere allegory. There are no villains in “Six Notes of Cicada Songs,” but there are people who do bad things. It is a story that brims with a musical intensity that will haunt you long after you’ve stopped reading.
Assistant Editor, Recommended Reading
Six Notes of Cicada Songs
Dedicated to the writers Amin Chehelnabi and Noah Keller
During the second half of the war, a cicada famously became regarded as the singer in possession of the most inspiring, most thunderous voice in either of the Canal or Butte camp divisions. Margaret Morri, as she became known, was the prized possession of Mieko Morri, the teenaged daughter to Yohiji Morri and Brownie Onitsuka. Prior to relocation, the Morri and Onitsuka families had made their livings in the orchards of the Stanislaus Valley carrying picking crates beneath branches bearing white and yellow peaches. When they were moved to Gila River, the Morris maintained one of Canal Camp’s vegetable gardens, and they packed mason jars of chopped cucumbers, carrots, cabbages, and turnips in a pickling broth of sugar, vinegar, and hot pepper to be sold at their neighborhood canteen. After the war, Mieko would own and operate the Morri and Onitsuka Farms Tsukemono Stand, all its labels bearing the insignia of a small group of trees and a luminous green-black cicada sailing over them.
When Mieko tells the story of how she and Margaret came together, it begins in 1942, just after nightfall in the Tulare Assembly Center, on a dirt pathway between the racetrack and the Morri family barrack. In the absence of overhead lighting, Mieko could not fully make out Margaret’s form. But there was the intermittent flash of cicada wings as they appeared to catch and retain moonlight in short bursts. She knew instantly she was in the presence of a rare cicada, because the songs resonating behind those wings were not in the key of any standard belligerent chirp. They were instead songs comprised of sustained and mournful notes. Mieko had studied music since girlhood, and friends referred to her as the “Thief of Lips” because if set before a piano, she could reproduce thousands of melodies she had heard hummed on a single occasion. Mieko followed the cicada song for what felt twice the regular distance of the path leading her into the light of her doorway. It was there Mieko found Margaret Morri perched atop the barrack’s wooden handrail.
She was the most enormous cicada Mieko had ever seen. Too much animal to fit comfortably in just one of her hands and armored with mesothoracic plates that resembled hide shields constructed for warfare, painted in a manner to be equal parts mesmerizing and terrifying. When Mieko tells the story, she concludes with this wonderment. Mieko describes the way she fell into sleep that night with Margaret Morri whirring in the blackness above her cot. To this day she never approaches sleep without hearing that sound.
On the morning following their union, Mieko discovered that during the course of the night, three people had been attacked by scorpions, all along the same dirt road leading away from the racetrack. The two who had been most severely envenomed were a married couple from Santa Maria, Mitt and Columbus Okawa. The other recovering patient was Kunio Itami, the barber from Turlock who cut her father’s hair monthly. Mieko arranged three sets of flowers, California jewelflower, Kern mallow, and larkspur, tied them in abandoned sheets of newsprint, and delivered them to Tulare Center’s hospital barracks. During her visit, Mitt, Columbus, and Kunio advised Mieko to treat her bond with Margaret Morri with the utmost respect.
“It is very peculiar for female cicadas to sing or to become attached to young people,” Kunio said. “It is usually the business of males. This can only be the most unique of circumstances. There is the strong possibility you and Margaret are members of the same bloodline. Did you have an uncle or aunt recently pass? It is possible a spirit has returned to protect you.”
Mieko named her cicada “Margaret Morri” after her only sibling who had died in infancy following a severe fever. Despite Brownie’s efforts, Margaret Morri’s headstone in the Turlock cemetery always overgrew with wood sorrel, and though the sourgrass was less common in Tulare, Mieko twice observed her cicada carrying a stem of it between her jaws. In August of 1942, Mieko transported Margaret Morri in a hatbox lined with fresh white sage, chamise blossoms, and her father’s silk handkerchiefs on the train from the Tulare Assembly Center to the Gila River Relocation Camp. The journey lasted four stifling days and four restless nights. There was no chance for bathing, and passengers filled blouses, trousers, and dress coats with their daily sweat. An earthy musk, a scent like sour flowers thickened the air. In cars that held newborns and infirmed were the acrid smells of urine and infection. Military police ordered every window blinded. There was fear that if locals observed a procession of trains transporting Japs, some would fetch rifles and fire at the cars. Mieko occupied her time by whispering songs into the hatbox and replenishing Margaret Morri’s bottle cap of cool water from her canteen.
In the Canal division where the Morri family was relocated, Margaret lived atop a small, richly embroidered throw pillow on a dresser beside Mieko’s cot. At night, Mieko transported the pillow to a desk beneath a barrack window so that Margaret was allowed to fly out, feast on tree sap, or flex the full power of her tymbals. The branches of the pinyon pine near their window became inhabited by an inordinate population of non-singing cicadas, and Mieko often wondered how many evenings Margaret Morri slipped out to seduce a mate.
Though the properties of the cicada’s song were common knowledge amongst older generations, it was months before Yoshikane Araki, Canal Camp’s resident hemipterologist, explained them to Mieko Morri. The first note of the cicada was said to be low and sustained, similar to a stroke of sandpaper moving across a long plank of wood. The first note would always be repeated, like a twin voice being squeezed back and forth from the bellows of an accordion.
The second note would be fibrous and staccato, not unlike when a vegetable-fiber brush is taken rigorously to a sink crowded with mussels. And the third was a shattering sound, like that of the mussels being emptied into a high, metal stockpot.
The fourth note was said to be the loudest of the cicada’s rattles, stirring and escalating its energy, before releasing into a fit of tiny hacks, the same as a broom full of grit being knocked against the floor planks.
Following the fourth note, the corrugated tymbals of the cicada were said to have buckled and relaxed, the song relocated to the abdomen where the cicada could produce its most complex notes. This was the home of the fifth and penultimate note, which most resembled the high-pitched wail of warm-blooded creatures. The song becoming battered against the inner walls of the abdomen, trilling, shivering. Spitting the breath past the cicada’s churning pool of acid, its tears and tree sap.
The sixth note of the cicada was the most highly debated among entomologists. It was said to occur when the song reached the last chamber of the tracheae. Hemipterologists and some orthopterists referred to the last chamber as its “terminating chamber.” But scholars of myth called it “the ghost chamber,” because while all cicadas bore it structurally, very few possessed the size, health, and strength to open it and produce the final note. The book explained human ears could not detect the sixth note consciously. But conscious or not, it was the sixth note that could produce inexplicable behaviors in people and other creatures including blindness, fever, amnesia, and madness. Songs utilizing the sixth note were also reputed to be able to be able to cure minor ailments and to ward off bad dreams.
At the end of their first winter in Gila River, Mieko began to become inundated with offers to buy or trade for Margaret Morri. Rumors circulated Canal Camp that the songs of the Morri cicada were endowed with powerful healing abilities. May Joyce Okada, a chronic insomniac, claimed that the nights she heard Margaret sing, she slept and dreamt easily. Canal’s eldest couple, Takashi and Shiori Oda, claimed when listening to Margaret Morri’s night songs, the arthritis in their wrists, hands, and knees disappeared. A neighbor, Ren Horibe, admitted to Yohiji Morri that due to an accident, he occasionally suffered from impotence. But on nights Margaret Morri’s song drifted between the barrack partition, his erections were firm, sensitive, and abiding.
The visitations of Canal residents were a daily affair for the Morris. Hulking billfolds of cash, jewelry, seashells, watches, clocks, dresses, hats, watercolors, and musical instruments were offered in exchange for Margaret Morri. Those without money or valuables offered to trade labor or tutelage. Keiko Hattori, the acclaimed ikebana artist from Kumamoto, was prepared to mentor Mieko in arrangements of petrified leaves, bones, pebbles, berries, seed pods, and the scooped-out carapaces of beetles. Tadanobu Gennosuke, the most skilled carpenter from Turlock, claimed he could construct a multi-level basement beneath the Morri barrack where, even during the harshest months, temperatures wouldn’t rise above seventy degrees. Yuki Funatsu offered to make Mieko her only student and recipient to over 60 years koto expertise. Minoru Fukami promised he would cast Mieko and her family members in any Gila River Kabuki production they wished. Manju, dried figs, cactus pears, and smuggled whiskey appeared on the Morri doorstep along with notes requesting an hour or two with the most famous songstress in camp.
When the offers to purchase Margaret Morri became more insistent, more confrontational, and Mieko began turning visitors away, the voices around Canal camp turned hostile.
“Why is it only the Morris who enjoy the company of the cicada?” their neighbors asked. “Isn’t a creature like this a gift from God? Was Margaret Morri not delivered to this desert for all of us?”
“You are monopolizing the time and energy of your cicada,” Mieko’s aunts complained. “You are a healthy, teenage girl. There are sick and aging people in camp who deserve her attention. Let us manage the cicada’s time for you. We promise there will be some profit in it for your parents.”
Mieko’s uncle, a man called Glenn L. Morri, claimed he could purchase homes and farmland for the Morri families in several Midwestern states should he be allowed to barter the services of the wondrous cicada.
“I know a wealthy hakujin whose son is deathly sick,” Glenn Morri said. “This man is willing to pay any amount for a cure. Should Margaret Morri’s songs provide even the slightest improvements to this boy’s condition, we may yield a reward of unimaginable size.”
“If you are in communication with the man,” Mieko responded, “you can tell him to bring his son to camp. It might be the will of the gods that he is cured for nothing. But I will never choose to part with Margaret Morri. My life is indebted to her and so I must serve her until she releases me from our partnership.”
“You mannerless, idiot girl!” Glenn Morri exclaimed. “You do not suggest a man of this esteem visits these desert barracks! The cicada must be taken to him directly for a demonstration.”
Yohiji had to forcibly remove Glen Morri from their barrack, and it took an intervention by Canal Camp’s police to stop his hammering upon their door.
“The creature upon your daughter’s embroidered pillow is holding an opportunity to transform our family’s prospects for generations!” he called out. “And you are pissing it all away!” Stories attempting to disparage Mieko Morri also began to surface. In the mess hall, Mieko was shocked when she heard people she had never met vilifying her. The name Mieko lathered thickly upon their tongues with poison and enmity.
“There is a snotty teenager called Mieko Morri who keeps a rare cicada tied up and in a cage,” she overheard someone say. “When she wants the cicada to sing, she threatens it with fire and dismemberment. And only after the song does she allow it to eat some thin broth and stale, tasteless crumbs.”
Mieko endeavored not to let these rumors intimidate her. Any offers that came her way she responded to by saying Margaret Morri did not belong to her. Margaret spent her days on a pillow by an open window. And if she ever wished to live with another person, she would make no attempt to prevent it. Near dusk, Canal internees came with folding chairs and beach blankets to sit and listen to the cicada songs emanating from Mieko’s window. A small party of pregnant women was invited to sit within Mieko’s nook of the family barrack, share handfuls of dried fruit and nuts, voice concerns over oblivious husbands and rub their expanding bellies. These women kept eyes upon Margaret Morri’s pillow and claimed the music of this cicada was a cure-all for the discomforts of pregnancy, including leg cramps, back aches, pelvic pain, morning sickness, swelling, and heartburn.
In spring of 1943, Mieko began arranging concerts of sorts for Margaret Morri. From the hours between dinner and nightfall, Mieko transported Margaret’s throw pillow to a makeshift stage in one of Canal’s recreation barracks. People set down mats at the foot of the stage where they shared caramels and other sweets while they listened. On some occasions it seemed Margaret did not produce any music at all. But those became her most renowned performances, as attendees claimed those were the occasions songs of the sixth note were played. Canal’s longing for Margaret Morri was evident. Some evenings when she fluttered in later than expected, her audience erupted into applause.
In place of monetary gifts, attendees placed popular records into Mieko’s hands. These included albums by Mills Brothers, Billie Holiday, The Song Spinners, The Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald. Some evenings Mieko played the records before Margaret Morri appeared, and those present sang together or danced. By the end of their second year in Gila River, the concerts of Margaret Morri were drawing crowds of hundreds of Canal and Butte residents. Despite the frequent gatherings, medical barracks in both camps reported significantly lower rates of communicable diseases as well as asthma, pneumonia, insomnia, rashes, chronic dehydration, and dysentery.
It was in the autumn of 1944 that Glenn Morri plotted to kidnap and sell Margaret Morri. Not everything is known about the confrontation that occurred between Glenn and Mieko. When interviewed by camp police about the incident, Mieko stated her uncle approached her beside her family’s garden just after nightfall and asked that she and Margaret Morri accompany him back toward Canal’s recreation barrack. As she walked past him, she was struck at the back of the skull by something broad and solid, perhaps a rock.
Mieko was unable to raise her hands to brace her fall. Her face cracked against the dirt before her, and for a moment she lost consciousness. When Mieko opened her eyes, she was flat against the ground. She could sense something hot and metallic in her mouth and saw her front teeth lying amongst the stones before her. She saw her uncle had cast a mesh netting over Margaret Morri and was attempting to stuff her into a gunny sack. Mieko rose and threw herself, shoulder-first, against him. He struck her twice more in the face. When her uncle leaned in to grasp Mieko by the hair, she took the opportunity to stab him twice in the groin and once in the foot with her penknife. The two of them fell back together, but she was first to her knees. She grasped a flat stone nearby and with all her weight, came down with it upon his hand, smashing all his fingers. While her uncle screamed nearby, Mieko untangled Margaret Morri.
Mieko’s claims following the moment after Margaret’s liberation appear on no official record. The only written accounts appeared in the private journals of camp authorities. Mieko claimed that as her uncle rose to charge her again, the air grew heavy and crowded with vibrations. And then came the overwhelming sound of thrashing rattles, and the space between them swarmed with cicadas. The air so crowded with noise and motion her uncle fell to his knees and began screaming. Mieko claimed there must have been ten thousand cicadas that interrupted their confrontation. Mieko ran into a neighbor’s barrack where camp police were alerted.
A more rigorous military investigation was never commissioned. Glenn L. Morri was discovered the morning after the incident at an offsite medical facility where he was being treated for various ailments. These included self-inflicted scratches, ruptured eardrums, disorientation. The official determination of his death was suffocation. From his autopsy report, it was noted that Glenn L. Morri had gone to sleep looking much improved than when first admitted. But when the first morning shift arrived to examine him, his mouth and throat were found packed with no less than two dozen live cicadas. Margaret Morri herself was the deepest embedded of them all. The records imply that considerable mutilation of Glenn Morri’s chest and throat was required to extract the colossal cicada, still moving within him.