House of Cicadas by Gabriela Lee
“House of Cicadas” is one of three editors’ choice selections for the 2022 Amelia Gray 2K Contest. These pieces expertly highlight the wonderfully diverse potential of flash prose.
In her dark gem of a flash, “House of Cicadas,” Gabriela Lee intertwines the narrative voices of two young lovers, separated by time and loss, held together by memory and longing. Here, the enigmatic heroine of the story, Blanca Esperanto, is trapped by a mysterious haunted house that works as an apt metaphor for the weight of intergenerational trauma. Lee uses evocative but concise language to create a world that is both frightening and mesmerizing, and ultimately brings us to a place of hope and wonder. —CRAFT
I was twelve years old when I last saw Blanca Esperanto. She lived at the end of the road. Their house was a brown, dry affair of rustling wood and dark leaves. She loved sitting on the ledge of her iron-grilled window and braiding her hair, the edges of which swept the windowsill with its sharp strands. Her voice sounded like the soft rasp of book pages, one turning after the other.
We would play luto-lutuan with a set of small clay kitchen toys: round palayoks and sandoks with shallow bottoms, water jugs, cracked cups. We would fill them with malleable mud from the Esperanto backyard, overgrown with wild weeds and littered with rusty steel, then add water and torn grass we yanked from between stones. I loved her then: her hair a shining coil laid flat on the curve of her back, her cheeks pale, her eyes shining with old moonlight.
I longed to kiss her.
“We’re leaving soon,” she said one afternoon, just as the sun was setting. We sat on their doorstep, eating suman wrapped in leaves. She smelled of mothballs and memories. Beyond the doorway, their house seemed to pulse with darkness. Her mother did not believe in sunlight.
“Where will you be going?” I asked, my heart an anchor dropping to the bottom of my stomach.
“Mama says she needs to rest. Light hurts her eyes too much.”
“You seem okay.”
“My eyes are starting to hurt, too. That’s why I can’t go out in the mornings anymore.”
I finished the last bite of my suman and threw the wrapping on the ground. “I’ll take you away,” I told her. “We’ll find a land without sunlight and we’ll just have candles all the time and you’ll live with me and we’ll cook together and eat together and live forever and ever.”
She shook her head. “Jun-jun, you don’t know what you’re saying. I can’t leave the house. Who would take care of Mama?”
I tried to think about their house: old and dusty and slanting to one side like the drunkards who sat with their San Miguel beers at the corner sari-sari store. Only Blanca shone against the gloom. I realized I did not want to leave her. She slipped her hand into mine. Her skin was cool, her palm delicate like an insect’s wing. We watched the sun set, observed the shadows that slowly swarmed over the walls of their house.
All too soon, I heard my mother calling me for dinner. The electric lamps along the street flickered, attracting small moths. Blanca released my hand and faded into the darkness of their house. That night, the whole street would hear a bone-shattering crack, as though the world itself had split open. In the morning, we realized the Esperanto house was gone, claimed by the very earth itself.
The house rumbles as I flit through the rooms like a ghost. Loose soil coats the floorboards. All the windows are shut, locked by heavy roots that encircle the four walls of the two-storey structure. There is no light, except for the glow of glass fragments embedded into the ceilings of the rooms, emitting a soft yellow haze that reminds me of late summer evenings.
Mama lies on her bed, the sheets as pale as her face, the lace edgings of her blankets tattered and torn. She has grown heavy and torpid in her old age, her hands frozen into claws. Her eyes are slanted shut. Sap drips from the roots in her room, coating her skin in a sticky sheen. Her breathing is heavy, like stones, like anchors holding me in place.
Is it a sin to say I am waiting for her to die, to leave the husk of a body she is bound to, to sweep spirit-wings across the room one last time before disappearing forever? I take my place beside her, white-veiled as she has instructed, and begin to chant.
I tell her about the world we left behind twelve years ago, about the eyes she has passed on to me—bright eyes, frightened of the light, but still longing for the land above us, where I last saw a boy with a broken smile who told me he would stay with me forever. I fall silent, listening to the cicadas that have slowly crept throughout the house, their wings rustling like dry leaves.
Mama takes a gasping, rattling breath, her chest shaking beneath the stained nightgown that swaths her body. I whisper a prayer for her soul.
As though they are of one mind, the cicadas begin swirling around the room, their wings distorting the haze of remembered light. In the darkness, I can feel the floor beneath me shuddering, groaning as if awakening from a long sleep. I cannot stand up, I cannot breathe, I cannot make a sound. I think I am going to follow Mama, very soon.
There is a bone-shattering crack, as though the world itself has split open. The cicadas scurry in flight, retreating back to the walls. The cloud of wings breaks open, like eggshells. My mother’s body is no longer on the bed.
My heart pounds fearfully.
Then: sunlight through the cracks.
Then: the sounds of a world I dream about when I sleep.
I take down the veil from my hair and loop it around my eyes, tying the cloth tightly behind my head. Then, I walk confidently to the window and fling the shutters open like wings, allowing the light to claim me.
I have stayed in the same town, the same house, the same street. It has been twelve years since I saw Blanca. It has been twelve years since I saw the light in her eyes.
I hear a crack in the distance, like bones breaking.
A cicada alights on my windowsill, waiting for me to claim it.
GABRIELA LEE teaches creative writing and children’s literature at the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines. Her prose has been published in the Philippines, the United States, Canada, and Norway, most recently in the anthology Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror, edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith. She has received a National Children’s Book Award citation in the Philippines for her children’s book, Cely’s Crocodile: The Story and Art of Araceli Limcaco Dans. Her latest short story collection, A Playlist for the End of the World, was published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2022. She is currently pursuing a PhD in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about her work on Instagram @sundialgirl.
Featured image by Ellicia, courtesy of Unsplash.