Time and the Cicadas

The speaker’s mechanical voice announced the stopping of a train. It stopped and from it emerged a mass of exposed legs and shoulders and sun hats and sandals – and as Anthonie watched the people from the other platform, he could not help but smile. Summer, as if to confirm what the cicadas had already announced. Anthonie’s ex-boyfriend used to call them annoying. What do they have to scream about? It’s not like they’re worrying about jobs and rent, he often fumbled with his piercings while expressing frustration. Anthonie liked the cicadas.

Those cicadas felt different from the ones in Greylake or St. Jerome. The ones in Greylake – the country’s capital – had a much more subdued sound. Anthonie spent the summers of his youth in a summer camp where he climbed trees and tumbled down hills and went swimming in the sea once a week. Where watermelon was served in the afternoon and boys would try to spit out the seeds like machine guns. Where the watermelon was always bittersweet; a closure for the day, the final snack before parents picked up their children. Sometimes, the one picking Anthonie up was his brother. Cristophe those years was a beacon of wisdom so tall that Anthonie could not see his face against the sun. They would take the tram home together. Anthonie would be so excited he struggled to sit down; he would climb onto the seats and run around and tell Cristophe everything that happened and everything that would happen tomorrow and Cristophe always had to yank him back and tell him to behave himself.

Cristophe never smiled. That was something Anthonie only understood as he grew older. Those summers, Anthonie’s child mind reasoned that while he went to camp his brother must have done the same – the fact Cristophe never answered what did you do at camp? with anything but a groan did not register for what it was: annoyance. Those were two summers, when Anthonie was between five and six while Cristophe was between thirteen and fourteen.

If the cicadas in Greylake had been placid, the ones in St. Jerome were a raucous bunch driven by the primitive desire to be heard by all living things. Anthonie adored them. He spent the summer of his eighth year eating melon on the short deck behind his grandparents’ house, bare feet brushing against the garden’s grass. Cristophe wandered around the tiny town by himself and told Anthonie no whenever he asked to go with him. Eventually, enough repetitions of Cris, be nice to your brother by their mother forced Cristophe to take Anthonie along.

That was also the year Cristophe’s archery moved from an afterschool activity to a competitive sport. Anthonie saw him compete against other schools and had to bite down to avoid calling out to his brother from the bleachers, to avoid the risk of distracting him. Watching him like that, Cristophe went from a beacon to a tower. (Fitting, because he also grew taller every year and had already surpassed their mother.) It came to no surprise that Anthonie wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps; he carried a toy bow and arrows everywhere. Anthonie only realised it as an adult, but those times Cristophe walked him around St. Jerome – town of his own childhood – he purposefully avoided plazas and main streets. He was embarrassed by his brother.

Anthonie only saw the bitterness between his father and grandparents in adolescence and assumed he would learn the nuances in adulthood, but any question was met by a distraught expression from his mother and a mumbled you really don’t want to know. There was a reason his parents and Cristophe left St. Jerome when Cristophe was eight. In retrospect, during those weeks spent in the quaint little town, Anthonie had noticed something different about Cristophe. A melancholy. A nostalgia. Something Anthonie never saw anyone else become so angry about as his brother did.

The first time Anthonie saw his brother having an outburst, it was at their grandmother. Anthonie did not pay much attention to how or why or when it started and thus only realised it was happening when Cristophe slammed his hand on the kitchen table and yelled out: If you really loved me you wouldn’t have made me leave! I hate Greylake! If I have to go back I’ll run away! And among gasps of disbelief from everyone around him, Cristophe stood up and walked out of the house after slamming the door. Anthonie thought his brother was the coolest man alive. To talk like that and to walk off and threaten to live on his own… For the following months Anthonie never stopped imagining Cristophe as a lone renegade wandering the night streets with nothing but his bow and arrows. A hero. And Anthonie his faithful sidekick.

Cristophe’s second outburst was directed at their mother. Two years after the one in St. Jerome; Anthonie remembered it well, because he had to raise the volume of the television only to mute it right after, when his mother shouted at him from the living room to turn it down. Anthonie watched his mum and Cristophe through a crack in the door and imagined he was invisible.

“I’m not going to university!”
Cristophe paced around the table while mum sat with an arm draped on the chair’s backrest. “It’s a waste of time I’m-”
“Cris! Please listen!”
“Why?! What’s the bloody point?! I’m not going!”
“It’s important Cris! What happens if one day you just…”
“Every time I talk to you I just get angry! Leave me alone!”
Cristophe stormed off and reminded Anthonie he was not invisible by glaring at him.

It was different from the outburst at their grandma. Cristophe was not a fearless renegade off on his way to a life of bounty hunting. Cristophe was scared and defenceless and instead of standing his ground, slammed the door to his room – Anthonie had been barred from entering but he tried anyway, just to get yelled at, return to the sofa and to a cartoon that had lost its appeal. All Anthonie wanted was to ask Cristophe why he did not want to go to university, what it was, and if he could go with him.

Anthonie could never pinpoint the exact time he started to realise Cristophe hated him; nor could he pinpoint when he accepted it without fuss. His brother eventually agreed to go to university in pursuit of a communications degree but preferred to leave home and move into university halls – despite living in Greylake. He did not allow his family to visit and only returned home for Christmas. The most Anthonie saw of his brother was on television and magazines: Cristophe Fourier: young archery prodigy. Watching the skill with which his brother competed at international levels, annoyance bubbled up within him at how little recognition archery received. Immature and desirous to be seen as interesting, Anthonie also frequently wished his brother could have picked a better sport, one Anthonie’s classmates would have cared to hear about.

The cicadas were barely audible the summers of Anthonie’s adolescent years. Cristophe’s shadow faded from the apartment and Anthonie found out that all the secrets he imagined his brother must have been hiding in his room were non-existent. But it stopped mattering in a couple of years. Anthonie’s adolescent summers – when he thought back on them – gave his parents a new kind of problem. Instead of a slacker who spent every day between training and watching television, they were stuck with a slacker who called from public phones and disappeared for days at a time and did not know how to hide the fact he went drinking. But unlike his brother, Anthonie smiled at his parents.

Those years Anthonie wavered between two extremes. He was simultaneously a friend and classmate and student; his teachers thought him average and allowed him to fade into the background. Anthonie’s friend group was big enough to make him indecisive, make him struggle to pick who to grow close to and in doubt he just stayed everyone’s friend. At the same time, insecurity tormented him. He remembered and idealised his brother’s high school years and how certain Cristophe always was – he always seemed to know what he wanted in life. Anthonie could hardly think about what he wanted a year from then.

Cristophe’s accident happened in the spring of Anthonie’s seventeenth year a mere week after his birthday. Anthonie called out the usual mum I’m home! when he turned the key and walked into the apartment, only to be met with an unusual silence. He dropped his backpack on the sofa and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. There, a note greeted him:

Cristophe is in the hospital. We’ll call you later.

There was no shock and Anthonie was certain of it because even two years later, he could vividly recall that numbness. He did not worry then. Athletes were prone to injuries and had it been life-threatening his parents would have certainly called the school. There was only a thirty-minute time frame between the end of school and his walking through the front door. How long were thirty minutes anyway? Anthonie tried studying but gave up with a grown and lied down on his bed. He wandered around the apartment restlessly and even into Cristophe’s room. He’s not dying. Anthonie thought he was sure of it, just as he was sure his brother hated him.

Cristophe’s eyes were blank. Anthonie did not struggle to read his brother’s expression because the man had nothing to read. Anthonie did not fully process what his parents said upon his arrival at the hospital – something about a tendon injury – and had to see the bandaging on Cristophe’s right arm before he understood. All those childhood memories came pouring back: Cristophe picking him up from camp, St. Jerome, arguments with family… The child within Anthonie screamed and begged to ask Cristophe what happened and if he was alright and how long he had to stay in the hospital and if he wanted Anthonie to bring him anything from home.

The child within Anthonie stayed quiet. He made some small talk with only a passing mention to the situation. Cristophe remained quiet. He did not even sigh at Anthonie’s words to let him know he did not want to talk – like he had during Anthonie’s childhood – and it ultimately drove Anthonie to silence too.

“What did I do to make you hate me like this?”

The silence was broken after minutes with a hushed whisper. Anthonie looked down and counted the floor tiles. Cristophe did not answer.
“Why?” Anthonie looked up only to be met with emptiness. “I never did anything.”
“I don’t know.”

Anthonie did not doubt Cristophe’s honesty. His brother had tendon surgery the next day and was discharged two days later just to disappear. Anthonie’s parents visited Cristophe frequently but Anthonie made excuses to avoid going. He thought back to what he asked at the hospital and wished he could have gone back in time and stopped himself. He wished Cristophe had denied hating him, but knowing that was impossible, he instead wished Cristophe would have remained quiet on the topic.

Cristophe moved back home that summer. Selfish perhaps, but Anthonie thought it a blessing because it would distract his parents who, he expected, would hound him all summer to study and prepare for his final year of high school. He never even asked why Cristophe moved back.

That summer was spent in a provincial town an hour from Greylake. Anthonie stayed with some friends in an old house where any amount of light pouring from windows made dust specks scintillate. Where half the rooms were unliveable because there was no air conditioning. The heat became so unbearable that Edgar – a classmate of Anthonie’s – suggested they keep the windows open at night.
“What if someone sneaks in?”
Asked one of the girls fanning herself with her hand.
“Right, right.” Edgar thought for a moment, then announced his solution with a single clap. “We all sleep with a knife, just in case!”
No one liked his idea but it made for a good laugh.

That town’s streets were lined with the most verdant trees Anthonie had ever seen and as they rode around on rented bicycles, the shade cast by trees gave their skins a green glow. The roads were full of potholes and garbage gathered in the gutters. There was one discotheque within walking distance, but after finding out that those students were all under eighteen, they barred Anthonie’s group entrance. Public transport stopped running at ten so the other discotheque could only be reached by bike; then someone had their bike stolen so they never went back. When the heat became unbearable, the bravest of them would dare dip their feet in the disgusting stagnant green water of the park’s pond.

All the while, of course, cicadas screeched day and night.

Returning to Greylake was disorienting because all of Anthonie’s closest friends continued their carefree summers while Anthonie had no excuses left. He went to the library with the intent to study but always ended up loitering around Greylake; he also began looking more into universities though he suffered from neither hating nor loving anything. Disorienting too was Cristophe’s presence. Anthonie ignored him as best he could, his brother made it wordlessly known he wanted to be ignored. Cristophe spent his days drifting between his bed and the television room. He slept during the day and watched muted television at night. He did not eat with the rest of the family even while awake. The few times Anthonie caught sight of that elusive being, he noticed the surgery scar on Cristophe’s right arm, the way he never held any weight with it. The only times Cristophe left the apartment were for physiotherapy four times a week and to pick up his medication at the pharmacy.

Anthonie found Cristophe sleeping on the sofa the morning of his twenty-sixth birthday. His expression gentle and his hand in a half-empty bowl of popcorn. On the floor a bottle of pills Anthonie picked up curiously, assumed to be his brother’s pain medication, placed it back on the floor. In the early morning dizziness Anthonie thought: he looks so peaceful. Almost two years later Anthonie still remembered that gentleness and thought he never saw Cristophe looking so at ease with the world. He took a blanket and covered his brother before leaving for school.

Cristophe had another brief hospital stint and then moved out for good.

Having spent his summer doing anything but preparing, Anthonie’s disastrous first semester was a rude awakening, a call to take school seriously again. Without Cristophe there to take up his parents’ attention, Anthonie found himself frequently smiling sheepishly and reassuring them he would try harder whenever they (rightfully) worried. And Anthonie hated their frowning faces, so he did try his best. He had no news of his brother’s whereabouts but whenever Anthonie found himself wondering about Cristophe, he laughed it off and scolded himself. You don’t really care, you’re just procrastinating.

Anthonie’s first news regarding his brother came during his final exam period.

“Cris found a job!”
That was how Anthonie’s mother greeted him. Anthonie wanted to tell her about how his exam went but his mind blanked in the shock.
“No way! What kind of job?”
“I’m not sure but it’s in editing.” She heaved a sigh of relief. “God, thank god he got a degree in the end.”
“Did you tell dad already?”
“I’ll tell him when he comes back from work. Do you want to call Cris?”
It was then that Anthonie realised he had not heard his brother’s voice in almost a year.

The cicadas seemed to hold themselves back until the exam season was over only to bust out in song when summer could finally begin. Edgar was the oldest in Anthonie’s friend circle and the first to earn a driving license. For that summer they were a much smaller group and decided on something in the same vein as last year but wilder. They rented an empty van, decorated the inside with a rug and Christmas lights. Edgar dated Michela who was not in their class and who kept her head stuck to her boyfriend’s shoulder the whole time. The fourth and final member of the quadrumvirate was a boy in Anthonie’s class obsessed with America to such extent that he applied for, and was admitted to, a university in California. He was nicknamed California and when the four of them parked the van near beaches, sat inside it with the cool marine breeze tickling the napes of their necks, watched American action films on a portable television, they would erupt into laughter and cheering and yell out California! whenever the state was mentioned. Michela always said American accents were her favourite. Anthonie asked her six months later, when he returned to Greylake for Christmas break and met her and Edgar for drinks, if she still thought American accents were lovely. Michela laughed and said Australian ones were her new favourite.

But one thing that briefly soured the trip was Michela’s innocent question. Anthonie, do you have any siblings? California replied for Anthonie. He has a brother. The details of the conversation were lost to time but Anthonie remembered answering the question of what his brother did.

“He’s an athlete.”

Anthonie spoke without thinking – the thinking came later. No, he worked doing some sort of editing for some place or another. Could he even return to archery after the injury? Anthonie knew nothing about it. He knew nothing about his brother; somehow, the sadness of it only struck him then.

“That’s so cool!” Michela clasped her hands together then unclasped them to swat at a mosquito. “What sport?”
Anthonie took a sip of beer the taste of which was overpowered by the can’s metal.
“That’s not even a real sport!”
“How’s that hard? Anyone can draw a bow!”
Anthonie could not remember who spoke those words. What he remembered was California’s mocking laugh.
“Hey, shut up.”
“Is your brother Robin Hood?”
“Shut up!”

Almost a year later, Anthonie still did not know what he wanted to say that night. After all the years he spent wishing Cristophe’s chosen sport was something Anthonie could feel proud of, did he have a right to defend his brother? Besides, Cristophe was no longer a professional archer. He… He worked in something else. He would never embody that renegade wandering a deserted wasteland with nothing but his bow in hand. And Anthonie would never be his sidekick.

The train arrived without delays. Anthonie tucked his suitcase in the space between rows of seats and sat himself by the window. His father would pick him up at the station. His mother waited for him at home. Anthonie had made plans to meet Edgar and Michela among other friends over the course of the two months he hoped to spend in Greylake. California was not returning to Europe anytime soon but sent Anthonie postcards every now and then – the nine-hour time difference made phone calls near impossible.

Cristophe was the only person Anthonie was not sure he would meet. His parents said work kept him busier than archery ever had; he had his brother’s address but did not think a visit would please him. Anthonie comically thought – as the scenery shifted from the city to suburbs – that if he ever tried to write an autobiography it would end up being more about Cristophe than himself. The suburbs gave way to green and golden fields. It was not a sad thought. It was an acknowledgment that he had spent half his life idolising a brother that had never wanted anything to do with him; that had never wanted anything to do with anyone. Anthonie did not delude himself with the belief that Cristophe would change, but a part of him hoped that whatever tormented Cristophe would leave him someday. The sky’s blueness was only interrupted by two small clouds, lazily drifting by.