• Pippa Sterk

Swarmed

They mostly call us cicadas, because of the noise we make.


Droning, incessant, unending.


But people quickly become acclimated to us, much quicker than they think, at first. As long as we can roam around in peace during the dark, we won’t get too loud, won’t demand too much attention. We’ll stay in the shadows, happy to be the underbelly, as long as we’re left alone.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


They call us cicadas because they had to find a word they already knew to describe us with, something palatable to human understanding.


Nobody knows when we got here, not even us. We woke up once, many lights ago (we disagree among ourself when exactly) and couldn't remember another place before, so we stayed.


Most humans don’t take note of us, once they get used to the noise. Or when they do, they pretend not to see us. They just want to get on with their life, as if nothing has changed since our arrival.


But something must have changed, or they wouldn’t hate us so much. We don’t know what it is we’ve done wrong, because we can’t remember a time before ourself.


We learned by listening, identifying sounds. When you are used to a singular tone, it is fascinating, hearing how human volume and pitch goes up and down, how they repeat themselves, or make slight changes.


Slowly we started hearing patterns in their noise. We learned to understand their speech, even if we couldn’t imitate it.


We learned that there are other things that also can’t vocalise, like dogs and cats and fish, and yet they are permitted to live among the humans during the light, and we are not. We can’t understand the animals and they can’t understand us, but that sometimes makes things better.


During the dark, they keep us company and sit with us, as we exhale and brace ourself for the light again.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


We saw a human on the street. They join us in the dark sometimes, overstepping, blissfully unaware that we have to fold, stack, twist, mangle ourselves to accommodate their uncomfortable shapes.


It was wearing black boots and had metal in its nose. Its long hair was purple, which is unusual, we think. It was walking with a friend, lost in conversation, when it seemed to catch some of our eyes.


It hesitated, and we quickly looked away, afraid of what might happen. We’ve learned to keep our heads down, not to stare, not to be stared at, allow humans to pretend we don’t exist. The human stared at us for a bit, until its friend asked what was wrong. It said it was probably nothing, it was imagining a noise, and they continued walking.


We haven’t gone back to that street again.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


Some people call us cockroaches, but not because of any physiological similarity. Our legs are too many, our bodies too soft, no exoskeleton to form a hard divide between us and them.


Unlike the cockroaches, we don’t want to live in wastage, even if that’s occasionally where some of us are forced to retreat.


‘Cockroach’ is just a word they use for anything found in an unexpected place. They reckon that if we are unexpected, we must be uninvited, unwanted. And if we are unwanted, there must be a reason for it.


So if we are cockroaches, it must be because we’re dangerous.


Are we? We don’t think we are. But how can we say what we are not, when we can’t say what we are?


If we could remember how we talked before we learned human language, we might be able to explain. Now, we are bound by their definitions for us.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


What we are is a swarm, a mob, a gang, anything that describes a mass of undefinable proportions, undefinable movement.


That’s why the humans either pretend not to see us, or hate us so much - they don’t know how much of us they’re looking at, and that scares them. Since we’ve learned to speak their language, we’ve started worrying we don't know our form anymore either.


We saw the human again, the purple human.


We went back to the street, against our better instincts. Maybe our instincts are changing with language too. It was alone this time, and stood behind the back of a shop. We think it works there during the light.


Work is something the humans are forced to do, otherwise they can’t feed.


It looked right at us, walked towards us. It reached out its hand, and we pulled back, afraid of the pain that might follow.


It retreated too, and asked who we were. We didn't have the words to explain, and after a few minutes of silence, it left.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


Locusts and plagues, is what some people compare us to.


We saw a human again.


Not the purple one, this one was smaller and had eye glasses. We had hidden in its attic during the light to rest, and were planning to sneak out again once the human started sleeping. But this human couldn't sleep and was playing videos on a phone, occasionally laughing quietly to itself.


We realised that we'd never laughed before.


We tried to emulate the sound, but our vocal cords were out of sync, a soft woooosh the only result.


The human stopped the video, and listened for us. When it thought we were no longer there, it turned the video back on.


While it was distracted, we looked around the house for things that might not be missed.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


We went to the back of the shop to see if we could find the purple human again.


It wasn’t there, even though we waited until it was nearly light again. We left behind a book, a tea towel, a bottle of wine, an apple, and a golden coin, and hoped that the right human would find it, and enjoy it.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


Sometimes one of us missteps, and treads into the light.


At first the humans get a little nervous, cross the street, give sideways glances, walk a bit faster. Sometimes they swat us back into the dark, or threaten us to not come near to their family. Sometimes they try to cut us, burn us, rip us apart, stomp on us, kill us. Sometimes they succeed.


Some of us try and try, over and over and over again to see if we can come out into the light. But when we do, we get hurt. And they sometimes try to hurt even those of us who stayed behind, just in case.


Our outline seems to be becoming more humanoid, and that is seen as scary.


As long as we can't be identified, we can't be established as a threat, but as we start looking more like one of them, they're getting scared of not recognising us as separate from their own.


Sometimes, when we see ourself in a mirror, we are afraid of what we look like.


We saw the purple human again.


It thanked us for the gifts, and invited us into its house.


It was after dark, but there was light on in the house. It sat us down at the table with a cup of tea and a bowl of vegetables and rice. It said that it wasn't sure whether we liked rice, that was just what it had in the house, and if we wanted something else it could order us some pizza, or whatever food we liked, really.


We ate the rice, and enjoyed it.


It apologised for rambling.


It said it was a bit nervous, and if we'd have been human, we'd have cried because we wouldn't have thought that we were worth being nervous about.


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


We’re pests.


It held us in its arms during the dark. It took a while to figure out how to, what shape fits best. We found a suitable form, rhythm, pulse, and shared the shadows with it.


It asked us what we were, and we answered by showing ourself as the swarm, the locust, the plague we appear to be.


It didn’t retreat.


We expected it to have a word for us, but it had gone silent, and simply embraced us again in response.


We felt it fall asleep against us, and we didn’t know what to do, so we stayed this way for hours.


When it woke up again, we prepared to leave, because the dark was almost over. It asked us to stay, so it could introduce us to the light.

end.


about the author:

Pippa (they/she) is an interdisciplinary writer and researcher from the Netherlands, currently based in London. Her writing is concerned with sexuality, marginalisation, mental health, and subverting language conventions Her short stories, poetry, and life writing have appeared in Untitled Voices, streetcake magazine, and Creative Futures Lockdown among others. She also writes non-fiction and has previously written opinion pieces and reviews for Salty, The F-Word, Gay Times, PinkNews and Knight Errant Press.

Her collected writing is available here She tweets at: https://twitter.com/PippaSterk