Cicada Shells

By Yongsoo Park

Because it never occurs to you to select anything but free shipping, the violin takes months to come. And even though it is no Stradivarius, it still bothers you that the mailman doesn’t bring it to your door but leaves it with a perfunctory wave just inside your front yard.

You rescue it from among the ferns while your children are playing under the canopy of a giant pine tree, which some of your neighbors have been nudging you to do something about lest it keel over and cause god-knows-what damage in the next big storm. But that is a concern for another day.

You’re focused now only on your new instrument, which you can’t help but compare to your last, with which you took lessons as a child. You don’t remember what that violin cost, but this one, which comes from eBay with a cloth case, a bow, and even a small square of rosin, costs just $38, including shipping. A frightening sum, considering that it traveled all the way from the other side of the world.

For the next ten minutes, you wrestle with the pegs to tune the strings, wondering all the while if you can still play it after a lapse of thirty-plus years. Is playing violin like riding a bicycle? Or does that metaphor only apply to things with wheels?

But once you draw the bow across the strings, music fills the room and your old violin teacher appears before you. He still looks the same. His brows, thick and furrowed. His prominent nose, still the centerpiece of his Lincolnesque face.

“What will you play for me this week?” he asks.

“The only thing I remember is ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ ”

The maestro nods, and you begin your performance. Your fingers struggle to find their place, and the bow feels funny in your hand, but there are moments when the notes you play actually sound like the song.

“Your mother had such big hopes for you,” he says, catching you off-guard. You expected him to comment on your playing, not remind you how much you disappointed your parents. “You were the worst student I ever had.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why didn’t you ever practice?”

A part of you wants to tell him how you hated being cooped up in your little apartment after school with no one there to welcome you, how you hated playing all those scales that he insisted you play week after week, and how you had to fight all those boys on your block who called you a sissy for taking violin lessons. But in the end, you know that they’re all just excuses.

So you say, “I didn’t want to play then.”

“Then why do you want to play now?”

You have to think about that for a bit. You’re at a point in life when you finally have some free time, and there are children whom you wish very much to impress but who have such short attention spans and so many distractions.

“I just wish I was good at something,” you say.

“Will you practice this time?”

You say nothing. You don’t want to lie to a ghost.

Just then, the door swings open and a cool breeze rushes inside, filling the room with the scent of pine from the yard.

“Look, Dad,” your son says, hurrying toward you. He holds out his arm to show you something he’s holding. A cicada shell, a translucent armor of amber.

“I found it in the yard,” he says. “It’s almost like a fossil.”

You wish you, too, could grow a new shell and toss out your old. But you don’t tell your son that. It’d be too much for him to process. So you just say, “Thank you for showing me this. It’s amazing.”

“What’s that?” he asks, noticing your recent purchase.

“A violin. I used to play it when I was your age.”

He sets down his fossil and takes the violin from you. He tries to slide it under his chin, but it’s much too big for him. He needs one of those little violins, a sixteenth size or maybe an eighth.

“Are you going to make me take lessons?” he asks, and you can hear the worry in his voice. Nearly every child on your street takes music or art lessons and does at least two sports.

“Not if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t,” he says, handing the violin back to you as if it were cursed, then shoots out the door to rejoin his sister under the canopy.

You wonder for a moment whether you’re doing them a disservice by not pushing them to become good at something, and then remind yourself that your children’s lives will continue to be different from your own and that they won’t ever be haunted by the regrets that haunt you. You press the violin back under your chin and give “Auld Lang Syne” another go.

As you play the first note, the question occurs to you again. How could they possibly sell this thing for just $38?


Yongsoo Park

Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels Boy Genius and Las Cucarachas, the memoir Rated R Boy, and the essay collection The Art of Eating Bitter about his losing battle to give his children an analog childhood.

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