During the summer of the frogs I was a teenaged babysitter and acting head of a household down the street from my family home. At only two years older than the eldest of the three, my authority was wanting. My charges were a pair of tow-headed boys and a bright girl with raven braids. Smart and good-looking children from lovely, handsome parents; they made a beautiful family.
I was barely into the summer before I was running out of usable activities from the list I had hand-copied out of a book at the library. Kraft Dinner for lunch (“that’s not the way my mom makes it!”); pillow fights turning into tickle fights turning into high energy, but benign slap-fights between the boys; confronting (massaging) the vanity of the little girl.
And then I remembered the park. A short walk down the suburban street on which we, all four, lived.
Walking past my house, I tried not to look too long(ingly) at its doors and windows and remembering summers where I was young enough to use my youth as an excuse to lounge jobless and bored.
Never again would I have that charmed, two-month stretch, with time like a ball of yarn, kicked down a flight of stairs; a seemingly endless length.
A deep sigh and a quickened pace so that I might outstep the temptation to open those doors and windows (“anyone home?”) and survey my siblings, likely engaging in the very inactivity I longed for.
Rapid march to the park. Let the novelty of a jungle gym (age appropriate for children five years their junior) capture their interest for at least a few moments.
But it was not the gym, in spite of its brightly coloured steps, monkey bars, handrails, and slides that drew the attention of my sweet charges. The gym, in fact, was invisible; effectively camouflaged by a carpet – green, twitching, moist – of frogs.
According to my textbooks, the sign of a good eco-system.
This particular eco-system – low-lying, damp, squelching – was excellent.
Boys and frogs. “Catch them!” Hardly a challenge, the greater struggle went to myself and to the little girl in trying not to step on them.
Bugling eyeballs stared up at us, shiny skin glistened in the afternoon sun, and a misstep might have ended in an amphibious missile launching toward us or worse. The tiny crunch of shattered bones and sudden wet toes let me know my mistake. Don’t look down, don’t look –
“Look at your sandals!” the little girl squealed.
“You have frog guts all over them!” She grabbed my hand, still staring down at my feet.
Frogs, I was surrounded by frogs. My terror grew, and I jumped at the slightest movement, lest any one of them actually touch me. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt in my chest. Nausea passed over and through me in waves and I could feel myself swallowing the bitter yellow bile of pure fear.
Hundreds of them; throat sacs expanded to nearly popping, and croaking filled the air. Eyeballs and slime protruded from the grass.
My fear was visceral: sick, panic, sweating. I tried to hold my breath. They can’t know I’m scared.
“Who wants to make popcorn and watch a movie?” I could hear myself saying the words inside my head, how long before I had courage enough to open my mouth to speak the bribe? Not that it mattered.
There was nothing I could offer that could compete with this; nature’s gift to my three, bored, innocents. A Christmas stocking. A father’s wool sock appropriated for the role.
And like the makeshift stocking, apple tucked in the heel, I was horror-stricken to see the boys employ a technique that could have been used in either setting: pinch the toe and shuck the apple out.
Or, grab ahold the frog’s feet and whip the frog against the rock, (a boulder placed there by the town as landscaping for the park). Out comes the apple! Bloody and insignificant, becoming more so with each added stain – could there be dozens of the same already tattooed on the rock?
Now, to be sure, the girl never killed. But she watched, and she followed, squealing. The bully, the bullied and the bystander, so they say. So if an 8-year-old is a bystander, as guilty as her sibling killers, what, then, is the older girl?
I stood frozen. Impotent as the worst of them. Goose-bumped. Slick-palmed. And paralyzed.
“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we don’t do.” Moliere
Can’t back up, can’t look down, can’t leave them here alone. I tried to redirect them, “Time to head back.”
Ignored (of course).
“Alright guys, let’s go, your mom’s almost home” (a fib). Just turn and go; lift your feet and hum so you can’t hear the sound of wet, throbbing life being taken away, by you or anyone.
Me or anyone.
The girl will follow. And then the boys, a short distance behind, both of them sweaty and excited from the exertion and adrenaline. Already, memory is starting to alter. There couldn’t have been so many.
I wouldn’t have let that happen.
A.M. Piaf is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry living in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. Ironically, she had a deep-seated fear of frogs long before this true incident occurred in her life. And now…