“What are you doing?”
Sebastian stood a few feet away, holding a small tin pail in his muddy hands. I had mine wrapped around the steel frame of the stock tank in Silke’s backyard. It was an early autumn morning, warm enough, but I could still feel the chill of the night against my skin.
Two feet tall and about ten feet across, the stock tank is the kind of galvanized container you find in animal pastures. It had been full throughout the summer, a make-shift kiddie pool, but now it was green and full of algae and rocks. Half a dozen dead moths floated on the surface, along with some water-skippers and boatmen, nickel-sized insects that have two oar-like arms.
“I’m trying to find the frogs.” I said to Sebastian.
“Yeah, but what are you doing?”
I had one hand on the top of the tank, one underneath. Squatting like an Olympic weightlifter, I was preparing for a dead lift. Clean and jerk, actually, but so far I wasn’t able to lift it but a couple inches. I could barely get my fingers underneath without crushing them. “Ughghgh…!” I shouted, watching an inch of water flow away from me and pool on the other side. At some point, the balance would be in my favor - the water would shift to the far side, and the lifting would become easier and easier, making the final heft above my head dramatic but painless. But first I had to get it off the ground. Giving up, I slipped my fingers quickly out from underneath the tank and let it down with a slam.
“Remember the tadpoles we put in here?” I asked Sebastian.
Of course he did. We had been studying them for weeks, watching their little swimmer’s tails turn into legs. There had been half a dozen or so little tadpoles, and four or five pistachio-sized frogs, toads actually, but it was getting cold and the last couple times we looked we couldn’t find anything. It was a great activity for the kids, but neither Silke nor I really knew what we were doing. I had had the vague notion we had to get them to some mud before it got really cold. “I think they dig down and freeze over winter, then thaw out in the spring,” I had said. Then, just a few days ago, a naturalist friend of hers had visited and suggested we take them back as soon as possible to the same puddle in which we had found them. Fact is, I wasn’t even sure if they were alive.
“Well,” I said to Sebastian, “We’re going to take the frogs back to Bone Canyon tomorrow. But first we have to find them. I took all the rocks and logs out this morning and now I’m trying to empty the tank. I’m hoping I find them in all that muck.” I pointed at the sloppy mix of algae, mud and dead insects that comprised a few gallons of sludge at the bottom of the tank.
“We’re going to take them back to Bone Canyon?” Sebastian asked.
“Tomorrow. Me and you. And all the kids.”
He smiled at the prospect. “But first,” I said, “I have to bail out more water. Want to help?” I grabbed a bucket and headed to the other side.
“No, I’m making chocolate cake,” Sebastian responded. And with that, he ran off.
Silke was gone for the week, at the Moon Dance in Teotihuacan, dancing and praying under the light of the full moon. That left me in charge, not only of the kids, but the frogs too. After listening to her naturalist friend, Silke gave me clear orders to find the frogs and return them to Bone Canyon. “And take Shady with you,” she said, “He trusts you.” I frowned thoughtfully, shaking my head. Sure, why not?
Shady is Silke’s dog, named somewhat incongruously after Eminem, the rapper that, styling himself Slim Shady, caught the nation’s attention, and that of Silke’s teenage daughter, at the turn of the millennium. A shelter dog, Shady is as meek and lovable as Eminem is controversial. Having grown up in a mixed-race neighborhood in Cleveland, when groups like Run DMC and NWA were making noise, I find listening to a fifty-year old village woman from Germany talking about rappers decidedly satisfying, and worth every penny.
“And be nice to the chickens,” Silke shouted on her way out.
“Umm…What are you doing?”
This time it was Brigit, a sweet and level-headed girl who I fell in love with last summer. Built like a tank, both inside and out, she is nearly imperturbable. She also has the adorable habit of starting almost every sentence with a reflective “um.”
“I’m looking for frogs.”
“Yeah, but um…What are you doing?”
The innocence of children’s questions is so delicious. There is no malice, no judgement. Just pure curiosity. Admittedly, it’s not always this way, but as an adult, when I ask someone what they’re doing, it’s usually because I think they’re doing it wrong.
“I’m scooping out the water with this bucket,” I said, presenting the plastic container for her inspection. “Once I get enough water out, I’ll lift the tank and dump out the rest. Then, I’m hoping to find the frogs in all that muck.” Once again, I pointed at the green-brown sludge on the bottom of the pool.
“But how do you know you won’t throw out the frogs?!” shouted Sebastian from the bakery, a ramshackle old shed some twenty feet away.
“I look,” I said, tipping the bucket so Brigit could see inside. Then I looked myself. Mostly clear water with a bit of flotsam. Nothing particularly frog-like.
When we first started seeing frogs, Silke and I placed a few large stones and logs in the middle of the tank so that they would have a dry place to sit and warm themselves in the sun (and to give them a safe haven, out of the reach of children). The first couple weeks we spotted them all the time, their green-gray skin mottled with little black dots. But we hadn’t seen any sign of them for at least two weeks and I was getting worried they were dead. We had had a few frosts in that time, but nothing that would have frozen the tank all the way through. Still, what exactly does a frog live on?
I chucked the water over the fence, landing with a loud slap on the damp earth. There were now only a few inches of water on the shallow end. I decided to try another lift.
“Excuse me, Brigit,” I said, climbing my way around the tank.
“What are you doing now, Joe?”
“I’m going to try to lift the tank.”
“Um…” she said, then snorted a laugh.
Pulling on the lip of the tank, as before, I was able slip the other hand underneath. Shifting the weight into my lower hand, I felt confident enough to get both hands under the bottom. Now I had better leverage. At least my fingers wouldn’t get smashed. With a fierce grin I gave it all I got. I’m no wimp, and I know how to slowly push my strength through the balls of my feet, my knees and thighs, hips, back and spine, creating a cascade of power that surprises even me. If I could just get it to waist height. Then, all the water would fall to the other side and I could easily lift the tank over my head. The remaining water would gently pour out, leaving the sloppy mess, and if I was lucky a few frogs.
Kwongh. The metal buckled as I set the tank back down. “Back to the bucket,” I said, resigned. It was nearly snack time and I had hoped to be done by now. It being Monday, we’d be making our way to Happy Canyon soon, a small drainage a short walk away full of juniper trees. Silke’s house is the drop-off point for school, even while she was away, but, being an outdoor kindergarten, we rarely linger this long. I was starting to feel guilty. But I was also growing increasingly worried about the frogs. Even if they were all dead, surely I should have stirred up a carcass by now. I was okay with a ceremonial interment at Bone Canyon, if that’s what came to. But I needed something. Where were those frogs? Had they been eaten?
“Want to help?” I asked Brigit, grabbing the plastic bucket.
“Um, no thanks Joe,” she said, and ran off to the bakery.
Earlier that summer, I had been walking a distant side canyon in the Rio Grande Gorge. It was an uncommon place, well off the beaten path. From a perch high up on one of the canyon walls, I saw a small pool of water near where the canyon ends in a precipitous drop into the gorge. I ventured down to the pool and was shocked to find it full of tadpoles. The Rio Grande raced below, but up here, a good three hundred feet above the river, it was mostly sagebrush and cactus. The gorge is a catch-all for the rivers and streams that drain off the western slope of the mountains, but the vast mesa in which it sits is a scrappy desert. Water is scarce.
So I was surprised to find tadpoles in this tiny pool of rainwater at the abrupt end of the canyon. Inspired by the tenacity of life, a week later I lugged in a five-gallon jug of water, this time with Pema and Silke, to help preserve that tiny reservoir of life. It hadn’t rained in a week. Pema took a little swim. On another occasion, higher up the canyon, I came across one of the full-grown frogs, actually a spadefoot toad. I can hardly describe what finding an amphibian in the desert is like. Toads are classically mystical creatures, full of warts and mind-bending tales, including the charming transformation into a prince. Finding one here was like finding a pot of gold, not at the end of the rainbow, but in my own backyard.
On that same trip, when I lugged the five-gallon jug of water, Silke, Pema and I climbed a ways up the canyon and, as a summer’s eve set in, listened to the chorus of those throaty toads. They sound a bit like a woodpecker, or the way a raven cackles. In the distant canyon, the heat of the day melting into the soft hues of a desert night, it felt like magic. So when Silke and I discovered tadpoles in Bone Canyon a little later that summer, we talked about how neat it would be to gather a few for school and let the kids watch them grow into frogs. It was a perfect project. I was going to gather them myself, but a few days later Silke flashed her eyes at me and said, “Check out the stock tank.” Peering over the edge into the now murky water, I spied six or seven squat polliwogs. One of them already had tiny legs. Others were hiding under a big stone.
“Silke! Look, I caught one!” Sebastian shouted. It was the first day of school. His little brother, Demetrius, peered greedily into the little glass jar in which Sebastian had stowed his captive. “I want one!” Demetrius complained, looking at me determinedly.
“Tadpoles stay inside,” Silke sang in her teacherly voice.
“Aww…” Sebastian whined, “But Silke…”
“Tadpoles stay inside,” Silke repeated, cutting off negotiations.
Sebastian dumped the little creature into his hands, its muddy-brown tail flopping around on his open palm. “Careful,” I said, anxious he would drop the little guy on the ground, where he might be stepped on or lost, or eaten by one of the chickens squawking about the yard. The chickens had come at the end of the last school year. We had visited them every morning, when they were still chicks, the children often holding them in their hands or setting them precariously upon their heads. Now the birds are so tame it takes but a hand over their back and they squat to the ground, ready to be picked up. “Sebastian, back in the water,” I said, eyeing Demetrius a few yards away with a fat hen in his arms.
“Aww, okay,” Sebastian said, dropping the little brown blip back into the water. Dozens of water-skimmers plied about the surface.
The temptation was too much. The tadpoles were irresistible to little eyes, and a bit too easy to catch. Eventually the children had a series of containers sitting on all the nearby logs and rocks, with one or two tadpoles apiece. “How many are there?” I asked Silke. “I don’t know,” she answered, “See if you can count them.”
“Quick Mom, look!” Peter shouted. It was the end of the school day and his mother had come to pick him and Sebastian up.
“Oh, my goodness!” exclaimed his mother, looking into Peter’s cupped hands. “A frog!” Her motherliness gave way slightly to the same sort of delight showing plainly on her son’s face. Who doesn’t like a frog?
“They just turned into frogs today!” Peter shouted, eager as anything, then ran back to Sebastian, who was fishing for more. His mother looked at me and began to make polite conversation. Some people talk about the weather, or in our case, a child’s rain gear or the appropriate weight of their backpack. But from the first week of school, the hot topic among everyone at the Earth Children – parents, teachers, children – was frogs.
“They’ve already turned into frogs?” Peter’s mother asked, eyeing me sociably. I could already feel our legs walking toward the stock tank, like there was some kind of gravitational pull. At the end of the day, there might be three or four parents, half a dozen children, and a teacher or two mingled around the outside of that simple metal tub.
“I know!” I said, as excited as anyone.
“Look, there’s another one!” said Guinevere to her Papa. In the middle of the tank, just out of arm’s reach, a spotted toad no larger than my thumbnail sunned itself on a warm rock. We often found one there, or three or four. A few brown tadpoles still wiggled in the water, but the frogs had turned a sort of bluish-gray, with dark brown spots. Occasionally, when not sunbathing, they could be seen “hanging” upside down in the water, mouths at the surface, arms and legs splayed out, revealing their tiny white bellies.
“What are you doing, silly Joe Joe?”
I was still pouring off buckets of water from the tank, but before I could get half a phrase together, Ada cocked her wide mouth and, accentuating with her open hand, shouted, “You’re making too much noise!” Ada, soon to my God-daughter, doesn’t treat me with the caution, or the reverence, that some of the other kids do. As a young child, she was a rather delicate companion to Pema’s hulking frame. The two loved to wrestle together, and I regularly worried that Pema would break her in two. Today, the roles are usually switched, Pema being a somewhat shy and conciliatory child, while Ada is already showing signs of mastering the kinds of social graces that place one at the top of the social heap. In other words, she’s demanding.
“I’m trying to find the frogs,” I said.
“Yeah, but what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to get all the water… Wait! Ada, look!”
“What?” she asked, and her expression dropped, growing suddenly sincere.
“I think I found one. Here…wait…I need a little container.”
Looking about, I scooped up one of the tin pails from the bakery, then cupped it underneath the floating frog, its white belly showing plainly. Yes! I wasn’t sure if it was dead or alive, but it hardly mattered now. At least I had something. Bringing the pail close to my eyes, I looked carefully at the pale underbelly of the figure, splayed out like I had seen them countless times before. Only, this time it wasn’t floating at the top of the water, where it could breath. Instead, it flopped around in the murky water without any sign of volition. Swirling the pail gently in my hand, the frog tipped over and I laughed. It was bright green on top. Picking it up in my hands, I read the tiny raised print on the bottom of one of its legs: Made in Korea.
“Look guys!” I shouted to the kids, who had all huddled around me by now. “It’s a toy! A toy frog!” I handed it carelessly to the children, who ran off with it, laughing hysterically, to the bakery.
I decided to test my strength one more time. Slipping both hands underneath, I groaned as the tank lifted the first few inches. Then, as I had hoped, the water started rushing away and I reached the tipping point. Six inches, ten inches, a foot! Now nearly at waist height, I spun my hands around, palms up, and shoved the tank over my head. Water gushed out everywhere, spilling into little ponds and rivulets that raced past my shoes.
“Whoa! Look at Papa Joe!” shouted Sebastian, always my champion when it comes to things like this. Last year, being one of the younger children, he clung with awe to one of the older boys, whose limbs were attractive, lithe and powerful. This year, Sebastian is the unrivaled physical specimen, and the only one who can outdo him, of course, is me.
“What are you doing?!” shouted each of the children, now gushing out of the bakery in steady rivulets. I may have looked impressive, but at this point it was easy.
“I’m pouring out the…Whoa! Look!” I roared. Posting the tank up with one arm, I pointed at the sleek, jet black body of a spider. Even without spying the red hourglass on its underbelly, the particular shape and outline of the world’s most infamous arachnid was unmistakable.
“Whoa, cool!” shouted Sebastian, edging in for a closer inspection, “A black widow!”
“Not too close,” I said. Sebastian, and all the boys, are prone to identifying any blackish spider as a black widow, but this was the real deal. Dangling on its web, a full head or two above the children, it was at a safe distance for us all to have a good look. But I didn’t want it to fall on them.
“This is a black widow,” I said. “Take a good look. It’s worth knowing exactly what they look like. This is the kind of spider you can never, ever, touch.” The spider, suddenly thrust from its black underworld into the light of day, was a little restless. It began moving over its threads, giving us a magnificent display of its legs, backsides and underbelly. It could hardly have been better.
“Whoa!” shouted Sebastian, “Look at its red spot! That means it’s a female!” He was shaking with excitement as he reckoned with the fact that this, unlike the dozens of spiders he had previously “identified” as black widows, was real.
“Alright, I’m going to put the tank down,” I said.
“But what about the spider?” Sebastian asked.
“Yeah, what about the spider?” echoed Ada.
“I’m going to leave it,” I said.
The tub landed softly, with a twang. The thin pool of water in the bottom corner rushed evenly over the speckled, galvanized surface, then pooled an inch or two deep at the lower side.
“I’m going to place this here, so nobody touches the spider,” said Sebastian, throwing a handful of hay near the edge of the tank. Underneath was a small cavity, which made a perfect home for the widow, but the spider was well out of arm’s reach.
“Yeah, good idea,” I said, placing a log there too. The excitement over, the children returned to the bakery, while I returned to the frogs.
At the bottom of the shallow pool of water was a gallon or two of brown sludge. Running my hand through it, I could see that it was full of dead moths and soggy flowers. Most if it was algae, but there were a few rocks, slimy sticks and assorted guts of the earth. But no frogs. At least, nothing obvious. Damn, I thought. But I was determined to check to the very end, so I sifted through every last particle of muck, looking for any sign of those once charming and captivating creatures. My persistence paid off.
“I found one!” I finally yelled. “I think I really found one!”
The kids came running.
“A container!” I shouted, “Get me a container!”
“Where?” asked Sebastian, promptly followed by the others, who began pushing so close to my squatting form that I was nearly knocked over.
“Alright! Hold on!” I clambered over the children’s anxious shouts, moving to a kneeling position. “Geeze Louise.”
“Here, Dada,” Pema said. Ever dutiful, she had brought me an old coffee can from the bakery.
“Thanks, pup.” Then, clearing my throat, I spoke clearly and distinctly. “Okay,” I said, “the frog is under the sludge, here,” and I pointed. “It looks like it’s covered in a membrane of mucous, so I’m not sure what that means. It might mean it’s sort of hibernating, but, to be honest, I think it’s probably dead.”
“Where? Where?!” came the shouts.
“Here,” and again I pointed to a thick patch of sludge. “But hold on. I want to be careful. This is the only frog I’ve found, and I’m pretty sure it’s dead. If there’s any chance it’s alive, I want to disturb it as little as possible. We’ll keep it in this can tonight, and tomorrow, when we go to Bone Canyon, we’ll return it to where it came from.” The children were so excited, they were nearly climbing over the edge of the tub.
Slowly, I cupped the mix of water and sludge where I had last seen the frog, and as I pulled it up, a tiny body floated for a brief second above the algae. A smooth translucent gel encased the whole thing, like a blob of clear gelatin, but it’s distinctive blue-gray skin and black spots was clearly visible. Hunched in a traditional frog shape, arms bent underneath – not splayed out as the toy – the pistachio-sized frog tumbled slowly end over end, then disappeared under the murk and water in the cup.
“I saw it!” shouted Sebastian.
“Me too! I saw it too!” affirmed Pema, followed by a cacophony of shouts from every child.
Triumphant, I stood up as most of the kids rushed baked to the bakery. “Hey guys!” I shouted after them. “We’re going to have snack in five minutes. And then we’re going to Happy Canyon!”
“You mean Hawaii?” asked Pema, using the alternative name of the same juniper-filled drainage.
“Yes, Hawaii,” I said, yielding to the clarification.
Walking away, I began to look for a safe location high above the ground for the frog’s container. I didn’t want the chickens, or the children, to knock it over. I was going to seal it in a locked vault if I had to.
“Um, Joe?” I heard, as I was scanning the nearby shelves. It was the entreating voice of Brigit.
“Will Shady come?”
The Frog Prince is an old fairy tale by the brothers Grimm. In it, a young princess loses a treasured golden ball in a deep pool of spring water. As is often the case in such tales, a talking frog immediately shows up. Promising to retrieve the ball, in exchange the frog asks, “I do not want your pearls, jewels and fine clothes; but if you will love me and let me live with you, and eat from off your golden plate, and sleep on your bed, I will bring you your ball again.”
Strange bargain, but the princess, thinking the frog would never find its way to her castle, agrees. Diving down deep into the pool of water, the frog returns with the golden ball, and, predictably, the princess, ball in hand, promptly runs away, leaving the frog behind. The frog, of course, is no mere frog, and that very evening, while the princess is dining with the king and queen, there is a splashy knock at the door.
“Open the door, my princess dear. Open the door to thy true love here!” says the frog, “And mind the words that thou and I said, by the fountain cool, in the greenwood shade.”
The king, curious about his uncommon guest, asks his daughter to explain. “There is a nasty frog,” says the princess, “at the door, that lifted my ball for me out of the spring this morning. I told him that he should live with me here, thinking that he could never get out of the spring; but there he is at the door, and he wants to come in.”
The king, bastion of lawful order and righteousness, tells his daughter that she must keep her word, and the princess, reluctant but submissive, obeys. She opens the door and takes the frog inside, after which it asks to eat from her dinner plate and then be taken to bed. Her bed. The frog leaves in the morning, scamp that he is, giving the princess a brief respite. But the encounter is repeated each night for three days, after which, upon waking on the third morning, the princess discovers, of course, a handsome prince.
“Okay,” I said, crouching down to the modest puddle before us. It had rained heavily last week and Bone Canyon, normally bone dry, was once again full of muddy pools. How frogs managed to reproduce in such locations is a mystery that still befuddles me.
In my hand, I had the coffee can. The frog was, at this point, almost certainly dead, but the ceremonial return to Bone Canyon was important to me. I had made a promise, not so much to Silke or her naturalist friend, but to the toads. We had had so much joy watching their little polliwogs wiggle about the stock tank, then suddenly transform into speckled, white-bellied amphibians. Even before that, climbing distant side canyons, listening to their mating calls and watching one hamburger-sized adult hop from rock to rock beneath my feet, I had already sealed the deal. In return for my golden ball, that is, the joy of life, I had to love and feed these creatures. In this case, fortunately, I was not required to sleep with them.
Along the walk, I had given the container to Andrew, who I thought would be proud to carry the burial litter. Instead, I later learned, he poured more and more water out along the way, searching for glimpses of the tiny carcass, till, about halfway there, he told me he was done. Handing the can back to me, I was shocked to find nothing in it but a thin pile of silt. “Where’s the frog?!” I shouted, antic with exasperation. I nearly fainted with fury. The frog was the whole fucking point! But then I cooled my jets and said, as plainly as I could. “Where did you dump out the water?”
After a fruitless, ten-minute search along the path, I poked my hand mournfully into the silt and discovered, to my utter amazement, the frog’s tiny body was still inside! Soft and lifeless, it was quite bruised from the trip, but it was there. We had started a month ago with maybe a dozen tadpoles, watching curiously as they grew into at least four or five frogs. Now, we had but one lifeless and gritty figure. But we had it. I kept the can for the rest of the walk.
“Does anyone want to say anything?” I asked. The children silently shook their heads. They were eager to set up camp and explore. “I’m hungry,” said Guinevere.
“Okay, then I’ll say something,” I said. I started pulling at the corners of my mind for some kind of eulogy, but I was distracted by the impatience of the moment. I’m not one to force a prayer. Instead, I bought myself time, tipping the can over and watching as a few grains of sand dripped into the puddle. Everything else remained lodged at the bottom of the can. Giving it an unceremonious bop, the rest of the contents heaved into the water.
“Where is it?” asked Sebastian, after the mud had cleared.
“It’s down there,” I answered, pointing to the murky puddle. The frog had been indistinguishably covered in grit and sand in the coffee can, but on its way down, the water had cleansed its tiny body as it floated to the bottom. Once again, and perhaps for the final time, we could see its blue-gray skin and tiny black spots.
“I see it!” Sebastian shouted.
“Me too,” said Andrew, as if he had never run excitedly back and forth with containers filled with little polliwogs.
“I see it, Dada,” said Pema, smiling brightly. Then all the kids crowded around, including Andrew, confirming that, though dead, it was without question a frog. We had returned it to its homeland.
Suddenly, I heard a snuffling in my ear and I turned to find Shady, usually an aloof sort of companion, peering over my shoulder.
Three days before the kids and I emptied the stock tank, I took a short walk with Silke and her naturalist friend the evening before they both left for the Moon Dance. Like Silke, her friend teaches in outdoor settings, but usually teenagers and adults. She does this is Frankfurt, Germany, but she’s just at home here in New Mexico, where she once lived with her own toddling children years ago. Visiting briefly, Silke was eager to show her some of the places we take the kids and we ended up walking the path down to Bone Canyon.
It had rained earlier that day, and puddles of murky water filled some of the empty cavities in the rocks. At one spot, deep into the canyon, we came across a huge boulder we visit occasionally with the kids. New Mexico is sometimes a strange landscape, and though we were surrounded by deserts and mountains, the canyon is full of smooth rocks, large and small, evidence of the once vast sea that covered everything for miles.
On the smooth surface of this giant boulder are carved two ancient petroglyphs, a spiral and something resembling a compass rose. There is also a modern petroglyph, by one H.R. Romero. Within this massive boulder are several large depressions, where ill-fitting rocks, or some flaws in the stone itself, were cast out long ago and then, like the boulder itself, worn smooth. The children love to run their hands along these surfaces, and if there’s water here they splash playfully.
On this particular occasion, Silke’s friend and I were lingering in the back, making small talk, while Silke climbed ahead. The sun was setting behind distant clouds, and an evening’s light was settling in. I was a bit fascinated with this woman, despite the mild language barrier, mostly because her joy for life was absolutely contagious. Throughout the walk, she shared insightful observations about the plant life, as well as useful projects and methods of teaching. She has been working for years doing exactly what I’m only beginning to do.
“Whoop!” shouted Silke, then giggled. It’s the sort of sound she makes when she discovers something pleasant, but it’s also the sound she makes when she falls, so I looked up cautiously. There she was on the boulder, surrounded by cold gray stones and the emptying light of the canyon.
“What is it?” I shouted.
“The puddle!” She answered, a bright smile on her face. “Tadpoles!”