by Ross Gormley
The boy is walking along his usual path to school when he comes upon the small pond, a perfect circle of water, no more than five feet in diameter. Gravel lines its sides. Stones in the center look like tiny black icebergs. Hundreds of tadpoles swim between them. The boy’s shadow alarms the small larvae. They seem to multiply as they begin to stir. He watches the clear water warm to the color of mocha as they drum up silt under the sun.
One of the tadpoles wiggles out of the water. Its ovular body and needle-like tail remind the boy of sperm. In health class, just yesterday, he watched a video of sperm instinctively batting toward a microscopic egg. The frame cut to the shifting hips of a woman as a baby’s head crested between her legs. All of this—the wriggling and squirming—to enjoy the ranks of life.
The tadpole corrects its mistake. It flips its body to face the vernal pool and flails desperately. But without water to propel itself forward, the tadpole remains on its periphery. It begins to dry. Its tail slows.
The girl meets him before the pond. He recognizes her. She is in his eighth-grade class, a new student who has just moved to Connecticut from another state. She wears a plaid skirt, a red polo. He wears tan khakis, a green polo. She tucks her thumbs into the straps of her backpack. Her elbows stick out at her sides. He is blonde. She is brunette. She has a slight scar under her left eye from a piece of rock that shot out of a lawnmower. She was sunbathing on a towel at the time. Her father told her if she were working, which meant doing homework or cleaning the house, she would have been spared. Whenever she blushes or cries, blood flushes the scar, making it appear fresh, still a wound. For this reason, she likens the scar to a mood ring whose changing colors only she can understand.
On the boy’s side is a birthmark about the size of a potato chip. Clear, delicate hairs spring from it, as if this part of him harbored frailty. His mom calls it his vulnerable button. At night he outlines it in pen to see if it grows. He hopes the ink will contain it. Friends will sometimes ask to touch it at sleepovers. He sleeps with a t-shirt on.
The girl bends to her knees and picks up the tadpole. She places it back into the water. When she stands up, they look at one another. She smiles, her cheeks dimple. He notices how folds of her skin wrinkle around the scar while the scar itself stays perfectly smooth. From one eye to the next, it is a loss of symmetry. Because his own birthmark is on his left side, and only on the left side, he figures that if they were to hug, or kiss, that their imperfections would span their two halves. They would be, for that time, symmetrical again.
At first, they cannot tell if the tadpole moves or is moved by the tadpoles around it. But soon it begins to kick its tail and again becomes part of the mass of black. Gems of sunlight reflect off their slimy bodies.
“What’s your name?” they ask at the same time, so flustered by the coincidence they forget to answer. The girl’s scar pulses warm, muted colors. The hairs on the boy’s birthmark curl into themselves.
Through the week, they wait for one another, standing before the pond. They come with their bellies full of applesauce, bananas, cereal, clementines. They come with fresh scrapes from playing outside, or rolled ankles from running. They come with backpacks and school projects, poster boards and science experiments too awkward to carry. They come tired, hyper, with messy hair and unbrushed mouths. So when they see one another from a distance, they pull out of their pockets sticks of gum, or tabs of mint and mold their hair to a desired shape using their fingers. Their only measure of time is the pond. It seems to contract and condense each day. The tadpoles collect along its edges and dry out in the midday sun to resemble raisins by night. The concentric circles of desiccated larvae rib out like the rings of a tree. Without rain, without replenishment, soon the pond will lift into the air to fall somewhere else.
The boy and the girl meet one morning with buckets in hand. They hadn’t planned this, but are not surprised by the coincidence. They work in silence, using their hands to gently guide the tadpoles over the lips of their tilted buckets, then walk to a nearby pond. The pond is unknown to most people. They discovered it separate from one another. But on the walk, without talking, and each of them chewing on sweet-mint gum, they both understand they are heading to the same place. This place is a secret they share.
The pond is much larger, in the shape of a kidney, if that kidney belonged to a giant. The boy and the girl know to crawl through a section of forsythia where thin, wiry branches with yellow budding flowers meet in an archway above. From there, they climb onto a fallen log, which allows them to walk through the thickets of rose bush unharmed. Twice now, she has played an icebreaker game that requires her to tell a story about a scar, and twice now she has chosen to tell stories about bug bites or stubbed toes, while the group across from her stares at her eye and wonders. The girl tells the boy she’s willing to be cut by the rose bushes if it means saving the frogs.
The thick trunk splits into two boughs before the water. They dump the tadpoles in, bucket by bucket. It sounds like throwing a handful of small rocks into water. The sound seems to shimmer and feel round, but is followed by silence. Entropy ripples across the surface.
They make the trip from pond to pond until every living tadpole leaves the vernal pool. The tadpoles swim lazily from one curiosity to the next. The boy can see that the girl is crying. Warm tears clear her face of dirt, one streak down her cheek after another. Not yet sure how to comfort her, he reaches for his birthmark to pull on its few, delicate hairs.
The next morning the circular pond disappears. In an otherwise verdant field, a dimple of mud dries and cracks under the sun.
They return to the larger pond every day before school. They dip their feet into the cool water. Their skin turns milky and pruned. Sheltered by crops of phragmites, rose bush, and forsythia, they watch the tadpoles mature. Their tails lengthen. Their bodies thicken. The nubs of their webbed hands and feet push out from their sides. Soon, they are big enough so that they must squeeze out of the thin reeds to explore the big pond.
“Do you think they have growing pains?” the girl asks one morning. Just last night she sat still on her bed and felt her calves throb into sleep. “Do you think they’re aware of what they’ll grow into? If they feel ghost hands and legs and know what they’ll soon become?”
The boy is reaching for his birthmark when a small frog hops on his foot. The boy remembers deliberating at the edge of a diving board, the feeling of impetuousness when he finally brought himself to leap. The frog jumps into the water with a big splash. The boy leans forward on his bough to kiss the girl. She kisses him back. When he dove into the blue tank that day, the motions of the outside world stopped all at once. He floated to the bottom. The water above him eventually settled. Only the release of his breath convinced him the world had not stopped. Bubbles of air rose from his mouth like silver mushrooms. Proof of centrifugal force.
Hand in hand, the boy and the girl walk uncomfortably to school as the boy shifts his pants, trying to hide his excitement—his glans pushing against the confines of his jeans. Glancing down every few steps, she giggles under her breath.
On weekends, they meet at the movies. They arrange picnics. School is out in a month and already they look forward to seeing each other in their bathing suits at pool parties. They will submerge under water, escaping their awkward bodies.
The boy’s torso has grown faster than his legs. His shoulders and chest bulge, while his calves and thighs have not grown at all. The boys on his sports teams call him Chicken Legs. The girl’s arms and legs have grown, and continue to grow. Long and lanky, like a slinky, her mom notes. Her breasts remain flat. In her mind, her neck is too short, too thick for her limbs.
They like to think their faces haven’t caught up with them. They wish their faces were like dough. That way, standing in front of the mirror, they could push in their noses, chisel their chins, pinch and embolden their dimples and jaws. The girl wishes she could erase her scar. She imagines cutting herself in the same place, purposefully now, and the wounds cancelling out to disappear. The boy wishes he could pick pimples off his face like cherries off a tree. He wishes he could peel off his birthmark like a sticker. His mom tells him this will scar his body. He wants to tell his mom about the girl’s scar. He is beginning to be able to read its colors, her moods. But he fears her response, the charge against his frail self. His birthmark will grow with each criticism. It will escape the black-ink boundary he sets every night.
Through the summer, they occasionally return to the pond. They notice that as the tadpoles’ front and hind legs grow, their tails shrink. They are surprised by how lazy the new frogs can be: a life of sunbathing punctuated by the occasional leap or the elastic lunging of their tongues to catch an insect.
When he kisses her by the pond, his face pinches together as if he can concentrate all the energy in his body and transfer it to her through his lips. He wonders which lip gives energy, and which receives it—the top or the bottom—because they kiss for hours, and this transfer never seems to let up. For that time together, they exist so purely as their own that their exhalations seem to envelop them. They continue until they grow dizzy and light, starved for oxygen.
School resumes. Fall comes. The leaves turn. The frogs find small crevices within the pond to tuck into. They watch snow sail to the surface. The water reaches out to grasp each flake. Coldness descends over them tendril-like. They slow the beating of their hearts. Their temperatures drop until they are no more hot or cold than the air above. The winter is silent, monastic.
In bed, under the covers, the boy and the girl learn to cuddle in ways that keep them both warm. They learn the ways in which their bodies change as they cuddle. She feels against her back the outline of his penis growing. He rubs her breasts. The recognition of her nipples under his hand excites him so much he thinks he can feel the whorls of his fingertips. Occasionally he puts his hand between her legs and can feel her warmth, the moisture beneath. She arches her back, puts pressure on his body. Still, they keep their clothes on.
They experiment when alone and naked. The boy’s house is littered with materials he has put his penis on: the welcoming chill of steel, the warm gumminess of polymer laminates, the scratchy comfort of wool sweaters. The boy has cut the side of his foam pillow to hump. He has microwaved and slit open with a knife a grapefruit. The girl occasionally rubs herself against the side of her bed at night. She has stolen a cucumber from the kitchen to draw between her legs. Her mom found it molded over beneath the bed; she slammed the door to the girl’s room and shouted to her husband to hide anything that resembled a dick. She said this loud enough to shame the girl. The girl believed she had simply taken the cucumber. Now she believes she’s a thief.
Spring comes, and with it, a pool party to celebrate the end of their freshman year. Her breasts have grown. Two triangular patches of cloth—her bikini top—capture their sudden weight. Her jaw has sharpened. She is becoming less dough-like, she thinks. The edges of her face are beginning to resemble the precision of her scar. His legs have grown muscular. His abs make the shape of a V toward his hips. When he gets out of the pool, his wet bathing suit tapers to his bulge, and he again catches the girl glancing at it.
After the party, they meet before the pond. They go by instinct, by impulse. She reaches into his pants and feels the shape of his penis. With his hand, he grasps her wetness, fully now. They can hardly concentrate on kissing. After a short while, they rest their heads on each other’s shoulders, feeling the other’s heavy breaths against the pale of their necks.
Among the phragmites, the warming water, frogs have laid their eggs. Tiny black spheres, cushioned in jelly, clump along the shafts of brown-green reeds. Before he comes, she turns him toward the pond. He shudders forward, giving her some of his weight. Then it is over. He stands up straight. He kisses the corners of her mouth, her cheeks, her full lips. When they look down, they realize his semen is lost between the reeds, sinking within the pond.
He pulls his hand out of her pants. The skin of his fingers suddenly feels tighter as a film of blood dries and contracts. She is close to her period, or he has broken her hymen, he is not sure. He bends down and washes his hand in the water. The blood stirs in. For a few seconds, the red cloud remains suspended. Their faces blush. His feels hot. The cloud disappears. There are numbers and equations to try and make sense of this—(the dissolution). But it will, after a certain point, feel besides the point; it is just what happens. When the excitement of their orgasms passes, their minds go to the grapefruit and the cucumber; they cannot come without contextualization. To look at the other brings shame. But as they walk down the path to their houses, in the moments that their skin touches, this feeling wanes. In that space between, they find comfort.
It storms that night. A warm mist dispels each lightning strike: a uniform illumination, as if the cells of water vapor collectively manifest the electrical energy in the form of a single flash, seemingly with no source. The charged air feels heavy and amniotic. It flows through their windows. It pools around their beds, smelling like ozone, like rust. Under this haze, the boy and the girl toss under their thin cotton blankets, unsure how to place the day.
Her blood, his come—these are their own secrets, which they have never shared beyond the limits of their transitioning bodies. They aren’t sure if such knowledge is a burden or a gift, what this vulnerability means. In the few porn videos the boy has seen, he’s watched women swallow come. And she’s seen this too. She once watched a man put his face into the trail of a clear liquid that gushed out between a young woman’s legs, and noticed how he seemed to bathe in it, sticking out his tongue to capture its taste. This want to collapse into the other, how far will it go? How porous will they become? Because they have memorized each other’s schedules, it is easy to avoid one another that first week as they process the knowledge of their physical interiors, the stuff we are made of and produce.
The boy and the girl are to take their biology finals at the end of the year. While studying, the girl learns that life first began in water. Before cellular organisms, there were just the conditions for life, the right ingredients mixed into a chemical soup. All that was needed was a catalyst—like lightning—and life would be born. While flipping through flashcards she reminds herself that scientists have repeated these experiments with success. Anything is possible when it comes to life. We are all the scum of a single pond.
The boy is particularly interested in hybridization. Plants are capable of grafting onto other stalks. Ligers and tigons are bred regularly. He himself has ridden on a mule. And he’s watched YouTube videos about the Russians’ attempt to create a race of human-ape hybrids via artificial insemination, a so-called “Humanzee.”
Together they wonder—and fear—if a small child will grow from the pond. If, in the center, a fetus will appear, blanketed by algae, with its umbilical cord dangling down to the depths, not fixed to anything, but branching out like little arms, tentacles—roots sucking the pond’s nutrients, supporting its life.
The boy imagines his sperm somehow fertilizing the red cloud of her blood, or entering into the frog spawn, through the jelly, piercing into the black egg. With lightning, or the eruption of toxic pond gas, it would be possible—the chromosomes folding into the other, strands of deoxyribonucleic acid sequencing together like a zipper. And the small tadpole would grow into something so much greater than it ever could imagine.
Perhaps the guilt is too much—this knowledge of the other’s interior and the fear of what they have potentially bred. They submit to paranoia. On separate days, they return to the pond to check on and care for their potential pond- or frog-boy.
It did happen: the impossible. The fertilized egg has two black eyes at the end of its globular body. Opposite its eyes is a nub that will stretch out to form a flat tail. Awash in the clumped mass of its spawn, and still unknown to the boy and the girl, the egg wiggles in its casing and begins to eat the nutritive jelly around it.
The girl can tell the boy was there. Leaning against the bough, she finds a few reeds tied together with the stem of a plant. In place of the reeds, he finds green ferns. A few are still coiled, still fiddleheads. Petals from the rose bush fold into the spaces between its fronds. On other days, they exchange notes that read: “I counted ten frogs today.” “Five frogs today, and more froglets.”
The boy calls the girl and they arrange a time to meet. They don’t specify the pond, but understand that’s where they’ll be. It has been a month now—enough time, they think, to process their confusion. But the night before they’re to meet, she becomes so excited by the thought of his body that she rubs against a section of her long pillow until she orgasms and feels liquid between her legs. She thinks her water has broken, but she couldn’t be pregnant. It smells like pee. She sneaks through the house to put her bedding in the washer. As she tiptoes, she tries not to breathe. The smell, like ammonia, makes her nauseous.
The boy can’t fall asleep. He is too nervous and excited. He masturbates and comes with such force that it misses the paper towel on his chest and spills over his lip into his mouth. He spits the warm liquid into the water glass next to his bed and quickly wipes his chin with a worn shirt. The taste stays on his tongue and he continues to spit in the glass every few minutes. He checks his bed for stains to avoid the ire of his mom. Just the other week, she held up his boxers when doing laundry and asked if he spilled yogurt on them.
It is summer now. The sun sets over the pond, which edges against the side of a valley. The beginning of a hill lies no more than twenty feet from its banks. It climbs and climbs and captures, each night, the sun’s falling colors, as if the trees above the boy were on fire and the only safe shelter were along this shoreline.
So close to the corner of the valley, the pond and surrounding trees seem to create their own pocket of air, their own eddy, in which cool air can stir and circle the smell of peat and moss, leached out from the surface as the earth cools—while still, wisps of fog drag over the water, with only a slight breeze to move them, a semi-stillness only disrupted by the light of fireflies, which, when looking in the pond’s surface, seem to reflect another galaxy, one more ordered and fair, not subject to the whims of weather, of seasons, of genes. This is where the boy rests, on his bough, waiting for the girl.
A chorus of frogs sings around him. A lulling sound, it seems to pulse to the motion of his breaths. He crosses his arms and falls asleep. When he wakes, she is still not there. She is at home, in her bedroom. The long pillow is tucked under her bed; its mere sight embarrasses her. She paces her room, deliberating yes, no, I’ll go, I can’t, but again looks at the pillow and finally sits on her bed, for good this time.
The frogs and fireflies, as if collecting toward the boy’s heat, have gathered by his side, so snugly set between his arms, legs, and torso, he realizes he can’t move without disturbing them. A few more jump to his stomach. One leaps from his chest to the side of his head. Its chin distends like a piece of bubble gum about to pop, while it heaves its strong body, sending pressure to the bubble and back: a low, throbbing baritone.
The egg, just feet away, has eaten out of its jelly. It is now officially a tadpole, with its own jet propulsion system: a flattened tail it undulates back and forth to whizz forward. The tadpole has blindly explored the pond’s peripheries, and has even travelled to the deep end. Through its adventures, it has encountered a number of near misses with larger turtles and a fish called a bass. But suddenly, it has the compulsion to wiggle toward something or someone: the boy. It swims across the pond and bats against the shoreline, sensing for the first time its need to grow front and hind legs. It remains there, swimming, until the boy leaves. With each step away, the tadpole can feel this space inside his body shrink. Finally, it rests in the shallows wondering why it was ever there at all.
The boy thinks the girl doesn’t want to see him anymore. She is too ashamed to explain otherwise. She cannot know if he is mad at her, but assumes the worst. They continue to avoid one another.
As the months pass, they grow used to this fact, and soon they rationalize their choices to remain distant. The girl wasn’t right for the boy; so focused on school, she wouldn’t have enough time to see him. And the boy, from a different friend group, wasn’t right for the girl. They make these rationalizations, even though they had both imagined their lives together, as twenty- and thirty-year-olds, as parents, as grandparents—even into their deaths. Their daughter will knit scarves and design chemicals. She will have blond hair she tucks behind her ears. Their son will have a prominent cleft chin. He will study classics and speak Latin at dinners over wine. They will both love the ocean. Every year they’ll return to the shores of New England to gauge the present state of their lives against the past, and they will feel on those shores both a sense of timelessness and one of foreboding; they are projections of youth in love, blossoms from imaginations still untainted by the thin slivers of doubt that graft onto and spoil dreams as door after door of possibilities closes. One day, they swim into the gray ocean and leave a silent world in their wake, a barren dreamscape.
In their sophomore years of college, the boy and the girl learn the life span of a frog. The tadpoles they saved that day have likely died by now, or are in old age. But the frogs have mated enough for the boy and the girl to think they must be great frog grandparents by now.
In that same year, the boy and the girl declare their majors. He studies biology. She studies English. He likes the field of ecology. She likes to write about nature. They both attend colleges in Connecticut. During the day, their bellies are full of knots that unwind with the gentle motions of dance at night. Their bellies are warmed by lovers, by wine. They find on their front steps mint tea and cookies from friends. Their bellies are full of the love of good friends. Their bellies are full of beer, of mushrooms, of brownies, of come and saliva. Sometimes their bellies feel alien and compel them to rest in the fetal position until well.
On holiday breaks home, especially the night before Thanksgiving, they meet by chance in bars. Secretly, they hope to see one another and are happy to approach. But, surrounded by drunken friends, they only have a few minutes to talk. They ask enough to learn how the other is doing and then disengage. At home in their beds, they catalogue the technology needed to bring them together. Invisible radio waves bathe over them, reveal themselves in the form of a text or call. Steel is refined and pressed into aerodynamic shapes. Controlled explosions allow for forward motion via small pistons firing. Satellites circle the globe, blinking. Their kisses would be tiny sparks whose charges pulse back through eons of human advancement.
In the pond a mile away, frogs fold themselves into delicate spaces between leaves and silt. The frog, already ten times his friends’ size, fits himself between a fallen tree and a sunken canoe. By morning, the frog sleeps, sensing layers of water stir and transfer energy in the form of heat.
In spring, frogs thaw. The frog enjoys freedom to leap his way from one corner of the pond to another. He has made best frog friends by now, and is no longer clumsy in his body. In an amazing feat of frogmanship, he can leap high into the air and lunge his tongue, catching bigger and bigger bugs, the biggest of which he shares with the elder frogs. Because of his froggy milieu, the nurture-nature equation is tipped to a single side, and his prospects of learning language, or walking on two feet, or going to college to study classics, diminish. Every day he is becoming more frog-like than human. His flesh is a light shade of olive and his eyes are not rounded but almond-shaped, almost flat on his skull. His front legs are longer and more slender than his friends’. He is, to the other frogs and fish of the pond, not only lanky, but known to be somehow different. In reflective moods, he thinks of that sudden pull toward something or someone. He attributes it to something internal: a whim of his youth, a painful catalyst to spur the growth of legs.
When the boy and the girl graduate, they again go to different places. She works in a big city near their hometown. He attends graduate school far away. From her pictures posted online, he can tell that the girl is soon to get married. And he too has met someone, a fellow ecologist who can hike and cycle farther and faster than him. The boy and the girl get married in the same year. Through friends and family, they hear about each other’s weddings. She marries in an old barn surrounded by farm animals that talk to the drunk guests. He marries in a chapel so close to the beach, sand grits its wooden floors and little fiddler crabs crawl among the pews.
The frog, meanwhile, has grown bigger than any of his friends. He must simply remain in the center of the pond and not move for fear of generating waves that would cloud the water. A tiny movement of his hind legs, and the silt drums up in small cumulus clouds until the water is hazy and the fish feel they cannot breathe. Still, on quiet nights, the frog takes small hops out of the pond, minding his legs so as not to step on all the tiny fauna. He hops up the center of a narrow, slow-moving river and then through a swamp where he sees with his almond eyes humans sitting under a yellow light. They pass plates around a table. When they begin to eat, so does he. His tongue is so big, a single blind lunge of his pink elastic muscle will collect fifty or more bugs. When he eats with them, even if from these distant woods, he recognizes that space inside him begin to thump and slightly ache and he wants to draw closer to them, but knows by now he cannot.
The residents of the neighborhood have reported the reflective orbs staring at them from the black screen of woods. They can see his blinking, his eyelids closing from the sides. On still, windless days, boys and girls catch sight of his blurred tongue stretching into the air, pearly with saliva, studded with flies. They find his giant footprints in the muck of the swamp—his fingers splayed forward from its webbing, his rounded toes the size of bowling balls. A little girl even saw him fly over her house one night. The full moon silhouetted his long, outstretched legs for a single second before the big splash. The girl felt water mist over her face. The alkaline smell of mud permeated the neighborhood. Everyone stepped out from their doors to feel the sudden humidity against their faces.
One night, a man chased the frog to the shores of the pond, and then stood watch until morning, scanning the surface with his flashlight while the tops of trees flashed the colors red, white, and blue. There are concerned parents. There are armed teenagers. There are curious children with little blow-up paddle boats and simple fishing rods with bits of corn at the end of their lines.
The man returns to Connecticut to work as a field ecologist. He studies, among other diseases, the spread of West Nile virus and creates plans to introduce more mosquito-eating frogs into the area’s water systems. In casual conversations with friends still in the area, he asks about the woman, if she has moved back. He hopes to see her in passing, to have the opportunity to wave to her, even if from their moving cars.
One day, he visits the pond. He keeps this a secret from his wife—as if just by visiting this space, he was cheating. The pond is practically a junkyard. Someone has cleared a path to its shore wide enough for trucks to dump garbage. Old rubber tires float in the center. An old A/C unit rests on the far side. A car battery just under the surface threatens to leach its acid. “Everlast,” the label reads.
The man takes off his shoes and steps into the shallows. Without thinking, the frog lifts his front legs, poised to hop. Waves lap against the man’s shins, startling him. The archipelago of lily pads stretches and contracts as the surface of the water swells with each passing wave. Beds of straw-colored grasses swirl back and forth along the shore. He stands on a felled trunk and looks into the pond to see what caused the disturbance. The frog again feels growing pains. He wants to hop forward, to again bat against this thing or force, but he remembers the man with the flashlight and thinks it best not to move. Fish swim at his sides. Small frogs rest in the creases of his legs for warmth, and in turn warm him.
The man returns every month to clean what people dump. Using a long stick with a hook at the end, he can retrieve the objects. For the heaviest items, he swims through the muck, through the dense algae, and washes himself once on the shore. The frog remains still; he feels every kick and lurch of the man.
The man often looks at himself in the reflection of the pond. He sometimes thinks his head is its own planet. He can see the globe of his skull, the weather of his face, the land masses of his lips and nose. His wife is at home. A child is on the way. But he stays at the pond through dusk. Under darkness, the reflections of fireflies smear across the pond’s surface like galaxies. He places his own planet in a corner of the pond, and for that time, everything feels in its place, not subject to the pull of gravity, or the force of others.
In order to visit her parents, the woman takes the train from her big city to a small suburban station near the pond. She passes suburbs and small cities that house men she once dated. She can see their alternate realities play out at each station stop, and each park and beach that streams by, never slowing. Taken all at once, her physical presence feels unmoored from itself. Each reality pulls her in a different direction.
She is surprised to find how clean the pond is, when her parents had told her of its use as a dump site. She finds boot tracks. She stands on a square piece of particleboard that has been secured to the shore. She knows the man has returned home. She wonders if this is his work. She sits cross-legged on the board and feels, for once, self-contained.
The man’s and the woman’s bellies are full of crumpets and homemade pickled jam. Their bellies are full of mimosas, then of abstinence. Their bellies are full of baby food on tired nights when the pantry is empty. Of frozen lasagna when they’re too tired to cook. Of craft beer and whisky. Of Nigerian food. Of Thai food. Of beans on toast in a pub in the UK. Their bellies are full of analgesics. Their bellies are full of pills that limit their cholesterol. Their bellies are shrinking. Some days she thinks she does not want to eat. Some days he eats enough to have to nap after.
The frog’s skin wrinkles and darkens with each consecutive summer spent under the sun. Warts rupture his skin. The golden sunbursts of his irises appear dusty. He sees the tops of trees as a haze, a spray of leaves untethered from their trunks. The pond seems to be closing in on itself.
The frog is watching humans cook outside on a wooden deck when a cat falls from a tree over his head. The frog lunges out his tongue and catches it. A desperate “meow,” and then the woods fall silent. The humans on the deck are all chasing toward the sound, and the frog is sitting with this mess of fur spreading in his mouth, feeling the jabs of its sharp claws. He tastes blood and bile and the cat’s pee. Distracted by this pain, he forgets to leap into the pond and hops through the muck instead, leaving his trail.
In the morning, the townspeople line along the banks with pitchforks and shovels. They want to dredge the pond, or drain it. A teenager shoots arrows at random into the center. The frog can see their taupe-colored shafts slicing through the submerged silence of water, edging closer and closer to his body.
The ecologist arrives to check on his mosquito traps, but finds the crowd there. Tied to trees are boats with motors that guzzle and snarl, snapping at the loose dirt or the shallow water. The man listens to their stories. A woman presents him with a picture of a cat. “Something is in that water,” she says, her finger gnarled and bent as she points. “It’s not possible,” he says. “Sure, there are coyotes and bears and—”
An arrow strikes the frog in the leg, causing it to spasm. Waves slosh against the hulls of boats, wetting people’s shoes. The teenager puts down his bow and stares. At a loss for words, the man steps into the water up to his knees. He closes his eyes and concentrates on this feeling: his toes squishing into the oily mud, the motion of the water, like a heartbeat. Something, something, something is alive. It is there—in the pond.
The frog feels that this space inside him must have grown since the arrow struck him. He thinks that the more blood he loses, the larger this space will grow, that there exists a perfect inverse relationship. He takes a hop forward, letting his face begin to crest the water. The outlines of his eyes are metallic, golden. The water tapers to his face, distorting in that meniscus the reflection of trees around him, bending them, making their trunks squat and round, making the humans small and weak, pudgy and pathetic. His two pupils—black as anthracite, black as the poppy seed dots first visible in his cushioned jelly—scan the people around the pond.
The man pleads with the teenager to stop. “We don’t know what it could be,” he says. “We have to save it for science. What if we can study it?”
“Study it dead,” says the teenager, unconvinced. “Something for your anatomy class.” And he reaches for more arrows. The man kicks through the muck toward the teenager.
The frog has taken a few more hops forward now. His head is completely visible. The frog’s tympanum, like great big brass cymbals behind his eyes, reflect the sun’s light, making a fragile target to his brain. The frog is motionless save for his hurried breaths, which make up for the loss of blood. A red cloud pushes out into the pond’s depths like a slow explosion. Rippled pockets of color dilute and blend as they settle toward equilibrium. Loose sections of his skin, draped over bones and stretched over long, sinewy muscles, flap and expand with his breathing. His white throat puffs out slightly, sending out more small waves. The beating of its heart is known by every person there, felt through their feet.
“Leap!” the man wants to shout to the frog. For a minute he ignores the teenager and throws rocks closer to its V-shaped head. But the frog is in shock. Each heartbeat pushes out more blood through his wound. He cannot yet bring himself to move.
The man is not surprised to see the woman. She runs her fingers through her hair when she sees him. And glancing toward the sound of a slamming door, he does the same, drawing his hair to the side. They do not have time for hellos, for remembrances. She runs into the shallows to view the frog. He argues with the teenager, snapping arrows over his knee. The man and the teenager are pushing each other, threatening to punch. But the teenager runs to his car to get more arrows. “Fuck!” the man shouts, desperate to stop him.
The frog has lost enough blood for him to move toward the man and the woman. He hops with a renewed sense of his frailty, three feet at a time, until he has lumbered his way to the shore. His jumps are smaller on land, heavier, and the man and the woman can see his undersides are scraped. Blood leaks from his wet flesh, between flecks of mica and mineral and dirt. The crowd backs up; the man and woman draw forward.
The frog thinks he looks pathetic. His head is smooth and tan, while his back has grown leathery and spotted. The frog’s eyes scan the man and the woman. Their faces have wrinkled slightly while their bodies remain smooth, if not covered with more hair. Their legs and arms and necks are proportionate. Someday, they will both shrink in size. In the end, they will die along the banks of a pond or lake or ocean—two rotting carapaces, host to a fecundity that breaks them down.
The frog’s occasional blinks make the soft sound of someone or something swallowing. The frog begins his call. A bulging motion starts just below his chin, inflating the semi-translucent sac of his throat. He sends that energy, that fullness, to the chamber of his body, inflating his sides until his chin is again flat and his body bulges. Displacing sand and dirt as his body heaves forward and back, he moans.
The neighborhood children present think of iced tea and burgers. They look to their friends and family, sure they heard their names in each cry. They put a body to this singular call they’ve heard their whole lives, sung through the night into morning.
The man has his body between the frog and the teenager now, though the teenager is trying to gain ground and pivot around him.
“Please, I beg you—put it down. It’s harmless,” the man says.
“Fuck you,” the teenager says, spitting off to the side and wiping his lips. “Can it even show emotion?”
The frog thinks he could take one hop to crush the teenager under his weight. Maybe the teenager would kick for a minute or two. Eventually his lungs would collapse, or he would suffocate. But the frog remembers the fur of the cat, the sharp pains of its claws. Instead, he opens his mouth wide for the woman, who is running her hand along his chin in short, gentle strokes. His chin touches the ground. Sand speckles his wet flesh while his nostrils raise seven feet into the air. Clusters of conical teeth rim around the frog’s mouth. His gums are pink, opalescent. He seems to have a tongue in the shape of an anvil, except gummy and soft and white. The woman lets her body fall into the padded tongue. The frog lifts its chin and she slides down his throat, into the frog’s belly. The teenager puts down his bow. He doesn’t want to pierce the woman too.
The man steps in front of the frog. The frog opens his mouth. The man can see the reflection of the woman’s eyes, mucus glinting off her forehead like a slug. She is smiling. He too lets himself fall.
The science doesn’t matter. What is and is not possible is no longer in the realm of logic. I could say they passed through a portal to an alternate universe whose existence is only known in our subconscious, and only sensed when the two planes press on one another, creating friction, despair, epiphany. They are in the dreamscapes of their youth; they float in a pocket of warm water whose fluids support all life. Without inputs and outputs, they simply exist. But it is just a giant moaning frog with a big belly , and that frog has swallowed a man and a woman.
At first, they can faintly see one another. Then it is black and cool, and they know they are back in the pond. Their bodies press together under this new pressure. They do not talk, only listen. He cannot see, but can only feel for her face. On the shore, under the sun, he did not see her scar, but rubbing along its tissue with his thumb, he knows it’s there. He imagines it pulsing its usual colors. He hopes it will brighten the moment—
He imagines the spark between their lips will be capable even of jumpstarting the frog, bringing him back to life. But they know, when the bleeding stops, and this perfect inverse relationship is complete, the weight of the water will push against the fragile body, squeezing them. They’ll need to squirm out. But until then, they kiss, feeling the positive and negative charges of their lips, thinking for that time they are not a closed system.
Ross Gormley currently lives, writes, and teaches in the Boston area. He holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a BA from Wesleyan University. He received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 AWP Intro Journals Project for his nonfiction work. This is his first publication.