Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Frogs, Death, Springtime

My story is about Spring. This in itself is unusual as Springtime has never held any traditional meaning for me. It never seems to arrive spectacularly in England, it creeps in late and half heartedly melts the morning frost; too embarrassed to make a real show of itself. Spring for me has never meant skipping lambs and blooming crocuses – shouting in purple and orange, their colours reflected in Easter ribbons and the new season’s dresses. It has never been a time of parties or holidays, of religious feasts or family picnics. Spring has always been the season of frogs.

I’ve been fascinated by frogs ever since I was a child. I still am. They always seem to be tiny packets of evolution. From clusters of transparencies to be-tailed swimming things and right up to frogs, they’re the poster child for metamorphoses. You can watch them change; from when the first legs sprout until the tail withers and dies. It all happens in plain sight, in the tank or the pond, outside of the confines of flesh. That’s what’s so special about frogs; you get to see the in between stages. But then, in time, you learn that all the baby things look the same – cows and chicks and tadpoles and people - all curved over, punctuating a sentence yet unspoken. As the spine stretches over and the supine form begins to spawn four limb buds, extending through into the developing tail and soon tiny digits forming, their partings spanned by webs of skin. After that somehow frogs lose their metaphorical power. Lines warp again, learning that everything grows in the same way takes away the mystery: it can’t be magic if it’s common, that’s just not the way that the world works. And so frogs become just frogs and most of us forget that they were even tadpoles to begin with.

But it wasn’t the development of frogs that snared me, not the end of spring which brought the clusters of eggs captured in jam jars which suddenly disappeared to be replaced with swarming life. It was the very start of the season when the ice that covered the pond would begin to thaw.

The pond at the base of our garden had been put there by the previous owners in what must have been a sudden fit of individuality. In a group of identical squat red-brick houses, with rooms that stood each others’ mirror images and gardens cut in matched rectangles from levelled off soil, the shallow plastic pond set us slightly apart. A small comma of rippling blue laid down in one piece of a patchwork canvas of green. Or it should have been; the stagnant water was shallow, during summer months it was thick with algae which carpeted the surface obscuring the water from view and preventing light from filtering down below its blanket. We ignored the pond for the most part, fish would have never survived in it, but it would have been awkward to replace, the logistics of it requiring longer than the few seconds’ thought we ever gave its removal, so it remained unnoticed in a patch of land too small to really forget anything. As soon as the first frost of winter would set in the water would freeze over forming a sheet which lay stretched across the surface between the moss covered plastic banks. The ice would remain there all winter, slowly covered by the last fallen leaves from the tree above, until finally – when the first blush of the new season crept out over the countryside – it would begin to melt.

I remember the first frog that I noticed after the thaw. I had been standing, thinking nothing much at all, and staring down unseeing into the inky black water. Slowly the frog caught my attention, but this was before it was a frog back when it was merely a pebble at the water’s surface. The rock was smooth and grey and glistening and as the wind slowly stroked the water’s surface, gently persuading it to move in gently swells against its artificial banks, the stone moved with it gradually turning on its axis until I was met with the two unblinking pearls of its eyes. I think it struck me then, when the eyes of the rock met my own, that what I was observing was not a thing that was un-alive but rather a dead thing – something that had lived once but did so no more. I had seen dead things before, the shredded creatures that had once been feline playthings or the inverted birds that hung from rafters caught in an eternal and unintentional dive, but never so closely or for so long without turning my head away. Never knowing that it had seen me too. There were no flies, no sticky blood in matted fur, no warm feathers disturbed by pellets of lead, just the smooth grey skin and alien glassy eyes drained of colour serene and unmoving. Slowly, softly more frogs began to rise into my consciousness – stiff limbs projecting from invisible axes, tumbling towards the surface like dancers caught in a silent waltz. It should have been the stuff of nightmares; the child confronted with an army of amphibian corpses, bobbing on the pond’s surface like rotten apples with their mushroom coloured flesh sickly reflecting the morning light. It wasn’t. The frogs brought comfort rather than terror. For a child living in the countryside death is an unexpected event, a wild card drawn during a hunt or in the mouth of a trap it is accompanied by the crack of a gun or a keening cry. It is never quiet, never peaceful and never left without making its mark. The graceful and unblemished frogs spoke of something else, something kinder and not to be feared. The frogs spoke of peace and something that felt a little like grace.

The weeks passed and soon the frogs were gone, removed by a hand both unseen and unconsidered, to be replaced by oozing clumps of frogspawn which clung to one another and the textured banks of the pond and a season which began filled with glazed eyes and rigid limbs ended with a swarm of teeming life, sprouting legs and evolving while barely drawing notice.

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