Jack and I followed the creek for half an hour. Once in a while we peered past the clumps of bushes and trees along the embankment, frustrated that we could still catch glimpses of picnic tables or awnings or trailers, the glint of trucks or cars or bikes. Soon, we hoped, the stream would lead us out of the hillbilly resort, past the smell of barbecues, the sound of transistor radios and portable TVs, to our goal, the woods.
Jack was my best friend. He had come with my family to our small, recently acquired “camping” trailer outside the small town of Brookville, Indiana for a three-day vacation. The entire summer was a vacation for Jack and me. We were twelve, and though Jack did sports and I had band camp, these things did not tie us down, at least not this early in the summer.
After wading knee-deep through murky water topped with an industrial waste sheen, we were finally able to slip under a dilapidated wire fence and exit the trailer park. Brown tadpoles wiggled lethargically over my tennis shoes as I sucked my feet up from the sludge and started an ascent into scrub forest.
The stream narrowed to a mere foot and a half across and became increasingly difficult to follow due to a heavy undergrowth of roots, branches, and vines. Eventually, a festoon of sticker bushes separated Jack and me. I lost sight of the water and, while turning and disoriented, almost walked into a low branch. I froze as a vine on top of the branch seemed to move. Jerkily, my eyes scanned along until I located, about three inches from my shoulder, a tiny reptilian head.
I backed into the stickers and called to Jack.
We studied the snake and discussed it like the seasoned outdoorsmen we pretended to be. We knew nothing about snakes and other such beasts, of course, except what we had seen on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Still, we bluffed our way through a long discussion, including some unlikely previous experiences.
After the snake spiraled off and I pulled free of the bush, our conversation progressed faster than our pursuit of the dwindling trickle. We moved from poisonous snakes to arm-wrenching snapping turtles to alligators and crocodiles and walked about twenty feet. Then we stopped.
Abruptly, we had arrived at a small, mossy pond. It was only six feet across at its widest. I stood on the edge, estimating the water’s depth, beginning to sweat in the late morning humidity, when the stillness erupted in a sharp pop. I gasped and jumped back. The sound echoed away, along with little waves from the center of the pond. Jack laughed.
For the next several minutes, we lit firecrackers and tossed them towards the pond, trying to make them explode as close as possible to the surface, leaving behind shreds of paper and puffs of bluish smoke. Enjoying our sport, we also surveyed our small enclosure of woods and pond.
Jack saw it first, even though it was closer to me.
Ahead of me an on my right―atop a mound of mossy mud about five feet away, staring towards the nearby water’s edge about―sat the frog.
“Hey, watch this.” Jack stalked past me and stole in behind his prey.
“No way, man. You’ll never get it.”
Undaunted, Jack crept in behind the frog. He slid his hand forward, very slowly. He got closer and closer. I was certain the frog would jump away, but it didn’t. Jack lodged a firecracker in the mud directly beneath the frog’s dark green backside. Only the fuse and a little of the firecracker’s red paper remained visible.
He chuckled smugly. His display of steady-handed skill had impressed me as well.
“Hey, let me light it.”
“No way! Find your own frog!”
Jack fumbled for the matches, but I knew who had them.
“Heh, heh, heh, heuhmm!” I let out a slow snicker, waiting for recognition. “That’s right. Moi. I’ll light this one.”
I had the matches, but Jack the position. There followed a short, bitter argument.
Persistence, along with an embarrassing willingness to grovel, triumphed.
Now it was my turn to sneak up on this strange little amphibian. Closing in, the marshy ground sucked at feet already encased in several layers of earth. I lay down my knee, elbow. I sank into the mire and leaned forward. At last in position, I struck a match against the book I held in my left hand.
It went out.
The next five also refused to remain lit long enough to do the job. I made a neat pile of their useless bodies. It wasn’t windy, the matches just kept going out before I could get them to the fuse. Jack muttered curses behind my back as I realized I didn’t have many matches left.
I guided my hand steadily with the next one, cradling the little blue and yellow fire against the non-existent gale with a cupped hand. I had it just beneath the gray paper coil of the fuse when the flame crawled back towards the head of the match and retreated into dead ember. Disgusted, I tossed the match into the pond.
I turned my head sharply back down.
Jesus! The frog still hadn’t moved. Was this thing alive or what? It sat there oblivious to our attempts to blast it into orbit. I monitored it closely until I made sure that its dark back and pale stomach moved in a way that indicated it was taking tiny little breaths. I tore off the second to the last match. Jack kicked my foot to tell me I’d better make it work.
I struck the match and set it quickly to the fuse. It lit.
Now, now the frog would jump for sure! A hot, unnaturally forged instrument of death burned just below, a half-inch beneath. The frog had to feel the heat and know something was wrong, that its life was somehow being threatened.
It would have to notice that!
“Jump!” I screamed.
It sat there perfectly calm, paying us no mind whatsoever. With a moment of fuse remaining, I leaned backwards and shut my eyes.
Pop. Silence. With the sharp ring dying in my ears, I opened my eyes onto a small crater, empty except for a bit of shredded red and white paper. The fertile looking mud slowly started to fill up the empty space. Speechless, I looked back at Jack who came and stood next to me.
“Where’d it go?” I asked.
“You didn’t see it? You were sitting right there!”
Jack was incredulous. Neither of us had seen it. There were no ripples on the pond, no dripping green bits in the branches just above our heads and definitely nothing in the subtle indentation that had once been the explosion crater―that had once been the frog.
“I thought something flew up, maybe, over there,” Jack said. “If that was him, he could be anywhere. To the moon, even, cause nothing came down, at least from what I saw.”
After a pause when we began to take in the shock of the act, we initiated the grim search. A few minutes of mercifully unsuccessful reconnaissance later and I felt content to sit on a log at the edge of the tree line. It was there I saw it. It lay on top of a mushy patch of what looked like old cow paddy, or drying mud, some feet to the side of the log.
“He’s over here.” I said, feigning nonchalance.
Jack strode over quickly and I pointed over.
“Yeah, he’s not even dead yet. Look.”
We peered at the yellow, phlegm-like guts, flowering out of the mid-section up to the large head. The mouth was open and would gape larger every few seconds to let out a pitiful, “Croak.”
I wished he would croak for real.
“Just think,” Jack said, “we’re getting a head start on next year’s biology.”
“C’mon, we gotta finish him off.”
“O.K., we got one more match left, right? You put a firecracker in his mouth and I’ll . . .”
“No way! Let’s just get a rock and drop it on him.”
We looked, but the best we could come up with were four stones that were smaller than our fists. We each took two and stood on opposite sides.
“Well, you first. Rocks were your idea.”
I aimed and threw one of my rocks; it missed by at least a foot. Jack, splattered with muck, prepared a return volley. He also missed the target, but succeeded in splattering me. Our last two rocks were rapidly dispatched, leaving us covered with sticky earth or manure, but, thankfully, no frog remains.
Unfortunately, my last throw did manage to pin a leg deep into the mud, bringing up the head which now pointed skyward at an angle. The tongue was now visible, hanging from the corner of the pale, fragile looking mouth and jaw.
The beast still croaked pitifully, but not with the finality I desired.
Jack held out a firecracker as if it were the Final Solution. I ignored him and looked around. The log was better, I thought.
We pulled and tugged and lifted, struggling like titans to position the ominous, decaying black cylinder above the green and yellow slime thing. We let go, hoped gravity would do the rest. Somehow, it was off by a few inches. It landed and rolled until our frog was no longer in sight, leaving a trail of bugs and bark.
I kneeled behind the log and looked across the lake, seeking some sort of answer from the woods, wood nymphs, or Indian spirits. I turned my head back down and rolled the bole aside to check on the remains. A few strands of snot-like guts stuck to the wood and some stayed on the ground. Beneath it all was our nemesis―the indestructible, suffering frog. He lay flush now, but his neck and head were still visible. He seemed to be gulping in preparation for another croak.
Damn! I had had too much. I rolled the log back over and jumped up and down on it with a nearly unhinged frenzy.
Jack was already walking and the trees consumed him before I finished and felt ready to follow.
On the way back, I detoured around the spot where I thought the snake would be. Somehow, I was certain he would know of the act I had just participated in, and that Karma might play some foul surprise on me. I had previously felt the same way after killing some ant or fly. I knew that the victim’s companions were subsequently buzzing or crawling about me on a purposeful harassment campaign, founded on vengeance. Now, the frog―natural enemy of the insect―also had reason to hate me. Perhaps other amphibians and reptiles knew about us, the frog slayers. I walked a little faster, and got scratched a little more.
GOD! Even the plants were against me!
We left the stream at the first glimpse of corrugated metal. We cut through a cornfield and scrambled over the fence early, bypassing the toxic sludge and its doomed inhabitants. In a construction area for new trailer lots, an ATV and two dirt bikes cut through along a rutted, dirt and gravel lane. We followed the dust back into our semi-populated RV resort, back to the Country Caravan Trailer we called home sometimes then. My dad was grilling some hamburgers and the transistor radio crackled out a Reds game―the local heroes were winning. We were back.
AJD has been a sailor, scribe, and bookseller, but started out as an angsty, guilt-ridden child growing up in the American midwest.