Where a tadpole breaks the skin of the water
When the heat descends, my mother shuts the windows and draws the blinds mid-morning. She gets headaches, so she lies on the couch with a cold, wet facecloth over her forehead. Sometimes she covers her whole face and neck, like a shroud. She lies motionless and straight, and the rooms of the house echo silence. Except for the flies, which buzz and loop around the kitchen. All summer, my mother wages war on the flies. They have been crawling around in the manure pile, so we mustn't let them walk on our food or dishes. She hangs two flypaper strips, one at each end of the fluorescent light tubes above the kitchen table. I eat my sandwich of fish paste watching a fly trapped on the sticky tape. He is upside down, his back glued to the paper, arms and legs crazily punching the air, head straining upwards. He must be screaming in rage. One antennae is bent back, its black tip frozen in the glue. His wings are a crumpled mess. At first the dangling fly tapes are beautiful: glistening amber bands coiling down like garlands, swinging gently in the breeze of an opening door or passing body. But in a few days, they become cemeteries.
The pond across the road from our house is almost perfectly round, with edges that slope gently down to the water. Shrubby willows and dogwoods dot its edge. There is a little ribbon of trail through the bushes to the pond, a jumble of scratchy paw prints where animals bend down to drink. I lie beside the pond and listen. I hear rustles: a snake sliding through the grass toward the pond to catch a frog, a song sparrow brushing against the leaves of the willow. Splashes: a frog jumping off a floating leaf, a turtle sliding off its basking perch on the bank. Gurgles: a red-winged blackbird protesting from his perch in the elderberry bush. Whispers: the wind flowing, a cattail waving, a daisy stretching out a new petal, a frog wrapping his tongue around a fly, a goldfinch sitting down on her cup of eggs, a monarch caterpillar climbing up a milkweed stalk. I turn my head to see little rings sliding out from a pinpoint where a tadpole breaks the skin of the water.
The sun pours through the skin of my eyes to the back of my skull. The grass pokes my bare legs and arms, prickling through my T-shirt and shorts. The heat from above and the coolness from below meet in the middle of me, in the web of my bones. I see the bones of the dead cat in the ditch down the road, the hollow-eyed skull floating above the arch of ribs, the tail a string of delicate winged bones. One of our dozens of cats flung into the ditch by a passing truck. The bones of my father lying in his grave in the cemetery up the road. Would he still have bones after seven years in the ground? Or would he and the box they laid him in be dust now? Mixed with the soil and spread into the surrounding fields where the corn grows. Fed the lilacs at the back of the cemetery where I play with my brother.
In our house, time is constantly measured by the clocks my mother places in every room. As markers to keep her on the path of the day. It doesn't work. Six o'clock, suppertime. I fall asleep at the kitchen table, waiting. Ten o'clock: I wake up and the bright fluorescent light pierces my eyes; my mother is asleep on the couch and my brother has gone up to bed.
My mother chases time. Nine o'clock in the evening. All day my mother has been getting ready to go into town to the grocery store. Washing her underwear, hanging it out on the line, feeding the cats, counting the cats, rinsing the dishes, making lists, checking her clothes, checking the cats, rinsing the dishes, making lists... We get there ten minutes before the store closes and rush madly around trying to get everything we need.
Often, time goes by so slowly that I want to grab it and squeeze it into the width of a dime, like when my brother and I are waiting at school for my mother to pick us up and take us to the dentist. The janitor asks: Are you still here? When are your parents coming? I have to close up now. School was finished an hour ago! Or when it takes an hour to get to town because my mother is driving along our road at ten mph, whimpering about the patches of lethal black ice that the car could hit. How we could spin out of control and all die. When all my brother and I see on the road is patches of bare black pavement and snow.
I drag a metal rectangular tub from the driving shed around to the back porch. I make long trips to the pond across the road, hauling back pails of murky water containing the seeds of life. I scoop up water and plants and sediment. At first everything is jumbled up in a mush and I worry that I have killed everything. But order returns and my pond blossoms. Whirligig beetles turn in endless, dizzying circles on the surface. A caddisfly larva drags itself across the rock on the bottom, poking its head out its tubular house covered with shaggy brown plant bits. Ferocious insects with squashed bodies and big jaws crawl in the weeds. They will become blue dragonflies with lacy wings that patrol the pond and embrace, their bodies curving into the shape of a heart.
Then, one day, there is a row of tiny baby toads, delicate and glistening. Five of them, sitting on the plants lining the wall of the metal tub. One still has a tail stump from its tadpole days. I can already see the beginnings of toadness – little golden speckles pushing up into bumps. Not yet like Big Toad, who looks like her skin is bubbling. Whose old lady's skin feels soft and powdery when I gently pick her up to say hello. At first, I think Big Toad is their mother. But she lives under our back porch, far from the pond across the road which gave life to my pond. I am sure Big Toad would not make the journey around the side of our house guarded by cats, across the treacherous road rumbling with tractors, through the grassy field dotted with gaping groundhog holes. I am sure Big Toad spends her days in the little hollow her body has imprinted in the earth, underneath the back porch that vibrates with running feet and slamming screen door. Catching insects that carelessly wander in out of the sun.
I prop pieces of board against the edge of the tank to make a ramp for the baby toads, to help them off into the world. In a few days, they have all left.
I come out into a faded lilac evening to see my pond. A storm is coming; the air is heavy and soft. The wind is swaying the trees. I know that tomorrow morning the air will be clean and fresh after the storm, that my mother will delay sealing up the house. The rain will trickle off the roof, droplets will glisten on the window screens, and boughs of spirea will arch to the ground. It is welcome, this first rain in over two weeks. The Earth is cracking, the plants drooping. Even the corn is starting to turn brown. Our well is almost dry so we cannot have our weekly bath, just a sponge wipe. And absolutely no using the washing machine. I don't mind because I love the imprint of outside on my skin. The smell of sun and grass. I wear the same shorts for weeks, only changing when we go to town. The souls of my feet are hardened like hooves from running around barefoot, toes splayed wide without the prison of shoes.
I peer down into my pond using a flashlight. I see a stick insect hiding in the rounded shadows of the plants. It holds something in its long pin arms, shifts its body slightly to the left, and releases it. The twisted corpse drifts slowly down to the bottom of the tub. A sleeping water strider wakes up and slides across the leaf onto the skin of the water. The stick insect, startled, floats down her stem and into the shadows. The water strider circles around the plants poking above the surface. I watch the life in my pond as the grey sky turns to black and stars sprinkle across the water. Until raindrops ping on the water, making it tremble, then on the back of my neck, making it tingle. I look up. The trees are flailing ghosts, clouds hide the stars, and many hours have passed.
I go down to the other pond back of our house. A stream winds through the field beside our house, down to the woods where it opens up into a pond, first soggy and full of plants and leeches, then deeper with a mirror surface. In the spring, the forest around glows with white trilliums, and white bloodroot that pokes out of leaves shaped like cupped hands. Close to the pond are clumps of ancient cedars with thick trunks and intertwining branches. In the winter, chickadees huddle in the branches against the piercing cold; once I find a dead one lying in the powdery snow, its body hard like a marble. But in the summer, it is cool. I lie down in the lap of the cedars, my cheek against the pillow of moss. The wave of time flows by. Sometimes I fall asleep and wake up feeling that absolutely no time at all has passed while I was away. I look around and see a crowd of plants, pond and sky, their details clear and bright. Other times, I wake up and look around and see empty, blurred shapes drained of life, and hunger gnaws at my stomach.