by Therese Biazon
Isobel held the wriggling frog in her hand, daring herself to hold it tight, feeling the slick of its slimy limbs as it squirmed for release. The frog strained forward, outward, in the direction of its home just beyond her fist—an expanse of dull water tucked between trees, wide as a trampoline and deep as a moon crater. Her fifth grade class called it the Pond. The Pond appeared after Carter Q. spent two weeks digging a hole in the ground with a plastic shovel, looking for fossils. He’d slowly unearthed a mouse skeleton from the soil, and the hole had filled with rainwater ever since. Isobel clasped her other hand over her fist, blocking the frog’s view. Could she feel its heartbeat? She didn’t want to think about it. The hum of the late May cicadas pulsed gently, expanding and deflating, and she steadied her breathing. Her grandparents had taken her to Sunday School last week, where she learned about animal sacrifices. In the book she was given, there was a cartoon picture of a smiling lamb on an altar. The Sunday School teacher had said it would be sacrificed to take away sins, to remove all the evil and the pain. Yesterday, Isobel had found worms along the shore of the Pond. She had picked the largest one to be her sacrifice, but she ended up running away without filling its grave. It wouldn’t die. Even when she’d cut it in half with her plastic knife from the cafeteria, the halves wouldn’t stop squirming. She squeezed the frog tighter. The frog was hers now. It didn’t belong to the world or to its family—oh, did frogs have families?—and when it stopped moving, when its life soared up over the treetops, a little bit of the awful in the world would disappear with it. What pain would she wish away this time? Would she wish for Meghan J. to stop laughing when Isobel sang off-key in music class? For Harvey G. to finally forgive her for breaking his nose? For her mother to finally visit, with a smile on her face? Isobel brought her fist down to the ground and pressed her knuckles into the dirt, all of her weight crushing the frog in her grasp as its legs thrashed violently. She clenched her eyes shut; she could feel a whole life bleeding through the gaps between her fingers, and she started chanting in her head, Please go away please go away please go away, and the frog moved its leg once, twice, and then fell utterly still. Slowly, Isobel opened her hand. Her classmates’ shouts from the distant kickball field faded into silence. The frog lay belly-up, its webbed front feet up at its sides, facing outward like hands. Its little toes were so small. “Is that a frog?” Isobel whirled around, fist clenched tight around her offering, to see Carter Q. from the other fifth grade class standing with a giant stick in his hand, his bright blue shirt covered in dinosaurs. “Is it dead?” Isobel unfurled her palm, the frog’s upturned belly a greenish-white. “Oh.” Carter’s face fell. With his stick, he pointed to the hole in the ground from yesterday, where somewhere under the dirt there still squirmed the halves of worms. “Is that what the grave’s for?” Isobel walked up to the shallow pit and dropped the frog inside. “No, no, you have to be careful with it!” Carter ran up to the grave. “Did you know frogs are filled with acid? If you throw them too hard, they explode!” Isobel didn’t think that sounded right, but she didn’t correct him. Carter picked up the frog and placed it gently at the center of the grave. “There.” He straightened back up, and stood for a second with his brow furrowed before nodding again. “Did you know otters can kill frogs? Maybe an otter got to it.” Isobel picked up a handful of dirt from the pile she’d made yesterday, and threw it over the frog. Carter took his stick and pushed the rest into the grave, and together, they packed the earth flat with their feet. “It’s sad,” said Carter, and Isobel looked down at her shoes. “I always wanted a pet frog. If you’d caught it alive, I could’ve taken it home.” He sat crisscross applesauce on the dirt ground and looked out at the Pond. Small patches of sunlight edged in from between the trees, turning the water a murky gray. “Did you know otters can kill garter snakes, too? And birds? And they can fight beavers, sometimes!” Isobel shook her head. She’d just remembered something about the blood of the lamb from Sunday School, about blood being important. She hadn’t bled the frog. “Can I come back tomorrow?” Carter asked, placing his stick on the ground. “To look for a frog?” If Carter found two frogs, and let her keep one, she could redo the sacrifice. She would do it right, and use her plastic knife to draw blood, instead of fearing the way the frog looked at her. Instead of closing her eyes and holding on tight. Isobel shrugged. “Okay.” *** As soon as Mrs. Maloney let her class out for recess the next day, Isobel ran for the woods. She ran past the playground, the blacktop, across the field with its dirt kickball diamond, beyond the fence, and through the trees to the Pond. She stopped at the water’s edge. Carter’s class wasn’t outside yet; she had time to make some quick sacrifices. Isobel picked up the giant stick that Carter had left behind yesterday. She dragged it across the ground over and over until it made a hole, revealing two millipedes and a worm. Taking her plastic knife from the pocket of her corduroys, she sliced the first millipede clean in two. She squeezed out the halves of its body into the pit, one in either hand. Couldn’t she feel it? The evil soaring away above the treetops, with every drop of blood that fell into the dirt? Meghan J. loved her singing now. And maybe Harvey G.’s nose would be all better tomorrow. Isobel closed her eyes, and her mother was standing beside her, for the first time in eight months, two weeks and five days. She had just dropped the halves of the earthworm into the dirt, her knife safely stowed away in her pocket, when she heard the snap of twigs behind her. “Hi, Isobel!” said Carter, waving a butterfly net as tall as he was. “We have twenty minutes. I asked Mrs. Humphries!” Mrs. Humphries was the nice noon aide, the one least likely to write you up for jump-roping with a hula hoop, or talking in line on the way to lunch. “She knows we’re here?” asked Isobel. “Yeah, and she said to be safe,” said Carter. He bounded up to the grave and leaned over the edge. “Hey, what’s this?” The glistening bodies of millipedes, the halves of worms still squirming, spots of dark dirt from the blood. Carter’s face scrunched up, as if puzzling something out. He turned to Isobel. “You’re burying them?” Isobel nodded. “Well, that’s nice of you. You’re good at finding dead things.” Isobel picked up the giant stick and pushed the pile of dirt she’d dug up back into the hole, and Carter helped with his butterfly net. They packed it into the earth, and stomped on it afterward for good measure. “Okay,” said Carter. He held up the watch on his hand. “Mrs. Humphries said be back at 12:30.” Isobel spotted the minute hand on the big three, which meant that if three was fifteen and if six was thirty, they had thirty minus fifteen... Carter tilted his head a little. “What’re you doing?” “Math,” Isobel said. Carter nodded and nodded. “Look,” he shoved the watch in her face, “six means thirty minutes, and three—” “I know.” Isobel’s voice was clear and sharp. “We have fifteen minutes.” Carter looked down at his sneakers. “Sorry. So where’d you find the dead frog?” Isobel had found it alive. On the shore of the Pond, beyond the new spot she’d marked for a grave. “Right there,” she said, pointing to the edge of the water. Carter marched down to the bank with his butterfly net, and stuck it into the Pond. He started stabbing at the water, causing the dirt to swirl beneath the surface. “Stop it,” said Isobel, “you’re scaring the frogs away.” “Exactly! If I scare them enough, they’ll want to get out.” It wasn’t a very good idea, but it sounded fun. Isobel picked up the giant stick and went to the other side of the Pond. “Where are you going?” asked Carter. Both hands around her stick, Isobel thrashed at the water, swirls of gray rippling outward. “The frogs,” she said between stabs, “will try to hide here, too.” It was like playing a game. The frogs would go where it was safe. They had to make the water not safe, and Isobel started walking up and down the bank of the Pond, making all the water not safe anymore. Can’t hide there, can’t hide there, can’t hide there. Each new stab was an explosion, the dirt rising to the surface, catching the light. She began to work faster, faster, chasing the invisible frogs, running from one spot to the next to the next— Isobel jammed her giant stick into the dirt so hard that the bottom of it flew upward out of her hands, and flicked the water across the Pond into Carter’s face. Carter froze and looked up at her. Isobel took a step back, then another, but she didn’t get far enough away before Carter’s butterfly net sent an arc of muddy water raining on her head. “Hey!” yelled Isobel. She hadn’t yelled this loud in a long time. Suddenly, they were both splashing water at each other, Isobel slapping at the Pond’s surface with her giant stick, Carter slinging mud with his butterfly net. By the time the big minute hand on Carter’s watch pointed at six, they had emerged from the woods covered in mud and grime, two strange and feral creatures from the pond. Under the film of sweat on their skin, their faces were beaming. “What on earth happened to you kids?” asked Mrs. Humphries, as they got in line at the blacktop to go to lunch. Both Carter and Isobel pointed and shouted aloud, with equal gusto, that the other one had started it. *** The next day, Isobel sacrificed three earthworms. Their halves were still squirming, but she made herself watch them, little fingers writhing in the dirt pit. She was no longer afraid. Her stone altar was covered in worm juice. Right before recess, Meghan J. hadn’t said a word about her singing in music class, so the sacrifices were working. After filling in the hole and stomping on it, Isobel sat by the edge of the Pond. She kept looking over her shoulder, toward the kickball field. Where was Carter? Wasn’t he coming to find his frog? She leaned on the giant stick beside her to stand. It was a good walking stick. Slowly, she trudged away from the pond, through the trees, and then out under the bright blue sky, the blinding sun. Carter was out on the kickball field, pitching a red rubber ball. His team stood out in the grass, while the other team was lined up behind the chain-link fence. One by one, their classmates kicked the ball high into the air, where it made a perfect arc up to the clouds before coming down to hit the grass, or to be caught in someone’s arms. That was how Isobel had broken Harvey G’s nose. She’d kicked so hard, sent the ball so high, that when it plummeted back to earth, it hit Harvey square in the face. Mrs. Humphries told her it wasn’t her fault. But Harvey G. was mad. He didn’t like people saying a girl had broken his nose. Isobel took the walking stick and edged closer to the field. When Carter spotted her, he stopped the rolling kickball with his foot and waved. “Hi, Isobel!” Everyone turned to look. “That’s the Pond girl,” Meghan J. in left field shouted to her friend in center field. “She plays with bugs.” Harvey G., on the sidelines, made a face. “Hi, Carter.” Why was Isobel’s voice so small? She tried again. “Hi, Carter. Are you going to look for frogs today?” Carter shook his head. “No, I wanted to play kickball.” “Okay.” Quickly, Isobel turned around with her giant stick and first walked, then ran to the line of trees, to the protective cover of the branches, to her little gray Pond, where not even the burning sun could find her. *** Isobel saw the frog the next day. A new frog, maybe a friend of the one she’d killed. It was sitting on a rock by the Pond, throbbing in the strange, throaty way frogs did. It was beautiful. She risked leaning in closer, from where she was crawling on her belly in the dirt. In the golden light coming in from between the trees, the slick of the frog’s slime shone, radiating energy. The muddy brown of its skin was rich and deep as earth; its little eyes were bright black, as if all the light it saw was trapped there, glowing wet and infinite. Carter would like it. She lunged forward, just missing a firm hold on the frog as it slipped out of her grasp. It jumped into the Pond, and without stopping for a second to think, Isobel dove in after it. She was wearing her least favorite pants, with tiny pockets that could barely fit her plastic knife, so it was okay. She rolled around with her belly in the water, the frog hopping up out of her hands once, twice, before she firmly sandwiched it between her palms and drew it close to her. The frog was still pulsating, straining, its little limbs flailing about. Isobel gave it her best and brightest smile. “It’s okay,” she said, and she walked it to the hole in the ground she’d already dug, except this time, there were twigs stacked to make a barrier around it. Gently, she placed the frog in the center of the hole. “Don’t. Move. A muscle,” she said, pointing at the frog the same way her mother used to point at her, before her grandparents took her in. Her mother used to come home tired late at night, and to cheer her up, Isobel would make her a painting, or dinner, or a mural on the wall. Even when her mother told her to stop, to stay in her room, to stay put, Isobel always thought she could do better next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. All her mother ever saw was a giant mess. The frog looked directly up at her, and then hopped over the barrier of twigs and into the grass. Isobel scooped the frog up and sandwiched it between her palms once more. “Are you going to be difficult?” That was the most favorite thing her mother liked to say. “Are you going to be difficult? Be quiet.” In her hands, the frog squirmed and squirmed. If it could speak, she figured that with the way it was being pressed flat, it would be screaming. “Be. Quiet.” The frog moved so much that, in a moment of searing anger, Isobel squeezed it even harder—until all at once, it went limp in her hands. “Wait.” Quickly, Isobel made her hands into a cup, a nice, wide, harmless cup, like she knew she should’ve done before, she knew she should’ve… “Wait, wait, wait…” The frog wasn’t moving. The frog wasn’t moving, she’d ruined it, she’d ruined everything, just like she always did. On her mother’s birthday last year, Isobel had ruined all her mother’s clothes in the laundry, and knocked over three glass frames with a duster, and broke the dishwasher overloading it, to the point that water spilled out onto the kitchen floor. Her mother had come home late again, and tired. Explosive. “Isobel? What happened?” Carter ran down to the bank, throwing his net to the ground behind him. Isobel wouldn’t look at him. She only unfolded her hands, and revealed another ghastly white belly of a dead frog, its little rubbered limbs splayed out from their writhing. “Oh my gosh,” said Carter, “it’s those otters!” He picked up his butterfly net, a dark cloud setting the sudden lines on his face. “Where are they? I’ll show them!” The night of her mother’s birthday, Isobel had tried so hard to hide everything she’d done. But the hiding only made the finding worse. “It’s not the otters, Carter.” Isobel made herself meet his gaze, shaking her head. “It was me.” Slowly, the butterfly net came down to rest at Carter’s side. “What was you?” “I did it. I killed the frog.” Isobel quickly looked down, wiped her nose with her sleeve. “It was going to be for you.” “Oh…” The way Carter’s voice changed when he spoke, that was the worst part. “Isobel, what did you do?” She laid the frog gently on the dirt, belly pointed upward at the sky. “I held it too tight.” Isobel had never cried in front of anyone before. She cried the day Meghan J. made fun of her singing—but that was in a bathroom stall. She cried the day her mother left her with her grandparents for good—but she’d been alone in her new room. She’d almost broken this rule when she gripped her mother’s wrist tight, squeezing it red, and finger by finger, her mother had pried her hand away—but she’d managed to keep the tears in, even then. Now, Isobel sat hunched over with her knees tucked in close to her chest, trembling and trembling. Carter moved forward, maybe to say something nice, but she knew she didn’t deserve it. “I killed all of them, Carter.” Her face was still buried in her sweater; her words came out half-swallowed by cloth. “What?” Carter asked. Isobel sat up straight and looked him in the eye. “I killed the other frog too. And the millipedes. And the earthworms.” She expected him to run. To run far, far away, from someone like her who could take a frog in her hand and squeeze the life out of it, even on accident; who could break someone’s nose without meaning to; who could send all these little lives soaring over the treetops. Instead, Carter sat down crisscross applesauce beside her. “Why?” Isobel looked out at the Pond. “Do you know what an animal sacrifice is? When you wish for something, but you have to hurt something else?” “I know.” He shook his head. “I don’t think those are real.” Isobel took a deep, shaking breath. “Did you know...frogs aren’t really made of acid?” “Really?” “Really. And they don’t explode.” She looked down at the frog at her feet. “I’ll prove it to you.” “No,” said Carter quickly, “let’s just bury it.” He took the frog into his hands. “When you...kill animals…” The words sounded strange in his voice. “What do you wish for?” Isobel shrugged. Sometimes, she could still feel her mother’s wrist in her hand. “A lot of things.” Carter walked to the hole in the ground, where Isobel had sought to keep his new frog safe. He placed it belly-up at the center of the pit, took up his butterfly net, and was about to push in a mound of dirt when he froze. “Did you know,” he said, “that otters—” “Kill garter snakes,” said Isobel. “You told me.” “Yes, and otters—” “Kill birds. And fight beavers.” Her voice grew quiet. “And they kill frogs, too.” Carter started scratching the side of his head. “I was going to say,” he insisted, his voice higher than usual, “did you know that sea otters hold hands?” Isobel slowly crawled over to the pit where the frog lay, and sat at its edge. “They what?” “Sea otters. They hold hands. Because they’re not like river otters, they’re out in the ocean, right? And they don’t want to lose each other. So they hold hands while they sleep.” “Oh.” Isobel squinted down into the pit and saw that the frog’s skin was still the same deep, miraculous earth-tone brown. “Where’d you learn that?” “In a magazine at the library. I can show you.” Carter took his butterfly net and pushed the mound of dirt into the hole. Isobel took her giant stick and helped him, and together, they patted down and stomped on the soil to make sure it was packed firmly into the earth. “Tomorrow,” said Carter once the grave was complete and the golden sunlight grazed it from between the trees, “don’t catch the frogs until I get here, okay? I’ll show you how to hold them.” “And they won’t die?” “No. They won’t die.” He turned around, began to walk away. Isobel ran after him. “Wait, where are we going?” “It’s sad here,” said Carter. “We’re going to the field.” A trace of his bright grin stretched across his face. “Did you know that Meghan J. is looking for you?” Isobel wrinkled her nose. “She thinks I’m bad at singing.” “Really? She said you’re really good at kickball.” From beyond the trees, the kickball field was steadily filling with their classes, and with Meghan J., and Harvey G., and someone had a bright, red kickball, and everyone was already choosing teams, picking sides. Meghan J. turned around and saw Carter and Isobel, standing at the edge of the woods. She waved her hands. “Hey, Pond Girl! You’re on my team!” Carter looked back at Isobel. “Are you coming?” When she hesitated, he nodded slowly, understanding. “I can tell her to stop calling you Pond Girl.” Isobel looked once more over her shoulder at the Pond. Along the bank, five graves dug over the past two weeks kept watch over the shore. She thought she could almost see something in the water, another little creature, ready to be scooped up with a butterfly net. But in front of her was the field of her classmates, and Isobel found herself taking a step forward, another step forward. Meghan J. started jumping up and down and cheering. Isobel thought she heard her shout the words, “You all better watch out! She broke Harvey’s nose!” Even from this far away, Isobel thought she saw Harvey G.’s face turn bright red. “It’s okay,” said Carter. “He knows you didn’t mean to.” He tilted his head to the side for a moment. “You said you cut those earthworms, right?” Isobel nodded, and Carter’s face broke out into a grin. “You only killed half of them.” Her eyes widened. “What?” “The way you cut them, the tails die, but the heads grow back a new tail.” Carter shrugged. “Somewhere in the dirt, some things you tried to kill are still alive.” Isobel looked at him, waiting for the moment when he said that he was joking, that this just was like saying frogs were full of acid, that it wasn’t real. But Carter only nodded, telling her that yes, some of those squirming pieces of worm had squirmed because they hadn’t died at all. Isobel was still holding the giant stick in her hand. She dropped it, and stepped forward once more, past the woods, onto the grass of the field. She looked up at the sky, the sun for once blocked by a cloud. “Hey, Pond Girl!” Meghan J. hollered from the kickball field. “You’re kicking first!” Isobel stepped forward, and forward, and forward, and soon she was running for the field, and everyone was getting ready to play, and Harvey G. was the pitcher about to roll the ball, and Carter was running behind her, telling her to hurry, and the red rubber ball hit the ground, and the sun came out newly born, and in her rush to make her first kick Isobel didn’t even realize that somewhere at the bottom of the Pond lay her plastic knife.
Read Issue 18