When the children were small, one of their favorite outings was to the Frog Pond.
Don’t bother to conjure an image of a pristine body of water surrounded by verdant meadows with maybe a cow or two mooing nearby. Such places exist in Maine, but for reasons I can no longer recall, our family got into the habit of visiting what amounted to a glorified puddle alongside Route 90.
By Maine standards a big and busy road, Route 90 forms a handy, time-saving hypotenuse between Route 1 Waldoboro and Route 1 Rockport. Along it are the sort of enterprises that need cheap space and good road access more than curb appeal: light manufacturing, an antique mart, a lighting store and a Subaru dealership. The aforementioned pond was scraped out, sometime during construction, to provide an emergency source of water in case one of the businesses caught fire.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so, disregarding the traffic zipping by on the nearby roadway, pioneer alders and white pines took root in the disturbed earth beside the pond, along with cattails and lilies. Soon enough the waterweed, butterflies, small fish, dragonflies, water sliders, water boatmen, and a couple of local frog species enthusiastically colonized, making of the scrape a handy bit of heaven for my four small naturalists, who were interested in mud and water and (depending on age and personality) learning to distinguish frogs eggs from toad spawn, lepidoptera from odonata.
My daughter Ellie was the frog-whisperer.
While her brothers armed themselves with nets and stalked among the cattails; while her baby sister crawled around eating dirt, Ellie would settle herself on the bank of the little pond and meditate. Sometimes her deep thoughts would be accompanied by gentle muttering, or perhaps she’d sing a little song. Distracted by her more demanding siblings—-Woolie would need to have some particularly indigestible lump of something removed from her mouth, or Peter and Zach would contest custody of the fishnet—-I’d leave her to her own devices for a quarter hour or so at a time. When my attention returned, I’d find my third child, still sitting in the same place, the water around and in front of her studded with the triangular faces of perhaps a dozen frogs of various sizes all floating in a semi-circle and gazing raptly at her with their bulging gold-rimmed eyes. Sometimes one would even have ventured up onto the bank, close enough to place a small, green hand on the toe of her red sneaker.
The boys caught frogs, learning to hold them tenderly in wet hands so they could look for the distinctive mottling of the leopard frog, the bright green lips and pale throat of the green frog, or the robber-mask worn by the wood frog and marvel at the delicate skin and propulsive power of the muscular back legs.
Occasionally, on our expeditions, we discovered evidence of the harshness of nature (say, a dead baby bird dropped by a wasteful marauding crow) or human mindlessness. One day we found a jam jar filled with tadpoles standing on the bank. Some rotten kid must have caught them, but rather than admiring the shiny, licorice bodies, translucent tails and sprouting limbs for a few minutes, then pouring them carefully back into the water, he’d walked away, leaving the imprisoned infant amphibians to die.
There were many angry tears in our party that day, which had to be soothed by an impromptu memorial service and the writing of an indignant letter to the editor re the respect owed to the creatures with whom we share planet Earth.
Then there was the day a grievously injured frog turned up in the fishnet. He was a really fine, big bullfrog, but our squeals of admiration turned to horror when we saw his right hind leg. Below what would, in a human being, have been called a knee, only a bone remained, exposed.
“He’s hurt!” Peter announced, unnecessarily.
Had the heron whose webbed footprints we’d seen in the soft earth done this dreadful thing? Hungry, it might have grabbed hold of one slippery leg, and the velocity of the frog’s startled leap, sufficient to save him from being dinner, could have left the flesh and foot behind.
“Let’s take him to the vet!” said Zach.
Holding the rim of the net just clear of the water so the maimed frog couldn’t escape, I considered my options.
What the heck could the vet do, other than to put the frog to sleep? I cringed at the idea of a frog getting stuck with a needle; surely that would hurt?
Besides, I doubted the poor thing would even survive the stresses of a drive to the clinic, stuck in a hot car with four damp, muddy, deeply-interested fellow-passengers.
Frogs bring out the maternal in me, with their vulnerability, harmlessness, benevolent expressions and nearly-human hands. I wanted so badly to help this one, phlegmatically treading water in the circle defined by our net.
“I think taking him in the car would just make his suffering worse,” I said.
“He’s suffering?” squeaked Zach in horror. “Do something, Mom!”
“You mean… put it out of its misery?” I glanced around, but the idea of smashing a frog to death with a rock didn’t seem much of an improvement over the hot car and the vet’s needle. “No,” I said, at last, feeling sad and obscurely cowardly. “We’ll just have to let him go, and let nature take its course.”
Deciding it was the least we could do, we christened the bullfrog (unimaginatively) “Froggy.” Then I pushed the net down into the water until he could float free. He lay in the water for a moment (gulping and gazing at Ellie) and then, with surprising alacrity for a dying anuran, Froggy vanished into the cool and weedy depths.
We talked about Froggy all the way home. At least two of us (Peter and me, if you must know) had bad dreams that night, involving tibi0-fibulae stripped of flesh and foot and sobbing veterinarians in lab coats throwing rocks at muddy monster babies.
At breakfast, we said a small prayer for Froggy, sure that by then, his little froggy soul had swum to heaven.
A year went by—-fall-winter-spring-summer—-and one early autumn day, the kids and I were out and about, and decided to stop by the frog pond again. Everyone was a little bigger, and Woolie was old enough not to eat mud, but otherwise, the scene was essentially the same as it had been a year before. Peter dipped his net in the water and pulled out…a bullfrog with a missing leg.
“Froggy!” he shouted.
As I came along the pond edge to where my son stood, rubber-boot-shod feet planted among the cattails, his net triumphantly upraised. I could see the contents attempting, energetically, to leap out.
Already firmly defining reality as was my maternal duty, I said, “Oh, Peter, it couldn’t possibly be Froggy.”
But it was. Unmistakably. Same markings. Same fleshless leg bone sticking out below the right knee.
This time, instead of leaving the creature in the net, I took him out, wincing as his exposed bone caught itself briefly in the mesh, and examined him.
He was a big, American bullfrog, lithobates catesbeianus, fat-bellied, heavy, and easily as long and wide as my hand. The bone protruded not from a fresh injury but from what was clearly a well- and long-healed stump. For all I knew, Froggy had been peg-legging it around that pond for years.
Certainly, he proved capable despite his disability: With a slippery wriggle, Froggy propelled himself out of my gentle hands and landed with a triumphant plop in the green water. With a coordinated stroke of webbed foot and femur, he was gone.
We caught Froggy a few more times over the years. We liked to imagine he got used to us, maybe even reciprocated our affection? Ellie was sure he was one of the regulars in the crowd of frogs that turned up to bask in her peaceful presence. But eventually, the kids grew beyond the thrills of exploring what still amounted to a largish puddle by a busy road.
Bullfrogs are said to live for seven or eight years at the longest, so by now, even the indomitable Froggy has gone the way of all flesh (and bone) though every time I drive past that pond—-it’s still there, near the Subaru dealership and the lighting store—-I think of him.
His was a humbling lesson for me, one of many in the fat file labeled “Gee, I Thought I Knew More Than I Actually Do.”
Had I come across Froggy soon after his injury had been incurred, I might easily have assumed the kindest thing to do would be to kill him, so as to spare him the lingering and painful death nature surely had in store.
As I picked up the rock and—-weeping and apologizing—-brought it down upon his soft body, I probably would’ve felt not just justified but absolutely sure I’d chosen the only and noblest possible way, murdering this creature out of what would have been—-and, blessedly, was—-a long good life.