Winter 2016 - Fiction

Fiction

Anne Valente

 

Lullaby for Bullfrog

Eastern American Toad (Bufo Americanus Americanus)

A high-pitched trill, the singing of so many toads hidden in the grass. Emerged from the ponds of their late-spring breeding, unfurled to grasslands and forests and dense thickets of cattails. You remember them now, every toad and frog species in the state of Missouri, twenty-six whittled down to the sixteen found within St. Louis County limits. You tried to find all sixteen once, a childhood preoccupation of counting and logging that has come back to you with urgency in the months since you returned from Vietnam.

1976: America’s Bicentennial. July humidity. A weekend of fireworks blooming every night in the sky. A crescent moon shimmers through bursts of color as you scale a wooden fence and bend low in the tall grass, the day’s heat burning off in dew, the Clydesdales visible just beyond the fence. The toads sing. Every single one, an eastern American toad. Missouri’s most common toad, the female larger, their bellies the color of cream and speckled with gray, a song you recall from your fifth-grade classroom when Mr. Robertson played the calls of each Missouri amphibian, when you memorized their names and their sizes and eight years later enlisted.

The U.S. Army Nurse Corps: a commissioned officer. Deployed from Jefferson Barracks along the Mississippi, a critical care nurse in Cam Ranh Bay. A critical care nurse for three years until only months ago, a hospital captured, the war at its end.

You slip across the pasture. The Clydesdales shudder. A mare, standing guard over three foals. Grant’s Farm only miles from the barracks, a moonlit walk toward the home of Anheuser Busch’s famed horses. The lights in the stable have dimmed and a lone farmhouse window glows at the crest of the pasture’s hill. The fireworks blossom. Flared light shades the mother’s mane in crimson. You run your hand against her cheek and she flinches. Your fingers find the rifle in your backpack. An issued M16, standard protocol. Somewhere in the bed you have left Marita kicks the sheets dreaming, unaware you’ve gone. You touch the soft of the mare’s nose. The toads hum everywhere around you.

 

Blanchard’s Cricket Frog (Acris Crepitans Blanchardi)

To commemorate America’s Bicentennial: the debut of the Screaming Eagle. A wooden roller coaster that upon opening in St. Louis immediately breaks two Guinness World Records. It is the largest roller coaster at 110 feet high. It is the fastest at 62 miles per hour. It is the reason Marita remains in town across the holiday weekend instead of visiting her family in San Antonio, a family who still believes you are roommates.

Marita: the officer who trained you, who stayed behind with the Missouri National Guard when you deployed to Cam Ranh Bay. The officer who wrote you letters, disguised always as epistles between friends. The officer who knows nothing of triage, of how green the mountains looked at sunrise along the South China Sea, who knows only training and safety and the city’s flat landscape rolling into Missouri hills. The officer who knows nothing of capture and unstopped wounds and how last night you curled your body back around hers, your backpack stowed in the closet.

She doesn’t know that you put the rifle back, that you only touched the mare’s smooth coat. She doesn’t know why you’ve taken interest in the roller coaster, a debut you’ve heard yourself talking about since early spring for no reason than to feel your body moving, to feel something kinetic, to push yourself back to who you were before your lungs breathed a foreign sea’s salt.

You drive west along I-44 until the roller coaster rises, a structured serpent stark against the sky. When you park and step from the car, the air fills with distant screams and the rush of the coaster’s wind and falls silent of frogs, only active at night. You feel the soft down of the mare’s cheek, a ghost in your palm. You watch the coaster climb its steep hill, the car near the precipice, and hear only Mr. Robertson’s imitation of the Blanchard’s cricket frog, a staccato gick gick gick that matches the coaster’s gears. A St. Louis tree frog from a family of climbers without binding toe pads to allow it ascent. A non-climber, a frog hidden somewhere in the July grass and breeding, firmly on land as you pass the park’s turnstile and ready yourself to rise.

 

Plains Spadefoot (Spea Bombifrons)

Marita leads you to the Screaming Eagle, past the Log Flume and the Moon Antique Cars. A park you’ve never visited, open only five years, since 1971 when you first entered army training. You are career military, a line following your father and your father’s father broken only by your gender, a late recruit to the Army Nurse Corps’ Operation Nightingale. An effort to bring women to Vietnam. To aid the wounded. To leave basic training. An unintended four-month course in nursing at Jefferson Barracks that pulled you from boot camp and from Marita’s watch.

Not before you fell in love, her bunker a haven before you deployed.

She sits beside you in the rubber seat, the bar heavy across both of your laps. The roller coaster chugs, ascending in jolts up the first hill where the Missouri sky waits. There are only treetops, pale blue sky. A blanket of grassed knolls rippling wide toward the horizon. The Great Plains beginning to roll toward the west where the spadefoot hides in prairie grass along the Mississippi River all the way to St. Louis where you perch on a precipice. And then the car dips and Marita screams and the coaster plummets and she is grabbing your hand. Ninety-two feet of gravity, the wind needling your skin and the earth pulling you close.

 

Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris Triseriata)

Near the entrance, Marita in the bathroom: you steal away quick and buy a multi-day pass. The sea of your body still roiling with the force of the coaster’s momentum, an acceleration that beats back the waves of the South China Sea, the wounded dead, the soft sound of your hand sliding down the Clydesdale’s mane. A sound thin as paper, not unlike the rasp of the chorus frog, described by Mr. Robertson as the sound of hair dragging along the teeth of a comb.

 

Eastern Narrow-Mouthed Toad (Gastrophryne Carolinensis)

Marita suggests fireworks. Not watching from the backyard, light glittering high above the treetops. She suggests driving down the Mississippi River with a blanket, a cooler, everything to make you feel you are home again. She twists toward you at night and you coil away and you are not a liar but you can’t speak of this. You can’t find a tongue for rupture and bone saw and you know you will go with her to the river.

Families cluster around you in the grass. Fathers. Huddles of children, couples. You lie beside Marita on the blanket without publicly touching. The fireworks spiral above the river and rain down on the water and you see only firecrackers, drums and gongs, the kumquat trees that marked the three Tet celebrations you witnessed. A new year. A celebration. A hiatus from slaughter.

You never saw combat. You only worked to exhaustion among a short staff, sixteen-hour shifts, three years until the tankers and bombs arrived. The fireworks whistle above and Marita moves closer. A rainfall of rockets, missile fire reflecting off the night sea. You were never harassed but the soldiers called you masculine and half-woman or else claimed you were in Vietnam only to seduce men. Your hands holding their stitches, their blood. And what of Marita? A trained officer whose boot once found your back in basic training, planted for fifty pushups. Before you fell in love, but not before you knew her always as an officer, as impervious to your mewlings as men.

The narrow-mouthed toad’s belly: heavily mottled, a peppering of gunfire. Its call a nasal bleat. A sound lost to a summer sky of skyrocket flares, a call Mr. Robertson once identified as the whining of lambs to the kill.

 

Fowler’s Toad (Bufo Fowleri)

The mare’s mane: another softness. You have read since returning that horses know human pain. That in touching your hand to her hide she will hear in your skin a language lodged silent. As frightening as a Clydesdale’s size: the razor of being knifed bare.

To touch the Clydesdale is to be known, to speak and to split open. To lay bare what fumbles in your throat between Marita’s lips and your mouth. Cauterized wounds. Mop soaking blood on a hospital floor. Your hand holding the hand of so many dying men.

After Marita falls asleep, the fireworks still haloing the roof of her apartment, you pull your backpack from the closet and steal across the fields. The fowler’s toad: hidden in burrows, active at night to hunt. Found along river floodplains, stunned in the grass along the Mississippi River while the fireworks burned. You are not meant to hunt. You are not a soldier. But you fear the Clydesdale’s height, its feathered hooves as heavy as lead. You draw yourself close to the largest species of horse on the planet, your rifle slung across your back, and will the palm against the mare’s neck to glow grief translucent.

 

Northern Crawfish Frog (Rana Areolata Circulosa)

The song of your sorrow: as elusive as the seldom-seen crawfish frog. Its whereabouts secretive. Its call similar to snoring, a nighttime sound, one that made your fifth-grade class laugh during Mr. Robertson’s imitation.

Your father died ten years after he stormed the beaches of Normandy. After the largest amphibious invasion the world has seen, he died of a heart attack in his sleep, then your mother in a car accident when you were fifteen. Marita is the only lullaby you have left, her limbs folded around you a salted hymn where words fail to go.

You stand beside the mare, its three foals. Babies almost as large as their mother. You want to run your palm down each foreleg, feel the tufted down of each white-furred hoof. You touch instead the wisp of horsehair that falls between the mare’s eyes. She moves her head. You finger your gun. Fireworks flush the sky with color and nothing passes between you. She stands still, the fireworks screaming. Paper lanterns. Throw crackers. Peach blossoms. Take my memory, you want to tell her. The rifle heavy on your back.

 

Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris Crucifer Crucifer)

When Marita returns to work, you return to the roller coaster. You take her car west, her apartment close enough to the Barracks that she walks, and arrive at the amusement park just as the gates open. The holiday weekend is over, the crowds diminished. You make your way swiftly to the Screaming Eagle.

Its tracks are wooden, an audible rattling as you stand in the short line that has already gathered. You close your eyes: the whoosh of wind. Something careening past, kinetic, moving onward and away. The wood used to build the coaster’s beams is the same wood of Missouri forests where you imagine northern peepers hiding low in the shrubbery, another tree frog meant to climb. Its toe pads reduced, keeping it forever earthbound.

Eyes closed, you imagine Mr. Robertson: how his high-pitched imitation of the peeper’s call was one of the most memorable. A quiet chirping, how satisfying it was even then to know the difference. To classify sound. To place each call, each species in a discrete box. To cordon and siphon, to block off. To know the earth as categorized and ordered.

 

Gray Treefrog (Hyla Chrysoscelis, Hyla Versicolor)

With Marita, you focused solely on the first hill, that initial blast of sky. Without her, the adjacent seat empty, you feel the push and pull of gravity and inertia, a persistent tension between potential and kinetic energy as the coaster climbs and charges down each hill.

The coaster tips and you are weightless. You are lost to the weight of the earth, to mare and memory. You are high as Missouri’s most common treefrog, sleeping in the tops of oaks and maples beneath you. Nocturnal. Two types, distinguished only by their separate calls. A species that never descends from trees except to breed, a pinnacle you hope to always feel as the roller coaster skates you across the hills.

 

Pickerel Frog (Rana Palustris)

Another law of gravity: what rises must come down. You exit and return to the line. A rush of wind. You ride the Screaming Eagle again and again.

The pickerel frog a cave dweller. Missouri’s closest frog to the earth. You drive home in Marita’s car and feel the pull of the planet.

You are a weight, anchored to land.

 

Green Frog (Rana Clamitans Melanota)

As you drive, a memory: your mother leading you through the woods on a hike near Lee’s Summit and coming upon a pond. A pond you heard before you saw the water, the flushed crescendo of so many broken guitar strings. The explosive bong, you later learned, of the green frog’s call from the water’s edge.

Your mother lost only years later, the school secretary bringing the news to your high school classroom. Five years after Mr. Robertson told you the green frog was one of Missouri’s two game species, shot for fried legs and soups. Three years after you dissected a frog in seventh grade, the other of the state’s two hunted, Mr. Robertson’s bullfrog call singing in your brain.

You drive, the rifle stowed beyond sight in your closet.

 

Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus Holbrookii)

Marita makes adobo chicken for dinner and mentions new recruits, which ones will make it through basic training. She doesn’t ask when you’ll return to the Barracks, a hiatus of duty you’ve taken since your return.

You tell her nothing of the roller coaster, the Missouri hills. When she asks you say instead that you spent the day by the complex’s pool despite a lack of suntan, a telltale flush. Her eyes slide away across the kitchen table and you wonder what else she knows.

After dinner, you curl into the couch and Marita turns on Happy Days, never MASH even though you began watching it together before you deployed. The cots and helicopters beyond your vision, beyond what should enter Marita’s living room. The IV drips, the explosions, the falseness of comedy as levity. The eastern spadefoot: secretive and burrowing. You sink into the couch cushions and Marita’s arms finds their way around your shoulders and you lean into her, your body pulsing still with the lull of kinetic lift.

 

Southern Leopard Frog (Rana Sphenocephala)

You lay in bed, streetlight drifting in through the window. Marita’s hand in her sleep skirts the edge of your thigh. The ceiling fan above you whirs, the same whirring of helicopter blades. Helicopter as ambulance. The worst you remember: just months before the war ended, a medevac unit winging three frontline soldiers to Cam Ranh Bay. You operated intake. Inserted chest tubes. Started central lines, administered morphine. Stitched skin back to skull, a smooth of bone you still feel on your fingertips.

Marita’s hand is a song. A lullaby. The balm of her body is not enough. The southern leopard frog a wanderer, a pond frog venturing miles and miles from water to breed. You steal from the sheets to the closet and the backpack is on your shoulder and you are in moonlight, the sky pearled, the fields rolling toward the stable.

 

Wood Frog (Rana Sylvatica)

The mother sidles along the fence, her three foals further back against the stable, shapes of clay in the dark. You reach your hand through the fence’s wood, slats so much like the rungs of a roller coaster. The mare leans into your palm, her nose soft as a lining of fleece. You scale the fence and she steps back, her white hooves kicking up dust, her coat as brown as the tan markings of the wood frog, Missouri’s glacial relic pushed into range so many ice ages ago.

You are out of time. Beyond clock. The coaster a loophole of weight but also time. A rush beyond body, beyond memory, fast enough to force away blood and bone.

You slide your hand across the mare’s pelt and she whinnies, steps backward. The condensation of her breath meets the July air in humidity, in ghosts. You press your hand harder, an attempt to calm, an attempt to make her see through vein and nail to your heart but her back legs kick the sky behind her, her foals trembling against the barn.

 

Plains Leopard Frog (Rana Blairi)

Hush: your voice a singing. A language at last on your lips. Hush, you want to tell her, her hooves bucking, her hide shuddering. You press your palm hard. Hear me. Your grief kinetic through her skin.

But she rears. Her breath quickens, a violence of gusts. A rush of wind, a roller coaster humming. The foals stamp their feet against the barn. The mare’s size, unimaginable. Larger than the distance you’ve come. Wider than the chasm between Missouri and the South China Sea, shores you left behind but not their pull, a current beating back an undertow of forgetting.

Your hand to your rifle. Hush. Your finger to the trigger.

The plains leopard frog: dark blemish, the ridge of its skin broken.

The mare bucks and the foals whine and you aim the M16 and fire.

 

Bullfrog (Rana Catesbeiana)

Lights in the farmhouse. The foals screaming. Their own grief, a mare slumped to the dirt. Her weight indescribable, a meteor shelling out the earth, a bullet in her brain and the rifle red-handed in your palms.

The gun blast echoes and the moon falls silent. Your hand to the scalpel: seventh grade. Bullfrog pinned to a board, Missouri’s other game species, sought by hunters and by learning children. Your knife to the abdomen, to the lungs. To the grey mottling of the heart.

A world in order, a world aright. Sixteen species, every one of them classified. Mr. Robertson’s voice, even still, the bullfrog’s jug-o-rum call years before your blade.

The blades of a ceiling fan, Marita asleep. The blades of a helicopter, of a hospital scalpel. Light populating every window, the foals stamping, Marita a hymn across the fields. You lean to the ground, your hand to the mare, to feel your name in her skin.

Lay bare the inside. Shard the entrails.

Hush yourself to sleep.

 

 

 

~

Anne Valente is the author of the forthcoming novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016), and the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014). Her fiction appears in One Story, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review and The Chicago Tribune, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post. Originally from St. Louis, she currently teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

 

 

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