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by Annabelle Smith

As Frog Is My Witness

This is how the summer begins. Mama and I sit in the parlor. A cigarette hangs from her lips, smudged carmine like the clay smeared beneath my toenails from playing in the pond. Usually, Mama would be mad at me tracking dirt on her carpets, but she’s in a mood, which she says is a grown up way of having a tantrum. I have tantrums sometimes, and she takes care of me, so when she’s feeling bad, I take care of her, too.

Mama has a glass of wine, and a few drops smatter the collar of her blouse like fat red tears. Last summer, she let me try some, and the bitter sits heavy on my tongue every time I take a whiff. I asked her why she drank it so much, but she just puffed out smoke and smiled. I’d understand when I was older, she said. But I am older now, a whole summer older, and I still don’t get it. It’s just grapes.

We just sit here, all quiet, watching a log crumble in the fireplace. It’s too hot, especially with the fire, but Mama likes watching the flames so she has all the windows in the house thrown open. The house gasps in the hot air, a fish out of water. Mosquitoes and cicadas have their screaming matches—Mama says they’re like an orchestra, but I’ve never seen an orchestra. Anyways, there’s not much pretty about bugs yelling at each other. A couple of the screens are out of the windows, so a few flit in, and I keep slapping at my arms to keep from getting bit. A couple times I catch a mosquito, and a big pat of blood squashes out of the body. Yuck.

“Michael,” Mama finally says. She stubs out a cigarette into her little porcelain ashtray, the one painted with monarch butterflies. “Your cousins are coming to stay for the summer.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Your Uncle Robert is dropping them off Tuesday.”


Mama reaches for another cigarette, but the pack crushes empty in her hand. She tosses it into the flames with a little sigh, and the whole thing sparks and sputters into flakes of ash.

“You don’t have to share a room. I’ll have the maids do up the guest bedroom.”


Mama sends away the maids in the evenings, so except for the bugs, everything is still. I like it best this way. It’s a good kind of quiet. There’s a different kind when Daddy’s home, sort of like right between a fork of lightning and a big boom that rattles the china cabinet.

But none of that after Tuesday. There will be the girls in their flouncy dresses, all blown and inflated like dandelion puffs, and the other boys with stones stuffed in their pockets to throw at each other when no one’s looking. I’ve got five cousins on Uncle Robert’s side. They’re all hard and sharp, like knives, except worse because they’ve got teeth. Mama says they’re good kids, except because there’s five of them, they’ve got to act up to get anyone to look at them.

“Come here, baby,” Mama says.

I’m not a baby at all—in fact, I’ll be twelve next spring. But I sort of don’t mind when Mama lets me curl up at her feet like she does now, head in her lap so she can comb through my hair. Her wool skirt will leave little indents on my cheek, but I could fall asleep here anyways.

“Aren’t you hot, Mama?” I ask.

Her fingertips drift to a stop on my scalp. “What?”

“Your skirt. That’s for winter.”

She laughs and ruffles my hair, and a few pieces flop across my forehead and into my eyes. “It doesn’t matter all that much. This is my favorite skirt. Why shouldn’t I wear it?”

I don’t have much to say to that. I wear my favorite plaid shirt everyday, especially when Daddy isn’t home to make me wash it. Mama says as long as I don’t smell like a hog in a sty, she doesn’t see much use in washing something I’ll just get dirty again.

Mama starts singing. She’s got a pretty voice—she says she could have been famous if she hadn’t gotten married and had me, and of course that’s not my fault, it’s her no good sonuva-you-know-what husband, and then she gets all quiet.

So sometimes Mama sings for me when Daddy’s not home, which is a lot of the time. She sings in Italian, but sometimes she’ll sing in French or German. She calls it opera. Tonight, she tells me her song is about a lost love, which is what all of them are. Her throat bobs with each vowel, dipping like a buoy borne by a storm. I don’t really get music, but I like her songs. They’re about sad things, but they don’t sound sad when she sings them. I don’t hear the cicadas anymore, and then I don’t hear anything anymore, because before the song is over I’m up in my bed and Mama’s tucking me in tight.


Summer is my favorite, because I can wake up before the maids arrive and sneak off to the pond. I like to spend the whole day there, sometimes sneaking into the kitchen to snatch an apple off the counter for lunch. The pond water is muddy and murky and matted with clumps of algae that slime between my toes when I kick off my boots to go frog-catching. There are thick stands of reeds and cat-’o-nine-tails and big grasses that whip my ankles when I try to walk through. I can slide down this little bank into the water, and when I crouch down to look at the tadpoles no one can see me.

If Eden were real, it would be just like this. But I don’t believe in all that. Mama says it’s a bunch of phooey, because when she was little the reverends were real mean to her and told her that because she gets sad all the time it meant she had the Devil in her and didn’t love God enough. But she told me to take that nonsense with a grain of salt. So I do.

This morning, I slipped my plaid shirt over my head and trekked to the pond. I’ve got lots to keep track of. The dragonflies are back this summer in twos, which means I might have baby dragonflies to look after soon. My favorite spends the morning sunning itself on a rock, bright green body flashing like a penny. I think about going inside to get pencil and paper to sketch it, but I don’t, because today is the most important day of my life.

Today, there’s a bullfrog at the pond.

There haven’t been many frogs for the last few summers because they all got sick and died—croaked. Ha.

But I missed my frogs. I liked to catch them, and they’d wriggle around all warm and slimy in my hands until they calmed down, and then they didn’t mind me holding them. Once, a little one peed on me, and I dropped it into the pond with a big plop and shrieked so loud Mama came running thinking I’d slipped and busted my head open. After that, though, I just knew to hold them really carefully and set them down if they started getting too squirmy, because that meant they were scared and were going to you-know-what.

But today, there’s a bullfrog. He’s big and round and flat and he’s plopped himself in the shallow part of the pond, almost like he’s sitting right on the surface. Every time he ribbets, ripples whoosh out around him, making the water-striders scramble to keep from tipping over. Every few minutes, I take another tiny step closer. He’s only a little bit away now, and I’m holding my breath so he doesn’t hear me coming up behind him.

Up over the hill, a car honks its horn. The bullfrog hops below the surface and I sort of droop down. I’ll catch him another day, I guess.

I clamber up the side of the pond, careful not to slip in the mud. Uncle Robert’s car sits pretty and sparkly in the driveway. He opens the door, and my cousins spill out in one big heap of their Sunday best. Mama’s in her nice clothes, too, and she steps off the front porch in her swishy house dress and flouncy apron with a platterful of lemonade. She laughs real high at something Uncle Robert says, which is what she does when someone says something not-funny but she feels bad.

I slide back into the pond so no one can see me. All my cousins are shouting and running around and causing a ruckus already. Mama said maybe I’ll like them, and I said I didn’t like them when they came for Christmas last year, and she said that I wasn’t being a very gracious host. So then I went to bed.


Mama rings the big old bell out on the porch to call me in for dinner, except it’s not for dinner but to tell me to get my butt in the house and scrub all my mud off because we’ve got company. Otherwise she’d just walk a little down the hill and holler for me. Daddy doesn’t like when she does that, says it’s unladylike, but Mama doesn’t mind him much. So I wonder if he’s home, or if she’s just being proper to set a good example for the other kids.

I sneak in through the kitchen and dart up to my room. One of the cooks giggles at me, says I’m streaking through the house like a muddy cat. I sort of giggle at that.

I strip out of my old shirt and muddy shorts and stick my head in the sink to get the pond stink out of my hair. There’s mud all over my legs, so I scrub at them with an old washcloth until my skin glows strawberry. My hair drips all over my new clean clothes, the nice ones I’ve got for fancy dinners and church picnics. They’ll get wrinkly, but my towel is all muddy so I can’t do much to dry off except shake my head around like a big shaggy dog.

The stairs creak under my feet. I was expecting there to be a racket in the dining room, but instead, everything is quiet so Mama hears me coming downstairs.

“That you, Michael?”

The dining room doors are propped open with the heavy decorative urns from the hall, letting strands of sunlight in to doze on the tabletop. A wiry gray head scowls at me from the head of the table.

Mama’s chin lifts, and a tiny smile struggles onto her face. “Come say hello to your Grandpa.”

There’s no carpet in the dining room, so my feet go whack, whack, whack on the cold wood floors. Five pairs of eyes and five bitter scowls follow me through the room. My hair feels very wet. A tiny drip clings to my eyebrow then lets go. It slides down my nose, hangs for a second, then splats onto my bare feet.

“Hello, Grandpa,” I say, real fast and low so I can get it over with.

Mama thwacks me on the back of my head. “Mind your manners.”

I got in trouble last year for mumbling in class. Lots of grown ups don’t like how I talk to them, because I’m too quiet or don’t look at them or talk so fast my words snarl up into one big knot. So Mama taught me to say all my words like holding a frog: careful and slow, so you don’t spook them and make them pee.

“Hello, Grandpa. How are you?” I try again.

“I’m well, thank you. Now, sit so we can all say grace and eat. You’ve kept us waiting long enough,” Grandpa says.

I squeak out the empty chair next to Grandpa, which I don’t mind so much because Mama’s opposite of me. Grandpa drops his hands face up on the table. They’re warm and wet like meat left out too long. I ease my hand into his, and Colette takes my other hand. Mama says grace, slow like she’s very extremely grateful, but I know it’s because we don’t say grace much when Daddy’s not home and she has to think hard about what to say.

“Amen,” says Grandpa, and Colette, too. I mouth it.

There’s lots of rules to remember about fancy dinners, so I don’t listen much to the conversation. But it’s not much of a conversation, anyway, because it’s just Grandpa talking and then Mama going mhm.

There’s green beans in front of me, so I scoop out just a little bit without bumping Colette with my elbow then pass it on. Then mashed potatoes, and I don’t scrape the serving spoon off with my fork but scoop and plop instead, except I have to make sure not to shower everyone with potato flakes when I do the plop. And then there’s the ham on a big platter, and Grandpa serves that, so I pass my plate up and don’t say anything bad about how much he gave me, even though I think ham is stinky and Mama wouldn’t make me eat it if it were just us two. But I’ll eat everything on my plate, because of the starving children and the economy and all that.

I concentrate and pour salt all over my plate and wolf it all down. Colette looks at me funny, so I look at her funny back. She looks silly, anyhow. She’s got on a pink dress with all sorts of ribbons and a thick, fluffy petticoat even in the heat. Mama never gets that dolled up, not even for church.

Mama’s foot nails me in the shin out of nowhere. My head shoots up fast. “Yes?”

“You listen when I’m talking to you, boy,” Grandpa says.

“Yes, sir.”

“You respect your elders.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t you want to be saved?”

“Yes sir.”

Mama hisses through her teeth. Wrong answer. Except I do want to be saved from lots of things, namely drowning and housefires and this awful, tricky dinner full of traps.

“George and I haven’t discussed it yet,” Mama says. “We want to make sure he’s ready.”

Grandpa fixes his meanest stare on her. “My son is a good, Christian man. He wants his son to be baptized so he can be with his Lord. Do you want my grandchild going to the devil?”

Colette fidgets beside me. “You ain’t been baptized yet?”

“No, I haven’t,” I say. Mama says you ain’t supposed to say ain’t.

“You’re a sinner.” Colette’s eyes go wide. “Dirty,” she whispers.

“And you look like a stuffed pig, but you don’t hear anyone making a fuss about it.”

Big, wet tears well up like magic in her eyes. Her cheeks get red as if she’d been slapped, and she throws her blonde head into her hands. Across the table, Donald stops picking on his baby brother and gives me a nasty look, but Grandpa is too busy yelling at Mama to notice.

Grandpa’s voice gets loud and scary. “George didn’t raise his boy for you to encourage wickedness in his soul.”

“George didn’t raise squat,” Mama shouts back.

And Grandpa lifts his big slab of a hand, and it whooshes through the dining room, and Mama doesn’t even have time to flinch before she gets hit.

There’s a big, burning handprint on Mama’s cheek. Grandpa doesn’t say a word. Even Colette’s gone silent. I reach my hand to her, but Mama stands up quick, rattling the silverware on the table.

“Time for bed. Say goodbye to your Grandpa,” Mama says, and then she takes her plate into the kitchen and doesn’t come back.


Mama’s door is still open when I go upstairs. I creep inside, curtains rustling softly like old, dry leaves on the carpet. My feet swish when I walk, but Mama pretends like she doesn’t hear me.

Grandpa’s voice is loud and low from in the parlor. He and the other big kids stayed downstairs while he drank from Daddy’s locked cabinet in the kitchen, and so it’s too loud to sleep.

I creep into bed beside Mama and pull the sheets up to my chin. Sometimes, this side of the bed smells like Daddy—sharp aftershave and old sweat—but he’s been gone too long for there to be anything other than a tiny whiff of pine.

“Go to bed, baby,” Mama whispers.

“I’m not tired.”

Mama doesn’t move, so I lift myself on my elbows and peer at her face. Her mascara is smeared and her lipstick is wisped to the corner of her mouth from when she got hit. Her eyes are open, but she’s not really looking at anything.


Crickets chirp outside. The windows are still open from the other day, but it’s not so hot anymore so I’m glad I crawled under the covers. The sound downstairs is dying down—Grandpa gets tired when he drinks—so the other kids will be coming to bed soon.

“Mama,” I say, and when she keeps quiet, “I guess I’m going to bed.”

I slip out of the covers and pad out the door. I half expect to hear Mama call me back, or tell me goodnight, but she doesn’t make a peep. The door eases shut behind me.

The old muddy towel and dirty clothes are still on my bedroom floor. I pile them all up into a basket so the maids don’t fuss when they come to clean my room. Then I decide to straighten up my sheets from the tangle I made last night, then I line my shoes up in a neat little line by the wall, then I shut the window and do the latch up the way Mama used to do when I would open them and lean out so far I almost fell out.

Grandpa walks down the driveway. His knee buckles and folds like a rusted hinge. He served, Daddy says. Ambulance driver. He got the truck shot out from under him twice, and the second time the gear stick stabbed up his knee so bad he got sent home for good.

Grandpa has a bundle of white under his arm. The cloth loosens and flaps to the ground, sputtering over the gravel drive, a stiff little triangle dragging the dirt. They almost look like sheets.

Smoke sizzles on the breeze, but I can’t see what’s burning. I shut the window.


Mama didn’t come out of her room this morning. But I can hear her from the pond. That’s because the pond is behind the house, and so is Mama’s room, and her windows are still open so I can hear her singing. I guess she doesn’t want to be bothered.

This morning, she’s singing in French. Everybody thinks French is pretty, but it’s all hacky and rough, sort of muttery like how I talk. Everybody gives me grief about not speaking up, so how come it’s nice when you’re French? I asked Mama once, and she laughed and said c’est la vie. That’s life.

The bullfrog is back this morning. Except I’m not trying to catch it. Instead, I roll my pants up past my knees and wade out through the muck to the middle of the pond. It’s not that deep—not deep enough for fish, anyhow—but it’s deep enough that Mama doesn’t like me walking through the middle, where the mud grabs at my ankles and doesn’t want to let go. But she’s not paying me any mind, and I’m bigger now, anyhow, so I go through the middle.

“What are you doing?”

I have to tug at my knees to get myself turned around. Colette and Donald and the little ones are splayed out in a ring, all fuzzy looking because they’re standing way back clear of the cat-o’-nine-tails. They’re all up high, ringed with sunlight so shadows fall murky on their confused-looking faces.

“You deaf?” Donalds says.

“No,” I say.

Colette stamps her pink slippered foot. “I said, what are you doing?”

“Watching my frog.”

She wrinkles up her nose. “It’s ugly.”

I turn around, lifting up my knees again. The mud lets go of my feet with two loud smacks. The frog is just sitting there, getting warm and happy on his rock. He’s brown and bumpy. I didn’t know that made something ugly.

A stone sails over my head and smacks off the shore. The bullfrog croaks in protest, but he doesn’t budge.

Donald swears. “I almost got it.”

“Get it!” Colette shrieks. “I don’t want it near me. Get it, get it!”

“Don’t hurt him,” I say.

“Why not?” Donald tosses a stone between his hands. “You like it?”

“It’s my friend.”

The little kids snicker and laugh real loud, hollering so loud I wonder why Mama doesn’t yell out for them to leave me be. But she doesn’t.

“You can’t be friends with a frog.”

“Daddy says animals aren’t God’s creatures. You’re consorting with the devil,” Colette snips. She crosses her arms over the ruffles on her chest. “And you ain’t even baptized.”


Donald throws another rock. This one smacks off my brow, sharp and pointy, and I almost cry, but Mama says you’ve got to look tough so people don’t give you grief, so I don’t.

“Grandpa says you’re a heathen,” he says, and he throws another rock.

He lobs a big, nasty rock. It flies up, up, up, and then all the sudden there’s no more ribbets. Just a few toes wiggling sort of weakly. And then no wiggles at all.

Then they walk away.


The air in the house is hot and heavy. The maids have got all the windows shut, and Mama screamed and screamed at them, then pretty Isobel told her Grandpa had told them to do so because Mr. Smith is coming home, then Mama smacked her across the mouth. She told her to mind her place, except then she went upstairs and locked herself in her room without opening any windows.

The cook caught me sneaking through the kitchen and told me to wash my face. I did. But my eye is all puffy and swollen, and I couldn’t quite get the gunky blood out of my eyebrow. I look nice and clean if it weren’t for that.

I sneak around the house playing a game I call Cat and Mouse. I’m the Mouse. I’m real quick and small and sneaky, so no one sees me when I nick slices of cheese from the refrigerator or tip-toe past the guest bedroom to spy on Colette doing her devotions. Everybody else is the Cat, except for Mama, and they don’t even know it. That way I get to play my games with people and they can’t say no, because they play it all the time without me having to ask.

I kinda wish Mama was playing. I wouldn’t mind so much if she found me.

All the maids are whispering, Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith. There’s always a kerfuffle when he comes home, because no one can remember if he likes sugar in his iced tea or his pillows fluffed once or twice. Pretty Isobel’s still all teary from when Mama hit her. I feel bad, but I can’t apologize or anything, because then I’d lose Cat and Mouse.

I can hear the gravel drive crunching even with the windows shut. Then the engine goes clunk and then nothing, then a few seconds later the front door creaks open. Keys clank into the bowl by the door. Shoes, thump thump as he kicks them off.

All these little feet go running down stairs, nobody noticing me. I’m in my least favorite spot, between Daddy’s stiff leather armchair and the glass parlor door flung open into the room. I don’t like it much because you can see me when you go into the parlor, but it means I can see everything going on in the hall and the dining room.

Daddy says hello to all my cousins. Donald shakes his hand all gentlemanlike, and Colette does a little curtsy and blushes when Daddy says she looks like a peony in her pretty pink dress.

Donald and Colette take the little ones away after baby Denny starts fussing for nap time. And I want to creep away, because since I’m playing Mouse I can’t stay too long or I’ll get caught, except instead of going upstairs Daddy comes into the parlor.

“Come out of there, Michael.”

The game is up. My face goes hot and red and I crawl out from behind the chair.

“Let me see you. Stand up straight,” Daddy says.

I do. I stretch my spine like there’s a ruler jammed in the back of my pants. I’ve got all sorts of questions, like how was New York, and how long are you staying, and did you miss me, and how long until you leave again, but Daddy doesn’t like when I talk too much. He says children should be seen and not heard, but if he wanted kids to look at how come he’s gone so much? I don’t ask that either.

Daddy sits, and his chair creaks under him like an old man popping his knees after staying still for a long time. I don’t sit, because I’m not supposed to unless Daddy says so.

But he doesn’t let me sit. Instead, he says, “what did you do to your face?”

I touch the cut under my eyebrow. It’s wet and squishy like a squashed caterpillar. “I fell,” I say.

I’m lying, of course. Mama would be able to tell, because I squeeze my hands to touch the middle of my palms to make sure they’re not all sweaty, which is what happens when people lie. Except he doesn’t know that, so he believes me.

“Go tell your mother that I’m home. I’d like dinner at five.”

I nod and dart out of there. The stairs protest beneath me, and I think about them splitting and opening up into this big, gaping hole that swallows me up. But they don’t. Instead, I get to the top and Donald laughs when I race by.

“Run, little froggy,” he yells.

I show him the finger that Mama shows Grandpa when he’s not looking.

Mama’s door shut at the end of the hall. Quiet. She’s not singing, but she’s not walking around or dancing, either. She does that sometimes. Mama used to be a ballerina. I knock on the door, and nobody says anything.

“Daddy’s home,” I say.

Nothing. “He says he wants dinner at five.”

Then, real quiet, “Go away.”

So I do.


Daddy wakes me up this morning. We’re going to church.

It takes a while to find a pair of un-rumpled pants and a nice shirt without pond goo all over it. Daddy’s car putzes in the drive, gurgling on smoke and oil that sometimes drips onto the gravel in thick rivers of tar.

Grandpa’s already at church. He’s the reverend. He’s got to get ready, putting on his stiff black robes and rereading all the lines about Hell. That’s all he ever talks about. Do this and that and you’ll writhe around like worms on hot pavement for all of eternity, the end. You gotta get baptized, then you’re good. But Mama didn’t want me getting baptized. She’s used up lots of excuses: Michael doesn’t know how to hold his breath, Michael can’t swim, Michael’s got this scalp condition and can’t get his head wet. And Daddy wasn’t around to make me. So it never happened.

I tip-toe downstairs and into the kitchen. Daddy says you can’t have breakfast before church, because you’ve got to take communion first thing. Or else you’re tainted. But Colette said I’m already tainted because of the whole no baptism thing, and I’m hungry, so who cares.

The kitchen is almost empty. All the maids have Sunday morning off and don’t come back until it’s time to make dinner. So there’s no cook, so pretty Isobel cleaning the dishes, but Mama’s here.

She’s got out a knife but no cutting board. Her face looks cold and wet, like leftover ham, but ham’s mostly pink and Mama’s face is all white.

“Mama?” I say.

“Go to church,” she says, not looking up.

“I missed you.”


Daddy shouts from the front door. “Hurry up, boy.”

Mama doesn’t move. I guess she isn’t going. I think about that knife. Knife and no cutting board. I’m not sure what that means.

“Coming,” I say, and I race out the door and slam it behind me.


I don’t go to the middle of the pond anymore. Mama was right. But it’s easier to hear her singing from the edge, anyways, like she is today. Italian, I think, because every other word sounds like something yummy. O mio carbonara, il mio bambino mozzarella, ami la mia gorgonzola.

The back of my pants clings wet to my skin, cold and muddy. I left my shoes up in the grass so I could stretch my feet into the pond and nudge pebbles with my toe. Teeny tiny tadpoles swim around my ankles, wriggling in the murk and playing with their brothers and sisters. Gnats whisper all sorts of things in my ear. The air is just as hot as my arms and legs, and the longer I sit, it feels like I’m melting and floating up all at once, more like I’m a ghost at the pond than a person. It’s nice.

The gnats keep talking to me. They’re nasty. “You sleazy good-for-nothing,” a girl gnat hums.

“Why do you think I leave,” a boy gnat buzzes. “At least I come back, you ungrateful buzz.”

“You have a son. Did you ever think about that?”

“He’s not the only one.”

“Buzz you. I’ll kill you.”

“You’re crazy. You’d get locked up if it wasn’t for me.”

“You think I’m crazy?”

“You’re psychotic. I don’t even know you anymore. You’re not the woman I married, you’re… you’re some animal.”

“I’m what you made me.”

“You’ve been a psycho buzz since I met you.”

“Buzz off, motherbuzzer.”

I shoo the gnats away. They keep talking. I wish Mama would shut her window.


I don’t come when the dinner bell rings. I’m not hungry, because I packed a sandwich and an apple. I threw the core in the pond, but there aren’t any fish to eat it, so it’ll just get nibbled at by bugs, and then get mushy and gross, and then it’ll just be seeds, and maybe in a hundred years there’ll be a big apple tree in the middle of the pond.

“Michael? Michael?” Colette yells. I hear her searching through the field, her big dress swooshing in the grass and probably startling all sorts of critters.

“Come out, little froggy,” Donald says.

It’s like playing Cat and Mouse, except the mean old Cats already know where I like to hide. I think about army-crawling up out of the pond and through the yard, but they’d see me. Instead, I squeeze my eyes tight and cross my fingers that they’ll go away.

“Hello, little froggy.”

Footsteps slide down to the pond. Rocks skitter against my legs, and I try my hardest not to flinch. I feel Donald looking at me, breathing hot at the top of my head. I keep my eyes shut.

“Don’t touch him,” Colette whines. “He’s filthy.”

“Naw, he’s not that bad,” Donald says, real quietly. “He just needs cleaned off a little.”

Donalds grabs the back of my shirt in a big, sweaty fist. Colette starts screaming, high and excited, and I picture her shrinking up into a yippy little Chihuahua foaming at the mouth in a big pile of petticoats.

I slap at Donald’s hand, but he only holds on tighter. I scramble up onto my knees, and then he pitches me forward until I’m hanging from my shirt collar. The fabric yanks at my skin. I gulp real big. My nose quivers just above the pond, fuzzy algae tickling my nostrils.

“Dunk him, Donald!” Colette says, high and breathless.

“We’re doing you a favor,” Donald says. “You ain’t been baptized, have you?”

I don’t say anything. Don’t even open my eyes. Maybe if I seize up, I’ll get stiff and stony and so heavy he drops me and runs away, because that would be scary. Then I’d melt back into skin and stuff and brush myself off and get back to sitting at my pond.

“Well? I knew you were dumb, but I know you ain’t deaf.”

My throat’s gone dry. I try to swallow, but my throat bobs painfully against the collar of my shirt. “Mama says you ain’t supposed to say ain’t.”

Donald drops my shirt. Water gushes up my nose and into my ears, bitter with gunk and silt. Rocks bite into my cheek, and mud flushes up in between my teeth. When I was little, I didn’t have any reflexes around the water, so I’d just breathe it all in if my mouth dipped underneath. I can hold my breath now.

So I do. I do and I do and I do.

My hands slide in the muck, and I try to press myself up, but Donald’s got a hand smashed into the back of my head and everytime I try to push away my hands slip out, and my feet flail around on the shore without ever finding a grip, and I can hear Colette’s exhilarated screams even through the warbled bubble of the water, and all the sudden I can’t hold my breath anymore and my lungs suck up pondscum like a vacuum.

Donald hauls me up. He says something, but I don’t hear, so he gets fed up and drops me in the dirt. He scrambles up the bank, laughing, and Colette’s piercing laugh fades to a dull little whistle.

I open my eyes. Little drops of water cling to my eyelashes and make the world all fuzzy. Clouds wobble across the blue, staggering on big gusts of wind that smooth the grit from my face. A dragonfly—or maybe a moth—flits by. The grasses are just a green smear fogged around my vision. It’s nice. Pretty.

Something hops by my feet. It’s big and flat like a river stone. Then it ribbits. I knew my bullfrog didn’t get squashed. He’s too smart for that. He’s like me. You and me, we bounce back, Mama used to say when she talked to me. I wonder if she’d say that now, but then I think that she wouldn’t because she doesn’t care as much as she used to. Not sure why.

There’s dirt and grime caked onto my shirt, my knees, my face, and I’m not sure what Donald and Colette mean because I don’t feel clean. I just feel sad. Then the sun drifts down, and I feel cold.


I don’t fall asleep right there in the mud, even though I want to. Instead, I crawl out of the pond and walk barefoot to the house, shiny like a big goose egg on the hill. The door is unlocked. I’m glad about that, because sometimes Daddy puts the deadbolt on. I’m careful on the stairs, then extra quiet when I go past Donald and Colette’s room, but they’re sleepy and snoring so they wouldn’t have heard me anyway.

My bedroom door whooshes open easy. There’s a snoozing mound on my bed, snoring soft. Little curls of hair peep out from under the blankets. I try to kick off my boots without making a sound, but they clunk on the floor and the shadow on my bed stirs.

“Michael? Is that you, baby?”

I creep close to the bed. Mama’s face is dark and cloudy, burrowed deep under my quilts. Her eyes are swollen and red like she’s been crying.


She lifts the blankets. There’s a spot beside her, and it looks all nice and warm. “Come here. Let me hold you.”

But I don’t want to.

“I’m going to go sleep in the parlor,” I say. So I do.


Daddy loads us kids up in a car. He and Grandpa let me sit up in the front with them, and I don’t slide around on the seat so much because I’m squeezed tight between them. Daddy smells nice, sharp—he must’ve shaved this morning. Grandpa smells like dirt, but that’s because he’s old and all old people smell like dirt. But I keep that to myself.

The car bumps through the woods, leaping over sticks and rocks to the river. ‘Bout time, Grandpa said before we left. I figure it is, too.

The engine goes one, two, put! then goes quiet. “Everybody out,” Daddy says.

I’m dressed in my Sunday best. I’m real careful not to smudge mud on my nice shoes. Isobel bleached out all the stains on my shirt, so I don’t smell like nasty pond water either. Daddy asked her to, and she giggled and said yes. Daddy likes her, and she likes him, and it’s grown up stuff so it’s none of my business.

Grandpa has me kick off my shoes, then my socks, then we squelch down into the deepest part of the river. The mud suctions at my toes. Donald and Colette keep the little kids quiet and still, and Daddy watches with a big hand on Mama’s shoulder because she hasn’t been allowed to leave her room because he says she might run away, so she’s real skinny and I think maybe he’s worried she might float off. But she doesn’t.

Grandpa grabs my shoulders. “Do you take Jesus Christ to be your Lord and savior?”

I nod my head. “I do.”

“And do you wish to repent for your sins so that you may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven?”

“I do.”

He grins real proud. “By the power vested in me, I hereby baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

I go down, down, down. Water chugs through my lips, even though I keep them tight. Grandpa’s got his hands sandwiched on my chest, one keeping me from sinking and the other keeping me from getting out of the water. I’ve got to get good and clean. But it’s dark, and I keep thinking about the cold, wet feeling in my lungs just creeping up until I’m holding my breath so tight my head feels like it might pop off and float away.

And then I come up. Everybody’s singing an old baptism song in English. That’s the only language I know, and it’s the language of our Lord and Nation, so it’s the best one. Well, everybody’s singing except for Mama, because the doctors say she needs to rest for her nerves and not do anything that will excite her, so she’s supposed to keep quiet.

Grandpa pats me on the back, and that’s that. It’s about time, I think as I climb out of the river. It’s August now, and I’ve got to go back to school, and I can’t do that if I’m dirty. But now I’m living properly. No more mucking around in the pond, no more opera, no more acting like a kid. I’m a man in the eyes of the Lord, now.

And that’s how the summer ends.b

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