Amphibian is a word from the Greek amphibios: both kinds of life, double life. A frog lives both in water and on land. Equal parts swimmer and hopper, it breathes in air and in water. It has nostrils and lungs strikingly similar to those of a human, but it also breathes through its skin, osmotically exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen.
At the lake, frogs sang every night. They were quiet in afternoon because they were submerged or swimming, keeping cool in water or mud. But at night, their voices were our chorus; the slow creaks overlapping each other like ripples on water. A single bass voice emerging from the masses and then submerging again, emerging and submerging. I walked with Donald to the edge of the lake. His small hand was clammy in mine. We sat on the pier, and listened to the rusty hinges of frogs’ songs.
A child that dies young is a perfect child, uncompromised by his inevitable mistakes. He hasn’t hurt anyone yet. Not seriously. Not wittingly. The wounds inflicted by a child are forgivable accidents of judgment. He doesn’t know better. Time bleaches his selfishness. His failures fade to quiet bones. Memory sculpts his recessed chin to perfection, muffles his tantrums to sleepy kicks and tangled hair, polishes his flushed cheeks to a July-ripe, sun-warmed peach. Woken from a nap, Donald always smelled like hot sugar.
A frog’s eyes are situated on the sides of its head. They have excellent peripheral vision. To catch a frog you must grab it firmly from behind. Close your hand over its bulging lungs, its folded legs. Feel its slick, cool skin, coated in mucus. Let its nose and eyes stick out the front of your fist, between your index finger and your thumb, so it can breathe, so it can see. Hold tight. Feel its lungs strain, its heart beat faster.
When Donald was angry, he narrowed his eyes, and I would laugh at him. “I’m serious,” he would say. “It’s not funny.” His father never laughed, but I couldn’t help it. When Donald was studying something, peering through his magnifying glass or reading a book, his eyes were placid and wide, almost vacant. When he slept, I watched his eyelids twitch. I imagined the world of fish and flora through which he was swimming. An exhibit of chicken eggs, arranged from smallest to largest, speckled and plain, white and gray and brown and green. A tree house full of books and animals, preying mantises and squirrels and the dog we had refused him.
Donald loved the sounds of chickens, their arrhythmic squawks and chortles, their grunts and burps. He imitated them at the breakfast table, gulped his orange juice, wiped the juice from his upper lip with the back of his hand, then went out to collect the day’s eggs. He spoke to the hens, Good morning ladies. I trust you slept well. Madeline, you dreamed of a handsome rooster, yes? He came in smelling of alfalfa, the top of his head hot with sunshine. When he was six or so, I took him to an aviary in Cleveland. We met a peacock with royal blue feathers and a delicate curling crest on the top of its head. It hooted at us, a bursting, excited noise like a party horn. He named it Bettie although I pointed out that it was male. But he’s so pretty, Donald said, and Bettie is my favorite name.
If you open your hand and let it sit on your flat palm it will jump. You can hold it by the legs, by the ankles, like the tiger toe in ini-mini-myni-moe, and it will stretch from your hand and swim through air.
Weston always said that it was a boy’s job to learn the lessons of the natural world. If he is lucky enough to have both the time and the mind for studying, he had best be serious about it. And Donald made it his business to study echoes every time he stepped onto the porch. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted across the lake to the cliff. “Yooooo-hoo! Bonjour, Echo! Bonjour, Mama! Bonjour, Emileeee!” The echo never failed, a playful ghost sending his words back to him.
You will need:
- One medium- to large-sized frog (a small frog will make your cutting and parsing tasks more difficult. Viscera are more easily discerned in a larger specimen, and there is more room to navigate your scalpel. Rana Pipiens, the leopard frog, is a fairly large species (5-7 inch torso), and they are plentiful in the Northern U.S. and southern Canada).
- 15-20 pins
- A scalpel or small, delicate scissors
- A probe or fine-tipped awl
- A dissection tray (a true dissection tray is coated with a bed of wax so that you can insert the pins. A corkboard will also work, but it will not be as easily washed clean after the dissection.)
There was a girl at the lake his last summer. Eleven years old, the same age as Donald. Emily taught him the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees. Deciduous was the word Weston used to describe Donald’s baby teeth, what others call “milk teeth,” the little pearls a child trades with the tooth fairy for a quarter. Donald wanted to know if leaves were like teeth, if they were replaced by bigger, stronger leaves the next year. We looked the word up – it means “fall.” And so he thought of teeth as leaves, molting and drifting. And I thought of children’s teeth as more delicate than I had before, something like fish scales.
On the porch, Donald and Emily ate sandwiches I made for them. They argued about which was the more beautiful flower, trillium or lady slipper.
“Mom, what do you think?” Donald asked, looking for a tiebreaker. I agreed with Emily: the three drooping white petals of the trillium are the loveliest of that forest. They are humble flowers. The puffy yellow lady slipper has always looked carnivorous to me, as do all orchids, with their thick petals and heavy heads, their stamens extruding like sickly fangs. The lady slipper droops like a blister, like the distended throat of a bullfrog. It looks swollen and poisonous, like a goiter.
Rana Pipiens: Leopard Frog. Inspect its circular brown spots, green belly, pale throat. Four toes on its forelimbs and five on its hind limbs. Let it go. Watch it swim deeper through the water until it disappears.
Donald had a science book full of diagrams and instructions for experiments. He and Emily smeared their fingertips with petroleum jelly and pressed them to the side of a jar, then dusted them with flour to study their prints. I helped them make pink dye from beet juice and they dyed old white pillowcases. Donald cut his into two heart-shaped pieces and sewed them clumsily together. I showed him how to turn the heart inside-out, stuff it with cotton, and close the final seam.
Chloroform is the best way to kill a frog for dissection because it leaves the body soft, the skin, skeleton, and skull intact. The frog dies painlessly, as if falling into a deep and gentle sleep. It is, however, difficult to measure a dose of chloroform; the gas is dangerously imprecise.
That day, we killed the frog, instead of watching it swim. That day, Donald dampened a cotton ball with chloroform and dropped it into the jar. Screwed the lid tight. I didn’t watch, but Donald and Emily did, on either side of the jar, eyes wide and unblinking.
When captured, the leopard frog sometimes lets out a shrill, scream-like sound. A few feeble kicks. A half-hearted attempt to scale the steep sides of the jar, its toes spread wide, it slides back to the bottom of the jar. Like a small rock, it sleeps.
Is the frog male or female? A frog’s sex organs, either testes or ovaries, are bean shaped and situated near the kidneys, deep within the frog’s torso, nestled under loops of intestines. While a frog’s body shares many anatomical traits with a human body, the sex organs are distinctly different. Frog eggs travel a winding, threadlike tube through the female’s body and she releases them into the water. A pond becomes the womb, the site of fertilization and growth, keeping the eggs wet and floating. An egg morphs into a tadpole. First, the egg grows a tail, then tiny legs and eyes and organs. The creature begins its double life, breathing both on land and in water, living between worlds.
- Dorsal side: spotted. Brown on dark green.
- Ventral side: smooth. Very pale green. Solid colored.
- 9.5 cm from nostrils to cloaca.
- (Cloaca: a small slit opening in the anterior of the frog through which waste, sperm, or eggs leave the body.)
The diagram showed the places he should cut: a long slice from throat to crotch, and two perpendicular cuts, armpit-to-armpit and hip-to-hip. Donald teased the skin from the muscle, pulled the skin flaps open, and Emily pinned them to the corkboard. He pulled back the muscle (again, Emily pinned) so they could view the organs: stomach, lungs, three-chambered heart.
Donald peered into the body of the frog, splayed open on the corkboard. “Have a look, Mom?” He offered the magnifying glass, polished clean. He kept it in a box, wrapped in chamois. “You can see the liver here.” He nudged it with the tip of his scalpel. “These triangular things. And the stomach is this tube. I’ll cut it open. Maybe there’s a fly in there or something.” He consulted his book. “This is the small intestine.” He prodded a tangle of small coils. “I’m going to remove the digestive system so we can see the lungs and the heart.
I wish that I could breathe through my skin,” said Donald. “That’s why a frog only needs three chambers in its heart, you know. Because it processes gasses through its skin. Oxygen in. Carbon dioxide out.”
Through salt water and waste my child breathed within me, floated in me, breathed through what would one day be his skin. But he led no double life. Like a tadpole, not a frog. He couldn’t have lived outside me then, couldn’t have breathed air, barely had lungs, a nose or mouth.
“What do you think our skin does, besides protect our muscles and organs?” I asked.
(What does our skin do besides contain us? Besides define the borders of our bodies?)
“That’s a lot,” Donald said. “What if we didn’t have skin? We’d be gooey bloody creatures, dripping and oozing. We’d be raw meat.”
Emily read aloud. “The skin is the body’s largest organ. Among other things, it senses pain, which communicates to the brain that the body is vulnerable to danger. The skin can serve as a warning system. Skin also regulates temperature,” she added. “It produces sweat to cool us, or shivers to warm us.”
But human skin doesn’t breathe. What is it like—what does it mean—to breathe through skin? Skin cells swell when they’re well hydrated, but human skin is waterproof too. Such a strange coat.
Donald unpinned one hind leg so he could move it and watch the knee joint. Emily unpinned the other. Together, giggling, they worked the legs as if the frog were swimming a lazy backstroke.
A frog’s ear has no external structure. Two ridges on the sides of its head. Two holes. Two tympanic membranes. A higher voice vibrates the tympanum more rapidly.
In the woods, Donald and Emily compared the fascicles of pine needles. Bundles of two. Bundles of five. White pine. Norway pine. Red pine. Jack pine.
I did not watch them all the time. It was safe there, at the lake. There were artists and writers working in their nooks, their cabins, at the water’s edge. The lake itself was the greatest danger, but they were both strong swimmers.
It was an experiment. Donald said.
Emily took the pins out. Donald closed the flaps of skin and muscle. He lifted the frog from the corkboard.
Using your scissors or scalpel, slice the jawbone at the corners on both sides of the mouth. This will require some pressure: you’re cutting through bone. Now you can open the frog’s mouth wide. You should be able to examine the nostrils on the roof of the mouth, the throat and esophagus.
They were not very scientific about it—the experiment. They took a scarf from the hook in my bathroom—pale blue silk. The chloroform was in a brown glass bottle. Weston had given it to them so they could collect insects and small animals for dissection.
Lift the tongue with the tip of your blade. Note how it is attached at the front of the mouth instead of at the throat. The tongue of a frog is magical—a long, flickery tool for snatching insects from the air midflight.
Pine needles. Midden. Loose scales of last season’s pinecones. He tied her hands loosely in her lap, with a double wrap of rope borrowed from the boathouse. He tied the damp scarf over her mouth and nose. Breathe deeply.
A whisper vibrates the tympanum so slightly. The tiny hairs of the inner ear shiver.
She closed her eyes. You are getting sleepy. Donald stroked her hair. So sleepy.
Cut into the skin of the frog’s inner thigh. With tweezers, pull the skin back, peeling it down to the knee so that you can explore the muscles of the frog’s leg.
He untied the blue scarf, slid it away and touched her face. Her mouth was open. Her breath against his cheek. Unbuttoned a vertical line of buttons. Touched the perpendicular wave of her collarbone. Peeled back the flaps of her dress—not muscle, not skin—dissecting the smooth, washed-soft cotton. Her skin was dry and powdery. Three moles in line on her sternum, like spots on dice. Two small pink nipples, not so different from his own. His fingers were the scalpel, the tips of the tweezers. He drew a line from hip to hip along the elastic band of her underwear. Ran the palm of his hand across her stomach. Counted her ribs.
When Donald was four, I found him in a closet with the neighbor boy, also four. I reached for a tablecloth on a high shelf and heard them laughing. They were naked and crouching behind a row of winter coats. The neighbor boy clutched a wooden truck. I pulled them out by their wrists, one at time, smacked their bottoms. My palm stung. Where are your clothes? The neighbor boy bubbled with high-pitched giggles. He zigzagged through the kitchen, a wild animal, so small and pink and laughing. But Donald sat on the floor at my feet. Donald cried.
Her breath against his cheek. Emily, he said, insistently, but she didn’t wake. A line of sweat on her forehead. Donald held her hand, rubbed at it anxiously.
Unpin the frog and turn it dorsal side up. Cut a small rectangle in the skin on top of its head, beginning near the nose, between the eyes.
A child lives a double life. An adult body still houses a child.
Two children, (boy/girl), each with bony shoulders, and nearly identical flat chests. They measure themselves against each other, back to back. Each to the other, they press their matching spines. They play each other’s like piano keys.
In the forest they find a hoof and a deer spine, picked clean, the vertebrae in a line like a puzzle, a row dominoes set to clatter. So like their own knuckled spines.
They open their mouths. Press each other’s tongue with a depressor stolen from Weston’s leather bag. Say ahhh.
Blooming garden of taste buds. Dark tunnel of the throat. Ahhh.
The leopard frog will eat anything it can swallow: ants, bottle flies, spiders, beetles, etc. The tongue unfurls, catches its prey, then flings the morsel into the frog’s throat.
Her shallow breath against his cheek. Emily, he says.
More loudly. Emily.
Remove a patch of skin from the skull to make a portal through which you can remove the brain, but don’t press too hard or cut too deep. Avoid slicing into the brain so that you can examine it whole.
There was to be a talk that evening at the lodge. A watercolor artist would discuss his techniques and show his work. I wanted Donald and Emily to help move chairs around in the living room so there would be room for more people to sit. I called to them from the back porch.
Possible Effects of Chloroform on Human Beings (when used as an anesthetic or to induce deep sleep):
- Possible nausea and vomiting
- Skin rash or lesions where skin has made contact with the liquid
- Brain damage
- Kidney and/or liver failure
He came running from the woods. Explaining something and pulling my hand, but I couldn’t understand what it was. An experiment. An experiment. Breathing too fast.
When we got to her, she was awake and sweating. Her eyelids were heavy, but she sat up and smiled at us, a slow smile. She said she saw perfect things. Tied to a clothes line. A cork jacket and a paddle. An upside down bouquet. They drifted before me and turned round. They danced with each other. She sighed. I have such an awful headache. She lay back down.
Donald and I helped her back to the lodge. I gave her a glass of water with mint. She sat on the sofa and pressed a cold compress to her forehead. Her buttons were mismatched with their holes. Let me help you. One of her shoes was untied. I unbraided and re-braided her smooth hair.
We wanted to know what it was like. Donald said. I was going to try it next, after she woke up. He fluttered his hands as if there were something sticky on them.
Donald. Bring me the chloroform. A brown glass bottle. I poured it down the kitchen sink and rinsed it.
The frog was on the back porch, still pinned to the corkboard, drying. One forelimb was folded in over the muscle as if the frog was covering its own heart. It was brown now, the skin flaps brittle leaves. Nothing about it looked as if it had ever been alive.
I sent Emily home to her mother, who never came by, never said a word.
The next winter, Donald died from an infected root canal. Weston and I returned to the lake only once. Emily was there, a few inches taller, her hair longer, but still stick straight, a gangly girl, only twelve. I watched her standing at the shoreline, skipping stones or sitting on the pier, but more often she was on the porch of her family cabin reading books.
I paddled with her one afternoon, across the lake to the rock. We did not speak much, but she said that she missed Donald. That no one tested the echo anymore. We reached the rock and paddled close enough to inspect the pictographs. The gray rock is streaked red with iron that bleeds like an error, like haphazard city graffiti, but some of the marks are animal shapes with backs like combs, with teeth, the hollow forms of beasts. And between them are small pocks of darkness, holes plugged with offerings of sap.
Emily leaned out of the canoe and pressed her mouth to a hole. She whispered something I could not hear, then turned to press her hands and her ear to the rock, as if to hear an answer whispered back to her. Maybe there were other voices caught there—ancient ricochets and murmurs that only she could hear.
Do I remember him inaccurately? Do I exaggerate his wit, his tenderness? He was incomplete. In remembering, I also create him; I fix him in my mind. A boy who lives refuses to be pinned down, eschews delineation, is never fixed in the silver of a photograph. But a boy who dies is unchanging.
In my memory he is like a charcoal drawing—a few hasty strokes, some color, the implication of volume, of moving fingers, each with a trimmed nail. Blond curls. One dimple. Small white teeth like pearls in a garden. The fine hairs upon his arms shine. On his knee is a faint scar, a kidney-shaped patch of nubbled skin—evidence that he learned to ride a bike, and that it was not easy. He ripped off the band-aid and it left an outline of gray gum. He picked at the scab. For days, he watched its perimeter shrink inward as it healed, like a lake evaporating in the desert. He inspected the visible pores with his magnifying glass, the stippled topography of the scar, one inch wide, curved below the inside of the right knee cap, two and half inches long.