Before getting trapped in the swimming pool filter, the frog had not been aware of time and death. He had never reflected on the course of his life or thought about what he was and what would become of him. He had kept his eyes on the small stirring things in the world: a fly darting, a gnat drifting, the crickets quivering in the grass.
The swimming pool had been peppered with bugs. They had dashed across the surface or bobbed around near death. The frog had plopped in and felt a sting of chemicals. For a long time, he had swum around, until he had become exhausted. The filter had drawn him in then, gently into its mouth.
Once he crossed into the filter, he changed. He knew he was going to die. Normal frogs don’t think about death, not consciously. But in the filter, amid cast-off leaves and motionless bugs, he considered his fate. He was trapped, with nothing to eat and nowhere to go; he would die, his body embalmed in chlorinated water.
In this state the young girl found him. She hoisted the sodden filter basket and smiled down at him. Her face was thin, and her skin was pale and almost as translucent as an egg sac. When her hand closed over the frog’s cool flesh, he was too tired to struggle against it. Whether or not she’d kill him remained to be seen. For now, he was alive, with the sun starting to stir his cold blood. He twitched, and her grip tightened. She took him into her house.
A terrarium was already prepared for him. “Before I went to the hospital,” the girl said, talking at his face, “I had a pet newt. My mom and dad took care of him for me, but he died.”
The terrarium wasn’t a bad home: four glass walls, half water and half muddy soil inside, with a sagging plant and a rough flat rock that caught the sun through the window. If the frog wished, he could sit in the open without a worry of snakes, lizards, and birds. He could submerge in the brown green water, duck behind the plant, or squirm into the muddy crevice beneath the rock.
But when the girl wanted him to come out, he had no choice. Her fingers probed him out of every hollow. There were only so many places he could hide, cringing into the glass. She could lift the rock, shake him free of the plant, pursue him into the muddy shallows. Out on the open grass the frog would have eluded her with neat little hops, but in the confines of the tank he couldn’t get away.
“My name’s Celia,” she said. “Your name is Cricket. That way we both start with the same letter.”
It was strange to call a frog by one of the creatures he eats, but it wasn’t as if Cricket could object. Celia held him close to her mouth and cooed his name at him, the syllables coming out in a sticky whisper. Sometimes when she talked to him her words were soft and skimmed over his skin, her breath puffing on his multiple eyelids. Other times she spoke in an excited patter, spitting out the words like hail, and Cricket kept his eyeballs flat and his body bunched up.
“How long do frogs live?” she asked him one day. Her hands curled around him, holding him just tight enough to make his breath hurry.
He rubbed against her palms with his ropey legs, and her hands tilted, tipping him back and forth. He couldn’t get used to her skin; sometimes it was dry and flaky, other times oily or salty wet. Through his own skin he absorbed her secretions.
“They don’t live very long. That’s what I read.” Her voice was a whisper. “How much longer do you have left? How old are you?” She raised him up to eye level and stared at his flickering throat.
She began to explore him. With her fingertips she unfurled his hind-legs, held each one out straight. “In France people eat frog legs. Isn’t that gross?” She touched her brittle fingernails to his eyes, until he submerged them in his head. She took him to the bathroom, set him in the bathtub, and poked his hindquarters, urging him to hop. At first he resisted.
“Come on,” she said. “Like this, see?” She got up and hopped a few times on the bathmat, then laughed. “I’m happy I can hop. I couldn’t for weeks. I was tired all the time.” She poked him again. “Hop!”
Cricket leapt a few times, thudding against the basin, while Celia clapped. He didn’t understand what was amazing. But if it pleased her so much, maybe she would take him out of the terrarium more often and set him loose in the tub. There was more room to test his strength, to leap longer distances and keep himself quick and spry for his return to the wild. Though he was safer in her home than he had ever been outdoors, he didn’t like to think that he would one day die in confinement like her old pet newt.
He hopped again, bumping his nose against the side of the tub. She laughed, and her hands snapped around him like the jaws of a carnivorous plant.
She brought him food, mostly crickets in a diaphanous bag that she punctured and tipped open into the terrarium. Sometimes she would place the bag on the terrarium lid. Cricket knew he couldn’t get to the insects this way, but the sight of them milling and twitching above him overrode all sense. He’d leap and leap, banging his nose against the lid. He was little better than a cricket himself, locked in a dumb insectile dance.
Celia would always laugh and say, “Don’t worry, I’ll feed you. It’d be really mean if you thought you were going to eat and didn’t get anything.”
After she shook the crickets into the terrarium she liked to peer inside. Cricket never minded her staring and ate as if she wasn’t there.
She could never see the slick whip of his tongue as he snagged his prey, but whenever he swallowed a cricket she liked to trace the contour of its body, bulging out against his skin as it slowly broke down in his belly. “Is it still alive in there or does it die quickly?” she wondered.
One time a cricket escape, leaping out of the terrarium before Celia could close the lid. For three nights it chirped in the darkness of the room, a lonely sound, while Cricket floated, stomach distended in the water, and wondered if the insect would ever find its way outside. On the fourth night it quieted, dying beneath the baseboards.
Few people visited Celia. One of them was another girl who thought Cricket was gross; the one time she held him he urinated nervously, and she nearly dropped him. “You have to wash your hands after you hold him,” Celia told her. “That’s why I get to keep him, because my mom made me promise to always wash my hands.”
“You’re weird,” the other girl said.
Cricket didn’t fare any better with his own kind, on the two occasions when Celia brought another frog to his tank. The first one she called Mawk, because that’s the sound he made when she poked him on his rear. Aside from basic urges, Cricket had little in common with Mawk, who had no awareness of anything beyond the present moment, no care for who he was, where he was, and how long he would stay there. Cricket looked on him as a creature with the mind of an insect and winced whenever Mawk made one of his grotesque sounds. Cricket never made a sound.
Mawk died soon after arriving. He stiffened, and his mouth ballooned with pus. Celia gagged as she fished him out by the disintegrating web of his foot and dropped him with a rustle into an empty cricket-bag. His cloudy eye stared at Cricket, and Cricket stared back, his breathing speeding up.
Celia’s mother declared that the terrarium was now too full of germs, and that they’d have to clean it out. Cricket spent the rest of the day in a jar by the window, in an inch of lukewarm water with no space to move.
The next frog that Celia brought in was a much smaller one, sleek, dark and frisky. She called him Shadow, an odd name as he was terrible at blending with the dark; he liked to sit on the rock, skip with a prim plop into the water, and skitter across the shallows on his skinny short legs. Cricket ate him after a hungry stretch of time in which Celia forgot to feed them. She had disappeared for a few days, and had returned to spend most of her time in bed. When she roused herself enough to peek inside Cricket’s tank, she squealed. His stomach was lumpy and contorted. The tip of Shadow’s foot peeped out of his mouth.
“How could you?” she cried. “He was supposed to be your friend.”
Cricket stared back at her, unmoved.
“You were supposed to look out for him.”
He swallowed the last of Shadow’s foot.
He wondered sometimes why Celia kept him. He didn’t respond to her words, and aside from a twitch or a hop he didn’t react to her finger tapping on his skull or stroking down his spine.
She wanted him to learn different tricks; that he endured her handling was not enough. She prodded him through a maze of toilet paper rolls, book tents, spoon bridges, and mounds of pebbles. She played a pulsing music and poked him to jump in time with it. She was trying to force him past a frog’s limitations.
“You’re going to be the strongest, smartest frog ever,” she said.
The last trick she ever tried teaching him was to hit soap bubbles with his tongue. They tasted like dead stinging insects.
One time he attempted escape.
Escape didn’t require a complex plan. While sitting cross-legged with him on the floor, Celia had relaxed her hold on his legs, and in a wild spurt he leapt from her fingers and bounded for the dresser. He heard her lunging in pursuit, but he vanished into the darkness well before her hands could come down on him.
Escape wasn’t as simple as he’d thought it would be. Beneath her dresser were socks, dust balls, and doll parts. The air was cool and dark but dry, and after a short while his skin began to feel sticky. He wasn’t entirely safe either; Celia used a pencil to prod the crevice beneath the dresser, and he had to waste strength darting around it.
After a while she stomped out of her room. When he was sure she wasn’t shortly on her way back, Cricket began to hop the perimeter of the room, looking for a chink in the wall, a little pore just large enough for him to squeeze through and expel himself into the outdoors.
Nothing. Beneath the baseboards was a dry hot wasteland. The mucous on his skin shriveled. Dust gritted each layer of his eyes. He labored for breath.
In her closet, he picked through crackling papers, itchy clothes, a clutter of old toys and dusty animals with dead beaded eyes. He darted into discarded plastic cups; there wasn’t a trickle left in them. The carpet scratched his belly. Even the one gnat he snagged was no more appetizing than a dust mote. He was exhausted, suffocating slowly through the dryness of his skin.
The room darkened, and the frog crept into the open and sat very still. At last he heard the girl approach; he sensed the slow care with which she swung the door open and tiptoed in. She flicked on the harsh light, and for once he didn’t shy from it. He remained in the open, in a dignified crouch, awaiting the cradle of her hand. He sat limp in her palm as she stroked an oily finger down his back.
“Hey, Cricket,” she whispered.
Cricket wanted the water in his home; he wanted to breathe again, if only in the confines of the terrarium. Celia lowered him into the water; it rushed over his skin and coaxed the mucous to seep out over every creaking joint.
He was alive again, to the fullest extent a frog in a terrarium could be. Through the splattered walls of his home he watched the girl, her head resting against the window. She looked to be recovering from his escape just as much as he was. She cupped her hands around her eyes, to shade them from the last of the day’s sunlight.
Cricket remained with Celia for a long time; he didn’t know how long. He lost nearly all sense of seasons in the constant warmth of her room; nothing called him to hibernation. A sense of the outdoors came to him mainly through her window and its noisy screen that rattled at the approach of storms and shivered in the mild play of a breeze.
After his escape attempt she took him out of his home less often. Without the extra breadth of movement, he withered. In his home he had room enough to hop but not to leap; he could muster a few strokes through the water until his nose hit glass. There was no way to test his strength while in confinement. Were he to be set loose one day, on a dewy lawn or among a tangle of tree roots, he wasn’t sure how quick and keen to live he’d be.
On a cloudy afternoon Celia slid back the lid on his tank and fished him out. He didn’t resist her. She sat down at her desk and held him up to her face.
“They did tests to see if I’m still sick,” she said.
Cricket was silent as ever, his throat throbbing with his breath. After all this time he was still unused to her clumsy, clutching hands. But he knew by now that they posed no danger to him.
“You know what I’ve wanted to do for the longest time?” With a little laugh she brought him close to her mouth and kissed him, her lips grazing his eyeballs.
She laughed again and rubbed her sleeve against her mouth. “I didn’t really think you were a prince.” Her smile faded, and her hands suddenly tightened around his body. It was stronger than her normal grip, and too much for him to bear. His sides puffed; his legs twitched and tried to launch him forward. He couldn’t move. His mouth yawned open and the barest little ‘crick’ came out of him, like a muscle tearing after long disuse.
Celia shuddered when she heard it. She dropped him on the desk and started crying. Had he wanted to, he could have cleared the side of her desk and tried again to escape. Instead he stayed where he was, his jaw slowly closing and his breath easing. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She scooped him back up and dropped him into his home, where he floated in the weak sunlight from the window.
The day she let him go was slightly cool. He tasted winter and wasn’t sure how distant it was. He was terrified, knowing that he would die but not when or how.
She wasn’t quick to part with him. For a while she strolled around her backyard and kept him cupped in her hands, her thumbs tucked against his belly. “I have to go back to the hospital,” she said at last. “I can’t keep you.”
She stopped at a patch of weeds by a fence. Cricket imagined a hundred snakes hidden in those weeds. Only her presence kept them at bay, and they’d surface once she released him and turned away.
The warm cage of her fingers pressed around him once, tightly, before loosening. “Stay alive for as long as you can,” she said. She pressed her lips to her palm and then touched her hand to his eyes. He twitched. She crouched and settled him on the ground. The weeds sprang slick, sharp and moist around him, and he trembled. She stood over him as if she’d just hatched him; he considered how, back in his home, she had always been there, a large shape in his horizon, her hands whisking the lid off his tank and swooping in to seize him. He used to squirm against her fingers, shiver in her palm.
At his moment of release, with the girl poised above him, the frog couldn’t move. He sat quivering among the sounds, smells, and sights of the world.
She left. Her steps cracked against the soil and grass; they soon faded into the wild stir of the outdoors. Around him the world seethed and hissed, rustled and gushed. The girl no longer existed. He took a tentative hop, and the memory of his name faded. He stopped thinking about what he had been and what would be. Only the moment existed, the bright and wretched moment. For this one moment, he was alive.