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Gathering

Childhood is a daze. That’s why I don’t remember that Easter morning. I don’t remember scurrying around with my cousins through the bushes and flowers in my grandparents’ backyard, gathering colorful plastic eggs full of sinfully sweet chocolate. I only know it happened from shiny photographs in dusty albums. What there were not pictures of, however, was Easter night, which sticks in my memory. I remember crossing the invisible line that my grandparents had pointed out to us earlier that morning, the line between the backyard and the forest.

At twilight, with mud caked to our tennis shoes, we gathered twigs and leaves and rocks. A creek into which we stuck the dead branches wound its way through the woods, barely deep enough for any one of us to dip in a foot. None of us had the buckteeth characteristic to beavers, but here we were, building dams. I don’t know why or how it occurred to us to build them, we simply decided to, or, maybe, Nicholas decided to and Katie and I tagged along. We were cousins and not yet old enough to know how different we were or would become. For now, we could build dams together.

The dense forest loomed over us, but only because we were children. In reality, the trees stood wide apart. Light shot through the defenseless canopy of the young oaks and their wispy branches, feeding the little green roots that were beginning to grow out of the soil. It hadn’t snowed all winter, yet we awaited summer as if we had been locked away in Antarctica. The freedom of nature surprised us; free to cover ourselves in filth, to become animals, we gasped and shouted and shone. Some leaves covered the grass and ivy but we gathered mostly twigs. Soft dirt from the creek gathered underneath our fingernails and as the sun began to set we heard the first chirpings of the spring peepers.

Nicholas brought his cupped hands up to my face. His smiling eyes showcased the freckles across the bridge of his nose. He slowly lifted his left hand off of his right, and offered me the small amphibian that croaked underneath. I brought my face close to it, careful not to open my mouth in awe as not to let the little thing hop in. His black-bead eyes stared into mine. I puffed air into and out of my cheeks, imitating the bubble that pulsed below his chin. Then I stopped, and cupped my hand around Nicholas’s hand and under, sliding the slimy brown creature into my palm. Nicholas bent down and grabbed three more in one scoop and then we ran, leaving Katie confused and running after us.

We ran towards the house, up the concrete stairway, and kicked the door with our feet and elbows, unwilling to run the risk of letting our prizes escape. Grandma hobbled over to open the door for us. She jumped backwards with a noise of disgust when we showed her the peepers we had collected and, soon enough, our parents came rushing over to see what the matter could be.

When my aunt exclaimed, “That’s unsanitary!” Katie nodded her head in agreement, returning to the comfort of the indoors. Nicholas and I stood in the doorway, unmoved. We could feel the frogs jumping and sliding in between the faint lines on our palms, their stickiness blending with our sweat. They tickled us. My mother, an ex-biologist, hurried to find a suitable container for the frogs. Soon enough, we plopped them into their new encampment and ran back out into the forest to collect more.

The stream had broken through our dams long before we returned. The water trickled, then rushed over the collapsed branches. It seemed to flow even faster now. However, we didn’t notice. The alarm-like song of the spring peepers blasted in our ears ten times louder than the rock music we would be listening to ten years in the future. We leaped high like our captives, crouched, with knees and elbows bent and hands splayed, learning how to catch them without harming them. We should have learned that we couldn’t, but we didn’t; we didn’t look back to notice their little dead bodies lying in our footsteps. They lined the forest floor, as ample as leaves of grass, so that it would have been impossible not to step on them. Only in remembering did I realize this injustice.

We carried the abundance back to the house, along with some leaves for the frogs to feel more at home in their bowl covered in holey plastic-wrap. We plopped them in, then washed our hands, only to return to them for a few more minutes. They wriggled against the sides of the glass, attempting to escape again and again, but sliding down the sides of the bowls instead. We watched, waiting. Eventually, they sat, still, staring back with black shiny eyes and shiny, wet skin. We could no longer hear them peeping.
Did my mother sneak out later on that night, while we were sleeping, and lift the plastic canopy off of the bowls, crouching down and dumping the frogs onto the lush grass of Grandma’s garden? Did we forget all about them then find them crisp and blackened a week later, under the sink where my Aunt had hid them? Did the dog come sniffing too close when we had left the bowls on the floor after a careful examination of the creatures with our made-in-china magnifying glasses? Did we come back one day and find that they had simply disappeared, no one to blame but ourselves?



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