My complete stories & my book ORPHANS
I go to the swamp to see him just before sunset, figuring on less than an hour before darkness forces me to leave. That's as much as I can take at one time. We once spent entire days down here, and the memory of those good times wrestles with the vibes of these bad times as I walk. Sibling obligations be damned—
At first rainy and now scorching, the summer has left its imprint on the swamp. Lush foliage yields reluctantly as I push through, yet the water is slimy-shallow in many places and completely dried up in others. Here is where you can find tiny brown toads exploring the soft mud cracks and limp grasses. The special ones.
I catch one and take it to him.
He's on his back in the slime, sunning himself. I almost step on him, almost fall over, almost crush the toad in my hand. There are times when I could kick him as easily as help him up. Today, though, he worries me. He's doing the breast stroke in the air, like a confused frog.
"Davy," I whisper, more to remind myself that the naked, mud-caked creature before me is my kid brother than to greet him. "Davy..."
Blank stare. After awhile,recognition glimmers in his eyes. He sits up. This is the part I hate. Palm extended, he demands: "Bring one?" I hand him the toad, which he coddles for a moment. Then a quick swallow and it's gone.
Oh God I'm gonna be sick!!
He smacks his lips and lies down again. Oddly round eyes look up at me. My stomach is jumpy, but I keep my supper.
I ask the ritual question: "You coming home today?"
He gives the ritual answer: "I'm home now."
"You've got to come back this week, Davy! Mom's getting worried about you. She—Dad says...he's worried too!" I was going to tell him that Dad will come out and get him if he doesn't come home. But Dad's never threatened that. Never.
Davy blinks at me with indifference and looks away. "You're the only one who comes here, Chris. You're the only one who's worried."
"Are you dumb! Mom and Dad aren't going to come into a place like this! It's too...slimy!"
He says nothing to this. It's a measure of his "progress": last week he lectured me on my definition of dirty.
Whose dirt, Chris? Yours or the planet's? Are you talking about plastic and cellophane and sheet metal or slimy smelly nature-type dirt? Which are you talking about, Chris?
Today, his reply is to scoop more slimy nature onto his belly and spread it around. A month of soaking in the stuff has dyed him a vague green. Algae and mud add to the effect. I half expect to spot webbing between his fingers and toes. But I don't. Yet.
He makes a sound.
Oh, Lord. It's your game for me, right, Davy? You take a permanent bath in the swamp with frogs on your brain, except you do it so skillfully that I feel like the crazy one. Off the deep end. There's more fear than giggle in that expression suddenly. I answer fear with anger.
"Listen to me, stupid! School starts in a couple of weeks. You'll have to come out of here then!"
"No one will miss me," he says with maddening certainty. "Not when I'm just a frog."
That's it. That just caps the whole thing for me. BOOM! "I come down here every day when no one else will, you ungrateful sonofabitch, and all I get from you is bullshit! You're coming out with me right now! I've had it. You'll catch pneumonia and die! Come on...I'm not kidding!"
He's younger than I am by three years and smaller by twenty pounds. I'll just drag him home and watch him explain his slimy nakedness then. I'm through trying to cover for him.
But he yanks me down instead and I land on top of him with a splush! I thrash out but he slithers away. I'm so mad that I fall over twice trying to stand and chase him.
"You crazy bastard! If you weren't my brother, I'd smash you!"
"Gotta catch me first. And I'm not your brother," he calls out. "Never have been!"
"You're nuts, Davy! You belong in a straight jacket!"
"Then come put me in one or go away!"
I can't catch him and don't really want to anyway. That might produce confrontations that I can't deal with just yet. I leave him. When I get home, I do some explaining to Mom about the mess I'm wearing, but I keep Davy's name out of it. Mercifully, she forgets to ask me about him.
She does that a lot lately.
Still, it's not easy for me at home. I'm a kid brother too, to Rick. He taunts me: "Been to the swamp again, Chris? Playing frog-man?"
I tell him to stick it. He laughs and shakes his head. But I stay away from the swamp for two days. Give Davy some time to think about what he's doing to himself. And give me a break.
Except that I can't clear my head of it. Is Davy really losing his marbles? Will he come back or will the swamp keep him? And why, why does my own sanity seem to depend on what happens out there?
Finally: Friday after sunset. I haven't seen him since Tuesday. I make my way to his last spot and start looking. The little toad in my hand squirms uselessly. Squeaky-legged crickets and throaty bullfrogs warm up for the evening concert. Swamp images don't change; twilight merely replaces vision with sound as the light fades.
There's a charge of tension in the air. Builds with my every step. Anxiety...Davy? Are you there? Yes he is, lying in the slime, all bug-eyed and green, froggier than ever. I shudder.
But I will not be scared off or brushed aside this time. Tonight I am determination personified.
"Go away," he tells me.
I show him the toad. "I brought one, Davy. Here!"
"You eat it."
The thought carries a twinge of nausea. "Cut the crap, Davy! I'm not playing your little game any farther than I already have. Quit acting like a kid! You're too old."
"I am not," he says, but really, I'm not sure whether he says it or I think it. Maybe both.
"Time to get out of the mud and come home, Davy. Summer's over."
"Does it have to be?"
The voice is small, suddenly vulnerable. It disarms me. I look into his eyes, round wells of wonder, and feel a flash of empathy between us. But then his eyes harden again and the channel is closed.
"You've got to listen to me, Davy. You—"
"Eat the toad, Chris. Then I'll listen."
"—can't stay here forever, or even another two weeks—"
It's a command, and I find myself obeying. The creature studies me from my hand: a blank, round-eyed stare. I know it well. I try not to think about it in my mouth, just put it there, one crunch to kill and then swallow.
Nausea geysers up my throat--I'm gonna puke gonna puke gonna puke--but I don't. It recedes slowly, like a deep muscle cramp finally backing off. "Satisfied?" I ask. I can't really see him, it's getting too dark, but I think he nods yes.
"Lie down," he says.
I don't want to. The sky is dark and the woods are black. The slime is cool and soaks through my clothing quickly. I look up at the stars and find the constellations of my youth. Old friends. Lyra, Cygnus, Cassiopeia, the dippers...
Davy's voice comes to me in the background like the narrator of some insane nature travelogue. "It doesn't have to end. Summer. A frog either dies or hibernates. For him, life is one long summer."
"But we're not fr--you're not a frog, damnit! Summer has to end, just like you have to get older. Grow up."
"Tell me why."
"I can't! That just how it is. How things work!"
The slime doesn't feel cool anymore. Lukewarm. Comforting. I splash a little over my legs. "You think that I want to go back to school? Grow up? I wish summer was forever too! But it's not, and wishing won't make it come true. Wishing isn't enough!"
"No, it's not," he agrees. "Not enough."
"You have to believe."
Now which one of us said that? I'm not sure. Doesn't matter. A frog croaks and hops over my feet. I rub some slime on my stomach, feel its warmth. I wonder why I've been so down on Davy for doing this. It feels so nice and where's the real harm?
Is change so powerful that you can't fight it? Is it bad to look back on past happiness in the face of present sorrow? It is wrong to do whatever it is you need to do, to get by?
I don't see how.
By the next afternoon I am so accustomed to my environment that I can hear Rick coming from a hundred yards away.The creatures of the swamp echo his footsteps, vacating his path and tracking him for me. He stops dead when he sees me.
"God, Chris! Is this where you've been all night?" His eyes widen. "Where are your clothes?"
I glance at myself, naked and entwined in the grasses. I don't remember stripping. I look up at him. "Bring one?"
"Bring one what?"
I find a toad in the mud and show him.
He makes a face. "Why should I bring one? You've got plenty here."
"Davy always made me bring one."
I look around for Davy. He's not insight, of course. Gone to hide out or hibernate so I'll have to do his explaining again. Except today I don't feel like explaining much at all.
"Davy?" Rick's face screws up in anger. "Davy, Davy, Davy! Will you cut this 'Davy' crap? I don't care what Mom or the shrink says about 'harmless imaginary playmates!' Davy doesn't exist! You're the youngest. There is no younger brother Davy! You got that, stupid?"
I study the toad silently. Time passes. "Well," Rick says finally. "When are you coming home?"
I look from the toad in my hand to the swamp to the sunny summer sky and finally to Rick.
"Rribbit," I tell him.
copyright (c) 1988 by Steve Schlich
My complete stories & my book ORPHANS