a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
in the willow river, i almost stepped on a frog’s head that looked just like my dead father’s. not my father’s dead head, but his alive one. he’s been dead a couple years now, so i could be mistaken. he didn’t have a particularly froggy head, per se, but this frog had his same smooth, green eyes. he told me to be careful. croaked it, of course.
the reason i was even in the river was, well, because i wanted to be. everyone told me not to do it, but i come here every day. the current consensus is that the water is now scalding the skin. i’ve been coming to the river several years now, and i only have to apply some lotion afterwards due to mild itchiness. it’s really all about avoiding the algae, but i take two sticks and swim between the middle part, like the red sea. as i stared at my frog father, mud stuck to my feet and minnows kissed the cuts that barbed up and down my legs, like a scar in the shape of a tongue. though i’m sure i received these nicks in my daily swims, i only noticed it after we put my father into the ground. i’d like to believe, the day my father died, as i tried to lick his skin from the disease, the Earth branded me, a reminder that it wasn’t my fault. i have yet to listen.
james was sitting on a rock, dry and fully dressed despite the hot spring day. he covered himself repeatedly with bug spray before we left. i rubbed SPF 60 into each crevice of his skin, behind his ears, even, and kissed each shoulder, kissed all that i could of his protected body.
“yeah, what’s up.”
“come look at this frog.”
james groaned. “yeah, no thanks.”
“it will only take a second. you won’t even get wet.”
“i could. it could jump on me, and then i would die.”
the frog didn’t move, it was so still, and at first i was convinced it was dead. but then it blinked. i wondered if he was ok. if he had a family. i have to say i’m not sure how many frogs are left, but they have to be endangered, right? what species wasn’t? no one around here really knew anymore, or, at least, no one could keep up.
i heard muffled giggles and then a huge splash and the frog ribbetted and hopped away.
three small children ran up beside me, laughing and splashing. they were all wearing full wetsuits with a breathing mask. one child was found dead in their bed after a swim, so a lot of parents started this routine. i can’t say i don’t blame them, but i also can’t say i care anymore, to keep fighting back against nature’s fighting back. i was just wearing my favorite wading tee, a faded black one from the thrift, with some cut-offs and wading shoes. who i assumed was their mother was wearing a hoodie and long pants. she eyed me as she walked by, her wet and heavy blue jeans cuffed and still soaked, her wading shoes, rubber on rubber, must feel like weights.
she opened her mouth as she walked by me, but i caught her eyes. there looked to be slow tears in them. i refused this heavy gaze, full of either nostalgia or pity. in my defiance, she either decided not to speak or had nothing to say in the first place. i believe after the internet age peaked and fizzled, people got so tired of talking, so tired of yelling, folks either went full on The End is Nigh or became the opposite, no longer sharing dead thing after dead thing, but mute, tired. we all knew. we all knew.
she walked on by, and i turned back to james who was sitting on the hillside just above me. he raised his eyebrows as if to say i told you so. i was soaking wet from the children’s splashing. but my father was gone, my frog father. in his place was a small indention in the mud.
“he had my father’s eyes.”
“that boy did?”
“no, no. the frog.”
i heard james rustling as he worked to get up in his heavy, layered clothing.
“you don’t have to come over here. i’ll come back.”
i felt his body soften, though we weren’t near enough for touch. “no, i’ll come.”
i was standing on a lip of land, the smallest wave rustling over my feet, tides the family had made. he stood up on the cliff behind me, held my shoulder in the cusp of his palm.
“did the frog have welts?”
my shoulder tensed quickly, a sharp pain shot through my entire body in vertigo. i remembered my father’s face clearly this time. his fallen eyes, and just underneath, pox on pox on pox. he was one of many who were stuffed into silicone hospitals, plastic wrapped like the rest of the world. inside was death death death. outside was death waiting to happen. “fuck you.”
“what the hell? i’m just trying to help!”
i turned to look at james, who moved further away again. he covered his mouth, breathed in through the sleeve of his hoodie.
“i’m … i’m sorry.”
he stopped breathing and looked up at me, bit down on his exposed fingers.
i couldn’t look at him. i studied the place in the mud where the frog used to be. “it’s ok.”
i tensed my brows, my jaw. i tasted the inside of my lip. “he had his eyes. he spoke to me.”
james snorted, and i shot him a look. he burst out laughing. snot came out his nose and he was in such a fit that i chuckled a little too, inside, but i turned away and tensed even harder so he couldn’t see. he tried muffling his convulsions, and when i looked at him again, his eyes were bloodshot.
“i’m sorry. i couldn’t help it. after everything… i couldn’t help it.”
i climbed up the cliff. i hopped onto the mossy embankment and lifted myself up. “let’s go.”
“wait. i didn’t laugh cause i was making fun of you. i laughed—”
he paused to breathe deep, diaphragm to nose. a technique. a practice in staying alive.
“i laughed because i believe you.”
my body collapsed a little. and then, i started in on the laughing fit. we both howled so hard that we fell into each other and our tears and snot dripped and smeared, but we didn’t care. we fell right onto the earth, right where the fallen lichen lay and diseased rabbits had their babies and the river barfed mucous in the shape of all its rotten and forgotten fish. after awhile, we just laid there and listened. the river trickled over rocks and every once in awhile a bush shivered as a squirrel swooped inside it. mosquitos made way to our skin, but we let them. they sucked us up as we fell asleep to a chorus of frogs croaking: save yourselves save yourselves save yourselves.
celina mcmanus (they/them) is a poet, educator, and gardener from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, Cherokee territory, living on ceded Dakota land in St. Paul, MN. They are of the first cohort to graduate from the Randolph MFA and have work published in various journals, including two Best of the Net nominations. They teach English, Creative Writing, and Environmental Literature at Century College.