FROG-GIVENESS - David Lynch
I stood outside the grey vacation house, a few blocks from the ocean. I was impatient and wanted to go to the beach, and couldn’t understand why my mother was having trouble getting out of bed. The morning fog had burned away. My sister toddled around in the living room. I had been up since 5:45 a.m., anticipating making multi-spired dribble castles with wet sand. Now it was almost lunch time. I was eight years old, and it seemed like a month had passed since I awoke.
I wandered to the creek alongside the house with my red plastic bucket and scooped up some algal water and a few dozen tree frogs. When I returned, I put the bucket on a brick patio shaded by a large eucalyptus tree. The roots of the tree had lifted some of the bricks; many of them were loose.
The tiny green frogs were frisky. A few leapt out of the bucket and onto the patio. I picked up a loose brick and dropped it on a frog. I heard was the >bink!< sound of brick hitting brick, not the squishy-crunchy noise I expected to hear.
I lifted the brick and examined the splat. I felt grey and dispassionate inside, like I imagined a scientist would feel. The surviving frogs stared from the red plastic bucket. Their blank, primordial faces and widely-spaced eyes had no qualities that might have evoked empathy in me. Another frog escaped the bucket and I compressed it with another cascading brick.
A few months before, I felt like my innards would implode when I stepped on my pet chameleon by mistake. Rag Doll by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons was playing on the radio when I stepped on the chameleon. Even now when I hear the chorus of that song, I remember the crunch of the lizard beneath my shoe. My mother rushed out and found me crying. She and her sister-in-law interrupted their visit and bought me another lizard at the pet store, but it did not comfort me. My carelessness had caused the death of a creature, and I couldn’t forgive myself.
But this was way worse. With the frogs, I had delivered death with purposeful intent.
I was still reeling from the school year. I had been initially excited about skipping from grade one to grade three. My excitement was literally batted away by the older, burlier boys who delivered gut punches with taunts of “Poindexter” and “brainiac.” I purposely made mistakes on my school work, underachieving to try and fit in. The boys only beat me worse.
I implored my mom to let me transfer back to second grade. She refused. My teacher didn’t understand why I was under-performing, and thought a whacks with a wooden ruler might motivate me. The beatings in the classroom and on the playground continued until the end of the school year. A few days into our stay at the beach house, the last of the bruises faded from my skin.
I stared at the cluster of splats that had been frogs. I thought of my pet chameleon, and emotion returned to my belly like an electric shock. What had third grade done to me? I had become a monster. Tears filled my eyes as I released the bucket of surviving frogs back into their habitat. I apologized for annihilating their comrades. I sobbed under the eucalyptus tree until 1:00 pm, when my mother emerged from her amphetamine hangover, fed me, and took us to the beach.
As I swam in the ocean, I hoped a leviathan would glide in on a foamy wave and consume me in righteous revenge so I could release the guilt that slithered in my gut.
For years afterward, I couldn’t escape the image of the daisy-shaped splats of custardy guts on the patio. The memory became my Dostoyevskian burden, resurrected whenever I felt like I didn’t deserve to walk the planet, a notion the nuns reinforced in my catechism class.
The nuns seemed to think that none of us deserved to be alive - not even the kids who hadn’t sinned as gravely as I had.
The Catholic Church teaches that murder is a mortal sin. Lesson Six of the Baltimore Catechism (the rigid Catholic guidebook I was expected to memorize and recite), states that mortal sin "deprives the sinner of sanctifying grace, the supernatural life of the soul...mortal sin makes the soul an enemy of God, takes away the merit of all its good actions, deprives it of the right to everlasting happiness in heaven, and makes it deserving of everlasting punishment in hell.”
I figured that if mortal sin takes away the merit of all good actions, then there was no way I could redeem myself on earth. It didn’t matter how many times I spun the rosary, or helped little old ladies across the street, or went into the little dark booth to confess my sins. And if I no longer had supernatural afterlife, then I couldn’t do time in Purgatory to pay off the frog murders. So according to the catechism, my fate was an eternity wearing a brimstone leisure suit while Satan’s imps jabbed me with their tridents.
The frogs haunted me constantly for a few years, then less often after I finished parochial school and went on to high school and college. I focused on getting passable grades, chasing girls and getting high (not necessarily in that order).
I had managed to tuck the amphibian assassinations into a deep fold of my brain's temporal lobe. The recollection emerged every six months or so, waving a banner emblazoned with the word MURDERER in frog-green letters. I had since decided that the Baltimore Catechism was blessed bullshit, though there was still a niggling voice in my head asking, “What if it isn’t?"
In the summer of my 20th year, I took my first trip to Yosemite National Park with my friend Chuck. After a tedious Greyhound bus ride that stopped at every drink-water town in California’s inland valley, we arrived at Yosemite Lodge with all our possessions stuffed into the backpacks we lugged on our shoulders. We headed for Sunnyside Walk-In Campground, where backpackers could camp for free.
Sunnyside was located in a grove of majestic Lodgepole Pine trees. The floor of the camp was covered in a bed of pine needles 6” thick. Walking on the pine needles was a joy. The springy carpet cushioned every step. Moisture quickly wicked down through the needles, leaving the top layer dry and comfortable. We rolled out our sleeping bags on the natural cushion and slept better than in our own beds at home.
We made Sunnyside our base camp, and from there explored the upper rim of the valley. We slept at the top of Nevada Falls and Half Dome. We hiked up Yosemite Falls and over to North Dome, then down to the mouth of Tenaya Canyon.
As I backpacked through the national park, I bore the pain of my inability to travel light. I had loaded my pack with 85 pounds of food and gear, half of which I didn’t need. My legs cramped halfway through each day.
“Why are you carrying so much stuff?” Chuck asked. “Is it a Catholic thing? Some kind of atonement?”
“Catholics call it penance,” I told him.
“You should convert,” Chuck said. “We pray and fast for one day: Yom Kippur. We atone, we repent, and then we're good for the rest of the year."
When we returned to the walk-in camp, a thunderstorm roiled in the distance. I took our clothes to the park’s laundromat while Chuck stayed behind. It rained sideways in every direction as I washed our clothes. When I returned, I found Chuck slumbering under a neighbor’s lean-to.
“You were lucky! You missed one hell of a frog-drowner,” Chuck mumbled as he stirred.
Even though it had poured all afternoon, the water percolated down through the carpet of pine needles, leaving it bone dry. As dusk fell, I sat with my back against the thick trunk of a pine and rolled a joint. A young woman named Marianne came by to beg a few tokes. By the time the last smear of deep blue left the evening sky, we were mellow and content.
At the far side of the camp, a group of people began shrieking.
“What’s all the hubbub?” Chuck asked. “They’re messing up my mellow!”
The high-pitched squeals approached closer as campers nearer to us joined in the yelping chorus. Their screams approached us like a shock wave, and I, too, wondered what the ruckus was about. Within 30 seconds, we knew.
I was instantly covered with tree frogs — hundreds of them. I was wearing shorts and no shirt. I felt hundreds of clammy knob-toes on my exposed skin. As soon as a frog landed on me, it sprung away, quickly replaced by the next frog in the lineup. Hundreds of frogs leaping on and off my body felt oddly sensual, like a clammy shimmering.
I wished it wasn’t dark, because I wanted to see this mass of a million frogs forming a viridian, buffalo-esque, mini-stampede.
“Ick!” Marianne yelped.
“This is gross!” Chuck said.
“I think it feels kinda cool,” I said.
“You’re weird,” Marianne laughed.
As everyone around me writhed, shouted and flicked away the frogs, I sat calmly and let the frogs flow over me.
I hoped it would last longer - I knew the odds were slim that I would ever again experience such a phenomenon.
The event was over in a few minutes. The clammy, green charge moved Westward. I was sad to feel them go.
As I expelled a sigh of mixed delight and disappointment, I swear I heard in the air a faint, croaky voice whisper, “We forgive you."
I immediately thought of the frogs I killed when I was eight.
Over the years, I had I tried unsuccessfully to rationalize my crime: if I hadn’t killed the frogs, maybe a hungry crow or snake would have eaten them anyway? No good — I wasn’t part of their food chain. I didn’t kill the frogs for my sustenance. I killed them to feel powerful. I killed them because after third grade, I felt like I had been squashed by a few bricks myself, and I wanted to feel un-squashed. But that was no excuse for marching to the bottom of the vertebrate order and killing tiny creatures simply because I felt tiny inside. All these years later, I could find no acquittal for what I had done.
Yet in that moment at the campground, the frogs had granted me absolution — an absolution I was convinced I didn’t deserve. I told myself that this was some nonsense rationalization I had concocted in my mind — but in my gut, I knew it was so.
I still think back to that evening at Sunnyside Walk-In Campground, when the throng of tree frogs danced across my skin. I remember the voice that whispered in my head, soft as the evening breeze that brushed the tips of the Lodgepole Pines: the voice that murmured, “We forgive you."
Forty years later, I know all I need do is accept their forgiveness. I’m still working on it.
David Lynch is a graphic designer, writer, Appalachian fiddler, choruster, and proto-hermit who lives with his Boston Terrier Oscar in a Civil-War-era cabin in West Yancey County, North Carolina.