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Life Cycle of a Frog

April 6, 2020

Long, unforgotten years before the day of my biology lab, I spent spring afternoons squatting in the mud beside a frog pond, contemplating the life cycle of amphibians. Spawn, tadpole, frog.

My mother was big on teaching life cycles. In her second-grade classroom, she kept an aquarium, which for a few weeks each spring was home to tadpoles.

My job was to supply them. As soon as the weather began to warm, I headed down to the frog pond, quart-size canning jar in hand. I’d dip the jar into the water to scoop up as many tadpoles as I could. Once in the jar, the wriggling black commas went to school for the children to monitor. When the tadpoles finally sprouted legs and lost their tails, the little froglets were graduated from the second grade, and Mom brought them home for me to dump back into the pond. I like to think of them growing there, unmolested by birds or second-graders, happy in the algae-scummed water.

***

In biology class, our frogs are called specimens. They are alive. They arrive in a plastic shoebox holding about a dozen. I expect a chorus of ribbets and croaks, but the shoebox is silent. Distressed frogs make no sound, I learned later. I wait at my lab station to receive my own personal frog for that day’s lesson. In those days, there was no opt-out, no virtual frog dissection videos, no PETA to protest our experiments. Instead, we each have at our station a diagram, a scalpel, and a sharpened awl arranged beside a tray on which our living frog will be dissected.

***

On warm afternoons at the pond, I gazed in happy revulsion at the frogspawn bubbling up on rafts of green algae. The tapioca-like bubbles each contained a black dot, a future tadpole. The air above the pond stank of decay, but I returned every afternoon to make my observations. For hours and days, I squatted in the mud on the pond’s edge and watched the bubbles. Water sliders skimmed across the still surface of the murky water. I shook my arms to keep the blackflies off. Bass-voiced bullfrogs hid in the reeds and made noises like plucked rubber bands. Ga-plunk. Ga-plunk.

***

In the classroom, teenage boys whoop and joke and pound each other’s backs while most of the girls cower in the back of the classroom squealing and exchanging anxious whispers. I wait, stoic, at my station, waiting to be dispensed a frog.

***

Once, I caught a fat frog and put it into a cardboard shoebox. I punched air holes in the lid so it could breathe. I stuffed dead flies from the windowsill through the holes for food. I lifted the lid from time to time to inspect the frog. When it finally started to look a little thin and peaked, my mother made me take it back to the pond where, presumably, it lived out its happy frog existence. A splash, then silence. As I left, I heard them calling. Ga-plunk, ga-plunk.

***

To render a frog insensate, you must pith it. Pithing requires that you jab an awl into the base of the frog’s skull. The procedure is quick, painless, and paralyzing if done correctly, we are told. The teacher demonstrates, making it look easy. He holds a limp (but not dead) frog aloft to prove the efficacy of the method. Dissection, we are assured, will be a piece of cake. A few girls gag in the back of the room. I hear a sick groan from one of the boys.

Not all of our pithing endeavors go according to plan. The teacher rushes in to complete the job. Frogs do not scream out loud. They writhe.

***

Once, on a dare, I waded into the black water of our frog pond. The silt at the bottom was cold, and it sucked at my feet. I feel sucked in by our biology lesson. I wonder if I’ll ever pull free, if I’ll ever return to the pond.

***

My frog specimen is female. Slice into her belly, part the flesh, and peer inside. Before I can see the beating heart, I have to scoop out all the eggs that overflow the abdominal cavity obscuring the organs. There are a lot of eggs, eggs enough to foam up over rafts of algae on our frog pond in early spring. Ga-plunk, ga-plunk.

Finally, I weep.

###

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