Instructions for Failure

Janet Benton

Day after day the frogs stayed nearly motionless, the male on the female’s back, his front legs wrapped around her neck, her front legs clinging to the rim of one of the old bathtubs we’d made into lily ponds.

I worried about those frogs. Humping, hearts thumping. I told you about them as we cooked dinner, and we turned the flames low and stepped into the warm spring darkness to see. You shone a flashlight on them for a long time, too long, and they looked terrified, about to explode, but didn’t move from their posts. Finally, perhaps frightened at the pulsating of the male frog’s chest, their motionless dark eyes, you turned the sharp light into our eyes. You curved your tall frame over my back and held my neck, simulating their position. You joked, “How would you like some guy hanging on you for days like that?” The truth is I wouldn’t have minded, if something permanent had come of it.

We went inside and finished making dinner—the fuse in the kitchen had blown again so we cooked by candlelight—and we ate our rice and chicken and greens out back on the redwood table you’d built, candles illuminating our hands as we raised forks to mouths, listening to the frogs glub-glubbing. A big owl screeched, leaving its home at the top of our palm tree for a night of mousing, its wings outspread, its eyes bulging. During the day I often picked up hard packets of mouse skin and teeth and bones at the foot of that tree; I snapped them in half to look at the tiny mouse teeth in rows, the desiccated body. The owl must have strong muscles in its throat or its stomach to squeeze out all the living flesh and blood.

The next morning those two frogs hung in the same position, his pulse fainter, hers submerged. The other tubs we’d made into ponds were empty, their night visitors having easily achieved their intents.        

“Are they sick?” I asked you. “Can they eat?” 

“They won’t let themselves die there,” you said. “It wouldn’t be natural.” 

I thought of them while at work, and once home I was relieved to find them moist and alert. But the next morning, as you took your long shower, I walked out with my mug of fragrant tea into the bright heat and they were motionless, their eyes closed, their skin dried out. Only her face and throat protruded above water, and all the rest was hidden by the lily pads surrounding them. At their necks I saw no pulse. I put my hand in the soft water and splashed to moisten his tautening back. No response. Creamy white lilies craned toward me like big ears with roots.

“They’re dead,” I said to the ears. What could I do with these dead frogs? I could bury them. I could shovel up dirt behind the compost pile and throw them in. But what if they were still alive, even just barely? They would jerk apart in the dirt, get covered with it. Maybe his dry skin would burst open from the fall. 

My underarms started dripping. I went through the back door into the kitchen and started measuring oatmeal into a pot. Then I walked to the sink to add water and peeked out the kitchen window, and the frogs were no longer in their place. I pulled open the screen door and ran out. They had moved to the other side of the tub, his heartbeat was visible again, and his right eye twitched while I looked on. His arms were now wrapped under hers, as though holding her up, and then I thought with a start, Is she the dead one? Is he clinging to a corpse, waiting for it to drop eggs? But her webbed hands were outstretched, holding on to the tub. Dead things don’t hold on, I thought.

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