Tuesday, May 07, 2002

TADPOLES
The noises started at night a couple of weeks ago - rumbling snorts and grunts from just beyond the living room window. The sounds came from our tiny courtyard - home to a fake pond and fountain, leafy green plants and two large bullfrogs who were obviously humping their little amphibian brains into ooze. Yes, frogs were mating just a few feet away from my couch potato ass. And that could only mean one thing.

Tadpoles.

Our courtyard pond is not only a mosquito breeding ground and boundless generator of viscous mud, it's also the perfect location for lusty frogs to bump uglies and drop a few hundred tadpoles. The humping noises come first, followed days later by itsey, bitsey visitors breaking the surface of the water. Within a week or two, the fake pond is team with life and something must be done.

Natalie recorded the first eyewitness sighting of the tadpoles this year. I found out the typical way - she demanded I get out there and clean it up (one of these days I'm going to rip out that fucking pond because all I ever do is clean it out and fix the pump that makes the statue pee). Jake - who can tell you he's three and one-half by holding up three and one half fingers - took a great interest in the tadpoles. I encouraged it. I encourage anything that helps him empathize with animals (it's safer for our dog that way). I pointed out the little buggers, picked up a handful and held them close to his face. We made a plan to capture them all and release them in a nearby pond.

He was thrilled. So we got a bucket and a pool skimmer net and started capturing the tadpoles, filling the bucket with them. Jake watched and asked all the repetitive questions usually asked by boys who are three and a half. I did the work, often blindly sticking my hands into the deep muck of the pond. Eventually, we gathered up a half bucket of dirty water, muck and tadpoles and declared the first part of the job complete. Time for snacks.

While Jake gathered rice treats and Goldfish, I brought the bucket to the workroom and stared at the tadpoles, who were swimming contentedly. I started to ask questions - did I really want a few thousand more frogs wandering the neighborhood? Did I really want more frogs falling into the pool and getting sucked in the skimmer (which - surprise! - I usually have to clean out)? And how was I going to drive an open bucket of mucky pond water in my car without spilling anything?

I wasn't. I looked outside and Jake was already onto the day's next activity, playing basketball. I started humming that Tom Waits song that goes - There's always a little killing to be done around the farm and search my workroom for something that would terminate the tadpoles. I bypassed the pool chemicals and went instead for a large plastic jug of white wine vinegar. To the sound of Jake announcing his lay ups, I poured a quart or so of vinegar into the tadpole bucket.

I half expected a small explosion or some other form of instant death, but there was none of that. Instead, there was an intense thrashing about in the bucket. Like bugs caught in a direct blast of RAID, the tadpoles were desperately scurrying to escape. Only they're tadpoles. They don't have arms or legs - just a little black body and a sperm-like tail. There was nowhere for them to go. The water churned with their desperation. I watch for a few seconds and realized why I'm not a farmer - I don't have a stomach for death. I want to be Dr. Doolittle, not Frank Perdue. I covered the bucket with a rag so I wouldn't have to see what I'd done. I couldn't hear anything, but I imagined the tadpoles swimming furiously and then slowly, one by one, giving up, inhaling the vinegar through their pre-gills, bloating and sinking into the muck.

I wandered around the house for 10 minutes, thinking about where I could empty the bucket, when Jake found me. I'm going to wear this hat he said. When? When we let the tadpoles go.

For a brief second, I thought about telling him the truth. Then I thought about trying to manipulate him into not wanting to go, which would free me from his gaze. I settled on the original plan.

Okay, let's go.

I loaded him into the car, got the bucket and carefully placed it in the wheel well of the passenger seat. We drove a few minutes to a nearby lake, ignored all the NO Parking signs and stopped the car on a small bridge. Where's the lake? Jake wanted to know. I pointed it out, a few hundred yards away. Between it and us was a narrow stream that flowed from under the bridge. I grabbed the bucket and pulled off the rag. The muck was still, the surface was thick with dead tadpoles. The stench of vinegar was strong.

You have to stay in the car, I told Jake, then I got out, walked out to the edge and emptied the bucket into the stream. All one quick motion. I looked into the stream on the off chance I might see something moving. It was still.

All those tadpoles are going to swim down the stream to that lake, I told Jake. Then they'll grow up to be frogs and we'll come back here and see them, okay? Jake concurred happily, straining against his seat belt to look at the lake as we drove away, imagining tadpoles hurrying downstream to their new home.

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