The Plague of Frogs

Julie Marie Wade
| Memoir

 

I grew up expecting them, dreading them, that appointed hour in biology class when the dead—or worse—the still-alive-and-only-just-anesthetized frogs would be presented to us for dissection. I pictured the trays and scalpels, the classroom lights dimmed, the diagram projected on the main screen, which was unlatched with half a broomstick from a scroll above the chalkboard (a froggy green, in fact), while before us the rows and rows of slick, unmoving bodies splayed. Was this not adolescence as metonym? Was this not the epitome of what it meant to be a girl? I felt for the frog I had never seen. I felt for the frog I saw in myself. Not just a frog in the throat I couldn’t stop clearing but a frog of circumstance—iced, stunned, forever pending—until it was done with, until it became waste. But this was part of the lore after all, what our parents had done and their parents before them. This was the amphibian gospel handed down, and surely more than once a well-meaning elder had uttered the phrase rite of passage. I did not know frogs from real life, which is to say I had never encountered frogs in their natural habitat. How did they live, for how long, and where? Each spring, my parents unwrapped from newspaper the statue of a frog, large, green, and gregarious-seeming—a bullfrog, I suppose—and placed it beside a comparably-sized statue of a mushroom in their yard. Red cap speckled with large white spots. A toadstool perhaps? What even was the difference? Each autumn, they re-wrapped these two and placed them deep in a box, then high on a shelf that only a ladder could reach. Imposed hibernation for painted frog and fungus alike. Sometimes, at aquariums, I recall a small glass square set apart for the non-fish, creatures defined mostly by what they were not—in this case, not the specimens typically observed in such a place but extra, otherwise, bonus life-forms transgressing a pre-approved list. Behind that glass we glimpsed a world part aquatic, part telluric, a little pond with a slippery rock (so curated—I sensed it even then!), bright green leaves extending from a diminutive tree by the wall. All toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads, they taught us in school, a well-worn construction for explaining relationships: this is always that, but that is not always this. As in, from religion class: all basilicas are cathedrals but not all cathedrals are basilicas. The Pope had to make a special designation to elevate one cathedral from mere large church to more important (less mere) large church. It seemed some frogs had been elevated from the mereness of toad, the mere walking and hopping of toad, to the great leaping of frog, almost a form of flight. In cartoons, though, frogs—which might have been toads but also might not—seemed to sit contentedly on lily pads waiting for a fly to come along. Then, their pink tongues would uncoil like rolls of Bubble Tape and snap up the fly with a satisfied gulp. A once-popular insult to lob at our peers was “horny toad.” We didn’t know then—some may not still—that the horny toad is actually a lizard, meaning a reptile, meaning neither frog nor toad. The word horny registered only as elementary risqué, on the cusp but just short of some larger accusation of desire. “Oh, you’re such a horny toad,” which begged a clarification no one could give, at least not without incriminating themselves. It seemed we meant a horny toad was a pleasure-seeker—too alive! quite the opposite of anesthetized!— someone pent and eager for something we weren’t supposed to name, even acknowledge we could want. Close contact? No one said intimate yet. A friend becoming more than a friend? Everyone rattled off this phrase but only because it was vague. A hand that wasn’t your own moving over, then under, your clothes—and not just that, but desiring that, yearning for that to happen. The words “horny toad” clamped down quick as the cartoon frog’s tongue. Implicitly: Enough of you! Don’t even go there! Our fear so great of the toad within, which was complicated, of course, by the composition of an all-girls school. Who were the toads now if they had always been boys before? Which brings me inevitably to “The Frog Prince,” that formative story from the Brothers Grimm.

 

Julie Marie Wade is a professor of English & Creative Writing at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, her newest collections are Fugue: An Aural History (Diagram/New Michigan Press, 2023) and Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House, 2023), selected by Lia Purpura as the winner of the 2022 Autumn House Nonfiction Book Prize. Wade makes her home with Angie Griffin and their two cats in Dania Beach.

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