Frog Talk

by John Bowers

A frog in my playpen. It is my earliest memory. Between the bars, a fat Red Oak River marsh frog on the floor of my playpen, breathing bulbously and staring at me. I cried out in alarm. I hadn’t learned much language yet, and I cried out by echoing the words I had just heard on the TV. “Crest twenty feet!” I yelled. “Cwest twenny fee twenny fee twenny feeeeeet!”

My grandpa Farhad rushed into the room and stood looking at me. “You talk to the frog,” he breathed in amazement. He got down on the floor and picked up the frog and held it in his hand, waiting for more information. The Red Oak was flooding and all the property owners along its banks were worried about where it would crest. My successful forecast via the frog became family lore.

Mom and I visited Grandpa Farhad at the Talaville prairie home every summer. We lived 600 miles east in Louisville. Come late May we’d leave behind school buses, supermarkets, traffic lights, and urban vermin to make the grueling trip on two-lane roads. I would mentally shelve my latest resentments and crushes, brushing away a year’s worth of tests and texts, as we swung close to the rail on the narrow country bridges. Mom would be smoking and murmuring to herself in the driver’s seat – she didn’t smoke in Louisville, but she resumed it each summer when we visited the home where she’d grown up.

Way past dark, we’d inch up the last mile of rutted dirt road, the wind moaning through the tall rushes of prairie grass. I’d look out the window and vividly envision all types of low creeping creatures, growling and snarling in the dim moonlight, and I’d listen to hear if they were trying to talk to me. Then laboring over the last little hill, we emerged into a riot of red and blue lights with organ music. Grandpa Farhad was running the carnival fairground equipment. Mom turned off the car, and clouds of dust settled around us, as I let the sight of the river and the carousel and the kiddie train reset my brain.

Grandpa Farhad didn’t travel with his antique carnival rides. For as long as I remember and long before, they were permanently installed on his rural property outside Talaville. The train was called the Adventure Railway and it ran a long loop route alongside the riverbank, engine chugging out puffs of smoke, pulling brightly-painted cars so small that the older kids had to hug in their knees. The carousel had the most majestic Arabian ponies on poles, so real you could feel their muscles flexing beneath you when you rode. The backdrop was illustrated with a painting of the sultan’s exotic harem, listening intently to the veiled and beautiful Scheherazade spinning her tales.  The sawdust trail was marked with red and blue and white lights, until you came to the far end of the train’s oval loop, where suddenly the lights and noise of the rides faded away, and you whirled through the night for a long minute in pure dark and anxious, frightening silence. Abruptly the lights emerged again, as if a curtain opened, and you heard the organ music pumping through the high-posted speakers.

The town of Talaville was not much more than a cafe and a courthouse. Riding a borrowed bicycle along the country roads each summer, it sometimes seemed that not more than a dozen people lived in the five-county region. But when Grandpa Farhad powered up the lights and the attractions, kids found the place. Cars pulled in to the dusty unmarked lot. Laughter and delighted squeals floated above the sound of the river. I wondered if there was some kind of beacon that signaled the kids and their parents, or if perhaps Grandpa was able to summon them from some other dimension. I seldom saw the same faces from night to night.

Of course, there were always cousins around. Mom was the youngest of seven sisters and two brothers. I was not blessed with a good memory for names and faces. Each summer I would encounter unfamiliar aunts, and Mom would re-introduce me to my extended family. Different groups visited in different years, and I think I was age ten before I realized that I was dead last in my generation, the youngest in a clan of some sixty cousins. I had a reputation as a slow learner and an introvert, as well as a frog-talker, so I was patronized as the baby of the family even after my many cousins started bringing their own babies.

Grandpa Farhad enjoyed his big family and seemed keenly interested in each of us. He liked to walk with me along the banks of the Red Oak River. He’d tell me the names of all the barn cats, and their personalities, and which ones had possible spell-casting powers. We’d row across in a little wooden rowboat he kept at a tiny pier, or we’d cross over to the far bank at a deteriorating covered wooden bridge about a mile down from his house. He showed me a blackberry thicket and we’d come back with a bucket full of berries.

Often he would seek me out around dusk. I might be chasing lightning bugs with Jimmy or Christine or Cecile or Debra. Grandpa Farhad would have some questions for the frogs, and he would lead a little rambling group down to the edge of the marsh. You learned to feel your way and watch your step so you didn’t step into mud or water. The reeds and the mosquitoes were thick here. I would hone in on one croaking voice, kneel down easy, then reach out quickly to catch its leg between two fingers. Cupped in both hands, I held it up.

“Peace to you, Mister Frog, and we apologize for interrupting you at your oasis,” Grandpa said with a bow. “What is your name?”

I held my hands against my ear to listen, and then said “Bevacita.”

“Bevacita, is it a girl frog?”

“No, a boy with a girl’s name. He is embarrassed about it.”

“What news do you have from the river, Bevacita?”

I listened. “He says, we sure could use some rain, couldn’t we? But the gnats and no-see-ums are plentiful and tasty this summer.” More listening. “There is a new family of bass that migrated down from Kansas, and they are smarter and more entertaining than the local bass.”

“Ask him what bait to use!” Jimmy interjected excitedly, but Debra scoffed, “He’s just making it up!”

I gave a dignified and offended look to Debra, and I leaned over to Jimmy and whispered “Crickets,” who ran to Grandpa and whispered it to him.  “Aaaah,” Grandpa nodded, while Debra stamped her foot in exasperation.

But Grandpa had a more confidential agenda than just discussing weather and fishing. “What can Bevacita tell us about Neufgart?”

The upriver owner who shared a property line with Grandpa was a small, ancient man who preferred brown woolen suits at least a hundred years out of date. Neufgart’s land was criss-crossed with fences: log fences to keep the deer out, electric wire and post pens for his livestock, snow fences to control drifting. Eight-foot chain link topped with barbed wire ran from the river to the road along the property line he shared with Grandpa – this was supposedly the fence to keep our cats off his land. His ranch hands were always tending to the fences, mending torn cables, filling in animal holes. The dark end of the Adventure Railway was at the Neufgart fence line. Neufgart was far older than Grandpa Farhad. He was single and had no family, surrounding himself with hired men on horses with lariats and boots and cowboy gear.

“Neufgart’s pier pilings broke loose, and the whole dock floated down the river,” I relayed by way of Bevacita. “He bought twenty more head of cattle and extended the pen. They are grazing into the best marsh territory. They leave muddy footprints and knock down all the riverbank cover with their clumsy heavy bodies. He is clearing the wooded area at his northwest corner and using the lodge-pole pines for a new log fence that follows the road.”

Grandpa was highly satisfied with this covert intelligence, all of which was plainly visible to anybody who rode a bike down the dirt road, or roamed the fence line, or rowed upriver once in a while. He thanked Bevacita and me, and he made some complicated gestures to protect all of us against evil spirits, ending with a pinch and twist on the end of my nose. He considered me to be highly vulnerable to demon habitation, since I had the animal language gift.

All the extended brood were obsessed with supernatural oddities, occult prophecies, acts of magic, trans-dimensional beings, unexplained synchronicities, and the like. Several of my cousins cultivated strange capabilities and interesting parlor tricks.  Jilleen – my aunt Bev’s Jilleen, not my aunt Dot’s Jilleen – had a highly developed intuitive capacity and was able to identify objects in sealed packages. The lovely and charismatic Kelly – I had such a crush on her – was an extremely talented hypnotist. She practiced often on me, so maybe it was by subconscious suggestion that I saw her as breathtakingly beautiful. Jimmy, one year older than me, was quite adept with sleight of hand, card throwing, and pick-pocketing. Grandpa Farhad avidly read magazines about psychic phenomena, witchcraft, extraterrestrials, protection against curses. He had an extensive collection of objects and artifacts, each of which had significance in some bizarre occurrence. There were hundreds of ancient arrowheads and stone knives in the house too. He had to segregate these objects into different rooms so that they wouldn’t destroy each other or create warps in the time-space continuum by their proximity.

In the year I was seventeen, Grandpa was visited by a couple of investigators from the state attorney general’s office. The new attorney general was a “crusader,” according to the Tulsa paper, and she was zealous for consumer protection. Grandpa’s fairground attractions were not consumer services, strictly speaking, since he didn’t charge for the rides. All the same, public safety was alleged to be at issue. Two fat, sweaty investigators in dark suits walked the Adventure Railway track and inspected the carousel and the lights and power, taking measurements with surveyor tools and writing notes on yellow pads. I recruited a small band of operatives from among the second cousins, kids younger than me, to throw a Frisbee around in the vicinity and pick up whatever useful information we could, following the two investigators around the property, eavesdropping on them and stealing a look at their notes.

Inevitably, Grandpa wanted to know “what the frogs had heard.” I carried folding aluminum lawn chairs for us down to the marshy grounds along the bank; Grandpa used a cane to walk now, and he picked his way carefully in the deepening dusk. We set up the chairs and listened to the frogs gossiping among the reeds. I passed it along to Grandpa, bit by bit: there was a section of the train track where the ground underneath had washed away; equipment in the little steam engine that was considered too old to be operated safely; bearings burned out and gears stripped on the carousel; unsteady light poles; notes about the power grid that were covered in question marks. Grandpa had never run a generator and the investigators could not determine how he powered any of the lights and speakers. There would definitely be a follow-up visit by the crusading attorney general, probably with a media entourage this time. Grandpa Farhad listened with his elbow on his knee and chin propped against his fist.

I thought a number of the identified issues were fixable, and I began suggesting a work plan to Grandpa: move some gravel and earth to prop the weak section of track, disassemble the carousel motor to replace belts and bearings, pour some concrete to support the light poles. Grandpa listened politely for a moment, then grunted restlessly and waved his hand, dismissing the need for any maintenance plan.

“Not important,” he said impatiently. “Not necessary. But what of Neufgart?”

“Neufgart?” I asked, looking sharply at Grandpa in the dark. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Neufgart is behind this plot. He machinated it. He is always keen to plunge a dagger into my back,” Grandpa said.

“Uh – the frogs don’t seem to know anything about it,” I told Grandpa. “Maybe he wrote a letter of complaint to the attorney general’s office. Maybe he requested the investigation.”

“He is masterminding the whole debacle!” Grandpa insisted fiercely. “He is the puppet master plucking the strings.” He jumped up from his chair, waving his arms and dancing about nimbly, like a marionette.  I stared at him, astonished at his sudden agility. He reached above his head with both hands and mimicked the act of slashing his strings away with a blade.

“I dismiss you with a wave of my hand, Neufgart!” Grandpa shouted angrily into the darkness, flicking his fingers toward the upriver end of his property. In the moment of deep silence that followed, I shivered to hear a response that echoed in the distance, so far away I couldn’t identify it for sure: a laugh, or a coyote’s bark, or a far-off crow on a pole. “Bah!” Grandpa cried, grabbing his cane and striding up the hill.

The next morning, I got some of the boys working with shovels and wheelbarrows, repairing the sunken piece of track. But Grandpa came out and put a stop to the work, waving his hat and scattering the crew.  “Leave it, leave it as is,” he yelled out, whacking his cane against a wheelbarrow. “No repairs are needed. These structures are as solid as the day I built them.”

My mom took me by the arm and walked me down the track, cigarette dangling from her mouth. She seemed quite amused by my effort. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she told me. “Wheels within wheels are turning, but all this is a trivial matter of appearances. The authorities will see that all is well.  They don’t have eyes opened to see behind the curtain. You offend your Grandpa Farhad by doubting the integrity of his vision. Do the frogs seem worried?”

“The frogs don’t seem worried,” I acknowledged.

She waved her cigarette in the air in a gesture of unconcern. Letting go my arm, she kicked off her shoes, left them by the track, and wandered off toward the river, her long brightly colored skirt waving in the wind behind her.

Soon there were helicopters overhead: one from the state’s Department of Justice, one from the Tulsa TV news. As they set down at a distance in front of the main house, I stayed along the far end of the tracks. I had no appetite for a politician posturing in front of the cameras. Along the chain link fence, a couple of Neufgart’s men were patrolling on horseback. They nodded to me as they reported back on the unfolding events via their cell phones. I sat down on a little stone bench, and several of the barn cats joined me, sitting with their eyes slitted almost shut in the noonday sun.

Soon the ragged group approached. Grandpa Farhad was in a fine grey suit, gesturing with his hat, and Attorney General Stewart followed unsteadily in her pumps and made-for-TV blue suit with skirt. Tagging along were the video camera crew, the investigators from yesterday, some other bureaucrats and reporters and neighbors, and a horde of excited agitated cousins and aunts.

“You do us an honor with your visit, Judge Stewart,” Grandpa told the Attorney General. “We are only a small family attraction, but we pride ourselves on the quality and maintenance of our equipment.”

“And we thank you for welcoming us, sir,” she answered. “Consumer safety and protection is the key function of my office and we greatly appreciate your cooperation.”

The Adventure Railway tracks ran at least fifteen feet across emptiness. The ground beneath had sunken away through water and wind erosion. But now: as I looked again, the gap wasn’t there any longer. It was as if the ground had expanded, puffed out its cheeks, to come up snug against the tracks.  Attorney General Stewart stood looking right where the big gaping hole had been. Behind them, along came the Adventure Railway train, packed with moms and kids and babies from Grandpa Farhad’s family. My cousin Jimmy was driving, and the little engine was chugging hard with the effort of carrying so many passengers. I gritted my teeth and held my breath. Attorney General Stewart took a step back. The train went across, and looking closely, I could see it tipping gently sideways on the loose track but not de-railing. Jimmy slowed the train to a stop just ahead at the bend. Across the fence, one of the cowboys flipped open his phone and started talking excitedly.

The Attorney General turned to her sweaty investigators in their tight suits. “Now what is allegedly wrong here?” she asked. They were puzzled. They went over and stood by the tracks, jumped up and down, got down and patted the ground. They consulted their notes and walked back and forth along the track. My cousin Kelly sidled up alongside Attorney General Stewart with the camera crew avidly watching.

“I don’t see any hole here,” Kelly suggested in a low voice.

“I don’t see any hole here,” Attorney General Stewart said firmly.

“Yesterday there was a big washed-out hole here,” complained one of the investigators, standing on the rail, which bent and creased unnoticed beneath his weight. “Today it seems to be repaired.”

“Note the craftsmanship and quality of our equipment maintenance,” Kelly murmured.

“I congratulate you on the craftsmanship and quality of your equipment maintenance,” the Attorney General noted in a ringing voice. “You should take great pride in it.” She shook Grandpa Farhad’s hand and then she went to the little engine and stood on its running board. Jimmy gently held her by the elbow as he creaked the engine up to steam again, wheels slipping as the tracks sagged down underneath too much weight, and then dragging and chugging into motion with an agonizing long squeal. Attorney General Stewart waved with a big smile on her face as the cameras captured her riding down the tracks on the miniature Adventure Railway engine, and all the kids on the train began cheering.

Despite the big public relations triumph, I overheard my mom talking earnestly to Grandpa Farhad after the glowing news reports that evening. The carousel and the Adventure Railway were never again opened to anybody outside the family after that day. Grandpa Farhad’s brood kept it crowded and full of laughter each summer anyway.

Beautiful cousin Kelly became a successful psychiatric counselor and therapist in Atlanta. Jilleen moved to Mexico, a resort town where she made a prosperous living as a psychic card reader and fortune teller.  Red-headed dope smoker Jimmy dropped out of his freshman year at Vanderbilt, moved into the big house with Grandpa, and soon took over running the rides. If anything, he was even better at the enchantments than Grandpa was. He was able to make you feel like you were riding a space cruiser, or balancing on the wing of a propeller airplane, or diving in a submarine, when you went around that dark end of the Adventure Railway loop track alongside Neufgart’s fence line.

Sick of the long wet Louisville winter in my senior year of high school, Mom and I concocted a plot when spring finally came to the mid-South. She told the school my grandpa had suffered a stroke and we needed to go to his side. She arranged for me to take my final exams online, and we completed them together in the car: Mom looking at the laptop and reading the questions to me from the passenger’s seat, me giving her the answers as I drove. As we came down the Will Rogers Turnpike, we hunted down a coffeehouse wi-fi connection and submitted the exams electronically. Coming across the bridge and through Talaville, we fell silent in the car, both of us bothered by the premonition that the stroke story was going to come true. But Grandpa was fine and we had a terrific summer, and I got my graduation notification by email.

And Neufgart, even when he electrified that fence, couldn’t keep the magic out of his property. The blackberry thicket kept growing along his piece of the river bank, and my cousins and my second cousins and all the generations beyond kept sneaking in invisibly to steal them. The frogs never did tell me how that worked.

John Bowers lives and works in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and his fiction has previously been published in Stuffed Pike, Earthwords and the WorldEdge Press anthology “The Magic Within.” He’s also edited the memoirs of Joan Haverty Kerouac, published in 2000 as “Nobody’s Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats” by Creative Arts Book Company. “Frog Talk” has never been published.

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  • Char Zinda / November 22, 2011

    I loved it! I was unaware of your writing talents. How fun!

  • James Gregory / November 23, 2011

    Wonderbar! What a gift! Thanks.

  • John's Father / November 23, 2011

    What an imagination! For everybody’s information, the author himself never had trouble pronouncing the letter r. Thanks, John!