Calla Road ran plum east and west, through nine miles of willow breaks, and disappeared into equidistant points, like life, although he wasn’t thinking this, boys have more important things to think about, like fish, say. And regardless, at nine he was yet close to its inception and nowhere near its fulcrum. His father having left him and driven on, he stood on the bridge that spanned Ault’s ditch, a finger of swamp which crossed the breaks. Looking backward, the road narrowed with distance as though whittled away, like a twig on which hotdogs or marshmallows are roasted, before vanishing in a point, into the rising sun. Then turning, he looked in the other direction. His shadow stretched long and straight, to the opposite point of convergence, of disappearance, and beyond to where, had he been thinking it, he would walk with Jesus.
Setting down his lunch pail and bait can, the boy leaned his fishing pole against the guardrail and sat. The wood beneath his feet was cool from the night and the tar that oozed from it was stiff and healed over, stiffer than peanut butter, he thought, yet a little pliable as he worked at it with his toe. More like dried jelly or honey.
A breeze crossed him, turning over the willow leaves and setting the cattails in the ditch to rattling. Red winged blackbirds flashed and cackled, and dragonflies appeared in the warming air, the sun striking their wings, turning them iridescent, making them to appear tiny, ethereal things.
Squinting now into the rising sun, a cloud of dust appeared and the boy watched as it grew larger. So long and straight was the road that he watched it for more than a minute, finally making out the headlights and windshield, thinking how long it takes to get here. Finally the sound of the engine reached him, and then the screech of the springs as the truck bounced over the wash board road and came to rest on the bridge.
The boy rose but did not approach the open window as the driver stuck his head out and spat a stream of tobacco juice. Then as the cloud of dust overtook them, the passenger’s side door opened and the boy’s best friend, a few years older and taller than he, came around the tailgate and lifted his lunch pail and bait can and fishing pole from the truck bed. When he had those things clumsily in one hand, he reached in and took out one more thing: a stick maybe six feet long, gray and warped from lying out in the weather. The driver spat again, and turned his head, but not enough to see his son when he spoke.
“Be home by supper time.”
“Yes sir,” his son answered.
“Your Mama makes me come lookin’ for you, you better hope I don’t find you.”
“George,” he said then, looking at the boy who’d waited on the bridge, “you tell Big George, ‘Hey.’”
Then the truck was off again, pulling behind it the wake of dust like a golden banner.
“Hey,” the younger boy said, coughing.
“Hey,” the older boy answered, coughing also as they turned and started, passing from the tarry wood onto the road. The younger boy enjoyed the feeling of the dust between his toes, and even the sharp pebbles over which he passed—the feeling of nothing between the soles of his feet and the earth. One Sunday the preacher’d said that he liked to walk out in the morning in his bare feet and feel the dewy grass, that it felt like he was standing on the soft palm of God’s hand. The boy liked that thought. He renounced rubber and canvas before the skin of ice no longer covered the trough in the morning, and liked to imagine that because of his predilection to go barefoot, he was in special favor. But when he’d asked his father about it, asked him about what the preacher’d said, his father had replied that he reckoned that if God’s hand felt like the preacher’s nice trimmed lawn, then God didn’t work much. So now the boy thought of the road as he went along it as the strong calloused hand of God, rough and hard like his father’s.
They went on through the morning air, side by side, talking occasionally. Or rather the younger boy talking, rattling on, and then stopping and awaiting a response which usually came from the older boy as a grunt. Except for height they appeared almost the same, in hand-me-downs, the cuffs of their jeans frayed and the fabric patched with disparate materials, like fenders patched with flattened beer cans. And their shadows were identical, stretching out before them, almost but not quite to the end of the earth. The only difference was that the older boy carried his fishing pole in the same hand as his other belongings, and in the other hand, the long stick which he held upright, planting the end in the dust as he went, like a staff.
“What’s that?” the younger boy asked.
“It’s a gig.”
“What’s it for?”
“I’ll show yah.”
“Why’s it got a nail in it?”
The younger boy dropped his eyes to the road. His trust in his friend was so complete that it quelled his curiosity, and he took to watching the little puffs of dust, like tiny geysers between his toes as he stepped.
The sun had grown warm on their backs as they’d left the road and scrambled down an embankment and across the road side ditch. Parting the cattails, their fronds rattled like strung beads and the boys’ feet, pulled from the muck, made sucking sounds as they stepped through.
With their poles held backward then, pointing out behind, they entered the willows. As he was smaller, the younger boy went first, crouching and struggling through the deep gloom and fecund swamp air as the thicket branches grasped at the things he carried. The trail he followed was no more than a path beaten by varmints, raccoons and muskrats, their tracks evident in the mires the boys crossed, leaving their own alongside. It was a difficult path but the boy was not thinking this, as the promise of what lay ahead compelled him.
Still there was always a moment when the flexures in the trail confused his mind’s compass and he would become disoriented. He would grow weary of the struggle through the tangle then, and his heart would falter, but looking over his shoulder he would be met with a scowl and words that goaded him on. Finally though, he would hear the sound, the throbbing guttural tone, monotonous and patient, laid over with hollow, resonant bongs, like pebbles dropped into a well, and taking heart he would press on, until at last they would break from the willows into a glade covered with grassy hillocks and sedge.
On the far side, a woods line was solid with summer green. Between them and the woods was a pond. Perhaps an acre in circumference, the surface, a mirror of the cloud-crept azure sky, was delicately but constantly marred with the perfect, expanding and intersecting ripples of rising fish.
And just as they arrived, a hatching began. It was like a movie of dandelion seeds settling on the water, the boy always thought, only being played in reverse, as thousands of mayflies, forsaking their larval forms, rose to the surface and took wing.
Setting down the things they carried in the shade of the willows, they squatted and baited their hooks. Then rising, they took up their bait cans and crossed the short distance to the pond. Hurrying, the younger boy stepped to the water’s edge and his feet sank in the mud. Ripples emanated from the tips of his toes, precipitating an explosion of tadpoles, tiny black orbs with lashing tails, scattering in a flourish and then settling back down and disappearing again. Some were changing already, sprouting legs. And some were big, with legs fully formed, already with bulging eyes and the beginnings of backbones.
The bullfrogs were louder now. Their voices rushed across the water, sourceless and directionless and without rhythm. So frequent was their sounding that there was no space between, no gap of silence as one died away and another called out, creating an ambient drone, a confusion of the air, the auditory aspect of that force which compels all things growing, the sound of summer.
The boys cast their lines and their bobbers splashed. Hardly had the ripples dispersed that the younger boy’s bobber was snatched beneath the surface and then popped back up again. A moment later the older got his first nibble. Setting their hooks, they began to reel in their lines. Their bobbers struggling toward them, and the tips of their poles dancing, the boys hauled their catches to shore and held them up.
Both had caught bluegills about the size of their hands. The morning sun glinted off their yellow throats as they spun and writhed. Gingerly then, they slipped their hands down over the fishes’ heads and stroked down the spines of the dorsal fins until they could grasp the small bodies. Removing the hooks, they tossed their catches back into the water, the fish hitting with a slap and disappearing.
They began to move around the edge of the lake then, as was their practice. Glancing down to side-step clumps of sedge, they would quickly look back to their bobbers. The younger boy would have liked to follow the other. Instinctively he clung to his friend, looking to the older boy for wisdom and guidance. But it had been decided by the older boy that they should go in opposite directions and meet back up on the other side.
So they both went, slowly working their way around the edge. Frequently they would get a nibble and pull in another bluegill which they would throw back, unless the little fish had been hooked so badly that they would place it on a stringer to be taken home to their mothers who would use them in the garden, placing them beneath a mound of cucumber seeds or a tomato plant.
After an hour they came back together and reeled in their lines. “I’m gonna try fishing deeper,” the younger boy said. “Go after one of them bass.” He glanced up at his friend, who was staring out across the water. The older boy turned then and started back around the lake.
“What’re you gonna do?” the younger boy asked, following. “You gonna go after one of them bass? Huh?”
“What?” responded the older boy. He went steadily, his head down, watching his feet, stepping over clumps of sedge.
“What’re you gonna do?”
But this time the older boy did not respond.
They reached the other side, where they had begun, and the taller boy left the water and returned to the willows. Taking a jar of water from his lunch pail, he unscrewed the lid and drank. Hurrying after his friend, the younger boy followed, and taking up his jar, drank as well. As he did, he watched his friend take from his lunch pail a half of sandwich and take a bite, and then take the stick from where it leaned in the branches. He turned and headed back toward the water. Quickly replacing the lid, the younger boy dropped the jar in the grass and again hurried after his friend.
The older boy stood at the water’s edge. The gig at his side, his right hand lightly encircled it, the butt end next to his foot and the nail projecting a few inches above his head. He scanned the bank in both directions. Then his eyes locked on something and he crept a few feet to his right. Slowly he lifted the stick and held it aslant, the nail now pointing downward. He drew it back slightly and stopped, poised.
“What’re you doing?” the younger boy asked as he rushed to his friend’s side. The great bullfrog jumped. It landed with a splash and disappeared into the shallows, and they watched as the ripples fled outward from the rend.
“Damnit! Be quiet.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“Well just don’t say nothin’.”
“What’re you doing?”
“I said shut up.”
Caught between curiosity and the sting of the reproach, the smaller boy watched as his friend took a few more furtive steps along the edge. Then the older boy stopped and raised the stick. Again he hesitated, and swallowed hard. He eased the point of the nail down toward the frog. When it was within a foot, he thrust.
A tiny sound, high pitched, bird-like, split the air. The frog remained completely still, the mouth open, the membrane slipping over the eye, the nail buried in its back.
The older boy swallowed hard again. Glancing back over his shoulder, he found his friend, open-mouthed and staring at the frog. Then the younger boy looked up, and for a moment they held each other’s gaze.
Looking back to his quarry, the older boy took a step and began to squat down. But in the instant that he removed the gig, the frog was gone. Again with a splash and a rend in the surface, it disappeared.
“Damn,” the boy said, standing. Looking down, he watched the swirling mud where the frog had vanished. And then lifting his gaze, he squinted out across the water where shimmering waves of heat had begun to rise up off the surface. The older boy turned back to his friend.
“Comeer,” the older boy said.
The smaller boy hesitated.
“Comeer, I said.”
He began to move toward his friend then. As he came near, the older boy laid a hand on his shoulder, drawing the smaller one closer, and held out the stick.
“I don’t want it.”
“But I don’t want it.”
“Mister Aichens said he’d give me a dime for every bullfrog I brung ‘im, but I’ll give you half for every one you catch.”
Actually, this was not the truth. The truth was that Mr. Aichens had promised the older boy a quarter a frog, but inasmuch as it was his agreement with the man, he felt he was entitled to the lion’s share.
“But I don’t want the money.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want the money?” the taller boy said, pushing the gig on his friend, pressing it into his chest. “When’d you get so rich?”
He waited a moment, as though for an answer, and then added, “Go on, take it.” He let go of it then, and it began to fall, and the smaller boy caught it. “Come on,” he said, starting down the bank. After a few steps he turned to the smaller boy who remained. “Come on, I said,” and he motioned impatiently, and waited another moment until the younger boy began to follow.
“Alright, there’s another one,” the older boy said, pointing. He turned to the smaller boy and took him by the arm and drew him forward. “There he is. You see him?” He pushed his friend onward, another step. The younger boy turned and looked back.
“I don’t want to!”
“You have to.”
“Cause you do. You gotta learn how to gig frogs.”
“Cause it’s important.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
“Cause I already know how.”
“You only done it once. And that one got away.”
“Hell, I done it lots a times before that. I was just outa practice.”
“That wasn’t your first time?”
“Heck no. I done it lots of times before.”
“Sure. Now go on.”
The smaller boy took a few steps toward the frog, and then turned again.
The boy turned back to the frog and raised the gig, and the tears came.
“Quit your damn cryin’.”
The smaller boy looked over his shoulder.
“I can’t, Dickie!”
“Go on, damnit!”
He turned back to the frog then. Through his tears he could barely see it, but he thrust the point. He heard no sound and thought he’d missed, but when he opened his eyes and wiped away the tears with his other hand, he saw that the frog was impaled beneath the gig, the mouth agape, the legs splayed, pinned in the mud.
The older boy was beside him then. “Alright, don’t let him up. Keep it in him, and grab him.”
The smaller boy did as instructed. Still crying, he knelt and held the frog as he withdrew the point.
“Here.” The boy looked over his shoulder. His friend had produced a length of bailing twine. To one end was tied a staub of wood, and to the other, a nail. “Put him on this.”
The younger boy looked up at his friend and then accepted it. Gingerly he tried to insert the nail into the hole left by the gig. The frog’s skin was like paper or something even frailer, the boy thought, like cooked greens from the pot. The ragged edges were folded back, revealing pale pink flesh and the oozing blood, deep red, and darker still where it had run across the green of the skin and shone in the sun like oil. The frog struggled then beneath his hand and he held it tighter to the ground.
The boy had caught many frogs in his life, and the touch, the fine rubber of the skin and the squirming legs in his hands had delighted him. But suddenly now the sensation was sickening, and he shrank from it, shrank within himself, so that his hands were not quite as alive as they had been an instant before, as though deadened with sleep.
As he searched for the hole in the frog’s back, he craned his neck toward his shoulder, trying to wipe the tears from his eyes. Finally the other boy spoke.
“You ain’t gonna be able to find the same hole. You’re just gonna have to put it through him again.”
“I don’t want to, Dickie.”
Still crouched over the frog, the younger boy looked over his shoulder and up at the older boy. Squinting, tears ran down his face and blurred the image of his friend. Then turning back he simply sobbed, on his knees at the water’s edge, his hands in the swirling muck.
So he was unprepared when the blow came. It sent him sprawling and suddenly he was resting on a hip, in the water, an elbow in the mud. Still though he held the frog, and looking up he found his friend glowering down at him.
“You’re nothing but a damn sissy!”
Struggling to his knees again, he tried to stifle his tears as he cowered, watching over his shoulder as the older boy loomed over him. Another blow came on his back, but he was ready for it this time, and it simply rocked him, didn’t knock him into the water. He looked to the frog and then back to his friend and then back to the frog once more. Then his free hand retrieved the nail and drove it into the frog, through the body and down into the mud.
“Alright, watch out,” the older boy said, shoving his friend aside. The younger boy watched then as his friend kicked at the frog until it was turned on its back. The legs twitched and he saw the pale, torn skin of the belly and something very bright yellow spilling out beside the strand of twine that emerged from the wound.
The older boy jerked the string through the body until it caught on the piece of wood, and lifted the frog off the ground. He held it up at arm’s length and stood grinning, watching it dangle and spin. Then he looked down to the younger boy on the ground.
“That’s a good’un. Come on.” He reached out a hand and helped his friend up. “Get the gig,” he said, already turning and starting down the bank.
“I don’t want to do it again,” the younger one said.
“But I don’t want to.”
“It’s a lot easier the second time.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to.”
“What are ya’, a sissy?”
“No, I just don’t want to anymore.”
“You’re a sissy is all you are. Nothin’ but a damn sissy.”
The younger boy saw the disgust on his friend’s face then, and a terrible sadness besot him. And a profound isolation settled upon him, and he felt himself alone on the hot, flat, barren earth, bereft of everything, of his friend, even of his God.
The boy moved then, taking a few creeping steps along the bank. As he did, he lifted the gig, again inverting the point so that he held it downward and aslant. He stopped and eased the point toward the frog. When he was within distance, he hesitated. And then, again, he thrust.
He drove the frog beneath the surface, and pinning it in the mud, fell to his knees in a swirl of brown water. It struggled beneath his hand and although the deadness had begun to creep up his arms, the frog’s effort brought new tears as he turned and accepted the stringer from the older boy. Still crying, but without hesitation, the younger boy ran it through the frog, and flipping it over, found the nail in the mud. Then standing, he shook the writhing body down the length of twine until it came to rest against the first.
He turned and held it up to his friend. The older boy said, “Alright then, go get another one.”
Anguished, yet even more determined to prove himself, he took up the gig and started again down the bank. The third time then was, in fact, easier. And with each subsequent success, the horror mitigated. Finally there was no more emotion attached to the act than his mother sending him to the garden to pick a bowl of peas for supper. And then gradually, with his friend’s approbation, he began to have fun. Now after gigging the frog he would immediately fall to it and withdraw the point, and then running the stringer nail through, would stand and turn triumphantly to show his friend. And the older, now grinning his approval, would slap the younger boy on the back and hasten him onto the next.
The afternoon began to lengthen as they worked their way around the pond again, and then a second time, and then a third. Their shadows would trail farther behind them to the east, and then reach before them, longer and longer across the surface as they made the turn and started down the western bank, scampering and scurrying, tripping over hillocks and tufts of spiny reeds. And their blithe calling echoed across the still water now as the air began to cool.
With each addition his catch became heavier, so that after a while as he would turn to show his friend he would have to hold it up with two hands. And then he was no longer able to lift it, but the bodies trailed off and lay on the ground beside him. Then as he would rush along the bank searching for the next, they would bounce along behind.
Finally, their stringer full, they arrived back at their fishing poles and bait cans and uneaten lunches. Sensing the long shadows and the coolness of the air, they looked at each other.
“Reckon we better get going,” the older boy said.
They remained however, expectant, looking out over the water, as though waiting for something only called to mind by its absence. And then they heard it, a solitary bong, sourceless, slipping over the surface and dying away. They waited again, their ears pricked. But another sound didn’t come, and as the moments passed, an abjectness asserted itself upon them as a strange silence settled over the water. Another moment they lingered, watching the frail white shadows appearing on the surface and then instantly rising into the air as an evening hatch began.
“Let’s get going.”
“Yeah,” the younger boy answered.
They went to the willows and picked up their belongings and started again through the labyrinth. It was even slower going now as the younger boy, again in the lead, dragged the stringer behind him. After a while the older boy took up the piece of wood and they carried it between them.
It was dark in the willows now. They had stayed longer than they ever had. The older boy had begun to think about his father, about arriving home late for supper. But his father would be proud, he thought, when he saw the mess of frogs he’d gotten for Aichens. Finally the foliage began to thin ahead of them, and presently they came out onto Calla Road.
After they had scrambled up the embankment and stood in the road, they stopped. It was good to be out of the willows, and they smiled at each other. The dust of the road was still warm beneath their feet, and the last of the sun was on their backs as they started for home, their shadows stretching out before them, nearly as far as they could see. They struggled a little with their burden as it swung heavily between them. It would take a long time to get home, but they were happy again, having left the gloom of the willows behind.
The younger boy looked over at his friend and grinned.
“I did good, didn’t I, Dickie?”
“Yeah, Georgie, yah did good.”
Nils Wolfcale was born in Youngstown, Ohio. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from Ohio State University. He lives with his wife on a small farm in Northern Michigan. "Summer Music" is a dark, coming of age story written during the most recent Bush Administration.