The stream is clean and clear and healthy and so the water it feeds to the swimming hole is transparent to the bottom. The mud is fine and silty and kicks up in roiling underwater thunderclouds when disturbed, but in the still summer heat of the afternoon you can imagine there’s no water there at all, just a thicker, wetter kind of air.
The water where we walked is hip-deep on me, chest-deep on my 5-year-old daughter, and I cautioned her away from the deepest center, which drops off quickly, higher than the top of her braids. “This stone and that branch make a line,” I said. “Stay on this side of the line.” Soon she was crouching up to her neck, moon-walk hopping through the water, roiling small puffs of cloudy silt and declaring her joy, and declaring the dictates of her imagination. “Pretend I’m a seal! I’m a boat! I’m a turtle! I’m an astronaut! I’m an otter family in a canoe!”
When I sat on the stone I startled the Pickerel Frog from beneath. Its legs are astonishing pistons powered by something deep in the earth. Its arc was high and long and it flashed in the hot summer sun before slipping the surface and sinking to the bottom.
There’s something in the skin of the Pickerel Frog. A cell, or a mineral, or a fluid, or a sorcery, that imbues its surface with an iridescence, a light that is released by light, and makes it shine like burnished brass, like gold, like a sun. It’s the same thing that’s in dragonfly wings, in my daughter’s braids, in the chips of micah embedded in the stone I sat on, in the nail polish on the cashier’s fingers at the Dollar Store, in the sun.
My daughter made an immediate pursuit. How could she not? Something primal responded to the streak of light flashing so close. Her laugh was not the squealing chirp of the child I knew, but deep and from her throat and startling. Her hands shot out, she scooted through the water toward her prize, which was as visible as a spotlight on the dark creek bottom.
The frog could easily see her as well, and kicked, and sailed 5 feet in a moment. It looked like a fiery bird! Like a falling meteor! So sharp and bright as it glided away from her. She didn’t even hesitate, she corrected her approach and moved after it. Not splashing, but cutting smoothly through the water like the animal that she is. She shouted to the frog with directions and commands and laughter.
Back and forth it led her, first to one side of the hole, then to the other. It skirted the boundary line I defined as if it was also afraid of the deepest center. I sat there mesmerized, like a dog confronted with a sound it doesn’t understand. The hot summer sun in her hair, making her glow, like the hot summer sun on the frog, making it shine, back and forth with the abandon you find sometimes in a summer creek. Clouds of mud rose up and rolled toward the frog, pursuing its light ahead of my daughter. The brown clouds reached the frog before she did, and moved over it, and hid it from everything.
I thought: How can any event be so beautiful? I can feel every detail as sharp as any feeling I’ve ever had.
I thought: Should I take a picture? Of course not! That would ruin everything.
I thought: Should I warn her away from the deep center? It’s ok, I’m right here, don’t distract her with something to be afraid of.
I thought: I could die tonight, and it would be ok. It would be horrible, but I’ve seen this now, seen the frog, transformed, seen my daughter, transfigured, and it would be ok.
I thought: I’m so old! But, thank you. I don’t have much time left! Thank you. I haven’t done any of the things with my life I thought I would!
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
An audio recording of me reading this story (recorded before I had correctly identified the species of the frog) is at Cowbird: http://cowbird.com/author/6038/story/32158