Razi, this summer’s problem child, stood on the tent house stoop. In her ragged
Camp Piney sweatshirt and baggy brown shorts, the youngster eyed her counselor
from under a tangled mat of greasy brown curls. She smelled like sulfur, her
bloated belly contrasting with stick-thin limbs.
“Come on in,
Razi.” She’s a misfit, just like I was,
thought Jess, almost smiling in relief. Thank
goodness it’s not Mama and brother Jason yet.
her fellow campers’ taunts of “Toad
face!” and “Inbred!” and worse: “Your bro-ther’s a ree-tard.” It wasn’t her
fault the males of her line inherited the looks, the females, the brains. At
ten, Jess had wondered how campers she’d never met before knew her secret. Mama
Julie had conceived Jason and her at fourteen in her only intimate encounter.
Brother John, like her Jason, moved by his ugly sister’s despair, remedied it
in the way their line always had. The doctor then saw fit to free Pine County
of future such ‘mistakes.’ Snip, Snip! and John had lit out, heading back to
the woods above Napper’s Holler. But Mama had used her brains to survive.
Razi shuffled her dirty tennis shoes on the cement floor, grinning, hands
behind her back, too-round tummy sticking out. “I ain’t even gonna make you
pick.” She showed Jess her right palm, which cradled a tiny wriggler.
“Go put the
funny pollywog back in the lake, Razi child. Take a shower and change. Your mom
will be here soon to get you.” Don’t know
why your mama refused to let you ride the bus with the others. With extra
tutoring and better hygiene you’d make any mother proud. I wish Jason had your
reminded Jess of what her own body had expelled in a hot spring hidden from the
rest of Camp Piney. Jason’s son, wrapped in moss, was tucked under a big tree
beside living waters. After she prayed over the malformed fetus, she vowed to
revisit those waters and commune with his spirit daily. Her visits helped her
walk the dark path of pain and loss. The hot soaks in the tree’s shade revived
I’m an employed college student at
seventeen. I’ll earn enough so I can change my face and look normal and find a
doctor to help Jason. At least I’ll be able to put food on the table for us
when Mama can’t anymore.
ain’t out’n the lake, Miss Jess.” Razi, who called everything “purty,” stared
in awe at the slimy critter with the oddly sharp snout, too small to be an
But what else could it be?
Plop! It was the
counselor’s turn to stare. Another pollywog, coated in bloody slime, had landed
between Razi’s shoes. The girl quickly stooped to pick it up. As she hunkered
down, several more dropped from between her legs. She squealed with delight.
“You know you
oughtn’t go in the water without a buddy, especially since you haven’t even
passed ‘pollywogs’ in the baby pond. Are you still wearing your wet bathing
suit under your clothes?”
“I warn’t in the
big water all summer. I’m scairt o’ the Cold Deep.”
“Then how’d you
get those pollywogs in your clothes, young lady?”
out’n m’ clothes, Miss Jess. These purties come out o’ me! Kin we get a cup and
save ‘em, please? Don’t want ‘em to die.” Razi began sniffling. Salty tears
cleared paths down her grubby face.
there...” Her own eyes brimming, Jess patted Razi’s back, dumped her bowl of
craft beads and thread, and scooped the tiny creatures into it. She added water
from the corner fire bucket.
“Oh, Razi, I bet the other campers played a
nasty joke on you. Stay here, honey. I’ll go fetch the nurse. We three need to
be out before the cleaning crew comes, but I promise we won’t leave before you
stricken. “What ‘bout Gish?” She pulled down her shorts and held the bowl
between her legs. “Best bring me the fire bucket, Miss Jess. I feel more
Razi? Aren’t you too old for make-believe friends?”
“Gish’s my Night
Friend. He taught me to go in water. Tol’ him I was afeared o’ the lake ‘cause
Ma says boys pee out baby seeder in the Cold Deep. In the dark, I dint see him.
He had a funny, croaky voice. I thought he was a magic frog.”
“What do you
mean, Razi? I always checked campers at ‘lights out’. You couldn’t have gone
anywhere. You probably had a dream.”
Jess helped Razi
straddle the bucket. As the child strained to empty herself, her extremities
blue with cold, her forehead grew clammy, her belly flatter.
“First night I
woke up near the smelly water, I heard Gish in the tree. He asked t’be friends.
He said I’d be warm and safe in his
“How’d he get
you to go into the water, Razi?”
“I’d jest wake
up at his tree nights and there I’d be—in a little deeper each time. First it
was toes, then ankles, then knees, and then waist. It stunk bad, but felt so
nice I warn’t scairt. Gettin’ out, he’d talk me back t’ shore. All I had t’ do
was follow his voice.”
“Did he ever
come in the water with you, Razi?”
“Uh-uh. I alus
woke up in water with him in the tree. Leastways, I heard his voice come from
there. He swore he’d watch over me.”
“I wish you’d
told me sooner, Razi. When you feel better, show me where you think you went.
Maybe it’s the spring I found this summer.”
“Mebbe. Wish I
was there now. It’s so cold and dark in here. Hold me?”
“It’s not that
dark, Razi honey. Shhh! Rest your head on my shoulder. I’ll carry you down the
hill to the nurse.” Jess started to wrap the girl in her own blanket. Before
she could finish, Razi sighed and went limp, her pupils fixed and dilated. Jess
laid the body gently on her cot. She closed the moist, glassy eyes.
bucket of energetic pollywogs, some already tadpoles with rudimentary limbs,
mesmerized Jess. Suddenly dizzy, she sat atop it. Splitting her pants with
their sharp-nosed exit, bloody spawn spurted from between her own thighs.
interrupted the light behind Jess. “Mama?” Gish croaked, bracing her against
his green and brown bulk until she stopped shuddering and gave a final gasp to
release her imprisoned spirit.
A single tear marred her son’s smile as he
watched their tiny progeny clamber from the bucket to devour her remains and
embed themselves in his back. Once matured, they would gnaw their way out. The
storm that erased his webbed tracks welcomed his dripping seed into the world’s
waters and waiting wombs. Survivors would have her face and intelligence, his
instincts and fertility.