When Emma’s father saw her leaving the farmhouse, he laughed. “Back to the swamp?”
She looked down at her ripped shorts and paint-splattered plaid shirt. In her hand she held an ice cream pail with a mismatched lid. “It’s a pond.”
“Pond, swamp, whatever. It’s stagnant.”
“I like it.”
“I know. I blame myself for that.”
He was too hard on himself, worried he didn’t raise her right. She was sure he was behind their female neighbour’s spontaneous visits over the past ten years, whose helpful hints about bras and boys and shoes were all in an effort to make up for the mother who’d left.
Emma hardly remembered her mother, except for pictures on the fireplace mantle. Everyone said they looked alike, but Emma didn’t see the resemblance. She didn’t want to. To see it was to acknowledge that someone was missing, someone who didn’t belong anymore in their happy family of two.
Her father sighed. “What sixteen-year-old girl is interested in frogs? Shouldn’t you be going out with boys or blow-drying your hair or something?”
She reached forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. His face was lined from too much sun and wind, and scratchy with grey stubble. His denim overalls hung on his thin frame and he seemed stooped over, frail. Old.
“I’ll be back at four,” she said, sauntering down the path to the pond. She pictured him watching her for a moment or two, then shaking his head and returning to the barn.
The day was hot with a capital letter H, and no breeze to blow away the mosquitoes that mercilessly flew at her legs. At the bottom of the grassy hill was the pond, covered with green algae and surrounded by cat tails and frog-song. Smelly. Abandoned. And irresistible. She sank down deep in the muck, feeling the cold water rush up her legs and the mud squish between her bare toes, and let out a long sigh.
It was her father who taught her to catch frogs, in this very same pond, claiming it wasn’t so stagnant then as now, but Emma knew better. He showed her how to roll the net over their bodies and scoop them up. He let her run her fingers along their shiny backs while explaining that they weren’t slimy or gross. He showed her tadpoles and pictures of how they changed into mature frogs.
The day she caught her first frog, she was so proud. She watched it swimming in the ice cream pail that she clutched tightly in her small hands.
“Okay, Emma, it’s time to let him go,” her father said.
She pulled the pail to her chest, water splashing her shirt. “No! It’s mine!”
He smiled gently. “He’s not yours, honey. He’ll die in that pail, cook in the sun. He doesn’t belong to you. Now let him go.”
Like so many pleasant memories from childhood, this one was always there, ready to be remembered. Emma grinned to herself, standing in the murky water, six frogs in her pail. She lowered them into the pond and watched them swim away.
Strolling back toward the farmhouse, she dropped her pail at the entrance to the barn where her father would no doubt be mucking out the stalls. She loved the smell of the hay, the horses. Cool air enveloped her as her eyes adjusted to the lack of bright sunlight.
She wandered along the stalls, her fingers brushing the gates. Her father had taught her everything he knew, from horses to hay to combines. He’d taught her meager kitchen skills — eggs, toast, hamburgers and steaks. He’d shown her how to grow tomatoes and carrots and beans and peas, how to coax life from seeds and live off the land.
He’d never prepared her for this.
In front of her, across from the last stall, lay her father. She ran toward him, stepping over the shovel near his body, and jerked his shoulder.
She shook him, hard, again and again. His head lolled back like a broken doll’s so she gently lowered him, cradling his head in her lap. Emma felt her chest expand but every breath was a fiery brand scorching her lungs. What should she do? Call 911? Where was her cell? No, the barn, the barn had a phone.
She slid her father to the straw-covered floor and raced to the phone, her voice sharp and loud in the silence around her. “My father, he’s not moving. What do I do? Please. Please help me — ”
She pulled at the phone, stretching the long cord. The woman on the other end kept talking, words tumbling through air. All Emma heard was “sending” and “ambulance.” Still holding the receiver, Emma slid down to the floor and pulled her father against her.
She pushed her father’s thin hair back from his face, then flinched. He was cold. So cold. How long had he been lying here while she’d been at that stupid pond catching frogs? She touched his chest, his lips, but there was no heartbeat, no breath. Tears falling, she stroked his cheeks and wished her touch could somehow revive him, pour breath back into his body and make him get up, grab the shovel, and resume mucking out the stall.
But he was gone. She wanted to wail, to pound her fists on something, to rewind this hot afternoon and just be here, again, with her father. She held him in her arms, willing herself to allow his final lesson to sink in.
Life on a farm brought a multitude of things beyond their control. Drought. Hail. Stillborn colts. Even the unexpected — a mother and wife who’d abandoned them — her father took it all in stride. He would want this for her, to accept what was.
Somewhere down the lane, an ambulance siren sounded. Emma wiped her eyes. And waited for them to come.
Laura Crowe’s short stories and articles have appeared in numerous Canadian magazines including Pages Of Stories, The Prairie Journal, and Every Day Fiction. Laura also spent a delightful summer reading slush for EDF, an experience she enjoyed so much that she decided to continue freelancing as an editor. Her first book, Take Flight: True Stories of How Dreams Shape Our Lives, is a unique collection of true short stories contributed by thirteen authors that she edited and compiled.
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