A little ghost called to me everyday, a whisper so loud that it danced all the way down, caressing, from the branches of the alligator tree in the upper edges of the everglades. I knew the voice, and it was important that I go see him. The other frogs called me a fool, their throats stretched with laughter anytime I mentioned it. Frogs didn’t go on journeys, we were perfectly safe near the pond; no normal frog would ever even think to go up that far, but then, I was no normal frog. I was in love with an old ghost.
It's what we call tadpoles—little ghosts—partly because most of them kicked the bucket early, but also because those few who did become frogs never kept their tadpole memories. They knew they were ghosts once, but the transition spared them any concrete recollection. It was a tiny life lived, moved past, then forgotten like a babyworld dream. For me that dream never ended, and I could remember every last tid-bit of my smallness below the water. From above the pond some of the frogs watched, eyes fixed as the tadpoles wiggled around like flames of a memory gone, one that burned for me still.
“Lookit the little ghosts go!” they would say. “Wonder how many of em will make it this season.” I could never bring myself to observe the little creatures. It brought me nothing but ache.
Weeks on end I’d tell my companions of my coming trek up to the alligator tree. It was the only starkly dead tree around, whose branches spiked back and forth like the teeth in the open mouth of a gator. They’d gurgle and croak with doubt. Expecting to find anything from my ghostly life was surely a search for the ghost of a ghost, but I could feel him still, lingering underneath gator tree branches in a pleasant, and expectant wait.
I woulda trailed off the second my legs sprouted from underneath me, but they were too new, too feeble. It would take months to train legs strong enough to reach the alligator tree; an unprepared frog was a dead one. My companions encouraged my training in playful hops, taking joy in the game of watching a frog with a goal so grand. Frogs never had goals, so it was an intense fascination of fun—leaping and stretching and the lashing of tongues at worms.
On the day of my departure, the whole of my colony sent me off with a full joke. “You come back now! Come back with that there yellow spotted ghost of yours, and we’ll give ya three dozen flies!” They giggled between themselves, but I could see the worry heavy on their faces. They repeated their teasing.
You come back safely now! Come back, ya hear!?
I gave them my most confident croak, and went on my way with the hope that I’d successfully reassured all of us. I would see him soon, should he wait just a little longer still.
When a mom lays her eggs, she nudges each one individually, bestowing a name, and with it a silent prayer for long survival. It is the first and last gift a mother frog gives, and then you hatch, and you swim among the other little ghosts knowing nothing but your name and your momma’s hopes. I hid near the pond bottom most days, avoiding bigger fish and water snakes. If I looked up, without fail I’d see him—a lone tadpole wiggling up to the surface, wild splotches of yellow on his face, staring at the rippling glass ceiling. What a fool, I’d think, to swim all the way up there. What was he looking at?
One evening he swam up near a bundle of algae I took to nibbling. Other tadpoles followed him, their shrill voices flapping from their gills. Annoyances. They teased him for the yellow spots crossing his dopey little face.
“Tadpoles don’t got spots, he prolly ain’t even a real one! He’s some weird ol’ fish freak, I bet.”
“Bahaha, fish who thinks he’ll grow legs one day! Poor sap.” They laughed louder and louder, and my algae started to lose its taste.
“Hey,” I suddenly spoke. “You dumb or somethin? That one there swims up to the surface, talks to the frogs. He’ll get them to come down here and eat you. You stupid?” Their mouths hung wide, cackling gone, wondering whether to believe my words or not. It was true, they had seen the yellow spotted one swim up to the pond ceiling, more than once. They huffed.
“Man, can’t nobody have no fun round here!” Snapping their tails in annoyance, they swam across us. The fattest one looked back once, a frightened and apologetic glint in his eye. That would teach em.
The lone ghost shrunk back, sulked away in a whisper.
"You say somethin?” I asked.
“Do I…look like a fish?”
I thought for a moment, eyeing him. “Course not. Do I?”
The other tadpole blinked at me before giving a quick shake of the head. The silliness of the question revealed itself with a sudden flip, and he seemed to calm down. I took care not to stare at the yellow dots on his face, nudging some algae toward him.
He swam closer with tentative wags. “What’s your name?”
“Twigen,” I replied.
“Wow-ee, that’s a good name. I’m Droplit.” He held a soft silence. “Hey Twigen, if I become a frog, do you wanna be friends?”
“We can be friends now, legs or no.”
He gave me a full smile. His questions were just that easy to answer.
We swam together often, in twiddles and waves across the expanse of the pond like flies skipping across the water. I came to learn why Droplit always found himself up near the pond surface. He admired the waving image of a giant tree’s stark branches, as if calling to him. To me it looked frightening, but for Droplit it was a dream of frogdom. He called it the alligator tree.
“It looks scary from under here, but if you peek above the water it's somethin’ else,” he told me.
“Are you a fool, you can’t look up there! You’ll get snatched up by a big ol’ bird.”
“But it’s so pretty, Twigen. Everything up there is. Say, you ever seen an actual frog? The way they jump around?”
“We can safely see em when we get our legs.”
He beamed. “You know what I done noticed? None of em have yellow dots.”
“Reckon yours will go away? When you’re a frog.”
“I sure hope so. I hate these things,” he gurgled and shook, as if hoping to knock them off.
“I like em though. I think they’re cute.” I’d said it without thinking. I did that a lot with Droplit—just spoke. He floated around, his little face dazed.
“Ya can’t just say that kinda stuff to me! Geez Twigen, you’ll make my head all fuzzy.” He turned back to the surface quickly. “I’d give anything to see that gator tree up close.”
“Well let’s go. When we become frogs, I mean.”
“And if I really am a fish? If I never turn into a frog?”
“You will,” I said simply. “Meet me there when our legs grow.” The thought of Droplit staying below the pond was frightening, but if he did I’d just carry him pond by pond, stream by stream, all the way to the gator tree myself. I didn’t say this to him, but I felt it deeply. We stared up at the rippling tree’s teethy branches, and I could finally see what Droplit meant. They waved at me too. It was the last day I saw him.
It rained a lot in our everglades, and sometimes it poured, but never like my last day with Droplit. Water overflowed, carrying with it mud and giant sticks—fish and frogs and alligators themselves, much less inviting than their tree counterpart, flowed down in harsh rivers, and I found myself pulled away. When I woke up again, I dared to peek out from the water, something I swore I was never foolish enough to do, and I saw the gator tree in the distance, like a faraway wish. I called after Droplit for days, but heard no answer, saw no yellow spots. He was gone. The spaces where my limbs would grow stirred, phantoms of an ache.
Wait for me there.
A deep muggy fog creeped in on my fourth day up to the gator tree, shrouding me in a wet lostness. I was intensely hungry, my mind escaping me. I lost sight of the tree, though I could probably guess the direction if I focused for a bit, but in my state that was a gamble. I was already a foolish frog, I couldn’t afford to be a stupid one. I needed a clearer visual, at least then I could sense my way there better. I leapt up a dense tree, my toe pads sticking and scrunching across soggy bark as I tried to get above the fog. I could hear the faraway croaks of frogs safe near their ponds. Then there was another sound, heavy and pressed against all directions.
It surrounded me all at once and I was too slow. A solid, thick, and scaly slam knocked me from the tree and up into the air. I did not feel myself fall, but constrict. Leering at me, there was a giant face whose tongue flicked at my eyes, pulling itself in coils as my bones creaked from inside me. My mouth shot open with the pushing of air from the bubble of my lungs, deflating and fading like tadpole memories. In the corner I could see, lingering on the edge of my vision, from the slight peek of North-East, the tips of dead branches calling to me.
He waited there. A little ghost.
The giant creature opened its mouth over me, a chasm of staggering pink death, raw and starved. I spat out my tongue in a spear towards the middle of its throat, striking a spot in the back. It made a dry heaving sound, loosening up just enough in surprise for me to wriggle away and drop below. My body skidded against branches on its way down, gashing at my side and spitting blood as I hit the wet floor.
I laid there a moment, gathering the direction of the gator tree, and filling myself with a foggied air. My blood trickled into the dirt. After some time, I weakly hopped over to a pile of plushed moss, sticking it to my wounded side. It was important to keep moving.
Another day passed and I felt weaker still, but it laid before me, growing larger as I crept closer. The alligator tree, haunting yet beautiful. The almost black branches crossed over each other like a great open mouth, teeth bared and consuming much like the one I’d seen up close a day earlier. I hopped up, my legs gathering a strength stored away just for this moment.
Beneath the tree was a single frog, looking away from me. It sat tiny, and meek. I made no sound, afraid the wind would carry it away and I’d look up to find no frog at all, no tree, nothing but stretching sky and sadness. In a flash the frog turned, meeting my tired gaze. For a bit its eyes took me in, widened in alarm before settling into a soft smile, full as the patches of yellow across its wet nose. I breathed.
“Well, what done took you so long?"