By Sharon K. Trumpy
I was relaxing in the cool water when Leo swam up. “Mama, how come we don’t look the same?”
“What?” I croaked nervously.
“Why don’t we look the same?” he repeated.
I’d known this question would arise one day, but wasn’t it too soon? He was so young! Times like this I wished I could say, “Go ask your father.” But I was on my own.
“Is it because you’re a girl and I’m a boy?” asked Leo.
“No, no,” I laughed. “It’s . . . well . . . Leo, you’re still a tadpole and I’m a fully mature American bullfrog. But you’ll grow into a big, strong bullfrog someday.”
No sense scaring him with qualifiers like my mother, the eternal pessimist, had. “You’ll be a bullfrog, Sylvia,” she’d said to me. “Assuming you aren’t squeezed to death by an overenthusiastic Boy Scout, eaten by a bird or dissected by a freshman biology class.”
No, I wouldn’t damage Leo the way Mother had damaged me. She gave me such a complex. “Ohhhh, Sylvia, really? Two mice for dinner?” she’d say. “You see my dorsal humps? Do you think I got dorsal humps like these eating two mice? Remember, a male can only spawn with you if he can get his forelegs around you!”
And it’d started way before then. Why, I was just a tadpole when she’d made me so self-conscious about my tail size that I began secretly gorging on algae. I really don’t think I’d ever have become a binge eater if it weren’t for her.
“How will I become an American bullfrog?” implored Leo, breaking my reverie. My tongue darted out and I gulped down a struggling dragonfly. It was a bit of a nervous habit. Drove Mother crazy. She’d be in the middle of one of her lectures—“Regina’s daughter never hangs out by the dock eating breadcrumbs! I wouldn’t be surprised if you swallowed a fish hook one day!”—and I’d find my tongue snatching up a beetle or two.
But as jumpy as Leo’s questions were making me, I was determined to answer them. Unlike my mother, who’d left Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Metamorphosis But Were Afraid to Ask out on the lily pad without so much as a ribbit. Not to mention I already had hindlegs by that time! Geez, did I freak out the day that happened—I was certain I had tail cancer until my classmate Rhonda explained the life cycle to me. “Your mom didn’t tell you?” she kept saying. “What was she planning to do, wait until you were a froglet?” No way was I going to put Leo through that kind of humiliation.
Taking a deep breath, I began. “You see, Leo, when a tadpole first hatches, he or she looks like you, with a long tail and a skinny body. But soon, you’ll notice your body changing. Your hindlegs will grow, then your forelegs. Next, your tail will be absorbed into your body.”
“Absorbed into my body!” gasped Leo. “That’s disgusting!”
Not as disgusting as your tail falling off, which was what I thought happened from my solo reading of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know. There’d been a drawing of a froglet with legs and a tail and then an ominous arrow pointing to a tail-less frog. What would YOU have thought?
“It’s not disgusting,” I faltered. “It’s . . . beautiful. You’ll be on your way to becoming a full-grown male. Your voice will deepen and soon you and your friends will be sitting by the pond, chorusing for the attention of the female frogs.”
“Grossssss!” cried Leo. “Why would we do that?
Why had I mentioned the frog chorus? Suddenly our little mother-son chat had taken a giant leap in an unintended direction. I’d been reasonably prepared to talk about the transition from gills to lung ventilation, but I wasn’t even close to ready to say “mating grasp” to my son.
“Well,” I fumbled, “when tadpoles grow into frogs, they find a partner so they can have their own little polliwogs. In the evenings, the males gather and sing a low, rumbling jug-o-rum. And the females come hopping to meet them. And . . . well . . . when two frogs find each other they . . . hug.”
“Because they love each other sooooo much?” grinned Leo. “Like you and Daddy?”
Wow, if my skin wasn’t naturally moist, it would be now. “Welllll, Daddy was a . . . nice bullfrog . . . I’m sure. He . . . he had . . . big eyes like you . . . “
I couldn’t say, “We’d never really met before that night. It was springtime and we were like a couple of horny toads. All I cared was that I had a clutch of eggs waiting to be deposited, I was in the mood for a snack, and Jim was sitting next to a particularly tempting mouse hole.”
“Tell me more,” Leo pressed. “I wish Daddy hadn’t moved to that big pond far away! I bet he’s smart and funny and really good at lilypad tag and . . . “
I wracked my brain, trying to think of something, anything. “Your dad . . . ” I tried. “Your dad . . . well, all the females wanted to be his . . . partner.”
That was true. He’d had the best location in the chorus that year. I remember when I’d approached and he’d enthusiastically leapt on my lily pad. It just goes to show how abnormal my relationship was with Mother that in that moment my thoughts went to her. If only Mother could see this! Jim! Fertilizing her grandtadpoles. And that handsome Ernesto was definitely trying to catch my attention. But I wasn’t about to mate near the part of the pond where all you can eat are dead minnows and mosquitos. I have standards, no matter what Mother says.
But things with Jim hadn’t worked out as I’d expected. I’d imagined it like that illustration in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know . . . the egg mass glistening as we floated in the shallows, sharing a post-amplexus turtle. But the book sure glossed over how long the whole ridiculous process would take. All to make a few thousand tadpoles? I’d tried to casually shift and reach a foreleg down that mouse hole, but I couldn’t escape Jim’s grasp. “Oooh,” I’d murmured, “this is lovely but what say you we take a little snack break?”
When he ignored me the trouble really started. How many times had Mother callously pretended not to hear as I begged for a bite to eat? What did she think I was, an African Dwarf Frog? A bullfrog is supposed to have meat on her legs! Suddenly the shame, the anger, all those unfulfilled cravings welled up until I barely knew what I was doing.
“Mama? What’s he like? My dad?”
And all I could do was tell the truth. “Leo,” I said, “above all else, your father was delicious.”
Author’s Note: When my own little son grew curious about reproduction, I thought I was well-prepared. I told him that Daddy and I would be happy to answer his questions, but he quickly expressed his preference for Mommy since I was “waaayyyy more experienced.” Alarmed, I asked what he meant and I was not reassured when he replied, “Well, the dad pretty much just watches, right?” My heart stopped but then he continued, “The mom’s the one who has the baby and the dad just watches, right?”
Sharon K. Trumpy lives in Michigan with her husband and two sons. She is a Montessori teacher who enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Stealing Time and Adoptive Families magazines, as well as in Brain, Child.
Illustration: Christine Juneau