Chapter One: I am not a whackjob.
I am not some whacko who writes about her labradoodle Schnookums. Let’s just get that straight right off the bat. Hell, I’m practically anti-animal, and I don’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, either. Dogs? They shed. Poop. Pee. Barf. Drool. Chew. Bark. Cats? Ditto, except make that yowl instead of bark, plus I’m deathly allergic. That’s why currently we have only three dogs and one cat. Oh, and five fish. And I hardly even like them, except for maybe a little. We’ve cut back, too. It wasn’t so long ago the dog count was six, the cat count three, and the fish count innumerable, along with guinea pigs, birds, ducks, rabbits, and a pig. As in swine.
My most vivid memories of growing up in Wyoming and Texas are of animals. We had the normal sorts of pets, plus the absolute luxury of living in the country. I raised sheep for 4-H and rode my horse to sleepovers. We had visitors furry, feathered, and scaly, of both the hooved and clawed varieties. My husband grew up on St. Croix where the animals were different, but his wild upbringing, close to nature, matched mine. His mother tells stories of her sons bringing geckos on the plane from the island to the mainland, and finding their little skeletons outside the family’s summer home in Maine months later. Eric’s favorite photograph from his youth shows him standing on the beach holding the booby he rescued while surfing, then nursed back to health and released.
As a child, I devoured books about animals, like Black Beauty and Where the Red Fern Grows. I idolized James Herriot and Jacques Cousteau. I could never quite decide whether to be a veterinarian or a marine biologist or Shamu’s trainer. Somehow I sold out early on and became a lawyer, but that didn’t stop the animal love. There, I’ve admitted it: animal love. I ♥ animals, with a big red heart and sparkly glitter. All of them, nearly, except for maybe insects and reptiles. Also I am not a big fan of rats. But other than that, I love every one. Eric and I spend all the time we can outdoors looking for critters, whether we do it from bicycles or cars, or in the water or on our own four feet. We watch All Creatures Great and Small on Netflix. Our offspring naturally love God’s creatures, too, at least as much as they love their smartphones, and a whole lot more than they love us.
In the Virgin Islands of Eric’s youth, Christianity made plenty of room for the ghosts, spirits, and jumbies of obeah, a folk-magic religion with elements of sorcery and voodoo. The locals couldn’t comprehend why continentals like me scoffed at what was so plainly true to them, but scoff I did. Ghosts? Jumbies? As in Casper the friendly? It was hard for me to follow—until I met Eric. He and the islands opened my eyes to a world that existed just beyond the visible. Sometimes these non-humans scared me, and sometimes they comforted me. I liked my pets and the animals of the wild better, but I was captivated by the jumbies. Especially the one guarding Annaly, the house we bought in the rainforest.
When my lawyer career morphed into human resources and then I finally started writing, non-humans started spilling out of every story. Sometimes they are the stars, and sometimes they are the supporting actors. No matter their role, they always manage to steal the show from the unsuspecting humans who believe they are the center of the universe.
Chapter Two: Froggy Went A’Courtin’
All the signs were there. We even talked about them, way back when. “The owners must love frogs,” Eric said as we toured the back yard of the house in Houston that would become our home when we left the islands. He nudged a knee-high pottery frog planter with his foot.
“Umm hmmm,” I said. I couldn’t have cared less. I was calculating our offer.
“That one is odd,” he said. He pointed at a large concrete frog Buddha, almost hidden by giant elephant ears and bougainvillea beside the waterfall that poured from the top pond into the middle one. You could see the ponds all the way from the front door, through the seamless full-length back windows. It reminded us of home, of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, of our beloved rainforest home Estate Annaly. How could we not buy this house? Eric continued, “It’s like a frog shrine.”
I remember saying something noncommittal, like, “Whoa, that is odd,” as I walked back into the house with the real estate agent. In retrospect, she seemed . . . in a hurry.
We moved in on the ninth of March, springtime in Houston. Beautiful springtime. For roughly six weeks, the temperatures are in the seventies and there’s a soft breeze. Flowers bloom but mosquitoes don’t yet. Sunlight dapples the ground through the vibrant foliage of the trees. Birds don’t chirp, they sing. The fragrance is clean, more than sweet. It’s heaven. We moved in, and our new house was like heaven.
Until everything arrived from the islands in another month, we had exactly one piece of furniture: a standard double mattress on the master bedroom floor. The kids slept in sleeping bags. It was spare. We ate our meals on paper plates sitting cross-legged on the floor. When we called to each other, our voices bounced from wall to wall in our 4,000-square-foot echo chamber. Still, it was like heaven.
But around midnight during our fateful third week in Houston, the first frog croaked. His piercing rasp drew our attention, but not our consternation. What was one frog to us, here in heaven?
Oh, had it only been one frog. Or one hundred frogs. Or even one thousand. By three a.m., Eric was standing pondside in his skivvies with three hundred pounds of canine looky-loos beside him in the forms of Cowboy the giant yellow Lab, Layla the Gollum-like boxer, and Karma the emotionally fragile German shepherd. I stood in the doorway.
“Fucking frogs,” Eric said, no trace of love in his voice.
Well, yes. Yes, they were. Frogs were, ahem, fornicating everywhere. It was overwhelming, really. I swear, if you’d Googled “swingers’ resort for frogs,” you’d get our address. The amorous amphibians held their tongues as soon as Eric switched on the backyard light. Muttering more curses, he snatched them up in stubbornly conjoined pairs and flung them over the fence. I did not dare ask his plan and after ten minutes, I sneaked off to bed.
Night after sleepless spring night, Eric battled the frogs with a homicidal drive. Day after spring day, he shirked his work as a chemical engineer and looked online for ways to off them. This campaign was beginning to drive me insane, too. Their sounds had long since become white noise, or at worst, bedtime music to me. Eric’s tossing, turning, cursing, and trips in- and outside, on the other hand, kept me wide awake. He would report the body count when he returned to bed.
“If I could just think of a way to poison them, I could sleep,” he said.
“If you poison them, you’ll poison the dogs, maybe even birds,” I said into my pillow.
“Acceptable collateral damage,” he replied.
In response to my urgings for him to quell his frog-blood lust, Eric tried to repatriate his little nemeses. He loaded them into industrial-sized black garbage bags and headed for the bayou. Unfortunately, the good citizens of Houston were on alert for a serial murderer that spring, and a man seen dumping lumpy garbage bags into the waterway attracted attention. Eric had only just barely returned home before the cops came to check him out. Reluctantly, I vouched for him.
The kids got into the spirit. Instead of just one underwear-clad man in the back yard, we now had him (thank the Lord, he’d started taking the time to don a pair of camo shorts—although I had the feeling he’d spring for camo face and body paint, too given the chance) plus the nine-, eleven-, and thirteen-year-old kids. Like me, the dogs were sleeping through most of it now, except when one of the kids would make a particularly good snatch and yell in triumph. At least it was taking care of any lingering need for sex education.
When the children created an offering of dead froggies to the Buddha, I feared the repercussions. And maybe it was my imagination, but I could swear their numbers doubled that night. It was bad. It was very, very bad.
It pains me to admit that I conspired by my silence in the deaths of hundreds of croakers that spring. They died in an endless variety of ways, but mostly Eric heaved them—THUMP, or occasionally SPLAT—against the house. Sometimes he aimed high, and more than once we found dead frogs clear on the other side of the house the next morning, or their desiccated bodies on the roof weeks later.
“Maybe I should have let the cops take you after all,” I groused one night as he stomped off. The man seemed by God determined to ensure that I shared his insomnia.
“What?” he said.
“Maybe I should come out and help you after all,” I said, and got out of bed. Ugh.
The calendar pages flipped slowly forward. May passed. It wasn’t seventy degrees anymore. The flowers wilted and the mosquitoes hatched. A faint smell of decay—mold?—permeated the house, but it smelled no better outside. The sun burned everything in its searing gaze, yet still the frogs croaked out their horny croaks and gamboled nightly in sexual abandon.
“They’ll be gone by summer,” I said, certain that they would not. That they would never leave. That my husband would be scribbling REDRUM across our bathroom mirror by August while the frogs croaked on. Because “frogicide” written backward doesn’t spell anything.
And then one day, they stopped. Silence. Sleep. Happiness. Months went by, blissful days leading inevitably toward April. Make the clock move slower, I prayed to God.
January. February. March. We hadn’t heard them yet, but the little fockers would be here soon. Apri-ri-ri-RIBBITTTTTTT. Eric leaped up in bed as if the frogs were in there with him.
“Honey, stop,” I said.
He glared at me. All my man could see was frogs.
I handed him a pair of earplugs that I’d scavenged a few weeks before from his bag of work safety wear. “It’s evolutionary, honey, Darwinian. If our species is to survive, we must adapt.”
He stared at them, foamy yellow plugs on either end of a neon-orange string. I took his hand, placed them in his palm, and gently closed his fingers around them. I tugged him out of bed and led him out into our humid back yard, picking up a candle and matches on the way. I left the outside lights off and the male frogs sang out in carnal frenzy. I felt primal, like I was entering a hedonist temple.
Before the frog Buddha, I knelt with my husband. I handed him the candle and matches, then nudged him when he didn’t respond. “Light it, my love.” He did, a penitent virgin on the altar. He lit the candle. “Now, repeat after me,” I said.
He mumbled assent and I began. “I, Eric, present myself before you, Buddha of the frogs.”
The look he shot me said, “You’re out of your flippin’ gourd,” but I didn’t waver, and he repeated my words.
“I promise to do no harm to any of your frog brothers and sisters, henceforth and forevermore.”
“I’m not saying that,” he said.
“Humor me. We did it your way all last summer,” I said. And honey, I’m voting you off THAT island, I thought.
He complied with the enthusiasm of Morticia Addams.
“As a token of my sincerity, I pledge to you to wear these earplugs, and to install a frog shrine in our bedroom immediately.”
He repeated the oath, then we blew out the candle and tiptoed in perfect solemnity back into our room. There, I pulled two jolly stuffed frogs from a bag and propped them up on a pedestal table by the back window, between Eric and the live frogs.
“You actually went out and bought these in advance?” he asked.
“I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I love you, and I want our marriage to withstand the test of frogs.”
“It’s that bad, huh?”
“Oh yeah, it’s that bad.”
Eric finally—FINALLY—smiled and swatted me on the behind. He put the earplugs in.
“Those are kind of sexy,” I said.
“What?” he yelled.