Mr Stinkysocks visits his two nieces at an idyllic campground and finds a deeper connection to the landscape, and the children, than he expected; by Arthur Davis.
It might have been easier to reach this conclusion if I were alone. There would have been a purity of focus, nothing to distract myself from the task at hand. Though it's now clear that I was better served through the reflection of someone I loved.
We had just spent a week in Falmouth, Massachusetts, sailing and sunning and doing little more than putting on swimsuits in the morning and taking them off at night. It was that simple and easy and routine. The home, a beachfront structure of modest bearing, was on loan to Laura, my girlfriend now wife, by her sister's generous in-laws. It was a long overdue vacation capped off by a trip south to the coast of Connecticut where her sister, Sharon, and Sharon's husband Thomas, had taken their two children for the weekend from their home in New Haven. We left the Cape relaxed and, regrettably, with a few more pounds than we'd arrived with.
"The kids are really looking forward to spending some time with us," Laura said.
"I miss them."
"You've made the most unbelievable impression on both the girls."
"That's what they think of Mr. Stinkysocks, too."
"I'm going to strangle Tess for that one."
"She's so crazy about you, she probably wouldn't mind."
Little Tess and Karen, Laura's two nieces. We had no children and, because of some medical complications, Laura wasn't going to be able to bear any. If we had met each other twenty years earlier, that might have made a difference. But then I would have been thirty and she would have been fifteen and I don't think either of our families would have accepted what everybody now takes for granted. We love each other, not with the fire of white-hot passion, but with the tendered reason of maturity. While that might not be enough for a storybook existence, as you will learn later in life, it makes for the strongest bond when caring and courage become more meaningful than passion and performance.
The trip down the coast of Connecticut was an unremarkable two-hour drive from Falmouth. I wished we could have stayed there another few days or weeks or forever. Thomas's parents had the ideal weekend home. It was just sprawling and secluded and spacious enough to give you the impression of grand living while cozy enough to make you feel welcome in every quarter of the home. It rested on a tame overlook near an inlet to a large bay that was filled with sailboats from the first thaw to the last desperate windswept days of November. We had been there before. I was by nature and interest a creature of the wild while Laura was a true New Yorker. I was born to the woods of Massachusetts while she cut her teeth in a rambling Manhattan condominium. It was only because she spent her teenage years living in the west that she made up the difference that might have come between us as we grew together.
I checked the directions provided by Sharon over and over. I read them out to Laura so many times she became naturally suspicious. "Is something wrong?"
"You've been clutching the directions since we left Falmouth."
I looked down at the scrap of paper Laura had torn from her desk pad in New York before we left for the Cape. Her handwriting was neat and orderly, in contrast to my unrecognizable scrawl. "I know."
"Are you unhappy that we took time from Falmouth to spend the day with my sister?"
"No, it's not that."
"But it is something?"
Something - yes, but what? I let Laura take the entire two-hour drive. She enjoyed driving more than I did. I tended to daydream and get involved in my writing and would lose interest. Because of her experiences exploring the deserts of Arizona and the foothills of Colorado she was perfectly comfortable driving for hours on end. The only thing I did for hours on end was ponder. But now my thinking had been overtaken by feelings I could not bring to the surface as the coast rushed by on my left. I was captivated by the shimmering water, the sailboats skimming the surface. By the golden benthic beauty of it all.
The directions Sharon gave Laura were as uncomplicated as they were brief. From the Buzzard's Bay bridge that linked the Cape to Rhode Island and down Route 95 east, inland to Route 34 until you get to the Green Mountain Refuge where Yale University had one of their summer camps used by staff and employees. I put the piece of paper back in my pocket, closed my eyes, and listened to the radio as Laura exited Route 95. We were less than an hour away from little Tess and her older sister Karen.
I had met them several years back at Thomas's fortieth birthday party. It was a surprise party given by Sharon in their new home in New Haven. A crowd of fifty or so friends, neighbors, and his contemporaries from the Department of Economics where he was a chaired professor were crowded into the living room awaiting his return. Laura and I piled into the corner next to two of the cutest little girls standing against Thomas's parents.
"You two little turkeys have to be Karen and Tess."
Karen was polite and answered like a little lady. Tess shot back joyously, "And you have to be a Mr. Stinkysocks."
Thomas's parents looked at her in horror and me in sympathy.
"No, my dear. My name is Mr. Wonderful."
"No it isn't," she said.
"Oh yes it is," I insisted.
"You are Mr. Stinkysocks," the pixie demanded with clenched fists.
Laura could hardly contain her laughter as Thomas entered the living room to the chants and cheers of his long devoted loved-ones. That was three years ago. Since then, we have had regular visits to New Haven and long weekends with the girls both as a team and as more intimate one-on-one encounters. These days Karen is less a lady and more a tomboy while Tess remains more delightfully impossible than ever. I continue to insist that I be addressed as Mr. Wonderful, sometimes as "the incredible" Mr. Wonderful, which they vigorously protest with their version of my name. It's a standoff the entire family delights in encouraging.
We were driving directly east now into the nestled foothills with the late afternoon sun at our back. From Laura's description, the Yale encampment was as modest as it was primitive. Sharon brought the kids out here for a short weekend of camping, hiking, canoeing, and general roughing-it at the end of each summer. Thomas wanted to come along this weekend but a last minute conference held him back in New Haven. "The kids are great out there. Karen swims like a fish. Tess fishes and loves scary stories."
I was awake enough to respond to Laura with a grunt when the image of a marshy shoreline dotted with small cabins skirting a lake as broad as it was long filled my mind. I was struck by the clarity and detail of the vision. I saw children yelling and screaming at each other while parents watched closely for the telltale signs of impending disaster. I saw Karen in the water with her friends and Tess with a fishing pole in her hand and the fish at the other and of the line and the pain the fish was suffering as the small hook sliced through its upper lip. I jumped up in my seat and held my upper lip as if to protect it from an unknown danger.
"Honey, what's wrong?" Laura said slowing down the car.
"I don't know."
"But you're all right?"
I tapped the front of my lip. Nothing. A fleeting twinge. "I guess so."
"You look upset about something."
I was, but I couldn't place what. "You want me to take the wheel?"
"No. I'm fine. We only have a few miles to go."
We turned off Route 34 and began a winding trek through some of the densest woodlands I had seen since my childhood. I had spent most of my early years on a farm in Massachusetts where my parents raised a small cash crop to supplement their day jobs. The deeper we got into the rolling woodland the more I could feel my body stiffen. "How far to go? Honey? We have to be very close by now."
Laura slowed down. "What's the matter?" She pulled over on the shoulder of the road and stopped the car.
I thought for a while looking in all directions, trying to get my bearing as though I was lost and unable to return home and fearful of the consequences such dislocation might bring. There was an urgency in my search that disturbed both of us. "I don't know."
"But there is something?"
"I feel odd. Like I'm expecting something, or someone, and don't know who or what."
"It's more than that."
"How can you tell?"
"You wouldn't be sitting on the edge of your seat if you were expecting something welcoming or friendly. You look too anxious and uneasy."
"That's it. That's how I feel."
"What do you want to do? Do you want to go back to the city? I can call Sharon right now. I know she and the girls will be disappointed, but you look so uncomfortable."
I slumped back. "This is silly. Let's go," I said. "Come on. I'll be fine. Whatever it was has passed."
Laura started the car and got back onto the road. "I don't believe you."
I didn't either. I kept seeing the fish struggle for its life as Tess dragged it from the water to the praise of Sharon and a cadre of her clamoring friends. I saw one of the lifeguards remove the hook from the lip of the fish and toss it back into the water. Karen hugged her little sister and showered her with praise. They couldn't have known that the small perch was bleeding badly and was mortally wounded and would soon sink to the bottom of the lake after it gave the impression of swimming away from the dockside uninjured. They couldn't have known that. But I did.
The rest of the half hour found us driving through narrower and narrower hilly passages until we finally came to the entrance to the campground. The sign pointed up the face of a thickly wooded hillside. Laura switched into a low gear and we tightened our safety belts as though we were going into outer space.
"Ready," I answered. "Let's get it done."
The car lunged ahead and directly up a dirt incline that wound and turned and twisted continuously uphill past a smattering of small cabins and adjoining outhouses.
"I hope their accommodations are better than these," I pointed out.
"Sharon is a pretty good sport and she likes the kids to be able to rough it."
I was no longer interested in such primitive entertainment. "For me, roughing it means not getting fed on time."
Laura patted my knee lovingly. "I know sweetheart, I know."
The rest of the trip was like a roller coaster ride over your average Bavarian mountainside. Finally, we began our descent down to a lakefront clearing that opened up to a half dozen cabins twice the size of the more rustic versions that bordered the path from the entrance. Children were scurrying around as weary parents looked on exhausted. The cabins could be rented by the day or weekend though most of the senior Yale staff came for long weekends like Sharon and the girls.
"I don't see them," I said trying to take my mind off the swarm of emotions that had taken possession of my spirit halfway down the coast from Falmouth. Since feeling the pain that the perch endured, I became acutely aware that my senses had been overtaken by memories from some distant, antediluvian past. Laura found a space in the tiny parking lot and I got out. But, as I set my foot upon the soggy ground, I hesitated. From behind me, I could feel Laura's eyes and apprehension. "Honey?"
"I, ah, just felt I couldn't step down on the ground."
"It's slippery so be careful."
That wasn't it, but then what was it? "I'll get our stuff. Why don't you find the girls."
"I'd rather we go together. That way they can climb all over you now and not when you come later and leave me and Sharon standing there as though we didn't exist."
I came around the car. "Look, they don't know any better."
"They don't know that you are an evil, devious, unscrupulous man who will do anything including changing his name to get their attention."
"Are you impugning the integrity of Mr. Wonderful?"
"If you had any integrity to impugn, I would most certainly impugn it. But since you don't," she said taking my hand, "why don't we just go find them together."
"I'm so misunderstood."
"Every man should be so misunderstood, darling."
The narrow beachfront was teeming with children splashing and swimming. Counselors walked about the sprawling campground trying to maintain peace. Canoes and two-seater paddleboats dotted the lake. It was peaceful and tranquil and the closer we walked to the shoreline, the more familiar it became.
"There they are," Laura said pointing to a wooden dock that was on the other side of bushes that separated it from the cordoned-off swim area. Sharon was fixing Karen's swimsuit. Tess was nowhere to be found. "Hi," Laura yelled and ran over to where they were standing, scooping Karen up in her arms.
Sharon gave me big hug. "The girls have been waiting all day for you two."
"I can understand why they would be waiting for me, but why Laura?"
"You can strangle him any time you want," Laura quickly advised Sharon.
"Hi, Mr. Stinkysocks," Karen screamed as Laura released her from her arms.
"It's Mr. Wonderful to you and your evil little sister," I said grabbing her into my arms. "Did you miss me?"
"No," she giggled.
I gave her a squeeze. "You know if you lie to me, I can have you beheaded."
"Now there's a pleasant thought," Sharon said shaking her head.
"Or, I can have you made into a princess."
"She already beat you to it," Sharon added as Tess came screaming around the corner and dashed down to the landing.
"Mr. Stinkysocks! Mr. Stinkysocks!"
"Now your fan club is complete," Laura said, delighted by how both girls embraced me.
"Is this my bellybutton girl?"
"No," she said stopping short and covering up her tiny exposed midriff.
"If you're anything like the last Tess I saw, with her terrific sister Karen with the great belly button you have to be bellybutton girl."
"No. But you're Mr. Stinkysocks."
We made our way to the center of the campground where Sharon and Laura could commiserate while the girls showed off their swimming for us. Both jumped into the water, eager to demonstrate their skills. As Sharon brought Laura up to date, I drifted away and, with a staff gleaned from the woods, paced back and forth along the length of the shoreline. I wasn't certain what I was looking for - searching for would be more accurate - but I was positive that my interest was beyond the realm of mere curiosity. Finally, I sat down on one of the picnic tables and stared out at the glistening afternoon surface of the lake.
That I had been here before was the only conclusion that made sense. I had been to camp twice in my life and, because of my stubborn streak and ingrained inability to "play and get along with others," was asked on both occasions to leave after two weeks. I had hiked over several of the shorter Appalachian Trails. But I was certain I had never been in this part of the state. There was nothing special or familiar about the location or the average-sized lake. The campground was like every other facility that catered to a cadre of work-weary weekend visitors - a dozen or so rustic double cabins with quite ordinary accommodations.
I felt a special and quite unexplainable kinship towards Tess. Maybe it was her size or her age, but she was totally endearing and, as Laura and I had already discussed, she had captured our hearts in a way Karen could not. She was as ferocious in her energy and concentration as any seven year old. Her intensity reminded me of mine when I was her age. The only difference was that I spent most of my youth swathed in bandages and bearing black and blue marks because of how fiercely I threw myself into the surroundings and circumstances of my life.
As she continued to cast out her line with one of her little friends, I became increasingly uncomfortable. In my uneasiness I noticed I was viewing Tess as much from her front as from her side. I blinked several times but I could still make out the front of her colorful swimsuit and that precocious grin. I could do all this from the vantage point on the wooden bench I had occupied for the better part of twenty minutes as Laura went on with her heated conversation. Karen waived to her mother and aunt then to me. I waved back and smiled broadly. With that, I stood up and focused on the little girl and her tiny fishing pole.
Unless the laws of physics had been repealed there was simply no way I could make out Tess's facial expressions and her bellybutton and mud-stained knees from where I was standing. In order for me to do that, I judged I would have to be standing further out towards the shoreline or where Karen was swimming. Or even further out into the lake.
When Tess started screaming I knew something was wrong. Not only did her squeal of excitement and terror alert the entire complex that she had a fish on her line but my view of her changed abruptly. I immediately lost my view from the side where I was standing and was instantly able to see her quite clearly, as well as the fish she had caught. I could see this as no one else could, even the fish itself, because in order to see what I was watching I would have had to be standing thirty or so feet out directly in front of where Tess was standing.
I glanced down at my feet. They remained directly in front of the wooden bench but my vision included a frightened little girl, parents and children running in her direction, the fish struggling to unhook itself and the bubbles that rose up to the surface directly in front of me.
The bubbles slipped to the surface as I felt my mouth open. It then closed, I blinked my eyes and slowly my view became clouded with churning water as the image of the fish that was only inches in front of me diffused in my vision. Most of the campers were horseshoed in a circle around the little girl including her sister, mother, and bubbling proud aunt, while I remained transfixed at the view that was vanishing from sight.
As soon as that image had come, it disappeared, rendering me with what had to be the sum of the commotion on the dock as Tess was helped to reel in the perch she had caught. I ran down to the crowd not simply to give her a hug and congratulations, but to divert my attention from the impossible which I had just experienced.
One of the counselors cut the hook in half and pulled out the remainder without further injuring the perch. Without hesitation, Tess took it from the young man, marched to the edge of the dock with the fish squirming in her tiny hands, and gave it a heave into the lake to the roar of the crowd. When it was clear the fish was alive, she turned and, suddenly embarrassed, rushed headlong into Sharon's waiting arms.
"There you are," Laura said taking my hand.
"She's a piece of work."
"She is, but I'm not concerned about her as much as I am about you."
"What are you talking about?"
"Honey, as Sharon and I came over here, you were standing in a daze with your eyes glued to the middle of the lake, while every soul in the camp was running to Tess. She was reeling in the fish and didn't realize she was walking toward the end of the dock and probably would have stumbled right into the lake if we hadn't caught her attention first. You didn't even notice me waving and yelling to you."
Before I could respond, Sharon walked Tess off the pier as though she were a conquering hero. Karen remained behind. I walked over to her and knelt down. "So, what do you think?"
Karen had her arms crossed tightly over her chest. "I've caught bigger fish."
"Are you angry that Tess caught the fish?"
"I don't know what the fuss is all about."
"But are you unhappy she caught the fish?"
Karen looked into my eyes. She had the torment of jealousy and love so confused she didn't know what to say. "I guess so."
"If you caught a fish how do you think Tess would respond?"
"That's not fair. She always gets all the attention."
"I'll bet that's what she says about her older and very, very pretty sister."
Karen squinted distrustfully at me. "You're just trying to make me feel better."
"No, I'm telling you that Tess, at her age, catching any fish, and certainly a second fish and a big one at that, deserves praise from everybody including the one person she loves most in the world. Do you know who that very pretty person is?"
"How about really, yes," I said getting up and lifting her high overhead. She screamed with delight. "Now you tell me who Tess loves most or I'll toss you in the lake."
"He will Karen," Laura confirmed. "He's just that horrible a person."
"Tell me," I demanded spinning her around like a top.
"Okay. Okay. You're getting me sick," she said as I lowered her to the ground.
"But before you tell me, I have to give you a hug and a kiss for being such a good sport." Then she called me Mr. Stinkysocks and said she still didn't know who loved her the most, stuck out her tongue at me, and dashed back to her friends in the swimming hole.
"Come on," Laura said taking my hand, "we have to talk."
"No we don't."
"Do I have to hold you high overhead and spin you around like a top in order to get your attention?"
"Only if you let me land on top of you."
"This way, back to the scene of the crime," she said marching me to the bench from which I saw the impossible. I was reluctant at first, then told her what I had seen. Laura didn't doubt a word. We sat in silence trying to piece together the mystery. "Only a fish could see Tess from that point of view."
"Or a toad or frog."
"That's it," she yelped, "you were afraid to step out of the car. Remember, when we drove up, the ground around the car was muddy. You were afraid. Oh my God," she said suddenly stopping.
"To step on one of my kind?"
With both hands covering her mouth. "Maybe so."
"I'm already there. I sensed it the minute my foot went over the side of the car."
"I have no idea. But I did see Tess from a perspective only a fish or a toad would."
"Maybe it was some other creature."
"No matter what it was, it certainly wasn't human."
"Well, I've known that about you from the beginning," she said, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me.
We spent the rest of the late afternoon being introduced to Tess and Karen's really absolutely "best friends of the moment" and preparing for dinner. Laura and I had brought a thick filet of salmon. Sharon had fresh corn on the cob and tomatoes and, of course, hamburgers and frankfurters for the rowdy, smaller peasants. By the time the fire was up in front of their cabin, there were eight of us standing around waiting for dinner.
I had replayed the entire incident over and over and came to the conclusion that I was either projecting my image into the water for some unknown reason or, and this is where it gets difficult, I really was able to see Laura's tiny niece through the eyes of an amphibian. Laura came over and asked me if I was all right or if I'd had had any more experiences.
When everybody finished dinner and the sun went down and the picnic table was cleared and little people were gathered around a churning, crackling fire, scary stories blossomed from everywhere. Sharon was a master at this. She went on solo for almost a half an hour as the little ones huddled together, every so often holding their hands over their ears to avoid the gruesome parts of her narrative. Tess was safely ensconced in Karen's arms as Laura was in mine.
As Sharon went on my attention turned toward the lake. The moon danced along the rippling surface. Children were moving about on the shoreline with their parents. Older children took walks together. A few of the teenagers were venturing out in canoes. The music from radios bled out of cabins and enveloped the campground in a mixed rhythm of blues and Bach. It was a bright, star-filled August night and I knew I was being observed. I tightened my grip on Laura as the vision became clearer and focused.
The picnic bench and the campfire we were huddled around were about fifteen or twenty paces from the edge of the water. Two rowboats were anchored there. I looked out into the darkness toward a spot between the boats and my heart skipped a beat. Then another. A chill rippled across my skin. I shook.
"Where?" Laura asked, instantly realizing what was happening. Of course I didn't have to answer. The direction of my gaze told her everything. "I don't see anything."
"It's there. Staring directly at me. I think it's coming from between the boats."
"What?" Tess said, tugging at Laura's shirtsleeve.
"What's wrong with the boats?" Karen asked.
"Their lines have come loose. Let me tie them off before I forget and we go to bed and they drift out into the middle of the lake," I said getting up.
"Now let your mother go on with her stories," Laura offered unwilling to let go of my hand as I got to my feet. "Be careful," she whispered.
I gave Laura a thoughtful, loving wink and turned toward the shoreline. Sharon's sharp voice receded into the background as the beauty and wonder of the lake opened up before me. How many times in my life did I swim in a lake just like this? How many times did I swim past fish or toads or frogs or other creatures or (and this caused me to pause slightly in my step) move over a piece of muddy ground and seal off the fate of some nascent amphibian?
The ground underfoot was firm only because the natural slope of the land drained rainwater down to the shore. There were no puddles, estuaries, or underground nests where creatures from the swamp could hide and give birth to future generations. I knew that was what this was all about. I had somehow become aware of my ancestry, even if Laura and I did not want to mention it in our survey from the wooden bench. We talked about every other possibility except the one that made the most - though in some circles probably the least - sense.
I could feel Laura's eyes boring into the back of my head. I could also feel a pair of smaller, less understanding eyes focused on me from between the bows of both rowboats. Halfway towards the shoreline, I stopped in my tracks and turned around. Laura had not taken her eyes off me. When I turned back to the lakeside, all I saw was me and my apprehension.
I was reliving the fishing incident with Tess. I could actually see me walking towards the two boats. I could see the entire campground behind me; Tess and Karen squirming along with their friends as Sharon hunched over the fire, forked tree branch in hand, eyes wide with excitement as her story drove to its frightening conclusion. I could see the red and white embers of a fire twenty feet behind me rise into the gentle, windless Connecticut night. I could see two teenaged girls whispering to each other two cabins away from Sharon's. I could see the fear in my own eyes.
The water lapped up on the shoreline between the boats. I was now only a few feet from the origin of my own vision. From the perspective, the frog or toad couldn't have been more than a foot up from the water's edge and yet I could not make out any form or movement. I was suddenly stricken with the possibility that I might frighten away the creature that had so captured my spirit. I stopped in my tracks and, as I did, I felt a slight shift in the view I had of myself. I wanted to speak but thought that would alarm the creature. I was stricken with apprehension. How does one make contact with one's self? I half expected Tess, or Karen and Tess, to come rushing up to my side fomenting with boisterous curiosity and ending this important, if impossible, transforming moment.
I stood there watching myself through the eyes of another of God's creatures. I know you will scoff at this telling. I understand. I would be equally doubtful if a stranger had presented me with these details. I turned my head to the left then right and as I did saw myself take this innocuous action from three feet away. I still couldn't understand how or why this was happening, only that at that moment I had never felt less human and more a part of another world, in my life.
The shoreline on both sides of the rowboats was crowded with cattails, rushes, and arrowheads. A perfect seclusion for either toad or frog. I had discounted the idea that I was being watched by a fish for no other reason than the fact that the view I had of myself always seemed to be more in keeping with smaller, stable, and stationary amphibians who were not dependent on motion to survive. Further out was a patch of water lilies that I knew were a favorite haunt of frogs and toads. But then, this was their world, or was it once also mine? That feeling was now so deeply rooted, it left no room for doubt.
A scream went up from the campfire behind me. Sharon must have come to one of her famous endings where blood spilled out of heads and limbs went flying and ghosts and vampires ruled the night. I think I was better off leaving before I was cursed with a month's worth of nightmares. While it didn't bother me, the screaming did make a difference in the view I had of myself.
The creature, whatever it was, moved back to the edge of the water. I knew this because its vision suddenly jumped sharply from one perspective to another, then narrowed to where I was standing with the view of the girls at the campfire directly behind me. It was as if the animal's peripheral vision had been completely cut off. Possibly a flight or fright response mechanism at work? Who knew?
I was certain that I had little time to do whatever it was I was going to do. Then again, that would also be true for the creature who ventured this far from its path to woo me back from my present to my past. The fact that it jumped ruled out the possibility that it was anything other than a toad or frog.
A barrage of giggles and squeals resounded across the shoreline. However, this time it came from another group of children being tortured with horrific stories told by other, somewhat more malevolent, adults. I took another step and this time kneeled down as though to present less of a threatening posture. What on earth did I expect to achieve? I was looking at myself through the eyes of another animal as clearly as if I was scanning my face for pimples in my bathroom mirror. That's when it happened. That's when I not only saw myself staring up at this larger than life creature, but also going back in time to the afternoon. A fish was making its way up and down the shoreline. I saw it in a way your memory brings back images even though you may be looking at something entirely different.
The fish shot down to the shallow muddy bottom after a smaller fish but couldn't manage to capture it. It swam on and, apparently, I followed. I did not know whether I was curious or expecting to benefit from the fallout from its next meal. I swam in short, leg-kicking bursts, until the perch went for the shoreline towards a smaller fish similar to the one it had just failed to catch. I saw it swim around the fish, then, without hesitating, clamp its jaws down on the metal hook that came out of nowhere and appeared to dangle at the end of the shiny, enticing lure.
"Who are you?" I asked, hoping beyond reason. "Why have you come to me? I can see what you see, remember what you've done, and where you've been. But I don't understand why?" I turned to make sure the children hadn't noticed me degenerating into an advanced state of dementia, and then continued. "What do you want me to do?"
Then, out of nowhere the frog or toad - I still had no idea which - jumped out from the shadow of the moonlit boat in front of me. "Tell me?" I wanted to reach out and touch it. I was desperate to make contact with the animal as though it were my child, father, or sacred ancestor. All that I was experiencing had a purpose. Of that, I was certain.
"What are you doing, Mr. Stinkysocks?"
"Hey princess, where did you come from?" I asked as the image of my surroundings now included Tess.
"Who are you talking to?"
"Well, I thought I saw a frog or a toad."
"They're not the same you know."
"Yes I know."
"Just like Karen and me. We're not the same."
"But I love you both even if you call me that terrible name and not my real name which is, of course, Mr. Wonderful."
"I see him," she said pointing directly toward the small, glistening amphibian. "Go ahead."
"Talk to him. He's listening now."
"How do you know?"
"Oh, I know," she exhaled deeply. "I can tell."
"I guess special little girls who catch great big fishes can tell."
"You know I saw him swimming directly toward my bait. I knew I was going to catch the fish he was following. But I'm happy the counselor got the hook out of his mouth. That made me sad."
"Honey, what do you mean, you saw him swimming towards your bait?"
Tess continued to watch the immobile amphibian. "He likes you."
"I like him."
"You two are a lot alike."
"How is that?"
"Oh, I don't know," she shrugged cutely. "Maybe he knows you."
"Can you see him clearly?" I asked, and with that, she knelt down beside me, held out her right hand and the frog or toad came bounding towards us. With his last jump, I lost the image of myself. However, it was a replaced with a sensation so remarkably deep and profound it shook me as I knelt in quiet desperation. I felt more of the pain and anguish of this small animal than I've ever felt for any other person in my life. I saw the frog remember how he had been attacked by several children here at the campground, how he had almost been eaten by a bird stalking him overhead, how he had injured his right leg on a rock, and how he had been drawn to this spot as I had.
At that moment there was no doubt in my mind that I had been born here in another lifetime, suffered as had this most singular of my ancestors, and for some mystical reason, been granted, with the cooperation of this tolerant and very brave animal, a window into my past.
"Karen is coming over with her friends," Tess said, turning away.
"Can you do Mr. Stinkysocks a big, big favor, sweetheart?"
"What is it?"
"Go over and tell Karen and her friends that I am not feeling well and would like to be left alone for a minute. Could you do that for me?"
You could see the little mind churning away, measuring up the request to see if it sounded like a parental command or an appeal from a special person. "Okay," she said, shot to her feet and was gone.
As soon as she had disappeared behind me, I looked down at the toad and reached out my hand. In one quick, grand leap, the animal fell onto the center of my outstretched palm. A wet-warm and comforting sensation spread throughout my hand. "I want you to know how grateful I am for the gift you have given me and your help in drawing me back here." I knew how foolish this sounded. I also knew these words had formed in my heart long before I knew the connection to my extraordinary ancestry
The frog gave out a low chirp like a bird with a sore throat, jumped off my hand, and disappeared back between the two rowboats. I tried to follow its movements and then noticed a slight ripple come ashore. I knew it was gone forever. I kept my hand extended for some time before I could feel the knots tighten in my legs. I struggled to my feet. The picnic table and campground were deserted. Lights in Sharon's cabin flared from every window. A few adults were moving about the compound. The cry of an unhappy child could be heard far off to my left where Tess had caught her fish.
Laura opened the door and stepped out on the landing in front of the cabin. When she saw me standing there unable to decide in which direction my life should proceed, she came down, walked over to me, and took me in her arms. "How's my great white hunter?"
"The girls are upset that you're not feeling well."
"I put Tess up to that ruse."
Laura was shocked. "That little scamp. She never let on. You've converted her over to your dark side."
"I already think we share something more special in common."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm cold standing here. Let's take a walk and I'll tell you all about it."