To Catch a Precious Frog
In the shrubs of Cardinal Park, Ra tucked a torn photograph of lavender fields into his secret black box. He tossed it in on top of a small brown pony figurine, a pink book of fairy tales, an Australian flag, and a dream journal. The box also contained small rocks, maps, and advertisements for different products. Sparrows bickered overhead, but he could not talk to them now. Whenever he opened the box, waves of minuscule gyrations twinkled in his skull and knees and ribs. This time, however, it extended downward to his toes and fingers, spreading. Ra didn't understand why some objects echoed blurred memories, why others carried emotions, and why most said nothing. When he held the lavender fields, a bittersweet sense of loss shortened his breath. He smiled at the sensation. Ra knew it held a hidden meaning, something illogical but true. He closed the box.
A sports team arrived in the park and laid out five flimsy ladders in the grass. The players tiptoed their way in and out of the small squares with precise footwork. They lined up in neat rows behind each ladder, an older man held a stopwatch. The coach with the white baseball cap whistled and things changed a bit. Suddenly burpees, then sprints.
Ra stared for a long time without understanding. He stood beside a small catalpas tree, where he spotted a tiny green caterpillar on one of the tree's heart-shaped leaves and ate it. It tasted unripe, empty. He wanted to cry. On a bench facing the river, a young girl sat alone and smiled at a large book. He followed her eyes ticking left-right-left. On the path along the water, parents warned their children to stay close, and groups of university students laughed and pushed each other and experienced love. Old men walked with sad smiles which implied past happiness. He envied them all. Ra spent his days listening for clues that would lead him to the other side and waiting with impatience for the night and for the moon.
He laid down in the grass and identified with the lumpy, dissolving clouds. He closed his eyes and slowly rolled. His face smushed the grass and then came back up, his hip bones and shoulders clunky. And then the motion became fluid so that he no longer knew which side was up, which down, or anything at all. He imagined himself tumbling through space, through tunnels of strange light, and he felt a physical detachment that comforted him.
A sharp sound then hissed through the tunnels of light, and when he opened his eyes he met the frowning red face of a sweaty man. What's wrong with him? His arms were tangled in one of the rope ladders and he struggled to get out. How's your trip buddy? He heard laughter. Ra's mind continued to spin; he couldn't find his balance. He tripped and struggled before he finally extricated himself from the ropes. Fucking crackhead. Tears stung his throat. Ra got back up and skipped into the streets, not looking back, down one block, another.
Ra had known a semblance of order, had followed organized and logical patterns. He had worn fashionable polo shirts and slim fit jeans. He played video games with friends and laughed at jokes about sex. He scored high grades in art classes. Only, Ra never had a sense of what any of that meant. He always felt estranged from himself, unable to recognize his own desires and opinions. When he tried to explain his feelings, his friendships dissolved.
"It's like I don't exist," he would say. "Like I'm only watching things happen and hear, sometimes, an echo of me." When he kissed a girl for the first time, it was not his girlfriend. It was his fifth-grade teacher. He kissed her to see if that would provoke some of the magic the other children saw in Pokémon cards and basketball and Easter. It provoked a stunned reproach. He wanted only to belong. He tried sex and even exploring religious mysticism in an attempt to experience union but found only short-lived thrills. Not pleasures, but thrills: strange and not particularly attractive sensations. His most enduring method of resolving his seemingly innate separateness was in conforming to others. He did so for many years, following friends on ski trips, talking about sports, and going out to bars. Yet he saw only emptiness. When his parents sought help, he understood that his case couldn't be resolved by anyone else. He did cry—often—and found solace only when he discovered the whispers of a new symbol, or of the moon.
Ra now napped on a trampoline. He dreamed of strange yellow fields and tall grass whose scent he did not recognize and familiar people he never met, worries he didn't have, a brown horse, and a hushed melody that teased him from far away. Dreams hinted at the shape and form of the other side even though the pieces, people, and places did not yet fit together. Every time Ra woke up he felt disappointed to find himself in a world that others—everyone except him—made sense of. In the backyard of 86 Langley Drive, Ra listened carefully.
He had almost ended up in jail before they decided he needed help. After they caught him in someone's home at night, a psychiatrist decided he ought to find work. He needed to recalibrate himself with reality. Ra volunteered at a Wal-Mart for hardly a week before he boarded a bus to the next town where he threw away his ID, then continued onwards until he discovered Cardinal Park and the river over which the moon shone fat and mighty.
His conviction in the existence of the other side held just enough force to carry him lazily through many months, and then years. Ra didn't remember normality or his family. He still sometimes attended parties, always surreal, where conversations felt as ridiculous as the tentacles of an octopus. On one occasion, a stranger's birthday, he had walked uninvited and unannounced into a noisy brick house with strobe lights and excited shrieks. The place reeked of deodorant and weed and alcohol. Within moments, he was lifted upside down by shirtless men and told to chug from a keg of foul-smelling beer.
Ra choked and puked after the first gulp, at which point he fell in his vomit and laid on the ground with a dull expression. Strange sensations darted through him. People laughed and others came to his defense and tried to help him, but he did not want to move because a chandelier on the ceiling glimmered and winked and communicated with him. He listened and sensed something small and precious to be cupped between two hands. Something that belonged to him. That night he got lucky and dreamed of intimacy with a man, and he liked it and he wanted more. Sometimes he would be surprised like that.
As the sun set and the sky darkened over the river, Ra sat at the top of a play structure and stared at the almost full moon. He did this on most nights, always whispering the same mantra. "Please give me a clue." The moon swelled as it rose, and Ra could see in its glowing circle the familiar curve of a face, the hook of a nose, the arches of eyebrows, and—for the first time—dim impressions of eyes.
Ra had long watched the moon to uncover its figure, but tonight, the moon watched him in return. The subtle outlines of the eyes darkened and focused as the night went on. Soon, they formed two clear orbs. Ra felt like a big metal bolt in his chest was being pulled by a magnet across space. And that gravity was all the answer he needed.
The tingling in his extremities and bones resurged and Ra received images of thin wrists and a fear of sharp objects and a taste of a structured time and responsibilities that mattered but they soon floated away—only a taste. An electric current passed through him and he knew he was close, only steps away from the other side and that he must let go of himself. Ra jumped up. His body ran across the park, hollering wildly. The moment didn't pass. The wind suffused him, lifted him, and he leapt over the stone embankment at the edge of the park and into the river. He swam upstream and swallowed mouthfuls of water while clawing at weeds and muck. Eyes closed, he rejoiced in the sting of the cold and the eyes of the moon and the swirl of his own body through liquid space.
Later when Ra emerged from the river, the moon had disappeared. Two frightened teenagers smoking near the water fled in a rush. His shoes made a squishy sound as he regained the quiet streets and his mind continued to whirl, though slowly. He felt his way back into his body like a snake re-entering shed skin, and he wandered through a neighbourhood where all the homes had large glass windows and balconies and thick brick chimneys. Mostly, the houses were asleep. He turned into a flagstone driveway and walked into an unlocked garage door.
Ra did this almost every night. He entered the kitchen's patchy darkness, a blend of milky islands of hushed moonlight and utterly black shadows in between. His wet feet crawled into the dining room where he found dinner dishes still on the table. The place smelled of cigarettes and red wine. The floorboards creaked, and from the basement he heard moans. He moved towards the living room.
Old coffee shops and dusty libraries sometimes shared secrets, but there was nothing like a home to betray the unspoken intimacy of its walls. Ra shivered. The scent of the walls, the spine of a book, the pattern of a carpet. In a way, the symbols were infinite. Only some, however, carried meaning. Ra believed that if he collected enough hints the other side would reveal itself. In some houses his blood raced and temples throbbed at the sight of a board game, or at the purr of a fat orange cat. In this first house, he found nothing. He moved on to the next one where a small blue shovel communicated tender love and physical warmth. He visited the bedside of the homeowners and listened in on their dreams. Nothing, still. He continued, though, one house after another, convinced by the orbs of the moon that tonight a final hint would reveal itself. And he was right.
Ra turned on a lamp in the living room and discovered a framed photograph of the Beaulieu Family. He sat in a black leather love chair in the corner and listened. The room whispered, which Ra knew because of the soft tingling in his fingertips.
On the top floor, for about an hour he watched a man snore and a woman with an eye mask sleep dumb. He tried to listen to their dreams, and he heard something about a deflated football and a sinking sandbox. The sandbox smacked him with an image of long brown hair and lice, which accelerated his breath. He tried to uncover more pieces. It was right there: a child, the sandbox at the edge of the schoolyard. Even the blue shovel emerged. As water from his wet sneakers pooled on the floor, he watched for another while, this time thinking about how the couple would wake up in the morning with all the symbols in the world neatly organized and fitted to their needs. The man rolled over and wrapped his arm around the woman.
Ra yawned and returned to the hallway. He noticed a small empty bed in a pirate-themed room and slipped under the heavy covers. The boy had died, Ra knew. He knew because love always found its way into the walls of a home—into the patterns of the carpets and the creases of the sofas. And whenever tragedy struck, that same forceful feeling shifted and contracted until, when concentrated enough, it turned into pain. The glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling refused to shine.
Why did the birds and the walls and the moon and even the grass who knew about the other side refuse to tell him? He crept back down the stairs, ready to leave, when something in the living room caught his attention. A CD on a coffee table. Ra approached and immediately a wild erection bulged against his pant fly. He received the same minuscule gyrations as in the morning and knew this was it. The album cover featured a drawing of a white man in brown pants on his back, with his eyes closed. Ra read on the bottom Dehors Novembre. He located a sound system, pressed the ON button, and slid the disk into a small slot. He cranked the sound, laid down on the room's white carpet, and closed his eyes like the man on the cover. A song began.
The words were foreign, but he formed them all with his lips without thinking: Jusqu'à maintenant, j'ai la vie facile, malgré qu'c'est pas encore le bonheur. Ra calmed his breath. The music started—a bouncing, swinging rhythm. His knees jerked and his arms swung as he sang. A terrific grin ripped his face wide open, and he re-lived scenes he had only glimpsed in dreams, in symbols: he ducked under a desk and screamed "Autruche!" in a classroom where a blond teacher talked about le Bouddhisme and the colour green and he opened a love letter in a small bathroom and hunted imaginary wolves in an autumn forest and cupped a baby frog in his hands and he loved it like a child; he saw a childhood that didn't belong to him unfold in sporadic scenes that lifted him up off the floor and sent him whirling through the room. The tingling spread at last up his spine and along the length of his bones and muscles so that his entire body glowed and radiated and he had known the song forever and ever and had found it like a precious frog, like a new bicycle for grade four graduation, like a life he had never known but witnessed at a distance until now; he cranked the volume higher and closed his eyes and tasted pink lemonade and spun and knocked gilded frames and books and plants over and screamed until the saxophone and the drums kicked in and he imagined a star imploding and playing with the lips of a brown horse whose name sounded like a high-pitched chirp and the eyes of the beast followed him as he twirled through space and converged with the eyes of the moon so that he didn't remember when he last breathed and whether he had found the other side but he was no longer in control at all; Ra's body now acted on its own and sang and kicked and he knew he had found the key and he smelled slimy rocks and chlorine and—
Someone tackled Ra onto the sofa and the music stopped. "Lise, call the police!" The bright lights shocked Ra's eyes. "Don't move! Your little party ends now." He couldn't make out the man's face, but in the kitchen he noticed a small form talking rapidly. They don't want you to see the other side. The figure loomed over Ra while the music played on in his head: his body lurched forward and shoved the man aside. He heard the figure in the kitchen scream. As the man pulled himself up and lunged towards him, Ra leaped into the kitchen. He laughed and skipped around the dining room table before tumbling down the carpeted stairs into the basement. He registered almost nothing of his surroundings. He only knew that the man's breath chased him until he bolted up a stairway, exploded into a garage and broke into the streets, laughing and leaping through the backyards long after the sound of police sirens flashed by. His legs knew exactly where to go, and Ra followed them.
The morning sun splashed him through the trees. Ra's footsteps crunched pine cones and dry maple keys. The forest smelled like the moist underside of bark. There was also a warmth, however, that belonged to the roots and the puffy tails of squirrels and the energy of insects. He arrived at a pile of logs and planks and discarded furniture in a forest. Somehow, with the help of frayed rope and a worn blue tarp, the shack stood erect. Ra's heart knocked against his ribcage and his jaw trembled. He approached the entrance: a beaded curtain barred with planks of wood. Were the tears because of how fast he ran?
Ra moved the planks aside and tucked himself into the opening. A thin clicking of beads followed him. His heart beat faster still and he wanted it to stop so that he could catch his breath and understand the darkness and understand why he had come here at all. He looked around. He waited. He listened. And only later, much later, once he had calmed down, and once he was ready, did he see.
On the ground beside a rotting desk, he found a photograph of him and his family. The light poured in from behind the bead curtain. Ra tilted the picture to see it more clearly, to understand. It didn't change. He stared at the picture of himself and of his family and felt a rush of unity, of belonging. This shack had once been his secret hideout. Only, the person in the picture—Ra—was not him. And the family was not the one he had once known. He was a pale woman with curly brown hair and round cheeks. It was him. He recognized the family members from his dreams. It was as though he were looking in a mirror. When he looked around the room in search of some kind of answer, he discovered only a picture of a beautiful brown horse in a shattered frame, a frog net, and a poster: Dehors Novembre. Ra sat for a long time. He encountered himself. The world seemed to stand still. Who was he?
When the night came, and the moon emerged, full, Ra saw a plain white disk with craters. The moon was empty and mute. It carried no secret, and Ra did not seek to find any, either. He lay on his back and felt his body go numb. He thought about the photograph and watched the magic of his world slip away and disappear. He was only an echo. And he would never reach the other side.
Jérémi Doucet is an Ottawa-based fiction writer and poet. His short fiction has been published in the collection "A Father's Love," and The Phoenix. He is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of British Colombia.