The following is the winning entry for the Southern Screen 2022 Writing Competition, presented by The Current and the National Writing Project of Acadiana. You can read all of the finalists here.
On Tuesdays, we read letters from Peg’s locked-up boyfriends, while sitting beneath our private canopy of Spanish moss that shielded us from both scorn and sun. This is how we became best friends right quick; she admired my cursive and I her sophistication for words like “nubile” that were outside the realm of Miss Martin’s homeroom. It was our favorite ritual, writing her pen pals and smacking on cracklin’ cookies. We could ask for absolution from all the steamy bits, while wiping the cookie grease on our skirts and not Peg’s letters. Despite being a banker’s daughter, Peg had never said a word about the cookie’s molasses mixed with pig lard. Then again, Peg was all class and brass with real stockings, not like the ones we created with our yams after the stock market crash. Peg’s kitchen uptown likely remained untouched with jars of butterscotch and caramel with not a crate of live frogs in sight.
The kids at school call me “Swampkitty” even though my birth certificate clearly says Katherine. I hadn’t been just “Kitty” in a long while, ever since my family ordered our first frog mating kit and we were now like all the other ‘crop-less’ farm families who believed in what the brochures promised as the frog fortune. For a brief moment, I had forgotten why we came to our secret spot until Peg began reading the latest. Still gnawing the sweet cement my mother packed she said, “We’ve got another from Rusty.” Peg looked flatly at the rest of the discards, yellowed and weathered in the hollow of the tree trunk. Rusty’s crisp and barely read letter went right with the other boys.
“I thought you liked Rusty. He’s the only one that calls you Margaret” I asked. “He keeps pestering for me to visit the prison and I told him what I tell the others that I have other engagements,” replied Peg as she pointed and flexed her bare foot in what she called “tendu.”
“Oh, and what are those?” I asked worried that she had found a more polished friend to dictate words like “libido” and “titillate” to.
“Managing the capital from our frog empire with my associate Kitty of course. If they push back, then God calls me away to a life of service,” said Peg clasping her hands in mock prayer. I was shocked. It was something we silently had never agreed to talk about: my family’s frog business.
Peg launched another bomb, “What’s for dinner by the way? You never invite me over.” Panic quickly rolled over like a rogue wave. At home, there were dead frogs in the icebox, not to mention the swimmers in the tub. Of course, the laws of physics would dictate that Peg return the gesture and invite me over where we would presumably drink free flowing hot chocolate from marble fountains followed by magic carpet rides down winding, double staircases.
“Croaking is to be expected,” I mustered which was a fair warning, but unintentionally enigmatic. It was how my mother informed any newcomers to the house like the milk and post men to heed the moaning and on occasion the barking. Peg seemed neither puzzled or deterred.
Instead she replied, “Great, let’s kiss some frogs and la-ti-da,” while playfully interlinking our arms together. Our pen pal past time had clearly lost its spark. I was to become the new novelty pastime: the virgin living in a farm house turned brothel for would be mating toads. Who wouldn’t want to be invited over for dinner?
As it so happens, frogs aren’t in the mood for froggy love much, so we had to harness our virtues as a farm family in patiently waiting. Our home’s calling card was our signage, “We sell live frogs,” an invitation to barter with local frog hunters. Thankfully, we had finally stopped ordering the live crates for frog mating that the peddlers were pushing door-to-door after we learned firsthand that it takes two to three years for frogs to reach slaughter or as I say ‘canning’ size.
My mother was instantly alerted to our arrival as we crept up our wooden porch steps where every “creak” matched a “ribbit-ribbit.” The door was already wide open, so we had only to pull back the sunscreen. Our living room suddenly seemed darker and shabbier with Peg in the thick of it. My mother must have thought so too because she quickly hoisted herself away from her sewing chair, pulled by an invisible windup that animated her with an entirely new persona. Never before had there been a friend of mine for my mother to dance around her exhaustion or calloused hands. “You must be Peg” said my mother, the perfect ingratiating hostess.
“She’s staying for dinner,” I informed knowing very well tonight’s dinner would likely be the same as the night before, something odd and on rice.
“Have you had pineapple salad dear?” my mother asked toadying up to our guest as if the canned pineapple, the exotic ingredient, could mask the hidden dash of bull frog. “It’s one of my newest recipes,” she said gesturing to her published book of frog meat recipes, a failed grasp for the life raft that was our finances. Before I could intervene, my mother had rescued the book from its main job of being a pillar to support our dining table with the bad leg.
Without hesitation, I whisked Peg away by the hand, the door slamming behind us, into our back yard calling back, “We’re going out to play,” to where I secretly called ‘the chapel.’ Next to the rice ponds turned frog pool was my favorite water oak. The frogs aligned its limbs with their chorus of noises. There was a break in the song when a baritone made its presence known out onto the mezzanine or closest branch. “You can ask them to predict the future.” I told Peg pointing to the reverberating leaves that camouflaged the froggy rhapsody. She seemed to take my suggestion thoughtfully as she weighed her options.
Instead Peg said, “Come on let’s feed them.” She cupped the air and was mystified when she had succeeded in catching a fly with her hand.”
“Feed Guinevere, she’s my favorite,” I motioned Peg to the Kelly-green frog sunbathing on a rock in the middle of the small pond.
“How do you know it’s a girl?” she asked.
“I don’t really, but I like to marry them off to each other. See there’s Lancelot and King Arthur on that stone.” The king and his knight were making grumbling moans I had never heard before. Lancelot launched himself with a desperate ferocity onto Guinevere and the king onto the pile. There was only enough room for Guinevere and we feared the queen would surely drown. “Hold this,” said Peg handing me her dead fly, swooping in to save the damsel froggess, a banker’s daughter, seemingly at ease in the mud and quite oblivious to the state of her now muddied stockings. She cradled the frog like a diamond examining it closely from all angles, inspecting it for flaws and blemishes. Guinevere remained unscathed but Peg still seemed bothered by the event we had witnessed in the pond. “Would you like to live in my doll house?”
Peg said now addressing Guinevere. The female frog seemed receptive to the attention, her eyes widening like two fresh copper pennies, while Peg stroked her slimy back with the side of her pinky.
“If you want, we could dress her in some of my old doll clothes,” I said reluctant to still be such a child.
Peg’s face brightened. “We could sew new ones with your mother’s machine. We could create costumes and window displays for the different seasons or characters from history like Benjamin Frogglin!” Peg teased.
“Do you think people would pay to see that kind of attraction?” I asked. Perhaps my family’s business wasn’t so foolish after all. “Do you think your father could advise us?” With the light now snuffed Peg replied, “My father lost his job at the bank a while ago. He spends most of his time in his study these days.”
I suddenly got a glimpse of Peg’s home, where I envisioned the hollowness of marbled echoes and like a warm blanket, I suddenly found comfort in the chirping, bellows, and hoots of home.
I wanted to say something of comfort but we had both zeroed in on a couple of air bubbles on the now murky pond water where the largest toad in our menagerie catapulted herself from the pond’s dark depths. She hopped right to us and released the contents of her stomach, which so happened to be a dead frog onto Peg’s saddle shoes. Peg examined the dead frog, “It’s King Arthur!” she gasped. The cannibal frog, “Swampkitty,” shared my nickname and she was my best kept secret because she was both canning size and a breeder, but she was completely untouchable.