Published on 2011/03/13

Late April Tree Frogs

Michael C. Keith

Finally he paid the debt of nature.
–– Robert Fabyan

Along the Calcasieu River north of Lake Charles, Louisiana, on high ground adjacent to a vast marsh, stood the 150 year-old former plantation that had housed the Arceneaux family for three generations. The ancestral moniker’s reign would end with Claude Arceneaux, who had contracted a rare infection that left him infertile while serving with the army in the Philippines. He and his wife, Ruby, had broached the subject of adoption, but ultimately Ruby decided that if she couldn’t bear her own child, she didn’t want to raise somebody else’s.

“Blood is what it’s all about,” she’d protest, as Claude tried to keep the subject alive.

“You’ll be thinking otherwise when you’re old and need someone to care for you,” he would invariably reply.

“Hell, I’ll hire someone to meet my needs with all the money you’ll be leaving me. So hurry up and go,” joked Ruby, and they would both chuckle, although feeling a tinge of emotional pain each time.

***

The Arceneauxs derived great pleasure in spending evenings on their expansive veranda when the weather permitted. It was something they did most nights. There they would talk, read, and even watch television. Claude had recently bought a small flat screen to use on the porch. His wife thought it was an unnecessary acquisition, since they already had a television that worked perfectly well. But Claude had finally worn her down.

“Okay, go get the silly thing,” she conceded, throwing her hands skyward, and Claude wasted no time doing so.

“Can’t beat a Sony. Look at that resolution. Don’t get better than that,” he said, with boyish excitement while surfing through the countless cable channels.

“Our old outdoors set was just fine,” responded Ruby, begrudgingly glancing at the television.

“Oh, c’mon, honey, you got to be blind not to see the difference,” said Claude, with a slight edge to his voice.

“My eyes are perfectly fine, mister. They just don’t see $400 worth of better there.”

“Ball games are the best. You can see the faces of the folks in the stands,” claimed Claude.

“You looking for somebody in particular?” replied Ruby, sarcastically.

“Could be. Maybe one of my old girl friends,” responded Claude.

“Better check out the senior citizen seating then,” said Ruby, suppressing a chuckle.

***

For the next several evenings, the Arceneauxs passed enjoyable hours in their outdoor sanctuary engaged in their individual activities––Claude viewing his favorite TV programs and Ruby lost in her latest romance novel. It had been the way they spent the warm season since they inherited the house from Claude’s mother a dozen years earlier. The only thing that broke the silence was the singing of tree frogs, a sound they welcomed.

“Nature’s serenade,” commented Ruby, as she did every April.

“And they’re in good voice, aren’t they?” observed Claude, adding, “In fact they sound louder than usual. Don’t you think?”

“Whatever,” replied Ruby, immersed in her book.

The following night, Claude again observed that the volume of the frogs was unusually high.

“Can’t concentrate on the damn game with them croaking that loud,” he complained to his unsympathetic wife.

“What’s there to hear? Just a bunch of grown men chasing their balls, if you know what I mean,” mused Ruby.

However, the next evening, she admitted that the frogs’ crooning was more boisterous than she could recall.

“They must have added a bunch of new members to their choir,” she quipped.

“Look there,” said Claude, pointing to the edge of the porch where a half-dozen frogs had assembled.

“My lord, over there, too,” commented Ruby, nodding in the direction of the porch swing.

“Jesus, critters are every where! Never seen that before,” said Claude rising.

“Now don’t you go squishing the poor things,” warned Ruby.

“Think it’s time for Corporal Arceneaux’s ‘Amazing Disappearing Froggy Trick,’” said Claude, stamping on the amphibian closest to him.

“Claude!!” shouted Ruby, horrified.

“Lookie here, my sweetie. Kermit done vanished into thin air. No sign of the little bastard,” said Claude, raising his shoe to prove his claim. “Not even a water mark.”

“That’s disgusting!” bellowed Ruby, escaping to the house.

In the Philippines, Claude had discovered that stamping on the small frogs that infested the jungle base caused them to evaporate. In one evening alone, for the fun of it, he had eliminated over two hundred frogs with the soles of his army boots. He repeated the feat many more times during his tour of duty.

***

The next night while the croaking frogs sang even louder, they seemed to keep their distance from the Arceneauxs’ porch.

“See, they know better than to come near Corporal Arceneaux,” commented Claude.

“Yeah, they know you’re a homicidal maniac,” quipped Ruby.

It was not unusual for both Claude and Ruby to nod off in their wicker rockers as the evening passed. On one or two occasions, they awoke to find the sun rising over the mist-covered marsh. This time an odd noise stirred Claude. When his eyes gained focus, he saw that frogs covered his body as well as the entire veranda. He leapt to his feet shaking the frogs from his limbs. The noise that had broken his sleep occurred again and he turned in its direction. His wife was clutching her throat.

“Ruby, Ruby!!” screamed Claude, running to her side and whacking away the frogs that blanketed her pudgy frame. “What’s the matter, honey?”

It was immediately obvious to Claude that she was choking, and he lifted her out of her chair and began performing the Heimlich Maneuver.

“My God, Ruby,” he whimpered, as he desperately squeezed her limp body, but he could not dislodge what was clogging her windpipe.

She must have swallowed one them damn frogs, he thought, knowing how she slept with her mouth wide open.

When he failed to revive her, he called 9-1-1, but she was gone by the time the paramedics arrived. The coroner concluded that she had choked to death on a species of frog not known to inhabit the area.

“Not one of our local leapers. Not sure what kind it is, but I’m no newt expert. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s one of them types come from the tropics. Maybe migrated up here,” he told Claude.

A week later the lab confirmed his suspicions.

“They say it’s something called a Lupon Striped Frog. Mostly found in Southeast Asia. Like down in the Philippines. You were there, weren’t you Claude?”

“Yeah, I was. Decades ago. But how could something like that get up here, doc?” asked Claude. “I mean that’s on the other side of the world, for chrissakes,”

“Can’t say. Maybe someone let ‘em loose in the marsh. You never know how things get where they get, but they do. Heard they found gators in Lake Michigan and a Polar bear was found walking the streets in Miami. Ain’t uncommon for things to show up where they shouldn’t,” he answered.

***

In the weeks that followed, Claude grieved for his dead wife and wondered if his mass slaughter of frogs had caused him such misfortune. Since his wife’s demise, he had stopped spending the evenings on his porch and had noticed that the amphibians’ presence had dwindled as the heat of summer intensified. With their absence, he decided to return to the porch where he had spent so many wonderful evenings with his late spouse. While it didn’t feel the same without her, something pleasant was resurrected when he returned to his old spot.

It was in the late innings of a New Orleans Zephyrs game that he noticed several frogs had gathered next to the porch railing.

“What the . . .!” blurted Claude, jumping from his chair. “You goddamn things come back again? Well, I’ll show you!”

With great vengefulness he stamped on the frogs, which appeared to multiply with each vicious blow of his shoe.

“I’ll make every last one of you wart makers vanish! You took my Ruby, and this is what you get you when you mess with humans.”

As Claude continued his assault on the creatures, he noticed that whole clusters of frogs seemed to fade away as he looked at them. It then occurred to him that they were shifting color to conceal themselves from the fury of his attack.

“You can’t blend in, I know you’re there,” he spat, moving methodically along the full expanse of the deck to make sure he killed every slimy beast he could, even the ones he couldn’t see.

Despite his thoroughness, the frogs continued to proliferate. Finally exhausted, Claude retreated inside only to encounter thousands of his adversaries clinging to the floors, walls, and ceilings. He waded though the swarming toads to the basement stairs and descended, returning moments later with a container of gasoline, which he quickly emptied and ignited.

Using every bit of strength he could muster, he plowed through the quivering pile of frogs, escaping the house as it went up in flames.

“There!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Behold Corporal Arceneaux’s ‘Amazing Disappearing Froggy Trick!’”

***

The sky grew bright crimson as the flames shot upward and consumed the antebellum manse. Distant neighbors reported the blaze, but by the time help arrived, only a smoldering foundation remained of the once formidable dwelling.

“Too late,” reported a fire fighter back to his station headquarters. “The house is completely gone. Nothing left here at all. Might be bodies in the rubble. When the thing cools down some, we’ll check.”

What he failed to notice as he waited at the far edge of the lawn was a six-foot mound of camouflaged Luzon frogs that concealed the standing corpse of Claude Arceneaux.


Michael C. Keith is the author of two short story collection––And Through the Trembling Air and Hoag’s Object.