They started to fall like rain in the summer. As I got under the eaves of Pandele’s house, they were everywhere, hitting the trees and the gates of the households, impaling themselves on the sharp stakes of the fences. They were like dolls made from green rags, seemed lifeless – maybe they knew they wouldn’t survive the fall and gave up. They played dead.
The spattering stopped and the stillness fell over the village like a snowflake on a baby’s skin. People from one end of the street to the other, silent people, frightened people, people watching the smashed frogs on the ground.
The people bowed down. I was passing by, asking nothing; it was useless to talk about those beings fallen from the sky as if saying it’s warm – of course, it was summer, we all felt the heat – of course I saw all that, what’s the point stating the obvious: frogs like pickled melons with brown skin full of warts, yellow bulgy eyes, feet like springs, and toes tied in a membrane.
“They’re bigger than ours. Might be some alien mutants.”
That’s what Marian told me instead of hi, or what’s up, or don’t you have a cigarette. We met in front of Mr. Florin’s store. The front door was blocked by amphibians with guts spilled out. Mr. Florin was loading the frogs into a barrow with a shovel, then, swearing through clenched teeth, he grabbed the barrow by its handles and pushed it into the yard. We watched him struggle, talking alone: he thought that some storm from a nearby swamp raised the frogs from the mud; another foot or grazed conk fell – we watched him and listened, then ate sunflower seeds; it was all as if we’d seen another world in front of our eyes, made from colored cardboard.
“Or might be the end of the world, who knows? The good book says something about a rain of frogs.”
“I wouldn’t know, Marian, I never read the Bible.”
By evening, the entire village shared my high-school colleague’s opinion. Then the journalists got wind of it, but when the cars full of reporters arrived from Bucharest, no one said a word about what had happened. The TV set knew it all. They watched the live broadcasts, and the piles of frogs looked otherworldly on the screen; then they listened to the old woman Floarea as she was pointing to the broken tiles on the roof of her tumbledown house and was crying, asking who will pay her for the damages. Every now and then the Mayor went live, offering explanations.
“Two men and three women were hospitalized, yes, with minor injuries, yes, the situation is under control, the crews from Alexandria will clean the village up by tomorrow morning, in order to prevent the spreading of God knows what epidemic, that’s why we rush things up, as you can see, it all started to rot, can you feel the smell, yes.”
Towards midnight they went and filmed inside the cantor’s house yard where the frogs had fallen in the well. Three of them were still alive, so he kept them in a red bucket. They were croaking.
“It seems they come from Indonesia and India, or at least that’s what the amphibian expert from Antipa Museum, who was called in to give his opinion, claims.
“One species is fairly common in French restaurants and similar in many ways to the native ones. On the other hand, this specimen, nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, the purple frog or doughnut frog, named for its color and body shape, is a species in decline that populates the mountainous area of western India. Unlike its related species accustomed to ponds and swamps, the purple frog lives mostly underground, where it feeds on termites. I can tell you something else about this living fossil, a true wonder of evolution, and that is that it surfaces for only two weeks in a year, during the mating season, to be more exact. What seems to me truly exceptional is that our specimen is way over the usual three-inch size of its relatives. Our female – we can tell the sex by the light shade of the skin – has a length of eight inches.”
I fell asleep with the TV on, and dreamt that I was swimming in an ocean of frogs, floating over that green fog for many a long days, like a vessel adrift.
In the morning, any sign of the deluge was gone from the village. Only a faint smell of stale water trailed behind. By noon, the wind cleared off the reek, leaving behind only the perfume of lilac blooms. Hard to believe that right there, a day before, a few tons of Asian frogs had fallen from the sky to meet their own death.
Mr. Florin’s face seemed to confirm the surreal image of frogs falling from the sky. The sound of the TV on the counter drowned the buzzing of a big housefly that circled the sweets’ stand. The sweated fatso behind the screen talked about a plane that carried rare smuggled stuff. In his right hand he squeezed a handkerchief which he passed over his drenched forehead every now and then.
“…maybe an Airbus A300. One of the cargoes, the wild frogs that fell over the village,” he said, “had a different fate.”
I didn’t catch the name of that stuffed pepper, only his pompous title: private detective in biostatistics and theology (suspended studies).
“Fate is too much a word, dear viewers, because the amphibians weren’t destined to spill over the village of Mircești. Let’s accept the acceptable. It seems more plausible we are dealing with a number of coincidences that have led to certainty in the eyes of the locals. The situation is only apparently strange; in fact, we speak about mundane things from the immediate reality. To begin with, let’s inquire into the human factor. The pilots are human beings, too, as much as we like to think of them as robots programmed to carry us safely from point A to point B. But, if a man can forget a simple telephone number, then certainly, under proper circumstances, a pilot with thousands of hours of flight under his belt can forget to close a hatch during some intercontinental flight. Likewise, a parent – otherwise affectionate and caring – might forget his little baby in a car on a hot summer day. Such unfortunate things have happened so many times before (there is a whole record of them), so why shouldn’t it apply to our amphibian raining, too? And who’s to blame for such disasters, some of you might wonder. These wretched people? Are they stupid, wrong-doers, criminals?
“No, my dears, the value judgment has absolutely no relevance in the minefield of accidents and errors caused by disregard. Errare humanum est. The human memory is not in the slightest related to morals, ethics, experience, or, let’s say, character. Essentially, it’s a contraption that could break down anytime. That’s because after so many centuries of evolution, we still haven’t managed to shed some parts of our brain which are typical to animals. As we know from anatomy, the prefrontal cortex is the most sophisticated tool of the brain. By means of the cortex we analyze the reality, we question or we accept what happens to us. One level below we have the hypothalamus, the harddisk, which helps us remember where we left the keys, what to buy from the market, how does our beloved ones look, or what are we aiming at in the next few years. If we step down another level, we reach the basal ganglia. This basement of the human mind is similar to the animal brain. All movement and biological needs are monitored here.
“The higher zones cannot always lead the will of the God’s devotees. If subjected to stress or strong emotions, the brain could fail and change its priorities, letting the basal ganglia take over the wretched body. Thus, the prefrontal cortex loses ground to the basal ganglia. The being endowed with judgment and conscience transmogrifies into a snake or, if you indulge me, a frog disguised as a pilot.
“Also, we must not forget the potential for systematical errors. Maybe the tank where the frogs swam had some manufacturing flaws. As we all know, pieces of glass were found in the village near the frogs. So, the container was some kind of fishbowl. Even a blind man can see what will come next in this scenario. A crack in one of the tank’s glass wall and, after some unexpectedly strong turbulence, the wall gives way…”
“Eat shit!” Mr. Florin shouted.
He didn’t believe a jot from what the detective said.
“The truth,” he went on, “you have to give it to me straight, ’cause when some guy comes and tries to pull one over on you, something’s fishy.”
I paid for his cigarette pack and headed for the door; I felt an itch to argue with him about the truth thing, but that would have been a very bad idea, knowing that Mr. Florin had the stubbornness of a mule.
“Get back here,” he shouted after me.
When I got back to the counter he threw in my face the ten-lei bill I gave him.
“Are you kiddin’ me?”
The paper was green, although – obviously – all ten-lei bills were red. I took another bill from my pocket – my dad had given me a few hundred lei as a prize for finishing school with a big grade – then I started counting like a mameluke, my brain going dead while browsing through the green bills supposed to be red. I’d started shaking as I threw a puzzled look to Mr. Florin which he didn’t return in the same manner; he was suspicious, still thinking I wanted to dupe him, though you had to be stupid to fool him like this.
Eventually, I snapped back from my apathy and told him it must have caught the color during washing, who knows, I forgot it in my pants and sometimes my mom takes the egg paint for the detergent – coincidences, Mr. Florin, you heard the detective. He started to laugh, of course he didn’t believe it, but this explanation seemed to sweeten the alleged prank – take the pack, I’ll let you run a tab, you’ll give me the money when you have it.
Flustered, I got out of the store and, after I calmed down smoking a cigarette, I headed for the master’s house. Maybe he knew what was going on. Maybe he had an answer. He always has.
The master was turning the pieces of meat in the fraying-pan with a fork engraved with his initials: F.T. I was sitting on the summer kitchen’s porch and was scratching Gioni’s belly. My uncle seemed to be in a good mood and was whistling, but then my uncle was always happy, so you couldn’t really tell what was on his mind. He had a painted smile on his face like a man who knows how much dust you have in your pockets.
And now my uncle read me like an open book, but who knows, maybe he guessed from his food in the pan what I’d come across; he couldn’t gaze away and seemed to see the past, present and future in that meat that was sizzling like a thousand simultaneous short-circuits. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have summoned me out of the hours when he would teach me carpentry.
My uncle wasn’t called a master for nothing. He worked the wood like none other: chairs, tables, doors – real masterpieces; the peasants were scratching their heads when they saw what came out of his hands. The master was well-read, he was inspired by Brâncuși, or so he told me; he even let his beard grow like his, and was always blood-red from wine.
Notwithstanding, his masterpieces weren’t in the kitchens, but in the ground.
“I carved forty coffins in twenty years, entire families, my nephew,” he had told me when he first showed me his true art, in a late spring day.
He told me to come by his workshop, then talked to me in that serene voice of his, like a professor who knows his stuff by heart.
“This is the forty-first, and is for Ion from The End, the one who electrocuted himself yesterday on the pole. Here, give me a hand, take a good grip of it,” and we turned over the pinewood coffin.
The master removed the splinters and the sawdust that stuck to the bottom, a yellow surface carved from one edge to the other looking as if gnawed by a colony of termites. He had chiseled all kind of strange shapes, women and men with plugs instead of hands and feet, who were perched like storks on poles; some of them copulating, others had screwdrivers in their eyes – all with open mouths.
“That’s the way Ion froze,” he told me, “and this is how he showed himself to me in his world, with his mouth like a vise with the jaws open. I tried in vain to carve him some women, for I knew him a big skirt chaser, but I can’t, nephew, I cannot carve what I want, I cannot create outside the stories of people, you have to understand, those worlds are unreal, it’s true, but I’m not a phony, I can’t improvise, I must depict the truth in them. Better this way. Who wouldn’t like to live in a beautiful world full of lies? Here, amongst these strange beings, Ion will live for a while. And he’ll like it – they all do, you’ll see, no matter how hard it is, everybody likes to live.”
Then the master revealed to me that he was sort of a map-maker for other dimensions: he was carving, in fact, the maps of the worlds where the dead people would go. He was guiding them through the dark.
“Think about it, my nephew: the meat rots and part of what men used to be soaks up into the wood. The soul stays there for a while, as in a cage. What I build here is like a dream. You know nothing’s true, but somehow you love it and you get used to it. Do you think that’s fine? It’s not fine, my nephew, it’s just a world of wood that eventually rots. I’m afraid I’ll never find out what’s beyond this. I don’t even wanna know, because some things that show themselves to you never let you put your head on your pillow again, and sometimes sleep is good, my nephew, we must sleep once in a while. I strive to somehow stretch the worlds, but it takes time and people and death, yes, death, and everything of what I’ve already told you could never exist without death.”
“Why is my money green, master?”
He didn’t answer. He went on humming an old song while wiping off of the grease with a towel scorched by the stove flames.
Mornings with windows unshut,
Mornings with quarrels of cranes,
Mornings for living and dreams,
No tears at dawn in the morn…
It was the first time when he didn’t improvise the lines; maybe his alcohol-soaked memory had come back to him, maybe he had woken up with the frog rain that had changed the color of my money. Or maybe he had discovered the secret of the worlds he worked on.
He squeezed together the little chops on a yellow plate and put them on the wooden table in front of the kitchen. He still didn’t speak to me, but I could tell what was on his mind. I sliced half of the bread and put the slices near the fried meat, and then I took my seat. I was waiting for him to have a taste first.
“Frog meat is very healthy. No fat at all, mostly water. Come on, eat, you’ll learn more later on.”
It tasted like chicken. It had the texture of cotton candy, it stripped right off the bone and melted in your mouth like toffee, I didn’t even feel myself chewing. I was gulping those legs battered in corn and eggs and, little by little, I started to forget, and all I felt was a plummeting, the slow falling on a soft bed. My oblivion, a silken bed sheet.
Are we eating the frogs that have fallen last night, I asked the master, and my voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a lake; did the frog rain do something to my green money, I asked the master; I asked him, they said on TV they found a purple frog that mates only during monsoon, what world do we live in, where did it all come from, tell me, what do we turn into, why we forget everything – but the master never said a word, just bit the bread slice as if nothing was happening.
Then I dropped the knife. I stood up, and I headed for the path to the workshop. There, I opened the door of solid wood and turned over the coffin that was as tall as I. The master had carved a lot of frogs there, and planes, and huge snakes. I traced with my finger a line that looked like a riverbed and ended into a coffin-like shape. I took my uncle’s magnifying lens and pored over the map: the same frogs, planes and huge snakes were engraved there too. I followed the line again, this time with the tip of my nose, and got to what seems like a burrow, no, it was a pit flooded by a stain of purple paint, still fresh.
A black cloud was approaching the village with the speed of a tiger while I was barely moving on the road, with the will of a snail in the middle of nowhere. I trawled my shoes over the hot dust, watching former people passing by; I knew them by their clothes, the olive breeches of Mr. Calu who was now just a swollen tadpole carrying, as usual, a five-liter bottle of spring water. In this world, he had his leg carved without a foot too, so he was limping like a crippled kangaroo.
“Good day, Mr. Calu!”
“Good day,” he croaked, “where are you going with that rope, my nephew? And what are you doing here? Didn’t you die last week? I thought you drowned in the pond, you were there swimming and the whirlpool pulled you under, or so I heard at Mr. Florică’s store, but they pulled you out eventually, and they said your skin was invisible, you bastard, all the frogs had crawled over you, purple frogs; all fishermen bowed when they saw them, you wretched thing. Don’t go, my nephew, just tell me where are you going with that rope?”
I walked on without answering. After a few yards I met the mayor’s boys, in their expensive clothes; they were huddled on the hood of the Land Rover which daddy had bought. If a fly happened to be around, they would’ve stuck their tongues out like ribbons and swallowed the prey. I asked them whether the Mayor had filled the deserted well. They answered me after a minute, mostly in spite.
“What do you care, you wanna take a dive in it?” They always mocked me. “It’s still there, tie that rope around a rock just to be sure you’re going down this time, he he he.”
Rickety as the well roof’s bearing poles were, the chances were good I could please the Mayor’s boys. But I had no choice; I had to take that risk. Anyway, I couldn’t stay at the surface any longer. The storm had started. Before I let myself down, through the farm trees I saw a snake the size of a tank car swaying in the distance. My uncle’s engraving was falling apart and, if I’d stayed on the surface, I’d have vanished along with it.
I was swinging from side to side like the pendulum of an old grandfather clock, touching now and then the cold walls of the well, and then the moisture soaked me to the skin, arousing an unpleasant sensation of choking, of imminent death. I heard from below a squeaky sound. The closer I got, the more I understood my uncle’s last piece of work. He had finally found a way for the world not to disappear: he had built a gate. But for the doors to open, he needed someone to turn the key. He needed a dead body.
I dropped to my knees and felt in the cold water for the source of that squeaking. My hands met some hissing thing, old plastic maybe. I felt something sharp, then something soft like a cow liver. I took it in my hands and brought it to the light. It was the spit image of the one I had seen last night on TV: purple, the size of a soccer ball, short legs and spiky head. I closed my eyes and – deprived of my senses – took a bite of it.
―Translated from the Romanian by Dan Butuza