A ragged crew from the neighborhood saddled bicycles pulsing with personality; they announced something undeniable about each of us. Reed’s, a dirt bike, single speed, fire engine red—a testament to just how boy he was. Michael’s, a rusted mountain bike, left outside all winter, the chain loud, the gears no longer easy to shift (he never took care of things). Mine, pink with a banana seat, beads clipped to the spokes, but the paint was scratched and flaking, casualties from trying to keep up with the boys. A five-gallon bucket hung from my handlebars, a fishing net tucked through the back of my shirt like a sword in a sheath. None of us wore helmets. Danger wasn’t as dangerous back then.
We raced through alleys, intentionally stirring up the barking dogs and laughing. We’d zig and zag in front of one another, teasing and taunting. We were headed to the pond and the gaping yawn of the afternoon was open before us. It was summer and we were free.
Bent precariously along the shoreline, we sloshed water in the bucket. Reed took the net. I splashed along the edge with the boys, sneakers sopping up the fetid murk of pond water and mud. We talked like we were experts, but we were only pontificating and no one ever called the other’s bluff. The slippery frogs with the spotted backs were “leopard frogs.” They were the hardest to catch, fast and slippery. We slapped one another on the back and cheered each time we caught one. We learned the hard way that they had the determination and the ability to leap from the captive bucket.
Mostly, we caught tiny toads that pooped in our hands, either in self-defense or from the fear alone. We’d wipe our filthy hands on our cut-off jeans and deposit the toads with little care into the bucket.
When the sun began to dip, we’d begin the trek home, proud of ourselves for the day’s haul. The ride home was quieter. Reed and Michael rode alongside, peeking into the bucket to check on the tender beings we’d decided were ours.
Once home, we placed the bucket in the shade outside my basement door. We studied and named the toads, picking favorites and claiming ownership as if choosing a draft. We furnished our captured friends a home, rich with grass and sticks and rocks, and told ourselves they were happy. Against the backdrop of day’s fading light we raced about, preparing a feast of lightning bugs, the glowing bulbs torn from their bodies and dragged across our skin to make rings and geometric designs that glowed, the remainder dumped into the bucket. Mosquitos, slapped and flattened on our forearms, provided dessert. We were monsters, really, capturing and killing as we saw fit, the night echoing with our laughter.
The toads always died. In the morning, we’d pinch the dead between two sticks and dump them in the yard. A pooping toad in hand breathed. We knew without needing to be taught that a dead thing required distance. We’d given them food and built them a home. We’d named them, but we couldn’t keep them alive. We were 11 and knew very little about what it took to sustain life.
Days later, when only a few survived, my mother would complain of the smell and demand that we get rid of them. Again, we’d climb atop bicycles and return to the pond. A small handful of toads, each no larger than a dime, spilled forth from the toppled bucket. Did they remember the marsh, the pond, the grasses? Had they missed it? Had their families worried? And once reunited, did they hold vigils for those who didn’t return, those whose lives were sacrificed for our curiosity and indifference and ignorance? We told ourselves we’d given them a wonderful adventure. We hadn’t yet learned of cruelty.