That Hole is Everything
It wasn’t the first time a boy had brought me home. But it would be the last. His eyes were gentle. The way he watched me, perhaps imagining the two of us together. His voice quiet, the way he whispered all the things he wanted to do with me. His hands kind, the way he gently traced his finger down the skin of my back before he scooped me up.
We spent the evening together in his garage. He watched as I hopped about looking for flies, snails, slugs. I was starving so really anything would do. Sometimes, he hopped about behind me, imitating every turn of my head, every croak that came from my mouth. I thought at first he was trying to communicate. Perhaps he was. There was a moment when he squatted before me croaking all sorts of nonsense when I could have sworn he said, “Help me from this body.” Of course, he couldn’t have known what he was saying. It was mere coincidence. You know what they say, If you give a chimp a typewriter. . .
We could have gone on like that all night, and if we had, maybe we could have bridged the gulf between us. Who knows what’s possible, really? I certainly never could have imagined what happened instead. You probably won’t believe me either by the time I finish my tale. But it’s true. Every word of it. His mother called him in for bed. At first he didn’t go. But then his father called, too. He crouched down beside me and tickled my back with his forefinger. I didn’t know interspecies love could feel so good. “Don’t go away,” he said. “Please don’t go away. I’ll be back in the morning.” I croaked back that I’d be happy to spend the night if he could bring me a small tub of water. I didn’t need much. He stood and made his way to the door, then stopped, his eyes catching the glint of something shiny on the shelf. For a moment, I thought he’d understood, but then he grabbed what was apparently an old coffee can and, before, I could say or do anything, ran back and placed the can over me. “Now, you can’t leave!” he said. “And we’ll play together all day tomorrow!”
I wasn’t prepared for the darkness. It sounds like a ridiculous statement. We, toads, are mostly nocturnal, but this was different. The darkness was so thick I was afraid it would choke me. I waved a webbed foot to swat at it and felt instead as if the darkness had swallowed my foot. Fear nearly crippled me. Not the fear of impending death. But rather the fear that I would have to live like this forever, alone. Death, by contrast, seemed welcome. It’s strange how the mind works. After that brief period of paralyzing fear, I became calm. I knew with a certainty I’d rarely felt before that forever would only be a matter of hours. I could feel my skin drying up. The inside of my mouth turned to cotton. I don’t know when exactly during the night I slipped clear of my body. I only know that I did.
It’s difficult to describe what happened next. I was still in the coffee can, and yet I was not. Or rather, it was as if the space inside the coffee can expanded to include all that was outside as well. The insufferable weight of darkness was gone. Yet it was still dark. But now the darkness was like a kiss, a kiss that opened to another world. The nearest thing I can think of is that feeling you get when you immerse yourself again in water after a long day in the open air. That feeling of dreaming while awake. At which point, I was a tadpole wiggling through the murk. At which point, I was old, half-buried in mud, wanting only for the day to end. At which point, the chorus of croaks from my home pond became a city of tears. At which point, I staggered forth from my tiny corner of this fallen world. At which point, I was no longer alone.
The boy burst through the door shortly after sunup and bound through the garage, beaming. Then, he picked up the coffee can and froze. His face changed. Not puffed out as we do when we see a predator but the opposite, as if it caved in. He sat on the cement and slowly, carefully reached his finger toward the dried-out husk. Almost as if he were afraid of it, he tapped the shriveled shape with his finger. He tried moving it, and when it didn’t respond, he hit it away, covering his own face with his hands. He sat there like that a long time, his whole body shaking as if in that moment he wanted nothing more than to escape it, to finally rid himself of it. If I could have, I would have scooped him up and carried him home, the same as he’d done for me. I would have reminded him that at the end of life there is a hole, and that hole is everything. I would have said that I believe those holes are connected. I would have done that, but in this upside-down dream of a world the voice with which you cry is no longer your own and the ears with which you might hear anything that could make a difference make their own squall, like an ocean that keeps on breaking.
Peter Grandbois is the author of eleven books, the most recent of which is The Three-Legged World (published by Etruscan Press as Triptych with books by poets James McCorkle and Robert Miltner, 2020). His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over one hundred journals. His plays have been nominated for several New York Innovative Theatre Awards and have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is poetry editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio. You can find him at www.petergrandbois.com.