Catching the Sky
He did it—PJ crawled right in. He waded through the swamp, all the way up to his armpits, feet slipping on the bottom. The stench of dirty water made my eyes water, but he didn’t even notice it. When PJ got his mind around something, there was just no stopping him. Bobby, stop being such a girl and get in here! You’re not gonna catch any action just sitting there, he yelled to me. I sat on the dry bank, staring. He was right. When you are eight years old, an eleven year old is always right. Plus, PJ knew what he was talking about when it came to catching things. Sure, there were frogs and snakes in the lake, but not like the ones here. PJ was determined to catch all of them, and I was determined to be as cool as he was—so I took a deep breath and I followed him in.
The swamp was in the middle of the campground, Bear Brook State Park, Suncook, New Hampshire. Since I could remember, we’d spent every summer there. A thin, winding road lead us from the I-95 deep into these woods, and there were about forty campsites scattered around the park, with the swamp at the heart of it all. We walked down to it that day like we always did: with a big white bucket and big green nets, our jeans rolled up above our knees. Not to keep them clean, but to keep them from catching on whatever was underneath that murky water—branches, decaying wood, rotting leaves—and to keep centipedes and leeches away from our crotches. The seal that the jeans created between my thighs and my privates was a critical component to enjoying the hours we spent trolling through the swamp, the one comfort I insisted upon as sludge squished between my toes. PJ and I sat on the bank of the swamp to catch our breath and strategize. Bobby, you’re smaller and faster than me, so maybe you take position on the log and I’ll cover the left bank. We’re gonna catch something today, kiddo, I can feel it! We’d been trudging around for hours already, and we hadn’t seen jack. But PJ was so sure, so confident—and so determined to keep me fired up—that there was nowhere I would rather be than that swamp. Finally, just as we were about to head back to the campsite, I spotted him.
He was the biggest bullfrog I had ever seen. I called him Boss. We had seen him twice before, once perched on the massive log that jutted out from the water in the middle of the swamp, chest puffed out. Then once again, hopping along the bank opposite us, diving underwater as PJ charged through the swamp toward him, his net waving in the air. Of course Boss saw PJ coming, even from behind—his massive round eyes could see things in all directions. PJ and I spent countless hours walking around in the woods thinking of all the things we could catch if only we had frog eyes. Boss was only the size of my foot and his brain couldn’t be much bigger than my eyeball, but he seemed so much smarter than me, always foiling my grand schemes to capture him. For weeks he had escaped both our nets, but today I had come to the swamp on a mission: I could outsmart a frog. I would catch Boss today. Now here he was, his huge eyes staring at me from the middle of the swamp, his body hidden underneath the thick water.
It turned out I couldn’t outsmart him—it finally came down to dumb luck. He was close enough to the bank that I wouldn’t even need to wade in this time. So I took one giant swing with my net, held it up with both my hands and swung it over him. Even as his eyes disappeared under the muck, I forced it down as far as I could, down down down to the bottom of the sludge, then scraped it flat along the bottom towards me while I backed up. As I dragged the net against the ground out of the swamp, Boss hopped up, trapped underneath the net and covered in the leaves that were stuck inside with him, his shiny emerald body ricocheting off the net. I couldn’t be sure if he was angry or scared, but I was absolutely certain that he wasn’t happy.
But me and PJ, we were ecstatic. I grabbed Boss while he was still on the ground under the net, and guided him into the big white bucket, covering it quickly with the net to keep him from escaping. And after PJ went down to the lake to fish, I watched Boss hop around my campsite for the rest of the afternoon, net in hand just in case he picked up too much speed. When it finally got dark, I put him back in his bucket and covered it with the net, sitting over Boss and staring down at his smooth slimy skin and into his huge eyes.
This wasn’t my first capture, though. This whole thing started with Dexter. Dexter was a squirrel, and every morning after we ate our Entenmann’s Blueberry Coffee Cake at the picnic table he would scavenge around underneath it and feast on the sugary crumbs. I loved this ritual—the cake, our crumbs, his arrival. And I loved Dexter, with his big fuzzy tail, perfect posture, and dependable timing. I loved him so much that I decided one morning that we should take him home with us. Just until next summer, of course. I devised a simple plan: I propped a milk crate up with a stick, tied some rope to it, and placed coffee cake crumbs underneath the crate. Then we set up shop under the canopy of the RV and waited for Dexter, rope in hand. I felt a little guilty, tricking him. He was sure going to be pissed when the crate came crashing down around him and trapped him underneath it. But he would be happy with me, I knew he would, when he was warm inside the house all winter with all the acorns and coffee cake he cared to eat. He would forgive me then, I was sure of it. The capture went smoothly. Dexter showed up right on cue, rushed right to the coffee cake crumbs, then ran around frantically underneath that milk crate, confused and angry that his friend had betrayed him. And my parents, amused but appalled that I had intended to bring a wild squirrel home with us for the winter, immediately forced me to set him free. PJ has never really let me live it down. You didn’t actually think they were going to let you keep that damn squirrel as a pet, did you Bobby? Weirdo. I’m still not sure now why PJ went along with catching him in the first place. Maybe he just liked the chase.
I wasn’t planning to take Boss home with me, but I wasn’t planning on telling my parents I had caught him either—I couldn’t risk it. I needed at least a couple of days with him, to admire him up close. After the incident with Dexter, they might make me set Boss free immediately just so I didn’t get any ideas about keeping him. So I kept the bucket behind a huge rock about ten feet behind the RV, and I swore PJ to secrecy. PJ agreed, and decided that tomorrow we would take Boss out with us in the canoe and spend the day on the lake. For tonight, though, Boss slept behind the rock in his bucket, while I lay awake in the RV for most of the night, my heart racing for tomorrow, and my mind racing with ideas about how I might be able to convince my parents to let me take Boss home with us after all, just for the winter.
The next morning we woke up very early, early enough to sneak away with Boss in his bucket and get onto the lake before my parents realized we were gone. It was barely light out, the entire forest still asleep as we stumbled down to the water with the bucket, a tackle box, and our fishing poles. We climbed into the canoe and I pushed off the shore with my oar, and we drifted out into the smooth and silent water. We paddled out to the middle and dropped the anchor. I took Boss out of the bucket while PJ pierced the giant hook at the end of his fishing pole through a night crawler. I’d never seen him fish with a hook so big, so I knew he had his sights set on a big catch today, maybe a big Bass like the one my Dad brought in yesterday. PJ was never one to be outdone, even by Dad.
“You know Bobby, I could have caught Boss myself. You just got lucky,” PJ said to me.
“Man, don’t I know it. I was just in the right place at the right time. I’m just glad we got him, cause my Mom’s freaking out about leeches and Dad thinks we should get out of the swamp and back out here on the lake,” I said.
“Yeah, well the dumb bastard had it coming one way or another, that’s for sure. I mean look at him, he can’t even figure out how to hop out of this damn boat.”
Boss was jumping around the sides of the boat, knocking his head into them and then falling backwards into the center. He needed to jump from the center in order to get high enough to clear the side of the boat, but his eyes weren’t positioned forward enough for him to see that. And I knew he could clear it—I’d seen him jump much higher in the swamp. Maybe he was just panicked and scared and wasn’t thinking clearly.
“I wonder if we could catch that turtle with him,” PJ said.
“What do you mean, catch the turtle with him?”
But I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted to use Boss as bait to catch that huge snapping turtle we’d seen swimming out here in the lake. I looked over at Boss, who was over by PJ’s feet, still knocking his head against the side of the boat, poor little guy. I suddenly wanted to jump up and grab Boss, but PJ was closer and quicker—he scooped Boss up with one hand and kept his fishing pole in the other.
“You know, catch that huge snapping turtle we’ve been eyeing all summer. I’m sure he’d eat this guy right up,” he said.
He was looking at Boss in a strange, different way—the way a dog looks at a fallen scrap of food before he lunges at it.
“PJ, what are you talking about, that’s crazy. We aren’t going to use Boss as bait to catch anything. Look, just let me hold onto him for a second…”
I sounded desperate. I was desperate. I wanted Boss back on my side of the boat, back in my hands. PJ stared into my eyes, then looked back at Boss, and for a moment I didn’t recognize him—he seemed possessed almost, and I felt my heart racing and my breath thinning. Then PJ yanked his fishing line out of the water and propped his fishing pole between his knees, and tore the night crawler off the hook and threw it into the water. And as he jammed the huge hook up underneath Boss’s mouth and through his head, I lunged toward him and ripped him out of his hand. The boat almost tipped over as I fell back towards my end with Boss in my hand, the hook and line lodged deep into Boss’s brain, right between his eyes. Blood was dripping out from his mouth and from the hole in the top of his head and running down my hand, and Boss’s legs were twitching slightly, slowly, as the last few bits of life welled up in him to fight. Then the twitching stopped and he lay still in my hand, but I didn’t let him go. I just sat there, staring into his unseeing eyes.
“Calm down, Bobby. What, are you gonna cry? It’s just a stupid frog. Jesus, you didn’t think you were gonna keep him as a pet, too, did you? Look, gimme the damn thing. I told you I’m gonna catch that snapping turtle.”
I let go of Boss, and PJ pulled the fishing line towards him, dragging Boss’s limp body across the bottom of the boat. Don’t cry, Bobby. Don’t cry. It’s just a stupid frog. Be a man about this. Don’t cry. My mind had slowed down, seemed to stop even, and I was nothing now, nothing but a heart beating madly in my chest. I wanted to bring Boss back to life somehow, anyhow. I wanted to take that hook out of Boss’s head and jam it right into PJ’s throat. I stood up, made my way across the boat and grabbed Boss out of PJ’s hands. I yanked the hook out of his head, tossed PJ’s bloody fishing line at his feet, and jumped into the water. As the cold lake engulfed my skin, I let go of Boss, let him sink down to the bottom of the lake. I floated back up to the surface, dreaming, lifeless almost. I looked back at PJ in the boat while I gasped and caught my breath. He had this look on his face, and I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it terrified me. It still does. PJ just didn’t care about things the way I did. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just started swimming. I swam all the way back to shore, two friends lighter but my arms growing stronger, catching the current, catching the sky.