C. R. Resetarits
Location: Norfolk, Virginia Email: email@example.com Publications: Licking River Review, Yemassee, Blueline, The Poets' Edge Awards: Recipient of a 1999 Illinois Arts Council Prose Fellowship
It's not nice to laugh at Mother Nature.
They found him floating face up in one of the small ponds that made up his research empire. The expression on his face, wide-eyed, gaping, unuttered surprise, was said to be priceless--as was the image of the tadpoles and naiads that were grazing in the crumb-infused tangles of his beard. Thank god, a chorus of attendants exclaimed when details of the murder began to circulate, we always hated his pubescent mask: playing nice while he fucked with our heads over lunch and undermined our futures over dinner. Thank god, a chorus of underlings were heard to pray, we are finally free of our own murderous desires: he treated us like shit, acted as if we didn't exist, never even thought of springing for an occasional box of doughnuts or a pitcher of beer. Thank god, a chorus of colleagues were heard to whisper in the hollowed halls of academe, we expected as much: he had that waxing libido with undergrads and that waning ego with graduate students. We could use his space. He never said hi.
There were, of course, countless rumors before the murder and gads more after. The victim was known far and wide for his excessive head--hat size 12, thank you--and those in the know were rarely disinclined to discuss their personal knowledge of his legendary diminutive dick--like a six-year-old, hairless and pink. But weren't those always the hallmarks of great men? Rumor, legend, tall (or exceedingly short) tales. They might prepare one for the monstrosities of the monomaniacal, the Genghis Khans, the Truman Capotes. Did they, however, prepare one for murder?
And such a murder. Murder most cynical and sadistic and soggy. Floating like that among the zooplankton and straw grass, body highlighted by the continuous line of little black tadpoles--odd and unnatural mixings of tree frogs and grass frogs and toads--that had attached their little sucker mouths to his floating, bloating form.
Murder was the murmur on everyone's lips. Murder, please. The police were dumbfounded by the universal cry. They asked questions, tried to get to the bottom of the thing, to sort it out. Any enemies? they asked? Any friends? was the high-humored reply. Anyone who felt strongly enough to kill? Anyone who didn't? The problem was too many spurned lovers, too many abused ex-admirers, too many suspects. No one stood out. It was like a cult, one police detective observed. Same emotions, same replies, "Fucking bastard," the mantra went.
And so what started out as an exciting spectacle of power, menace, and mayhem --a prime puzzle of first order--soon turned into a quagmire. There were, at first, suspicions of an Orient Express kind of thing going on, perhaps not one murderer but dozens. But each line of inquiry came apart right before their eyes. Neighbors on either side of the field station had heard nothing. At the scene there had been no extra tire tracks, no unexplained footsteps, no signs of struggle. The station caretaker, a high-strung graduate student in mathematics with three dogs and countless cockatoos, had been aware of the victim's arrival by the typical reactions of his pets, who always sounded the presence of visitors with a frenzy of barks and squawks. They'd sounded once, on the victim's arrival, but never after. That more than anything else puzzled the police and turned their focus for a while on the caretaker, but he had no more motive than most, and if he had done the deed he could have covered his tracks by lying about a second alarm. There was simply no physical evidence, other than the body, at the field station.
So, the hope of the investigation turned to the body. Perhaps the pathologist's report would offer some much needed clues. It did not. The victim had drowned. There was no blow to the head, no signs of a fight or struggle. No sign at all of foul play. The investigation slowed, staggered, stopped.
Until the day the DVD was found.
The strange, haphazard nature of both the misunderstanding about the DVD and the later disclosure was really the first hint that odd forces were at work.
Everyone had been aware that there was a graduate student shooting time-lapse footage at the field station–well, that is, everyone was aware that one of the students had landed a grant (aka playdough) that bought him major techno high-de-yi-de, digital stuff--but in the confusion following the murder neither the DVD nor the student could be placed. At first the student too was viewed suspiciously, but his mentor insisted that he had left the day before the murder for his field site in Belize and had taken his library of discs with him. The student was contacted in Belize just in case his DVDs should indicate any suspicious activity leading up to the murder. Everyone assumed that this was only one more dead end, an ironic one, since a day or even a few hours more of recording might have revealed everything.
And so it was eventually to be.
It turned out that the student had left the country the morning after the murder. That he had pulled his equipment down at dawn, while the caretaker and his pack of dogs had been off at the other end of the station for their daily run. It was several hours later that the caretaker would return and find the body. The student, in a great hurry not to miss his flight, hadn't registered anything unusual in the ponds. At least not until he received word of the murder and took a look at that day's record. He flew back to the States at once, not trusting the images to the mail, knowing full well that the authorities would want to question him, that all hell was about to break loose.
A few days after the video was received the coroner released the death certificate. The cause of death was officially accidental drowning. Officially, that is, there was no other way to explain it, yet there must be some other explanation. For something so strange had happened at the field station, that the detectives on the case thought the scientists and their associates needed to be consulted and, perhaps, warned.
The academics representing the biological sciences gathered in the conference room. It was a long, narrow, windowless room with chairs and old sofas ringing the perimeter and a conference table in the middle. It was the room where scientific ideas were discussed in an informal way, that is, with gloves off and critical clubs held high. This room held the collegiate memory of generations of a priori bloodletting, racked research, and pissed upon data. The room's stuffy, long-dead stench was a comfort.
for the anxious academics, whose relaxed and stretched out poses -- one fellow actually sat quietly knitting away on a sweater -- were more the result of chronic bad posture than true composure and belied their incessant anxiety over the gaps in their reading, their resumés, their lives. An old wooden lectern dominated the front of the room, along with the prerequisite run of blackboard, and a cart which held a DVD player and monitor. The academics, a nearly equal mix of men and women, sat crowded around the room in khaki pants and button-down shirts, feet shod in sneakers and sandals -- although one exceptional woman wore no shoes at all. There was a mild rumble of chatter in the room which stopped as the door swung open.
Into the room walked three police detectives in dark suits, blue ties, and well-worn Florsheims: the lead cop was tall and bulky, commanding in every aspect. One of the lesser cops was plump and baby-faced, the other older, prunefaced, thin as a rail. The chairman of the department stood up to bring the meeting to order and to introduce the detectives. As he did, the detectives chain-smoked and displayed any number of odd ticks and tremors. Their habits were the by-product of hours and hours of waiting -- for reports, for leads, for okays, for lawyers, for witnesses, for trials, for the smallest bits of truth -- and the distinguishing, not easily learned, art of their profession. These ticks and tremors -- endless variations on ear pulling, crotch correcting, knuckle cracking, shoulder stretching, toe tapping, cuff pulling, shirttail tucking -- belied the detectives' true tell-me-something-I-don't-know-mother-fucker inner quiescence.
"I don't see the point in much of an introduction to the subject at hand," the lead detective began. "I hope the issues of the victim's death will become apparent as you watch the DVD. Hopefully, afterward, you will be able to explain what might have happened."
He then signaled for the baby-faced detective to turn on the DVD and nodded at prune-face to lower the lights.
What appeared on the display screen was a series of single frame shots taken in four-second intervals, so that an hour's worth of action could play out in fifteen minutes. The result was something like bad claymation in the real world. The DVD recorder had been equipped with a night-vision lens, which required a little getting used to. Quickly, though, the mutterings of "focus" and "more contrast" lessened as the DVD captured the attention of all. The appearance of the victim, hopping across the display screen in four-second jolts, brought a general, audible ahhh, although there were a few giggles among the emeritus types in the back. As the academics and detectives watched, spellbound, the victim on the screen hopped from pond to pond, scooping up the frog and toad egg masses that floated around the edges and carefully sliding them into labeled containers.
It was while sampling the third pond that the incident really began. The victim, on his knees bending over the water to gather a clump of eggs two or three feet out, suddenly swung around to fling something off his back, and the viewers first realized, to their surprise and initial amusement, that several frogs and toads had appeared in a clump just below his shoulder. The victim rose from the pond. He seemed to be laughing. He reached around, grabbed at half-a-dozen tree frogs, who clung to his shirt with their little suckerlike toe pads, and tossed them into the air. They landed in the pond with a scattering of plinks and plunks. Then the victim slid the eggs held in his scoop into the awaiting container and moved on to Pond Number 4.
At Pond 4 the strange incident of Pond 3 was repeated. The victim was again on his knees at the edge of the pond, scooping eggs, when what looked like two or three dozen assorted frogs and toads hopped onto his back. The victim looked around but didn't bother brushing them off this time. Then there were frogs on his neck and head. At this the victim put his scoop of eggs to one side and rose. Then the frogs were moving on his face and as soon as he would fling off a few, more edged over the crown of his balding head and began creeping down. They were going for his eyes. He shook violently and dozens of frogs went spinning into space. The tree frogs, however, held tight. The victim was now clutching his eyes and writhing in pain: the frogs had succeeded in getting to his eyes, and even though he had managed to tear them away, the irritating secretions of their little bodies were blinding him. Weaving back and forth at the water's edge, he bent down to wash his eyes. Suddenly, what seemed like a wall of amphibian projectiles pelted the bending figure and the water around him. The assault sent him stumbling backward, where he lost his footing and fell into the water. He floated a while, splashing water into his face.
For a while there seemed a surprising lack of amphibian activity, as one of the scientists noted. The comment seemed to free the others and the room began to fill with hums and yeahs and uh-huhs. Then someone shouted in a harsh, chilling voice, "Look at the edge, the edge of the pond, their gathering in force." And sure enough they were, hundreds at first and then clearly thousands of frogs and toads ringing pond 4.
"What's wrong with him now? What?" the scientist who had been knitting called out, waving one of his knitting needles toward the screen. "There aren't any frogs near him now. What's going on?"
The victim, standing now in the middle of the small pond, waist deep in water, was holding his hands over his ears and seemed to be screaming.
"They're calling," a young scientist seated at the conference table offered in a breaking voice. "All of them, calling at once, all around him, loud and vibrating and unrelenting. At the very least it would be disorienting. At the worst an overload of the nervous system. Oh look!"
The victim suddenly dropped back into the pond. Dropped as if he'd been shot. Dropped as if he were little more than a marionette whose strings had all given way.
"He passed out and then drowned," the barefooted woman pronounced wistfully.
"Oh my god!"
The frogs and toads ringing the pond were starting to move again. They were taking to the water, swimming toward the middle, toward the floating body. And then they were piling up on the body. Climbing over each other, higher and higher, thousands of frogs and toads, and as each layer of amphibian laid itself down, the body sank a little deeper into the pond, layer upon layer, deeper and deeper, until there was suddenly so sign of a body at all, only this great green and gray mottled sphinx rising out of the water.
Initially the academics were, understandably, even expectantly, stunned and reticent. They asked to see the disk again; they asked for paper and pen. As the detectives had hoped, the academics' analytical skills began to take over. The second time viewing the DVD, the scientists watched with a careful, prudent eye, making notes, asking brusquely to see various sections repeated or freeze-framed. When the viewing was over, an intense and highly theoretical discussion began, which quickly divided into three encampments with obvious leaders. At the start, the arguments were fluid, fast, and only mildly impassioned. The detectives watched with a mixture of awe and confusion: awe at the analytical level, confusion at the analytical terminology.
"What the fuck are they talking about?" the thin, prune-faced detective commented in a low voice to the other two. "Either the frogs did it or they didn't. My money's on did. After all," he added nodding toward the DVD display, "we've got the smoking toad."
"Yeah," said the baby-faced detective, "and with that disk and a slightly amphibiaphobic jury, we could have ourselves one mighty big frog fry."
"Oh stop it. Listen already," the lead snapped back to both. "Is it just me or do things seem to be coming apart here?"
The three detectives turned back to assess the current discussion. "Darwin? My god man, as of this day, this moment, Darwin is dead." "Like hell! Social Darwinism maybe, but that was never more than smoke and mirrors for capitalist pigs and sociobiologists anyway." "Dead." "Not." "Conman." "Asshole." "Oh god!" "Oh Darwin." "Oh shit."
"Oh shit indeed," the lead detective repeated, "we'd better call in the crisis mediation team."
Baby-face pulled a cellular phone out of his jacket and made the call.
"I told you we should have them on stand-by," prune-face whined.
"So next time I listen," the lead acquiesced.
"At least the frogs and toads had the guts to deal with him face to face," one of the scientists shouted. "At least they acted naturally. Unlike most of you -- who couldn't bend over far enough."
"I will not stay if we are turning crude," the barefooted scientist shouted, standing up and waving a copper and silver bangled hand into the air.
"Crude? Crude? We're taking about the end of the world here, sweetie. The end of science, the end of evolution, the end of life as we know it . . . "
"The end of those damn humane treatment of animal reviews, by god," someone shouted from the back. "It us or them now. Evolution isn't dead. Our pristine, objective theories about it are. Eat or be eaten. And it's about time those animal rights whimps were forced to face some basic truths!"
"It's you. You and your collecting crazies that have brought us to this," another academic screamed from a corner. "The frogs were only reacting to our manipulations of their world. Who were we to think they would not rise up against our oppression?"
"Are they still talking about frogs?" prune-faced leaned over to ask baby-face.
"You know," prune-face said slowly, "they really oughta get out more."
"Yeah," baby-face said with a nod and a grin, "'cause shit hoppin's."
"Oh stop it," the lead growled.
"That's right." "It's respect those frogs were demanding not war, you neanderthal." "He brought those amphibians down upon himself." "Wrong. He was very careful. Very mindful of their needs." "Their needs? Needs? All they need is water, a good hump, and room to crap." "Eh? Like you then, friend." "Come over here and repeat that, fuckface." "At least we'll have the edge over other institutions when it comes to funding research on the phenomenon."
The last brought a pause.
"But I work with birds," a scientist moaned, "with birds, damn it. We've all seen Hitchcock's movie. We can all imagine the horrors inherent in beaks and talons. If the frogs have gone ballistic can the birds be far behind?"
"Not necessarily," another answered. "They are a very different lineage. Now maybe if the salamanders had risen, or most decidedly if the lizards had, then we might be able to predict an evolutionary parallel."
"They killed him, you idiots," bellowed one of the ancient fellows in the back. "The frogs killed. It's over. It's over. I say we take our annuities and run like hell." And then the fellow did just that: out of the room, into the hall. He reappeared almost immediately, followed by the mediation and counseling team.
The scientists immediately turned to bombarding the mediation team with their theories and notions, several of the academic modelers fought over chalk at one of the side chalkboards trying to make their points mathematically.
The team listened for a while, calmly guided the different factions through the presentation of their cases and tried to moderate the overly zealous counterarguments.
The lead detective walked up behind the lead mediator, put an understanding hand upon her shoulder, and whispered, "They're all yours now." Then the lead turned to his baby-faced detective and said, "I want you to stick around in case there are any more questions for us."
Baby-face nodded and moved to the front wall to lean and fidget.
The lead called out an unheard, "Thank you" to the academics and then he and prune-face walked out into the hall. As the door swung closed behind them, they heard a shrill voice screaming out:
"Multispecies flocking as a defensive response is not a bullshit idea. You, you and your viral dementia parallel, now that's bullshit."
"Holy toad-breathe, Batman," said prune-face in his monotone drawl, "and I
thought the frogs were disagreeable. At least they were willing to share their pool toy. How'd yah like to discuss vacation rotations with that crew?"
"Yeah, well, so they took it bad. Anyway, I think we've got the right people with them now."
"Oh sure. Mediations is good. Still, they ought try to rein 'em in a bit. I don't think they're facing the facts. Lots of supposition, lots of attempts at order and pattern and high-tech hues, but life ain't ever that neat, yah know?"
The lead mumbled "uh-huh" suspiciously and looked over at prune-face, who had an amazing knack for setting one up for a punchline. The lead waited, silent except for an occasional cracking of knuckles or sucking of teeth. "Cause yah know," prune-face finally continued with an all too common twinkle deep in the layered folds surrounding his eyes, "to me it seems pretty clear what happened here."
The lead didn't want to respond but not to would have been against all laws of nature.
"Yeah? What's that?"
"Another senseless drive-by frogging."
"Oh stop it," the lead muttered, lighting another cigarette and tucking his shrt a little tighter into his pants.