When Tadpoles Become Frogs

“How do they know, do you think?” she asked me.

Water fell in streams from between her cupped hands as she squinted into her palms. We squatted beside the ditch, as we did every day on our way home from school, endlessly fascinated by this gurgling stream funneling down the ditch next to the road. It was spring, the best time of year.

“Know what?” I asked.

She lowered her hands, sinking them into the cold water. Behind us the road was empty except for a family of quail running across it, their plumes bobbing as they scurried into the bushes on the other side of the street. Above us, woodpeckers hammered, the sound echoing down the quiet street and mixing with the scratch of gray squirrels’ claws on the dry bark of the trees. Walnuts and green acorns thudded to the ground on the other side of the ditch, where leaves moldered under newborn clover that seemed to have sprung up overnight. We both trained our eyes on the muddy water, our fingers stirring through the ripples. Tendrils of my hair trailed in the water and dirt ringed my fingernails, lining the creases of my knuckles. Between our fingers darted and wriggled the quick-silver forms of tadpoles.

She said, “How do they know they can walk? How do they know when they’re frogs?”

Eyes on the fat tadpoles, each no bigger than the pad of my finger, I swirled up the mud. As the silt settled back at the bottom, the tadpoles appeared, brownish- gray, freckled, with bulging eyes. They had already sprouted minuscule legs, though their arms had yet
to appear, and they swam mostly with their tails. “I don’t know,” I said.

We watched the tadpoles appear every spring in this ditch, studying their evolution as we chewed on the tart, lemon-yellow petals of wood sorrel. Each year, we came here every day to see the tadpoles, until, one day near summer, they disappeared. But we had never seen that moment a tadpole found its feet and crawled up from the water into the air.

When we continued home, swinging our pink backpacks, mud clung to our fingers and the rubber toes of our sneakers. The ends of my hair dripped. We chattered about other things, but my mind kept worrying on the tadpole question. When did they know?

We were ten years old.

* * *

“We’re going to see it this time,” she said two years later. We squatted side by side in front of a fish tank she’d dragged from her garage to my backyard, a huge rectangle tank with filmy greenish glass. We spent yesterday afternoon scrubbing it with the hose and
an old sponge, filling it with water, rocks, and sand. I discovered an old stained-wood table among the other junk on the lawn that we set up against the wall of the house. It wobbled on the rock patio. On our way home from school today, we stopped at the ditch to fill two mason jars with muddy water and wriggling tadpoles that we dumped in the half-filled tank. Now we knelt in front of it, squinting into the silty, brown water. Her fingers tapped softly against the glass. “We’re going to get to see when they decide to be frogs. They can’t get out without us seeing it.”

I nodded and rubbed my fingers across the sun-warm back of one of our half-feral cats. Her fur felt dusty, her spine a sharp mountain ridge under my fingers. She hunched at my knee, eyes on the tank, gray tail twitching. “How will we know when it’s time?” I
asked, my heart thudding.

“You have to check on them every morning. When you know, call me right away.”

I checked the tadpoles first thing every morning. I studied their fat, freckled bodies and shrinking tails as their arms and legs budded. I noticed just how awkward their bodies were in transition. Their tails whipped faster, producing less movement, and their
limbs paddled, their heads and bodies nodding. Every part of them seemed determined to go in a different direction. I wondered how they could make any progress at all, and where, in this confusion and chaos, it became clear to them that air was just as good as
water, and that fingers and toes worked for walking as well as swimming.

Every morning she met me in my front yard, the long, dew-beaded grass wetting our quarterlength socks and the toes of our low-top Converse knock-offs. Every morning I shook my head. “Not yet.”

One Saturday morning I knocked on her front door. Sheepishly, I said, “They’re gone.”

For months after, I found the frogs in my yard, huddled in the sun on the faded yellow roof of my Little Tikes car. Or clinging to the side of the house, their gray markings shiny and wet, their bodies small enough to sit in my palm. We had assumed a new frog would know nothing but walking. But they knew so much more. I reported this to her, weeks after the empty fish tank was stored in the garage again, while we lounged on the long grass, avoiding the stickery plants that stung our bare legs. “They knew they
could climb. How could they know?”

She shrugged, her eyes closed, the sun heating her skin until I could smell it, a floury smell, like baking bread. Though the question still rustled anxiously in my mind, I picked a fluffy dandelion, blew the tiny white seeds into the air, and watched them float away in silence.

We were twelve years old.

* * *

“Remember when we used to play with the tadpoles?” I asked her.

We leaned on the wall outside of the school gym, the sun burning our faces. She’d flowered into a jock, hair in a tight bun at the top of her head, legs bare and muscular, wearing brand new Adidas. She and I weren’t neighbors anymore. Her family had moved to the neighborhood surrounding the high school, while my mom moved us across town after she and my dad split up, to a house that didn’t even have a backyard. We sometimes gave a smile or a nod when we saw each other. More often we avoided each other’s eyes. But today I skipped PE and ran into her. I’d offered her a cigarette that I expected her to decline. Now I felt strange, unsure what to say, conscious of my black makeup, my Airwalks with holes worn in the heels.

She squinted into the sun. “What?”

“That ditch on our street. We used to, like, play with the tadpoles that lived in it?”

“How do you play with tadpoles?”

“We’d pick them up.” I cupped my hands like Oliver Twist begging for gruel, cigarette between two fingers. “Like this.”

She shuddered in spite of the hot sun, making a face.“Ugh. How could we stand to touch them? We were such weird kids.”

“It’s funny,” I said, watching as she tipped her head back to blow smoke up to the brilliant blue sky. “It used to bother me so much. Like, how did they know?”

“How did who know what?”

“The frogs. How’d they know they were frogs?”

She glanced at me, her eyes squinted still as though I was as bright as the sky and hard to look at. I suddenly got the sense that she pitied me, that she knew something I didn’t, had some insight into something I’d yet to catch onto. It was the same in middle school, back when she first went out for the volleyball team and got asked out by a boy in our Algebra class, when she first started to wear a training bra and lip gloss. I’d always nursed a sense of being slow to catch on, to catch up. I tried to explain. “I mean, like, do scientists study that? Are there frog scientists who, like, know how tadpoles figure it out?”

“Figure what out?” she asked.

“How do tadpoles know they can walk out of the water? If all they ever know is water, how does it suddenly click with them that they can walk and, like, breathe air? When exactly do tadpoles become…frogs?”

We both squinted up into the springtime sky, the smell of tobacco and newly-mowed grass making my nose pinch pleasantly. The field was just around the corner and I could hear my class running and shouting in the otherwise quiet afternoon. She scratched her leg, shrugged. “I don’t know. I never really thought about it that much.”

“I did.”

We were sixteen.

* * *

I’m in my thirties, far away from that street and that girl, when the fires tear across California and burn down where I used to live. I look up the aerial shots online and gasp out loud to see the empty, ashy lots, unrecognizable in gray and white, the brown lines marking out the squares where our homes and yards used to be. I find myself thinking of the ditch. I moved again in my junior year, went to a different high school, never really spoke to her after our sophomore year. I doubt she even remembers that ditch. My throat feels tight, I set my coffee cup aside and sit down on the floor, like I haven’t done since I was a little kid, my feet bare on the cool tiles. I’m blinking hard, swallowing. I’m mourning for a muddy little stream probably no one in the world remembers or cares about but me and the frogs. I stare at my phone and imagine that ditch, that quiet road
lined with black walnut and oak trees, the quail and squirrels and my half-feral cats. And it occurs to me that I’ve missed it. Again, and forever. I’ll never see it now, never learn the secret. I’d let the moment pass me by without remark. I’ve missed it completely, that crucial moment when tadpoles become frogs.

Written by: Shalynn Ehrenpfort

My name is Shalynn Ehrenpfort and I’m 27 years old. I’ve lived in San Francisco for  nine years and I’ve attended CCSF off and on for about three years.

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