GLASS FROG




Sophia Smith
29 October 2023
He laughed warmly. Okay Sophia. You can try.

I rolled onto the carpet. I bent my legs and arms and flicked my tongue. I went slack on the floor and relaxed every muscle. Like this? Like this?

No, he said with a laugh. It's as still as THIS, pointing to the glass of milk. It's as still as the rug, as still as the windows in the house.

I spasmed with laughter. Like this?

Even stiller than that. As still as glass.

It was November, and I swaddled myself in heavy blankets I dragged through the house. It wouldn't be fair to call it play, because my eight-year-old self was dead serious. It was a science experiment. I would prove I could become a glass frog.

Glass frogs can slow down their heartbeat completely, he said. They can stay so still they're almost frozen, living glass. They can stop breathing and stay alive.

Like this? I held my breath. I closed my eyes and slackened my tongue. The rug pushed against my face. This is still as death. This is still as I can ever be. Every muscle tensed. Like this?

Close enough, he smiled. It’s time for bed anyways.

----

Sometime after I graduate high school I realize how far I am from stillness, and this is when I think about the glass frog again. I finally leave the Silicon Valley suburbs, overcrowded with loud tech startups lunging for attention. I’ve spent my young life around kids excited to settle into cushy jobs at Google. I’m tired of conversations about living the most efficient life.

At 18, I learn glass frogs can't stop their hearts. If they do they die. If they stop breathing and beating, they're as mortal as us. Their organs can't last, swaddled in stomachs like rice paper.

Maybe you meant the wood frog, which freezes through and pumps self-made antifreeze through its slender body until its organs stop. They can die, by our medical definition, and come back to life. Through our human eyes it looks like necromancy.

This is the living corpse, frozen as a block. To survive through the winter this paralysis can last for months. Ice can’t grow in their cells, but their bodies layer with frost. They survive, cryogenically frozen, like a bad sci-fi book. They suspend death.

When the sun reappears, their organs restart like a computer from deep sleep. Water leaks into their cells and they start to breathe again. Their heart thaws in 30 minutes. Ice crystals melt from their soft tissue. This is the wood frog, the frog I couldn't be.

It's the glass frog that hides. Resting, they cache red blood cells in their liver, clarifying their blood. On a leaf, their green body camouflages. From a distance they are leaves. But underneath, their slick, clear stomach exposes their organs.

----

…4, 3, 2, 1. Ready or not, here I come!

I run across the tiled balcony, leaping through the hallways, and dive into a plastic bin of stuffed animals. I curl my body into a ball and pull plush shapes around me. In the quiet warmth of this bin, I try to slow my breathing.

Sophia! Where are you?

I’m exhausted from running and laughing and my breath comes in heavy pants. Shhh. Slow, I tell myself. I’m sucking up air in greedy gulps. The space around me is dark and ringed with glassy eyes, gorillas and cats and a small, unblinking frog. They are all perfectly still. I listen to my brother run through the house. Silently, I hide beneath the frog and lie in wait.

Before I catch my breath the bin shakes. My brother flings the frog to the floor and light floods into the room again. I blink my eyes at the brightness.

Found you! I saw you—  your neon shirt through the bin. He grins and pumps his fist in the air.

The clear plastic surrounding me reveals the edge of my shirt, packed into layers of feathers and tails and arms. Even hiding, I am exposed.

-----

Unlike octopi, the bodies of glass frogs can camouflage without changing themselves. Their stomachs are so clear the world runs through them. They are the leaf and the bent branches and they are the world. I want to trust enough to leave my heart so exposed.

I wish I could tell you this. They are soft and defenseless, housed in a sheet of wet skin. I am sure you would understand. I can’t become them because they aren’t magic. If they stop breathing they are just like us, I want to tell you.

That night I imagine frogs stuccoing my ceiling, their stomachs clear and stretched like Ziploc bags. They are quiet but carefully breathing. I can see their wide, beating hearts and a tangle of intestines wrapped like gauze.

I don't know how to ask you what they risk, losing the boundaries of their bodies to suck in this world. They risk so much. Their lives are so delicate. I'm afraid with all the tenderness my eight-year-old body can carry.

I dream my stomach is slit, birds or quick dark claws stripping off skin. Instead of draining out I am filling up with sky and sun. The scene crowds out. I am exposed then I am overexposed, like a photo erupting in bulbs of dense light.

I dream about their tender bellies motionless on a leaf, hidden but more exposed than air. The gentle pulse of their amphibian hearts and two gelatinous, dime-sized eyes. This quiet body I love.

As I walk through the day they follow me. I drink a cup of juice and see my body through the glass at my lips. When I bend the fleshy folds of my wrist I flex my hands like webbing. My nails are translucent. All the ways I exist they are part of me. I watch my feet underneath the coffee table, and my face in the window, my one life floating through glass.

-----

My father, the way I remember him, is always in motion. Before I’m out of bed I can hear him typing furiously on his laptop, crouched over a desk propped up with books. It’s impossible to remember him slow and quiet because he rarely was.

He is chronically active but not always alive. He wakes at 6 to run 20 miles and he never sleeps enough. His room is clogged with medals, boxes full, as he logs onto meetings all day. His computer screams intermittently. He walks back to tend to it. I hate how it herds this soft, happy man back to its screen. Here he patiently listens to people scream about efficiency for hours.

There are moments, in the evenings, when I catch him on the sofa reading. It’s always late, and I’m too tired to read. He shifts to make room and I sit by his side. Our house is near a creek, and sometimes I can hear the throaty call of frogs nestled in the darkness. They are hidden, but they must be so close. He asks what I want to do with my life; he says it can always change. As a kid he wanted to study snakes and frogs as a herpetologist. But here he is, 30 years at his desk, telling me it can always change. He could have played with frogs for a living.

-----

At the funeral, I bend my arms around my chest and hold them there. We’re at a park with heavy black oaks and a shallow creek. Through the foamy water, I can see pools of tadpoles drift in dark, sleepy lines. I run my fingers through the cold ripples. If my eight-year-old self only knew. If you don’t slow enough to breathe the glass frog finds you anyways.

I wear his blue tie over a dress and calmly twist the knot. His sisters explain how he chased bugs deep into the summer heat and lost snakes in the house. This was what he was. Before this city, he was blazing youth racing through a Texas suburb, catching crickets and climbing trees.

The story he told most often ends with a clean bite to the arm from a wild raccoon. He never told his parents; getting a rabies shot was too scary for his 10-year-old logic. Somehow, in the moment, the diurnal raccoon seemed safe enough. I guess, in the end, it was.

People usually responded with some choked-back laughter and a smiling, shocked awe—  the sort of dinner party story that captured the room. I couldn’t tell if it was his bad decisions or the image of this cautious engineer chasing raccoons that shocked them more. It’s hard to imagine him running through the forest, six-foot-five, long sinewy arms that fall like cooked spaghetti and an upturned grin.

He always grimaced a little after he told this story. He’d chuckle sheepishly and say something about how grateful he was to be alive. I know he meant it as a cautionary tale, but it wasn’t. All that context mattered because living in such a free way, he could only have been living for himself. There’s a version of him that caught wild raccoons when the internet didn’t exist; when this world was his world.

When I leave the service the sky is frozen, black as the oaks. I lie on the wet grass. I can barely make out the tadpoles in the creek, faded shadows in the dark, as the bigger frogs call. I can still hear them as I rest here, not as still as glass but carefully breathing.





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