It is the first morning of summer, the hour when all
the tadpoles in the pond
have lost their tails, and, each the size of our son’s
thumbnail, they struggle together onto land,
a synchronized swell of small flesh. It is
our boy’s birthday, at six a naturalist,
and this excursion is his
requested gift, the park at dawn with both
parents, who haven’t been speaking – why not
does not matter here. We’ve been troubled together,
and soon will be troubled apart, but now we smile
for love. Nearing the water,
he runs ahead into the over-bounty
of life. But you aren’t seeing their true numbers.
Beyond any counting,
finely filed and lapidary, baby frogs suffuse
every palm’s-width, a thousand on the muddy
verge of the water, ten
thousand in the seething grass. They wiggle
and hop. The short grass shivers like a skin,
and he is deep in their midst
before he understands what he is walking on
and stops, frozen still, afraid to risk
another crushing step, for even retreat
would mean slaughter now. He looks back at us
in dismay, a boy of tender
affections, his lower lip beginning to tremble.
We know how he cried when The Crocodile Hunter
was pierced to the heart, how moping and grim
he was when his hermit crabs died like clenched fists.
My then-wife says, “Get him,”
and she is right, what else but wade through that teeming
and lift his small, warm weight against my chest?
I know some of the sorriest things about death
that he will have to learn, but I’m glad to let
him wait for all the truth,
that any gem-perfect little frog doesn’t mean much
to those spewers of spawn in their multitudes.
I carry him back to us,
killing dozens for him, and taking the blame.
James Owens’s newest book is Family Portrait with Scythe (Bottom Dog Press, 2020). His poems and translations appear widely in literary journals, including upcoming publications in Atlanta Review, The Shore, The Windhover, and Southword. He earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in a small town in northern Ontario.