The tadpole was the size of a man’s thumbnail and colored a blue so dark it was almost black. The other tadpoles were all yellow-green and many times its size, American Bullfrog larvae. Ethan had paged through his junior nature guide three times and still hadn’t found anything remotely resembling the newcomer.
He dipped a sycamore twig into the water, disturbing the surface. The bullfrogs fled, but the blue tadpole curled curiously up to it. Ethan lifted the stick from the water. The tadpole came with it, flattening to the rough surface. Out of the water its blue shone iridescent. Tilting the stick this way and that, Ethan studied the little passenger. The tadpole had no visible eyes and its fins were transparent, bordering on invisible. He had never seen anything like it, and it woke some protective instinct in him. What if one of the bigger tadpoles ate it?
Ethan decided to run home and fetch a jelly jar. The tadpole would live on his windowsill, fed with lunch meat until it had grown. This plan lasted to the point when Ethan opened his front door. Bombarded with homework, chores, do this, do that, Ethan’s world ceased to include the pond. He remembered only a little bit, just before drifting off that night.
It may have been the next day, it may have been three days later when he got back out to the pond. Too little time, surely, for all the bullfrog tadpoles to mature and hop away. Yet the little pond was empty.
No, not empty.
As Ethan dipped a stick into the water, the strange tadpole swam up via a series of curlicues. Ethan smiled. The tadpole seemed to be thriving with the lack of competition. Now it was the span of Ethan’s hand and a brighter blue. Ethan squatted. The extra sandwich he made was shredded into the water, where the bread soaked and sank. The tadpole touched nothing. What did it want? Ethan regretted not hedging his bets with PB&J.
A lone bullfrog tadpole ascended to mouth the surface of the pond, dimpling it. Like a shot, the blue tadpole was upon it, circling it. The bullfrog tadpole seemed to disintegrate. Ethan’s eyes popped wide. That was the best thing he’d seen in his entire life. He watched the strange tadpole swim somewhat forlornly around the now-empty pond. What would it eat now?
Ethan had an idea. Uncle Henry had a feeder pond in his cattle field. In an afternoon’s work of splashing and coaxing, he got the tadpole into one of his larger sand buckets. With many careful steps Ethan brought the tadpole to its new home, upending the bucket and disturbing the minnows.
Ethan was not able to visit every single day, but was pleased with the progress nonetheless. The tadpole grew larger, features became more distinct. Unlike the poor bullfrog larvae, the strange tadpole had visible gills. Not behind its head, like a fish, but all along its body. Ethan decided to dub it “Gilly.” Gilly still did not have even vestigial eyespots but bore a mouthful of sharp needle teeth.
A week after introducing Gilly to the pond, Ethan ran into his uncle on the worn cattle trail. Uncle Henry had on his fishing waders and elbow-length rubber gloves.
“Whatcha doing uncle Henry?”
Henry grunted. “Some kinda Snakehead got in the feeder pond.”
“Uh-oh. Is it dangerous?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go sticking fingers in there any time soon.”
“I won’t, sir,” Ethan said. He turned right back around and went home. He grabbed a 3-gallon bucket and the aquarium net. Gilly took much less coaxing this time, perhaps he had learned that buckets meant good things in his future.
Ethan’s mother never allowed him to swim in Redtail pond on account of all the scrap metal lying on the bottom, but she let him fish up the shiny silver sticklebacks (provided he let them go afterwards.) Plenty of room, plenty of food, and water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. For a moment after being dumped out, Gilly hung on the surface of the cold water before wriggling away as if burrowing through the liquid.
It was not even a week later when Ethan, bearing his lunch bag to another session by the water, stumbled upon a teen girl kneeling beside the pond and sobbing. A woman had a hand on her shoulder, other hand pressed to her mouth as if to hold in an ugly sob. At their feet was a bloody and torn dog’s leash.
“…I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “he just went under.”
Ethan crossed to the far end of the pond to eat his sandwich.
The pond was no longer a haven. Ethan saw a man sitting by the dock with his jeans rolled up to the knee, everything below his right ankle bloody and raw. Missing pet signs bloomed from every telephone pole.
Ethan found his father in the workshop.
“Pop,” he said,” could you fix my wagon so the sides come up?”
His father tapped his knee. “How far?”
“Half again.” Ethan held his hands out to indicate height.
“Sure. Hey, what for? You havin’ a teddy bear parade?” his father needled. Ethan said nothing.
They were able to build a sort of crude extension from boards fitted and nailed to one another. Ethan waterproofed it with a block of his mother’s canning paraffin. Crude, but it held.
Redtail pond had sprouted a shiny new “no swimming” sign on its shore. Ethan rolled his wagon to the water’s edge. He found a good-sized stick and slapped the pond surface.
A bit of moving debris caught his eye. Gilly surfaced, shedding the colors that had led Ethan to mistake it for a clump of weeds and a rock. Gilly was now the size of a duck. Black cilia frothed from his gills. His mouth opened up half the length of his body, disclosing myriad white fences of teeth.
Ethan knelt. “Hey Gilly.” Did the tadpole understand speech? He seemed to grin knowingly as he tread water. “This little pond is getting too dangerous for you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”
He rolled the wagon down into the water. Gilly cooperatively swam over the lip of the wagon, which by some miracle held on its rough passage back to shore. Water sloshed over the edge, so Ethan covered it with his rain slicker.
On the road from the pond, he ran into two Fish and Game wardens bearing dip nets.
“Go home, son,” one of them admonished. Ethan nodded.
Rolling the wagon over grass and gravel, it took what seemed like forever to arrive at his destination.
“Here we are,” he said, pulling off the slicker, “the lake might have bad fish in it, but there’s plenty more places to hide.”
Gilly eagerly butted the walls of the wagon. Ethan knelt, feeling silly about how wet his eyes were.
“Sorry I can’t see what kind of frog you turn into, buddy. Make lots of little tadpoles, okay?”
He rolled the wagon into the lake.
Gilly swam out fluidly, working his entire body like a paddle. He hung blue against the sandy bottom of the lake before shifting color and vanishing. Ethan remained kneeling, cuffs sodden and cold. He was sad, but it was a satisfying sad. It felt like the end of some kid’s book: A Boy and His Tadpole.