Creating an imaginary garden
with real toads in it.
Frogs circle the yellow-and-black snake in the trout stream by instinct, no less. Mr. Yorick, tall, but roundish, the owner of the fish farm, watches us here in Dwyer Hill in the Ottawa Valley. Sure, he wants to sell his farm, the whole “damn operation”, for two million dollars!
Could we be buyers? "No one really knows how many fish I have here. The Income Tax people can never tell, dammit!” A bloated expression rivets his face. “We’re just...visitors,” I say in reply.
“From America...real visitors?”
I cast a sideways glance across the stretch of farm, but the frogs and the snake in the stream preoccupy us, not how many rainbow trout the kids will catch. And oh, the headline blaring out: Attack of the Bullfrogs! Imagine frogs in all of eastern Ontario charging into the goldenrods across swampy ground. Earlier I overheard a man bemoaning that all the critters are now coming out on the road. A sick face he made. Turtles, blue heron, beavers, grasshoppers, rabbits, a fox–all coming out. Christ! Mr. Yorick with a malign glare again asks where I’ve come from. Not where we’re heading, see.
Tell him about frogs going berserk, and the landscape’s now changing due to climate change. Really that?
The kids laugh.
Yeah, the snake’s struggling, an endangered species in distress. Gosh, we ought to save the snake.
But Mr. Yorick shakes his head and lambastes the government, the tax people. Damn politicians in Ottawa, sure! We’re...from where?
“Kill it!” one kid cries.
“No,” I hiss.
“It must die!”
“Kill it—kill it!”
The frogs or the snake?
Janey, eight years old, calls out, "Let's get some more, Dad." She wants to catch real trout. "More please," she begs. "No," I say.
"The fish?" hollers Jordan, who’s ten years old.
The frogs make strange sounds; they are of different sizes, some bloated, a male and female together; and smaller ones form a circle, pinning the snake to the side of the muddy bank. Mr. Yorick follows my gaze; and he wants to sell the farm.
“It’s what will disappear over time,” he says almost predictably.
The other kids keep yelling. See, a male frog holds onto the snake's tail. Near me Mark says, "It's strange how the snake can’t bite the frog."
"It’s unreal," I say.
"It’s not," snaps Gina, the kids’ mother. She’d talked agitatedly about maintaining her blood-sugar level. And she wants to do more travelling because "life’s too damned short." Yes, she will go to South America to see real anacondas. Mark, her new husband, humours her, guffawing. “She will go alone,” he says. Really alone?
“Kill it,” cries one kid becoming hysterical. The snake?
“No,” I say.
But going to South America to see snakes, pythons, and how many species of snakes are in that part of the world? Is the fer-de-lance the deadliest? I imagine cobras all across the Ottawa Valley...not only garter snakes. The frogs keep circling the now vulnerable snake.
Mr. Yorick turns, looking around. Are we from Morocco, Syria, or India? Not Pakistan…or Afghanistan? The earth’s gravitational pull, yes. Now to sell the goddam farm? Maybe he wants to travel…like Gina. Does he? Time is a fortress, I allow myself to think, dwell upon.
Janey, my daughter, and the boy, Jordan, keep being at it. Jordan really wishes to kill the snake. Yes, kill it? But Janey wants us to get more fish, which is why we’ve come here.
Mr. Yorick raises his bushy eyebrows, and he could have been Polish from way back. Are we potential buyers?
Mark mutters something to Gina, cryptic-sounding.
Mr. Yorick makes a growly noise—and maybe he sees us being owners of his farm, as I imagine the kids fishing to their hearts’ content. Snakes and frogs all around too. Coming…closer? The snake shifts its position, ready to circle the frogs…round and round. Gina and Mark are glued to what’s taking place.
Mr. Yorick simply shrugs. Mr. York, the kids call him.
What’s he really thinking? “Let’s buy the entire farm,” I hear myself say, becoming fascinated…and imagining an attack of the bullfrogs! But my mind quickly drifts to another place without snakes, like where we might have actually come from. Fantasy, ah. Think about it! Gina wrinkles her forehead.
Mark, well, he’s bent on getting more trout.
“It’s what the government wants me to do to my farm short of selling,” Yorick hisses. Now the snake makes a sudden move, down into the water. But the frogs are close to it. The kids gawk, eyes following the snake’s circular movement. Mr. Yorick yawns, epiglottis and all. He’s seen this many times before, he says.
Gina comes closer, putting a hand into mine. My daughter, Janey, also comes close. Frogs swelling up, behemoth-like. A real struggle going on right here in the Ottawa Valley. Mr. Yorick snarls, being tired of the Tax Department wanting to suck the lifeblood out of him. It isn’t worth it. He hates politicians!
Ah yes, why don’t we want to buy the farm? The kids turn to look at the snake; they’re hooked to it. The plentiful trout create ripples in the pond. Mr. Yorick nods his head. Flashback…in time, maybe the Second World War; and he again looks at me, almost accusingly. The snake and the frogs will disappear, I dwell upon. And the…farm?
The kids yet holler—as everything comes closer, the bramble and sage, thicker brush, trees everywhere, because of climate change, what’s inexorable. Now who will actually live on the farm? The trout and frogs and the snake...will come and go in the Ottawa Valley, everything being its own place in time I allow myself to think. Now let the Tax Department people know.
Mr. Yorick murmurs to himself, about time spent in the Second World War. I look at Janey. The kids point to the water. It’s why we are here because there’s more fish to catch. Indeed, Dwyer Hill’s like nowhere else. But where do we really want to be, north or…south?
Where do we really come from? Here now like the world’s only place. The frogs make another circling motion, then suddenly become stationary. Mr. Yorick yet has his doubts about us, see…with our moving about; and what else is suddenly coming out from the ground, the rivers and streams as the kids have a sense of it. They turn and look at Mr. Yorick and make faces. And it’s only because we’re not from here but keep longing for a new place.
Tell the government, if not the tax people…that we will not lay claim to anywhere else, almost like wish-fulfilment. Distances…the far horizon—like what only the animals know, indeed the frogs, and the lone reptile. The children with their innocence still eager to catch more trout. Mr. Yorick turns away, looking lost, but not forlorn…being in one territory only he insists on telling the government, being himself, like unto himself. And indeed, our coming and going, as he looks back at us, at me, as I reflect on being here with frogs, the snake, the pond mirroring what we don’t really know—more than once in a lifetime.
BIO: Cyril Dabydeen’s recent books include My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic Press), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press), and My Multi-Ethnic Friends (Guernica Editions). His novel Drums of My Flesh was an IMPAC/Dublin Prize nominee, and won the Guyana Prize for best novel. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he twice won the Okanagan Fiction Prize; he also won the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for fiction. Cyril’s work has appeared in over 60 literary magazines, e.g., Poetry (Chicago), Prairie Schooner, Canadian Literature; and the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Caribbean Verse and Fiction. A former Poet Laureate of Ottawa, he taught Writing at the U of Ottawa for many years.