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THE POND by Mary Kate Baker

Sometimes, late at night, Todd, the two Taylors, and I would crawl through the damp grass to the edge of the pond. There were no lights out there and one of us would have a flashlight and they would be swinging it around and nobody would be able to see a thing. We would fumble the green, yellow and white plastic kayaks into the water and use a length of rope to tie the kayaks together—end to end—so they were strung along like beads on a string. We would paddle out to the middle of the pond and drift there. Whoever had been holding the flashlight would have left it on the shore and everything would be dark, and no one would mind. We would lie back and hope that it was a clear night and if it was a clear night, we’d look at the stars and talk about how we all wished we knew more about the constellations. I would mention that I had once taken an astronomy class, but all I had learned from the class was the truth about black holes and how stars were born; dirt and dust falling in on itself. Sometimes someone—usually one of the Taylors—would get goofy and start rocking the kayaks from side to side. Or someone—usually Todd—would take their paddle and skim it across the surface of the pond just enough to launch a wallop of water at someone else. Either way, it went, we all ended up getting wet and screaming and then shushing and giggling. It was summer then and we would be barefoot all the time despite our parents’ warnings about rusty nails and yellow jacket ground nests. On our way back across the field, I would cast sideways glances at Todd; glances I thought were subtle and sly. He had thick dark hair, wind-whipped up into curls, and a grown man’s jaw pushing against his boyish face. I thought he was something incredible and I could barely hold myself in my body when we got too close when our arms brushed. We kissed four times in the summer. We would slow our steps and let the two Taylors get ahead of us in the dark. We didn’t have to speak, and we didn’t have to look at each other too closely, just press; real quick the first time, a bit slower the last.

 

Sometimes the four of us would take an aluminum baseball bat and circle the pond, holding a flashlight beam against the ground, looking for frogs. When we caught one in the long beam of white light, it would freeze and either Todd or I would take the baseball bat and beat the frog to its pulpy death; until its slimy little body was smashed into the muddy bank of the pond. Taylor the Girl was sensitive, liked animals, and all that. She would often turn away in disgust and say something like “Guys, this is horrible. Oh my god. I can’t watch.” We told her she didn’t have to come along, but she always did anyway. Taylor the Boy, would creep forward and take hold of the frog’s leg, extracting it from the mud. It looked like a small sack of stones. He’d drop the frog into a plastic grocery bag we’d brought along. Later we’d cut off the legs, peel the skin from them and fry them in oil with garlic salt and pepper. Sometimes when we were cutting the legs off, the frog would jerk and spasm and we would all be hollering, Taylor the Girl crying, saying “It’s still alive!”, while Todd yelled, “Just cut the damn leg off.” There was the tiniest bit of meat on those legs and we all claimed it tasted just like chicken.

 

Some days, after we’d eaten dinner, Taylor the Girl would convince the rest of us that fishing sounded like a good idea. We’d drag our swollen stomachs across the field full of Queen Anne’s lace and chiggers to the wooden dock that bobbed in the water at the edge of the pond. Sometimes Todd and I would be slurping at a melting fudge pop, trying to finish it before the evening heat stripped the fudge completely off its wooden popsicle stick. The four of us would sink onto the cracked wood of the dock and watch as Taylor the Girl took a slice of white bread and mashed it into little dough balls to use as bait. It would be the perfect time of evening, between light and dark when everything seems to melt down into the same chalky indigo color and all the clouds are sucked away as if into a vacuum far across the sky. “All the clouds going to a cloud meeting,” I liked to say. I would sit on the edge of the dock and lean out over the water, watching the muddy reflections of trees stretched like hands into the pond. Through the reflections were tiny minnows swiveling through the water like sparks from a fire. They swam amid thick, dusty plants that clung to the loose mud at the bottom of the pond. Taylor the Girl would cast her line out into the pond, a ball of dough smashed around her fishhook. She would sing sometimes, her high voice angelic and nonsensical.

“I’m singing to the fish,” she would tell us. We never argued with her because it had never failed her; she always caught fish. She would pull them in gently, not wanting to hurt them. Then she would carefully remove the hook with her slender fingers, all the while offering encouragement to the fish. “It’s alright. You’re gonna be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. This’ll all be over soon, just hold still.” Then she would toss the fish back into the pond. I think that’s the reason she liked fishing so much; that moment, when she got to let the fish go.

While Taylor the Girl fished, Todd and Taylor the Boy would sit back, leaning on tanned arms as they talked. Taylor the Boy would be describing new episodes for a television sitcom he was always in the process of writing.

“In this episode,” Taylor the Boy would be explaining, “The main character is going to realize that he has a fear of people who were born by C-section. And the girl he’s dating will be perfect, but he’ll find out that she was born by C-section and I think that’ll set up a very interesting dilemma for the main character.”

Todd would just nod along, chewing on his popsicle stick, the wood splintering between his teeth.

“And he’ll have all these awkward conversations with people where he is trying to ask them if they were born by C-section. And at the end of the episode, he’ll find out that he was born by a C-section.” Taylor the Boy’s eyes gleamed with intelligence, and he would always be totting around a battered copy of some book by Faulkner or Dostoyevsky that he would pull out to read whenever he wasn’t interested in talking.

One time, Todd had suggested we keep a few fish and cook them up. He had tried to kill the next fish Taylor the Girl caught, using a spoon he had found near the dock. Taylor the Girl had started crying, so Todd had rolled his eyes and punted the fish back into the pond. The sharp fins of the fish had slid along his barefoot as he kicked it and a piece had lodged in his big toe. Blood had dripped onto the old wood of the dock and we had all circled around his foot to try and pull the piece of fin out. Taylor the Boy had grabbed a pair of pliers from the tackle box and forced them in between the flesh of Todd’s toe, trying to get a grip on the piece of fish, but the fin had been barbed and firmly hooked into Todd.

“Just rip it out,” Todd had said, as he watched Taylor the Boy fiddling with the pliers.

“Are you sure?” Taylor the Boy had asked.

Todd had nodded. “Yeah, just make sure you get it all in one yank.”

“I can’t watch.” Taylor the Girl had curled away.

I had sat back wincing as Taylor the Boy had readjusted the pliers in Todd’s toe, preparing for the extraction. Nobody had counted, but after a few seconds, Taylor the Boy had jerked the pliers and pulled the sliver of fish out of Todd’s toe. Blood had pooled on the dock and Todd had let out a string of strangled curses.

“God damn that hurts!”

“Did you get it?” Taylor the Girl had asked, turning back slightly, peering at the bloody toe. Taylor the Boy had held the splinter of fish close to his face. We could now see the shape of it, the way it curved into hooks.

“Shit,” Todd had wrapped his fingers around his toe, trying to contain the bleeding. “I gotta start wearing shoes.”

 

In the middle of the pond had been an island. It hadn’t been big and could boast of only a handful of trees that left peaches scattered across the ground, smashed and smelling too sweet to eat. There had been a fire pit on the island and some nights we gathered a pile of wood for a fire. Once, one of us—I can’t remember who—had found a dead snake and we threw it on the fire to see what would happen. I remember the limp arch of the body against the burning logs. We huddled close, but the long body had been too damp with life and it wouldn’t burn. Instead, it had sat in the fire like a rope with glowing eyes. Somebody would start singing at some point, a song we all knew or mostly knew, and we would all start hopping and bobbing in a circle around the fire. It had felt ritualistic. It had felt like moving through time. We had danced through a darkness that was gutted by sparks, squirming at the end of their lives. I ran to the edge of the island, splashing, euphoric. The mud of the bank had enveloped my feet, sucking them down. It had felt like the thing to do; fall bodily and completely into the murky pond water.

Sometimes, we would be so exhausted by the heat of the summer that we would only have the energy to walk across the field to lay down on the edge of the pond, under the large oak tree. We would talk about things we hoped for and I would tell everyone, “I’m gonna get out of this place, just watch,” and they would nod and say, “Yeah, me too”, but I’m the only one who ended up going anywhere and when I came back, the pond had shrunk and the dock was sitting on a pile of dried mud.

Mary Kate Baker grew up in Chattanooga, TN and holds a BA in English from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day Magazine, Fish Food Magazine, and is forthcoming in The Write Launch.

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