So it had come to pass, the generation that were amoebic brothers to prefrogs, begat the generation that observed froglike creatures with eyes now centred. Eventually they begat the generation that co-existed with frogs, each species responsible for its own welfare. Finally they begat a generation who established a legal framework to protect and preserve the frog brotherhood.

 

Francis, working on fencing at the end of the hollow, registered the sound of the motor in the vicinity of the house but made no move to return. The postman let himself in and took a certain amount of care, propping the parcel between a sugar bag and cup on the kitchen table. He took his time, throwing his eye over the pile of papers on the sideboard, bills and newspaper cuttings mostly. The body of the creature, stretched and stiffening amongst the boots and shoes beside the cooker, escaped his notice.

That evening Francis placed the cat’s corpse in a grain sack, bending the stiff tail down with difficulty before he opened the brown paper package. Usually he would dig a hole at the end of the lane to inter small animal remains. But in this case he felt compelled to think of a new place for the cat that had soldiered independently and in tandem with him through hard seasons. Maybe because this cat had been there in his parents’era—it probably was the last living creature on the farm other than himself who carried any memory of other times. Maybe because it was a spring day that felt like summer and Francis wanted to be on the move somewhere. The place he chose was near a small pond he had known as a boy.

He knew by the stamp the package was from Elizabeth, from Canada. Perhaps some pictures. It was over a year since she had left; she had sent him one letter asking for her birth certificate and he had made a trip up to the city to get the document and send it on. This letter was longer than the first, describing her days, a library job, living in a city, Toronto, raising a son. And in the parcel a keepsake—the boy’s first shoes.

He was sitting at the table looking at the shoes in his hand. So small, they both fit on one palm. He pushed them into the pocket of his overcoat, set off on his bicycle, the grain sack tied to the handles, a shovel tied to the crossbar. After he had buried the animal beside the water, he took a few moments to smoke. Pulling the tobacco pouch from his coat he dislodged the shoes. They lay on the ground beside the freshly turned earth as the dappled light traded off the water’s slight agitations. The cat and the shoes, matters of life and the living of it; he needed time to settle with them.

***

The tadpoles, three in number, the only survivors of the many hundred frogspawn removed from the lake, were residing in a blue plastic bucket in a corner of a dusty backyard. After the death of the largest tadpole from over-exposure to the sun, the plan to dig a small pond in the yard was dropped. Joseph Devine decided to free the surviving duo. They had also suffered in the heat and had abandoned the fundamentals of tadpole life—swimming and bubble blowing—and taken on a lurid purple pallor. The demise of the frogspawn cloud in his care had not cost the boy a thought, but Joseph experienced a keen sense of loss, tinged with guilt, over the death of that one tadpole.

Using a large silver soup ladle, he removed the pair from the bucket and placed them in a plastic bag. Although alive, one tadpole had been permanently disabled by heat stroke and could only swim using the flipper on its left side. Every couple of flutters the roll would begin, until it would find itself executing a backstroke. Desperate tail flicking and body spasms would occur, eventually resulting in a righting of the rotund torso.

Joseph brought the tadpoles, not to the nearby ornamental pond in the local park but further afield, hanging from the handlebars in a plastic bag. Having concealed the bicycle under a hedge, the boy made his way through tangled riverside undergrowth, following a small stream until it reached a waterhole. He acted furtively, in the mistaken belief that someone might care about the edicts protecting frogs and he would be caught red-handed carrying two potential frogs. To cloak his fear he immersed himself in a fantasy of criminality involving the kidnapping of two frog brothers destined for princehood, protected by a royal praetorian of wasps that might appear at any moment from the skies. He gave no thought to the tadpoles’situation, thrown back and forth in a bag of water with a steadily rising temperature, a situation to which their bodies had previously been unable to adapt.

Joseph was searching for the perfect spot to release the frogs, particularly the frog with the permanent affliction. And a thought lingered at the back of his mind that if they were to grow to adulthood and spawn the next spring, perhaps he could return to restock, a chance to overlay the current experience with a more successful one.

A secluded place at last, a saucer-shaped incline where the water seemed to vanish into the earth. Although it was fed by the stream, it never seemed to become more than a pool, shallow to ankle height. The overhanging trees gave permanent shelter, the inaccessibility enhanced by a dense thicket of bushes along the last stretch of the stream.

Even now, just as Joseph should have emptied the bag into the water, he hesitated. He moved around the edge, rejecting this place due to an overabundance of weeds and that one because of a low branch, a potential perch for a hungry bird. Another spot was illuminated by shafts of sunlight (rays had already sounded the death knell) so he moved on. Sloshing the water from side to side in the bag to ensure maximum swimming action he continued circling the waterhole. Finally climbing over a fallen tree and pushing aside some dense vegetation he stretched his arm over the water.

As he knelt to release his captives (the first swimming furiously away, the second swimming furiously in a circle punctuated by loop-the-loop body rolls), his eyes focused on the surface of the water broken by the tepid liquid pouring out of the bag, and then shifted minutely to the left, something catching his vision like a fishhook. Later, when required to recount his story, a story he was asked to recite again and again, this exact moment never submitted to the soapstone of memory and remained a blur.

The tadpoles were oblivious to the events unfolding at this point—they were already halfway across the pool, inconspicuous amongst weeds and stones and distant from each other, prompted by the strong tadpole’s instinct to separate itself from the weaker one.

Thirty years later, after his child died, a cot death, one scene stayed with Joseph, playing over and over in his mind’s eye. He could remember just how it was when he had entered the bedroom, whistling under his breath a tune that was playing on the radio, taking in the dimness of the light after the brightness of the hallway, a bright day outside then, anticipating her sleepy smell and then the unexpected silence in places he hoped for noises: her mouth, her nose, her chest. And his face smiled into the cot as he had intended, coming whistling into the room, as if his smile could negate the scene. He could see himself smiling as if he were the baby looking up, waking up. And here too he experienced a moment where the scene was so unforeseen, so unheralded by all that went before, it had never quite lodged in his bank of memories. But no one, not even his wife, asked him about this moment. What did you see first, Joe? What did you think? It was more than three years later, when he was ready to repaint the nursery and pack the clothes, the blankets and cot away in the attic, that he came across the thimble. It had been a gift to the infant from an aunt, and on finding it, Joseph sat down on the floor and held it by the tip like a little finger. He set it down carefully on a rug beside him, meaning to do something with it later but forgotten it rolled away under the dresser and fell through a gap in the floor boards.

It was over four decades later before it reappeared. The young couple who purchased the house were locals originally, returnees from Australia. During the house renovations, an electrician lifted the boards and found a thimble nestled against the pipes. He held on to it and planned to visit an antique dealer to have its value estimated. However, afraid his guilt might increase in proportion to the worth of the stolen thimble, he never quite got around to the appraisal. He was a worker not a thief and was satisfied he had stolen the thimble because it had appealed to him directly without knowledge of its origin or monetary value.

***

A number of descriptions of the scene at the waterhole exist: the police report, the local historical society journal, an academic thesis, the account included in a monograph written to accompany the Thea Ross exhibition.

But before all this was the original impression that formed in the boy’s mind. A pyramid of shoes. Whilst the concept of shoes is one grasped at an early age, the circumstance is usually the foot, walking, pairs. Context is the landscape of understanding, the horizon line of comprehension, and shoes in large quantities are to be found in shoe shops. So the little hillock of shoes appeared not as shoes to Joseph first off, but as feet, as if he saw through each shoe to its essential nature, the fit of a foot.

When Joseph returned home he told his mother what he had seen. There was some discussion between the two as to whether this was the type of matter that required the boy’s father, the local sergeant, to take any official action. It was not, in and of itself, criminal to leave a pair of shoes or indeed hundreds of shoes outside. There was, however, the business of the tadpoles. Frogs had become a species protected by law and it was a small crime to collect frog spawn.

The next morning Mrs Devine went with Joseph to the site to verify the boy’s story and it was clear to her that her husband should be informed. The empty shoes with no feet to occupy them (so many shoes—could there even be enough feet in the town?) carefully piled up in this odd, secret place. The newer upper layers rested on the lower deposits of shoes, boots, straps and buckles, laces merging with moss and rotting leaves that might be covering six feet of decomposed shoes.

***

Sergeant Devine realised that the preservation of a crime scene for forensic examination was paramount but in this case the moment had passed. By the time he was informed by his wife of the shoe site and visited the scene of the crime (a crime?) there was a well-worn path into the glade. Flowers, pennies, cards, crosses and mementos were attached to the branches of the surrounding trees. Although no one had touched the pile of shoes, they had clearly stood alongside it and even gone so far as to cut away the bushes and tangled undergrowth to facilitate closer inspection.

He made his visit late in the evening and passed a woman and daughter coming back along the river. They greeted him but he avoided eye contact, forestalling any idle prattling. He was on official business and having not yet seen the shoes, would not be able to respond authoritatively if the subject were to be raised in conversation. He made his way over to the tree trunk and as his son had directed, turned left and found himself looking at the pile of shoes. Before his training forced a frame of reference on his experience, he felt his heart shift a little and his breath held. He too saw feet, a mound of feet, flat feet, callused soles, children’s feet, elegant toes, nails.

Although the crime rate in his town was virtually nonexistent, Sergeant Devine had come across all variety of human experience in his work. Because he knew most of the perpetrators and victims, their histories and circumstances, he was a man of measured judgement. He had a strong intuitive sense that there was no criminal intent or message inherent in the shoe pile. The new shoes were like fresh growth repudiating the lower layers, sinking into the earth. The buckles would have to act as dental records in this case, revealing the age, size and types of shoes that had decomposed. That was all he could think of, the buckles like fillings loosed from their natural resting place, boats loosed from their moorings. Later, upon excavation of the site, they discovered the remains of bones buried below the shoe line but a forensic scientist confirmed they were those of a small animal.

As the shoes were one person’s mark and the story of chance, no amount of detective work (and Sergeant Devine had put in many hours thinking about the shoes piled beside the water, even after his retirement) could have solved what at the end of the day went down in the annals of the town as a small mystery.

***

Bernard was preparing breakfast whilst Elizabeth sat in the living room, looking through the newspapers. Probably eggs and spinach, she thought, her son’s speciality. The headlines focussed on a significant drug find and lower down the page a controversy that was brewing in the Canadian Olympic show jumping team. The side panel to the left carried local news, a few lines that might draw the reader in—a thumbnail picture of firemen carrying a coffin, the tainted blood trial, a synopsis of a feature on credit card fraud, a storm warning for the eastern seaboard. Turning over to continue the Olympic story, a photograph took up about a third of the second page. Initially, it appeared as if a child had stuck overlapping scraps of coloured paper on a sheet, an abstract collage framed by a fence on one side, metal blue, with a policeman in short sleeves at the back of the photo, a large group of people to the left foreground and a young man in a black shirt and pants looking across the scene, his eyes not drawn to the colour on the ground, perhaps listening to instructions from someone just outside the frame.

Up To 1,000 Shi’ite Pilgrims Die In Stampede

Abandoned shoes and sandals, thousands of them strewn like leaves across the bridge, mostly plain open-toed sandals, black and brown. Here and there they were broken up with children’s shoes, petals, gaily-coloured plastic. The footwear in the foreground of the photo was in focus, the Bata brand name clearly visible on some but with distance they merged into one solid indistinguishable mass. Many of the sandals were upturned, their soles a caramel flesh colour.

The single biggest confirmed loss of life in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion occurred on a bridge in Baghdad. Trampled, crushed against barricades or plunging into the Tigris River, up to 1,000 Shi’ite pilgrims died yesterday when a procession across a Baghdad bridge was engulfed in panic over rumours that a suicide bomber was at large.

Why take off their shoes before crossing the bridge, she wondered. Bernard called from the kitchen and drew her back to the present. Her son was an archaeologist; an ice historian is how she described him to herself. His speciality was as a materials conservator, focussing on the historical artefacts found in ice fields and glaciers. She had visited him on many of his digs but during the excavation of the Sara Sara ice mummies she had suffered a stroke and now was confined to their apartment in Toronto. He was leaving later that morning for a week long conference; on his return they planned to take a cruise together from Alaska.

The two-lane 2,300-yard-long bridge was littered with hundreds of abandoned sandals lost in the pushing and panic.

Can you die from a rumour? Elizabeth recalled growing up in a place of certainties, where fear could build up behind your back like a wind and drive you forward against your own will, where whispers were enough to inscribe your name in a ledger of death before your dying. Yes, she thought, sometimes what you believe might come true is enough to kill you.

Hamid Jassim, a doctor at the scene when the panic erupted, said most of the dead were suffocated or trampled.

Suffocated. She thought about that, trampled to death by human feet, bare feet.

***

Although bogs fell outside his main field of enquiry, Bernard had attended the conference in Galway to meet two scholars who specialised in the preservation properties of ice and bog and the parallels in the artefacts they held. It had been a useful encounter and had given both parties further lines of investigation to pursue.

Waiting for his flight to be called in the airport bar he wrote a postcard to his mother, anticipating his own arrival home before the post. The barman rubbing a cloth over the mirror remarked to Bernard’s reflection ‘You’ll never fall out with your own company.’

After the stroke a year ago, Elizabeth was left with some slackness on the left side of her face. The eyelid refused to close, leaving her eye permanently open. Initially she would tape her eye down each night with a small pad and a bandage wrapped around to keep it in place. Eventually her doctor recommended a gold weight implant. A small piece of gold was inserted into her eyelid and this ballast enabled her to close both eyes at night. Bernard stared at his own face in the bar mirror, imagining the flesh falling away to reveal the bones, a bone structure similar to his mother’s, the skull, the jawbone. He imagined the coffin surrounding her disintegrating, leaving the skull staring not towards the sky or down into the earth, but turned to one side, a gold teardrop resting inside. Who will find this in a thousand years to come, he thought, and who will be here to make sense of it all? This chain of thought led him back to a conference paper, on twins discovered in Austria, buried 27,000 years ago covered in red ochre under a mammoth tusk with thirty-one ivory beads. The speaker had concluded that it was impossible to conclusively determine the significance of the bodies and artefacts, whether location was one of choice or convenience, the children a sacrifice or an offering.

***

A stonemason by trade, Joseph Devine was also a prize cattle breeder, and it was in this capacity he found himself visiting Francis. The house, originally a land agent’s, was set well back from what would once have been an imposing entrance gate, now a solitary post on one side with a pile of stones on the other side of the lane. Up along, there were various implements thrown on the verge: engine parts, metal gates, churns. An enormous oak dominated and darkened the yard. He saw a pair of scissors and a mug hanging from a lower branch and a large ball of tape resembling a hive attached to the bark.

Joseph knocked on the porch door and pushed it in when he found it unlocked. Francis lived alone all his grown days and the state of the house reflected the austere and solitary life of its occupant. Before Joseph broached the business at hand, a prize bull Francis was looking to sell, the conversation travelled along a number of paths, one being the topic of collecting. In his days, Francis said, people collected all manner of items: stamps, insects, rare feathers, teapots, cigarette cards. His own mother collected Toby jugs and he still kept them on the dresser, though he never added to them. As a child, he shared with her the anticipation of each new arrival and would study the catalogues carefully, even when he was alone. But after her death he could not recall what exactly his mother had wanted with the congregation on the shelves; he felt a slight unease remembering the care she showed the laughing faces of John Barleycorn and Sairey Gamp, dusting them with her own handkerchiefs and scarves.

That day as Joseph talked with Francis about cattle and the late snow and Toby jugs, his mind drifted back to a memory, maybe thirty years previous, a summer of frogspawn and shoes, of questions drifting in the long evenings, a mysterious season that doesn’t always come around in a lifetime and can only belong to those who live through it, only be understood by its creators. And so the strata of lives laid down—a gold weight, a child’s spine, a shoe embedded in the sediment—fossils and footprints of their time.