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Suzanne Kehm


        “Come to our bedroom,” Cecilia said.  She is seven, and busy.
        I’d just abandoned a sink half-filled with dirty dishes and walked out into the yard of the little weekend cabin my husband and I bought a few years ago.  Back then we were dreamers.  We believed the place would be a refuge for our children and our children’s children, a place where the great ancient wildness of the Platte River would teach us -- to free ourselves, to flow easily, to allow and let be.  There is a lake and a slivery old wooden dock just across the road, a tiny irregular sandpit with oak-covered bluffs on one side to hide it from the cornfields.  Back then we believed those two holy waters, river and lake, would conspire to turn us all into thoughtful environmentalists.  But back then our beliefs had not been tested. 
        I left the egg yolk glazed plates to sort out bird songs.  They lured me through the screen door: dove, oriel, martin, meadowlark, robin -- humming bird?  By the time Cecilia showed up, the dishwater was probably cold.  “Come up to our bedroom,” she said.  A shadowy blue heron had just floated over the bright river, an effortless glide that ended in sudden and absolute stillness on a sandbar, not more than twenty yards in front of us.  I pointed and put my other finger to my lips. 
        Cecilia slipped her hand into mine and tugged backwards towards the cabin without giving the heron a second glance.  Her eyes were lit up like she was just coming to a punch line.  “Come up to our bedroom,” she said again.
        Upstairs, Cecilia’s older sister, Juliet, was in position.  Her job was to swing open the bedroom door when she heard our footsteps coming up the stairs, and cover her mouth so her giggling wouldn’t give her away. 
        Juliet has turned out to be our fisherman, hooked as firmly as the first fish she ever caught.  I remember how she trembled when she pulled that little bass out of the lake with her pink Barbie fishing pole.  The fish, “Swimmy,” went into a bucket of water and jiggled forlornly in the blue plastic until the shadows of the big cottonwood were long across the dock, and the sky went to pink and orange.  After negotiating all day, Juliet was firmly informed that Swimmy would not be going home with us, and so all alone, she toted the sloshing pail to a secret spot, filled the fish with condolences, and came back with an empty pail and opinions.
        Immediately afterwards, my husband Karl went to the Bass Pro shop and came back with a proper tackle box, army green, and a new fishing pole, a serious pole -- the box is decorated with camouflage decals instead of Barbie stickers.  With this gear, Juliet has become legend.  At nine, she’s put several twelve-year-old boys to shame with her record-breaking catches.  Often she awakens early and I hear her rummaging around her bedroom for the baggy flannel-lined pants she likes to wear in the cool mornings, when the sun first comes up and pulls a mist off the lake.  Her bare feet pad down the steps.  The refrigerator door opens.  She can’t reach the top shelf without standing on her toes, and she has to slide half-gallons of milk to get to her little white Styrofoam box of worms.  Last week I came around the corner just as she lifted the lid and peered in.  “Hi Wiggle!” she whispered, “Morning, Squirmy!”    
        Cecilia is less interested in fishing.  She has very little spare time anyway.  Her toad and lizard-hunting expeditions take hours of concentrated effort and patience. Hunting is tricky.  A lizard’s tail can pop right off when it is trying to escape, and I have witnessed the horror on the face of a small child at the sight of what has been left delicately pinched between her two fingers.  Nevertheless, she stalks on.
        But the morning Cecilia interrupted my heron sighting, her prey was neither fish nor lizards.  She coached me up the steps to the bedroom, and as we reached the top, Juliet flung open the door. 
        Something moved on the carpet, the brand new carpet, something dark, a quick dark dart, off by the closet.  Cecilia dropped my hand and crumpled, hugging herself, clutching her crotch, keeping back the floodgates. 
        Toads.  They were soon popping around at my feet, around twenty-four of them, counted one by one as they passed under my outstretched, pointed finger, each one gripped in the fist of one or the other of the crest-fallen girls.
        The toads had all been very frightened, from the looks of the carpet, and the shadow of the event can still be perceived if you know where to look.  After we’d supervised the shampoo and I finished the dishes, Karl and I walked down the cracked concrete steps to our lake with a long-necked bottle of beer dangling from each of our hands.
        The beers had been empty for around a half hour when Cecilia reappeared.  As she bounded down towards us I felt a surge of pure joy.  What I took for forgiveness was shining transparently from her face.  Only grandparent intolerance can be so easily forgotten.    
        Her little hand slipped inside mine.  “Come up to our room,” she said, and tugged. 
        Butterflies don’t make half the mess that toads do.  This time, when Juliet swung the door open, there were probably thirty-five or forty of them -- in the air.  “We’re not letting them sit on the carpet, Nan,” Juliet said, gracefully swishing her wrist at a little group threatening to settle.  Karl went immediately to Pet Smart and bought the girls a couple birdcages.  They weren’t as big as a bedroom, but we were teaching the girls about conservation.  They were learning to make due.   
        We thought we were making progress until Kate showed up.  Kate is a master gardener, all sprouts and organic granola.  She helps others.  She is kind.  She is part of the village it takes to raise a child, especially the child burdened with thoughtless relatives who look the other way when helpless animals are taken into captivity.  Kate cringed when she saw the toad cage.  Then she heard the pitiful croaking.  Her jaw clenched.  I found a reason to wander off as soon as she started asking questions, a cloud of concern hanging over her face.  Kate must have suspected I was a lost cause, and she chose instead to take the matter up with Juliet, whose conscience might still be salvageable.  From the kitchen window, I watched the two of them, Kate shepherding Juliet down the steps toward the lake.
        Later, I heard the details.  On the little weathered fishing bench where Juliet had spent so many hours, Kate did not whitewash the truth: just because something is beautiful doesn’t mean people have the right to take it for themselves.  Just because people are big and powerful doesn’t mean we can ignore the delicate feelings of the creatures that share this little paradise by the lake.
        With sidelong looks to gauge the effect she was having, Kate spun a tale about the toad family that cried out for their little lost child, now imprisoned by the girls.  As a matter of fact, Kate said, doing her best to escalate the stakes, there is a tiny toad child, now captive, now crying.  Wait!  I think I hear, Kate said, how desperately he misses his brothers and sisters!  See how he loves his magical home?
        Juliet’s head drooped, lower and lower until at last, Wise Kate rose and went for a walk, so that silence and time would help the lesson sink in.           
        An hour later, Kate returned and spied Juliet hunkered down in a secluded spot by the river, a grassy place cut into the bank, with a stand of ash and cottonwood saplings screening it from the house.  Seeing her there, Kate softened.  Juliet had isolated herself, probably caught in an impossible surge of anxiety and guilt.  Kate walked quietly towards the hidden spot, preparing to rebuild Juliet’s confidence, assure her she could navigate this complex and difficult life in harmony with nature. 
        But as she came closer, Kate realized Juliet was utterly absorbed.  The legs of a toad dangled from her two hands, which were lifted to only a few inches from her face.  Juliet and the toad stared at one another for a long moment, after which Juliet spoke.  Her ceremonial declaration was slow and intense, and she pitched her voice to a soft, big-sisterly growl.  “I’m your family now,” she said.


        Just before we leave on Sunday, car packed, unalterably missing/lost declared: a purple sock, green flip-flop, favorite ball cap and strangely, the bottom to Cecilia’s swimming suit, there comes a time for the ceremonial release of all captives, complete with kisses on the mouth, for whatever stunned toads and lizards have had the misfortune to be collected over the weekend.  Butterflies get only a sign of the cross, up down, back and forth, in the air. The girls are expert blessers, having studied the moves week after week during Friday morning mass at Saint Cecilia’s Elementary, but still, I object on behalf of the butterflies, which seem to be getting short shrift without the kiss.  The girls explain to their ignoramus of a Nan that butterflies die if you accidently kiss off their wing goo. 
        The compassion of the girls, notably absent during the time of capture, is the hallmark of the release. 
        Kate is right about captivity, of course.  There is no grey area, and no use arguing.  But still, driving home, stubborn woman that I am, I try to reconcile what is “right” with what is, as least as it’s presented itself to me.  By the time I’m halfway down Dodge Street, I want to roll down my window and shout to my fellow Americans, to the semis and busses, the sentient beings of the world, as if by hollering, I could make it all true -- and for this moment, I believe it is. 


        Captives, lean in!  
        Hear me, toad princes!
        You lizards with missing parts,
        You like me, Prisoners of Self and Circumstance

        You are not in charge,
        For these things have I seen:   
        Power more profound than you can conceive! 
        Freedom by the same hand that binds! 
        The course of oppression run!   

        Hear me!

        The gates of our cages shall open
        Benevolence shall enter in. 
        And in the end, there shall be
        Only mercy.