Mrs. Hanzal was old even then—saggy chinned, beak nosed—with no sense of humor. During biology class she’d vanish into her office—a little space off the classroom—and we’d say she was nipping from the bottle.
She had us spit into Petri dishes and look at our saliva under a microscope. I remember something moving, living in my mouth and felt disgust. It was a while before I kissed a fellow after that.
Another time we dissected frogs—live ones—green and dry, sluggish from captivity. I held a cotton ball soaked in ether over his breathing holes until he fell asleep, then pinned his arms and legs, cut open his chest, labeled parts on a diagram while my partner lifted out lungs and liver, intestines—and there it was—the pulsing heart. I stared in fascination, the pink pump shoving frog blood to organs we handled with bare hands and felt my own blood rushing through young veins not yet scarred with decades lacking self-restraint. In that moment I became the frog, pinned down by discipline and rules, exposed, vulnerable, no will to fight myself free.
Short of an hour it was bell time. I don’t know what I expected—we’d sew him up and let him hop on his merry way? We didn’t look ahead in those days—all that counted was the moment.
Mrs. Hanzal gave the command: “Stick a pin into the heart.” I couldn’t do it—kill the patient, stop the life. For what purpose? So I could learn some science lesson? I had no aspirations for medicine. I hadn’t signed on for murder. And what if the amphibian turned out to be a prince?
“Do it,” the old lady said, and I watched my partner pick up the pin, point the weapon and plunge it into the beating heart.
Surprisingly little blood spilled out. I waited while the throbbing slowed. And stopped. Even then it dawned on me—life is tentative, one soul having power to take another’s.
Years later a man told me that when his wife was dying she said, “Pneumonia is an old person’s best friend.” She meant it takes a life fast. No waiting around, no suffering.
My partner packed up his book and shrugged.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If it wasn’t me, it’d be a frog or a snake.”
I nodded and supposed him right.
The quickest way from Interstate 89 to Bristol is over the Bread Loaf Gap, down by the Middlebury Ski Bowl and the writers’ colony to Ripton Road. But in March when the macadam buckles in ridges thick as tree roots, it’s rough going. Someone has pounded small signs into the frozen ground along Route 125 warning: FROST HEAVES. Before I get to the Ripton Store, I pass Robert Frost’s cabin and brake for a big one. It looks like something live is rising, maybe the old poet himself.
Having lived in Vermont for three decades, I know that by May the roads will smooth out again. It’s the sheltie I worry about—Casey—my neighbor lady’s only companion in the world.
Late last summer when Casey and my springer spaniel were playing in the yard, the springer caught the sheltie’s collar. The sheltie twisted, broke its neck trying to free itself from the springer’s toothy grip.
The neighbor held the limp dog across her lap while I dug the grave in her back yard. The ground was solid and so I dug just enough to lay the furry body wrapped in a green beach towel. I shoveled in the dirt, tamped it down, and placed a rock marker. We stood a silent minute, my arm around the old woman’s shoulders.
“I hope it’s deep enough,” she said.
“Two feet ought to do it,” I said.
“Three would’ve been better,” she said. “He might heave up in the spring.”
“Heave up?” I hadn’t lived long enough in the north to know about heaving of the dead.
“I’m afraid he’s going to heave up,” she said.
I lowered my arm and went to put away the shovel.
All winter as I huddled in fleece over the teapot, I kept an eye on the grave next door, a clear view from my kitchen window. The frost heaves have me worried. When light lingers and breezes warm, when snow melts and the ground turns to mush, I suspect I might find the sheltie escaped from his sarcophagus of ice, solitude and long, dark days, sunken in and worm-eaten, drying out in the sun of the neighbor’s yard. He’ll shake himself alive again, the way all Vermonters will, having heaved our way into spring.
Louella Bryant is the author of the nonfiction book While in Darkness There is Light, the story collection Full Bloom, and two young adult novels. Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared in magazines, anthologies, and online. Formerly on the faculty of Spalding University’s MFA in Writing Program, Louella now works as an independent writer and editor.