The Poison Dart Frog of Hope

Aurelia Flaming

Herbert Humphrey the Emerald Boa Constrictor got his new roommate on a muggy Thursday afternoon, during his post-art therapy doze.  In his drifting lassitude he reflected on the clay pot he’d completed, feeling alternately pleased by the thinness of its walls and disappointed in its slight lopsidedness.  Possibly if it dried without cracking he would use it to hold the collection of tropical print bowties he’d brought along with hopes that they might serve as conversational ice breakers when he met his fellow patients.  That had not worked out as planned.  But the tiny hula girls on the pink and green one had turned out to be pretty good listeners.

Herbert was under care at the Audubon Asylum for an attachment disorder: he was desperate to connect with other creatures, but in his enthusiasm he clasped them too tightly.  The survivors invariably fled for their lives when released, exacerbating Herbert’s anxiety and fear of rejection, which in turn led him to embrace his next acquaintances even more crushingly, etc.  The psychioveterinarians at the asylum, who were among the leading lights of their profession, had worked with him extensively on this problem.  They gave him relaxation mantras.  They delved into his relationships with his parents and the traumas of his formative years.  They diagrammed vicious cycles until Herbert himself threatened to get a bit vicious.  Still he couldn’t help himself.  He knew the other patients called him Death Grip behind his back.  No one would even sit next to him at group sessions since that one time he’d gotten over-excited listening to Flaubert open up about his body dysmorphia.  He’d just been trying to give Flaubert a supportive squeeze.  Flaubert was so big!  How was he to know that giraffe legs would fracture that easily?

Eventually Herbert began refusing to leave the reptile ward at all, except to take the waters in the hot springs around which the asylum had originally been built as a European-style spa in 1839.  The doctors felt the close heat of the pools would simulate the primordial heldness of the egg and reconstruct his emotional security.  Herbert encouraged this theory as he liked the silky, mineral texture of the water and the mild stench of brimstone that hung over it.  He lurked in the pools and imagined himself as minor denizen of Hell, waiting to drown the unwary damned.  His demonic alter ego enjoyed a lofty yet undemanding position in the infernal hierarchy which involved a lot of debonair basking while the lesser imps slaved away with their pitchforks.  

Aside from these bathing excursions he spent his free time sulking on the branch in his quarters, coiled around himself in the only embrace he felt he was ever likely to receive, the nearness of the other reptiles on the ward, a few of them even visible through his windows, adding a bitter sting to his loneliness.

The breakthrough finally came via an intake paperwork mix up.  Trina, an Inferalanis Dyeing Poison Dart Frog, had been intended to bunk with the poor paranoid Emperor Scorpions in 716, but the room numbers got switched and in she went with Herbert across the hall, who was so surprised at the intrusion he forgot to panic.  Thoughts of clay pots fled his mind as he extended a loop of himself onto her curiously, only to jerk back at the sting of her skin.

Trina blinked at him.  Her skin was moist and jewel-bright, shiny cobalt splotched with sulfuric yellow.  Her entire body was smaller than Herbert’s head.

“What are you?” he asked, intrigued into rudeness.

“Psychotic.”  She blinked.  “No hope, it runs in the family.”  Her voice was a stoic bass.  “But with all the drugs here I’m mostly just…” she drifted off, her eyes unfocusing.

Herbert brushed against her again, and the sting of contact rippled all the way down his tail.  “Toxic?” he prompted coquettishly, infatuation blooming in his cold-blooded heart.

That got him a ribbit of laughter.  “That’s all natural,” she said.  

His coils rippled in a pleasurable frisson.  “Darling,” he hissed at her, “tell me more.”

And so a beautiful friendship was born.  Herbert thrilled at having company at last, and Trina, by the time her medicated stupor began to wear off as the doctors adjusted her dosage, found herself habituated to Herbert’s odd attentions.  Her toxins were sufficiently intense that it was not possible for him to forget himself and squeeze her.  He liked to brush against her and feel her nettle sting, despite the ensuing sores.  Possibly not despite them.  Possibly the ache of them was one of the things he liked most.  Possibly they seemed, to him, like tokens of Trina’s affection.  The psychioveterinarians debated the situation amongst themselves but decided not to intervene.  Herbert was almost beatifically happy.  And if it came at a certain cost to his scales, that neurosis could be investigated once his mood was more stable.

The two of them were soon the talk of the Audubon Asylum.  Even ZuZu the obsessive compulsive African Wild Dog, who seldom took note of anyone, would veer off her running path when she saw them at the hot springs together, Trina crouched in the shallows while Herbert submerged himself up to the nostrils in the deeper water.  ZuZu would pretend to snap at Trina and laugh like a maniac when Herbert flared up out of the pool to warn her away.  It was one of the only things that could entice her to put down her chewing stick.

Ezekiel the adolescent Lesser Flamingo (in treatment for depression and consequent self-harm: he plucked out his own feathers, equally appalled by the gray remnants of his childhood plumage and the pink influx of impending adulthood) took a turn for the worse, viewing it as confirmation that even deadly Herbert had more appeal than he did.   The company of the other flamingos did nothing to assuage his fears.  He knew they were just staring at his bald spots.  He knew what all those awkward pauses in the conversation meant.  It meant that they were wishing he would just disappear so they never had to deal with his bullshit again.  They were wishing they could share their pond with Herbert instead.  Just like Trina.

Flaubert, on the other hand, viewed it as a sign of hope.  He was constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge, and after the group therapy incident had apologized profusely to Herbert for being so inconsiderately delicate as to cause the snake to injure him.  At the sight of Herbert and Trina wandering the grounds together, Flaubert would blink tears away, overwhelmed with happiness for his fellow patient and the thought that perhaps there truly was a partner-soul for everyone, even the deadly or disfigured.  He would look at the other giraffes in his habitat – Geraldine, whose neck was so fine and graceful, unlike his gangly one, and Rodney, a fine, muscular figure of a giraffe whose flanks were nothing like Flaubert’s fat, thick abominations, and young Simone, who gamboled so charmingly in her games, while he galumphed with a stuttering gait like a mildly malfunctioning robot – and think that perhaps in time one of them would see past his grotesque exterior and love him for the gentle spirit trapped within his ton and a half of misfortunate meat.  

Or if not one of them, perhaps another creature under care at the facility – Lohitha the White Bengal Tiger, whose diminutive attention span kept her from successful stalking, or Gaspard the Gentoo penguin with the water phobia, or even Juan Bautiste the Blue Iguana suffering from the terrible delusion that they were all captives, imprisoned for the viewing pleasure of the humans who were permitted to stroll the grounds to keep the asylum’s patients from feeling isolated from society during their treatment.  

But even Flaubert did not imagine that news of Herbert’s new friend would interest the five California Sea Lions, known collectively as Ninu, who circled their tank in patterns rumored to convey coded signals to their brethren waiting above in space ships to which they would ascend when the time was right.  

Yet Ninu did know.  They knew many things.  They knew that the psychioveterinarians secretly replaced ZuZu’s chewing stick twice a week so she would not fall into despair when it was worn down to nothing.  They knew that Juan Bautiste had signed himself into the asylum voluntarily.  They knew that Ezekiel and Lohitha snuck out at night and met at the bench by the plaque honoring the richest donors and smoked cigarettes they weren’t supposed to have.  They knew Flaubert was Simone’s favorite, but she was too shy to tell him.  

And they knew that Trina actually believed Herbert was a form of animate freight train who ferried baby gnomes to and from school while she slept.  

She loved him none the less for it.

Sharita the Baker

Caroline Bodian

Edna’s School for Girls was the kind of place where you got pulled into the upper school dean’s office for wearing your plaid kilt one pinky-nail too short. How short is too short? Kneel down, and if the fabric didn’t touch the ground Ms. Spellman would coo into your ear, come to my office, then rattle off some lecture about how you can petition to change the uniform rules, but until then... The message was, either follow the rules or assert yourself. Both fit the Edna’s mold.  

The funny thing is, once you did make it your business to create change, you were deemed rebellious, and Edna’s was no place for rebels. It was no place for girls whose skirts didn’t touch the ground when they knelt on their knees. If following the rules wasn’t bad enough, us Edna’s girls bred gossip worse than a backcountry marsh bred mosquitoes. Within hours of Annie Bittles sipping watered down Absolut in a Starbucks bathroom, whispers zipped around the Edna’s circuit.  When Nina Leonard wrote a poem in English class called Spiraling Down the Dark Abyss, Edna’s – lest Nina harm herself on school premises and sully a squeaky clean reputation – took immediate action and notified the guardians of the angst-ridden teen. We all knew about it by the following week.  

There were no secrets among us fifty girls who had spent the last ten years of our lives together. In that time we had played a friendship musical chairs, choosing the friend most convenient at the time. Fifty restless girls only produced so many permutations. 

It was ninth grade when we had just about enough of each other that we learned three new girls would be joining our class. Two had transferred from other New York City private schools of lesser academic esteem. They looked like sisters with their ski-jump noses, cornstarch hair and wide saucer eyes. The third wore thick square-framed glasses that touched the part of her paisley headscarf hanging over her hairline. The girls introduced themselves as Haley, Lena and Sharita. Ms. Spellman asked them to share an interesting fact about themselves. Lena and Haley both mentioned some obscure island where they had vacationed off the coast of some other unknown island. 

When it was Sharita’s turn she told us that she was an avid baker and could whip up almost any Bangladeshi dessert to perfection. 

Let me add, besides for being no place for girls whose kilts didn’t touch the ground when they knelt on their knees, Edna’s was no place for girls who admitted to domestication. We didn’t cook and we didn’t admit to wanting to be mothers and we sure as hell didn’t form emotional attachments to boys. Our teachers and administrators wanted to admonish that traditional 1950’s nonsense and give rise to the modern woman or whatever. 

We asked Sharita about the city where her grandparents lived in Bangladesh: Dhaka. At the lunch table we begged her to teach us dirty words in Bengali. How do you say fuck off? Kiss my ass? Dickhead. One day she brought in a traditional Bangladeshi dessert, a Cheetos-colored viscous donut, and we all greedily waited while she ripped off bits for us to try and watched as we twisted our faces in disgust. Tastes like spoiled syrup, said Nina. 

Soon we began calling her Sharita the Baker, a nickname coined in European History, when our brittle-voiced teacher Ms. Webber explained how in the early 1000’s William the Conquerer had become a contender for the throne of England, which was then held by Edward the Confessor. We created suffixes to each other’s names. Annie was Annie the Mischievous, I was Charlotte the Loudmouth, there was Nina the Drama Queen, Rebecca the Sly, Nadia the Speculator, Brianna the Farter, Noelle the Complainer. Sharita the Baker, it stuck. 

On Halloween, Sharita the Baker turned down our invitation to the ticketed party at St. Joseph’s, the all boys’ school a few blocks uptown. For months she would dodge offers to parties: an aunt was visiting, a cousin was in town, her mother wanted her to prepare dinner. 

It wasn’t until winter break that we finally convinced her to come out on my birthday. The party was to be girls only. After my mother retreated to her room we would invite the St. Joseph’s boys, or rather, we would invite Alex Benjamin, the ringleader of the boys, who would make sure to spread the word to his friends. The square jawed Alex Benjamin had moved from London to the states when he was in Kindergarten and had regained his accent in middle school when he noticed the power it wielded over girls. 

 The party started at half past six on a Friday and Sharita showed up at around twenty past six. She extended a gloved hand with a brown paper bag that was neatly rolled at the top, sealed with tape and adorned with a delicate red bow.

You didn’t have to get me anything, I said, knowing that the others wouldn’t be bringing gifts. 

It’s your birthday, she said, pausing abruptly at the doorway. You have a beautiful home, she continued. I waved her in. 

Soon the other girls began to seep in, arriving one-by-one empty-handed as I had suspected. According to plan, my mother bid us goodnight and left us to our own devices, but not before rifling through the liquor cabinet to pour herself a cocktail and reminding us to put the dishes in the sink and to be careful not to get the pizza on the cream-colored Jonathan Adler Aspen sofa. Once summoned, the boys arrived later, the quieter ones bringing gifts that had clearly been purchased and wrapped by their mothers.

Alexander made himself comfortable on my living room couch and the other boys followed like hungry ducklings.  The room became segregated by sex. The girls sitting around the polished glass dining room table, gossiping about other girls in our class and the boys nestled on the plush couch.

Charlotte you’ll be pleased to know I come bearing gifts, Alexander said, extracting a small bottle of Smirnoff from his pants pocket. He pronounced my name Sha-lot and landed heavily on the T. 

The birthday girl gets the first sip, Alexander said motioning me to sit on his lap. To his lap I went and around the room the bottle went, from one person to the next, scrunching and twisting our faces like we had when we tasted Sharita’s gooey dessert. The boys cheered at our disgust. When the bottle made its way to Sharita, she sniffed it and grimaced. 

I’m okay, she said. I’ll pass. 

Come on, the girls shouted banging their fists against the glass table. 

For the first time since the boys arrived, Alexander seemed to notice Sharita. He took her in, her paisley headscarf, her jeans speckled with dirt, her rounded shoulders. Alexander pulled me in closer, his arms wrapped tightly around my waste. His sprouting chin hair tickled my neck and I could feel his wet breath in my ear, Alexander the Great, whispering loud enough so all could hear. 

Why is she here?  He said, glancing askance at Sharita. 

My cheeks pulsated with heat. 

I didn’t invite her, I said. 

When the bottle came around for a second time I could tell Sharita felt our eyes searing into her. Alexander, leading the orchestra of pressure, shouted keep it moving, she’s not going to do it! The girls clapped and the boys hooted.  Just then she pushed the bottle against her lips and tilted her head back.  The orchestra grew louder. 

The bottle made one more round and by that time it was nearing our curfews, so we passed around a tin of mints to cover up the alcohol smell.

I waited three days to open Sharita’s gift, which turned out to be a plastic Chinese food container filled with slices of what looked like pound cake. The card said it was called Chhena Poda, a traditional Bangladeshi dessert made with cheese, “so refrigerate as soon as possible,” it read. There was no point in trying to salvage it. I shook the contents out into the trashcan and hoped Sharita wouldn’t mention the gift. 

She didn’t. Nor did she mention it the rest of our years at Edna’s School for Girls, nor did she mention it years later at a school reunion. Nor did she mention it when I ran into her on the Upper West Side and her energetic Milk-Dud eyes met my gaze. We hugged and she pecked my cheek, leaving a mark of raspberry red lipstick beside my ear. It turned out that she had just moved to the neighborhood with her boyfriend, a St. Joseph’s alum in the year above us. She was on her way back from an interview a “big” New York law firm. Which one, she wouldn’t say for fear of jinxing her chances. I asked her if she still baked. After so many years it was all I could remember about her. Oh, did I even bake that much? She said running a hand through her shining ringlets. Her hair was almost waist-length now and loose, no longer shrouded in a scarf.  It’s funny, she said, but I hardly remember those days.