St. Anne’s Day, or The Frog Funeral – Gabriel Smith
January 19, 2022
Have a drink, she said. These things are always so –
She gestured with her wrist at the rest of the sentence. I smiled.
Sure, that’d be nice.
I took an instructed seat on the terrace, facing away from the house, towards the sloping and complicated garden.
An obscured pond, some trees, shrubbery. Flowers that were currently flowers. An out-of-work chapel I remembered from the plans provided.
I couldn’t see where the property ended and the next began.
A generic finchish bird flew from a nearby tree down to the terrace. It pecked at something invisible. Then it bird-hopped a few times. Then it flew back to the nearby tree where it had come from. The sound of its small wings against each other.
It was midsummer. I could feel my arms tanning gold.
I turned at the sound of her, the homeowner, carrying tray drinks out of the wide-open house doors.
Behind her, in the driveway, my Work Car, fake-metallic, ugly. I smiled at her and turned back towards the garden.
A slight warm wind. My nose caught honeysuckle.
‘I understand it’s not the done thing,’ she said, ‘but it felt so wrong.’
She placed the tray drinks – glasses of possibly gin, something sparkling, definite mint, lemon, ice – in front of me, in front of herself.
‘I’m grateful for it,’ I said, nodding my chin at the sun.
‘The first few people, lovely people, I didn’t serve anything. I just showed them around and let them leave. Awfully impersonal.’
‘I’ve not sold a house. But I think I understand.’
‘A guest is a guest. So. And of course none of them made an offer,’ she shrugged, smiling behind sunglasses, and pulled an ashtray towards herself. ‘Do you mind?’
I was working for an American back then. An incident with an Oriental vase had led the American to believe I had good eyes. So here I was with my Work Car, taking first passes at houses he might summer in sometimes, when the mood caught him.
Indoors we removed our sunglasses. I let her walk ahead of me, give the tour, turn to smile when pointing out particular details.
She was attractive. The house itself was bright, cool, big-kitchened. An upright piano, dense paintings. The scent of figs.
I worried I looked young in it, like some overgrown child. And then I worried I smelt like long drive, too.
I noticed a beautiful gold crown – the sort for kings – hidden in a bookshelf. I stopped and looked at it for a moment.
I turned to her to ask about it. But she had already moved into the next room.
‘The garden, now? Or another drink?’
I said I had to drive. But a splash would be fine.
She wouldn’t tell my boss, she said. Snitches and stitches.
We carried our drinks down off the terrace, past the obscured pond. The path-adjacent plants were vaguely overgrown, like me. I watched her push them aside with the palm of her hand.
‘The crown on the bookshelf,’ I said, remembering it.
She turned to me and smiled.
‘One of my brother’s touches,’ she said. She looked towards the sun, then back. ‘Well, one of his boyfriends’ touches.’
‘It looks good there.’
‘All crowns end up on bookshelves,’ she said.
I told her I supposed that was true. Or melted down to something else.
‘We grew up here,’ she said, ‘it was the family home. And it suited my brother best to keep it.’
‘Suited?’ I said.
I noticed the sound of wind through branches. Leaves against leaves.
‘Passed late last year,’ she said, and shrugged, smiling with half her mouth. She reached for the stem of some long grass-shaped plant beside her.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘These things -’ she said, then stopped, interrupted by something.
Then she smiled with her whole mouth and shushed me, still smiling, before I could speak.
Even though I hadn’t been about to.
She pointed over my shoulder, towards where the trees went dense.
I grinned at her. Then I turned towards the place she was pointing.
I felt her step closer to me.
‘A deer,’ she said, very quietly.
I looked for a moment and then saw it. A lady deer, small and envelope-brown. Half-hidden by another plant I couldn’t name even if I could remember what it looked like.
We watched it until it spooked, and deer-ran off, out of the afternoon sun and into the trees.
I turned back to her. I smiled.
She smiled too. Or already was.
Then we said something to each other in voices halfway back from a whisper, her face very close to mine.
Some kind of shared deer-gratitude. I don’t remember exactly what.
Then she stepped away from me and turned and I followed her again, down the hill, towards the chapel.
‘This was the village’s,’ she said, inside the chapel. ‘Or, I suppose it wasn’t. The family who owned the grounds before us had it put up.’
She walked ahead of me again, touching her hand against the dust-covered dark wood church-seats.
I held back. Bits of the building hung in the air where the sunlight was coming through, square-shaped and golden.
I wanted to cough, but didn’t. I took a few steps towards her.
I looked around for something to say. My feet so much louder than hers.
‘How old is it?’
‘Oh,’ she said, facing away from me still, ‘not as old as it looks. Victorian, I think.’
‘When did it stop being used?’
‘The village built some monstrosity in the thirties,’ she said, ‘you might have passed it coming in. Probably would have, actually.’
‘Probably,’ I said. She turned around and smiled.
‘We weren’t allowed to play in here as children,’ she said, ‘and now I have the key.’
And you leave it unlocked.
‘Well. Would you like to see the cemetery?’
‘I hadn’t seen this in the plans,’ I said, because I hadn’t. Worn headstones, some knocked flat. No more than fifty. Shades of moss-dark green, grey.
‘You don’t tell where the bodies are buried,’ she said.
‘Are they not mentioned in the material? I’d assumed the agent had. A few dozen corpses.’
‘Maybe I missed it.’
‘Them,’ I said. She smiled. We were silent for a moment.
‘The pond has frogs,’ she said, ‘frogs seem to have a rather short lifespan.’
‘They have the whole tadpole thing to deal with. Before they get there.’
‘I used to bury them here as a child. The dead frogs I found. In a tea-towel or tissue paper, and a shoebox for a coffin. I’d hold a little funeral.’
She looked around, as if for a frog-sized headstone. Then she looked back at me.
‘I think about that rather often. The child that might be burying frogs above me, one day.’
‘Did it make you sad? As a girl.’
She smiled and thought for a moment.
‘I don’t remember,’ she said, ‘so I don’t think so. Perhaps I liked the ceremony.’
‘The frog funeral,’ I said.
‘Perhaps that’s all they are,’ she said, gesturing at the headstones of the long-dead parishioners. ‘Frogs above something bigger.’
I smiled and shrugged. I didn’t know what to say. She smiled back.
‘I suppose it’s no wonder I’ve not found a buyer,’ she said, ‘going on about all this.’
I shrugged again.
‘I like it.’
Then she put on a fake serious voice, and told me to be sure to mention the frogs to my employer, and began to lead me back up to the house.
I stayed a moment. I wanted to take a last look.
So I did. Then I followed.
‘Why sell at all?’ I said, as I was leaving, because I wanted to know.
‘That’s a rude question,’ she said, smiling.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, smiling too.
The sun was getting lower. She turned to look at the house from where we were standing on the driveway.
‘My brother loved it. I love it, too. But I won’t use it. All this space.’
‘And better for another family to use it now, no?’
‘I suppose so,’ I said, even though I didn’t know if I did.
Then I thanked her for the drink, and for showing me around, and reversed slowly down the pebbled drive, towards the village, back in the direction I had come.
That was years ago. I remember I lied to my American. I said that the place was a wreck, falling apart, and that the cemetery corpses would cause endless legal headache.
So he passed and eventually settled for Sussex, with its bland hills and London proximity. I stopped working for him shortly after.
I didn’t mention the frogs, though I’ve thought about them often since. All the things I’ve buried that are maybe just frogs, in tea-towels or tissue paper. And the frogs that might be buried above me one day.
I was back in that part of the country recently. I took a detour so I could drive by it. I wanted to see if the chapel was still there. But the trees were too tall to see anything, and there was someone right on my tail.
So I kept on past. I was in a hurry, and had a place I needed to get back to.