Calvino's Fingers

Brian Kubarycz


On Spring afternoons, when the scent of the ponds, which sat green and alive beyond the courtyard of cathedral school, drifted into the classroom and filled us with thoughts of rolling mud balls and heaving them like frogs against the sidewalks, or rubbing them into the newly starched collars of all altar boys, I knew we would soon be asked to find a jar big enough for a dozen pickles, poke holes in the tin lid, and walk out to the ponds to catch a frog we then could skin and anatomize as our faith-school science project. By then I had already smelled Calvino's fingers.

The frogs that lived there in the pond then were bigger than kittens, and we had to push them head first into the mouths of the jars, holding them tight enough so they would not worm out of our fingers back into the slough, and gently enough so we wouldn't snap their ribs or squirt eggs onto our charcoal flannel trousers.

Behind the glass, the frogs kicked their legs and puffed their throats till we could count aloud the veins and dimples under their white chins, puffed till they filled so much container water shot out of the holes poked in the lids, spotting our clothes like kale and cabbage soup and making us smell of bottom of the pond.

These frogs were truest God’s survivors, having passed their tadpolescence in the foulest clotted water, old stationary pools where chemistry teachers dumped sulphides and acids, foundry students tipped their slags, photographers poured bromides and bleach fixer.

We killed the frogs by dropping them into a boiling pot, and we did not view it as a cruelty.  It was over in seconds for them, and these were frogs which were inured by then to chemicals and would splash happily in any liquid short of vitriol, which was not helpful to us anyway because it ate clean through the skin.

Calvino lived with just his mother.  She had moved here in opposition to the wishes of everyone but herself. When Calvino was twelve his mother was still washing his hair with milk and rubbing clove oil into his cradle cap. It was something you could smell from across the classroom and it earned him several nicknames, all of which related to meals from the refectory.

Calvino was, nevertheless, true beauty as he stretched his frog against the wax tablet provided by the teacher and pushed straight pins through what could be called its ankles and its wrists. He slit open the white belly without hesitation, created an incision in the shape of letter H, clipped open the ribcage with a pair of chatelaines. Then he pinned back the flaps to expose the lungs, the stomach, some organs I had not yet learned to identify, and enough eggs to overrun a teacup. They sat, a handful of fish eyes, on the stoneware plate where he placed them, staring at once into all corners of the classroom.

Calvino handled everything delicately, made lying under the knife appear somehow to be comforting. After class, Calvino took me to the part of town where his house was and he told me I should stay for dinner with him.  He lived next to a fish shop. His mother came home carrying a chalk-white canvas sack which, when she spilled it on the table, proved to hold a dozen now-familiar forms.  She told Calvino to skin them and rinse them in a basin of salt water. As I watched and waited, I could not decide which was more wonderful, Calvino's manicured fingers, expertly separating the peel from the meat, arranging the legs onto crockery; or his mother's hair, foaming over shoulders, smelling of Guinness and shiny as egg whites.

Calvino showed me a corner, the one he sat in when his mother got undressed.   There was a chair in it, and beneath the chair a pan.  I looked in, at the tadpoles.