After my daughter became old enough to walk alone to school and back, many more creatures started spending the night at our house. It must be said that not all were of the same rung in the evolutionary ladder, with coleoptera, gastropoda and lepidoptera (this last one usually in the larval stage) counting among her finds, which she took upstairs with her when she arrived home from school.
Once, years later, I found a strayed snail. Or, more precisely, I found his house-turned-tomb, stuck to the underside of a tabletop. It was an ineradicable Wanderlust that set those animals apart, inexplicably capable, as they were, of escaping from the walled reservations my daughter had built for them and of setting out into the woods of table legs and chair feet. We used to tiptoe around early in the morning, fearful of any fatal crunch sounding from under our shoes. These amazing
escapes were almost always, and exclusively, nocturnal. Nature works her wonders, like Saint Nicholas pays his visits, exclusively while people are asleep. This is, by the way, the moral of the story.
Back when she had to be read to, she confused the real world of shrews, foxes, owls and eagles with the world inhabited by trolls and imps. Then, leaving illiteracy behind her, my daughter went on to ascertain from the available literature on zoological subjects (in as far as that is a main topic) that animals live a more extreme existence in the country than in the city’s semi-industrialized outskirts, such as our own. And she read in children’s illustrated field guides that shallow waters
teemed with tadpoles in the spring. One afternoon after another she went out with a little net to the ponds close by and to the Art Deco pool of de Marie – such were the sterile waters of our neighborhood – fishing diligently for such tadpoles. I finally took her to the pet stores on the Seine after seeing her come home, yet again, with her jam jar empty. One insignificant financial transaction later and we were in possession of a plastic baggie with twelve tadpoles. They got a glass tank to swim in and gave the casual observer the impression that they appreciated their new milieu. We named them: Tadpolski, Pilsudski, Krasicki, Rapacki, Potocki, Radziwill, Mickiewicz, Korzeniewsi, Paderewski, Poniatovski, Kosciuso and Goldberg.
Staring at the tank, my daughter made the relatively predictable comment that all they were were heads, heads with a little tail attached. And indeed, a mere fleeting observation of their Brownian motion in the tank convinced you of the comment’s fundamental truth: for these creatures, hats were their clothes and Guillotine had lived in vain. “Oinou ena stalagmon” (just a drop of wine) would go right to their heads, heads wriggling with hunger, heads with a shooting pain in their side after having raced about for too long. Middle-aged heads with lumbago, binge-eaters with head-rot followed swiftly by headache. Speaking of dinner: their feed was a poudre vitaminée, a foodstuff sold at the tadpole store but of indeterminable origin. They consumed it upside down like Australians, granting the observer a view of their stomachs - I mean, throats - pale in color and which sometimes reflected a mother-of-pearl pink.
Our little brood of twelve heads thrived. They developed from the commas they were when we bought them into fat Kapucijner peas. Not that their growth was uniform. Alongside the average Joe with extremities on both sides were the early-bloomers and the laggards.
It wasn’t the fattest who got his legs first; it was Goldberg. We were awoken one morning at about a quarter past three in the morning (or some such hour) by my daughter who kept chattering at us until we got up to take a look. Indeed, a miracle! Miniscule little legs, well-shapen like a ballet dancer’s, hung uselessly from his nape where before there had been nothing. Amazingly, this repeated itself, but only at night, while we weren’t looking, and by the time Radziwill had his legs,
Goldberg was testing out his own with sporadic learners’ movements. There was, as yet, no sign of arms.
It happened again at night. Whereas the evening before there hadn’t been anything, anything at all, to see, the following morning there appeared a pair of completely developed arms from the head transformed into a (suddenly skinny) body. The adolescent tadpole had become a baby frog, an amphibian Faust.
The next day was the first of Goldberg’s new youth and, as it turned out, the last. We were awoken this time, not by the excited report of the latest nocturnal wonders, but by sobbing and lamentation. Obligated to go take a look at the tank, we found him, arms and legs stretched out, slowly spinning on his axis with the slow motion of a parachuter before the parachute opens. Goldberg floated in the others’ wake while they nonchalantly swam their day’s quota. He got a jam jar of fresh water all for himself, in which my daughter liberally dosed a huge amount of the vitamin powder. A single cautious push with the point of a pencil was the most drastic surgical intervention we were prepared to provide.
Afterwards, my daughter built a mausoleum for him in the park. She ended up building quite a few mausoleums: there was another victim the following morning and two more the morning after that. My daughter spent all her waking free time waiting and watching the tank, but nothing ever happened during the day. What could it be? The food? The temperature? We examined each hypothesis with the rigor required, but without result. We even set a stone in the tank, its top sticking out of the water, with the thought that maybe they had died after their transformation because they had needed to get out of the water, dying from fatigue after needing to hold their heads above water for as long as possible.
When that also failed, it became difficult to tuck my daughter in at bedtime. She wanted to stay up and keep watch with a light the whole night through. The alternative – listening to her cry in bed – was too hard for us and we stayed awake, until about 12 o’clock, at which point we carried her, asleep, to her bed.
The fatal process continued, unrelenting. Each morning my daughter begged to high heaven for intervention, her pleas falling on deaf ears, until there was not a single tadpole left.