Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Life of Picasso - a short story.

My daughter, Olivia, owned thirty-six toy frogs, all shapes, sizes and shades of green. They lined her bed, her bookshelf and chest of drawers. On the eve of her tenth birthday, still dressed in her frog-covered pyjamas, Olivia pleaded with me,
'I want a real frog now. One I can actually love and hold. These toys are boring.' She held up her finest frog, Sebastian. His front legs, made of emerald velvet and stuffed with sawdust, drooped. She shook him at me.
'I’ve checked out tree frogs on the Internet. I know what to do. It’s easy.'

I couldn’t disappoint her. I was like the old woman in the shoe. Four children, one husband, three surviving rabbits, two blue budgies, one guinea pig, and now a live green tree frog named Picasso. The back yard was littered with empty hutches, abandoned birdcages and cracked fish tanks. Along the fence between the rose bushes, rows of makeshift crosses each inscribed in a child’s handwriting marked our cemetery.

Olivia lifted Picasso from the resurrected fish tank that was now his home and sat him on the flat of her hand.
'He feels slimy!'
'Cover him with your other hand or he’ll jump.' I said. I hovered over the two of them ready for action.
'You don’t need to tell me what to do.' Olivia looked down on Picasso with a mother’s smile.

Picasso took a flying leap from her hand and landed at my feet. Olivia squealed.
'Grab him,' I said, 'before he jumps again.' But Olivia only whimpered. She held onto her hand like it’d been bitten.
'Yuk. He peed on me,' she said. 'It’s disgusting. I’m never touching that frog again, ever.'

I rescued Picasso from the floor. He was all-legs and the suction pads on the tip of his toes stuck to my hands as I tried to peel him from me. I picked off bits of fluff that clung to his body and put him back into the water bowl in his tank. I was careful to place him in the shallow end where he sat like a statue and soon fell asleep.

On this humid summer night, Olivia practised her cello and Picasso blew a bubble under his chin that went in and out like a bellows. Then he gave off a deep ‘wark-wark’ sound. It rumbled in unison to the scraping of the bow over the strings.

I lifted the lid of the cricket container to let four or five crickets slide into the tank.
'That’s revolting,' Olivia said, and zipped her cello into its case. She marched off upstairs.

The crickets edged out from under the cover of an egg carton and plunged into the tank. One managed to leap outside. It landed on the table. I grabbed for it but it sprung into a gigantic arc and landed on the floor. I bent to grab again but my hand came up empty as the lone cricket scuttled under the skirting board and out of reach.

Back in the tank Picasso noticed movement nearby. He sat very still and fixed his black eyes on the other intruders. Then in a sudden rush he slipped out his long pink tongue and dragged in a cricket whole.

Some months later the fine point at the end of Picasso’s spine began to jut out in a way it never had before. There were dark raised spots along his skin. He had lost his bright green sparkle and turned into the colour of the ocean on an overcast day. Picasso did not leap to swallow the crickets any more. He was too slow and getting thinner.

I made Olivia come with me when I took Picasso to the vet, one who specialised in reptiles and amphibians. The walls of his consulting room were covered in animal pictures and in the waiting room there was a large glass cage lined with carpet off-cuts. The fat scaly tail of a goanna poked out from behind a rock. The place stank of Sorbitol.

The vet was a young man with a gold stud in his left ear lobe. He picked up Picasso in his fine-gloved, well-washed hands and squeezed the frog’s stomach. He invited us to do the same. Olivia pulled back but I slid my fingers across the ridge of Picasso’s belly. It felt as moist and squishy as ever. I was too scared to push harder to feel whatever else might lie underneath.

'This frog has a severe case of gravel ingestion,' the vet told us. 'What sort of set up do you have for him at home?'

I felt accused and my explanation sounded limp even though I had followed all the instructions from the pet shop where we bought Picasso.
'Thought so,' the vet said. 'Too much gravel. Whenever this frog swallows a cricket he takes in a piece of gravel with it, and for some reason he hasn’t managed to pass any out.'
'Why did you have put in so much, Mum?' Olivia glared at me. 'I told you it was too much.'

The vet pushed once more onto the sides of Picasso’s belly in a way that made us both squirm.
'He’s got a gut full of stones. At least a third of his weight. A dose of laxatives might fix it. It’s all I can suggest. Caramel flavoured,' he said. 'Frogs love the taste.'

Picasso took it in. He had no choice. The vet had his mouth pried open with a metal stick and shoveled the stuff in; brown and gluey, like melted toffee.
'As long as he doesn’t vomit it back up,' the vet said, 'it might help shift the gravel. It’s his only hope.' He washed his hands for a second time. 'Put him in a separate container tonight, otherwise you won’t know whether he’s passed anything.'

I settled Picasso in the shoebox I’d brought him in.
'That box is no good,' the vet said, 'cardboard burns their skin. An ice-cream tub would be better. Always wet your hands first and leave them wet when handling your frog.' He rinsed his own hands under the tap yet again. 'Otherwise frogs are surprisingly strong.'

'We’ve had this one for ages,' I told him. I did not want him thinking I was a complete incompetent but now I wondered how long was it since I last cleaned out Picasso’s tank? Maybe it was my fault after all. Maybe I’d left him in his own mess for too long.

I remembered my goldfish Priscilla. I got her when I was Olivia’s age. She zipped about in her bowl for months until one day out of nowhere she produced a long line of what looked like eggs. Little jelly eyes that stuck to her rear end instead of dropping off the way fish poo normally does. Then her swim bladder went and she tipped over to one side. I poked at her and she righted herself again but a short time later there she was back on her side. My mother said she was done for.
I put her in some water in a glass jar, which I left overnight in the freezer. That way she could float into a coma, freeze to death and not feel a thing.
I still felt guilty.

'If he can get rid of the stones,' the vet said, 'Picasso’ll be okay. Otherwise we’ll have to put him down. It’s the kindest way.'

Later I checked Picasso. He had managed to escape from the yellow ice-cream tub but not before leaving behind a pile of pebbles. He was half submerged in the water bowl, like a crocodile. I put five meal worms, like thin orange witchety grubs, in the centre of a dish and propped it in front of him.

Meal worms from the pet shop came hidden in small plastic containers filled with sawdust. I kept the container in the fridge where the meal worms went into a sort of hibernation with the cold. When I picked them out one by one they wriggled to life under the warmth of my fingers then waggled their short legs.
Even warmed, the meal worms were sluggish but they moved enough to attract Picasso’s attention. He took in five at once. A gulp, a burp and they were gone.

It was the law of the jungle and it got to me. When I had first noticed Picasso’s weight loss I worried that his diet was off. The pet shop man suggested instead of only offering crickets, as an occasional treat, I should feed him a few pinkie mice. I bought three. They came home in a brown paper bag. I could scarcely look at them let alone leave them at the base of the tank for dinner. Hairless, pink and foetal, their eyes still sheathed in skin, they squirmed noiselessly among the gravel. They were gone the next time I looked.

Olivia pointed her finger at me. 'How could you do it? You’re a murderer.'
'I only did as the vet suggested. You needn’t try to make me feel guilty, I feel bad enough already.'

I always felt guilty when one of the animals got sick or died. Frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs. I should have kept them cleaner or warmer. I should have fed them different food. I should have offered a better life or at least taught Olivia how. At the same time a part of me wished them dead.

The night after our visit to the vet I fell into a restless sleep and dreamed of open mouths that swallowed baby mice whole. I woke in a flap.

Couldn’t keep anything alive. What sort of mother was I? The sheets on my side of the bed were soaked with sweat. I slid out from under them and tiptoed down stairs.

Picasso in his tank leaped Tarzan-like from one branch of the spider plant to the next. I opened the fridge door and doled out another dish of meal worms. They wriggled blindly on the saucer. Picasso eyed the white dish then plunged at it and onto it, swallowing five meal worms in one hit. He bulged slightly in the middle but sat upright on the plate.

I could just imagine those meal worms as they writhed about in Picasso’s belly, in among the gravel. My back ached, my eyes were blurred from lack of sleep but there was Picasso as green and shiny as a bright new day.

At breakfast Olivia walked past the frog tank reading her latest Pony Pals.
'Look at Picasso,' I said. 'How well he’s doing.'
'Oh,' she said. 'That’s good.' She gazed out through the kitchen window. 'Mum. I want my room painted pink. And can I have a horse?'

42 comments:

Woman in a Window said...

There is no.
keeping.
up.

I wonder how much of this is real, metaphorically speaking? How much guilt you carry? I've a whole ice cream tub full of it and I'm not exactly sure why. Peculiar, isn't it?

I enjoyed this story very much, Elizabeth. You've the patience to construct such things, start to finish, and I rather wonder on that, as well.

xo
erin

lakeviewer said...

Yes, a beautifully told story, from beginning to end, about a mom and a daughter, and a need to please her so.

Now, about that horse..

Laoch of Chicago said...

Maybe a pet rock for your daughter?

Windsmoke. said...

Very enjoyable story indeed. Trying to keep up with kids these days is a hard job at any time.

Kath Lockett said...

Poor old Picasso. Wanted (online) by the child; rejected in reality and left to the mother to care for.

We have a rabbit that is now largely in my care despite pester power wearing us down in 2008. However he at least only eats vegetables, grass and pellets and not anything living.

Could - dare i even write this - Picasso go back to the vet *to deal with* when your daughter is at school?

Kath Lockett said...

Oh frack, I just realised. This was a *story*. Blonde in hair and blonder in brain!

Elizabeth said...

I read it avidly -- your strange and unique and wonderful voice carries the simplest words to places of complexity. I think the character of Olivia needs to keep living.

Zuzana said...

Dear Elizabeth, very entertaining post on a Saturday morning.;)I had no idea people kept frogs as pets.;)) And definitely knew not frogs ate mice, ugh.;)
You were (are) a great and tolerant mom. My sister begged my parents for a dog, but all she was ever allowed to keep was a pet hamster that her friend bought her for her birthday.;) I can simply not imagine my mom ever letting us keep frogs.;)
Have a lovely weekend,
xoxo

Jim Murdoch said...

The only pets we ever had growing up were cats, one at a time as prescribed by my father, no goldfish, mice, lizards, tarantulas or frogs. There was a frog pond about a mile out of town which we used to spend a lot of time around in the summer. There were thousands of the litter buggers – goodness knows how many we squashed underfoot simply walking through the grass to get there. We did bring tadpoles home in a jar a few times but they never lasted long; the same applied to the caterpillars we stuck in jars. I’ve never really given much thought to what happened to Mum’s cats when they died. I have a vague recollection of one being buried by a rose bush in the back garden but there was no ceremony.

Since my daughter spent the majority of her childhood with her mother she never badgered me for any kind of pet besides there was always a cat at my parents’ house for her to torment. As for whether she had any pet at her Mum’s I honest couldn’t tell you. Once she left home she had a succession of rodents, mainly gerbils although I think she might have had some more exotic creatures; these seemed to quell any maternal instinct that might have been starting to show its face. Now it looks as if she won’t ever have kids – bad genes (mine) – and so she’s back to a cat. My mother needed cats in her life. She was someone who needed to mother something for her life to make sense.

Carrie and I have a goldfish (‘Fishy’), a cockatiel (‘Poirot’ but just gets called ‘Birdy’) and three underwater snails (‘the Sluggies’). I keep meaning to get something for my fishbowl in my office since Fishy outgrew it – he really is quite a monster now – but it’s lain empty for the past year; I don’t even think I’ve taken the heating element out of the box, the one Carrie bought me last year. When we refer to ourselves in relation to the bird it’s generally as ‘Mam’ and ‘Dad’ and I have to say that he does fill a space in my life that I was surprised to find there. He’ll never realise just how lucky he was land on our window ledge back in 2005.

Claire Beynon said...

Dear Elisabeth

You are remarkable - as is this story, for so many reasons alongside its torchlight-shine on the mother/child/Picasso story. You met me and spoke to where I am on my own mother/child road at this time. This story operates on an allegorical level, of course, and highlights what I'm needing to hear right now. . . Trust, love, vigilance, faith, diligence and devotion - essentials in our relationship toolkits - will see us through. Trials can become opportunities. I could write pages, but really, what I want to say most is a from-the-heart 'thank you.'

Love
Claire

PS. Life is crazy-busy at the moment which means I can be a slow or shy with comments, Elisabeth. . . Please know I'm a regular, appreciative reader. Thank you for creating this generous space.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I once had a Kangaroo rat and a ground squirrel as pets. When they both died I realized that many "pets" are much better off in their natural environments.

I never understood the attraction people have to reptiles, particularly snakes. They have such basic brain functioning; they are unable to form attachments or exhibit behaviors as do dogs, cats and some birds. The reptile has none of these characteristics - so for me, what's the point?

Titus said...

Beautifully done. Couldn't stop myself from reading.

Kirk Jusko said...

I think much of the time parents end up being more involved with their children's pets than the children themselves.

rauf said...

i never knew Picasso was a cricket fan.

Picasso Priscilla, very imaginative names for pets, mine was a cat Pandurangan pillai, went missing from past two months never returned.
Probably caught by the gypsies. They eat cats.

We never learn from the laws of the jungle Elisabeth, though we have lots of information stored in our heads like a computer. But this information doesn't make us aware, Sadly.

Half my mind is filled with guilt Elisabeth, i cannot insulate myself to be free of guilt. This is life again and you present it so well, so eloquently.

The comment moderation is suffocating Elisabeth. but this is your blog. You are the boss.

River said...

Great story Elisabeth. I thought it was real until I read the other comments.

Sharon Longworth said...

Beautifully written, so much in there about wanting and loving, caring and fear. And a real skill to build all that into a short story which keeps us entertained to the end
Really well done.

Elisabeth said...

The guilt is real Erin, and much of it informed the story, which is what I describe as 'autobiographical fiction' - writing that in essence is built around actual events but fictitious as to certain minor details, including my daughter's name.

My real daughters - Olivia is a composite - are not half so demanding.

Thanks, Erin.

Elisabeth said...

'About that horse', indeed, LakeViewer. Thanks for your kind words.

Elisabeth said...

Now a pet rock would not be such a bad thing.

Do you remember the days of those critters that kids bought as toys and were meant to nurture?

The name comes to me now with help from my husband - Tamagotchis - digital pets.

Thanks, Laoch.

Elisabeth said...

It is hard work, Windsmoke, keeping up with kids, and each generation has its challenges.

Thanks, Windsmoke

Elisabeth said...

We once cared for at least six rabbits - dwarf rabbits - Kath. I felt so badly about, them cooped up in hutches in our back yard, some the gift of friends, others from pet shops.

Four daughters and each required a rabbit of their own and then the rabbits bred, as rabbits do.

The frogs demanded far less time and space, until they were sick.

The frogs too left me feeling bad, as do all pets, unless you can dedicate yourself to them. They come off badly.

It's hard enough caring for children.

It seemed easier when we we were kids, when our pets mucked in with the rest of us and there were fewer restrictions.

Thanks, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

Olivia here, certainly needs to keep on living, Elizabeth. She is a caricature, one who reminds me of that girl - I think her name is Violet - in Raoul Dahl's Willy Wonker and the Chocolate Factory.

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

There is a huge trade in pet frogs, snakes, lizards as well as spiders here in Australia, Zuzana. You need a special licence to keep them.

To my mind these animals do not make ideal pets. They remind me of porcelain dolls. You can look sat them but you cannot safely touch.

Thanks, Zuzana.

Elisabeth said...

I cannot resist the desire to anthropomorphise all our pets, Jim.

Like you and Carrie with your cockatiel, I like to refer to us as the dog's parents, or to our daughter as his mother, and my husband and I as the grandparents.

We've had mice, Jim, but I'm not into rodents, rats and the like, though you never know. To me the worst were the guinea pigs, though I've also heard of people who are fond of ferrets.

You can form an attachment to almost any animal I suspect, Jim, even an ant, but their longevity is so limited.

Remember Charlotte's Web. I enjoyed all the creatures in that book. And Babe, the pig - a lovely critter - especially when he spoke.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I hope life is not too crazy busy for you, Claire. Clearly it can't be if you have at least a little time to blog.

Thanks for your generous words here. I'm glad you found some meaningful connection to the story.

Children and animals can teach us so much.

Thanks, Claire

Elisabeth said...

I agree with you on the inherent difficulties of attaching to a reptile, Robert.

Reptiles do not seem to me to be creatures you can cuddle, and can perhaps only love in your imagination.

What was that Michael Jackson song I think about a pet rat named Ben?

The song always gives me the creeps. Rats at least have fur but they also have sharp teeth and can carry disease.

Thanks, Robert.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your kind words Titus. I'm glad the words hooked you in.

Elisabeth said...

I'm sure most parents wind up with responsibility for the pets, as you suggest, Kirk.

It's hard for a young person to bear the ongoing responsibility of a pet, for obvious reasons.

Young people tend to think they'll love their pet, but the reality of the task is greater far than their imaginations suggest. Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

Sorry for the comment moderation, Rauf. I hope it's not too suffocating.

I use it to spare myself the agonies of spam, perhaps unnecessarily but maybe those of us who suffer from excess guilt feel the need to protect ourselves more than most.

Cultural differences between how one group might idealise a particular animal - like Indian folk and their cows versus other cultural groups who eat our much loved dogs and horses.

It's all pretty subjective.
Thanks, Rauf.

Elisabeth said...

Reality is in the eye of the beholder, River, but as you can perhaps now see, there is much truth to this story despite a certain 'playing around' with the facts. It
is certainly emotionally true.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your kind words, Sharon. I'm glad the story held you.

Kass said...

Great story. I still dream about a cat I had to give up.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I enjoyed this story and laughed out loud reading it. I think the mother deserves a medal!

SE'LAH... said...

I really enjoyed reading this post...filled with many reasons to smile. Thanks so much for sharing. It brightened my day ;) one love.

Elisabeth said...

I wonder about the cat you had to give up, the one that still features in your dreams, Kass.

We become attached to our pets, don't we? At the same time, animals in dreams can have all manner of meanings.

The cats I dream about are generally wild. Thanks, Kass.

Elisabeth said...

A medal for the mother, Jane. Good idea. I think she deserves one, too.

Thanks, Jane.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Se'lah. I'm glad the story brightened your day.

Linda Sue said...

This story is so REAL! This sounds just like our life here when my son was wee...though I would have drawn the line at baby mice...

Marylinn Kelly said...

Elisabeth, What a fine story, its details revealing such truth and letting us know the participants so well. Thank you for sharing it.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Marylinn. I'm glad the story made sense to you and that you too could resonate with these 'characters' and events, composites from my life.

Ruth said...

I felt I was reading The New Yorker or The Sun. Poor Picasso. Poor Olivia. Poor Elisabeth. We are each in a cage of our own misery-making.

Eh, what?

I had no pets. Zero. Nada. As a kid. It was a big mistake my parents made, bless 'em. There's just too much to learn with them that gets left out without them.

Wonderful remarkable writing as I come to expect. This is one of the best.

Elisabeth said...

The New Yorker, Ruth. Wow.

Cages in our own misery making, and you a child without pets. Another cage.

I suspect we can learn as much from what's missing, as from what's available.

Thanks, Ruth.