June walked slowly, studying the sparse array of plants thriving in deep sand on either side of the path. Maybe she could take specimens for her garden – this snaky succulent coiled in a depression next to the blackened stump of a dead tree, that miniature conifer tipped with flowering pink spires, this rosemary-lookalike with water-swollen needles and pale stems. She could fill the brick planters with native fauna instead of the irrigation-sucking ornamentals on the landscaping plan.
Her children didn’t notice plants, only animals, particularly dogs, which they adored, embraced, named, followed. Fortunately, the downtown swarmed with unleashed dogs. The children could have as many dogs as they wanted without bringing a single one home.
She glanced ahead to the sand ridge beyond the end of the path. Not a child to be seen, nor a dog, a fox, or a burro, only the brown and white hawks circling overhead, letting loose their harsh wild cries.
Because Argentina was so far from northern California, where every schoolroom would decorate a tree, where every shopping trip would mean holiday music and clamoring ads, the children had almost forgotten Christmas. From time to time Dylan would ask how many days, but no one watched the calendar because here, December meant summer, which made no sense.
Tessa and Fanny had met two local girls in town, and now that school was out for the season, the four girls looked for each other in the plaza and played together as if they spoke the same language. Tessa seemed to know all the Spanish words June didn’t know when she shopped for food in the market place. Dylan wouldn’t say more than Hola, but he said it to anyone, which always won him smiles and often silly faces that made Dylan laugh.
All of which seemed to mean it was working, the turning their lives upside down in order to escape from the United States, which no longer seemed the land of the free. Perhaps Argentina was just as bad, but this far from Buenos Aires, this high up in the Andes, this grape-growing town felt safer than the Bay Area, where with twelve shopping days left, Christmas season would be booming. What a treat to miss it all.
Because the children ran ahead along the path at the foot of the sand dunes, they reached the river long before their mother. They half-walked, half-slid down the steep manmade slopes to a rim of stones that divided the dune from a wide expanse of mud flats and flowing brown water.
“Frogs,” Fanny cried.
“Tiny frogs,” Tessa said, “lots and lots of them.”
The girls stood awestruck while frogs, each one smaller than a child’s fingertip, sat and hopped and hopped again into shallow water where they kicked helplessly against the current until it carried them to the next mud landing.
Dylan, younger and slower to descend the sand slope, stretched one foot past the rocks onto the mud and sank to his ankle. Fanny grabbed his arm and pulled hard enough that he tumbled onto his back in the sand. His feet waved helplessly, one of them coated with mud and missing a shoe.
“Ow! ” Dylan said. “Whaaa –Fanny!”
“I saved you from drowning.”
Next to the indentation where Dylan’s foot had disappeared, Tessa kneeled on two rocks and scooped mud out of the swiftly disappearing hole. “Got it,” she said, first holding up a dark dripping object, then rinsing the mud from Dylan’s green and white flipflop in a nearby pool of water. She helped Dylan to a seated position and handed him his wet shoe. “And I saved your shoe. This mud’s too soft to walk on.”
“Frogs. How can we catch them if we can’t go get them?” Dylan shook his other flip-flop loose and tossed both behind him.
Hands cupped closed in front of her, Fanny squatted next to him. “Like this.”
Dylan peered into a small gap his sister opened between her hands. “Whoa.” He jerked away at the sight of the frog, then looked again. “That’s little.”
“Frogs are going extinct, you know,” Tessa said. “Be careful not to kill it.”
Fanny swiveled around to face the river. “There must be hundreds.” She looked upstream and down. “Thousands. They’re not extinct here.”
“Can I hold it?” Dylan said.
Fanny scrambled up to the top of the slope for the blue plastic bucket they’d carried from the pickup. Carefully, she transferred the frog from her hands to the bucket floor. The frog was no larger than her thumbnail, pale brown with white spots. Tiny spots. She hurried back down to Dylan, the bucket swinging from side to side.
“We can collect them in here,” Fanny said, “and take them home. We can make a terrarium for them to live in.”
“A museum,” Tessa corrected, “for specimens of endangered species. Scientists will come from colleges to study them. They’ll mention us in the papers they write.”
“Frogs,” Dylan said. “I want one.”
“What you got down there, guys?” June stood on the sand ridge above the river, not exactly surprised but still relieved to see the three children together, safe.
“More frogs than you’ve ever seen,” Fanny said. She held up the bucket. “Come help us catch them for our museum.”
“Mom!” Dylan shouted. “You won’t believe it! Frogs!”
June glanced at the bucket, the mud, the river flowing between and around the mud. “I can’t see any frogs,” she said before she started down the slope.
The bucket was hopping with frogs, ten at least. Every few minutes Fanny or Dylan tipped in another.
“They’re beautiful,” June said.
Tessa opened her hands to show her mother a particularly small frog, then released it onto the sand. “They’re endangered. All frogs are endangered. They’re going to die. We’re probably the last generation to ever see a frog.”
“Really?” June said. “I remember there’s a problem, but are you sure it’s that serious?”
“A disease,” Tessa said, “caused by a fungus. It destroys their moisture-making stuff so they die by osmosis. American bullfrogs are immune but not for long.”
June bent down and swiped a frog into her hand. “How do you know this?” When she opened her fingers, the frog hopped away. “And how awful if it’s true.”
Tessa recaptured the frog and handed it back to her mother. “Oh, it’s true. Frog species are being decimated all over the world, nine out of ten, extinct.”
A puzzled look crossed June’s face. Tessa must have heard or read the word decimated and reused it without knowing precisely what it meant. One out of ten was bad enough, but nine out of ten?
“This is a population explosion,” June said. “Is it possible the disease hasn’t yet spread to Argentina?”
“Maybe. But Fanny wants to bring them home, and I think we should leave them here in their natural habitat.”
June agreed, but for different reasons. They hadn’t owned pets in California, which was one more reason they could move away, but too many ecology lessons could spoil the children’s fun.
In the end they brought five frogs back to live in the stone pool that sat empty between the veranda and the outside wall of June’s bedroom. Tessa googled for Argentine sapos on her iPad, Fanny ran off to make a cardboard frog house even though Tessa claimed it was completely unnecessary, and Dylan guarded the bucket while June went searching for the roll of leftover screening.
On the turnkey house plans she’d chosen two years earlier, June had thought the pool to be the base of a fountain and looked forward to the gentle sound of running water, especially while lying in bed. But the fountain turned out to be one of the numerous misunderstandings everyone blamed on language, not a fountain but a stone planter to go along with the dozen brick planters, all of which sat empty waiting for June to determine whether to plant according to her instincts or the landscaper’s formal intentions. Her excuse was that they couldn’t plant until the house was painted, and because the painters were so slow, it seemed like that might be forever.
“Tessa,” June said, “can you help me lay this across the top of the pool, and Dylan, can you bring me some medium-sized stones to hold down the corners?”
“Wait, Mom,” Tessa said, “I’m waiting for a website to load.”
“I have to watch the frogs,” Dylan said.
“Okay then,” June said and dropped the roll of screening onto the veranda. “I think I’m ready for a nap.”
Hastily, Tessa put down the iPad. “Sorry, Mom.”
“I’ve told you not to tell me to wait.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Should I go get some rocks so Dylan can guard the frogs?”
Fanny backed out the screen door carrying a box almost as tall as she was. “Ta da,” she said, turning and laying the box horizontally in the pool. “Three wine cartons, all the scotch tape, five frog doors.” She pointed to the triangular gashes along the bottom edge.
“Clever,” June said. “Good recycling, Fanny.” She looked around to see the rocks Tessa had gathered. “When Tessa and I have the screening in place, Fanny, can you weigh each corner down with one of these rocks?”
“The pond’s too wide,” Tessa said. “The screening won’t cover it.”
“Fine, we’ll measure two lengths,” June said, “and I’ll stitch them together.”
All of a sudden she regretted giving in to Fanny and Dylan’s pleading. No matter what they did, the frogs would escape or die. The children would all end up crying. Tessa was right. The frogs belonged back at the river, and even there, they would sooner or later die from natural causes or from the diabolical frog fungus, depending on if and when the fungus arrived in Argentina. What if the fungus was already here? What would the fungus do to children who touched frogs?
Dylan abandoned the frog bucket to tug at her shorts. “Mom, now how many days till Christmas?”
The next morning Fanny remembered the frogs first. Tessa and Dylan were right behind her out the door. June followed when they started screaming.
Foxes or dogs, possibly both, had torn apart the screening and chewed holes in the frog house. “For the little snacks,” June murmured too quietly for the children to hear. Surely they hadn’t gone after the frogs, which were in any case nowhere to be found. Dylan sobbed into her lap while Fanny continued to search beyond their unplanted gardens and into the vineyard. Tessa stood tear streaked and worrying next to the fire pit.
“If it was dogs,” Tessa said, “and if they ate the frogs, the dogs might be dead, too.”
June stroked Dylan’s head. He was crying too hard to have heard his sister’s ugly suggestion.
“The dogs have lived here all their life,” June said. “If they wanted to eat a frog, they would have done it a long time ago.”
“That’s true,” Tessa said. “I hadn’t noticed. The dogs are all grownups here.”
Because the children wouldn’t eat breakfast and refused to ride the horses or take a walk, June insisted they needed to go food shopping. Anything to get them out of the house, bust up their grumpy moods, put an end to their requests to go back home to California where they could play with their friends.
“And celebrate a normal Christmas,” Fanny said.
“What’s normal?” June asked.
“A tree,” Dylan said.
“We’ll get a tree, today, and you can spend the rest of the day making ornaments.”
“I used all the scotch tape,” Fanny said.
“Good thinking, we’ll buy more of that, too.”
“What about candy canes,” Tessa said.
“Haven’t seen them here, but we’ll find the local equivalent,” June said. What she could find for presents to put under the tree was the harder question, but the children wouldn’t ask it. They counted on her for miracles.
June had come to realize that the children were right. It would be nothing like a normal Christmas. No Toys-R-Us. No mall. Too late to order physical items from Amazon because they would take a month or more to arrive. Still, she’d decided what to give them – downloadable iPad games, more ebooks, individual small things she’d picked out in the downtown stores. She’d surprise them with everything necessary to make a gingerbread house on Christmas Eve. She’d remembered to bring their stockings, which she’d fill with dulces and alfadores. Her mother always stuffed an orange in the toe, walnuts on the top. Maybe she’d do that, too.
Paco the painter solved her dilemma. June disliked him because he made Dylan laugh by sticking his finger up his paint-spattered nose and pretending to eat the imaginary boogers. “Hola,” Dylan would say, again and again, hoping the painter would repeat the joke. The girls watched him, too, and sniggered behind their palms.
“Tengo un regalo para los niños,” Paco said, with only six days left.
June imagined the gift would be something his wife had made, cookies or candy. “Gracias, señor,” she said, and conjured up a smile for his thoughtfulness.
“Lo traigo mañana,” he said.
June shook her head. “No entiendo.”
Paco moved to the side and pointed to Tessa, sitting on the veranda with the iPad, still researching Argentine frogs. “Lo traigo mañana,” he repeated, louder this time so Tessa would hear.
“He’ll bring it tomorrow,” Tessa said. “Bring what tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” June said. “A surprise.”
No one ever seemed to know when Paco would show up. Sometimes he caught a ride with El Jefe. Sometimes he walked. This time he rode the blue bicycle with the child seat, to which, as usual, he’d strapped his well-worn backpack. Tessa saw him first, and when he smiled and waved at her, she remembered.
“Hola, Paco!” she called. “Fanny. Dylan. Mom. Paco’s here. Yesterday he promised to bring us something.”
Pretending to be nicer than she felt – after all, what if he also took this opportunity to do the nose trick – June invited Paco into the house. His cheek bulged with coca. He carried his backpack in both hands and urged the children to come closer.
“Hola,” Dylan said.
Smiling too widely to put June at ease, Paco looked in turn at each child, then squatted in the middle of the room. “Vea,” he said, unzipping the pack.
First a black tip, then a small brown nose on a round head pushed its way through the opening, then two paws, then the rest of the puppy.
Pandemonium ensued. The puppy’s paws slid on the wooden floor. Dylan chased and whooped. Fanny chased and cried. Tessa finally captured the soft brown wildness. Hugging it to her chest with the other two children reaching in to touch it, she carried it to June.
“Can we keep it, Mom? Really? Please?”
June looked at Paco, standing by the door, wearing the same pleading look Tessa wore. He’d seen the children in the plaza. He knew what they felt for dogs.
The children surrounded her, patting the pup, echoing Tessa’s plea.
“Of course,” June said. “It just so happens that today is Christmas.”