Frog and Bells
by John Herman
Moments ago, my left leg rushed across the beaches of Normandy while my right ear took in the final performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. All the while my heart, not the blood-pumping organ but the abstract idea, pined for her.
I am not a romantic man. I never was. I barely have feelings, but she makes me wish that time travel was a thing of the past — or the future — and I could take her in my arms — right now in the present — and simply talk to her.
But I can't.
I can only listen for the bells.
I grew up in a rural town in northern New Hampshire. Our biggest employer was a big box store that sold everything a person needed. My father worked in the shipping room unloading tractor-trailers and compacting cardboard in a machine that, as a child, I named the Crusher. My father said that he knew a guy who lost his arm in the Crusher. "His blood and bones stained the inside before he could cry for help," he said.
At the other end of the store, my mother ran the service desk with a smile that only faded slightly when she returned to the trailer park where we lived in what she referred to as "squalor and bliss."
At six years old, I was diagnosed with what was described as high-functioning autism. My mother told me it meant that I was smarter than other people. I am not sure if that is true. Mostly I like details. I can tell you the individual and team statistics behind every Boston Red Sox player of the past twenty-five years. In school, I got good grades, but I wasn't great at making friends. I suspect this is because I don't talk much. I like words, but frankly, I have nothing to say.
When I was old enough to get a job, I began working as a cart pusher in the same store that employed my parents. That means I walk around the parking lot, rain or snow, and collect the shopping carts.
When the recruiter came, I was barely eighteen years old. I was notified over the P.A. system that I needed to report to the break room immediately. On the way, my manager intercepted me, explaining that there was an important person waiting. He also said good luck. If I was much of a talker, which I've explained that I'm not, then I would have told my manager that I don't believe in luck. Instead I said nothing and went to the break room.
A small woman at least my mother's age sat at the lunch table. She wore a black pantsuit. Her hair was tied tightly in a bun. Her shoes looked brand new. It was as if she had gone clothes shopping just before arriving. She smelled like chewing gum, but she wasn't chewing anything.
"I'm a recruiter," she confirmed, without giving her name. In the distance, I could hear the sound of the Crusher.
"I have a job already," I replied.
"I'm looking to fill a very special job," she continued, peering at me. "We used drug testing results, urine samples from hundreds of thousands of people, to locate genetically compatible candidates," she continued, her hands dipping into a large black leather bag that sat on the floor between black stiletto heels. She unwrapped three electrodes from a clear plastic case. "May I?"
"May you what?"
I could hear the buzzing the moment the recruiter placed the electrodes on my forehead. It was a strange tingling sensation, a ringing in my ears, both slight and completely hypnotic. "This is only a test," the recruiter explained. "We should both know whether it works or not." She peered at me again. "Does it work?"
I nodded. It worked.
Later, I would hear the bells clearly. I was marching toward the North Pole with Sir Edmund Hillary. Or rather the explorer was marching with my legs. He stumbled through a snowdrift. My left leg came down hard, and the snow swallowed Hillary up to his waist. The explorer breathed in deeply, and I could hear her in my mind.
She was his lungs.
In the break room, I heard the bells too, but it was too early for me to understand them. When the recruiter asked me to recount my experience, I just said, "I heard it in my ears. Or maybe in my head. I don't know."
"What did you hear?"
I took a breath. "I don't know," I repeated. "Something." My mind couldn't come up with the words, but the truth was that I was instantly addicted. To what? I didn't know. I was not entirely familiar with addiction. I saw people fill up shopping carts with cigarette cartons. I knew that I desperately wanted to hear the ringing again. That's all I knew. It was enough.
The recruiter nodded and wrote something on a piece of paper. "That's it," she said. It seemed as though she might stand up and walk away but she paused. "Are you afraid of dying?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," I answered.
"This job will be like dying," she said. "But, as you may know, you were dead billions of years before you were alive. If you return, then you will receive payment of five hundred thousand dollars, a lump sum, for your participation." She stared at me as if to catch my reaction. My expression did not change. My parents could have told her that I don't react strongly to anything. "Yes or no?" she prodded.
I stared at her blankly. "I have to go back to work."
"You will move to Houston, Texas. You will live in barracks located just outside the Johnson Space Center. You will be there for three days." She leaned in closer. "And you will leave immediately."
I looked back at her with the same blank stare. For some reason, I knew she was right. I was going to go with her. I wanted to go with her. "What about my parents?" I asked.
"What about them?"
"I can't just leave them."
"Why not?" She looked down at the folder. "You're eighteen years old."
"I have to tell them something."
"Tell them whatever you want."
"I can't just walk off," I argued. "My shift doesn't end for another four hours."
"Your manager has been compensated."
"What does that mean?"
"The car is out front. You will know it when you see it." The recruiter placed the papers, wires, and electrodes in the bag at her feet. "I will see you there in ten minutes."
"What if I don't go?"
"You will," the recruiter said.
She stood up and walked out of the break room without another word.
Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the back seat of a black Cadillac. The car's interior smelled like a stick of deodorant. The recruiter let down her hair and offered me an unlabeled plastic bottle of water.
"May I call you Frog?" she asked.
"Frog?" I took a sip. "Why Frog?"
"For the next three days, you will be referred to by a pseudonym."
She nodded. "Everyone you meet will use the name, even me. Our team can't know your identity."
"It's for your protection." And then she said it. The next sentence rolled off her lips as if it were the most natural words ever spoken. Except that they weren't natural at all. "Knowing too much about the personal life of a time traveler is too tempting, even for a government employee." She took a sip of water. In a single sentence, the recruiter had completely baffled me. I was silent again. In many ways, it was the car itself that convinced me not to run away at the first stoplight. From the leather seats to the tinted windows, it was the fanciest car I had ever traveled in. The car drove to a private runway and into the back of a large military plane which the recruiter noted was a C-17 Globemaster III.
As I got out of the car and was escorted to a seat on the plane, the recruiter asked me if I was okay. It was the first normal thing said to me in an hour. Was I okay?
I said yes. I was okay.
I decided not to tell her that I had never been in a plane before.
Within eight hours of meeting the recruiter in the break room, I was in Houston, Texas, having a late dinner with a man who was introduced to me as my trainer. I had never had a trainer before. He wore a new suit and a poorly masked look of awe behind red-framed eyeglasses. He gazed at me like I was eight-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, and 2004 World Series champion Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox. No one had ever looked at me that way. He offered me dinner. The two of us ate cheeseburgers and french fries. I had a Cherry Coke. He drank ice water.
After patting his lips with a napkin, the trainer asked me what I knew about the origins of humanity. I admitted that I knew nothing. He adjusted his red eyeglasses and leaned closer. "You see, Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam lived over 200,000 years ago in East Africa." He paused to allow me an uninterrupted sip of my Cherry Coke. "Time travel, as we understand it, involves an exploitation of a genetic commonality." And then he let me have it. The trainer explained, in as simple terms as he could, that I was going to spread across history like peanut butter over a piece of bread. "For a moment," he said, "you will exist in all of time, a part of all people, while never grasping the whole. For example, you will exist as the left eye, the kidney, the tongue, the spleen, and the right foot. You will understand the life and concerns of many people as you travel back and forth."
"Back and forth where?" I asked.
"Through the branches of our ancestry," he said. "We are going to awaken in the hallways of genetic memory. You will travel through time. Yet when you return, no time will have passed. Or at most it will be a moment. A few seconds." He stared at me.
I took a sip of soda. "Do you know that a moment is a medieval unit of time equal to 1/40 of an hour?" I asked. "That's ninety seconds."
The trainer smiled. He nodded. "I am very glad you are here, Frog." He snapped his fingers and we were presented with two pieces of apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
That night I slept in a room with a small bed, a single window, and a dresser. Surprisingly, the drawers were filled with clothing that was my size. The boxer shorts were medium size, and the pants were a size 28. The shirts were mediums too. There was even a pair of brand new white sneakers size 9 and six pairs of medium tube socks. It was like they consulted my mother.
At breakfast, my trainer, now dressed in a white lab coat like a television scientist, explained that the majority of his work on time travel originated from a single person, a stranger, who communicated with them in a variety of ways much too complicated to explain over breakfast.
"Will I be meeting this person?" I asked through a mouthful of cinnamon swirl toast. For some reason, I can speak more freely to strangers than I can with people I know. This man was a stranger. He also seemed nervous to speak to me. That is saying a lot since emotions are generally a mystery to me.
"Well," the trainer started but paused. "I'm sorry." He adjusted his red-framed glasses. "I don't want to confuse you more than I already have." He shifted his chair. "I believe that the person I've been communicating with-" He paused again. He seemed lost. I took a sip of orange juice. "My contact offered proof, you see, in the form of a genetic sequence." He looked flushed. "To someone very close to you."
"To you." His eyes grew large behind the glasses. "You are my contact."
"No, I'm not," I said. "I don't know you."
"It's a future version of you. Do you understand? This is why we know that we are going to be successful." I didn't say anything. The trainer allowed a few moments of silence to pass between us before changing the subject. "When you travel in time, you'll become overwhelmed. This is natural. You see, the longer you travel the more you'll lose your grip on the here and now. You will travel back and forth through the many genetic branches that extend from our Mitochondrial Eve." He adjusted his glasses. "For the rest of the morning, I am going to teach you techniques for staying in control, okay? You need to understand that we can pull you out of it. You are never truly lost. We monitor your heartbeat waveforms, brain waves, and body temperature. You will lose yourself in the infinity of it all, but we can bring you back." He paused. He snapped his fingers. "Just like that," he said. "Later today we will conduct the experiment. Afterward we will do some physical and mental testing on you. Then you are free to go home."
After lunch, I traveled in time.
I thought the experience of time travel might be different, like in the movies with lightning and smoke, but it was pretty simple. I was placed in a reclined chair in the center of a brightly lit room. A series of electrodes were placed all over my body. My trainer stood nearby. Through a glass window I could see several onlookers, including the recruiter. I felt a slight buzzing in my ear or maybe my head.
And suddenly I was gone. I was no longer myself.
Just as the trainer described, I maintained the thoughts in my mind but somehow my understanding of things spread out like I was a wave. My family, teachers, pets, everyone and everything back in New Hampshire became small while I remained the same size. Because they grew smaller, things were somehow easier to understand, like all the complexities of the world were plotted like baseball statistics on a single piece of paper.
My fingers flicked cigarette ash off a bridge into the Neva River in St. Petersburg while my tongue tasted a beer sweetened with brandy as I rode aboard a ship bound for Barbados. Meanwhile my knees rested on a prayer rug in Marrakesh while the cool breezes of an Andes mountaintop touched my face. Physically I was in a million places at once and yet I could perceive those places as crisply as when I was in the parking lot with the shopping carts.
But then I lost control.
I tried to regain my balance, repeating the numeric mantra my trainer taught me: one hundred and seventeen billion, nine hundred and twenty-three million, two hundred and thirty-four thousand, three hundred and forty-four.
I repeated the number over and over again.
I remembered the taste of Cherry Coke.
I remembered the plane that brought me to Texas was a C-17 Globemaster III.
I remembered the Crusher.
Suddenly everything was still.
A young Mbuti girl rested in a dark hut. In the forest, there was an animal, a giant forest hog that she feared. Her mother patted her cheek in the dark. I was her cheek. I was her mother's hand.
It wasn't like I was peanut butter spread across a piece of bread. My bones and blood were staining the inside of the Crusher. My arms were bending and breaking, my legs stretching into new forms. I wasn't a person. I was one hundred and seventeen billion, nine hundred and twenty-three million, two hundred and thirty-four thousand, three hundred and forty-four people, the offspring of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam. I was zipping, turning, flexing, squishing, and, sometimes for only a fraction of a second, I froze in place as if captured by a flash bulb. I was the details.
Then I heard the bells.
Like a curious fish, the bells swam hesitantly through the ocean of infinity, approaching me as I was crushed. We, the bells and I, were Edmund Hillary marching through the snow. We were the tongues of a thousand men tasting the sea as they charged the Normandy shores. We were a belly giving birth in a tent in the Arabian Desert and a hand thrusting a knife between the ribs of a king.
I loved the sound of the bells. She surrounded me, filling me with a sense of belonging.
I opened my eyes and looked into the face of my trainer. He was gasping. He looked crazed. "Frog?" he cried. "Frog, can you hear me?" He was yelling. "Frog, please say something. Frog? Frog?"
I smiled. My trainer nearly collapsed.
Several feet away, people hugged each other. They patted my trainer on the shoulder. The recruiter appeared at my side. She smiled.
"You've done it," she said. "You're a time traveler."
"How long was I gone?" I asked.
"He's speaking," the trainer shouted. "Give him room. Don't crowd him." He adjusted his red-rimmed glasses and leaned over me. "Two and half seconds to be precise," he reported breathlessly.
"Less than a moment," I said. "There was someone else."
The trainer fell silent. "Of course there was, my boy. There were many, many people."
"No," I said. "I heard the bells again." I looked at the recruiter. "I heard them in the break room too."
"Bells?" echoed the trainer. "You've done it, boy. You get to go home."
"What's a few more seconds?" I asked.
"Send me back."
The trainer looked at me with confusion. "We've collected enough data to study for the rest of our lives," he said smiling uneasily. "You will get your money."
"I don't care about the money." I looked straight at the trainer. "I am Frog," I said. "Do what I say."
The trainer stumbled backward at my words. The smile fell from his face. "Are you sure?"
I nodded. "Yes."
The trainer looked around. He nodded. "We give him another moment."
The room fell silent.
"But doctor, we only have clearance for the single experiment," said one of the others. "This could shut us down."
"Damn the experiment," the trainer said. "We won't record anything from this point. Everyone shut down the cameras. Shut everything down. I don't want so much as a pen on paper for the next few seconds." He paused. "This is Frog. We are not just making history here. He is the very foundation of history."
I leaned back in the chair and shut my eyes. I listened to several more arguments but whatever I said, or the tone I used, convinced the trainer that I deserved to go back. It was my first time commanding anyone to do anything. I felt powerful.
"Are you ready, Frog?" the trainer whispered.
"Yes," I said.
It felt like every particle in my body shot in a different direction, and immediately I heard the bells again. She came to me instantly. Her ringing was all around me. They enveloped me. I could feel that she wasn't a force or even a sound. The bells were a person, just like me.
And suddenly everything was still. Perhaps it was because it was my second time. Perhaps it was the bells guiding me. Nevertheless, I was in control. The bells danced with me, playing hide and seek. I followed. We were the left and right foot of a dancer in the Russian Ballet. We danced before the Czar as Rasputin whispered in his ear. I followed the bells, twisting around her, settling into the right hand of a boy in a one-room schoolhouse. We controlled his hand as he wrote out a single word.
He wrote: Frog.
Together we pushed forward in time, following the boy as he became a man. I pushed him to write the word over and over again. Frog, frog, frog.
I listened deeply to the bells. It was a sequence, a pattern that repeated. Over and over again she sang to me. Her genetic code rang in my ears and I understood it as such. She encouraged me to sing in the same way to the man who was writing Frog. I sang my own sequence to him over and over again until he learned a way to capture it. He recorded it with a machine that vibrated at the same frequency as my song.
I am Frog, I sang to the man. Frog, frog, frog.
Moments ago my tongue tasted the wine of the wedding toast of Charlemagne while my feet walked the trail of tears with the tribes of the Choctaw Indians. Meanwhile my hands held her hands, the bells, who in turn were the hands of another child, spinning in the shadow of the Pharos of Alexandria.
But I want more.
I want to see the woman who embodies the bells. I want to hold her. Who is she? Is she from the future or the past? What does she think of me? Does she know that I care for her? In a way, I am still the teenager in the parking lot collecting carts, but somehow I survived the Crusher.
I remind myself of the numbers: one hundred and seventeen billion, nine hundred and twenty-three million, two hundred and thirty-four thousand, three hundred and forty-four. I go forward and backward through time. I swing through the branches of humanity. I lose myself, passing mother after mother, generation by generation, back until all lines converge on one person. I follow the bells to their source, sitting in a field, dressed in blades of grass. She shields her eyes from the sun, and I can feel the warmth of her face painted in ash. I am her hand tattooed with rings. I am her thigh dusted with red clay.
I cannot go back. They can't make me.
I release my grip. I stop repeating the mantra. I will die in the reclining chair as the buzzing in my ears fades to nothing. I see it play out as the scientists slap my face and jolt my chest with paddles. The recruiter screams. My trainer removes his red-framed glasses from his face and nods knowingly. I see it all. I am the eyes. I am the hands. I am the Crusher, so that we, Frog and Bells, can ring together, one hundred and seventeen billion, nine hundred and twenty-three million, two hundred and thirty-four thousand, three hundred and forty-four songs, forever and ever.
If only for a moment.
Copyright © 2016 by John Herman