Anton giggled as he approached me. Many people would look bizarre doing that without an obvious reason, but it suited him perfectly.
“And now you. A kind guy. A smart guy,” he said. This was another habit of his. He’d talk in a way that made sense only to him.
I shrugged. That’s how I dealt with Anton.
We stood near a small pond. So the others would leave me alone, I volunteered to guard our khaki knapsacks, piled on top of each other in an untidy heap. Behind us, a dense forest whispered its age-old thoughts to a caressing breeze. Across the pond lay the endless green expanse of the mid-Russian countryside, with a few black and white cows dotted here and there. The air smelled a little of the stale pond water and the cow dung from a farm nearby.
Other cadets, about twenty in total, littered the barely visible trail that followed the forest side of the pond. We all wore our field uniforms, dusty from the day’s march. Many had wet patches around their armpits and down their backs from the intense heat. Even though I was born and raised in the deserts of the Soviet Middle East, I hated this pointless heat of the Russian plains. I disliked its dust, its heavy afternoons, and its intense sun that came out to burn the country for a few weeks a year. I much preferred the Moscow winters – so cold, fresh, and invigorating, so exotic for me.
“Since you’re smart, tell me this,” Anton continued, removing his cap to wipe the sweat off his forehead. A patch of sunlight ran through his red hair. He looked at me again, grinned and snapped his fingers, erupting into another fit of giggles. All his moves seemed to happen independently from each other — possibly even without his knowing. “Answer me a theoretical question: what’d you do if you saw a frog lying on a trail in front of you with its guts spilling out? Ha!” he finished, appearing very content with himself.
I realized the solitude I sought was not to be. Knowing Anton, I did not try to send him away. I took a careful look into his pale eyes, knowing that no question Anton ever asked could be trusted. The other day, he tortured me with a theory that since I liked to spend my free time sleeping, I would be reborn as a bear. That memorable conversation started when he shook my shoulder to bring me out of my priceless early afternoon nap and asked, ‘You like sleeping, then?’
“Good question,” I said. “And what’d you do?”
He laughed. “No, no, no, no, my cleverest Misha! You tell me. I asked first.”
I narrowed my eyes, looking toward the perfect yellow sun in the perfect blue sky. “Out of compassion,” I said after some consideration, “I’d kill it.”
“Aha!” In his excitement, Anton danced jerkily in front of me. “I thought so.”
“Right…,” I said, losing interest. I glanced towards the others, hoping to find an excuse to call someone else to join me.
Anton took a bayonet out of the sheath on his belt, jumped up to grab a branch off the birch tree just above our heads, and broke it off. He then cleaned the leaves off it, and handed it to me. “There,” he said.
I looked at the stick, puzzled. “What?”
“Go kill the frog,” he said with a deep satisfaction in his voice. “It’s just over there. I stepped on it a while ago, but it’s still alive.”
“Anton, for fuck’s sake!” I protested.
He patted my shoulder with his transparent red-haired hand. “Come on, come on,” he said.
Oh well, I thought. I’m in the army, trained to kill people. What’s that with killing a frog? I took the stick, glanced around to make sure there was no one who’d be interested in our knapsacks, and followed Anton towards the pond.
The frog lay on the trail, just a step or two from the pond, between two small pools of dirty water. Anton’s boot must have crushed its lower body, for its hind legs were stretched out at unnatural angles. It was trying to crawl into one of the small water pools, and its front legs scrambled the dirt with pointless determination. The frog’s white belly was torn and its intestines were out, spread around its body in neat white and yellow circles. Its eyes were fixed on the pool of water just ahead of it. It made not a single sound.
Anton pointed at the poor creature with the satisfied expression of a magician who’d just pulled off the best trick of the night’s program. “There you are,” he said. “Go ahead, my most compassionate Misha. Kill it.”
Five or six cadets stood not far away, chatting and looking across the pond. We attracted their attention and they strolled towards us, boredom written all over their suntanned faces.
“Ewww,” Dmitri, a small and neat cadet with black-rimmed glasses on his nose, said. He prided himself on never having said a single obscenity, which in our rough environment was quite a feat. “I couldn’t kill it,” Dmitri spat into the grass, and looked at me with some curiosity. “A nice little frog, don’t you think?” he asked.
“Shut up,” I said, as I fought the nausea that came up from deep inside my stomach and now pulsated in my throat. I was a freak for cleanliness. Even on the field march, where each extra gram of ammunition caused rivers of extra sweat and tears, I carried a small flask of water and a piece of antibacterial soap on my belt to wash my hands a few times a day. In our cadet canteen, I picked my way through the primitive food with care. I could not eat fish unless its head had been removed. If such a fish ended up in my plate, I walked out of the canteen hungry. Once I found a baked cockroach in my burger. I could not eat in our canteen for several days after that.
The frog was oblivious to the moral dilemmas. It simply continued to scratch at the dirt with its front legs, staring at the little pool of brown water before it.
I wiped sweat from the back of my neck, and looked at Anton. “Why didn’t you finish it off?” I asked.
“Oh, how fascinating it is to observe your reactions!” he cried out and looked at the dying frog with eyes full of genuine delight. His palms flew up into the hot air like a pair of pink parrots. “Such a case study!”
“Bloody wanker,” I said under my breath, and looked at the stick in my hand. What’s the deal? I wondered. Just smash at the frog. It’s dying anyway.
Just then, I remembered a day, back in my preteen childhood, when my father took me to a small shooting range outside of our town. He gave me a pneumatic rifle and pointed towards the tin cans and moving figures at the end of the range. I shot a couple of bullets and then noticed a large, dark green toad sitting in the corner of the shooting range. Caught in the moment, I aimed my rifle at it and pulled the trigger. The toad flew off its feet and then began to scuffle blindly against one of the dump walls, dying. The image haunted me for weeks after.
Anton touched my elbow. “Come on, come on,” he urged me.
I looked at the frog. It made absolutely no progress towards its target: the little pool of brown water. A large and shiny green fly landed on its intestines and began to gorge on the yellow liquid. I imagined smacking the frog with my stick, and my mind readily presented me with a most disgusting vision of its guts splashing away, its eyes popping out, and its front legs continuing their endless struggle with the dirt. How many times would I have to strike? I looked away.
There was ice in Anton’s eyes. He looked past me and took the stick out of my hand. He hurried away to a group of cadets standing in the distance, to find his next victim.
I returned to the heap of knapsacks in my charge, and I waited to see if anybody would finish off the dying creature.
None of us did. A few minutes later, our sergeant called the end of the stand, and we marched on, leaving the frog to die on its own between the two pools of muddy water.
No one ever spoke of it again.