art by Liz Clarke
by Melissa Mead
The frog basked in the sun. Settled in the soft muck of his pond, he didn't notice the princess until she scooped him up and pressed her hot mouth to his skin.
He kicked out with his strong back legs, and tumbled into the water again. Safe!
But he wasn't. Something was wrong. His body twisted and writhed. At first he thought he was shedding his skin, but the change went deeper. Something stretched and pulled him, warped and reshaped him. This body sitting in the mud wasn't his. It was large and hairy, and far too dry.
The frog blinked at the mammals watching him. He couldn't see properly. The black-and-white world changed. Distances and depths shifted. There were predators all around, maybe even above him, where his vision no longer reached. He couldn't see where to leap. The one who had touched the frog twittered and pointed a hand at him. Its pale skin changed to match the setting sun. The frog tried to burrow into the mud.
More mammals, with what looked like heron beaks at the ends of their arms, surrounded the frog. They grabbed hold of him. He struggled and kicked, but they dug their claws in harder. His legs wouldn't work right, wouldn't fold for a jump. In a frog's last defense, he emptied his bladder. They bellowed, but didn't let go.
The mammals didn't eat him. They wrapped him in some sort of net and carried him away from his pond, to a stone place that smelled of dust. A thin gray man in a sparkling skin pressed his hand down on the frog's head and spoke. The frog's head throbbed. The heron-beak men carried him to a smaller stone place and left him there.
Predators were watching him--the first mammal and another, wrinkled like a toad. The first mammal was pale again. Perhaps it had sipped some of his blood before, and wanted more. The frog held perfectly still while the mammals twittered. The throbbing faded from his head, and words slipped in.
"But he's supposed to be a prince!"
"And perhaps he is among frogs, my lamb. Right now he's just a frightened wild critter." The toad-woman came closer to him. "You poor thing. Not an idea in your head about what's happened to you, I'll wager."
The frog tried to leap away from her. His misshapen body sprawled on the stones. He gathered himself up and crawled into a corner, panting.
"What's the matter with him?"
"He doesn't know how to move in a man's body." The toad-woman shook her head. "You know I love you, child, but this is wrong. You're tormenting the poor creature."
"I didn't mean to." The young one came to look at him. Water leaked from her eyes. The frog wondered if she felt as parched as he did, trapped in this dry skin.
"I'm sorry. I thought it would be like in the stories. I thought you'd be glad to be human, and we'd fall in love… Don't look so frightened, Mr. Frog. I don't want to hurt you. I'll ask Cato Magus to change you back."
"No," said the old woman, shaking her head. "Changing twice so soon would kill him--if he were lucky. Besides, Cato Magus won't want to admit that his experiment turned out less than perfectly."
"But what can we do for him?" The young one sounded distressed. The frog wished he could communicate with her, but air wouldn't stay in his transformed throat. It went down inside and hurt him.
"Can you talk, Mr. Frog? I'm Princess Laura. Do you have a name?"
The frog opened his mouth. The sound that came out wasn't a proper croak, but it was reassuringly loud, and his insides felt better afterward.
"Oh dear," said Princess Laura.
The old woman, chuckling, pulled on a dangling cord. More people came. They brought a round wooden thing, and filled it with water to make an artificial pond. The frog's interest perked up, and when the old woman shooed away all the strangers he crawled over to investigate. The sides were half the mammals' height. Half his size, now. This strange, big body could jump that far, if he could only make it work.
"Wait," said the princess. "Put your hands on the edge. Hands. Here. Now stand. Like this. See?"
The frog pulled away from her touch, climbing, stretching out his hind legs.
"Very good!" said the princess. The frog lurched over the side of the tub and into the water, where he hunkered on the bottom until he had to come up for air. The mammals sat watching him.
They didn't hurt him. When his belly rumbled, speaking more eloquently than he could, they brought him bits of meat and watched him lick them from the plate.
"You really are still a frog inside, aren't you?" said the princess. "I'm sorry, Mr. Frog."
The frog blinked at her, watching the movements of her mouth as intently as he'd watch a flying insect.
"Rrrogg," he said.
Princess Laura looked happy when he spoke. The frog liked to make Laura happy. Laura was gentle, and moved slowly around him. Her laugh sounded like the ripple of water. Her eyes sparkled when she smiled, and she smiled whenever he learned something new, so he learned everything he could. Words. How to drink water through his mouth, not his skin. How to wear extra skins. How to walk on two legs. How to smile back. He couldn't tell if the older woman, whom Laura called Nurse, was happy when he acted like a man or not.
Laura was always supposed to be "Princess Laura," but "princess" was very difficult for a frog to say. The mammals called him Prince Robert. "Rob" wasn't too different from Frog, not too hard to say. He rather liked having a name.
"Ora!" he called when the princess entered his room. "'Lo, Ora! Thwim me? Eyde day."
She laughed, but Robert could see that she was distracted. "No, Robert, I'm not going swimming with you, even if it is a nice day. I need to tell you something serious."
He dropped into a squat at once, all his attention on her. "Tell, Ora."
"Cato Magus says that it's been long enough that he can try changing you back.
Robert caught his breath. He could have his right shape back, sleek and strong. He could return to his pond, and sing in the warm spring evenings. Sing to the females…
The sound he made was neither a frog's croak nor a human's sob. "No."
Laura looked startled, almost afraid. "Why not?"
"No Ora," he said.