The frog who was a prince
My father was a king. My mother was a witch. That’s how I came to be a frog. My mother loved me. Never doubt that my mother loved me. There was no malice in her heart when she enchanted me. It was love that made me a frog.
My father’s kingdom lay in the heart of modern Herzoslovakia. His capital city, and this I know for certain, was located where the city of Slotvik stands now. I do not know when he was king. It must have been in the latter days of the Roman Empire for I recall vividly the visit of a Roman dignitary with his sedan chair and his guards with their shining brass.
It was fine being a prince.
My father’s capital was a little walled city. It seemed large to me then but it wasn’t. The archaeologists have dug up the old walls; it can’t have been more than a town. Most of the old city lies within the Emerald park in downtown Slotvik. The architecture was crude and the sanitation primitive. None of this mattered to me. The eyes of childhood see the world around them as complete; children have no standard to judge the world by other than the world as it is.
As my father’s son, the citizens gave me respect. For a boy the city offered many interesting places to explore. I still remember the sun baked adobe walls, the chickens squawking in the market place, the women carrying their jars of water, and the blacksmith beating iron.
Being a prince, I was given training under arms. My father’s captain taught me swordsmanship. Our troops were foot soldiers but we had a half a dozen horses for the officers. I was taught to ride from before when I can remember. I had my very own horse; father had his own horse, a great stallion. It was magnificent and he looked grand on his great white stallion. I always wanted to ride that horse but I never did.
Our palace, if you can call it that, stood by the south wall. The main tower overlooked a greensward that sloped down to a pool where geese and ducks swam. My mother ruled the palace. She was a witch; there was no doubt of that. I never questioned her being a witch. I suppose I assumed, as children will, that all mothers were witches. She never did any great magics that I can recall, just small ones like healings and divinations. Those and kitchen magic; the rarest spices could not match the spells she put on food. I remember that she was pretty and that she smelled of incense.
I was fourteen, well nigh onto manhood, when the Gepids came.
I hate Gepids.
It was a time of troubles. The barbarians were sacking Europe. We didn’t know this, not really. News was sparse in the hinterlands. Our land had been free of war in my lifetime. There were rumors, however, of bad things happening in the distance. Being a boy, I wanted war. I dreamed of great deeds and glory in battle.
I learned the truth of war when the Gepids came. There were too many of them. I had never known how small our kingdom was until they came. People came streaming in, refugees from villages that had been sacked. There was no room for them all. They slept on the ground. The children cried and the women had blank, sad faces. The food was running out. There was no sanitation and the smell was terrible. My father took his army out, fought a battle, lost half his men, and came back. He was very bleak when he came back. I had wanted to go with him but he wouldn’t let me. I said that I was old enough to fight. He said that I must stay and be king if he fell in battle.
The day came when the Gepids were at the gates. We stood on the city walls and looked out upon their laughing faces and knew our fate. One of their men who knew Latin came forward and said that all would be well if we would surrender and open the gate. He lied; we knew that he lied and they knew that we knew that he lied. We didn’t even answer.
My mother took me up into the high tower. “My son,” she said to me, “this is the end. The Gepids are too strong for us. They will slay your father in battle and will hang me for a witch. I have foreseen it. You may live but you must change and abide for another day.” With this she raised her hand and uttered a spell in blazing words. I felt myself change and I tried to cry out but all that came out was a croak. I knew then that I was a frog.
My mother told me, “You must go to the pool. It is an enchanted pool and you will be safe there.” She placed me in a basket, tied a rope to it, and lowered it out a window to the greensward below. When it touched the ground she called out to me:
Hop, little frog, hop! Hop, hop, hop! Hop for your life, the Gepids are coming!
I hopped for my life. When I was half way down to the pool two Gepids on ponies galloped by. I froze and one of the hooves missed me by no more than a foot. They didn’t see me. They were there to kill people, not frogs.
When they passed I made my way to the pool, found a log, and sat on it to watch. I didn’t fear the birds. This was my pool; the spell was upon me and I was king here.
For three days and three nights I sat upon my log and watched. The eyes of frogs were never made for watching the affairs of men but I was yet new to being a frog and I watched with a prince’s eyes. On the fourth day the city fell. I watched as my mother was hung for a witch and I shed one tear. In all the years of history no frog has ever shed a tear, no frog has ever cried for another save then. There is no jewel half so rare and precious as that single tear.
I do not know what happened to the city after that. Frogs were never made to follow the affairs of men. I suppose the Gepids killed the men, raped the women, took what loot there was to be found, and moved on. Such was their way. I think my mother cursed them. The histories say that the Gepids disappeared and that nothing is known of what became of them.
I spent my time learning to be a frog. I was not born to it, you see. It really is fine being a frog, once you are a frog. I dined upon the best flies and I mated when mating time came. I was vaguely aware that other frogs died and that I did not. It was the spell, of course. I wasn’t an ordinary frog, I was an enchanted frog who was biding his time until he became a prince again. It didn’t matter to me; immortality is wasted on frogs; they simply don’t care.
Fifteen hundred years, more or less, went by. People came, built a village, deserted it and let it fall in ruins. I didn’t notice. In time new peoples came and built a town. The Turks came and built a mosque. In time they left. I never noticed. These things are not important to a frog. Storks are important to a frog. Flies are important to a frog. Lily pads are important to a frog. People are nothing. Mating is important to frogs and I was a frog. Fifteen hundred years is a long time. I imagine by now that I am kin to half of the frogs in Europe.
In all that time the pool never changed. There is an old enchantment on that pool. I think it was there before my mother’s time. In the city of Slotvik the pool is called the Emerald pool and it is the centerpiece of the Emerald park. They think that they dug the pool when they constructed the park. They don’t even realize that it always was there.
One day a young girl came by, playing with a golden ball. It wasn’t a real golden ball. Don’t be silly. A real ball made out of gold would be much to heavy for a girl to play with. This ball was made out of hollow glass with a filagree of gilded metal around it to protect it from breaking. It was very pretty; it shone and glittered in the sun.
She skipped and she ran and she tossed it in the air, catching it. As she passed the pool she missed her step and the ball went flying into the pool. She stood there, crying for her lost ball, and said “Oh, how I wish someone would find my ball for me.”
Stop right there. Frogs don’t talk. You know that. I knew that and I was quite surprised at myself. I realized what was happening. I was under the geas of the spell. My actions and hers were scripted. I didn’t know what the script was (frogs don’t read fairy tales, you know) but I knew that everything that was about to happen was part of the spell.
I spoke, “I will rescue your ball for you but you must pay my price.”
She looked confused, “Who are you? Where are you?”
“Here, on the lily pad.”
She looked at me. “But you’re a frog. Frogs can’t talk.”
Script or no, I began to think she wasn’t too bright. “This one can,” I said, “Look. Do you want your ball or not?”
“What do I have to do?”
That one threw me. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what my “price” was, not that frogs think about such things in the first place. While I was pondering the words popped out of my mouth. “You must have me as your honored guest for dinner and then you must share your bed with at night. Do you promise? Remember that your promise will bind you.”
She stood there undecidedly, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Finally she said, “Are you a boy frog or a girl frog?”
“I’m a boy frog. Why does it matter. I’m a frog, after all.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s terribly proper for a boy to share my bed even if the boy is a frog.”
This was stupid. “That’s my price. Take it or leave it. Do you want your ball or not.”
“Well, yes, but you have to promise not to take advantage of me. Promise?”
This was really stupid. She might have been okay for a girl – I had more or less forgotten what pretty looked like – but she definitely didn’t meet my current standards of attractiveness.
“I promise. Is it a deal?”
“It’s a deal,” she said.
With that I hopped over to where the ball was floating in plain sight. Yes, in plain sight. That was another reason why I didn’t think she was too bright. She could have waded out any time and fetched it for herself.
I had a little problem. How was I going to carry it? Frogs don’t have hands. Finally I got my mouth around it, almost dislocating my jaw in the process. Ball in mouth I hopped over to where she stood and dropped it at her feet.
She picked it up. Naturally it was wet and slimy. She looked sort of disgusted and wiped it off on the hem of her dress. “Thank you ever so much, Mr. Frog,” she said. “Be sure and come to dinner tonight.” With that she ran off.
You may have noticed that she forgot to mention where she lived. I noticed. She didn’t really want to share dinner and bed with a frog. She wasn’t that stupid. Unfortunately for her it didn’t matter. I knew where she lived. It was all part of the script. Her father was a rich merchant who had built a mansion on the exact site of my fathers palace. I didn’t know that he was a merchant – what do frogs know of merchants – but I knew where he lived alright.
That evening I hopped up the greensward to her father’s mansion. I couldn’t ring the doorbell so I shouted in my loudest voice (enchanted frogs have very loud voices) “Please let me in. I am here for my promised dinner.”
Inside I heard her father say, “Strange. Who can that be?” (Enchanted frogs have very good hearing.) I heard the girl say, “It’s nothing but the wind, father. Do sit down and eat your dinner.” He got up, though, and walked to the door, opened it, and looked out. Naturally he didn’t see me at his feet. He closed the door, walked back, sat down, and said, “You must have been right. There was nobody there.”
I wasn’t disappointed. It was all part of the script. I hopped back down the greensward, snared a tasty dragonfly on the way, and settled in for the night. It was that time of the year and I had a busy night ahead of me.
The next evening I hopped back up the greensward to the door of the mansion and said, “Please let me in. I am here for my promised dinner.” Again her father asked, “Who can that be?” and again the girl said, “It’s nothing but the wind, father. Do sit down and eat your dinner.” Again he came to the door, opened it, and looked out. This time, however, I said, “Down here.”
He looked down, shook his head, and said, “Who? What? Where?”
“Down here. The frog.”
This time he saw me. “But you’re a frog. Frogs can’t talk.”
I could see that his daughter got her smarts from his side of the family. “This one can. Your daughter made me a solemn promise and I’m here to collect.”
We were back on script. The man roared, “Giselle, come here.”
Giselle appeared at the door with obvious reluctance. “Young lady, have you been making promises to this frog?”
“Well, yes, sort of.”
“I don’t want to hear ‘sort of’. Answer me, yes or no.”
In a small voice she said, “Yes.”
“Am I to understand that you invited him to dinner?”
“Explain yourself young lady. Why are you inviting frogs to dinner.”
Giselle spoke very fast. “I was by the pool the other day playing with my ball when it fell in the water. The froggy said that he would fetch it for me for if I would invite him to dinner. I said I would and he did. But I’m sure he would much rather have a nice bunch of flies. There’s lot of good flies out on the porch.”
Her father looked very stern. “You promised, didn’t you?”
I spoke up, “That she did, sir. It was a binding promise and you know what that means.”
He looked very thoughtful. “I see,” he said to me. He turned to Giselle. “A promise is a promise. You must keep your word.”
He turned back (down, really) to me and said, “Well, Mr. Frog, I will be pleased and honored to have you as a guest for dinner this evening. Do come in. I hope you will forgive me. I am not in the habit of having frogs as dinner guests and haven’t made any preparations.”
I thought it was tactful of him not to mention that such frogs as had appeared at his dinner table in the past were main courses. I thanked him and hopped in.
Dinner was grim. They brought in a chair and put pillows on it so that I could sit at table height. They served me the same courses as every one else got, every one else being Giselle and her mama and papa. Naturally I couldn’t eat the human food. It wasn’t edible for frogs. Even if it were edible I hadn’t the equipment for manipulating knives and forks. Fortunately there were a few house flies buzzing around the table which I deftly snared with my tongue. My fellow diners quite politely ignored my gustatory technique, although I noticed that mama blanched the first time I snared a fly.
I did my best to hold up my end of the dinner conversation but it was not easy. The spell wouldn’t let me say anything about being a prince. I didn’t know anything about current politics, fashions or culture. We didn’t have any acquaintances in common. My conversational skills were those of a fourteen year boy and were very rusty. They bravely tried to make do with inquiries about life as a frog. I did my best but I didn’t have much to say. Biologists may gossip about the life and times of frogs but frogs don’t.
After dinner papa spoke up. “Now Giselle, I don’t think you’ve been completely forthright with me. You promised something more than dinner, didn’t you?”
Giselle looked shocked. “How did know?”
“I know you,” her father replied. “Come now, Giselle, what was it?”
She stuttered and blushed, “I promised that he could spend the night in bed with me.”
Her father turned to me and said, “Well Mr. Frog, I don’t think it was right of you to ask such a thing nor for Giselle to agree to it. A promise is a promise, though, and you both must keep it.”
My non-existent ears perked up. Something very strange was going on here. What I didn’t know was that her father was far from being stupid and that he had read the fairy tale. He knew exactly what was going on. He also knew that he was in the middle of a script and couldn’t deviate from it. He could, however, work an angle; it was a situation that he could take advantage of.
He went on, “Marie, why don’t you and Giselle and our guest go in the parlor and listen to music. I have a few telephone calls I have to make.” Mama looked a little surprised at this but she acquiesced quietly. The three of us went into the parlor to listen to opera on the Victrola while papa made his phone calls.
Opera was nice. I hadn’t known it but our backwater kingdom had had very little in the way of musical instruments or talent.
After an hour or so, Giselle’s father came in and suggested that it was time for Giselle and I to go to bed. He escorted us to her bedroom and made sure that I had a pillow to sleep upon. I didn’t tell him that this was in no way a fit place for a frog to sleep or that I didn’t expect to sleep. Giselle went off and discretely changed into pajamas which covered her from neck to toe. Her father turned off the light and left us to ourselves.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Frog,” Giselle said to me, “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but this is really pretty yucky.”
“You’re right,” I said. “It’s all very silly but here we are. Why don’t you get some sleep and I’ll try to do the same.”
She drifted off to sleep very quickly. I sat on my pillow and meditated which is a long word for not thinking. Frogs are very good at not thinking. The situation was stupid. I should be in my pool, attending to the lady frogs. Now there was a weird thought. As a frog I had had a long and successful sex life. Once upon a time, though, I had been a human. As a human I was still a virgin. It seemed like a contradiction but it wasn’t. After all, I knew very little about the mating habits of humans. I looked over at Giselle, recalled my promise not to take advantage of her, and chuckled to myself. That had been a promise that was going to be easy to keep. And then, somehow, against my nature, I fell asleep.
When I woke up something was very wrong. My tongue was the wrong shape and in the wrong place. My limbs weren’t attached right. I was bloated and big. My head was buzzing. I opened my eyes and nearly shrieked. I couldn’t see right!
It took a bit for it to dawn on me that I had changed back into a prince. I sat up and realized that I was naked. What was I going to do? I looked up and there was Giselle’s father and six other men. They all looked stern. Giselle’s father had his arms crossed. He growled at me, “So, young man, you have compromised my daughter.”
His voice woke Giselle up. She took one look at me and shrieked. “Father, what is HE doing here?”
Her father said, “Child, didn’t you recognize what was happening? This is your Mr. Frog. He was an enchanted prince and you have broken the spell. Now you two must be married.”
Giselle didn’t look happy about this. “But daddy I’m not compromised. He promised not to take advantage of me and he said the promise was binding. And why can’t he put some clothes on. Princes are supposed to wear nice clothes. They aren’t supposed to turn up in girl’s beds without any clothes on.”
Her father smiled. “Yes dear, I know that you aren’t compromised and you know that and he knows that. These six gentlemen don’t know that. They are witnesses to your shame. Honor demands …”
Giselle broke in. “Pooh! Honor demands nothing. You’re up to something father.”
“You’re too smart for me. You’re right, I’m up to something. You two will have to get married but not just yet. You’re both rather young. Young man, Giselle is right. You should have some clothes on. Come with me and we’ll see about getting you something to wear.”
I was very confused. I followed him numbly to his bedroom where he outfitted me with pajamas and a robe. I didn’t know what pajamas were then but I do now. He gathered his six gentlemen, Marie, Giselle, and I into the parlor for a family conference. He introduced the six men to me; Marie and Giselle obviously knew who they were already.
“And you, young man, we need a name for you. We can’t go on calling you Mr. Frog.”
“My name is Dominus, sir.”
“That won’t do at all. We’ll call you Boris. That’s a good Herzoslovakian name.”
He proceeded to explain the situation to the group. I didn’t understand much of what he was saying at the time – I didn’t have the background. One thing was clear, though. I was to be king and Giselle was to be my queen.
Bruno, my father-in-law to be, was a monarchist as were the other six gentlemen. They were there to witness that I was indeed a real prince. The national pastime of Herzoslovakia is revolution. The monarchists, the democrats, the communists, and the army each take their turn at ruling the country for a few years before they are thrown out. The guerillas in the mountains can never be defeated and there are always guerillas in the mountains.
The democrats had recently come into power. Bruno thought that they might last three or four years before the republic fell again. He felt that it was the monarchy’s turn next. The monarchists, however, had a problem. They had no good pretender. The last surviving scion of the Vladislav dynasty was a homosexual artist dwelling in Paris who had no intention of ever returning to Herzoslovakia. A real legitimate prince of Herzoslovakia was a godsend.
It was fortunate that the republic would last a few years before it collapsed under the combined weight of massive corruption and public fickleness. It would give me some time to grow up and learn the modern ways. Giselle was informed that it was her task to teach me how to be a modern prince. Her indignation at being ordered to marry me had collapsed when she learned that I was a real prince and was going to become king.
As he said it would be, so it was. I was introduced to the public as the new pretender to the throne. The republic lasted four years before the mob sacked parliament and the prime minister fled to Monaco with half of the national treasury. The monarchy was restored. I was crowned and Giselle and I were married in a grand ceremony.
I have been a good king, as good a king as one can be in Herzoslovakia. Giselle and I are happy together. We have a son, a prince for Herzoslovakia. Ours is a storybook tale, one in which everyone is supposed to live happily ever after. I don’t think we will. I do not fear a revolution. My people are happy and I rule them well. No, I fear the Gepids. They are rising again in the North. They do not call themselves Gepids – they call themselves Nazis – but I know them for what they are. They are Gepids.
I hate Gepids.
I foresee a time coming when these new Gepids will sack Europe once more. I can do nothing to stop them – there are too many of them – so I bide my time and make my preparations. I have taken over Bruno’s mansion and made it my palace.
I am my mother’s son and I feel her talent stirring within me. I do no magic but the knowledge and the power are there. When the time comes I will know what to do. Some day soon I will stand on the balcony and lower a basket to the ground and I will shout to a little form on the greensward:
Hop, little frog, hop! Hop, hop, hop! Hop for your life, the Gepids are coming!
Copyright © 1999 by Richard Harter