Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Excerpt from "Princess and Frog"

At the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I saw an aquarium containing bright blue and black frogs, and bright yellow and black frogs, and I thought they were beautiful. I read the placard explaining what they were and stating that they were poisonous. A lightbulb went off in my head: what if the Frog Prince was a poisonous frog?

In the gardens behind the palace, the Princess Beatrice chased after her crystal ball, which sometimes had a life of its own. It swiftly rolled along the paving stones and curved away from the path to fall into a small hole in the sunflower patch. The Princess knelt before this hole with impeccable grace, for she never discarded her charm and poise, even when nobody was present to witness it. Perfectly confident that she could grasp the crystal ball now, she reached her hand into the aperture, but she could not feel the crystal. No, she thought, she would not give up her favorite possession to some badger or rat. She had far more use for it than had whatever nasty animal resided inside that hole. Biting back impatience, she pushed her ruffled, beribboned sleeve up and in spite of herself reached further into what she preferred to think of as a rabbit hole, not a snake hole. She hoped no gardener would appear and witness her doing something so undignified.

As the Princess reached deeper into the hole and wrinkled her nose at the grainy texture of dirt, her large blue eyes espied the most beautiful frog she had ever seen. It perched on the rim of the little cavity in the ground. The frog was three inches long and bright blue with black splotches. It had shiny, smooth skin, as though it had been made of china, and at first the Princess was not sure whether it was alive or sculpted of porcelain, until the frog turned its head to look back at her with round black eyes. It then, to her utter amazement, stood up on its hind legs and bowed to her.

“Good morrow, fair Princess,” the Frog said. Beatrice opened her mouth to speak, but then she closed it again, stood up, and stepped back. Without taking her eyes off the frog, the Princess tried not to wrinkle her nose, while she brushed off the dirt that clung to her bare arm. She did not know what to think of this, until she remembered the evil enchantress whom, she heard, lived in the next county. The Princess had never met this or any other enchantress, but she was perfectly willing to believe that she was evil, since all the courtiers said so. Perhaps this talking frog was one of the Enchantress’s experiments.

“How do you do,” Beatrice said with a nod to the frog. “I am the Princess Beatrice, the heiress to this fine kingdom.” She rolled her long sleeve back down as she spoke, till a ruffle of lace fell over her pale hand.

“And I am--,” the frog said, “Ah, let me say that your Highness may call me Luccio.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Luccio,” Beatrice said, and she could not but smile. “And may I say, I have never before met a talking frog.”

“Your Highness, I am a rare and, if I may say so, magnificent species of frog. I am vastly more intelligent than other frogs.”

“If you are so vastly intelligent, perhaps you can think up a way to return my crystal ball. The provoking toy has rolled into this rabbit hole.”

“I shall be happy to serve your Highness! But, if I so dare, I must first ask a favor of your Highness.” Beatrice frowned. As a whim, she decided to humor the strange creature.

“Very well then, your Swampiness,” the Princess said.

“I ask that you allow me to live as your companion in the royal palace.”

“You, a frog, wish to live in the palace?” Beatrice stared. The frog’s wish to live in civilization, she realized, was less astonishing than his ability to speak like a courtier.

“Yes, I wish to dine at your china plate, to warm myself by your cozy hearth, and to rest on your silk pillow.”

“Actually, the royal dishes are gold, not china.”

“Indeed?” Luccio said. “In my—oh, no matter. I wish to dine at your Highness’s golden plate, to warm myself by your cozy hearth, and to rest on your silk pillow. If you promise me this, and your companionship, I shall recover your Highness’s crystal ball.” The princess sighed. Her dear mother had given her that crystal ball when Beatrice was almost too young to speak, and she had begun using the crystal for divination before she could read. She could not sacrifice it for pride.

“Yes, I promise that you will accompany me to the palace, and that you will dine on my golden plate and warm yourself at my cozy hearth.”

“And rest on your Highness’s silk pillow?”

Beatrice rolled her eyes to the bright blue sky and said, “And rest on my silk pillow.”

“I thank you, gracious Princess!” the frog said with another deep bow. He then jumped into the aperture. Beatrice could not see anything in the deep recess, but she heard the scrambling of little webbed feet against the dirt walls. The crystal ball rose from the aperture, and the Princess reached for it and grabbed it, before the frog emerged and plopped down on the ground.

“Oh, thank you so much, Luccio!” Beatrice exclaimed, as she hugged the ball as though it were a lap dog. “You do not know how much this means to me.” She slipped the crystal into a magenta brocade drawstring bag that hung from her velvet belt. The frog emitted a self-satisfied croak as he bowed once more.

“And now,” Beatrice said, “I supposed you want me to pick you up and carry you into the palace.” The frog, to her further astonishment, hopped backward one pace.

“Please, I beseech thee!” He said. “Do not touch me, for I am a slimy and disgusting frog!”

“Such nonsense!” Beatrice said, gazing at the bright blue and black frog. “You are such a lovely creature.”

“Your beauty, Princess, if I dare say, far outshines mine. But come, if you carry me in your pouch, I should not dirty you.”

“Very well then, your Swampiness,” Beatrice said with a graceful curtsy and an arch smile. She untied the drawstring bag and, kneeling, she held it open before the frog, which jumped in.


Catarina the Enchantress, curious to know how the Prince fared lately, sat down to her crystal ball and concentrated. She visualized Prince Luccio: tall, fair, golden-haired and green-eyed. She remembered his arrogant grin and his strutting walk, his excess of jewelry and his extremely short brocade doublet. She remembered how he looked, with a cruel twist to his lips, as he stood over her dying sister, who carried his child in her womb and whom he had killed. The Enchantress gazed into the crystal, and she could see the Frog Prince with the Princess, before the image disappeared in grey mist.

Catarina had punished Luccio by turning him into the most beautiful frog in the world, and indeed he must be that. It seemed a fitting punishment for his abuse of women when he was a man, and for his complete lack of compassion and shocking amount of cruelty. He had a slimy frog’s soul, and now he had a frog’s body, and would hopefully remain in that form. The Enchantress was not in the habit of using her magic to hurt others, but in this situation, she had convinced herself that she was not hurting anyone: quite the contrary, she was preventing the Prince from hurting more young women, as he had hurt her sister. Catarina had desperately wanted to stop this monster, one way or another, no matter what the means. Seeing him with the Princess, she did not think he could harm her in his present form.

The crystal’s image transformed from mist to a dinner scene. Catarina saw a tall table covered with a bounty of food and wine and with enormous gold candelabrum. On either sides of the table sat guests, but instead of talking and laughing, they all stared at the Princess, who shared her plate with a little blue and black frog. Rather, the Princess sat back and pouted, while the frog ate heartily of her cake. The frog stopped eating for a moment, as though he suddenly realized that all eyes rested upon him. He shrugged his narrow blue shoulders and said, “It is almost as good as flies.” The guests gasped and murmured, and the Princess’s cheeks turned a becoming pink.

The Enchantress sighed and turned away from the crystal. She walked to a tall, slender window and pressed her face against the cold glass. Below her stretched millions of trees on a mountainous countryside. Usually this view made her happy, but now she felt mostly dread. The Prince had remained a frog for four years now, but Catarina liked to check up on him, as she would study the progress of any experiment. She did not approve of this latest turn of events, and she dreaded what would happen to this foolish princess if she catered to the Frog Prince.

Catarina loved the castle she had inherited from her predecessor the elderly Enchantress, who had trained her to be what she was today. She did not even mind the leaky ceiling and the drafty corridors. This castle represented freedom: although she missed the old Enchantress, Catarina enjoyed her solitude alone with her cats and potions and thoughts, alone and free from the sort of abuse that her sister had encountered in the world of cruel men. Traveling strangers and visiting family members wondered at how she could survive on her own like this, and they even offered to find her a husband, a notion she found repellent. No, here in this castle, she was herself, and neither her individuality nor her personal safety was at risk.

Catarina and her twin sister had grown up with their parents, in their humble cottage, rather than in a damp old castle. Catarina had a gift for sorcery that, as she grew up, she dabbled in as best she could without an instructor. Her sister showed no inclination toward sorcery; she wanted to please a man and hoped to marry a wealthy one.

When Catarina’s sister met the Prince in the woods, he charmed her, and like so many other women, she gave him her heart, among other things, to her detriment. The Enchantress closed her eyes and remembered the day that her sister broke the royal seal on a letter and, upon reading a few lines of this letter, exclaimed over it. Catarina, who was not yet the Enchantress, looked over her sister’s shoulder and read:

My Darling One,
You are sweeter and more noble and beautiful than any
princess or duchess I have met. I wish to spurn convention and
spend the rest of my life by your side, regardless of what the court thinks.
Pray do not show this note to your parents. Meet me at the
spring, under the great weeping willow, and I shall elope with you
at midnight tonight.
Ever yours,
Prince Luccio

“Is this not the most wonderful news!” her sister exclaimed, turning her glowing eyes to Catarina, who reread the missive twice.

“Certainly, if the Prince really means to marry you,” Catarina replied.

“Oh, of course he means to marry me! Why else would he send me such a letter! Please, please, do not tell Mama or Papa when they return. They won’t know until they wake tomorrow morning and cannot find me, and by then they cannot stop me!” Catarina sighed and closed her eyes, wondering how to act. She did not want to betray her sister, and yet she sensed something sinister about this situation between her sister and the charming prince.

“If you do not want them to know, you had better hide that letter,” Catarina said. “They should be returning from the market any minute now.”

When Catarina woke the next morning, she rolled over and saw that her sister’s bed was indeed empty. When her parents asked, she trembled, but she informed them of the elopement, as calmly as she could, while she set the breakfast table. Her father was pleased that his daughter, a country girl, had captured a prince, but her mother was not as happy. “Suppose,” she murmured repeatedly. “Just suppose.”

Catarina stepped outside for a walk after breakfast. She headed for the weeping willow at the brook, but upon recognizing the Prince standing under the tree, she quickly hid behind an ancient elm. He had an evil and triumphant gleam in his eyes, as he cast one look downward, toward the ground. He then swung up onto his black steed and rode off without seeing Catarina, who trembled and felt her heart pounding fast. She was vastly relieved that the prince had not espied her, but she had a conviction that he had done her sister harm. Her heart continued to pound too fast as she waited behind the tree a few minutes longer, feeling tears well in her eyes and a lump in her throat. She was afraid to see what the Prince had stood over before he mounted his horse.

Emerging from behind the elm, Catarina approached the weeping willow and found her sister lying beneath the tree, on the bank. She was somewhat wet, as though she had been in the water. Catarina tentatively touched her sister’s arm, which was not only wet but also cold. Her skirts were hitched up around her thighs, and her face was bruised. She no longer breathed.

Catarina’s throat ached, but she emitted a long and wordless shriek.

Within the year, Catarina’s parents both died of grief, and she moved into the castle with the old and wise Enchantress, who gave her a thorough education in the magical arts.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Excerpt from "Institute of the Dead"

The following is an excerpt from my short fantasy story "Institute of the Dead," which is one in a series of dark fantasy stories I began in the mid 1990s. It was published by Aphelion Webzine in 2005. These stories (a major unfinished project, I must admit) are set in an alternate reality version of 1820s England, and the main characters--Margot, her brother Roland, and her cousin Vincent--have strong psychic powers and are what you might call nineteenth-century ghost busters.

Margot opened the door at the end of the dark hallway, and the door creaked while she peeked in.

“—A temporal state between one life and the next, not really a part of either,” a schoolmaster was saying when she opened the door. Through the cracked-open door, Margot could see that this instructor was a gray, translucent man in garb from the 1790’s but oddly covered with a great length of chain draped from his shoulders. Margot opened the door slightly wider and crossed the threshold. The moment she entered this room, freezing cold overwhelmed her. The instructor turned to her and said, “Come in! Find yourself a seat. You have not missed much.” Margot drifted into the first empty seat she found, in the back row. She thought that if her body were actually here, she would see her breath create a mist.

The other students around her distracted Margot, so that she could scarcely listen to the lecture. To her left glowed a circle of light. To her right was a completely white woman; that is, completely white except for the bright dripping red that circled her throat; Margot judged by her curly powdered wig and tailored gown with wide lapels, that she must surely be from the French Revolution. Directly ahead of her Margot saw straight through a head because of the enormous hole in it, presumably from a bullet. The classroom was full of the strangest beings she had ever seen: a man with an axe stuck in the top of his head, a headless body with a carved pumpkin on its desk, a tall skeleton in a black evening suit, a woman with no hands, a man with disembodied hands grasping his neck, as if they had been cut off while attacking him. But a few of the ghosts resembled living people, as Margot supposed she did. She glanced down at her hands on her desktop to be sure, and she could not see through her hands, which were their customary pale flesh color. One of these ghosts wore Elizabethan garb, and when he saw her, he suddenly glowed bright green, but that only lasted for a few seconds before he lost interest and turned back to the schoolmaster.

“It is too late for me to warn you of the dangers of selfishness or foolishness or heartlessness during your life,” the ghostly instructor said while Margot finished looking around the room and at last settled her eyes on him. “You may even now be doing penance for having a stronger fondness for gold than for other souls.”