“Phylum Chordata!” said Harry and splashed into the water. The term had eluded him for days. To celebrate, he swam to the bottom of the pond and back to the top as fast as he could. Climbing onto his favorite lily pad he said in a loud voice, “We are phylum Chordata,” and looked around. No one paid attention. He sighed. What did he expect? They hadn’t been impressed when he’d told them the five steps of the cinquepace dance, or how to string a bow, or the significance of saying ‘checkmate’ when you were about to win a game of chess. They called him toad stupid. Harry had to admit there was cause. Even the smallest froglet knew you dove for cover when shadows passed overhead. In the beginning, Harry had been slow to do so and was nearly scooped up by a great blue heron in search of breakfast.
He was susceptible to losing himself in the beauty of the dark pond with its changing light and buzzing, leaping insects. The iridescent blue of black flies could take his breath away. And more than once he’d been caught staring, quite rudely, at the glass wings and fragile legs of mosquito hawks.
Everything pulsed with life. But as beautiful as it was, danger was everywhere. Many creatures wanted to eat him: birds and foxes, raccoons and skunks, and of course, snakes. And yet, the days were sweet. He sunned on lily pads, sang in the chorus, and hunted for food. It had taken him ages to learn to hunt. Hunger drove improvement. He now knew catching a fly with a leap was a lost cause, no matter how often you gave it a go. By the time you were in the air, the fly was away.
“You stupider than tadpole frog,” Tip-tip told him laughing. She was modest-sized with large dark eyes. “This way,” she said and snapped her tongue like a birthday blower. He’d been surprised by how devilishly tricky it was to manage a tongue attached to the front of one’s mouth. He’d always thought his tongue was farther back.
It was clear to all that Harry was a different sort of frog. He had no memory of the froggy milestones—not the first furious wiggle or the strange feelings of new legs. And there were other things he didn’t remember, like the time the pond nearly went dry, or the black nothingness of winter. It seemed he’d awakened fully formed. And while the community knew him as different, they accepted him as one of their own.
One day a woman visited the pond. She sat still as a rock. When she had proved to be uninterested in eating them, the frogs turned their wariness to other things. Harry stayed under a fern watching her watch them. She was familiar in a way being a tadpole wasn’t. He knew her name was Agnes. He knew she’d come to see him particularly. He hopped closer.
“Hello, Agnes,” he said though it sounded like ribbit.
“Harry? Is that you?”
“Of course, it’s me,” (ribbit).
“It’s time to come home,” she said and scooped him into a crockery jar.
“NO!” he shouted (RIBBIT!) But Agnes either wasn’t listening or didn’t care and his world turned dark as she covered the jar and placed it into her basket. He smelled the musty molds of bread and cheese, a damp hankie, the sharpness of mint. He bumped from side to side as the jar was jostled, hitting his head on the jar until he was senseless.
She put him into a sort of cage. There were mossy rocks, and a small fern, and a little puddle of water for dipping. He could make it from one end to the next in two small hops. There was a dead fly. He looked up through the top of the cage and saw Agnes’ huge blue eyes looking down. He told her to let him go home. She ignored his request. He hopped under the fern and turned away. Where were Tip-tip and the others? Where were the dragonflies skimming the water and the delicate mosquito hunters with their fragile legs? Where were the bright, pulsing insects? Night came. It grew cold. He called to his friends. No one answered. He was more alone than he had ever been. A moth, frenzied with need, bumped against a light. He watched its fluttering wings, the beating of its soft, long-chambered heart. He wanted to be back in the pond as much as the moth wanted the flame.
“This wasn’t your fault,” Agnes said the next morning. Her face was an agony of lines. Harry, weak with hunger, and longing for Tip-tip’s throaty teasing, didn’t bother to answer. “We have a way to make this better.” The smell of dead fly filled his cage.
A younger face replaced hers. The boy reached into the cage and removed the fly.
“Sorry,” he said. “She doesn’t understand,” and then miracle of holy miracles, he let a living, breathing fly loose. Harry caught it with a flick of his tongue. “You’re hungry,” the boy said and ran away. He returned in a short while with a spider, a small garden slug, and another fly. Harry feasted saving the slug for dessert.
“Franklin, we can’t let her see him like this,” Agnes said as Harry ate his dessert.
“He’s a cool frog.”
“He’s not really a frog,” Agnes said, an imperious tone lacing her voice. “This is only a temporary situation.” They disappeared.
When they returned, they brought a girl with long blond hair and large brown eyes. “Princess Belle, we just need you to kiss him,” Agnes said. “It will only take a second and he’ll be back to normal.”
The girl leaned over the glass cage, then backed away. “No, I couldn’t. It’s too awful.” She held a hand over her mouth and gagged.
“He’s not awful,” Franklin said. “He’s the coolest frog ever.”
“I’m not, not really,” Harry said pleased to be thought of so highly by one who was obviously a good hunter. “The others are much better than I. You should see how they duck and dive. And as much as I enjoy catching flies and spiders, they outclass me every time. It’s really a miracle I survived this long,” (ribbit, ribbit.)
The princess shrieked and ran out of the room, her long golden hair streaming behind her. Later that day, Agnes was back with another princess—the kingdom was full of them—and her response was just as emphatic. No, she would not, could not kiss the frog. As any princess worth her salt knew, there were many practical jokes about kissing frogs and she was not going to fall for that one again. Even if Lady Agnes was asking.
Franklin brought Harry insects to catch, changed the water in his puddle of a pond, and spent the afternoons close by doing his Latin homework. The days waxed long. Harry appreciated Franklin’s one-sided conversations. He learned that Lightning, Franklin’s horse, was the fastest horse in the land. Franklin was working on Aunt Agnes to let him race in the steeplechase at the midsummer festival. Everyone who was anyone would be there including most of the royalty of Europe.
On the first day of the festival, Agnes brought one lovely young woman after another to meet Harry. There was Princess Lucia from Spain and Princess Kathleen from Scotland. There were princesses from Belgium and France, from Sicily and Zurich. There were shy princesses and proud princesses; princesses who were scholarly and princesses who liked nothing better than hunting a hare with a hawk. Yet, none of the princesses, regardless of how royal their blood, could be talked into giving Harry a kiss. Franklin, who’d grown terribly fond of Harry, hung about the edges of the room piping up from time to time with the frog’s better qualities. It didn’t help.
As Princess Amelia of Venice stormed out of the room cursing in Italian, Lady Agnes threw herself onto a red velvet chair. “This refusal to kiss Harry must be part of the spell.” She rubbed her temples. “Let’s take a break from princesses and frogs,” and she and Franklin went to watch the jousting on the castle green.
Not long after, a chambermaid came to tidy the rooms. She wasn’t a regular chambermaid. Her name was Grace, although everyone in the kitchen called her Gracie. She’d been forced into service when her stepmother, the witch Passerine, bewitched everyone into forgetting she was a princess. Gracie didn’t miss the fine gowns and parties, or the rich food, or the soft bed. She missed her father’s kindness and her dog Snout. She missed going on wild ramblings through the woods and reading books. She’d been especially fond of geography—she could recite all the capital cities of Europe and had planned to visit them. But alas, Passerine’s spell had made her an invisible outcast. She was no longer Grace the princess but Gracie the maid. Thinking about her stepmother, even in the bright light of Lady Agnes’ rooms, made Gracie shiver. She looked around. Passerine was prone to lurking in corners and showing up when you least expected her to. She was wont to dress in black, the better to hide, and drape herself with dark feathery stoles. But today there was no Passerine hiding behind the curtains and Gracie heaved a sigh.
Her feet were killing her. She’d been working since 4:00 AM getting things ready for the day’s festivities. Gracie sat on one of the red velvet chairs and looked inside the cage on the table. There was a small green frog. He looked sad. She reached into the cage and took him out. He sat on her palm as nice as you could wish. She felt his heart beat. They were both out of their element. Perhaps she could free him. He couldn’t be happy living in a cage by himself when all the world drummed with life.
“You must be lonely,” she said feeling her own loneliness.
“I am,” he said (ribbit.)
She’d heard Franklin, Lady Agnes’ nephew, calling him Harry, which was an odd name for a frog. You’d think he’d have named him Jumper, Warty, or Toadily Tim. Maybe it was in honor of his missing cousin. Prince Harry had slipped away ages ago seeking adventure. His parents were still rather upset about him running off. Yes, perhaps Franklin had named the frog after the prince.
“Ribbit,” the frog said and she smiled.
There were all sorts of stories about princesses and frogs. Growing up she’d been the brunt of numerous tricks. Kiss a frog and get a prince. It was like a carnival game. She looked down at her ragged dress. She wasn’t much of a princess any longer and given Passerine’s spell, was the only one to remember that she was. The frog seemed to give her a sympathetic look.
“I’m not really a chambermaid, although there’s nothing wrong with being a chambermaid,” she said. Gracie’s understanding of the world had transformed since her enchantment. She’d always been unusually kind for a princess, but now she had true empathy for others and a much greater understanding of life’s challenges. “It’s darn hard work earning an honest wage.” Her hands were rough and her knees sore from scrubbing the castle’s floors. “I know you think I look nothing like those girls at the festival in their pretty dresses.” The frog blinked. “It’s not about how someone looks. It’s about who they are on the inside. And on the inside where it counts, I am a princess.” Without thinking, she drew her head up and her shoulder’s back as all true princesses do. Oh dear, she thought, I must be in very bad shape to be having a conversation with a frog.
Harry gave an enthusiastic “Ribbit,” and as if taking him on a dare, Gracie put her lips, soft as rose petals, to the top of his head and kissed him. The frog’s skin was cool.
“No harm in trying,” she said and was about to put the frog back in his cage when he started to shake. There was a ripping sound and a hot sharp pain in Gracie’s hand that made her drop the frog and jump away. A burst of light blinded her and a blast of blue smoke made her cough. “OH!” Gracie yelped. A young man stood before her.
“OH!” the young man yelped in return.
“Oh my,” Gracie said noticing the young man was both handsome and naked.
“Oh my,” the young man said noticing he was naked in front of a very pretty young woman. He grabbed Aunt Agnes’ shawl from the back of the red chair and tied it around his waist.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, I mean I had no idea it would work. The kissing thing I mean. Oh no, are you meant to be a person?”
Harry, who looked as if he’d landed from another world (which was exactly what he’d done) shook his head. “Yes, I am. I mean I was a man, a prince, and then I was changed into a frog and well, just as I was getting used to the whole catch-your-fly-for-supper-and-join-the-ribbit-chorus thing, I was scooped up and taken here, and now I find myself back to being a man. It’s very confusing.”
“I didn’t think it would work. I mean the kiss. I didn’t think the kissing the frog thing was real.”
“One doesn’t, does one? Except in this case, it worked quite nicely.” He paused. “I’m so sorry, where are my manners.” He stretched his leg out in front, bowed deeply, and laughed. “I’d forgotten how it feels to have a waist. And my tongue, it’s quite far back, isn’t it? I say it’s like pulling on an old pair of boots. Familiar but different. Sorry, I truly do want to thank you for your help. I’m Prince Harry of Madderlight.” He bowed again and couldn’t suppress a laugh. “Bendable waist, amazing. And your name, my lady?”
“I am,” Gracie paused. Since Passerine’s spell, she’d not been able to say her real name. “I am Gracie, formerly known in royal circles as…Gracie.” She took a big breath and tried again. “You know, the pri…pri…pri….” She shook her head.
“I am enchanted to meet you, Gracie the pri-pri-pri.”
He didn’t understand. She’d hoped since they’d shared this special bond of enchantment he would. Oh well. “Please, call me Gracie.”
“But you must be a princess to have undone the spell.” Gracie tried to nod but could only manage a tiny smile. “In any case, I am at your service,” he bowed again.
She was conscious of her ragged clothes and dirty apron. Blushing she turned businesslike. “I won’t hold you to it, though it’s very nice of you. Now, let me find you some proper clothes. I can do better than Lady Agnes’ shawl. Be back in a minute,” and Gracie, the chambermaid and former Princess Grace, raced out of the room.
Harry bent over the cage where he’d spent so many lonely days and nights. It was a very small cage but he supposed he’d been a very small frog. He straightened—really the ways he could move were delightful—and peered out the tall, narrow windows. He could see rolling hills to the north, a great knot of forest to the west, and the sparkle of the sea to the east. A river curved sweetly, and there were bright farms dotted with clusters of cottages, and fields combed into straight rows of good things growing. The air smelled of summer, that soft mix of soil, and grain, and flowers.
“Here you go, sir.” Gracie bustled into the room; her arms full of clothing. “The nicest of the shirts and doublets belong to Sir Jonathan. The hose is Sir Mark’s, his legs are long like yours.” She was trying ferociously not to blush. “And the boots are Sir Edward’s. I’m sure none of them will mind. Actually, Sir Johnny will but he’s a stingy bugger and sharing will be good for him.” Harry smiled at her with a warmth she’d not seen from anyone in a long time. Her eyes filled and she briskly faced the wall so he could dress. As Harry fumbled with buttons and laces, she could feel his eyes on her back and stood straighter.
“The Sir Johnny I know has always been a miserable prig,” he said and then gasped. “Waesucks! How could I miss it? Gracie, are you bewitched?”
“Yes,” Gracie said nearly turning around in her excitement. Luckily, she caught a glimpse of Harry pulling on Sir Mark’s hose and turned away. “My stepmother’s a witch, and I don’t mean a good one. She’s malevolent. My poor father’s so tightly wound around her finger he barely has a brain. And me, well, you can see how I am.”
“You can turn around now.” Even dressed in the muddle of mismatched clothing he looked every inch the handsome prince. “What do you think?” he said putting his hands on his hips.
What she thought was that he was beautiful. He had kind blue-gray eyes, and a strong courageous jaw, and a nose that was just the right size and shape. His hair was curly brown and fell on his forehead in a charming, boyish way. Yes, he was gloriously beautiful. She said, “Your doublet’s twisted. Let me fix it,” and blushed so hard, she was surprised her face didn’t catch fire.
“Is your stepmother named Passerine?” Prince Harry twisted his head to look at her as she futzed with Sir Jonathan’s fancy doublet.
“Yes.” She gave the doublet a strong tug settling it in place.
“She turned me into a frog.”
“Oh!” That made sense. Who else would have done such a thing? Gracie knew her situation as a chambermaid wasn’t nearly as bad as being a frog. “What did you do?”
“I refused to bed her.”
“But she’s hardly…”
“My type?” he finished. They grinned. “No, she isn’t,” and he gave her a warm look. The moment was interrupted by heavy boots stomping down the hallway accompanied by a jangle of metal. “We need to get out of here,” the prince said, and touched her arm.
A small electric shock passed from Harry’s fingers to Gracie. It ran up her arm, and across her shoulders, and down her back and fanned along her legs. It was a very nice sort of shock and they both caught their breath. When he spoke, his voice was as soft and kind as if he were bidding her sleep. “I have friends. They will help us.”
On the castle green, the knights jousted. Passerine bet on her favorites. She was winning. Of course, she was winning. She launched tiny spells at key moments to make her chosen knights win. Her husband nodded at the crowds like the idiot he was, handing her coins. He clapped each time she won.
“My clever wife,” he said every five minutes to anyone passing. It was growing annoying and she thought she might change it to my beautiful wife when she felt an odd swish of air. Someone had undone one of her spells. It wasn’t a jousting spell. Her favored knight, Sir Jonathan, was winning and he couldn’t win without her. She rose.
“I’ll be back soon, my love.” Her imbecile husband smiled as if she were everything he’d ever wanted. At the back of his eyes, she could see his pain but didn’t care. She pulled the long feathery cape close and swept out of their box.
Harry sent the stable boys scampering to saddle up two fine horses: a chestnut and a roan. He could still act like a prince even if he no longer felt like one.
“Prince Harry, good noon,” the chestnut horse whose name was Dudley said. “It’s fine to see you again. Where are we going today, sir?”
Harry looked around. Was somebody playing a prank? But no, the horse had spoken and apparently, just to him. Harry whispered his request into Dudley’s fine ear as Gracie stroked the mare’s nose, a roan named Ruby.
“They’ll take us to my friends,” Harry told Gracie. “Ride with light hands. They know the way.”
Together they galloped towards the knotty forest. Gracie was a fine horsewoman with a sure seat. As they rode towards the woods, Dudley told Harry how the stable master was stealing oats and shortening their rations. “Not to complain, sir, but I thought you ought to know.” Ruby had more than a few choice words on Sir Jonathan’s liberal use of the crop and Dudley quite agreed the man had few riding talents. As they got to the long open field, the mare challenged the chestnut to a race. She was younger and smaller but certain she could win.
“Not today, we have other important things to do,” Harry intervened as Dudley considered her offer. “We’ll race soon.”
She nickered that she’d hold him to his word and suggested Gracie be her rider. Dudley proposed a basket of apples for the prize and Harry agreed.
At the pond, the frogs gathered to say hello. “You’re big, Harry,” his froggy friends chirped.
Harry agreed that yes, he was big; and yes, he’d been gone a long time; and yes, he’d brought a friend.
“She wasn’t a frog, not ever,” they chirped.
Harry wondered if frogs across the land would always know him as one of their own. The thought brought a certain warm comfort to his heart. “No, but she’s been cursed by Passerine the witch and we are in need of your help.”
The frogs held a council to discuss the situation. “Harry, you and your friend smell like crow. Not nice.”
“Do you think Passerine is a shape-shifter?” Shape-shifters were illegal. The punishment was to be turned into dust and begone.
“Yes, we say. Bad crow change self to witch.”
“What are they saying?” Gracie said and Harry translated. “She looks a bit like a crow, doesn’t she? All those black dresses and feathery capes.”
Harry’s frog friends did their best to steer clear of crows. However, Harry had been a member in good standing of the frog chorus, and regardless of how tall he’d grown and how long his legs had stretched, he was still one of their own. So yes, they would help him.
A dark cloud passed overhead. The forest turned cold. Shadows swept between the trees as Passerine rode Franklin’s horse Lightening with young Franklin strapped behind her. At the pond she stopped, snapped her fingers, and flung the boy to the boggy ground. All but the oldest of the frogs dove to the bottom of the pond. Birds flew to the highest branches and the forest wobbled into tomb-like stillness.
“I’ve brought you a present,” Passerine said. She pointed her finger at Franklin and turned him into a worm.
“Oh, you wicked, wicked thing,” Gracie shouted. “What has that young man ever done to you?”
“Did someone say something?” Passerine made a show of looking around the clearing. “No, it was nothing.”
“There’s a price for breaking the laws of nature and you’re going to pay. We know what you are.”
The witch’s black eyes stared until Gracie’s teeth chattered. Passerine’s voice was almost gentle. “I’ll turn you into a little bird. It won’t take but a wave of my finger. And you know what little birds like to do?” She leaned closer. “Eat worms. You won’t be able to help yourself. Oh, won’t that be fun to eat a little worm named Franklin?”
“That’s enough,” Harry said.
“I’m just getting started.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to be amused. Amuse me.”
“Turn Franklin back and take your curse off Gracie and I’ll do whatever you want.”
“You’re so predictable,” she said and sighed. “Where’s the fun in that?” She stepped closer and stared into his eyes.
At that moment, the old frog, who everyone called Grand Frog, raised his voice in a song that cut through the tomb-like stillness. Passerine paused. The song shimmered against the afternoon’s light and the other frogs swam to the surface to join him. Birds fluttered to lower branches and fox, deer, squirrels and rabbits drew close to add their voices until the entire forest was singing.
“Oh, stop,” Passerine said, rolling her eyes and twitching her shoulders. “There’s no defeating me.” She walked in a big circle, making the feathered cloak swirl over the fox’s ears. “I’ll curse you all! You’re weaklings in the face of my power. Go away.”
But the trees had bent to listen and were passing the Grand Frog’s song to the wind, and the wind was carrying it far across the sky to whisper in the ear of the Great Mother of All. As the Grand Frog’s song came to a close, the Great Mother leaned close to the small pond in the middle of the knotty woods. Her eyes turned sad as they found Passerine.
“NO!” Passerine screamed. She snapped her fingers at the Great Mother to turn Her into a toad.
“We’ve spoken of this,” the Great One said gently and, with a whoosh and a thump, turned Passerine into an ordinary crow. The crow cawed in fury before withering into a pile of yellow dust.
Franklin, who had been wiggling his way into the soil like any self-respecting earthworm, sprang back to his normal boy-self with a happy “Hurrah!”
The Great Mother smiled. The forest relaxed. The birds and the beasts, the frogs and the fish, the snakes and the insects, the prince, the princess, and young Franklin all felt Her grace. It was a feeling of perfect freedom. Freedom from fear and hunger. Freedom from want and weariness. Freedom to see each other’s magnificent part in life’s cinquepace dance.
“Princess Grace,” Harry said and bowed.
“Please, call me Gracie.”
Harry’s ears burned red.
“Hi, Harry,” Franklin said stepping between them and sticking his hand out for a shake. “You were a great frog, sir.”
“You took very good care of me,” Harry said shaking Franklin’s hand. “I couldn’t have made it without you.”
Then the three of them went through the clearing thanking the creatures for getting them free. Soon the frogs had slipped back to chirping their songs, the insects to buzzing and stinging, and the jays and sparrows to the business of being birds. The beasts withdrew to their places in the forest: the fox slipping away to her den, the deer wandering through the dappled sunshine, the squirrels to their games of chase.
The roan nudged Harry’s shoulder. “Can we race now? You promised.”
At the edge of the long open field, the horses took their places. It was Harry on Dudley, Franklin on Lightening, and Gracie on Ruby. Franklin counted to three and at “Go!” Ruby and Gracie took off like fire. Harry and Dudley galloped in fast pursuit but the roan and her rider couldn’t be caught. Ruby reached her neck and stretched her legs as she ran with uncurbed, unchecked, unbound, riotous joy. She and Gracie sailed over the finish line with wild Yahoos, and Yippees, and Atta Girls! Franklin, who tied Harry for second, muttered protests that he and Lightening had let the girls win. Princess Grace laughed and tossed him an apple. Then she gave Harry a kiss. It was the sweetest, most beautiful kiss that had ever been given to anyone in all the history of the world.
Harry’s face turned red as a radish. “Grace and Ruby win, fair and square,” he said as if he were speaking to hundreds. The stable boys cheered and Harry said to himself, I am the luckiest prince in the world.
And you know, he was right.