In a tiny forest, next to a tiny pond, lived a tiny frog.
An early frost had killed the rest of his spawn-brothers, and when the lone tadpole-with-legs wriggled out of the tiny pond the other frogs were much dismayed. The Greenlord, in a fit of classical allusion, dubbed the newborn “Schadenfreude”.
The tiny almost-frog nosed forward in the mud. If its eyes could see it’s first view would have been a thunderstorm. If it’s ears could hear it’s first sound would have been the distressed wailing of the other frogs.
However, his eyes were not quite formed yet, and his ears were filled to the brim with pondscum – so, he didn’t see the storm, he didn’t hear the wailing. Schad’s only memory of his wriggle-day was a taste. Quite by accident, his nubby mouth clomped onto a fallen blackberry. It popped in his mouth and exploded with purple-sweet, a riot of spring.
And so, despite the bleakest of omens and the most dire of beginnings — Schad hopped into the world with a vague, unformed idea that the world was wonderful.
Despite all that he learned afterwards, and much effort to convince him of the contrary – the tiny frog never abandoned this precept.
When the older frogs pushed him down, and took the juiciest mosquitos for themselves — he would swim to the quiet bank by the willows, and make up silly songs about water and hedgehogs.
When the summer grew hot, and the pond nearly dried up — he took great delight in building castles from the cracked, drying bottom-mud.
When the winter ice came, he was the last to dream in the mud — dancing a jig in the bitter air, as the other frogs looked on in disapproval.
When the time of spring-love was through, and he was alone and unmated — he sang his pond-songs to the new tadpoles, and danced a solemn air across a broad oak root.
Schad danced and sang and built and dreamed – the world turned, and a plate of sorrow was his constant diet. But it never erased the first sensation of his soul, the taste of fresh blackberry.
And then the snake came.
Sliding from beyond, from the dark forest — black and gray, with eyes like white river-stones. Long as a mile, and wide as a river. It gobbled up a brace of frogs in an instant, then wound itself around the pond once, twice, thrice. The few frogs to escape had fled to the pond, and piled one on the other – croaking and groaning and smacking in terror. The looked to the east and the west, to the north and the south — but the enormous snake filled the horizon. Then one old-frog saw something, and shouted and pointed — his yellow eyes goggling.
Schad was dancing along the snake’s back.
In pure shock, the trapped frogs fell silent. Above the hiss of the snake’s scales they could hear.
Schad was singing. A silly song about hedgehogs and water.
The snake saw the tiny dancing frog too.
The diamond-head of the snake moved towards the tiny singing frog, and then came to a stop. It was too far to hear, but it seemed as if the snake was speaking to Schad.
Schad made a handsome bow and said something in reply, green face beaming with delight.
The tiny frog hopped into the air, and landed squarely on the snake’s head. Schad cupped two green hands to his wide mouth and called across the pond.
“It seems I was left out again, just my luck I suppose. You were all in a cluster, an easy meal — while I was alone, sleeping in the briar. As for you, I’m afraid that this is a water snake.”
Schad laughed and did a little jig, and then the snake popped it’s head and snapped Schad up – less than a bite.
“Well.” the old-frog said. “At least that asshole went first.”
The girl with the headphones pinched her nose and closed her eyes. The bus and the people roared around her, her thumb cycled the volume up and up.
She opened her eyes, and the bus was hers. The people were back behind the glass where they belonged. The girl with the headphones coiled a finger through the wire, and leaned her head back against the window. Frost and steam did battle behind her, in the gray streets.
The old steel worm chugged along, bending in the middle – armor rippling around a corner. A tall boy with corkscrew hair dangled from a white pole. His eyes were black and curious, making a naked cartography of her shape.
The girl frowned, and her thumb moved.
The boy let himself hang from the rail, his body making a triangle between the floor and the roof. He smiled at her, and refused to get behind the glass where he belonged. His shirt was a grimy green, and had a mermaid printed with blank ink.
Her stomach crawled and she turned her face toward the front of the bus.
The mermaid boy twined around another moment, then thudded to the floor when the bus screamed to a stop. The girl with the headphones gritted her teeth in satisfaction.
He hooted and grumbled, then pulled himself to the doors of the steel worm and was gone.
The glass reformed, and the girl was alone and satisfied.
A block later and she forgot the mermaid boy. She did not think of him again.
[Story on demand for Leigh — her suggestion too me in a weird direction, as it often does — mainly because I was thinking more about my last trip to Chicago, the City of Ice. Thanks for the idea!
For those of you playing the home game, I did write another “mermaid” themed SOD, click here to be underwhelmed. Suddenly, Mermaid.]
The heat of her day, and the hat on her head, and the crease of her waist and the slight boredom in her green-green eyes.
I thump down on the strings and an eruption of trees – pines today. Green like her eyes, but I place them outside her reach with petty twangs. She spins faster, catching the rhythm. A few coins clatter. It’s hot.
I throw gold notes at her feet, but her steps erase them – Nena the Cruel, the Cat Dancing. Give her a heart, and she will return a hard-scrabble scrap rat-tat-rattling around your rib cage.
She makes the devil jealous. The sun weep.
I fill the plaza with water, my fingers on the strings. She steps onto the waves like a birthright, her hem dry.
The crowds pass, but they do not see. This marble and stone corner of the world full of spite and spiders — full of amaranth and ambrosia. At the end of the day I will slide my hand under her elbow, and she will jerk it away. My desire-sweat drips, and she kills me again with green-green daggers.
I bring a spirit of fire into the forest, I build a wall of earth — it is never enough to hold her. A snake winds around the base of my spine and I want her and want her. I scream down into my hands, and the strings do their best to answer.
The young boy sat, uncomfortable and gangly in the high-backed wooden chair.
“Are you comfortable?” the red-haired man continued, his eyes and quill busy on a pair of scrolls on his desk. The young boy sat opposite in one of the two fine chairs kept for receiving guests.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good – good.” Key said, finishing a line on the left-hand scrolled and looked up. He furrowed his brows and tried to collect his ink-tossed thoughts. ” I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Lucas, sir. Lucas Grahd.”
“Of Pice? Your family has an estate there?” the red-haired scribe took note of the gryphon emblem on the young boy’s collar – faded, but fine material.
“Yes, my lord.”
“And you’ve come here about your mother?” Key said. “Lionshead Fever –very sad. You have my condolences, of course.” His quill went scratch, adding another line to his letter to the Regent. The paving recently completed outside his office was simply atrocious, and he was determined to have it re-cobbled before the end of the summer.
“Very kind, my lord. That was the subject of my visit today. I believe I may have found a cure.”
…It would honor me greatly if you could send a magistrate to inspect the quality of the work yourself, My Lady. It is simply beyond accepting — I’ve seen untutored yeoman do better with rough bricks and river-mortar…
Key’s quill kept scratching, until the silence in the room finally reached him. He looked up at the young boy sitting in his chair, and blinked.
The boy stared at him, but repeated himself.
Key tapped his forefinger on the desk, fresh ink stained – leaving a whorl of his fingerprints on the margin of his letter. The scribe cursed, and quickly reached for a cloth to daub it away.
“Sir, did you hear me? I’ve found a cure for Lionshead fever. My mother has been bedridden for weeks, and the other doctors gave up days ago. I threw myself into our family library and read every medical text and herbal tome that we own. I’m convinced I’ve found a forgotten remedy, passed down from the Sarmadi. Some of the ingredients are exotic, but the process for creating it is exceedingly simple. I consulted many of our family’s friends and business associates, and you have the final ingredient that I need.” The boy leaned forward, the words flung out with desperation.
Key tucked the quill behind his ear, ignoring the ink that dribbled down his cheek. He pinched his nose, and inclined his head to the ceiling for a moment.
“Young man..Lucas? I am sorry. I did not realize that your mother still…lingered. It makes what I’m about to say very difficult indeed.”
The boy slammed his hand on the edge of the desk. “I know the gallowgrass is very expensive, and I know that you have it. Please spare me the sales pitch. I have brought more than sufficient funds to cover any reasonable price. My family has fallen on hard times, but not so hard that we cannot afford—”
The boy looked up in surprise. The red-haired scribe has walked from around the desk to sit in the chair next to him. His hand was clenched on the edge of the desk, knuckles white.
“I am sorry that you did not have my full attention at the first. Forgive me. Your age made me think you were here on a simple errand, or perhaps a scholarly project for your tutor. I can see that you are a young man of uncommon intelligence, so I will speak plain.”
The boy said nothing, but nodded quickly with a polite acceptance.
“You say your mother has been suffering for weeks. Did none of the doctors who administered to your mother explain the path that Lionshead takes through the body?” Key said.
“Ah. Lionshead Fever is a fairly rare malady, that attacks the upper respiratory system – the lungs and nasal passages. It is not particularly contagious, generally only being contracted through direct exposure to infected tissue. I assume your mother spent some time travelling right before her symptoms appeared?”
“Yes.” Lucas said.
“As I thought. Most people afflicted die in the first two to three days. Their lungs fill with blood and they quite simply drown in their own water. The followers of the deity Nasirah believe it is divine justice, only the wicked, the betrayer, the infidel are cursed with this disease. They would stamp their fierce god’s symbol into the foreheads of the sick – a mark of their fate, and also an effective way to prevent further spread of the contagion. A lion, stamped on the head, do you see?”
“I’ve read all this at great length, my lord. I don’t see how –”
“Those that do not die immediately…” Key continued, his voice level, as if the boy had not interrupted.”….can linger for many days, even for weeks on end. But the damage to the lungs is permanent.”
The word hung in the air.
Key laid an ink-stained hand on the young boy’s shoulder. “You have shown great skill and intelligence in your research, you have shown great ingenuity and determination in tracking me down. I am the only person for hundreds of miles that has the gallowgrass, and I would gladly give it to you to save your mother. She could ask for no greater gift or more pure expression of your love for her. But, the Nameless be kind, it has fallen to me to tell you these truths. You are too late. Any cure would need to be given in the first few days of the infection to preserve any undamaged tissue. It has been weeks. Your mother is dead, in minutes or hours.”
The young boy stood up, and shook Key’s hand with empty poise. “I thank you for your time, my lord.”
“I wish I had more to give to you …and to your mother.” the scribe said sadly.
The boy left, and Key sat for a while in the second high-backed guest chair. He knew he would not finish his cobblestone letter this night, nor would he for many nights to come.
“More time.” he said to the empty room.
[Story on Demand for N.E. White – follow the link for their blog and the clicking thereof.]