On another day that is not this day but could have been, in a cedar woodland beside a castle, a princess was walking. She breathed deeply and was glad to be alone. It was so tiresome being always among her elders — her parents, her teachers, the servants, the men who came to petition her father for this and that. The stable boy was the only person her age for miles, and she only saw him on riding days, when he helped her up onto and down from her saddle and shyly passed the time of day with reports on the health of her horse. Not that she wanted more from him. But it was pleasant to look upon one face free of wrinkles besides her own in the mirror.
The princess was especially glad to be out in the woods today because for the previous three days, she’d been cooped up in her room watching the rain. The old people had an inordinate fear of dampness. They did not want her feet to get wet or her shoulders to feel chilled or her nose to redden, lest one of these lead to illness, and then from illness to death. The princess knew such things did happen, but she couldn’t imagine them happening to her, certainly not from a walk in the rain. But they all told her to stay in, and she had to obey. Her father, the king, was especially strict on the topic.
As she walked, she threw a ball into the air and caught it, over and over, each toss a little higher than the one before. The ball was about the size of her fist and had a skin of gold as bright as the sun. It was her favorite possession. Her mother scolded that she was too old to be playing with a ball, that her time was better spent learning embroidery and piano-playing and poetry-writing and other accomplishments that would help her keep a husband. Her position alone would get her a husband, but, her mother said, if she couldn’t entertain and even, at times, enlighten him, she would find herself abandoned, in one way or another. The princess practiced all the things her mother wanted her to practice, but she would not give up her ball. She did reserve it, however, for private moments outdoors because she didn’t want her mother to worry. She supposed that when her time came to wed, which everyone said would be soon, she would be able to put aside her plaything without regret, or, failing that, that she’d have the good fortune to land as husband a man who would not mind a wife still amused by a golden ball.
At length, the princess reached a pond where she often stopped to watch water striders and dragonflies. It was especially nice on its banks in summer because the atmosphere there was cool and green. The princess tossed her ball again, very high this time, and as it came down, it made a wide arc away from her and fell with a loud splash into the middle of the pond. She would have flung herself into the water after it except that she couldn’t swim, and the ball had sunk in the deepest part of the pond. No one in the castle could swim, not even the king. So not even he could have helped her, if he’d been there, which he wasn’t. Now her hands were as empty as the hands of all the girls in her father’s kingdom who did not own golden balls, but she wasn’t thinking about them. She was thinking only of herself and her great loss, for it seemed that the emptiness of her hands was invading her heart and causing her to feel empty there, too. She slumped to the ground and began to cry.
Presently, despite her sobs, she heard a commotion in the water, and she looked up to see a large frog pulling himself up out of the pond to sit on the bank beside her. His knobby skin, the color of overcooked peas, gleamed in the sunlight as if it were oiled, and he emitted a dank smell like rotting leaves and dead birds. The princess drew back from him, lest the hem of her dress touch him and be soiled.
“What’s wrong, my lady?” The frog’s voice was raspy and deep, not unlike her father’s voice, but with a sickening gurgle between his words.
“I’ve lost my ball in the pond. Have you seen it?”
“I did see it. Shall I get it for you?”
The princess stood up excitedly. “Oh, would you? You’ll be rewarded. I have jewels and coins and… What do you like to eat? I’m sure our cook could find you some delicacy.”
“I want none of those.”
“But I must pay you something.” The king had taught the princess that it was better to render money or gifts for services than to be in debt in less comfortable ways.
“I wonder, my lady, if you can fill my need.”
“What is that?”
“It’s hard to explain. But it would be enough to dine from your plate and drink from your cup and sleep in your bed.”
The princess almost laughed at this preposterous notion. But she saw that the frog was serious, and she knew he was her only hope of retrieving the ball. Her mother would be just as glad to see it remain in the muck at the bottom of the pond, but the princess was not ready yet to let go of this last trace of childhood. Even when she’d thought of setting it aside when she married, she’d expected to keep it tucked in a chest somewhere, available from time to time to be cupped in her hand if not thrown towards the sky.
“All right,” she said reluctantly to the evil-smelling frog, thinking all the while that she would never do the things he asked, that no one could expect her to do such things. Not even the frog himself could truly expect it.
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, yes, I promise. Now get my ball!”
The frog dived into the pond and disappeared beneath its dark surface. The princess paced on the bank. When, at last, the frog reappeared with her ball in his mouth, she clapped her hands with joy, and as soon as he had dropped it at her feet, she snatched it up and ran away. She resolved never to visit the pond again and never to take the ball outside the castle yard.
That evening, when the princess and her parents were at dinner, there came a scratching at the door. A footman opened the door, and who should enter but the loathsome frog. He hopped across the room, leaving a wet trail behind him. The king was surprised to see a frog in his dining hall, but he thought of himself as lord of all the creatures in his realm, not just the human ones, so he looked down at the frog, who was the largest and ugliest of the species the king had ever seen, and asked what he wanted.
“I did your daughter a service, and she made me a promise. I have come to redeem that promise.”
The king looked at his daughter. “Is this true?”
“And the promise was?”
“To eat and drink with me.”
The king nodded his permission, and the frog leapt up onto the table at the princess’s place. His long, pink tongue shot out to her plate again and again, wrapping around pieces of food and slurping them into his gaping mouth. At a gesture from her father, the princess lifted her cup of wine to the frog’s slimy lips. Her stomach churned, but she held the cup steady until he had drained it dry. Her parents ate in silence, trying to hide their own disgust at the spectacle. The frog, for his part, seemed content. At one point, he burped, and a dead fly from an earlier meal fell out of his mouth onto the tablecloth. A hovering servant stepped forward and brushed it onto the floor.
“I’m going up to my room!” the princess announced, getting up so suddenly her chair tipped over behind her. The same servant righted it.
“You will have to carry me,” the frog said in his deep, gurgling voice. “I am not good on stairs.”
“What?” said the queen. “What does he mean?”
“Oh, Mother, he wants to sleep in my bed, too.”
“Was this also a promise?” the king asked.
“It was,” answered the frog.
“Then so be it.” The king scowled at the princess, and with a moan and a grimace, she picked up the frog, who was surprisingly heavy as well as cold and slippery. She held him out away from her body as far as she could. Her arms ached with the effort.
“But this is too much,” the queen protested.
“She said yes,” the king insisted. “It is his due.”
In her room, the princess carried the frog to a far corner and set him down.
“Here is where you will sleep,” she said firmly.
“This is not what you promised.”
The princess cringed. Would he tell her father? Would her father really make her welcome this odious creature into her bed? Did all promises have to be kept? Hadn’t she rewarded the frog enough? Why did he expect so much? Didn’t her feelings count for anything?
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “You ate from my plate, you drank from my cup, and you may spend the night in my room, but I do not want you in my bed.”
The frog stared at her with his bulging eyes, but he made no move to leave the corner where she’d placed him. She went to her bed, lifted the blankets, and crawled under them, not bothering to change into her nightdress. After some tossing and turning, propping herself up on one elbow a few times to peer across the room at the frog in his corner, she finally fell into a fitful sleep.
Some time later, she felt cold. She groped for her blankets, which had slid from her shoulders. Waking up fully, she realized the coldness was very specific. The backs of her knees were cold. Cold and wet. She sat up quickly and reached down. Her hand found the frog and ripped him out from under her skirt.
“I was cold,” he protested. “You promised. Your father said—”
In a fury, the princess threw the frog against the wall. His body made a very satisfying splat sound, and he slid to the floor, where he lay motionless.
“I told you I’d changed my mind! I won’t have a frog in my bed!”
She stared at the frog. She didn’t see any blood, but he wasn’t moving. She wasn’t sorry for what she’d done. She didn’t care if it brought her trouble with her father. Then she saw one of the frog’s long hind legs twitch. Slowly, he drew himself up and squatted there blinking at her.
“What do you want?” he said.
“I want to be left alone.”
“I want to choose.”
He nodded. At least, she thought it was a nod. Since he had no neck to speak of, it was hard to tell. She braced herself for his return to the bed for a second try, though he didn’t look as if he had the strength. She felt a tiny spark of pity for him. But she swore to herself that if he approached, she would throw him again. If she had to, she would kill him, though she didn’t want to. She only wanted him to be reasonable, to listen.
He limped back to his corner.
“May I have a pillow?”
She tossed him the largest, softest one from her bed and lay down again, her heart beating fast. She didn’t think she’d be able to sleep, but just before dawn, she did drop off. The room was bright with mid-morning sun when she awoke. Immediately, she looked over to the frog’s corner. Much to her surprise, a man was stretched out there asleep. A young man. Not as young as she or the stable boy, but definitely not old. And he was dressed in emerald green garments as fine as any her father owned.
Just then, he opened his eyes and stood up. “Good morning, my lady.”
“Who are you? Where is the frog?”
“At your service.” The young man made a pretty bow.
“You mean…? You can’t mean…”
“Oh, but I do. And thanks to you, I am returned to my normal shape.”
“Do not thank me. If I was any help to you it was by chance and against my will.”
“I have been patient for a long, long time, waiting for someone like you to take me to her table, to let me—”
“But I threw you against the wall.”
“That was of your own will, wasn’t it?”
The princess blushed. Then she held her chin up. She wasn’t ashamed of what she’d done, even now with this handsome, polite stranger before her. She wouldn’t apologize. It was she who was owed an apology.
“Yes, it was my will. And I’d do it again. No matter what the consequences.”
“I am the consequences.”
“Well, I guess that’s your good fortune.”
“Yours as well, I hope.”
The princess felt at a disadvantage having this conversation from her bed, so she got up. She was glad she was still in her day clothes, rumpled though they were.
“We should go downstairs to see my parents. My father, the king, will want to know about…all this.”
“Not all, surely.”
“He’ll be most interested in this morning’s surprise. In how you are now.”
“Of course.” The courtly young man offered her his arm. She hesitated a moment, then stepped forward and took it.
She could walk along the hall and down the staircase perfectly well on her own, of course, but she saw no need to be rude. She had an inkling this young man might be around for a while. Her father would want to question him. Her mother would flutter. She herself would like some time in his company to learn more about him. She already knew one important thing, besides the fact that he had been a frog, and that was that he could appreciate a girl with a mind of her own.