Welcome to the weekend, and to the next installment in “The Frog Wish,” a serialized story featuring a witch that I’m writing one scene at a time every weekend in October. You can read parts 1-4 here, then see part 5 here, and then find part 6 here. Enjoy!
“The Frog Wish” (part 7)
Eleanor had never eaten partridge before, much less off a wooden skewer, nor had she sampled currant sauce. Both were quite delicious, though. At least, she thought they might be. She had eaten the first one too fast to really taste it and was bartering for a second one with the adorable child vending them out of a motley tapestried tent. Behind the tent was a large firepit with several long roasting spits slowly turning over it. An older child, possibly thirteen years old and probably the older brother of the dumpling-faced girl facing off against Eleanor, slid a small creature off one of the swiveling rods whenever someone ordered food.
“If you want seconds, you still need to pay for them,” the little girl was saying. She looked to be about six or seven years old, with bouncy ginger curls and violet irises. She wore an elaborate dress covered in ruffled edges and shiny fabric ribbons that had been dusted with silver dirt all over. The petite lace flounces at her elbows bore traces of currant sauce. But her face and hands were clean.
“I wouldn’t dream of not,” Eleanor assured her, rifling through her pockets again. She had paid for the first partridge with three quarters she’d had left over from impulsively purchasing a bottle of water in the checkout line at the hardware store. That had been after loading the slats for her new bed into the back of her car.
That seemed like days, not hours, ago now. Just a foreign episode in a half-forgotten life devoid of consequence.
Eleanor stopped short. Where had that thought even come from?
“Do you have any more of those shiny coins?” the child asked, interrupting her startle. “I liked the funny face on them.” She giggled. “My brother thought they were funny, too. He let me keep one.”
Eleanor half-smiled at that. She would parse out her existential angst later. Right now, as they said, the landscape was food. “I wish I did, but I already gave you all I had.” She had no more money on her; in her pocket was only the tiger’s eye––which she was smart enough to hang onto in this mirror world––and the ribbons it had been wrapped in. She looked at the girl’s dress more carefully. The ribbons on it were all different colors, and now that Eleanor really paid attention, they seemed to have been tied on randomly everywhere rather than as any sort of intentional design choice in the garment. Probably the girl had been collecting and adding them on herself. “That’s a very pretty dress you have there,” she said.
The girl grinned until her eyes all but disappeared. “It’s my favorite one. I always wear it on market days.”
Eleanor nodded. “And I see you have quite a collection of ribbons, too. You must really like them.”
“Well, you probably already have enough, but if you wanted any more, I do have a pair of very silky black and white ribbons here in my pocket.” She pulled them out of her pocket, taking care to keep the stone hidden as she did so.
The little girl’s eyes went wide. “Those are long ones,” she said reverently. “Long enough for my hair.”
“They would look beautiful in your hair.” Eleanor kept her voice solemn as her stomach grumbled just a little bit at the roasting smells on the breeze. “And they’re the only ribbons I have. But I’m willing to give them to you for another delicious partridge, if they will be of use to you.” She held them out.
The little girl fingered the ribbons carefully, testing their smoothness, touching their neatly angled ends. “They’re not even frayed.”
Eleanor might have felt guilty about trading roasted birds for seventy-five cents and a pair of satin ribbons, except that these things seemed to hold such value for the child. There didn’t appear to be any adults at this stall. Maybe this little girl and her brother were on their own? She glanced back at the roasting spit. They knew what they were doing and boasted a brisk business. They didn’t look like urchins. Eleanor’s stomach reminded her she hadn’t eaten enough yet. Who was she to insist on the value of one or another item in a silver fantasy world you entered when a witch breezed you through a mirror with magic powder?
The force of her rationalization combated her instincts to try just rolling with the bizarre situation she was in. But before she could say anything else, the little girl clasped her hands around the ribbons. A smile opened on her face like a butterfly.
“This trade is a good one,” she said. “But only if you’ll tie the ribbons into my hair for me.”
Eleanor couldn’t hide her surprise. “Why me?”
“Because I can’t see the back of my own head and want to make sure they’re in there right and pretty.” The look on her face suggested she thought Eleanor might be dim-witted.
“Oh, of course,” she replied. “I’ll make sure they’re in their securely, too.”
The child grinned again and called over her shoulder for her brother to get Eleanor another roasted partridge with currant sauce. While he prepared her food, she tied the ribbons into the child’s mop of curls as carefully as she could, trying not to yank on any hairs or make lopsided ponytails in the process. Afterward, the child handed her the food and then made an elegant curtsy.
Eleanor smiled back and took a bite of the skewered bird. She could savor it this time, appreciate how the mildly salty first impression gave way to a tender, juicy richness. Was it gamey? Perhaps. But the sweet tang of the currant sauce mitigated it. It was delicious enough that Eleanor wondered if she should feel guilty and become a vegetarian like Moira.
Eleanor took another big bite. Now that she had some food in her belly, she wandered back over to where Reginald was squatting on a wide tree trunk at the edge of the clearing. She sat on the tall log next to him and put the fairy tale book next to her feet. As she drifted away from the intimacy of the clearing, the colors and sounds of the market bled away from her perception. Even the partridge tasted less…vibrant? Flavorful? It resembled a well-tended game hen now. Eleanor nibbled at it again, no longer feeling guilty for enjoying it. She had other concerns.
“Reginald, do you know why Moira pushed me through a mirror?”
The frog sighed. It sounded like a humid wind through a willow tree dripping over a pond. “No.”
“And would you tell me if you did know?”
“Ribbit.” He licked his eyeball. “Yeah, I probably would.”
Knowing that felt more disappointing than Eleanor expected. It was one thing to have a recalcitrant guide and ally who could probably help you out of a bind if the need was great enough. It was another to know that the person who sent you into a surreal landscape, and had sent you a guide, had sent him into that same landscape without any idea of why you were there in the first place. She wrapped the remaining half of her partridge in the baking parchment it had come in and set it on the log next to her.
“What am I supposed to do here?” She gestured at the clearing. “This is all very interesting, but what’s the point?”
Reginald hopped a half-turn toward her. “You’re the one on the quest. What are you questing for?”
“Okay, let me try this again. What does Moira think you’re questing for?”
Moira was still harping on the Lucas thing. And it didn’t matter that Eleanor had told her that she was done with him. It didn’t matter that he had moved out, or that she had bought new bedroom furniture. It didn’t matter that Moira and Lucas were cousins, or that Moira always thought she knew better than everyone else, just because she had that dumb second sight or witchy intuition or whatever the hell she wanted to call it. It didn’t matter that her readings were always spot-on, even when Eleanor refused to admit it.
Moira thought Eleanor wasn’t going to be happy until she had resolved this thing. Whatever this thing was.
“I don’t know, okay?” She sounded testy, even to herself.
Reginald licked his eyeball and hop-turned away from her. “You just keep on thinking that. I’ll wait till you figure it out.”
Well, at least he wasn’t going to abandon her here. She could feel some gratitude for that.
She picked the partridge back up, unwrapped it, and took another bite. As she chewed, she considered the Lucas situation. It hadn’t really been his fault it had ended, nor hers. Not anyone’s. He wasn’t in love with her, and Eleanor had decided that she didn’t want to waste time on a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere. And it was okay that he wasn’t in love with her. As reserved and shy as he was, she didn’t know if she’d ever have expected him to fall in love in the first place. She shouldn’t have let herself get so wrapped up in someone who wasn’t ever going to show his emotions at the level she was pretty sure she needed.
As she was about to take another bite, a blur of taupe striped fur brushed across her arm and cheek and tackled the partridge out of her hand.
“What just happened?” she shrieked.
A loud chewing and snuffling sound came from a few paces past Reginald. There on the ground was a large tabby cat, devouring what was left of her food, nosing the parchment paper aside, one paw holding the wooden skewer down into the gray dirt.
Eleanor stood and walked over to the cat. The partridge was so gone, and the cat was licking its nose over and over again in hungry swipes. “That was mine,” she said. She didn’t have anything else to barter with. “You had no right to take it.”
“You realize you’re arguing with a feral cat?” Reginald croaked. “Do you expect it to answer you?”
Eleanor glared at him. “Why wouldn’t I expect that, at this point?”
Then the cat cleared its throat. It was standing on its hind legs and held out a pale front paw. “That was delicious, thank you,” it said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Famine.”
Please join us for my online book launch of Homecoming, the second book in the Animal Affinities series! It will be on TODAY, this afternoon at 4:00 central time, wherever you have an internet connection. Click here for the details.
Want to read more of my writing that’s already published? Click here for poetry, click here for urban fantasy, and click here for realistic flash fiction. You can also buy my books at Blue Willow Bookshop and my books and poetry art cards at Ella’s Apothecary, and I hope you will!