Where I grew up there was a forest with no name, and my house sat right next to it. I had permission to play there (alone – I didn’t have siblings), but I knew other children who weren’t allowed.
In fact, I was given many responsibilities in those days, whether I wanted them or not. And by far the most important was walking the road home from school by myself, and waiting until my parents returned from work at the Albion Gazette. Back then every town still had a paper, and people often walked into the offices to share their stories. But I’ve never uttered out loud a word of what I’m about to tell.
The road home took me by the field with the Spiller’s miniature cows — around the towers of wood at the timber yard — through the old plum orchards — and past Mr. Nagashima, standing at the edge of Purling Creek.
Mr. Nagashima was always not-fishing, with his hands in his pockets and his pole and creel on the ground.
“Hello, Melody!” he’d call.
I’d reply, “Catch any fish today, sir?”
And Mr. Nagashima would laugh.
I counted on these things never changing – I liked it that way – and for years my days were mostly the same. But then, shortly after my 10th birthday, I saw a frog resting on the branch of a plum tree. No bigger than a quarter. The frog wasn’t real, I discovered, but carved of wood and painted bright green.
How a trinket ended up in a tree, I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t even try.
That same day I put it in the keepsake box in my bedroom, with trash and treasures alike, and there it might have stayed.
The next afternoon, a ballerina was at my door. I’d been brushing knots out of our dog, Diamond’s, red fur, when I heard a quiet knocking.
My parents weren’t home yet, and I peered at the teenager through the peephole. She was wearing a leotard and tights, and her slippers were muddy. Ms. Lucinda’s School of Dance was back in town – had she come all that way?
I opened the door.
“Put the frog back,” she whispered. And she ran away.
A jolt of panic went through me – I had someone’s frog. I decided I’d better put it back, like she’d said. The very next day.
But a long night’s sleep can mix up your thoughts, and I’d forgot about the ballerina by morning. I walked happily home from school and was giving Diamond her manners lessons in the kitchen, when I heard a noise outside.
Through the window, I saw an old man, stooped over, raking leaves on our front lawn. I knew of him – Mr. Hyre, the postmaster. A mail truck was parked down the road.
Don’t bother, I wanted to tell him. The trees in the forest beyond the fence never stopped shedding their leaves, not for one single second, not for one single day. But it wouldn’t have been polite to speak to a grown-up like that. Anyway, why was he raking the leaves?
After an hour, Mr. Hyre knocked on the door.
“Can I help you, sir?” I asked. My parents weren’t home yet.
He craned his neck. “Wanted to be helpful. But the trees won.” Then he patted an empty mailbag hanging on his shoulder, as if something should go inside.
“There’s no mail. I’m sorry,” I said, confused.
“The frog, my dear.”
The ballerina. The frog. It came rushing back to me. And for some reason, I lied. It seemed to happen before I’d made a choice. “I don’t have a frog, sir.”
“A little piece of wood?”
I was silent, but had begun to wonder why Mr. Hyre needed a mailbag for the frog, when his pocket would do.
“You’re sure you haven’t seen it?” he asked seriously.
“Haven’t seen it.”
A long moment passed. “Alright then.” He shuffled away.
After that, a good night’s sleep was impossible, and I couldn’t focus during school the next day. I walked home very slowly. And when the knocking finally came, I almost didn’t answer. But I recognized the truck parked outside – it was Jodie Spiller’s. She insisted everyone, even children, call her by her first name, which was very uncommon when I was young.
I opened the door.
Jodie stood in dusty overalls, holding out a plate of brownies. “I’ll trade ya for the froggy, Melody.”
Tears filled my eyes. I’d have to admit to lying if I returned the frog now, and I still didn’t know the real owner. But most of all – the frog was mine.
I shook my head, no.
To my surprise, tears filled Jodie’s eyes, also. “It’s my fault,” she sobbed. “Cows broke out and got into the orchard. I was supposed to get froggy to the water, and I set him down on a branch to round up the cows. Jus’ for a minute! But then I couldn’t remember which tree!”
Not knowing what to say, I asked, “Was it the miniatures or the regulars?”
“Minis.” She sniffled. “Small things can be very smart and naughty.”
“I don’t have a frog.” My face felt hot.
“No matter, these are yours,” Jodie said, and pushed the brownies into my hands. “See here. After a few of us, ya get ones outta that forest. Critters don’t knock.” She gave me a hard look.
“I don’t have a frog,” I whimpered, and Jodie returned to her truck, shaking her head.
Straight to my bedroom I ran. Taking the frog out of the keepsake box, I turned him this way and that. “Who are you, little guy?” I whispered.
“King of the Forest,” he replied. His black eyes blinked, and his skin felt soft. “I rule the woods. Every exhausting inch of it.”
I screamed and threw him on the floor.
“Unnecessary!” he scolded. His voice was very loud.
“Sorry. I’m a bit scared.” (I was shaking so hard I couldn’t have tied my shoes).
“Continue dispatching your visitors.” He hopped quickly up my wall, and rested on the windowsill. “Would you open the window and allow in some flies?”
I swallowed hard. “Only if you explain what’s happening.”
He seemed to study me. “They want me back in the forest. Presently, I’ve no interest in returning. My duties there are unending.”
“You’re really the king?” I questioned.
“I don’t see a crown.”
“The forest won’t allow it,” he sighed.
Suddenly, I felt sorry for him. “Why are you here?” I asked gently.
“There was a matter in another place. I was being carried back home, passed off from one to the next, but it was taking far too long. Years, you understand. During which time, I got used to being away from the forest’s demands. And then. Then, you rescued me, child.” He sighed again.
Right then, Diamond ran up to the window from outside. She was barking like she did whenever a raccoon came out of the forest and tried to steal the car. The frog became wood.
“Diamond, that’s not polite,” I yelled. I closed the curtains, and in another instant, he was moving.
“How’d you do that, sir?” I wondered.
“It just occurred to you that I’m capable of extraordinary tricks?”
“What’s the trick that will stop people coming to my door? I think I’m going to get in trouble!”
“Simple – slam shut the door!” He cackled at his joke. “I’m starving. Open the window tonight, after that canine’s asleep.”
“Okay.” I had so many more questions, though it strikes me now that the most pressing – How is this possible – was not among them. “But how do people know you’re here?” I wondered.
“There must have been eyes in the orchard.”
“I’m in no mood to explain!” he snapped.
I didn’t know what he meant about any of it, and I wasn’t sure how I’d keep a frog king hidden in my room. I finished the brownies while worrying, and slid the plate under my bed. When the frog hopped into the closet, I didn’t stop him, and I was glad he stayed there past dark.
At school the next day, I couldn’t focus again; I felt too guilty. The frog had insisted I lock up Diamond in the kennel while I was away, and I knew she’d be angry and disappointed with me when I returned. This time, I hurried home.
Sure enough, she was.
Then I had chores piling up, but the frog was a distraction. “I require a plant in here,” he said, “in order to feel truly at ease.”
I lugged a pot of aloe from the kitchen, and he hopped into it at once.
“You could say thank you,” I suggested.
He blinked. “Any visitors?”
He blinked again.
One question, above all, had been itchy in my mind that day. “How is it that some people around here know the forest has a king?”
“Because some people know.”
“Why not me?”
“You do comprehend the meaning of a secret? Not just the meaning, child, but the duty?” He flicked his tongue towards the window. “The ones that know about the way of the woods never speak of it. Only an emergency – my unexplained absence, for example – would encourage their risk-taking.” About that, whatever it meant, he sounded pleased.
“Do my parents know? They own the newspaper, you see, and they’d be very interested.”
“Why don’t you ask them – they’ll laugh at you until they’re crying.”
I threw myself into my chores, happy to be away from him. No one knocked at the door that day, but I did notice six squirrels sitting side-by-side on our fence. They were staring at the house.
“The forest is right there,” I whispered to the frog at bedtime. My head was flat on the mattress. “Don’t you want to go home?”
“Not especially. Besides, I must be carried home,” he answered sleepily, from my pillow on the floor. “Carefully and comfortably.”
“I’ll take you into the forest.”
“Only the man at the water can do that.” He began to snore.
This frog had never been mine. I suddenly understood the truth of it very clearly. I also understood something else – I was becoming his. Now, the problem was how to get him to leave. I figured I could ask him, and even plead, but I already knew he didn’t have manners. He wasn’t a guest; he was a king. As I drifted off to sleep, Jodie Spiller’s words came back to me – Small things can be…
My neck was sore when I woke up, but it couldn’t keep the grin off my face. Before leaving for school, I opened my window wide and gave Diamond the run of the house. I could hear her barking furiously as I climbed into our car, and the echo of it stayed put in my head the whole day.
When I returned later, Diamond was sleeping peacefully by my bed. I didn’t bother searching around for the frog. Taking a long look at the forest, I slammed the window shut with a bang!
The Spiller’s miniature cows, the timber yard, the plum orchards and Purling Creek – things went back to normal, though I wasn’t the same, not ever again.
Actually, there was one difference afterwards – I didn’t see Mr. Nagashima anymore. A whole year later I passed by him, with his fishing line in the water.
“Hello, Melody!” he called.
“You’ve finally learned to fish!” I laughed. It wasn’t polite to speak to a grown-up like that. “Why’d you stop coming here every day?” I asked.
Mr. Nagashima smiled. “Ribbit,” he replied.
Alexa Tondreau Dahl has spent much of the past ten years teaching. She avoids folding the laundry and her children avoid picking up their toys. Reading and writing occur whenever time allows. Somehow, she was made Room Mom of her child’s class this year, which is beyond terrifying in scope and responsibility. She likes taking walks and she likes her husband a lot, too.
© 2018, Alexa Tondreau Dahl