In an old time in an old country there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful and all unlucky. To be beautiful in this country was to be noticed by men; for this reason the girls were unlucky. It is lucky for a woman not to be noticed. In this country, women prayed to secret gods to let them be forgotten. They prayed with their faces to the floor.
It was the king’s youngest daughter who was the most unlucky. She was so beautiful that the sun itself noticed and fell in love with her, and never let its rays stray from her face for even a moment. She slept with her face jammed into a pillow and the coverlets over her head, but the sun could not let her sleep unnoticed, and every day it found her, and every day it woke her while everyone else was still asleep. Beauty is never private.
“Beauty belongs to everyone,” the king told his daughters. “Beauty is a public good.”
“What does that mean?” the youngest princess asked.
“It means you belong to everyone,” the king said. (The king was not beautiful, but he was covered in beautiful objects, which amounted to more or less the same thing.)
“Then don’t I also belong — at least partly — to myself?” said the princess. The sun burned hot on her forehead.
“Don’t be clever,” the king said. “Go and play outside, where people can see you.” A girl is least safe at the age when men begin to notice her while she is trying to play. A man who wants to notice something cannot be talked out of it. He notices, then he remarks, and then he acts. Always in that order. He cannot be talked out of it. A girl who wants to play has no chance against a man who wants to notice her. His game will beat hers, every time.
Near the king’s castle there was a very old forest full of tall and black-trunked trees. In this forest, beneath an old linden tree, there was a well. In the heat of the day, when the sun’s attentions became unbearable, the princess would run out to the forest, where the trees grew so close almost no light reached the ground. She would sit at the edge of the well, where she belonged to no one. She would take with her a golden ball and throw it straight up in the air, then catch it when it came down. When she was in the forest, she could throw and catch and push away the sun as easily as she liked. It was her favorite plaything.
But on this day, it happened that the princess threw the golden ball so high into the trees that it came down to the left of her and vanished with a thick splash into the well. She leaned over the edge and tried to find it, but the well was so deep she could not see the slightest sign of it. She sank down on the stone and could not be consoled.
Someone noticed her crying (someone always noticed her). They called out to her (someone always called out to her after they noticed her): “What is the matter with you, princess? Yours is a face too beautiful for tears.”
She looked around to find the voice and saw a frog that had stuck its flat, wet head out of the water. It looked like a calf’s heart that had escaped from the butcher and grown legs and a mouth.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I am crying because my golden ball has fallen into the well.”
“Be still and stop crying,” answered the frog. “I can help you, but what will you give me if I bring back your plaything?”
“But I did not ask you to help me,” the princess said. “Why should I promise you anything?”
“You are sitting on my well,” said the frog, resting its long, thumbless hands on hers, “and you are beautiful, and you are crying, and I saw you. That is the same as asking.”
And the princess had no answer for that. “Whatever you want, then,” she said. “My jewels, my royal robes, even the golden crown that I am wearing.” That was all that she could think to offer, but it was not all that she could give.
The frog said, “I do not want your robes, your jewels nor your golden crown, but if you will accept me as a companion, and let me sit next to you at your table and eat from your golden plate and drink from your cup and sleep in your bed, if you will promise this to me, then I’ll dive down and bring your golden ball back to you.”
The princess remembered her father’s words: Beauty belongs to everyone.
“Ye-e-e-es,” she said. “I will promise all of this to you if you will bring my ball back to me.” And she hoped that perhaps the frog was joking, and would not hold her to such an outrageous promise, for what sort of reward was that for merely fetching a ball?
But men are never joking when they ask for promises, and men always remember when they are owed something.
As soon as the frog heard her say yes he stopped listening to what she was saying and dove back into the water, a dark clot moving swiftly underneath the surface until he disappeared from sight entirely.
A few minutes later he paddled up to the edge of the well with the golden ball in his mouth and spit it onto the grass. His purple tongue hung out of his lipless mouth, but the princess was too happy to notice how he looked at her. She was so filled with joy when she saw her beloved plaything once more that she picked it up and immediately ran for home.
“Wait,” called the frog. “Take me along. I cannot run as fast as you; that is not my fault but yours.” But she could not hear him, so intent was she on returning home, where she soon forgot about the frog and what he did for her in the forest.
But women were not allowed to forget anything in this country. The frog sank back into the water in the well, where he waited like a heartbeat.
The next day the princess was sitting at the table with the king and all the people of the court, and was eating from her golden plate when something with a lipless mouth and thumbless hands that knew her name came creeping up the marble steps.
She ran to see who was outside. She opened the door, and the frog was sitting there, panting with its purple tongue, eyes rolling wildly in both directions. Frightened, she slammed the door shut and returned to the table. The king saw that her distress and asked, “My child, why are you afraid? What was at the door?”
“It was a disgusting frog,” she told him.
“What does the frog want from you?”
“Oh, father dear, yesterday when I was sitting near the well in the forest and playing, my golden ball fell into the water. And because I was crying so much, the frog brought it back, and because he insisted, I promised him that he could be my companion, but I didn’t think that he could leave the water in the well. But now he is just outside the door and wants to come in.”
Just then there came a second knock at the door.
The king said, “What you have promised, you must keep.”
“But I didn’t really promise,” the princess said. “He made the promise for me.”
The princess was very unlucky. The king’s face darkened, and she shrank back in her seat, too late to go unnoticed. And all her father said was: “Go and let the frog in.”
She went and opened the door, and the frog hopped in, then followed her up to her chair. He sat there and called out, “Lift me up next to you.”
She hesitated, until finally the king commanded her to do it. When the frog was seated next to her he said, “Now push your golden plate closer, so we can eat together.” His breath smelled of mud and worms and dead leaves, and she shuddered but she obeyed him. The frog did not mind that she shuddered, only that she did it.
Everyone could see that she did not want to, but no one noticed. The frog enjoyed his meal, but for her every bite stuck in her throat. Finally he said, “I have eaten all I want and am tired. Now carry me to your room and make your bed so that we can go to sleep.”
The princess began to cry. “You are dirty and wet and cold to the touch,” she said. “How can I let you sleep in my beautiful, clean bed?”
“Put me in between your knees,” the frog told her. “I will be warm there, and the only thing that will get dirty is you, and you can wash.”
The king became angry and said, “You should not rebuff someone who has helped you in your time of need. You owe him.”
And the princess would have given her ball back to the well, if she could. “I would rather have a punishment than a favor like this one again,” she said bitterly.
She picked the frog up with two fingers and held him as far away from him as she could. Her skin puckered wherever he touched her. She carried him upstairs and set him in a corner, where he stared at her. As she was lying in bed, he came creeping up to her and said, “I am tired, and I want to sleep as well as you do. Pick me up or I’ll tell your father.”
With that she became furiously angry and threw him against the wall with all her might. “Now you will have your peace, you disgusting frog!”
And when he fell down, he croaked louder and louder until her father the king filled the doorway. And her father the king picked the frog up himself and placed him in bed with her. And the frog crawled underneath her knees and she hated the touch of him. The princess wished all her skin was dead and gone.
By and by he fell asleep, and she lay awake and staring all night, and for many nights afterwards.
She was a very unlucky princess.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.