“Changes” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

“Changes” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

In the pond, we notice changes. If a heron lands nearby, someone will croak an alarm—usually me. If one of the humans who hunts frogs for food comes to the pond, we all croak and try to leap before they can catch us. When the winter eases and we wake up to damp weather and warmth in the world above the water, we know it’s time to sing for mates.

The first time the shore girl came to the flat rock beside the pond, we all went still. She came often, though, and we grew used to her. She never hunted us, just sat on a rock on the shore, watching all the life of the pond. Sometimes I climbed a bullrush and watched her, and she watched me back until I had to drop into the water before I dried out.

When the witch came in late summer, pushing the prince in front of her, with him stumbling because of the bindings on his legs, his hands tied behind him, I was again near the seed-head of a bullrush, watching.

In my floodtide of family, which started as an egg-clutch of perhaps two thousand, only about forty of us survived tadpole stage, and only thirteen of us became froglets, then frogs. I was the smallest and least successful among my siblings at finding a mate in the springtime, but the best at watching and warning and remembering. I remembered witches could be dangerous, collecting frogs to use in their spells, and called an alert about her approach, then waited to watch what she might do next.

The witch turned the prince into a frog, tossed him into the pond, and left, cackling. When her laughter faded, I called to let the others know it was safe to come out again, then jumped down and swam out to greet the new frog.

Some of the songs we sing late in the season, when mating and egg-laying are done and the time to hibernate approaches, are about things like this; we recite our histories to each other, teach the newest frogs what to watch for before we go down into dreams for the winter. Frog princes have lived among us before, since our pond is in a wood near several villages with castles in them. These princes are not always successful frogs. Often they don’t listen to the rest of us. They refuse to learn.

I had heard these stories many times, though I had never watched a prince turn into a frog before.

This one was greatly confused. “What am I? Who are you? Where are we?” he asked.

“A frog,” I said. “My name is Burvis. We’re in the pond.”

He croaked without making words, a thrum that resounded through the water and irritated everyone because it meant nothing. My biggest brother croaked, “Make him be quiet, Burvis!” and everybody else croaked, “Do it!” They were all engaged in hunting, hiding, or thinking.

“Quiet, quiet, quiet,” I told the prince, and nudged him toward the rushes. He waved arms and legs without getting anywhere at first. I had to teach him how to swim. But at least he stopped croaking.

At the rushes I taught him to climb up out of the water, so we could talk without disturbing everyone else—air carries much thinner sound than water.

“A frog,” said the prince. He looked at me with one large golden eye, then the other. He spread out his fingers and stared at them. He clutched the reed and croaked again, thrum, thrum, thrum, only this time I understood: despair, despair, despair.

“Stop it. If you bother us, we won’t help you,” I said.

He inflated his air sacks and thrummed once more, then subsided.

“I’ll teach you how to be a frog,” I said. I was an excellent hunter, and could catch flies, mosquitoes, worms, minnows, and other flying, creeping, and swimming things without much effort. Though I ate well, I didn’t grow larger, even though I longed to. No female frog had ever responded to my spring songs, though everyone listened to my alarm calls.

I had never fertilized an egg, but I could teach the newcomer everything else he needed to know. I said, “What you have to do is stop being stupid. What’s your name?”

“Prince Leopold,” he said. He raised himself, slumped, raised himself again. Then he tucked in his head and stared down toward the water. “I will do my best not to be stupid, Lord Burvis, but I’m not sure I can succeed. If I were smart, I wouldn’t have offended that witch.”

“I’ll teach you anyway,” I said, “but if you’re too tadpole, I’ll leave you on your own.”

He clutched the reed, flattening against it as best he could, and finally said, “Thank you.”

* * *

Leopold proved to be a good student, and in return for my teaching, he told me tales of life beyond the pond. At first I didn’t believe him. How could anyone survive so far from water? He said sometimes humans didn’t immerse themselves for days. They walked about in the air without drying out and dying. They drank water with their mouths, and that didn’t seem right, either. Mouths were for eating. Skin was for drinking.

Leopold was delighted to learn that frogs could breathe through their skin and stay submerged as long as they liked. He enjoyed exploring the mud at the pond’s bottom, and occasionally got excited about hard metal things he found there, though they were not food. I told him they were things someone had thrown into the water generations ago. Once he tried to carry a small one in his mouth to the shore, but it was too heavy for him, so he dropped it again.

He came to the song gatherings in the evenings and listened to frog histories, including the stories about previous princes: William, who had been spitted by a heron and then swallowed; Harold, who had been caught by a child and carried away, never to be heard from again; and Simon, who had been kissed back into being a human, and sometimes during his human life thereafter, had come back to the pond to cast breadcrumbs and bits of meat into the water, though he no longer spoke our language.

So Leopold learned, and the others learned to like him. When we went down into the mud for the winter, he huddled close with the rest of us and dropped into dreams.

* * *

When we woke, Leopold and I hunted the spring bug hatches. He grew fat on spring abundance, glossy and handsome. I stayed the same size. We hunted and fed for a few days, and then courtship season came, and we gathered with the other male frogs along the margins of the pond and sang the night down, calling for females to come and nudge us so we would know we were the ones they picked.

My courtship voice was small, as always. Leopold’s was loud and full. Females approached us, some I had known since they were tadpoles, and gathered around Leopold.

“Burvis can’t teach you anything about this,” said my biggest brother, who had been singing near us. “Take lessons from me instead.”

“Burvis, go,” Leopold said.

I looked at Rayna, the most beautiful female frog in the pond, gloriously spotted down her back, her eyes elegant mottled gold, her back legs muscular and powerful. She was the one I dreamed of during the deep sleep of winter. She stared only at Leopold now, and nudged him with her nose.

“Go,” he told me, and I swam away. I found another calling place, and called until cold clamped down on the night, but no female came to me.

During the days, Leopold joined me to hunt, but at night he went courting with my brother and the others. “I like this life,” he said.

I found my own place to sing, for I could not stop the songs from coming out of me, but no one answered.

I watched for danger.

I was watching when the shore girl returned, after the days were long and warm, and the edges of the pond had retreated inward. She was larger than she had been last summer. She changed every year. We changed, too, so this didn’t surprise me.

This year, she made noises and held her head in her hands.

Leopold climbed the rush next to mine. He was now half again as large as I was. When he saw the girl, he thrummed. “Who is that?” he asked.

“The shore girl. She’s come here the past three years.”

“Why is she crying?”

“Is that what she’s doing? I’ve never seen her do it before. What kind of behavior is it?”

“She is distressed.” He turned his head to study her, first from one eye, then the other. “She wears rich raiment. I wonder who she is.” He pushed up from his reed and croaked loudly. “Girl!”

She lifted her head, rubbed her eyes, and looked toward us.

“What is the matter?” Leopold croaked.

The shore girl’s throat swelled and shrank. She looked toward the path most humans used to come to the pond. She had her own path, from a different direction, and her rock was far from the regular path; the rushes were closer to her than to the human path.

For the first time, the shore girl spoke, softly, but I could not understand her croaks.

Leopold could, though. His fingers tightened on his reed. “Her parents are forcing her to marry a man she hates,” he said. “He is a prince, but a big old man, and horrible. She has heard that he’s beaten his three previous wives to death. She does not know how to escape her fate. She is the fifth of five sisters—”

Such small families humans had.

“And all her other sisters are already married. She would take any escape she could find. She doesn’t know what to do.” She spoke a few more words, and Leopold cried: “Wait!” He tumbled from his rush and kicked toward shore.

He reached the marshy edge and leaped across the mud, right up onto the rock where the shore girl sat. I followed.

“Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” Leopold croaked at the girl. She stared down at him, her hands twisted in the folds of her skirt, her eyes wide.

“Don’t what?” I asked.

“She thinks to cast herself in the pond and drown. She doesn’t know how to swim.”

I thrummed. It’s disgusting when large animals die in the pond. They flavor the water and take a long time to settle and dissipate.

Besides, I didn’t want the shore girl to die. She was my favorite wildlife to watch.

Leopold leaped up onto the shore girl’s knee. “Don’t,” he said again. “Kiss me instead.”

The shore girl stared into his large golden eyes. I thought about the story of Simon, who had been kissed back into a human.

I jumped up on the girl’s other knee. She, a great awkward thing with water weedy hair and dry skin, was not my idea of a perfect mate. My idea of a perfect mate would never accept me, though. I had learned from Leopold that humans could be interesting and sensible, no matter how ugly they were.

The shore girl lifted Leopold in her hands and stared into his eyes. He sang his courtship song to her. I inflated my air sacs, then sighed and let them deflate.

She set Leopold back on her knee and picked me up. I did not sing to her; I only stared at her. She was not any of the colors I longed for, moist, green, brown-spotted skin, golden eyes, slender long fingers with pads on the ends, but she was someone who saw me. Her hand was warm against my belly; her touch, though dry, was gentle.

She lifted me to her lips and kissed me. Her lips were warm and soft, and full of some startling charge, like the shock of movement a tossed rock sends through water as it splashes down.

For the third time in my life, I changed into something new. It hurt. It was not the cold shock of hatching from an egg, nor the gradual shift of tadpole into frog, with the pushing out of limbs, the shifting of eyes, the disappearance of tail. It was sudden and major. I grew many times my size, and all my limbs changed. Everything did. Change shook and gripped and finally released me. I squatted on the rock beside the shore girl, and she was no longer a giant.

Leopold croaked and croaked from her knee, dancing with rage. I stared at my strange, strange hand, touched my head to feel the brown grass that grew there, looked at the shore girl.

She smiled. I knew that meant she was happy. She set Leopold on the rock and turned to me. “He was too big,” she said. “He looked like a bully. You looked nicer.”

I lifted my hand, touched her lips. The charge was still there, though I didn’t change again.

“Will you be mine?” she asked, words I had waited all my life to hear from a female.

“I will,” I said.

She hugged me.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Lightspeed, and other magazines and anthologies.