JENNY AND HOP
In the rushes along the edge of a large pond not far from a small village, there once lived two toads named Hop and Jenny. Hop and Jenny Toad spent their days catching flies for breakfast and lunch, and moths for dinner. Sometimes they shared a plate of worms for dessert.
They had exactly one hundred tadpole children, who lived in the water at the edge of the pond near the tall rushes.
At the far side of the pond, in an elegant green castle partially hidden among especially tall rushes, there dwelt the Great Toad Witch Queen and her little Toad King and their little toad tadpoles.
One day the Great Toad Witch Queen said, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the most tadpoles of all?” The Great Toad Witch Queen was a proud queen.
In the glass of the mirror appeared the two toads who lived in the rushes with their hundred tadpole children. Said the mirror, “O Queen, of tadpoles you have quite a few, but Hop and Jenny have many more than you.”
“There must be something wrong with that mirror,” thought the Queen. “Let me try the one in the bathroom.” But the bathroom mirror said, “O Queen, a great queen you surely are, but Jenny has more tadpoles by far.”
Annoyed, the Great Toad Witch Queen thought, “There’s one more mirror in the attic, an old one; that will be the right one to ask.” But the old mirror in the attic said, “O Queen, of tadpoles you have many, but not as many as Hop and Jenny.”
Then the Great Toad Witch Queen became angry and even more jealous. “Does this Jenny think she is a Princess? Is she trying to have the most tadpoles of any toad ever? Does she one day want to take my place and become Queen herself?”
And with that she decided to put a spell on Jenny.
Out of the castle window and over the green water flew the spell. It flew over the pond’s surface with the wings of a dragonfly, over to the rushes where Hop and Jenny lived, and landed right on top of Jenny’s head.
Poof! Suddenly Jenny Toad disappeared, and in her place was . . . still Jenny, but different: now she was a young woman! In her head echoed the words of the spell: too many tadpoles!
The new Jenny was prettier than the old warty Jenny. That’s what almost everyone would say – but not Hop. Hop didn’t find the new Jenny attractive at all. He missed his old Jenny. The new Jenny was a human being, and he was afraid of her. Hop hopped away as fast as he could.
Of course the new Jenny couldn’t live in the rushes any more. So she rented a room not far from the pond. Every night from outside her window she would hear her lonely Hop Toad calling her:
“Br-a-a-a-a-a-a-k! . . . Br-a-a-a-a-a-a-k! . . . Br-a-a-a-a-a-k!”
She would go out in her bare feet in the wet grass looking for him, but her footsteps would always frighten him, and he would stop calling and fall silent, and she could never find him.
One day Hop Toad, distraught, decided to hop all the way around to the elegant green castle on the far side of the pond. As soon as he arrived, he asked the Great Toad Witch Queen, “O Queen, what can I do to get my beloved Jenny back? I promise, toad’s honor, that we’ll never again have more tadpoles than you. You are the Queen of tadpoles.”
“Well,” said the Great Toad Witch Queen, “perhaps I was a bit hasty.” She thought a while, and then with a quiet and almost remorseful croak she said, “Hop Toad, you will have to do something that’s not natural to you, because you are a toad. You will have to let yourself be caught. Tomorrow night, go sit in the wet grass outside Jenny’s window and give your usual call; but don’t hop away when you hear footsteps. Then see what happens.”
Hop Toad hopped all the way back to his side of the pond. Then the Great Toad Witch Queen sent a message to Jenny by dragonfly mail. Jenny received it the next morning. Opening the fragile piece of paper, Jenny read, “Tonight go out in the wet grass in your bare feet and do something that is not natural to you, because you are a young woman: pick up the first toad you find and hold it close to your lips; then see what happens.”
That night she waited and listened. She heard a toad calling
“Br-a-a-a-a-a-a-k! . . . Br-a-a-a-a-a-a-k! . . . Br-a-a-a-a-a-k!”
Following her instructions, she went out in the wet grass in her bare feet. She followed the toad-call, and found a toad that did not hop away in fright. She bent down and picked it up. She held it close to her face, something that is not natural for a young woman to do.
In that instant, Hop Toad felt a strange urge he had never felt before. He stretched out his body and kissed the young woman full on her lips.
Poof! Suddenly Jenny the young woman disappeared . . . and in her place was Jenny Toad again.
Every year after that Hop and Jenny raised a new brood of tadpoles, but they were always careful not to have as many as the Great Toad Witch Queen. And Hop and Jenny Toad lived happily ever after.
Thanks to Nina West, whose nighttime adventures provided the spark for this story. And thanks to Diana and Jan, who urged me to write it down instead of letting it continue to float only in the clouds of fancy.
This story is available in a printed version with 18 full-color illustrations by Niklas Schemel. To buy a copy for $10, e-mail me (see the “Contact Me” page).
THE GOOD TOWN
Long, long ago in a land far, far away, there was a small town on the eastern shore of the Western Sea. From the distant hills in the east the crystal-clear Roottapappunna River flowed down through the middle of the town to the sea. Along the banks of the river, even in wintertime, grew flowers all the colors of the rainbow—crimson, gold, lemon-color, emerald, turquoise, indigo, lavender. The winter snowflakes were larger and lovelier than anywhere else in the whole country. The summer snowflakes were smaller and only five-sided, but they were almost as beautiful.
In this town the Sun didn’t rise in the east nor set in the west. In the morning, instead, the eastern hills tilted down, revealing the Sun that had been there hiding all the time. And in the evening the horizon of the Western Sea tilted up, hiding the Sun again. In this way day still always followed night and night still always followed day.
In this town there were no traffic lights, because there was no traffic; automobiles hadn’t been invented yet. The children walked to school and the adults walked from their homes to the shops and back again. It was only a small town. To carry their groceries people used small square wooden carts with large round wooden wheels. They had found that it didn’t work very well the other way round.
On Sunday afternoons the townspeople often went for a stroll in Pomegranate Park to visit the unicorns.
But the most remarkable thing about the town was that all the people who lived there were good. When an ugly baby was born all the neighbors crowded around and said what a pretty baby it was, and when the ugly baby grew up to be an ugly young girl, everyone said how beautiful and interesting she was. So she grew up full of self-confidence, and the boys were attracted to her self-confidence and her accomplishments, and when she became a young woman she never lacked for male suitors.
Another good thing about the town was its system of charity. Some time ago, the rich people in town had suddenly realized that giving to charity in the usual way only helped the poor people for a short time. Giving to the poor just increased the rich people’s reputations for doing good, and that made them even more rich, and the poor people stayed poor. So because the rich people loved their town with its crystal-clear Roottapappunna River and the rainbow flowers and the lovely snowflakes in winter and summer, they decided on a special new money-transfer system. The rich people would give lots of money to the town hall, the middle-class people would give just a little, the poor people would give no money at all., and every month the town hall gave all the extra money to the poor people. After that, there wasn’t much difference between rich and poor, and all the townspeople were able to live equally happy lives.
The third good thing about the town was Pomegranate Park. This was a special park that had been made for unicorns. A hundred years ago the unicorns had disappeared from the countryside, or so it seemed. But one spring day a farmer’s daughter and her dog found a pair of unicorns grazing at the edge of town. The good townspeople decided to make a park for them near the Roottapappunna River. They planted it all around with pomegranate trees (pomegranates are unicorns’ favorite food), and they called it Pomegranate Park. Before long there was a whole happy herd of unicorns in Pomegranate Park. They were very tame. On Sundays they would eat pomegranates out of your hand.
One day in the middle of the week in the middle of May, the townspeople began asking themselves, “What shall we do? There’s nothing to do! Everything is so boring! There’s nothing to do!”
After one little boy who had been sitting on the bank of the Roottapappunna River splashing the water with his feet had shouted this out several times, there was suddenly a commotion at the mouth of the Roottapappunna River where it emptied into the Western Sea. “What can that be?” said the townspeople to one another. “It can’t be fish! Not in the middle of the day! It’s too sunny for fish!” They all rushed down to the mouth of the Roottapappunna River. Choppy little waves were dancing brightly in the noonday sun. Then slowly the sky grew dark, stars began twinkling overhead, and a new moon appeared over the western horizon. The choppy little waves grew upwards into an aquamarine-colored fountain, which slowly took the shape of a beautiful fairy. She was semi-transparent, like a pillar of azure or sapphire smoke. You could see right through her to the moon on the horizon. She had long dark hair down to her waist, jeweled bracelets around her wrists, and a band of jewels around her forehead that spun round and round like a slowly twirling top. Her ears came to points like bat’s ears. Tiny peach-colored flowers decorated her arms and her long flowing dress, which was fastened around her waist with a rope of woven ivory-white strands. Her four wings had slender branching veins running all through them. The wings sparkled all over with little blue lights. Each wing was tipped with a long curlicue tendril that dripped tiny droplets into the river. In her left hand she held a wand with a silver star at the end that was almost too bright to look at.
As she floated above the water, looking down at all the townspeople gathered together along the banks of the Roottapappunna River where it met the Western sea, she said, “O townspeople, you have said you are bored. I am the Semi-Transparent Fairy who has been appointed to watch over your town. As a reward for being good people, and for all the good things you have done, I will grant you a special wish that will make things more interesting for a day. You may make three wishes, but I will grant only one of them and I will decide which one. Tomorrow at midday I shall return to hear your three wishes.”
At noon the next day the townspeople gathered at the mouth of the Roottapappunna River where it emptied into the Western Sea. Once again there was a commotion of waves at the mouth of the river, and once again the sky grew dark, the stars twinkled overhead, and the moon again appeared over the western horizon. Once again the Semi-Transparent Fairy grew up out of the choppy waves. You could still see right through her to the moon on the horizon.
“O townspeople, what have you decided?” asked the Semi-Transparent Fairy. The Mayor of the town replied, “We have always wanted to live in harmony with Nature, so we wish to be Mayflies for a day.” The Fairy said, “That is not a good idea. Mayflies only live for a day, so by the end of the day you would all be dead, and that would be the end of your town.”
“Oh, dear,” said the Mayor, “that would not be good at all.” The Mayor looked back at all the townspeople standing behind him, who nodded encouragement. The Mayor turned back to the Semi-Transparent Fairy and said, “We did have a second wish, just in case. Sometimes we get tired walking everywhere, so we thought it would be nice, just for a day at least, to have wheels instead of feet. We thought we might lose our balance trying to move around on those two wheels, so if we could also have two other wheels in place of our hands, then we could get around town easily on our four wheels.” Said the Fairy, “I’m not sure I could do that. No living creature has wheels. Even if I could, it’s not a good idea. How would you tie your shoelaces? How would you button your shirt? How would you hold your soup-spoon? Or comb your hair or brush your teeth? No,” said the Fairy, “you would not be happy with wheels. Do you have a third wish?”
The Mayor said, “No, not really. We did discuss one possibility, but we didn’t think you could make it come true, even for a day. We decided against it, so I’m afraid we don’t really have a good third wish.”
The Fairy said, “Well, tell me it anyway, and then we’ll see.” So the Mayor said, “Well, we thought it might be interesting if all the water were turned to air and all the air turned to water.” “That I can easily do,” said the Fairy, “although I will have to make a few adjustments so that everything will fit together properly.” Then the Fairy said, “Tomorrow morning, when you wake up, the change will have been made.” And with that, the Fairy sank back into the waves at the mouth of the Roottapappunna River.
The next morning as the Earth tilted downward in the east, the Mayor and the townspeople and the unicorns all woke up to a changed world. The unicorns had floated up to the surface far, far above, and were lost to sight. The Mayor and the townspeople swam underwater down to where the mouth of the Roottapappunna River used to be. Looking down into the airy realm below, they saw fish flying here and there, stopping now and then to perch on a seaweed branch and preen their scales. From below their feet the townspeople could faintly hear the drumming of the fishpeckers, the songs of the fishlarks, and the chirping of the fish-finches. Sometimes a shiny silvery fish would zoom up to the surface and break into the water above it and then fall back down into the air. Jellyfish hung suspended in the undersea atmosphere like birthday balloons. Far below them the townspeople could see what used to be the sea floor, where starfish now clung to the dry rocks and spiny purple sea-urchins slowly crawled along like little cactus plants. They saw the feathery fronds of the corals and the sea-fans and the sea-worms in their tubes trembling gently in the undersea breeze.
The Mayor and the townspeople glided their way back to the center of town. They didn’t have to hold their breath; they just let mouthfuls of sweet crystal-clear water flow over their gills. Little girls’ pigtails drifted upwards in the water, so the girls looked as if they had been hung out to dry on an invisible clothesline. Women’s dresses floated up around their waists and you could see their underwear. A little boy swam past Pomegranate Park and watched a ripe pomegranate break off from its branch and float upward out of sight.
When the townspeople returned to their houses for lunch, they noticed that the sheds where they usually kept their carts seemed to be empty. But when they looked in, there were the carts rocking and bumping gently against the ceiling. At home they found the tables and chairs floating halfway between the floor and the ceiling as if the whole house were in outer space. When they put the plates and the knives and forks on the tables and sat themselves down in the chairs, everything came down to the floor again. Their sandwiches were soggy, but that made them easier to chew and swallow. They didn’t have to fill their glasses with water because they were already full. They didn’t have to wash the dishes afterwards; they only had to wipe them with a wet dishrag. Of course drying them was out of the question.
In the afternoon the boys and girls went out to play ball as they often did. Throwing and batting was harder but catching was easier, so it was just as much fun as ever. Flying kites was easy; they just floated up, and none of them crashed to the ground.
At dinner-time the Jones family made their favorite meal: hamburger and mashed potatoes and peas. The children didn’t seem to mind that the peas hovered over the plates. After dinner there was no sitting around the fire knitting or reading stories or doing homework.
As the western horizon tilted upward and the watery disk of the sun disappeared, everyone went to bed. They floated comfortably above their beds amidst the gently rising air bubbles, and dreamed of sea anemones with soft tentacles of crimson, gold, lemon-color, emerald, turquoise, indigo, and lavender.
In the morning everything was back to normal. The fish were swimming in the river, which ran with water again; the carts rested on the floors of the sheds; the unicorns were back in Pomegranate park; and the townspeople felt under their ears and found they had gills no longer. Bed sheets were hung out to dry. The puddles on the floors of the living rooms and dining rooms soon disappeared.
Whenever, years later, the townspeople recalled that day and the wish they had been granted by the Semi-Transparent Fairy, they remembered how different their lives had been for a day, and how someday things might be different again, if they could only imagine it.
The Professor and the Stork
Not long ago a civil engineer living in the city of Suwalki was run over by a train and killed. He left behind his wife and his ten-year-old daughter, who now were without any means of support. Destitute families in Suwalki were usually maintained by public charity, but in this case the elves who ring the church bells on the occasion of an important person’s death happened to be on strike, and so the desperate straits of the family went unnoticed. The wife and daughter took to the streets, selling fresh flowers they had stolen from graveyards the night before. In this way they made a meager living for several months.
Mother and daughter were not happy living this way. The mother’s health slowly declined. She went to a hospital where she had an operation. Her daughter visited her in the recovery room. In an adjacent bed lay a stork with one wing in bandages. He had fallen off a roof while trying to repair a chimney. While her mother lay sleeping, the girl became friends with the stork—which sometimes happens in hospital rooms, although not often. She learned that the stork was a concert pianist by profession, and also a songwriter by hobby. He confessed that although he was good with melodies, he always had trouble with the lyrics. He shrugged his good shoulder and hummed a few notes to show what he meant. At once, without forethought, the girl said,
“My friend the stork on his stylish stilts
Stalks through the night till the moonbeam wilts.
He fears neither storm nor freezing snow,
He’ll fly to the south where the warm winds blow.”
“The words just come to me. I’m very precocious,” she said.
The girl was not only precocious, she was also prescient. Soon after the mother and the stork had been discharged from the hospital, storms and freezing snow descended on the country, paralyzing it for weeks. Food became scarce. Shops were closed. Flowers were not delivered to graveyards. One early morning, just as the dark of night was turning into the gray of morning, in the cold doorway where they had been sleeping, the girl was shaking her mother as hard as she could but could not wake her. Her mother had died during the night. The girl wept bitter tears.
The stork happened to be passing by on his way to see if there might not be a hole in the ice over the familiar frog pond. He recognized his friend, and stopped to console her. The girl was lamenting, “Oh, what shall I do? Where shall I go?”
“I have an idea,” said the stork; “come with me.” So impoverished had the winter storms left the countryside that of the four directions there remained only two. “We’ll fly south,” said the stork. “We’ll entertain the people. Climb on,” he said, and away to the south they flew.
After a long and perilous flight during which they were beset by wingèd hali at night and flying dragons by day, they finally landed safely, early on a warm Tuesday morning, on a lake near Sterkfontein in the Province of Limpopo. They immediately set about making plans. They decided that the girl should call herself the Itinerant Professor of Philology and Philocaly, and the stork would be the Suwalki Stork of Surreptitiousness. Together they would entertain the townspeople. They made up posters announcing their first concert, to be held the following Sunday afternoon in a field on the west side of town, next to the First-Partial-Skeleton Restaurant. (The restaurant got its name from a three-million-year-old australopithecine, whoever he was, that was found nearby.) An old farmer who had an old piano that hadn’t been tuned in years, as well as a buffalo and a chain, agreed to drag the piano out into the field for the Sunday concert.
When Sunday came around and the church services were over, a small crowd of townspeople gathered in the field to see what would happen. The stork sat on the stool, stretched his wings over his head, and then began to play a simple melody.
No one could see how he did it. He spread his broad wings over the keyboard, and the music magically issued forth. After a minute he stopped and gave a nod to the young Professor, who had been listening carefully. Turning to the people, she said, “Now give me a word.” Someone shouted, “Skeleton!” The stork played the melody over again, and the Professor sang,
“O have pity on the poor Partial Skeleton,
He lives his life without collagen or keratin.
It matters not that he was an African
And used to be a champion at badminton.
He was a fine upstanding citizen.
Now he has no need of insulin or aspirin,
Nor any medicine or clergyman.
We must not question his origin,
Nor assume he was a simpleton or simian.
He was a fine upstanding citizen,
He was a find upstanding citizen, O,
He was a find upstanding citizen.”
The townspeople laughed and applauded.
Thereafter, Sunday after Sunday, the Professor with her amazing vocabulary and the Stork with his magical music on the rickety old piano performed to the delight of the people. Week by week the crowds grew larger.
One Sunday after the usual performance, a tall gentleman with white whiskers and a fearsome scowl presented himself with due formality to the Stork and the Professor. He wore a bright red beret, a sky-blue jacket with gold-fringed epaulettes and twenty-four gold buttons down the front and a diagonal green sash with twenty-four gold medals on it.
“I am the Number One First Prime Minister to the King of Limpopo,” said the tall gentleman. He continued, “And on the King’s behalf I hereby issue you an invitation to give a command performance in his presence next Sunday at four o’clock in the Great Hall of Limpopo Palace. The King will have constructed for you a Royal Piano with new ivory keys made from the best elephant in the Royal Herd. He promises you the most solicitous considerations in exchange for this honor he is bestowing on you, which you would be wise not to refuse.” Without waiting for a reply, he bowed and returned the way he had come.
The Stork and the Professor talked it over. They decided that it would indeed be wise not to refuse. Besides, it would be an honor, and the people would be proud to know that even the King approved of the performances they all so much enjoyed.
So the next Sunday the Professor and the Stork made their way to the Great Hall of Limpopo Palace, where the Royal Piano, the Number One First Prime Minister, and the King himself on his glittering Crystal Throne were waiting. The Stork sat down on the Royal Piano Stool (made from a leg of the best elephant in the Royal Herd), stretched his wings, and began to play. The Professor sang,
“We are honored, O Gracious King,
Who has the best of everything,
Whose Kingdom is ever flourishing,
Whose Wisdom is ever deepening,
To be recipients of your invitation.
Your Number One First Prime Minister,
Than whom no one could be bubblier,
Is beyond a doubt not a daydreamer
Nor yet any common laborer
But one well suited to his occupation.
We wish to provoke no argument
But must protest the sacrifice of an elephant
Merely for the sake of some amusement
Which seems to us a kind of defilement
Not something that earns our approbation.
But hoping tastefully to add to the royal carousing
And not your ire to be arousing
We trust our music you’ll find bewitching
And for further performances you’ll be itching
If such be your Highness’s inclination.
The Number One First Prime Minister applauded vigorously, and the King said, “Very good! Very good! – except for that thing about the elephant. You could have left that out.”
The Stork rose from the stool, and silently he and the Professor bowed politely. Then the King said, “From now on you will honor us with a new performance every day at four o’clock. You can make up for that part about the elephant.”
“But, your Highness,” said the Stork, “the people—we have to perform for the people. And it takes us a few days to prepare.”
“You should have thought of that before,” replied the King. “My Prime Minister will now show you to your chambers. Food and drink will be supplied to you at the usual mealtimes. Meanwhile you can practice; there is a piano and a practice room in your chambers.”
The Professor and the Stork were locked into their rooms. With shock and worry on their faces, they cried at the same time, “What shall we do?”
Day after day the Stork and the Professor performed for the King of Limpopo. Day after day, resting in their chambers after each performance, they looked out through the bars on their windows and wondered how they could escape.
The townspeople missed their Sunday concerts, and soon learned of the plight of their beloved performers. One Sunday in the early evening the Stork and the Professor heard the rattle of a chain on the bars of their window. There was the old farmer with his buffalo! “Pull!” said the farmer to his buffalo, who yanked out the whole window frame, bars and all.
So the Stork and the Professor escaped. They thanked the farmer and all the townspeople who had gathered to watch. They said they were feeling homesick, and must return to their homeland. The Professor climbed onto the Stork’s back and they flew away northward over hill and dale and mountain and sea, braving once again the daytime dragons and the nighttime hali. They finally arrived at Suwalki on a Saturday night. Sunday morning, after a breakfast of frogs and biscuits (frogs from the familiar pond and biscuits begged from an early-morning bakery), they went to the bandshell in the City Center’s park. Stored in a closet they found a piano, and they started rehearsing some old concerts. A crowd soon gathered to listen.
From that day onwards, the Stork and the Professor give regular concerts every Sunday morning after church. The elves, who now rarely went on strike, ring a special tune on the bells to announce the concert. The Professor always begins,
“My friend the stork on his stylish stilts
Stalks through the night until the moonbeam wilts.
We fear neither storm nor freezing snow
But we’ll stay in the north warmed by friendship’s glow.”
They do not lack for food or shelter. The citizens of Suwalki regard them as a city treasure and provide for their every need. As far as is known, the Stork and the Professor are performing there still.