The Frog Who Foiled the Fantasticator

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Rare are they who can by their very presence bring about the emergence of the fantastic from the most common of things and the most mundane of people.

So rare indeed, that most towns only had one such person, only one whose speech inspired the emergence of energy from lethargy, whose gaze transformed ugliness to beauty, and whose touch could change a blunder into a wonder.

Feodora was one such person.

A person known throughout the realm as a fantasticator.

***

When she had reached but two years of age, Feodora got away from her father one day, and stumbled through the quarry where he worked.  He managed to catch her before she could be hurt by the rough stones and sharp rock that surrounded her.  But before he could stop her, her toddling feet had touched dozens of rocks.  When later they were split apart, the insides flashed and glittered like jewel.  The rock-splitters had never seen such beauty in the common rocks they hammered every day.

And Feodora had managed to put one small stone in her mouth, which her father deftly fished out before she could swallow it.  A rock went into the babe’s mouth, but a whole world came out, for the rock was a rock no more, but some kind of seedling, just sprouted.  And still sprouting, so suddenly that it startled her father.  He dropped the seedling and it gripped the earth and took root, right there in the rocky soil of the quarry.

Perhaps it was luck that had led little Feodora to find that seedling.  Or perhaps it had never been a seedling at all, until Feodora touched it.

After that, the child was tested by the jolly old man who was the fantasticator in their town at the time.  And he found her worthy to be the heir of his gift.  Just in time was Feodora named heir, for the old fantasticator had been nearing death since before she was born.  He told her mother and father to give him the child as an apprentice when she was of age.  And he hoped she would do well, for he had failed three prior apprentices, and once he cast them out, their powers had faded no matter how hard their tried to keep them.

But before the end of the season, before Feodora reached her third year, the old fantasticator died.

***

Feodora was young and in need of instruction before she could become the town’s next fantasticator.  The town, while not poor, was of modest wealth.  Too modest to hire a proper fantasticator tutor for the girl.  So her mother and father and the town’s tutors and teachers did their best to teach her about fantastication.  And to their delight, Feodora needed little teaching.  So they placed upon her head the dented hat of a fantasticator apprentice.  Her powers did not falter or fade in time.  They only seemed to grow.

She once skipped by the house of a wood-cutter and spoke to him of his trade.  Inspired by her words, he became a carpenter, the best in town.  A bird landed on her head one day and when Feodora glanced up at him, his brilliant blue-and-green wings transformed into a fine coat, and he transformed into a fairy.  And the golden-eyed fairy laughed and danced and made mischief with the other birds until transforming back.  And thereafter became the town’s merry trickster.

The tree that grew from the seedling Feodora had spit from her mouth stood three times her father’s height by the time Feodora reached five years of age.  It bore fruit that was sweet or sour or savory, as fit the needs of the one who picked it.  But always it was hearty, and it fed the workers of the quarry so well that they thanked it each day.

One day when she had grown to the age of ten years, Feodora found a friend sitting sadly on a stump.  Her friend munched on a browning apple, and gazed into Feodora’s glittery eyes.  She sighed and said that she wished she was a fantasticator like Feodora, for then she would not be filled with fears and doubts and would not be doomed to a dull destiny.

Feodora placed a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder.  She could see that her friend’s fears were for naught, but she could not tell why.  The apple caught her eye then, and she swiped it away from her friend before the girl could take another bite.

“Say, Feo.  What do you mean by taking my lunch?” the girl said.

Feodora gazed at the apple.  In her hands, she saw an apple whose insides were fresh and crisp, glittering with juice.  Its skin was shades of garden green and deep red with lavender spots.  Its sweet scent was near-intoxicating.  She handed the apple back to her friend who gaped at it.

“I see,” the girl said.  She grinned at Feodora.  “At least my lunches will be extraordinary so long as you are my friend.”

Feodora said nothing, but watched her friend bite into the apple.  Suddenly, the girl opened her mouth, and uttered a note of song.

The note she sang pierced the air with breathtaking beauty.

Feodora sat upon the log and listened.

So it was, and as she grew older, so grew her powers.

In her twelfth year, Feodora skipped through her neighbor’s yard, bowing to a merchant who was leaving town.

He was gazing up at the sky.  He glanced down at her and pointed upward.

“Forgive me, but is that pig flying?”

Feodora glanced up just as she heard a squeal of nervous delight from the winged piglet making circles in the sky above them.

“But of course,” she said.  “Why would he be doing anything else?”

“Because pigs cannot fly, Feo,” a familiar voice spoke.  “At least not typically.  But no pig is typical when in your presence, eh?”

Feodora recognized the voice.  It was her friend the starling-turned-fairy.  He was in his starling form, perched upon a branch and watching the brave piglet.  Her brothers and sisters were too nervous to try their wings.

The merchant noted the hat Feodora wore, the hat of the fantasticator apprentice.   He raised his brows and bowed his head to her as he passed by.

“His town most likely does not have a fantasticator,” Fair-starling said.  “Some don’t, you know.  You’re a rare bird, my friend.  Just as I am.”

Feodora wondered at that.  The merchant’s question had seemed strange to her, for to her, the pigs all had wings.  She knew that a typical pig did not, though she had never seen a typical pig with her own eyes.  It was a challenge to know from her mother, father, and teachers, what was typical, but to never see the truth of the typical.

For Feodora only ever saw the fantastical.

***

Feodora was approaching her thirteenth year.  Her powers had peaked once more.  Her mere presence now shifted the colors and shapes of all around her.  She walked often through the forest near her town.  Tree trunks turned a richer brown, and leaves changed color as they fluttered.  Birds sang the songs of the squirrels and the squirrels sang the songs of the birds.  The bees built hives so grand and so honey-filled, they looked like golden trees in the midst of the forest.

One day, Feodora walked along a stream when a sudden splash caught her attention, and she watched as two fish leapt out of the water and onto shore.  They wiggled and worked their mouths and flailed their legs as if they did not know how to use them.  They gasped as if taking breath.  They righted themselves and walked with a wobble.

Their eyes turned shape and color as they walked about as if searching.

“Pardon me,” Feodora said.  “But what are you doing?”

One of the fish stopped and dipped his front limbs in greeting.  “The riverbed has grown rather dull of late.  We thought we might take a jaunt to find some worthy decoration.”

“Ah, I have found something,” the other fish said.  “Help me carry it, and let’s be off.”

Feodora waved to them as they pulled a large stone, glittering with the colors of the night sky, into the stream.

The stream soon lead to a little falls that ended in a pool, and beyond the pool was a small pond.  Here, Feodora took her rest.  And as she did, she watched the waters flow gently around the lotus blooms and lily pads that floated upon the pond.

Little green frogs sat upon some of the lily pads.  They croaked and leapt and somersaulted in the air.   Some of them changed colors and patterns as they leapt.  Some of them sprouted more legs.  One of them stood upright on his hind legs, and then turned to face forward.  He took a few steps, shook his head, and dropped back down on his hind legs.  He closed his eyes and on his back grew dozens of tiny yellow flowers.

Feodora sat and watched the frogs frolick.  But after a while, she noticed one, perched on a lily pad near the shore, who was also watching the others.  There was something strange about this frog.  But she could not say what it was.

Feodora rose and approached the frog.  He glanced over and saw her approaching, but said nothing.  And Feodora realized what seemed so odd to her about the frog.

He looked like what her teachers had told her a typical frog would look like.

He did not have three pairs of eyes, or a tongue that could split and catch two flies at once, or fins so that he might swim in the water as a fish swam.

“Why haven’t you changed?” Feodora asked, forgetting politeness.

But the frog seemed to understand her question.  “Because I don’t want to,” he said.

Feodora frowned.  “But…why don’t you want to?”

The frog was surrounded by a haze of bluish mist, a haze that seemed to be trying to take shape, reaching for the frog, but never touching him.

“I am content with being as I am,” the frog said.  “Leave me be, fantasticator.”  The frog hopped from one lily pad to the next until he had crossed the pond and vanished into the cattails on the opposite shore.

Feodora squeezed her eyes shut.  Something was wrong with them.  It must have been.  For she had only seen the frog, the typical frog.  It could not be.  All things, from rock to bird to girl to frog, all things changed when Feodora was near.  She did not always see the change.  But she knew it happened.

She had never known it to be otherwise.  She walked around the pond to where the frog now sat on the shore, but still close to the edge of the water.

The frog sighed.  “You are as welcome to these shores as any, fantasticator, but I will be more content when you are gone.”

“Why?” Feodora felt a sudden pang in her chest.  It stopped her short, and she suddenly felt so weak that she had to sit down.

“When you are gone, most of these fools will settle down.  Their colors will fade back to green.  Their extra legs and eyes and whatnot will vanish.  They won’t even speak for a while, but only croak, croak in unison.  Ah the sound of it soothes my weary soul.”

Feodora glanced out upon the pond and its rambunctious inhabitants.

She had known that some of the effects of her fantastication were fleeting, like the subtle changes in the colors of the rocks she passed, and some effects were lasting, like the transformation of her friend the Fair-starling.  She did not know why this was so.  Her teachers had simply told her it was the way of fantastication, which she took to mean that they also did not know.

But she had never encountered anything that resisted fantastication.

Feodora gathered her thoughts and opened her mouth to speak to the frog.  But she felt that pang in her chest again.  It was not pain, not like the pain of a blow from a fist, or a bite from teeth.  But it felt akin to pain.  She was thrown at how greatly it weakened her limbs.

The frog suddenly leapt away.  Feodora knew she should let him be.  But she felt that pang again, and she rose, and ran after the frog.  The leaves beneath her feet turned to sponge and she bounced along, following the sounds of the frog’s leaping through the forest.

As she chased after the frog, she stumbled on a fallen log.  She caught herself and stopped for a moment.  Feodora felt a strange tension within her.  This was different from the pang.  Her skin grew hot, her chest tight.  She felt a sudden urge to the kick the fallen log.  She gasped and caught herself, but that urge still bubbled and broiled within her.

She rolled her hands into fists and uttered a fierce cry.

“My dear friend, I do believe you’re angry,” a familiar voice said.

Feodora did not look up to see who is was.  She knew it was her friend, the starling-turned-fairy.  He swooped toward her and landed on her shoulder.

“Angry?”  Feodora knew what the word meant.  She had seen many of her fellow townsfolk become angry, and had appeased them all without fail.  But she had never before felt anger herself.  She did not like the feeling.  She put her hand to her chest, in the hopes that she might transform it to something else.

She did, or so it seemed, but the next feeling was just as unpleasant.  The heat within her cooled, but it cooled too much until there seemed a cold hollow in the middle of her chest.  It felt as if all the warmth was draining from her.

“Dear Fair-starling, I do believe I have encountered a thing that cannot be fantasticated.”

“What will you do?”

“I will find him.  I will ask him ‘why?’”

“And if he does not answer?”

“I must compel him.”

“How?”

“Perhaps…”  Feodora glanced around.  She noted the many glittering insects that hovered in the air so near the pond waters.   “Perhaps by bringing him a gift.”

***

With the Fair-starling’s help, Feodora gathered an assortment of juicy flies, gnats, and even beetles to bring to the unchanging frog.  And also with her friend’s help, she found the frog.  He had hid himself beside a deep puddle, whose waters had not dried out since the last heavy spring rain.  He was nestled in the wet leaves, resting.

Feodora approached slowly, afraid he would hop away.

“I will not flee,” the frog said with a sigh.  He glanced up at the sky.  “Your fool fairy friend would only find me.  I will have no peace until you have your piece.”

“I have brought you an offering.”  Feodora lay the pile of insects before the frog.

“All dead, I see,” he said.  But his tongue flicked out and ate one of the offerings.

He was silent then, and so was Feodora.  She was burning with curiosity.  But she also could not look away from the frog and that strange straining haze around him.  She settled nearby and gazed at him.

“Do you know how the fantasticators came to be?” the frog said at last.  “Did your master teach you?”

“I had no master.  I was meant to, but he died before he could teach me anything.”

“Well, that’s a shame.”

“I do have teachers.  Many teachers.”

“Well, that’s even more of a shame then.  Not a one has told you why you came to be, have they?”

Feodora frowned.  “If they have not told me, it is because they do not know.  And if they do not know, then you could not know.”

“You think me a bluffer?”  The frog scoffed.  “Why would I bother bluffing?  That’s far too interesting a thing to do, and I am not interested in being interesting.”

“Say I believe you,” Feodora said to the frog, tipping her head and rubbing her chin.  “What would you tell me?”

“Nothing!  It’s far too interesting a tale.”  He turned, poised to hop away, as if he had changed his mind.

“Wait!  What if I were fall asleep while you spoke?” Fedora offered, remembering that her friends often spoke of getting drowsy when they encountered something uninteresting in their lessons.  “Would that convince you the tale did not interest me?”

The frog turned back toward her.

Feodora shifted her position until she sat, cross-legged, and leaned her back against a nearby chestnut tree.  She did not want to risk losing sight of him, but she trusted that Fair-starling was watching.  So she crossed her arms and closed her eyes.

“Very well, I like the sound of that.  It is a dull tale, but necessary for you to know.  For long ago, there was no need for fantasticators.”

Feodora wanted to open her eyes.  She almost did, but resisted.

“All was fantastic, and all was mundane,” the frog said.  “It was merely a matter of will.  What did one choose?  As I might choose a moth for my breakfast, or perhaps a fly, so I might choose to turn to stone for a day, and live as the stone lives, or take root in the ground like a tree, or sprout a crown of horns, like a mighty deer.  I might learn the language of the ants if I chose, or spin spider-silk into a dress for the queen of the rabbits.”

Feodora wanted to smile.  For it amused her that a frog who claimed distaste for the fantastic, spoke so fantastically.

“But there was so much confusion in the land,” the frog continued, “that our people were in danger of succumbing to mayhem.  Beauty and wonder all broken asunder.  No frog in the land knew her face from another’s.  Alas, for the gift of the fantastic had become a curse.  And though none seemed at fault, there was need for the hand of order to temper the chaos.  The leaders of the time devised rules by which each being should comply.  To choose a primary form and a primary language.  No transformations on Tuesdays.  No magic on Mondays.  And so forth.  The rules worked well.  Too well.”

The frog was silent for a while, and Feodora wondered if she should open her eyes to check if he still sat on his pile of leaves across from her.

Instead, she dared to speak.  “What happened then?”

“Why then, fair fantasticator, then…the fantastic began to fade.”

Feodora opened her eyes.  She uncrossed her arms and pushed herself upright.

“Are you falling asleep yet?”

Feodora glanced down to where her hands were pressed in the ground.  A worm squirmed up from the dirt between the fingers of her right hand.  It flattened and flattened until it transformed in a brilliant white disc.  She picked up the disc with her other hand and set it aside.

“Have you never wondered why you and I speak and why the tree you lean against does not?”

Feodora glanced at the frog.  She had indeed wondered such, but had never received an answer to her questions, and so, in time, she had stopped asking.

“Do you know that there are some lands where the animals do not speak?” the frog continued.  “And some lands where all the trees do speak?”

Feodora felt her eyes widen.  “The fantastic faded, but in different measures in different places.”

“Indeed.”

“And…the fantasticators, we were born to restore the fantastic.”

“Some say that the last of the magicians created the first fantasticators, and gave them the power to pass on their powers.”  The frog croaked then, and his croak seemed a croak of dissent.

“What do you say?”

“That the fantastic seeks to be reborn.  Confounding and befuddling, and incapable of leaving a world well enough alone.  That is what the fantasticators are.  A burst of the fantastic seeking to rejoin the world it left.”

Feodora was silent for a moment.  “Did it leave?  Or was it drained away?”

“Ah, you think there was some sinister force, seeking to foil the fantastic?  To what end?”

Feodora raised a brow and leaned forward.  “To have some peace and quiet perhaps.”

The frog laughed then, startling her.  “It is true, I find the fantastic tiresome.”  He paused.  “But not all frogs—or other folks—do.  I want none of it, but I do not begrudge the world to have some of it.”

Feodora glanced down at the ground again, thinking on the frog’s words.

“Sometimes there is some sinister force,” he said, “plotting and moving to dismantle and destroy.  But sometimes, dear child, there is no force beyond that of mere decay.  The fantastic was not drained from our world.  It was forgotten.  Not by one hand or one mind or one heart was it vanquished but by many, bit by bit, as they forgot.  I may not desire the fantastic.  But I will not forget it.”

Feodora raised her head and looked at the frog.  He was gazing at her through the bluish haze around him.

***

Feodora walked along in the forest, peering at the trees, the birds, the rabbits hopping to and fro.  They all changed as she passed by, or so it seemed.  But perhaps there was one in the swarm of gnats she passed through, just one who resisted fantastication, either for the moment, or for always.  She wondered.

“How does it feel to be foiled?”

She glanced to her left and saw the Fair-starling perched upon a branch.  He flapped toward her, and she held out her hand so that he might land upon it.  He transformed into a fairy as he did, then flipped back his gleaming blue-and-green coat and bowed to her.

“I…have survived it.”  She pressed her lips in thought, remembering the gauntlet of feelings she had suffered.  “I did not think I could.”

“Come, there is a punctilious pie-maker I would have you meet.  For his pies are precise, but they are not sweet.  Not yet…”  With that, he leapt off her hand, transformed back into a starling mid-leap, and swooped ahead of her.

Feodora followed.  She inspired the pies to become fantastic, of course.  For few in that realm longed to be anything other than fantastic.

And there was a time when Feodora would have disagreed with those few.

But after all, the frog, that common, mundane, ordinary frog, had given her what all the fantastic beings and things had never given her in the life, for she had been always surrounded by the fantastic.  The fantastic did not surprise her, as it did so many others.

But that frog, with that confounding haze of the fantastic, trying but failing to grasp him, he had managed to surprise her.

And she realized that what was truly fantastic was what was different.  She had only ever known the fantastic.  And so, to Feodora, what was fantastic was mundane and what was mundane was fantastic.

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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