Ball goes up, ball comes down. Like catching a rock, no give, no bounce, it drops with a smack. Blood pools under her lifeline and heartline, skin prickling and reddened. The ball glints yellow against the dark slate walls. Slate is dull, but is at least good for other things. It’s good for drawing pictures; good for the high walls of a castle carved into the hillside, the floor of a quarry courtyard and that deep pit like a sore eye weeping, sat in the middle of it, watching her game.
Ball goes up, ball comes down. Comes down so hard and fast that she fumbles the catch. It misses her fingers, clips her right arm like a fat bullet and lands next to her foot with a sharp crack. Her arm’s numb but for her bony elbow shrieking and burning. The air’s bouncing the echo of her curses from wall to wall as she dances out the pain.
Ball sits there, smug and solid in a nest of shattered grey tile, not a scratch on it, the blasted thing. So she kicks it. She kicks it hard, no mind the toes – and off it goes.
Slate on the quarry floor lies like scattered sheaves of paper, and when it wants it can move like rippling water. The ball slides with the flow, and she watches the blue-gray wave carry it away and away and over the edge of the pit. There’s a patter of small shards and then… Blop.
Aghast, she rushes after it, but too late.
For how fast the ball dropped over the edge, it mocks her now. Slow, it tumbles through the bright blue that fills the hole, shedding its fizz of dry-land bubbles as it goes. Doesn’t fall to a depth beyond seeing, either. It’s caught by a jutting ledge and rests there, flickering in and out of sight with the shifting of the water. Beyond, she can see the long branches of plants caught by the flooding reaching up like fingers.
Takes her a while to realise that the sniffles are coming from her own nose. It’s the disappointment on their faces when she steps home without it and says she lost it. It’s that her birthday gift is lost to Dolly, no less: the sound of the ball hitting the water must be echoing through her tunnels even now. How angry will they be?
The pain in her arm doesn’t hurt half as much as that imagined scene with her parents. She won’t be allowed out again. There’ll be no more sun for one who’d throw its very likeness to the shadows. The sniffles give way to worry and wondering, and she scans the high walls for a face that might have seen, a worker or a guard; anyone strolling the cut-stone steps who might help and never tell.
‘There’s a tricky thing,’ says a voice. Loud and melodic, it is, with a lisping s, and comes from nowhere. ‘You’ll want that bit of finery back, I should think.’
She peers into the dense shadows around the walls. There’s only one other living thing she can see, and that’s a little brown frog nestled in a bit of scrub. Her eye flits over it, but she was right first time. It’s talking to her.
There’s a way this story goes and she’s willing to follow it some, if it’ll get her ball back.
‘You’ll help me, then?’ she asks.
‘Maybe so,’ says the frog. But if the smooth of a frog’s face and the beady of a frog’s eye can look doubtful, the
frog looks doubtful. It gazes into the pool. ‘It’s not dropped that deep,’ it says, finally. ‘You couldn’t clamber down yourself and get it?’
But she can’t, she can’t, and here is why:
‘That’s Dolly’s hole,’ she tells the frog. And the frog does a hop like a shrug. How can you explain Dolly? Dolly, who prowls the quarry depths taking whatever folks are silly enough to give; Dolly, who uses the yearly rising waters to clear the pit of the bones and pickings of the fools who bothered her. Never in a spit of a Sundays would she go into Dolly’s hole. There’s no steps for a reason. The welcoming blue’s a lie; the shadows in there are darker for the warning.
But she says none of that. She puts her hand out for the frog to step onto, and it does, as it must. It’s lighter than she thought it would be, and colder. Its toes grip her skin with a frosting touch, and the rub of its damp, soft belly against her palm soothes the bruises from playing with the ball. Its brown skin is speckled with gold and green, and it smells lightly of clean mud. She looks it in the blue eye and offers: ‘You get my ball for me, and I give you my treasure and my crown.’
But the frog looks round at the quarry and says, ‘Height and stone aren’t much use to me.’
So she says, ‘I’ll love you, and I’ll bring you to my family, and welcome you to the table, and all that that entails.’ And she takes a piece of the splintered slate from where the ball fell, and writes her promise in big letters on the quarry wall where it can be seen and not denied.
Still, the frog gazes into the water once more and says, ‘That’s solid gold, by my reckoning. How does a mite like me pick such a weight up and bring it over the lip of the pit?’
So she puts the frog back in the scrub, sets down on the ground and starts plucking hair from her head. Black hair, it is, and every strand long and stronger than rope, though it looks light enough that spiders might web with it. She takes the hair and knots it and weaves it, and the frog sits alongside her while the sun rises and the sun drops, and they pass a pleasant day chatting while she works. She makes a net, and plaits a length of hair rope to tie to each corner of it, for her hands to grip.
When she’s done, she looks at the sky and the gathering dark and says, ‘It’s almost time. Now, you hop into the water – and be careful, for the slate will slice and the branches will snare – and I’ll drop the net in after you.
You roll my ball into it and I’ll haul it out, and then we’re home free. But we need to be quick.’ And the frog looks at her, admiring, and says that upon its word, she’s most enterprising, and she says it’s most brave. If it weren’t for the peeping moon and the shadow creeping closer, they might’ve whiled the night away sitting and smiling at each other.
On the count of three, the frog jumps into the water and cries out a little. It’s cold-blooded, but there’s a different cold comes from Dolly’s pit and its legs start to stiffen as it kicks, and its thoughts start to addle and slow.
She sees it struggling and says, ‘Move quick!’ and ‘Move strong!’ She can feel the tug of the net and the splashing of the effort, but she’s not watching the frog. She’s watching the water behind it, where the blue is deepening and the dark is rising.
Finally, the frog braces itself behind the ball and it pushes for all its worth, ‘til its shoulders are cricked and its legs coiled to busting – but the ball stays still.
‘Princess,’ says the frog, ‘Princess, I can’t move it.’
‘And I can’t go home without it,’ she says. ‘Try again.’ And it tries, but –
‘Lift me out and let’s run away,’ says the frog, ‘It’s too heavy and I’m so tired I can bare move myself.’ And for a second she takes her eye off the rising black and sees the frog, bobbing at the water line, looking up at her and clinging to the side. She pities it.
‘Climb into the net, frogling,’ she says. The frog, relieved, crawls into the embrace of her knotted hair and thinks itself safe. But the sun’s near down now, and if she can’t disappoint them over the loss of a golden ball, how can she raise the stakes to the loss of their daughter? So she draws the strings close and snares the frog, tangles its fingers and toes until it cries out, ‘I can’t breathe, princess!’
She says, ‘That’d be better’, and crosses herself against the smell rising from the water.
Now the shadow in the pit is at its height – and if you thought the princess’s hair black, you’d think Dolly’s hair is the deep dark of rotted weeds and candles snuffed. It wafts and waves around her white, pocked face. She gazes up with but an inch of water glazing her mottling skin. The red pools of her eyes fix on the hair-net. Her fingers, more twisted than the branches of the drowned trees, point. In the net the frog thrashes and cries, and the princess holds him close but gentle.
‘Grandma Dolly,’ she says, and curtsies, for that’s the manner of it. And with her head bowed low, and still clutching the frog, she asks for her precious ball back.
Dolly picks it up easy, holds it like a crumb between forefinger and thumb. Flicks it like a bit of rolled-up paper into the air. Ball goes up. Smacks into the high wall and cracks a slice of slate away. Ball comes down. Hits the ground and rests in its crater, still no scratch on it. Dolly waits for what’s hers.
Princess opens the hair net just a smidge, and peers in at the frog, sitting pale with fright and tiredness, and wishing it’d never seen a crying princess or a golden ball. It can see from her face that she’s sorry, but that’s not the same as mercy. It says, hopeless, ‘Your ball’s back, and you wrote me a promise.’
‘And I’m keeping it,’ she says. ‘I love you, for you tried.’ She grasps the frog in her fist, and pulls it out of the net. Kisses it, good and proper. Frog-skin on lips is a wet rubber of a kiss, but not as bad as you’d think. When she’s done, she’s crying again. There’s no man hidden in the frog after all, and that might have been the saving of it.
She pops the frog back in the net, gently though. Ties the strings tight. Says, ‘Here’s my Grandma Dolly, and she’ll welcome you to the table indeed.’ And then she closes her eyes and hurls the whole sorry bundle into Dolly’s waiting mouth.
When the water is quiet again, and the night almost full set, she picks up the useless gold paperweight and takes it home. Never plays with it again. Never forgets, for the many years she lives, that frog-skin soothes bruises.
Françoise Harvey writes short stories and poems. Her work has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Bare Fiction, Litro, Agenda, Synaesthesia Magazine, Envoi and short story anthology The Casual Electrocution of Strangers. She is one of the founders of Literary Salmon (which can be found at literarysalmon.wordpress.com). She lives in the North East of England, but misspent her youth in a number of places (starting briefly in Belgium, and including the Isle of Man, Wales and London) before making her way north.