Her face is above mine. Ripples murmur over her features—black brows in slim lines. A too-large nose. Perfectly formed lips in plumped half-wedges. Rounded cheeks, pale. A tumble of raven-hued hair. At first, she looks dead. A painting or another adaption of real life. Only a copy. But then her arms move, fingers barely penetrating the water, dotting close to my face. She is not dead, no. No, she is too alive. I sink further back, hidden among weeds and muck. She never guesses. Never sees me with those great black eyes, so like my own.
I live in a walled garden. It’s neatly maintained by a small cache of gardeners in wide-brimmed straw hats, arms ever scratched from thickets and thorns. As they bend down, hours of their days spent crouching, they remind me of the thatched houses that once dotted my village. These men tend to yellow roses, fragrant orange groves, and wide arcs of basil. A pocket of stately elms surround a fountain, my fountain, their planting following the outer stone curvature. Here, in the grey stone lip, water sits, collecting mildew, as do I. Raised above the water on a small pedestal stands a stone child, pouring out her jug. Only the contents move, a soft trickle into the moat below. It’s a mundane act, I think. Sad to capture.
Since I spend much of my time with her, this doppelganger of a girl probably now grown, probably now buried, I have come to wonder about her life. Who was she? Why a jug? These questions follow me as I spend my days on my ledge. I try to give the girl a noble life, but always come back to that vessel. A washerwoman? Too young. Her fingers are too slender, too smooth. Her frame is wrapped in a chiseled gown—one too pretty for chores. For years I’ve studied her long, toned limbs, delicate hands and feet, both without nails. She is always there. Standing over me. Paying my consideration of her in drops, rivulets, and streams. Her face is tilted towards her task. It seems a cruel fate. A girl forever at work, never able to glimpse sky. Whoever placed this girl under her trance, encapsulating her in stone—surrounded by a ring of water, a wall of granite, then earth and elms—seems to have placed so much protection into this plan. Protection for the girl? Or from her?
I remain in shadow or below. I want no part. At least I have irises. Pupils.
Lids that shut.
The next day, the sun bleeds over the mountains, mid-morning light seeking to penetrate the stilled-glass water. She is looking down and I am looking up. I blink, focusing on a movement of hair. This is no statue. It’s her.
I need air soon, but I wait as the living girl sits on the stone ledge of my fountain, her fingers brushing out her dark tangles. She is usually humming, but there’s no song today. I think about hopping from the water onto the statue, but I hate touching the statue’s deadened feet. I need to breathe. She gazes at her reflection so long some days I often wonder if she is tempting a similar enchantment as the statue in my fountain. And we all know what happened to Narcissus. But here I go. I jump out, legs bent, then straightened, muscles flexed and springing and flexed as I land beside her. The girl gives a start, unsteady on her feet, before squinting to see whom, or rather what, I am. I smell her scream, butterscotch. Air floods my system. Her eyes, even hunched, are lovely.
“Awful toad!” A huff as she sits back down, fanning out her skirts away from me. I take this in silence, at first ready to hop away, but I stay instead, eyeing the curling drapery of her hair, the flush that spreads over her face, blood twisting in her body from the shock. I eye the blue ivy veins in her neck. I can’t help myself.
She sighs and I edge nearer. Her neck falls forward, then, head bowed. Heavy in her seat, her hands are collected in her lap. And she stares. I wait. I want to frighten her—anything for her to move, to speak. But here she is, still as stone.
“I lost it.” There’s a long pause, and she flicks the edge of her vision to me, as if bestowing a gift. I flare out my lungs as a response, my sides expanding. She notices the movement. “Heinrich’s ring. I stole it. Last we met.” Her voice like velvet, her words are soft purrs, but her sentences feel chopped, bloody and torn at the edges. “Told him he needed to visit me again if he wanted it back.” Her lips twitch, the smallest smile. For a moment, she’s lost to this garden and me. For a moment, she looks pleased.
But I can’t hear her so well. I wonder at this, the air turning sour. These vowels are smothering. These consonants are slicing open my great stomach. And pain—pain is prying my eyes open and cutting cavities. Heinrich. A memory steals into my mind, swallowing down my throat. For now, I can only think his name. And here it is. Falling from her lips. A terrible power, sound is.
“I’d give anything to find it.” Her smile unhinges itself.
I know the ring. I kept it after she dropped it into the grass a few days ago. It took me a while to remember where I had seen it before. Circling the small band, I hopped around it, letting my memories unfurl themselves like lilies. Fresh, abundant perfume, before the scent turns towards decay. I took it into my mouth and brought it into the pool of water. I liked the metallic taste. Reminded me of blood. Of him. I didn’t eat anything, I hardly even moved for two days after finding it, too content to sit on the ring like a hen, hoarding my bounty.
Guilt seizes my muscles. And anger. Blood is rushing my throat, bubbling near my ears and eyes. HeinrichHeinrichHeinrich. I belch a croak at her. MineMineMine. But he gave his ring, my ring, his ring, to her. To another. I belch a longer croak. I couldn’t stand her face anymore. I couldn’t harness the drumming of my pulse, my frog blood sprinting through the chambers of my small heart. That witch. My muscles are sluggish. Slow. When I ceased to exist in the human world, I never thought that he’d continue to live in it. Not fully.
I hop back into the water. An angry trail of fingers and splashed water trails my legs as I sink back down into my murk.
Days later, I am waiting on the stone ledge with the ring. I push it around in my mouth. Heinrich. It pains me that I can’t form the word with my mouth. My tongue no longer moves like it did. And teeth?
Heinrich. Browned-butter hair. Light eyes. Lines carved into a smile. An hour flies past, my mouth fussing and twisting.
I hear her shoes clomping down on the grass and leaves. She comes every third day. Worked up, I breathe heavily, which I hate doing in the open. It makes me look afraid, I know. Vulnerable. Noticeable. But here she is, and she’s looking at the fountain, the statue, then me. Slowly, my eyes locked on hers, I spill the ring out. A plain gold band with four opals. It plinks onto the stone, shakes, then stills. A small sound to the world. My ears ring with its howl.
I edge away. When her glance splashes over it, a small breath leaves her lungs. Surging forward she almost knocks me away, her hand sweeping, pawing at the ring. Jamming it onto her hand, she spins.
“God!” Her face looms towards mine, blocking the late afternoon sun. I can’t see her features clearly—her eyebrows and lashes and nose and teeth are a maze of texture—porous skin, fur, enamel.
“Toadie, did you do this?” Her eyes are slightly unfocused with relief, liquid pupils of ink. When she turns and makes her way back to her house, I quietly follow. I count the statue as a witness to our deal. The girl doesn’t look down. She doesn’t look back.
My legs and muscles feel rusty, feel foreign as I hop, hop, hop, over and over and over. The grass is bobbing up and down near my head like waves. My stomach is acid and bumblebees. But I follow her. The promise has been made.
I lose her only once in the house when I stop and stare at the strange faces carved into a relief, lips pushing, opening themselves from stone. Eyes, again, without pupils. I shudder, turning away from them, away from silent pleas and unseeing eyes. Servants are busy rushing away at their chimneys and plates and floors, slowing down only when the girl enters or exits a room, their eyes hungry on her face, their movements stiff as dolls. Their eyes, round moths, flying around her face, cloaked body, the ring she is stroking.
I try to be as discreet as possible, following at a turtle’s pace. The staircase, polished wood and bolted carpet, is the worst. There are cherubs holding up the banisters, stomachs carved and peeled round. The girl’s skirts are raised just enough as she climbs to show a shapely calf, carefully covered in white stockings. Delicate ankles. Polished shoes. My legs tire often, weakened by days, months, years of just hopping up one step, then down. But my days are numbered with these legs, this moist green skin. My moments are counted. My large tongue ticks them off against its dry roof. One step. Then another. I lose her on the second floor. She was too quick on the stairs. On, on, on, I need to get moving. I taste the air, trying to catch her scent, a clue, something. Her soft laugh. A black hair upon the tanned wood.
Child. You of the raven hair. Eyes of deer. Scent of rose. Child. Child. Child. Girl who walked into my garden, with your light dresses, your curled lashes. Living doll. You, who had a ring, lost a ring, found a ring. You of quick promises.
I’ve come to collect.
Her bedroom door is open to let the breeze wander in. There is soft yellow wallpaper glued to lofty walls, broken open by long, lean windows. The glass is so old it has begun to droop, a watery composition that softens the diminishing light. I’ve read, long ago when I still had that power, that windows are often compared to eyes and teeth of the houses to which they belong. But these windows are planned wounds. Inflicted necessities.
I creep in. A chaise lounge rests on one side of the room, and her bed on the other. A fireplace leans between two bookcases, dusty with disuse. Impossible glass animals dot the mantel among dried flowers. Unicorns. Mermaids. Manticores. Fairies. I shiver—if I exist in this prison, they do too. I think of my statue. Did this girl collect us? Breath is snorting in and out of my body. Shadows are waking up, meeting one another under the pieces of cherry furniture. They stretch their limbs pooling under my body. I hobble under the lion-footed bed and wait. Croaking like a death beetle.
Dusk falls heavily, vulgar in its vanity. The light shifts quickly now—a deep golden orange to a plum blue. It is time for bed. A play has begun in reverse. Out comes the brush. Off come the earrings, the pearls, the bracelets. Her dress does not slide to the floor. It falls in a great heap, despite a servant trying to keep it from being wrinkled further. The girl tramples the thing. It feels so electric, to see so much skin, to see her legs moving up and down as she leaps across the room, flying onto her bed like a child. My breath comes at a pant. Vanilla. Rose. Peony. Scents from an old world breaking over my skin, heavy in their dosage. I am soothed and suffocated. Now, the candles are snuffed. The velvet curtains around the bed drift towards one another, released from their silk bindings. As they fall closed, I take my moment.
I am able to pop myself up—takes me four bounds to reach the duvet and mounds of lace-trimmed pillows. Darkness has already crept into the shadows of her face. Eye sockets. Above and below the lips. Around her hairline. Cold paralysis crawls over my limbs. It’s hard to move. Suddenly, I am at home in my fountain, wading through the mud floor, her hair like kelp. I lumber onto her pillow, breathing in her heavy scent. Her skin is soap and sweat. Hair scented of outside, like home. Vanilla behind her ears and under her chin. I lean close.
Is this where you wish to be kissed?
Her chest lifts her shift, trimmed in creamy scalloped lace around her thin-boned collar. Moonlight pools in bright spots under windows, scattering the shadows. Now is the hour. I’ve read the instructions before. I’ve heard the stories. A beautiful sleeping girl under a pale moon. Her heart drumming faintly under warm skin. It has been years since I was in a house, in a bed. With someone. I blame that on what I did next.
It is just a touch. A small lick. Well, perhaps not small. But you see, the ring is here too. I didn’t expect for her to wear it. The four opals blink at me like eyes. The tiny glass manticore’s roar fills my ears. And Heinrich. Heinrich’s ring. Again mine. I can’t move. I can’t tear myself away, nor scratch my thoughts out. A memory opens, a wide unblinking eye.
Warm breath fell against my ear. Heinrich’s hands, soft, traced my cheeks, my lips. A shove to the shoulder and a laugh. It was a time before hexes or spells or ambivalent luck. Winters. Summers. We were boys again in the snow. I was pushing my sled up a hill and there he came, bounding over, jumping on, and sailing away. It was so cold I could barely breathe, but at that moment, when I saw his golden-brown hair peek out under his fur hat, his white teeth, I opened my mouth wide and deep, a laugh shooting up and out from my lungs, giving my breath to the white sky where it turned to moisture, then disappeared. I sucked back in remote sun and hard cold, which iced my lungs closed. It wasn’t hard to stare for all of his ease and graces. Heinrich. Boy of the snow. He told me that if I ever left him, his heart would not break. It would not melt. Iron bands, my love, he whispered another night, a warmer night, when the stars hung close, too close, over our heads. We had snuck outside and lay under a maple tree, trying to name constellations through the leaves. A losing game. It would be a caged mound of flesh and blood. He smelled like leather and smoke and grass. Of course, I lied before. I never looked for stars. My eyes always fell to earth. To him. His pinky finger, that golden ring, gently, sought mine out. There was a rustle, and a darker shadow fell over my face, his lips descending from his heavens, down upon mine.
I shoot out my tongue out, meaning to take the ring. It’s a desperate measure. Her thumb ends up encased in my jaws. I taste salt. Not iron. My heart is croaking, breaking.
Her scream punctures the curtains, my ears. Three fingers are all it takes to catch me, but then again, I don’t bother moving. I don’t want to. His ring felt cheap in my mouth, on her thumb. A hand grabs my small body, wrapping around my arms and legs and lungs. My face. There’s no air. I am bursting, and there are stars in my eyes. They finally came. Her fingers lock. Our eyes catch one another. Terror slides over her face. Disgust scales up her eyes. My own are soon covered.
When I breathe again, I am flying, my legs no longer needed to propel me forward. I am like the strong wind in winter, driving ripples over the water in my pond. I am like the spring breeze, bursting through treetops, traveling where I’d like. In the end, I glimpse yellow wallpaper, peeling away from the wall as if it were sour, curdling. Iron Heinrich, they called him after I disappeared. I heard the whispers, the rumors. A boy in grief for his friend. Determined to find me. Iron Heinrich. A boy with an iron-caged heart. I had once called him this.
Iron is my end. I taste it now, in the extended dark.
I had only wanted large, bleached bones again. To see translucent skin over a wrist, blue and purple veins below. To feel eyelashes. To taste. The girl was a means to the end. I had everything right, didn’t I? She named me and pledged our fates with a promise. I pledged with a gift. I waited for nightfall. There was the kiss, of course. A violent letting of blood. But a spell is not broken, only cured. It lingers in the spine, in the irises that circle the pools of black pupils. Love is a hazy moon, a trickster character of light. This I have finally learned, the moral of my own story. Elements can fool—the impure iron always corrodes.
Jennie Ziegler completed her M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Arizona. She is currently an Instructor at the University of North Florida where she teaches fairy tales, food writing, and adolescent literature. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artist: Sarah Ann Loreth, “The Ride”