And the Frog

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22

She had been in the creek for so long that her feet were numb. It wasn’t a cold day, but creek water is always colder than the day around it. Sunlight bounced off the mud in the big metal saucer as she swirled it around with her hands. Round and round the mud swirled, and she stopped every now and then to pick out twigs and dull rocks, and squint into the saucer looking for little tiny glints. This was tedious work but she was fine with that. Kept her occupied. Really, she didn’t even care about finding gold – it was the searching that she enjoyed. That and being alone.

“Name’s John Bain,” said a voice that startled her so severely that she sat back with a splash into the water. And now she had numb feet and a wet bottom. “Oop,” said the man, and she looked up to see him standing on the grass at the edge of the creek. “Apologies, didn’t mean to spook you.” He had one thumb in his suspenders, and the other holding a saucer, just like hers, pressed against his belly. He was wearing neither shoes nor socks. “Name’s John Bain,” he said again. “I see you’ve come into my great and green valley, huntin’ up some gold.”

She righted herself and didn’t respond, hoping that if she just kept to what she was doing the man would fade away like a wild apparition. But she heard splashing as he stepped into the creek. “Yup, been nestled in this here land for years and years. Come out here near every single day to pan, wrestle out a little glitter of my own.” He was standing right above her now as she squatted in the water. She just kept swirling the pan, though there wasn’t anything in it but water now. “Don’t much find other travelers wonderin’ down,” he said. “May I trouble you for a name?” No, he may not. She gave him a grunt instead. He squatted down to her. “Ain’t gonna have much luck without a little dirt in your pan.” She looked at him sternly, and briefly considered whapping across the face with her saucer, but dismissed it for fear that it would just end up encouraging him to linger longer. Instead she stood up and began walking toward the grass, on the opposite edge from where he’d stepped in. “Hey,” he said to her backside as she walked away, “word of advice. If you’re gonna be long in this valley, keep a lookout for Mama Fox.”

She stopped. Mama Fox? Exactly how far off his rocker was this man? She turned and looked at him. He nodded and pointed down, toward the water. She looked, and her breath caught. Instead of being clear as glass as it had been a moment before, the water was suddenly reflective as a mirror. She saw herself, and over her loomed the face of a giant red fox. She spun around, but as you’d expect there was nothing behind her. And when she turned again to the man, the water was clear again.

He gave another nod. “Yup, she’s the prowler in this valley. Best keep your head on a swivel, or she’ll drag you down for lunch time.”

She tried her best not to look shaken. There was no way she’d seen what she’d seen; being in the water so long must have given her some kind of fever. It was surely time to call it a day. She stepped up and out of the water, pinched herself in the thigh to keep from turning to look again, and began making back to her little camp. She walked long enough to ensure the man hadn’t followed her, then stopped before she hit the cluster of trees she’d made camp outside of. She looked up at the sky. It was past midday, but not too far past. Normally she wouldn’t have stopped working for a good three or so more hours.

Well, she didn’t need to stop working. She trekked the rest of the way to her spot, tapped a knuckle on a tree as she walked past. She did this just to make a little noise, because Mary her mule tended to wake violently when startled. As she approached her firepit, she saw Mary’s behind poking out from behind a large rosebush. Best to leave her unapproached.

She went to her pile of saddle bags and assorted junk, and dug out what she was looking for. There it was, a heavy chunk of wood. Well, more than that. It was once just a small uprooted tree stump, but she’d been carving and whittling away so that it was very closely starting to resemble the head of a giant frog. It was actually some rather fine craftsmanship, if she did say so herself, and she would have if she had a mind to speak to anyone.

She’d cut a big loop out at the top of the frog head so that it could be tied onto Mary’s saddle, and she stuck her fore and middle fingers through it and hoisted the thing up. She took a seat on a rock, the seat-like nature of which being the reason she’d selected this spot for camp, and pulled out her knife. She began shaving away wood at the lips, gnashing her teeth as she went.

She worked for a good twenty minutes, then held the bust out in front of her.

“Not bad lookin’ at all,” she said. “In fact, probably the handsomest face I’ve seen in a good while, and you’re a frog.” She looked at the eyes she’d made. They could use some pupils, she thought. She made the head nod, then chortled to herself. She lowered itinto her lap. It really was the closest thing to a friendly face she’d seen in so long. Well, except for . . .

“I met someone new today,” she said to the frog, “unfortunately.” The frog said nothing in return, because it was just a wooden frog head. “Annoying man. Really, very irritating man.” She thought of the man’s feet, uncovered and callused, dipping right into the icy creek. She sighed, and brought her knife to the left eye of the frog. “Surely don’t hope to see him again.”

She carved ’til night, made much progress but felt there was much to make still. She’d worked right up until she could hardly see the details of the face anymore, and finally set the piece down. She rubbed her eyes, stretched her back. Turned to Mary’s butt, and it was still there. “You need to eat?” she said. No indication that the animal heard her. She pushed herself up, snatched Mary’s feed bag, and went around the non-butt side of the tree. There was Mary, dead asleep where she stood. “You are one lazy creature. I don’t think you’ve eaten for a week.” Well, whatever. She dropped the bag and left it open at Mary’s feet. “Please don’t starve to death before you wake up.”

That night, like most, she couldn’t quite quiet her mind. What she’d seen in the water of the creek . . . had she seen anything in the water of the creek? No, she couldn’t have, but it did occur to her that were she to transcribe a short tale based on the experience, The Water of the Creek would be a damn fine title. Aside from her own stray thoughts, something else kept her from sleep: the sound of a slow breath, so low it was nearly a growl. There was no other sound. No padding of feet or rustling, nor any kind of reaction from Mary the startle-waker. It was just a trick of her un-credible mind, which was far and away always her greatest nemesis. Despite it, she did eventually sleep.

She hated mornings. The air is still chilly, the birds won’t shut up. Her mule is gone. Her body always starts slow. Her back hurts because she’s got nothing but a wool blanket to sleep on. Her brain always has to get warmed before it can even remember where she is. Her mule is gone? Or at least she wasn’t where she’d been last night. No mule butt stuck out from behind the tree. She got up and went around it. Yup, no mule. Just an empty burlap feedbag, which she picked up. Where the hell was Mary? No reason to panic now, but this was abnormal to be sure. The animal typically didn’t take to roaming. She’d be back by midday, she supposed.

She dressed, grabbed her saucer and her spade, nodded at the frog, and set off back down to the creek. There was no sign if the nosy man when she arrived. “Good,” she muttered. She dropped the saucer, and using the spade filled it with some soft earth. Then she plopped into the creek, waited for the shock of the cold to pass, and set to work.

She dug up and swirled dirt for hours, knowing she wasn’t likely to hit anything. She’d have to move on tomorrow, she knew. She didn’t much like staying in one place for long anyway. She looked down at the mud in her saucer, squinted when the sun’s reflection hit her eyes, shoveled more dirt, did it again. Finally, she squatted down in the water with fresh earth in the saucer, and just stayed still for a bit. This was the closest thing she’d give herself to a break.

She closed her eyes, listen to the water roll on past her, the air tickle her ears, that growl. Her eyes snapped open. No, no growl. There was no growl. She cleared her throat and dipped the saucer into the water. She brought it up, and immediately saw a glint. That wasn’t sunlight. She pinched at the glint, but her fingers came up with nothing, and it didn’t move. And then another appeared, on the other side of the saucer. She shook it but the glints didn’t move with the mud, just stayed in place like they were pinned. And then they

started to grow.

What in the hell? She moved the saucer a bit farther from her face. She watched the two specs of light slowly get bigger and bigger. They clearly weren’t gold. Maybe it was trick of the sun after all? No, they didn’t look that way. They looked like . . . oh hell, they looked like eyes. And below them in the saucer, the shape of a slender snout started to form, wrinkled and snarling, bearing sharp teeth. And the growl returned, deafening this time. She dropped the saucer right as the beast’s face lashed out of it, chomping at the air in front of her nose. For the second time in two days, she fell back into the water.

Her breath was short and fast. She pushed herself up and looked down at the saucer, which was now just a saucer, as it had been moments before. It laid there just under the water, and as she watched it, tense and waiting for the creature to return, the water began to run red over it. Ribbons of red curled past her ankles. Her chest beat hard now, and she turned around.

There, a far way down the creek and up the valley, she saw it. Mama Fox, stalking slowly. From this distance the creature was almost nothing but silhouette, but it was easy to see how large it was, because it was nearly as wide as the creek itself, as it walked right down the center. And she could tell its eyes were on her. She had to get out of the water, but as she looked to either side she saw the banks were suddenly twenty feet tall.

She ran to her left and threw herself at the dirt wall, grasping and gripping but there was no purchase. There was nothing but to run. She turned and began a full sprint. The creek bent away ahead of her, and around the corner came a monstrous wave.

So that was it, then. She screamed as the water slammed into her, sweeping her violently back toward the monster. She tossed and rolled and screamed, and her lungs filled with water, and she bounced against the hard dirt walls, and as badly as it all hurt the worst of it was knowing she couldn’t run now.

And then she was back in the chamber, and Goodnight was laughing. Out of the chair, hands on knees, heartily laughing, in the woman’s voice. Emma’s breath was still rapid. “Oooh,” said Goodnight, standing up straight and sticking a hand behind the veil to wipe their face. “Oh, thank you for that, Emmaline Humphrey. That was fantastic.” They put they’re hands on their hips. “I have what I need now.” Emma couldn’t speak. Her head was still whirling with the water of the creek. “You,” the man’s voice was back, and the humor was gone from it. Goodnight pointed at Emma. “You, do not like to be hunted, hm?” What kind of a question was that? Who liked to be hunted? “And you,” The other hand pointed at John. “You do not like to hunt. Do you know what I’m thinking?” Oh, dear. Emma did have a feeling she knew.

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