Owls screamed in the cold, wet night; Danny was following them. Two more birds to tick off, and he’d have seen every avian species in the northeast. He descended deep into the forest’s bowls, searching. His broad shoulders brushed pine trees. His boots shuffled pine straw. He hummed.
Magic brews in frog ponds. Danny didn’t know. His pale round face greeted its twin – the moon – and watched not his feet. Rocks, sudden and slippery, circled the frog pond. He stepped, he didn’t look, he slipped. Splash! Scum, muck, and mud clogged his nostrils and clung to his shoes. He stumbled wet and shaking back to the trailer. He didn’t notice: a teeny toad crawled into his pocket.
The trailer once was white. It since lost many battles with the woods, its exterior scarred from falling branches, wind-swept debris. The sun scorched; winter froze. Indoors, though, was cozy: propane stove, folded-out bed tucked neatly at the corners, compost toilet. Danny, inside, threw down his wet jacket. The toad popped out.
“Oh, sorry, sweetie,” Danny said. “Guess I gotta take you back.”
Thunder cracked, a whip. The rain came in ribbons.
“Can’t go out when it’s like that,” he clucked. “I’ll put you in a pot overnight. Come morn, we’ll go back to the pond. Sound good?”
Bowl of water, dead flies peeled from flytape, a moist towel: the toad’s pot was thus furnished. Danny dropped her in, then fell into bed. His snores soon shook the trailer.
The toad, of course, was no mere animal, but a princess long trapped by a spell. Green digits above the propane stove spelled 11:59, then 12. At midnight, the toad skin slipped off like a rubber raincoat. A beautiful maiden replaced the amphibian, warts becoming freckles, and yellow, slitted eyes turning deep, brown, and hooded. She blinked twice, detangled her long limbs from the floor, and reached for Danny’s kitchen cabinets. Wood banged on wood.
“Woah!” Danny, whose bed lay left of the kitchen, startled awake. “Who are you?”
“I am a princess,” came her hoarse explanation.
“What are you doing here?”
“You brought me here. In your pocket.”
“No. I brought a toad, on accident.”
“That was I. I take toad form in the daylight. A curse had been placed on me, long, long ago.”
Her dress was skin-tight and satiny, once white, now splotched with algae. It cut short, barely on the thigh. Much of her chest gaped open, the heart-shaped neckline swooping low.
“Are you cold?” Danny asked, pointing to her goose-pimpled skin.
“No, no. I’m supposed to wear this.”
She reached for his refrigerator, its little light bouncing bright on her face.
“There is not much in this icebox,” she frowned.
“Are you hungry? I might have some–”
“No, no. I will cook for you. Sit down, you must be weary from your travels.”
“Er, no, it wasn’t a long walk. And, ma’am, with all due respect, please don’t touch my kitchen. This is my trailer, and I do the cooking. Please, sit.”
Confused, graceful, nearly naked, she sat in a folding chair, rearranging her legs like royalty. Danny sighed, and rubbed his mustache.
“I have to cook anyway,” he said. “My brothers are coming to visit.”
“At this late hour?”
“They’re driving from the city. It’s far.”
The princess picked at her cuticles. “Perhaps I can weave for you a tapestry?”
Danny replied, “That’s alright. I do a bit of crocheting. I have enough.”
He waved his hand: on the walls hung neatly knotted granny-squares of crochet, attached together into gorgeous patchworks of every color. On his bed, quilts stitched with straight and teeny lines. Even the teapot slept under a knitted cozy.
The princess, dumbfounded, watched him slide quick through the kitchen, pulling spices and boxes, flipping on the propane, sizzling something warm and spicy in a skillet. An aromatic, smoky haze clouded the trailer.
Bang at the door, and Danny’s two brothers tumbled in. Andrew’s grin dissolved seeing the princess:
“Oop, pardon. Danny, who’s this?”
“I am a princess,” she replied. “And, now, your brother’s wife.”
“Woah, what?” Danny asked.
Her slender eyebrows crossed: “But you brought me home from the frog pond?”
“Ma’am, on accident. I’m not looking to get married.”
“Can we eat soon?” asked Robert, the oldest brother. “It took forever to get here.”
Andrew nodded. “The GPS gave out a mile back.”
“I told you,” Danny huffed, “There’s no signal out here.”
“Our brother,” Robert told the princess, “Is a bit of a Luddite. He left us to come here and live in the woods, with the birds and squirrels.”
Danny slid the steaming skillet onto the trailer’s only table. The brothers crowded around. The princess stood.
“Come, sit, eat,” Danny beckoned.
“Perhaps,” said the princess, “I can perform for you a song? A dance, while you eat?”
“That’s okay,” said Danny. “Just come get some food. We can all play cards after.”
The princess joined them. Her mouth soon stained with sauce, and her fingers smelled sweetly of spices.
Afterwards, Danny cleared the plates. Andrew produced a deck of cards: “Texas Hold ‘Em?” He shuffled.
Danny asked the princess, “How did you get to be a toad?”
“In my land, there were few suitable bachelors. My father, the king, wanted me to marry. He brought who he could to court, but I rejected them all. He grew angry, as he feared dying with no heir to the throne, and so he placed upon me this curse. See how it feels to be a lowly and rejected animal before you become too haughty.”
“Mm, harsh dads,” Robert nodded. “We know something about that.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Andrew, sliding each person a card. “Look at me: investment banker in the big city, penthouse apartment, gorgeous wife, and still, I feel like something’s wrong. I’d give it all up in a blink for the old man to give me even one nod of approval.”
“Yeah,” Robert sighed. “Me too. I’m a CEO. I have a summer house upstate. My wife wins beauty pageants. But, we just had a baby, right? All when we were dating, she said if she had a boy, she’d name him ‘Nikolai.’ And then, we did have a boy. I said, ‘Well perfect, let’s name him Nikolai.’ But she had a weird, sad look in her eye, and just shook her head, and said that some dreams ought not become reality. Isn’t that so strange? So his name is Billy, and we visited my dad, us three, and the old man was so happy playing with him, and all I felt was envy. He never was that happy with us. Just wanted us to achieve, achieve, achieve.”
Andrew patted Danny’s shoulder. “I s’posse that’s why Danny boy ran off to the woods to be with his birds. Dad can’t see you here, huh?”
Danny shrugged his brother’s hand off.
“Aw, come on,” said Andrew. “We love you, bro. We miss you. We’re a little worried too – do you have any friends out here who don’t have feathers?”
“Let’s just play,” said Danny.
The night unfolded merry. The brothers joked, the princess laughed. The teapot, kept hot by the cozy, was emptied many times as Danny served them tea. Outside, wind howled, a child in pain. Inside, only warmth, as cards switched hands and shuffled deftly.
Danny squinted at the green-light clock above his stove. “It’s almost sunrise.”
“Phew,” said Robert. “How about we step out for a smoke, then one more game?”
“Sure,” said Danny. “You go ahead, I’ll wash the mugs.”
Two brothers took their cigarettes outside. Danny walked to the sink. He turned, and the princess pressed into him, her lips searching for his.
“Woah!” Danny ducked away. “What are you doing?”
“Why do you not like me?” she asked. Hot, frustrated tears bit her eyes. “You do not want my cooking, nor my weaving, nor my dancing, and you refuse to kiss me. What am I doing wrong?”
“No, no, I like you plenty! You’re fun!”
“But you will not marry me? Why?”
“I’m not really looking to marry. Not you, or anyone else.”
The princess collapsed, a sobbing heap, onto the tiled trailer floor.
“When the sun rises,” she cried, “I will become a toad again. The only thing to break the curse is true love.”
“Aw.” Danny offered his hand. She rubbed away her snot, and accepted his hand. He pulled her to her feet.
“Here,” he gave her a handkerchief, hand-embroidered with a little bee. “How about another cup of tea?”
His brothers came inside, clothes seeped with tobacco’s scent. Sleepiness hung low on everyone’s face as they played a gentle, calm, final game of cards. By the end, Andrew’s eyelids gave out, fluttering closed. Robert soon followed.
The princess turned her bitter gaze to the early rays of sun tickling through the trailer’s blinds. She bit her lip, a tear threatening to leak out.
“Hey,” Danny wrapped his calloused hand around her slender one. “I’m really glad you’re my friend. I’d love to be your friend for a long, long time, even if you’re a toad for half the day.”
He kissed her finger as the sun heaved its way into the sky. The princess closed her eyes.
When she opened them, she expected to see detested flippers in place of human hands. Not so. She touched her face: still human. The sun streamed bright into the trailer, painting the walls golden. Indeed, true love had broken the spell.