Fiction – “The Frog Princess” by Mae Empson
Dr. Andersen knocked on her door the day after Rachel called the toll-free number and admitted that she had been rut-looped for seventeen years. The answering service had asked her to repeat herself several times, certain she meant seventeen days, or seventeen months.
He had a clipboard and pen. “Every night?” he asked, after introducing himself.
She nodded. “Yes, since 1986.”
“Interesting. Do you recall the exact month? The exact day?”
“It was summer. I was just a kid in elementary school. It was definitely July. I don’t remember the exact date. Sometime between the 11th and the 15th.”
“You’re sure?” He sounded both excited and skeptical.
“I knew it!” he declared triumphantly. “I have so many questions. Is it always exactly the same? How vivid is your morning recall? How rested are you, after? Have you noticed any other symptoms?” He asked his questions rapidly, faster than she could answer them, and she had to ask him to repeat his questions several times to be sure she had answered them all as he scribbled notes on his clipboard. She answered honestly, pleased to have some company in her small, reclusive world.
He flipped a page and she caught a quick glimpse of a line diagram of a human body before he took a step back beyond her line of sight and simply made notes, staring at her up and down, for several minutes. She suspected her turtleneck did little to hide her thick neck and hopelessly bloated stomach, and swallowed nervously.
After perhaps twenty minutes of alternating rapid-fire questions and periods of quiet note-taking, he offered to drive her to Rudder House himself, and suggested she pack a suitcase. She would be immediately admitted for treatment.
“Will I need much clothes of my own, at Rudder House?” Rachel hated selecting the least unflattering of her ill-fitting clothes.
He shook his head. “No, this is just a chance to gather up your toiletries, anything you want to read. Things like that. Take your time. We provide robes for our guests.”
She smiled. That sounded good. She drifted into her bedroom, and stood just inside the door, staring at the bookshelf. She could hear him making a phone call, and paused to listen.
“Anomaly confirmed. I’m preparing to bring her in. I’ve never seen a case that went this long. Probably very unstable.”
Rachel didn’t like the sound of that. She wasn’t going to explode or anything. She just had a strange persistent recurring dream of a bad, but not exactly traumatic, memory. Every night for seventeen years, she relived the same scene. She wouldn’t have called if she hadn’t wanted help. She was tired all the time, and increasingly worried that the rut-loop was starting to affect her waking sanity.
And then he said it. He was whispering, but this part came through loud and clear: “She’s pretty far shifted. Frog, if I had to guess, to look at her.”
Rachel looked around her room uncertainly. The only path that didn’t require walking back past the man was out onto the balcony, and this was a second-story apartment. She crawled out onto the balcony, dragged herself awkwardly up onto the railing, and jumped.
Rachel’s childhood crush, Jeff, lunged towards the creek. “There! I’ve got one!” He laughed triumphantly, holding up a frog for all to see. “Get the bucket!” The children all scrambled to obey. Frogs were good money at the pet store, which fed them to its snakes.
Rachel stood there dumb and still as a rock. The bucket. Where was the bucket? Kevin raced up, bucket in hand. Jeff stared at the empty bucket and the squirming frog in his hands for a moment, thinking.
“You,” he called out. He was looking at Rachel. “Come here.”
She stumbled forward, thrilled at the unexpected notice.
“Sit on the bucket, so the frog won’t jump out,” Jeff ordered.
Rachel stared at the empty plastic bucket. It looked small but sturdy.
“Hurry up! Sit!”
Rachel sat on the rim of the bucket like it was a toilet. The bucket’s plastic edge bit a circle into her bottom. Her feet reached the ground; she could support herself a bit, so she didn’t put too much weight on the bucket. The position made her feel as though her butt and thighs were enormous.
“That’ll work.” Jeff leaned over, the frog caged awkwardly in his two hands, putting up a terrific struggle. He pushed his clasped hands down between Rachel’s thighs and dropped the frog into the bucket. She clamped her legs shut. Jeff’s hands brushed her thighs again as he withdrew them.
Rachel sat, feeling slightly ashamed and undignified for reasons she did not understand.
“Look for more frogs,” Jeff commanded the other children.
The children watched for more frogs for another hour. The sole captured frog fought against its captivity, battering her bottom with its slimy forehead as it leapt and leapt. It settled down after awhile.
I’m nothing to Jeff but a bucket lid, Rachel realized.
Rachel woke up in a hospital bed, in a white, windowless room. Not surprisingly, she’d had the same dream again. There were only two variations, night after night after night.
The doctor was sitting in a chair, watching her. “You’re awake. Do you remember me? I’m Dr. Andersen. Do you know who you are?”
Rachel laughed nervously. Her throat was so dry. There was an odd dull pain along the left side of her body, and little wired suction cups on her torso, arms, and tangled up in her hair.
“I remember. You came to my apartment.”
“I’m Rachel Sanders today,” she confirmed.
“Today?” he echoed.
“There are two versions of the dream. Sometimes I’m the girl, sometimes I’m the frog. Today I’m the girl. Some days, I’m the frog.”
“Tell me what that’s like.”
Sometimes, she looked at the frog squirming in Jeff’s hands. Jeff was a boy she grew up with, a neighbor, she explained. He organized little expeditions to the creek down in the forest behind their houses. The way it really happened, and in the main dream, he wanted her to sit on a bucket to cage this frog that he’d caught.
But sometimes in the dream – maybe every three or four nights? — she looked at the frog at that point, really looked at it, and she fell through and into the frog.
From her perch, cupped in Jeff’s hands inside the frog, she could see herself look in confusion at the bucket and then sit down. She got a real close-up of her crotch in her blue shorts as Jeff shoved the frog (and her hovering dreaming self) down between her own legs.
Then it was dark and scary. She slammed herself against a bucket wall. She didn’t want to be trapped. She flung herself in another direction, battering against the bucket’s fleshy lid. Slam. Slam. Slam. She lost all sense of up and down, right and left. Fear-impact-pain. Fear-impact-pain. Fear-impact-pain.
And then everything went black.
“On the days after the inside-the-frog version of the dream, I feel particularly strange and distant from myself, if that makes any sense. My heart slams against the bones of my chest like it’s trying to escape, frantic, like a bat in a shoebox.”
He listened to Rachel’s description of the second dream, and than asked for more information about the more common dream that more closely matched her original memory. He wasn’t taking notes. “Do you have any theories about why you have become fixated on this single peculiar memory?”
Rachel shook her head. “It was just a stupid, embarrassing thing. People suffer worse things all the time. I’ve no idea why I can’t get past it. Why it’s making me so tired, so confused, even when I’m awake.”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?”
“Why is this happening to me?” she asked. He had to know something. What was the point of dragging her here, even after she tried to run away, if there wasn’t some purpose? That was the Rudder House promise. Stuck in a rut-loop? Trade your rut for a rudder, and steer straight to the future you should have had all along. She could hear the catchy slogan from the infomercial that had hooked her into making the initial call.
“We don’t entirely understand why it happens, but we do have a mission here at Rudder House, why we exist, and that is to track down people like you, and get them unstuck.”
“People like me?”
“There is an effect, weak spots, doors between. Things leak through sometimes, and they burrow inside people, through windows of sharp feeling, animal-shaped. There was a particularly bad breach seventeen years ago that we’ve been trying to clean up. There were cases all over the state.”
Was this what it felt like to have a new dream? To be aware that you were dreaming when you were dreaming? This couldn’t be real. Nothing made sense. She blinked and expected to be back at the creek, or to wake up in her bed at home.
Nothing had changed. She was still in the hospital bed.
She tested his words in her mind.
Wasn’t this what she had quietly suspected, year after year, as she grew squat and round-bellied, thick-necked, round-faced, eyes bulbous and staring behind glasses, as she hunched near-sighted over a book, trapped in a body that no longer felt wholly hers?
“So, is there a cure?”
Dr. Andersen gave her a booklet of directions for how to induce lucid dreaming so she could take control and disrupt the cycle. They discharged her from the hospital to Rudder House. A week passed during which she tried several of the more appealing techniques, but without success. She set alarms at odd times to catch herself mid-dream. She napped during the day. She drew an “A” on her hand to remind her to check if she was awake or asleep every time she saw something that began with the letter A.
By Friday, she’d started trying the less appealing techniques. Last night, she’d threatened to make herself lick a battery in the morning for a punishing shock if she failed to seize control of her dream. She failed. The battery gave her a little jolt, almost like static electricity.
Tonight, she was going to walk the pepper road.
Rachel diced the chili peppers, scraped the dicings off the cutting board into a bowl, and liberally sprinkled in salt. She hobbled from the common kitchen in Rudder House to her assigned room, juggling the bowl of peppers with one hand while operating a crutch with the other to keep the weight off her twisted left ankle.
Rachel settled into her bed. She picked up the bowl of chili peppers from the nightstand, but she hesitated. Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror which they had unhelpfully positioned across from the bed. She could see herself clearly. Rachel refused to turn out the light at night, which the doctor had admonished was part of “good sleep hygiene” and would help her fall asleep. It was too much like being in the bucket to be in the dark.
Rachel had long since removed the mirrors in her apartment at home, so she didn’t have to see her fat froggish face. A tear slid down her cheek. She blamed the pungent smell of the chili peppers.
She filled her mouth with the salted peppers and held them there, letting the pepper juice run down her throat. Her hands shook as she poured the water from the pitcher on the nightstand into the waiting glass. Do not drink, she reminded herself.
She held her tongue in her fingers a bit, hoping to absorb a bit of the sting, but then decided that was cheating.
She set the alarm for 5:00 am. The blankets seemed useless now that she was on fire from the hot peppers. It was weird trying to sleep with food in her mouth. Would she choke? Would she ever get to sleep? She twisted a bit and kicked most of the blankets off to one side. It seemed unlikely she would be able to sleep at all with her mouth full of peppers.
But she did.
“Get the bucket.”
“It’s by the tree. It’s always by the tree. You could be the one to fetch it,” her dreaming self urged to her younger self who stood dumb and still as a rock.
Then another voice, another Rachel, chimed in, “If you fetched the bucket, you could fill it with water from the stream and get a drink. Mouth on fire.”
She was there. In the dream, aware of it in real time. She tried to move her arm. It moved.
“You. Come here.” Jeff. She looked up at him. He was just a little boy — a little boy holding a squirming frog.
Rachel took a step backwards. No. “No!” she said it out loud.
Jeff looked perplexed by this challenge and then shrugged. “Stupid girl,” he dismissed, and his eye again swept the crowd and lighted on Kevin Hill, a somewhat dorky boy of about her age who had fetched the bucket. “You, then.”
Rachel watched as Jeff directed Kevin to sit on the bucket. He handed Kevin the squirming frog. Kevin shoved the frog between his legs into the bucket.
“Look for more frogs!” Jeff commanded the other children.
Rachel blinked. Her head felt so funny. Where was she? Jeff was talking about catching more frogs. Jeff was so dreamy. Maybe she’d catch a frog and he would notice her and maybe…
Slam. That frog in the bucket was sure putting up a fuss. Kevin looked miserable. His entire face was beet red as if his freckles had multiplied into a single face-sized freckle.
Slam. Slam. Slam. The frog must be pretty miserable too bumping around in a dark bucket. Rachel didn’t like the dark. She always slept with a nightlight. Poor frog.
Her glance shifted to Jeff. He wouldn’t want her to mess with the frog, would he? He’d called her a stupid girl, but that at least meant he’d noticed she was a girl, right? It wasn’t that far a step from stupid girl to girl to girlfriend. He’d fall in love with her for sure if she just didn’t make him mad. Jeff’s girlfriend. What a thought! She’d probably get to be a Homecoming Princess if she was with a guy like Jeff. She could see it, like a vision — a certainty — if she just stayed on Jeff’s good side. At that thought, Jeff flashed her a smile. Had he ever smiled at her before? Her heart leapt.
Slam. Kevin stared at the bucket as if he expected it to explode at any moment.
Rachel blinked and, for just a moment, her young mind could actually imagine what it was like to be trapped in that bucket. Fear-impact-pain. Fear-impact-pain. It was weird how well she could imagine it, like she could read the frog’s mind. She had the sudden equally strong thought that if she could just touch the frog, she could save it somehow.
She looked wistfully at Jeff scrabbling in the creek, and took another step toward the bucket. And then another.
“Hey, Ray,” Kevin said, trying to look relaxed in his uncomfortable position.
“I…uh…I want to show Jeff that I’m not afraid of frogs. Let me hold it.”
The manic thudding stopped.
Several other children noticed her talking to Kevin in his outcast position. They gathered round. Jeff noticed and approached as well.
“Don’t,” Jeff ordered.
Too late. Kevin stood up with some relief. Rachel reached into the bucket and lifted the frog. It was so still. Was it dead? Had it hurt its head bashing it against the bucket sides? Why had she thought she could save it?
“I guess it’s your turn to sit on the bucket, huh?” Jeff asked her, sounding like he wasn’t asking at all.
“It’s okay. The frog will stay still. I can hold him.”
“Right. Fine. Suit yourself.”
A child cried, “Rachel’s a frog girl!” in the singsong tones children use to honor a social suicide.
“See, I’m not afraid!” Rachel kissed the frog’s slimy head.
Its body went absolutely still. She felt…something. Had she saved it?
“She killed it!” “Frog breath!” “Frog girl!” “Loser!” She would never live this down, her young mind grasped. There was no chance she would ever be Homecoming Princess. Jeff stared at her in surprise and horror.
“Rachel’s a frog girl!” “Frog killer!” “Frog lover!”
They would have kept up the torment until she cried, which wouldn’t have taken much longer, except someone –- Kevin — yelled, “Look! A big one! Get him!” The taunting children dispersed, eager to catch another frog.
Kevin did that for me, she thought in surprise.
Rachel woke up suddenly. 5:00 am.
A warm hand reached out and pulled her into an even warmer embrace beneath the scattered covers as she turned the alarm off. “Don’t get up yet.”
“I have to go to work, Kevin.”
“You have time. You always set the alarm so early.”
It was true, but she liked waking up and re-setting the alarm, and stealing an extra half hour of sleep, or using the extra time to snuggle with Kevin in their bedroom on the second floor of their house.
“I had such an odd dream.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“You remember that day in the forest? With the frog and the bucket?”
“Of course. How many times did I tell you that was the day I fell in love with you? You were so brave standing up to what’s-his-name, and so nice to me when I was stuck on that bucket.”
“It was the summer before fifth grade. It took me a lot longer to notice what a nice guy you were.”
“You were blinded by that tall guy like every other girl.”
“Yeah, dumb me. But I got smarter.”
She smiled and her gaze came to rest on her journals lined up against the far wall in a dedicated bookcase. So many sweet memories. “I dreamed I saved the frog that day. By kissing it.”
“Yeah, crazy huh?”
“Speaking of kissing…”
In a mended world, a princess and her prince disappeared under the covers where they stayed very much awake.
About the Author
Mae Empson has a Master’s degree in English literature from Indiana University at Bloomington, and graduated with honors in English and in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received the Robert B. House Memorial Prize in Poetry in 1995. She lives in Seattle, Washington.