1: Fool’s Gold and Fairy Stones
My name is Sunday Woodcutter, and I am doomed to a happy life.
I am the seventh daughter of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, Jack a seventh son and Seven a seventh daughter herself. Papa’s dream was to give birth to the charmed, all-powerful Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Mama told him seven girls or seven boys, whichever came first. Jack Junior was first. Papa was elated. His dream died the morning I popped out, blithe and bonny and good and gay, seven daughters later.
Fortunately, coming first did not stop Jack Junior from being a wunderkind. I never knew my eldest sibling, but I know his legend. All of Arilland’s children grew up in Jack’s shadow, his younger siblings more than most. I have never known a time when I wasn’t surrounded by the overdramatic songs and stories of Jack Junior’s exploits. A good number of new ones continue to spring up about the countryside to this very day. I have heard them all. (Well, all but the Forbidden Tale. I’m not old enough for that one yet.)
But I know the most important tale: the tale of his demise, while he served in the King’s Royal Guard. One day, in a fit of pique or passion (depending on the bard), he killed Prince Rumbold’s prized pup. As punishment, the prince’s evil fairy godmother witched Jack Junior into a mutt and forced him to take the pup’s place. He was never heard from again.
They say my family was never the same after that. I wish I could know my father as tales portray him then: loud, confident, and opinionated. Now he is simply a strong, quiet man, content with his place in life. It is no secret that Papa harbors no loyalty to the royal family of Arilland, but he has never said a word against them.
My second-eldest brother’s name is Peter. My third brother is Trix. Trix was a foundling child that Papa discovered in the limbs of a tree at the edge of the Wood one winter’s workday before I was born. The way Mama tells it, Trix was a son she didn’t have to give birth to, and he made Papa happy. She already had too many children to feed, what was one more?
My sisters and I—
"What are you doing?"
Sunday’s head snapped up from her journal. She had chosen this spot for its solitude, followed the half-hidden path through the underbrush to the decaying rocks of the abandoned well, sure that she had escaped her family. And yet, the voice that had interrupted her thoughts was not familiar to her. Her eyes took a moment to adjust, slowly focusing on the mottled shadows the afternoon sun cast through dancing leaves.
"I’m sorry?" She posed the polite query to her unknown visitor in an effort to make him reveal himself, be he real or imagined, dead or alive, fairy or—
"I said, ‘What are you doing?’ "
Sunday forced her gaping mouth closed. Caught off-guard, she sputtered the truth: "I’m telling myself stories."
The frog considered her answer. He balanced himself on his spotted hind legs and blinked at her with his bulbous eyes. "Why? Do you have no one to whom you can tell them?"
Apart from his interruption, he maintained an air of polite decorum. He’s smart, too, Sunday thought. He must have been a human before being cursed. Animals of the Wood only ever spoke in wise riddles and almost-truths.
"I have quite a large family, actually, with lots of stories. Only . . ."
"Only no one wants to hear them."
"I do," said the frog. "Read me your story, the story you have just written there, and I will listen."
She liked this frog. Sunday smiled, but slowly closed her book. "You don’t want to hear this story."
"It’s not very interesting."
"What’s it about?"
"It’s about me. That’s why none of my family wants to hear it. They already know all about me."
The frog stretched out on his sun-dappled rock like he was settling into a chaise lounge. She could tell from his body language—so much more human than frog—there would be no turning him down. "I don’t know anything about you," he said. "You may begin your story."
It was completely absurd. Absurd that Sunday was in the middle of the Wood talking to a frog. Absurd that he wanted to learn about her. Absurd that he would care. It was so absurd that she opened her journal and started reading from the top of the page.
" ‘My name is Sunday Woodcutter—’ "
"Grumble," croaked the frog.
"If you’re going to grumble through the whole thing, why did you ask me to read it in the first place?"
"You said your name was Sunday Woodcutter," said the frog. "My name is Grumble."
"Oh." Her face felt hot. Sunday wondered briefly if frogs could tell that a human was blushing or if they were one of the many colorblind denizens of the forest. She bowed her head slightly. "It’s very nice to meet you, Grumble."
"At your service," said Grumble. "Please, carry on with your story."
It was awkward, as Sunday had never read her musings aloud to anyone. She cleared her throat several times. More than once she had to stop after a sentence she had quickly stumbled through and start again more slowly. Her voice seemed overloud and the words felt foreign and sometimes wrong; she resisted the urge to scratch them out or change them as she went along. She was worried that this frog-who-used-to-be-a-man would hear her words and think she was silly. He would want nothing more to do with her. He would thank her for her time, and she would never see him again. Had her young life come to this? Was she so desperate for intelligent conversation that she was willing to bare her soul to a complete stranger? Sunday realized, as she continued to read, that it didn’t matter. She would have Grumble know her for who she was.
For as long as she had sat under the tree writing, she thought the reading of it would have taken longer, but Sunday came to the end in no time at all. "I had meant to go on about my sisters," she apologized, "but . . ."
The frog was strangely silent. He stared off into the Wood.
Sunday turned her face to the sun. She was afraid of his next words. If he didn’t like the writing, then he didn’t like her, and everything she had done in her whole life would be for nothing. Which was silly, but she was silly, and absurd, and sometimes ungrateful, but she promised the gods that she would not be ungrateful now, no matter what the frog said. If he said anything at all. And then, finally:
"I remember a snowy winter’s night. It was so cold outside that your fingertips burned if you put them on the windowpane. I tried it only once." He let out a long croak. "I remember a warm, crackling fire on a hearth so large I could have stood up in it twice. There was a puppy there, smothering me with love, as puppies are wont to do. I was his whole world. He needed me and I felt like . . . like I had a purpose. I remember being happy then. Maybe the happiest I’ve been in my whole life." The frog closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I don’t remember much of my life before. But now, just now, I remember that. Thank you."
Sunday clasped her shaking fingers together and swallowed the lump in her throat. He was definitely a man in a frog’s body, and he was sad. She couldn’t think what in her words had moved him so, but that wasn’t the point. She had touched him. Not just him as a frog but the man he used to be. A more gracious reply Sunday could never have imagined. "I am honored," she said, for she was.
"And then I interrupted you." Grumble snapped ...