The Kiss of Beth
by Anta Baku
Part 10 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (read part 1)
Traveling through Fairyland is a lot more fun when you’ve got nowhere you need to be, a few months of salary saved, and no worries about a mob of angry revolutionaries trying to hunt you down. Beth knew she should be worried about having no home and no job, but right now she was flush, and enjoying the privileges of leisurely travel. Imperial currency was good everywhere, and there was a pig merchant in every village only too happy to sell her food, and anything else she wanted, for a taste of the best money in Fairyland. The rich life couldn’t last, but she was determined to enjoy it while she could. Surely another job would turn up when she needed it. Unemployment in Fairyland, always low, was basically zero now that new opportunities were arriving every day from the World of Chaos.
The growth of foreign industry showed all over the land as Beth traveled through it. People from the World of Chaos built with very different materials from the traditional Fairyland structures. They used a lot more metal, but also things there hadn’t even been names for in Fairyland a year ago, things like concrete and plastic and stucco. Beth wasn’t quite sure what stucco even was, except that they liked to put it on the outside of their buildings.
She was traveling in the early afternoon one day, the sort of bright spring day you could always expect from Fairyland if there wasn’t some reason for dramatic weather, when she came across a metal fence. It was a mesh of steel wire in diamond shapes, the sort of thing only someone from the World of Chaos could have come up with. There was more wire on the top, with pointy bits that looked dangerous, and a large sign hung up behind the fence that said NO TRESPASSING BEWARE OF DOG.
Beth was surprised at the idea that anyone in Fairyland would need to be told to beware of a dog, when they were always doing things like killing dragons and chewing through prison bars. And trespassing, well, there were a lot of habitual trespassers in Fairyland, she had to admit. It just never seemed to work out for them very well.
Beth definitely wasn’t interested in trespassing, but she was intrigued by the presence of the fence. From here all she could see inside were the backs of some crudely-constructed metal buildings, and a lot of open space. Clearly, whatever it was meant to be, she was on the wrong side of it to find out. So she set out around the fence, to find the front of it, which she expected would have some sort of a gate.
The signs were stuck to the fence quite frequently, as if the owner of the place was very dedicated to the fearful reputation of his dog. They continued even after she turned the corner to the side of the fenced-in area. On this side there was no road, just weeds and the occasional tree, but the fence was no less worried about someone approaching from here and being unaware of the dangerous canine.
As she picked her way through the high-growing grass on this side of the fence, she heard shouting from inside and above. She looked up, and inside the fenced-in property was a man, high in the air, with some sort of metal device holding him in place high above the ground.
“Help, help!” he said. “I’ve been trapped by a magnet!”
Beth had never even imagined a magnet as big as the metal circle which held the man high above the ground, but surely he knew more about what was happening than she did. She wanted to do whatever she could to help the poor man, but the fence was still in her way.
“I’ll have to go round the front,” she said.
“Yes, go round the front, find the manager, just help me down!” said the man. So Beth worked her way through the weeds more quickly than before, and soon rounded a corner of fence and was in sight of the front gate. There was a big sign above it, freshly painted, saying “JJ’s Junkyard.” Beth wasn’t sure what a junkyard was, but she still felt it a little bit strange that one would have a sign that looked new. Fairyland had junk-men, who traveled around collecting scrap, but they never looked new. She knew they must have started some time, that their carts must have been built by someone. But in Fairyland things that were supposed to look beaten-up always looked beaten-up, and things that were supposed to look new always looked new, no matter how much anyone used them. It was the way things were.
This must be from the World of Chaos, then, as if the metal fence wasn’t evidence enough. Or needing to tell people to beware of your dog.
She didn’t see a dog, and the gates were wide open, so she stepped inside carefully. Whatever a junkyard was supposed to be, this one didn’t seem to have managed it yet. There were a couple of small buildings near the entrance, on wheels like they’d been hauled there by a team of horses, but no horses to be seen, or smelled. The rest of it was just open space, a field like the unfenced ones outside, with the weeds more trampled, perhaps, but otherwise no different.
The main feature was a tower in the middle, also made of metal, as tall as a castle but uglier. There was another big chunk of metal that came off the top of it, balanced somehow, and on one end of it the magnet holding the distraught man. He couldn’t see her from this angle, so she took a moment to consider how she might contrive to rescue him.
Before she could do anything, she heard a door to one of the buildings open behind here, and a jolly, enthusiastic “hello!” She turned to see a fat man in a checkered shirt and denim overalls, about her height, approaching her. She wasn’t sure how old he was. He was definitely older than her, and he moved like he was pretty young, but he had grey hairs starting to colonize his temples.
“Welcome to my junkyard,” he said. “I’m Jimmy Jameson, and this is my place. You don’t look like you have scrap to sell, and I don’t have much to buy, yet. Is there anything I can do for you?” All of that came out in about six seconds, and Beth had to take a moment just to absorb it. By the time she thought to answer the fast-talking Jimmy, the other man had started yelling again.
“Help! Get me down from here!”
“Well, that’s a thing,” said Jimmy. “Will you excuse me, ma’am, while I take care of this?”
“I came to try to help him,” said Beth.
“Oh, well, come along then,” said Jimmy. “I don’t understand why he’s stuck up there. The magnet’s only supposed to grab metal things, not people.” He headed off into the open ground, and Beth followed him.
“What is this place for?” she asked.
“It’s a junkyard,” he said. “You’ve never seen a junkyard before? Oh, of course you haven’t. And mine doesn’t look much like one yet. It will be different when people start bringing their cars into Fairyland, though! See, the people outside, they drive these big vehicles made of metal.”
“I’ve seen cars,” said Beth. “I went to the World of Chaos once.”
“You did? That’s great! So, when the cars stop working, they’ve gotta have somewhere to get rid of them,” said Jimmy. “That’s what a junkyard is for. We sell off the parts that are still worthwhile, and then we turn the rest into scrap metal so people can build something else out of it. The big magnet’s for moving those old hulks of cards around.” He waved up at the magnet, where the other man was still yelling at them.
“We’re coming to help,” yelled Beth, and he quieted.
“Now let me see about these magnet controls,” said Jimmy, as they had reached the base of the crane. “I haven’t quite got the hang of them yet, but I should be able to figure out how to turn the power off.”
“Don’t do that until you bring him down to the ground!” said Beth.
“Oh, yes, I suppose I shouldn’t,” said Jimmy. “Well, that’s easy enough, I think, there’s a joystick for that part.” He was, indeed, able to move the magnet, but it was jerky and slow. He eventually got the trapped man heading slowly for the ground, but Beth could see that it was going to take a minute to get there.
“I don’t understand why you would build a junkyard here,” said Beth. “Nobody drives metal cars in Fairyland. If a pumpkin car breaks you can just put it in the back yard until it decomposes.”
“They will drive metal cars!” said Jimmy. “The outside is coming in, and pretty soon I predict there will be cars all over the place here, just like there are there. Everyone who isn’t allergic to iron will want one. And I’m going to be ahead of the curve!”
Beth wasn’t sure about that, but the trapped man was just about to the ground, and Jimmy shut off the magnet and let him fall. Beth rushed over to see if he needed any help.
She could see, right away when she got there, why the magnet had picked him up. He had three bands of iron running across his chest like bandoliers, one over his left shoulder, one over his right shoulder, and one right around the middle. There didn’t seem to be any way to take them off. She tugged at them, but they didn’t move.
“Let them be,” said the man. “They’re part of me, not part of the problem.”
“They were holding you to the magnet,” said Beth.
“They hold me together,” said the man. “Without them, my heart would break. I could do without that thing, though.” He indicated the magnet.
“My name is Beth,” she said. “And that’s Jimmy, who owns the junkyard.”
“Oh, I’m Iron Harry,” said the man. “You already know why they call me that. Thank you for saving me, but right now what I want most is to get away from this place.”
“Of course,” said Beth. “I don’t belong here, either. Can I help you get to where you’re going?”
He looked her up and down. “I think you could,” he said. “I’m the servant to a Prince, and I would like to introduce you to my master.”
“I don’t have good experiences with Princes,” said Beth.
“Don’t worry,” said Iron Harry. “There’s nothing my master could do to harm you.”
They said goodbye to Jimmy, who wanted to make sure to stay in his junkyard in case someone came along with a wrecked car. Beth didn’t think it was very likely, since she hadn’t seen even one car in Fairyland yet, much less two to run into each other. But she supposed anyone trying to start a business like this would have to stay optimistic. She and Iron Harry set off alone down the road.
He didn’t have much to say as they traveled, which was all right with Beth. The road he took her down led into a wooded lowland, in the flood plain of a river, where the trees were more likely to grow in water than on dry land. The road wound around within the woods, seeking the highest points of land to walk on, sometimes resorting to boardwalks to connect one point to another. The water here was everywhere, but never very deep. The air was thick and full of flying insects.
“Does your master have a palace in a place like this?” she asked. “What is it made of?”
“My master no longer has a palace,” said Iron Harry. “He is in exile. And he lives, well, you will soon see how he lives.”
“I don’t like mysteries,” said Beth. “Tell me more about him. Why is he in exile?”
“He was cursed by a witch,” said Iron Harry. “And forced to leave his kingdom behind, and live in this place, which is more suited to him, now. Because, you see, I haven’t told you this, but my master, well, he is a frog.”
“A frog?” said Beth. “I could have used a curse that turns Princes into frogs. I wonder if I could learn it.”
“We’ve been trying to break the curse for years,” said Iron Harry. “I had hoped that you might be willing to help us, like you helped me before.”
“I suppose I am,” said Beth. “But have you considered that the world might be better off with fewer Princes and more frogs?”
“Perhaps,” said Iron Harry. “But not mine. He was the most wonderful and loyal and affectionate Prince, and I hate the witch who cursed him so much it would tear me apart without these bands around my heart.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that all the good Princes have been turned into frogs,” said Beth, “while the bad ones are allowed to run around free. Well, bring me to your Prince, and we shall see if I think as highly of him as you do.”
The Prince didn’t live in a palace, even a palace to a frog. His home looked pretty much like the rest of the low forest, damp and buggy but beautiful with the leaves of the trees reflected in the shallow water. He was indeed a frog, and not a particularly large or special one. He had asymmetric spots running down his back, hind legs with more joints than seemed practical, and a face in which Beth couldn’t see any humanity, or any emotion. The only thing that distinguished him from other frogs was that he didn’t seem to be afraid of approaching humans.
Well, that and he talked.
“Who is this, Iron Harry?” he said. “Have you found me a Princess at last?” Beth thought a frog ought to have croaked, but his voice sounded like a normal human’s. A quite pleasant one, in fact. There wasn’t room for much resonance in a frog’s lungs, but the witch must have left his human voice intact somehow.
“No, sire,” said Iron Harry. “She’s just a girl who helped me along the road. There were no Princesses to be found, anywhere I went, who would consent to come here and help you unlock the curse.”
“Time was that the promise of the gratitude of a Prince would have brought them running,” said the frog.
“Perhaps they’ve known too many Princes before,” said Beth. “I know I have.”
“Why would you come to me, then, when all the others would not?”
“Because I feel sad for Iron Harry,” she said. “And because right now I don’t have any other plans. I’m just traveling the countryside trying to discover the next chapter of my life.”
“Well, I hope we will provide you with an interesting diversion,” said the frog. “And perhaps I can improve your opinion of Princes a little bit. Your opinion of my peers, well, I shouldn’t like to say it was correct, but only because I shouldn’t like to say so, if you get my meaning. We’re not the Princes we once were.”
“I’m not sure of that,” said Beth. “I’ve read the old stories. We’ve always needed frogs more than we need Princes. At least you eat mosquitoes and flies.”
“I’m hardly the only Prince to ever do that,” said the frog. Beth laughed. “And I may be stuck eating flies forever, if we can’t find a Princess. You say you’ve known Princes, but do you know any Princesses?”
“I’ve only known one Prince,” said Beth, “though that was enough. And one Emperor, I suppose. He wasn’t as bad. But no Princesses.”
“Ah, too bad,” said the frog. Then he hopped off into the trees. Beth was confused. She didn’t think that was an end to a conversation. What was she supposed to do now?
“Don’t worry,” Said Iron Harry. “He has to do that sometimes. It’s the frog taking over. He’ll swim, and eat a bit, and come back. He can only talk for a little while at a time.”
“What do you need a Princess for, anyway?” asked Beth.
“It’s the curse,” said Iron Harry. “The witch cursed him to remain a frog until he could convince a Princess to kiss him. She thought that was a grand joke.”
“So when he gets kissed he’ll turn back into a Prince?”
“That’s the idea,” said Iron Harry. “I’ve been traveling the world looking for a Princess, but all I’ve ever found was you.”
The frog came back, then, swimming up out of the pool. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It comes upon me sometimes.”
“Is it hard for you, being a frog?” Beth asked.
“It’s not hard being a frog,” said the Prince. “Well, it’s probably harder for the frogs. But when herons come along I just yell at them and they decide it would be better to eat somebody else. A talking frog is at the top of the food chain. Even if it’s a pretty short food chain.”
“Was it better, then, living as a Prince?” said Beth. “Here you can’t hurt anyone.”
“That depends on how you feel about mosquitoes,” said the frog. “But I tried not to hurt anyone as a Prince, too. At least as far as I remember. I can remember some of the things that happened to me as a human, but it’s hard to know how they felt. A frog doesn’t have the same sort of emotional system as a human does. And the witch didn’t leave me that.”
At that revelation Beth’s emotional system was doing enough work for both of them. How dare the witch do that? He might be the only Prince in the world who had more emotional capacity than a potato! Iron Harry certainly seemed to think so. And the frog’s conversation was already better than she’d ever thought to have with a Prince. Certainly the one in her own kingdom could never have been so pleasant, or funny.
“But what about you?” asked the Prince, a question she definitely didn’t expect. “You’ve already helped Iron Harry once, and now you come here to help us again, but you’ve asked for nothing in return. What can we do for you?”
“I don’t know,” said Beth. “Right now, I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. I got kicked out of my own kingdom, and I’ve been wandering the world trying to find something that feels meaningful, something that feels like home.”
“I don’t suppose that might be here,” said the frog.
“In a swamp?” said Beth. “Don’t take me wrong, please. Your home is beautiful, and I’m glad to visit it. To make some new friends, and maybe help them out a little. But I couldn’t live here. I may not know what I want, but I’m pretty sure it involves sleeping somewhere dry.”
The frog laughed, a weird, croaking thing that was half-human but very alien. The witch hadn’t left him laughs along with his voice, at least not entirely.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That startles people. I’ll try not to do it again.”
“Don’t apologize for laughing,” said Beth.
“Even if my laugh is wrong?”
“It’s not wrong,” said Beth. “It’s startling at first, but it’s not wrong. I’ll get used to it, because I intend to make you do it again.”
He didn’t laugh at that, though she had hoped he might. After all, a laugh there would have been pleased, self-valued, delighted. Human emotions she reminded herself he no longer felt.
She really wanted him to feel emotions again. Perhaps to make him laugh all she needed were jokes, but to make him feel she needed more. She needed a Princess. But where was Beth going to find a Princess?
They argued over the question for three days. Staying there wasn’t as bad as Beth had expected, for Iron Harry had built himself a treehouse, and he gladly gave his bed over to his rescuer while he built on another level. They watched him all day, and batted around ideas for where to find a Princess. Then in the evenings, tired of the question, Beth would walk through the forest, the frog sitting on her shoulder, eating the mosquitoes when they tried to bite her face. At those items they talked of Beth’s history, and of her search for somewhere to fit into Fairyland society after losing her home.
The Prince clearly wished he had something more to offer her than a treehouse in a river bottom. But even if they could find a Princess and end his curse, they had no idea if he could convince his kingdom to take him back. Perhaps a Prince who had once been a frog was just as embarrassing as a Prince who was currently a frog, even in a land where all royalty came with unexpected flaws added to their expected flaws. Beth thought the Prince was kinder and smarter than the other royalty she had encountered, even as a frog. She was beginning to think he might stay that way even when deamphibianized.
On each of the first two nights she made him laugh his weird, froggy laugh, and she was pleased. And yet part of her knew that she hadn’t really given him joy the way she wanted to. That when he made her laugh, he wasn’t feeling the pleasure in it that she did when the situation was reversed. He could only feel what a frog felt, and not the human emotions that she kept expecting and looking for.
On the third night, after Iron Harry’s lower platform was complete, they sat near the tree and she confessed the truth of her anti-royalist past. How the Prince of her country had wanted to marry her, a fate she desired so little she had led a revolution against him. How she had tried, and failed, to turn her home kingdom into a republic. She waited nervously for the frog’s reaction. He was a Prince, after all, and she thought he would naturally side with the Prince in her story.
But he wasn’t interested in taking sides at all. “You were engaged to marry this Prince?” he asked.
“I didn’t agree to it,” said Beth.
“But he ordered you to marry him,” said the frog. “That’s as good as an engagement, to a Prince.”
“Then it lasted about four seconds,” said Beth. “It’s the last thing he ever did as a Prince.”
“And afterward, you ran the country?” asked the frog.
“I did,” said Beth. “I don’t think I was very good at it. I did my best, but the people kicked me out a week later.”
“Beth,” said the frog. “You probably don’t want to hear this, and I’m sorry. But it’s important.”
“What is it?”
“I think you probably qualify as a Princess.”
She definitely didn’t want to hear that. Well, she mostly didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t like that at all, except, well, she sort of did. She didn’t like Princes and Princesses! She wasn’t the sort of person to value royalty, and she certainly didn’t want to be royalty herself. Except that she seemed to be liking this particular Prince more and more each day, and if she was a Princess, she had the power to lift his curse. At least she would have to try. She still had a feeling she might like him more as a frog, but he wanted to be a human again. And she wanted to make him feel like a human would.
It turns out you can’t kiss a frog while he’s sitting on your shoulder. After she almost knocked him off with her chin, the three of them rearranged themselves so that eventually Iron Harry was holding the frog in both hands for Beth to kiss.
She closed her eyes while she did it, and when she touched her lips gently to his side she could feel the skin changing beneath them, from the lumpy, slimy surface of a frog to the sharp, dry stubble of the cheek of a man. She moved back a little to see him. He couldn’t have been much older than she was, with a thin face and dark hair. The whites of his dark eyes were still speckled like they had been as a frog, which was disconcerting but also perhaps a little bit cute.
Beth kept her eyes focused on his face, because he wasn’t wearing any clothes. She thought the one glimpse of his shoulders she’d gotten in this moment would stay with her forever. Her heart was beating much faster than she wanted it to, and she turned away, looking out at the forest, trying to get it under control.
She heard the two men climbing up into the treehouse, with Iron Harry explaining that he had kept the Prince’s old clothes for just this possibility. Good, he could get dressed, and she could pull herself together. She hadn’t had time to think about what she wanted before the kiss. It was one thing to be friends with a frog, good friends with a frog, maybe even have complicated feelings for a frog, because he was always going to be a frog. Suddenly he was a man, and everything had changed.
She wandered out among the shallow waters for a while, and when she came back, heart rate at least temporarily under control, she found that he was as awkward about the situation as she was. She told herself that of course he would be. He needed to readjust entirely to being a human again. However difficult her emotions were, he hadn’t had any emotions at all a day ago. He must be even more of a mess.
She didn’t mind at all when his chivalrousness led him to bunk in with Iron Harry on the lower level of the treehouse. There would be time to figure all of this out later.
In the morning, more practical concerns occupied them both. Breakfast for three humans used up the last of Iron Harry’s supplies, and they debated how to get more. And the Prince had one more thing he needed of them.
“The curse on me is broken,” said the Prince. “But there is still one piece of it left. It won’t be fully gone until the iron bands are removed from Harry’s heart.”
“What will that take?” said Beth, not sure she wanted to get involved in another quest. “A sorceress? A potion?”
“Oh, no,” said Harry. “They’re not magic, just iron. We only need to find somebody with tools.”
“No problem,” said Beth, relieved. “We can just go back to Jimmy’s junkyard.”
The Prince marched out of the forest in a trained cadence, like moving with a great purpose was the only way he was ever allowed to move. It wasn’t a motion that left room for Beth to be near him. Instead she stayed off to the side, and a little behind, and watched him. She wanted to watch the road, she wanted to watch anything else, but her eyes kept straying to the Prince. She had to resist the urge to walk beside him, to touch him, to hold his hand. But nothing in the way he moved suggested that was welcome. So she held back, thinking only of freeing Iron Harry.
Jimmy the junker was happy to help them. In fact he was happy to get a chance at any junk at all. No other customers had come along while they were in the forest, and Harry’s iron bands promised to be the first scrap metal Jimmy would ever collect. He was very careful with his metal saws, and his welding torch, and soon Harry’s heart was free of its iron restraint.
He embraced his Prince, in a way that made Beth’s heart lurch. But surely as the oldest, most loyal friend, no-longer-Iron Harry had the right.
And yet, they held each other for a very long time. When they came back to Beth, Harry’s arm was still around the Prince, hardly subordinate, in fact almost possessive. They both were smiling as large as she’d ever seen anyone smile, and the joy she had once hoped to bring the Prince was now shining in his speckled eyes.
“Thank you so much for setting us free,” said Harry. “I thought we would never be together again.”
Beth just nodded. She didn’t even dare look down, for fear that she would discover her heart on the ground beside her.
“You’ve done us the word of good,” said the Prince. “Anything in my power for your reward, you need only ask.”
“You never said you were in love with Iron Harry,” she managed to get out.
“I didn’t know!” said the Prince. “The witch took that away when she turned me into a frog. Frogs can never be in love with anyone.”
“And I did not remember either,” said Harry. “I put the bands of iron around my heart so I would forget my love for the Prince, while he could not love me in return, and retain only my loyalty.”
“But now you’ve set us both free,” said the Prince, “and we can love each other again.” He took Iron Harry’s hand, and they were both so happy Beth couldn’t bear to ruin it.
“I’m happy for you both,” she said, and tried very hard, but unsuccessfully, to make it true.
“Come back to my kingdom with us,” said the Prince. “We must show you our gratitude. You will surely have the thanks of all my subjects.”
Beth could not think of a worse idea right now than traveling with these two. “Thank you,” she said, “but that’s not the right place for me right now. Maybe I’ll visit you someday, but right now I just want to stay here.”
Thankfully, the Prince asked no questions. He and Iron Harry practically danced out the gate and into the distance.
Jimmy made Beth a pot of tea, and left her alone in his office to drink it and cry. He took an unreasonably long time to find the perfect place to put his three new strips of scrap, and Beth was grateful. By the time he returned she was almost recovered.
“The usual punishment for a girl who breaks a Prince’s curse is having to marry him,” he said. Beth gave him a grimace that was less than half smile. “But I don’t think you saw it that way.” He refilled the teapot with hot water and sat down across from her.
“I wanted to be the one to make him feel like that,” said Beth.
“Because he made you feel like that.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” she said, sniffling. She took more tea.
“I’m sorry,” said Jimmy.
“I don’t want to be a Princess, anyway,” said Beth. “I’ve had enough of running kingdoms.”
“What is it you want, then?” asked Jimmy.
“I don’t know! I’ve been all over trying to find out, and everywhere I go it’s hard. I can’t just go from place to place forever. I just want to go home.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I can’t,” she said.
“You can try,” said Jimmy. “This is Fairyland. You never know what’s going to happen.”
And maybe he had a point. If you never knew what was going to happen, maybe you could always make something unexpected happen. So Beth finished her tea and headed back out onto the road, following the tracks of pumpkin coaches toward a land where people danced in glass slippers.
Part 11 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Gingerbread Towers.
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