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The Frog Prince
The Blind Pig Gin Mill should be the place where I feel most comfortable. These are "my people," as they say, other souls who move in bodies alien to their childhood forms, untrained in the ways of this creature or that, yet representative of the new species to all who enter here.
Here I should be at home, but I am not.
Most of all I know I must not hurt the beings so open to me. I may come here any time I please, even be served food and drink, perhaps join in a game of cards... That is, when I feel that the strain will not be too great. I see some of the regulars stumble on their canine or feline feet, still unused to the rhythm of their changed selves, and I wonder if their worry is as great, walking in foreign bodies, as is mine walking among them. I see that someone is always near, when a patron of this bar falters... whether in voice or step or courage... Someone always catches them. So therefore I am certain never to falter.
There will ever be a calming paw on the shoulder of the frightened, an arm to strengthen the weak. This I must avoid at the cost of alienating the only people I can call my friends. All others have left or been turned away by myself, knowing that if my own spouse must go then so certainly must the girlfriends and cousins I hugged in time of need. No embrace for me, now. Doctor's orders.
I creep to the bar, approaching just to the outside edge of the row of stools, and pipe to Donnie, "Could I have a Guiness in a saucer, please."
Donnie nods and prepares my usual. I return to a table, my chair draped in a trash bag from the kitchen, a service provided every Tuesday night when they know I'll be here. Of course they would set up my chair whenever I cared to drop in. There is no way to thank them except in voice. That I still have, my one connection to the human race, to any race. I can only tell them thank you, your thoughtfulness means so much to me, and leave them to creep-step back to my home, leave them worrying because I will not have them touch me even through the cloak.
Not that it would hurt them. Physically. But I am beyond wanting pats on the back through a raincloak that covers me everywhere I go. They try, I want to let them try, but if I show too much need and emotion they are sure to sacrifice the time it takes for a touch. A real touch.
No, I say each time a hand or talon reaches out to me. No, please, I'm not in the mood. And I continue to myself: I am not in the mood for a scene wherein one of you caresses my cloak, and tries to make me feel good, and when I tell you what I really desire, just one embrace skin-on-skin, then one of you reaches under the cloak and ends up in the emergency ward with "severe side effects."
That is what they called it. "Severe side effects." Meaning, as I understand it, that the results are uncertain except to be certainly dangerous, and messing around with the possibilities would be an irresponsible and foolhardy act which would make you very, very sorry.
Actually they said that. "We're sorry."
I wonder if doctors _always_ say that. I wonder if they mean it. I believed them, easily, when they said it to me. "We're sorry." How do they go on? If they're so sorry. "We're sorry" to every bereaved individual, every paralyzed, maimed or infected person, every victim of SCABS... Every pleading face of what to all appearances is an innocent animal... I suppose I really don't know whether I will stay like this forever. It is an unpredictable disease. But I have "stabilized"... The doctors told me not to count on it.
Not to count on it. No. I do not and I will not.
I try to get used to it.
Donnie brings the saucer out to me personally, and I peek up at him from below my hood and thank him in as sweet a voice as I can muster. Admittedly, that is quite sweet. I chirp as well as, well, a male frog. Male, they said. And just when I was beginning to think I had this to deal with, a new body that felt stranger than the coma-dreams I had been through, a new _sex_, what would my husband say, they told me the rest.
Donnie gives me one of his patented gentle stares and turns back to the bar. Careful to keep my skin off the edge of the table, I lift my chin to the brim of the saucer and dip my lower lip in the Guiness. Drinking it down, I can see the goings-on in the bar on either side of me, out of round black eyes. Wolves and others of like stature in the back, Jack at the piano playing tempting songs, songs to make you sing, if you desire to draw attention to yourself. A lupine named Wanderer pulls back a chair and joins me at my table.
"Hi," I say, tipping my head up away from the drink and giving him my impression of a smile, a slight parting of my jaws. "You aren't in the pack tonight."
"I will be, of course. But how could I join my lupine brethren without first paying my respects to you, good Mr. Armauer? I say, for Tuesday nights you have become a more faithful patron than myself. It seems only fitting that I see right off whether you will be deciding to join in our card-playing tonight...?"
"Quiet on the theatre front, Mr. Wanderer, if you will be playing cards on a Tuesday?" I am still not used to the appellation 'Mr.', but coming from Wanderer any greeting sounds pleasant and proper, and at any rate it seems no matter now what I am called. Or what gender I am, come to that. And he seems to appreciate our faux-formal exchanges.
"Sadly, yes," sighs the wolf. "So will you be staying long?"
"Sadly, no," I reply in my turn, "For I am just here to have a drink, Mr. Wanderer, and am not up to losing or even a chance thereof, tonight."
"Right enough," he smiles toothily. "I believe I will join those boys in the corner."
I flash him another 'smile' and he's gone from the table. Nice people, all of them. I cannot stay here tonight.
As a matter of fact, I don't finish my drink. Donnie takes it away at my request, again serving me personally, though he has so much else to do... Of course there is the risk and I suppose it makes sense for the owner to take it. If I could I would never come back, never endanger another SCAB again, but... I tried. I almost went insane. Months I was cooped up and when I forgot my husband's name I knew there was no choice left but to get out. I still don't recall... H.A. Armauer is what I remember, the rest is lost. But at least I came here to _talk_ to real _people_ before I lost my own name, too. I could easily find out my ex-spouse's name if I tried, I suppose. But it takes all my effort to manage the intricacies of a night out...
Donnie takes the saucer by the edge furthest from me and goes immediately to wash it. When I leave, my front feet gloved and my body cloaked, someone will remove the trash bag from the chair and dispose of it with utmost caution. All because they will not refuse a customer here, not a lonely, SCABS-wracked customer. Well, not any customer, as far as I know. And I wonder what they have done to deserve putting up with me.
I frog-walk home. It's an odd gait, one I didn't expect. I supposed that as a frog I would hop. But though I can hop, this strange climb-step, such as you may see a tree frog do, seems most comfortable in society. Even though under this coating I cannot be seen. I keep my hood well over the top of my head as I make my way to the apartment where I now reside. I have some trouble seeing from under the rainhood, but better that than a little bump into an unsuspecting passerby. "Severe side effects. Uncalculated amounts of poison."
Multiplying by the size of the species the virus seemed to borrow from, enough poison to kill... twenty-seven thousand human beings. Well... we'll go with the "uncalculated" theory. The truth is no one really knows.
And I don't know for sure, but since they had to call in an expert on amphibians to identify my species, I believe they have kept from me any information pertaining to those nurses charged with my care during my unconscious period. The doctors made it _very clear_ that mine is a condition with serious potential for harming others. They made it almost _desperately_ clear. And I do not know whether anyone touched me before I awoke.
It's not anyone's fault. For this to be anyone's fault it would have to have been a purposeful infection of my body. And if that were the case, I could have been angry. But it is no one's fault but the Martian Flu's. I have nothing to be angry about. No one can blame me for being a living, breathing, feeling, poison dart frog. And I can blame no one for my feeling lonely.
You can't really expect a man to remain married to a creature who is male, bears no resemblance to his wife, and has automatic skin secretions so poisonous that should the mucous membranes be contacted... need I say the phrase about side effects again?
H.A. Armauer had the divorce readied by the time I awoke. He did not come to see me, but sent representatives. I of course agreed to the terms, which included enough compensation for me to stay in an apartment alone in the city.
The doctors tried. They continue to try. The most feasible option put forth so far is the potential for someday, perhaps, developing an inhibitor for the hormones that stimulate poison production. But then how much effort is to be put into research for a lone victim? I am not, in and of myself, a precedent for victims in the future. SCABS may well never cause another person to undergo a change like this. Oh, God, I hope it will not. I ache so for company that I dream at night of regulars at the Blind Pig Gin Mill turning into a frog like me. But I could not bear it if it actually happened. I know too well what it's like to be so alone. If I must be the only one never to feel a human hand again, then at least I _am_ the only one.
I mount the narrow stairs to my second-floor apartment and reach into my raincoat-pocket for my key. I find that frog's forelimbs have a serviceable, if somewhat sideways, thumb when applied correctly. I let myself into the empty living room.
This is the only place I can be without my protective clothing. I probably would not hate the stuff so much if it were not _required_. In fact I might wear it by choice. It is not uncomfortable and can help keep my skin moist. But as this cloak is the only thing I have had contact with since my release from the hospital, I can think only of what it is keeping me from.
Release. From the white room to these brown rooms. And nowhere is there a family for Lindy anymore. How can I be family to the kind people at the bar, when the most I can give them is a frog-chirp and a cautious game of cards, making oh-so-certain that my gloves alone come in contact with the deck? My conversation halts along anyway, no matter how much I sense another needs to talk... How can a person so used to holding, touching, show caring with a voice? I have not yet learned how.
I throw the cloak and the gloves onto a vinyl chair and go immediately to the entertainment center. It's the best item I was able to keep following the separation.
In the CD player is my default choice, a recording of sounds from the rainforest. I never cared for it before. Just had it because some well-meaning relative offered it to H.A. for Christmas. But I remembered it and asked for it, as soon as they told me what I was. It seems now to be the only link I have to living creatures who might desire to touch me... and not be harmed by the action.
When I read that arrow-poison frogs live in colonies, near streams in Central American forests, I discovered that a human trait left to me was my ability to cry. Ability? Is it? At any rate I have avoided it since then. I listen passively to the staccato, yet sweet music of the tiny rainforest denizens. Ever since reading that, I have known that there _are_ social beings who could be my companions. But reach them I cannot. And it tears at me as it tore at me to realize that, after SCABS, I would never be able to have children. Little babies, my family, gone, gone, gone.
I don't think anyone from before knows where I exist now. I know the miniature versions of myself are unaware of my presence. But I vaguely imagine they are calling me. Vaguely, because if I imagine clearly, I will weep for the lack of their touch.
Of anyone's touch.
The bathroom is my special haven, where I rest on a towel with the tub full of hot water, bringing comfortable humidity.
My apartment is three rooms of lurking toxins.
Never does my body stop the secretions. Never will this be a safe place for a friend to visit. And if, by some far-off miracle, I am ever freed of the deadliness of this species, it will be another full year before the dried deposits lose their potency.
I will not let anyone inside my home. Were they to scratch themselves on any surface here, any thing I had touched, they would suffer the effects that I alone cannot.
I head for the bathroom to start the tub running, exactly the same as I do every night.
I hurry through the bedroom because it is so empty.
I hurry because this whole _place_ is so empty.
The sound of water spilling into the basin soothes my mind somewhat. I place my towel on the floor and move to the mirror.
I look in the mirror every night; I am my only housemate. Of all the myriad brightly-colored species, I am a glowing beauty, so different from what I was but, as a specimen from the rainforest, pleasing to look at. My coloration, meant as a warning, I understand, employs bronze-black hues in blotchy stripes contrasting iridescent green. My eyes are shiny black and my fingers and toes a delicate mint. The only warning I can give my bar friends, of course, is my own refusal to be touched. They cannot see my brilliant display past the plastic cloak I wear. My fingers when I leave my brown-walled apartment are encased in black gloves.
The bronze black and green of my skin shines before the mirror; my round eyes glint with a light I cannot have within me. It is only the lightbulbs in the bathroom granting me this false expression. I am dull inside, with nothing there to send in a gaze.
Of all things...
Of all things. I find a group of friends, but they cannot give me what I would, I sometimes think, give what is left of my life for. They do not ignore me, they do not shun the diseased person. But there is nothing they can do for me.
The peeps and chirps float to my hearing from the living room. I return, slowly, to sit in front of my entertainment center and reflect.
I called a pet store once to see if they could get me some poison arrow frogs.
They said no, they did not carry them. Why?
Handling them is too dangerous.
Would I be interested in a day gecko?
I did not say what was in my mind, that a day gecko in my care would succumb within minutes. Unless nothing I handled ever touched it.
And I am dying for touch.
Something in me is tight and impassive, hard and dangerous in set indifference. I think my heart is failing. I think I am not properly breathing.
Sing, sing, sing. Cheerful little frogs.
I miss you.
The last thing left is the thing I will not do. I can't handle the control, the... the... I cannot control who I am. It is nobody's fault. The cold indifference that has come to be my shield against hatred will give way, I know. And instead of the hatred a fear will rise. That I will never truly touch another living being again.
I do not intend to, but I answer the CD rainforest frogs. My vocalizations begin tentatively, then graduate to chirps and trills imitating those of my invisible non-companions.
Now I am not happy. I am not indifferent. I am not used to it. The tightness builds until I sense a danger from within my body.
Oh no. I did not mean to sing.
I do not want to...
As I feared, the weeping starts.
It starts and it goes on, on and on, trickling from beneath the corners of my eyes to the smooth skin of my neck and down, down to the flat, dull carpet, collecting in a pool of darkness between my front feet.
The tears come, the stain expands, carrying toxin into the carpet and the padding and beyond, washing poison ever-surfacing from the trails on my throat. The tension from inside crawls from my eyes to the carpet, flows from my black-gold face.
I cannot stop. Tears become the only sensation besides the unconcerned chirping of my only kin. On and on and on.
Later I will sleep, exhausted. But for now it seems impossible that I should do anything but weep. Wash away the side effects. Wash them away. And my body keeps on making more. Tears and poison. On and on into a dampened shadow until I have no more to cleanse except... Except the toxin I carry with me always. I must, must cry until the tears will not come. Until I cannot force them to come. Then I will have done my best. And I will still wake up the next day in a warm, humid place, an apartment for me, an empty apartment, empty except for my own unwanted defense mechanism. Defense mechanism. Stay away.
I don't want to hurt you. Stay away.
Please, stay away.
I don't want to have to hurt...