Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s Short Short Story About Who Owns Beauty
From ‘The Merry Spinster’
In an old time, in an old country, there lived a man whose daughters were all beautiful and unlucky. To be beautiful in this place was to be noticed; it was for this reason his daughters were so remarkably unlucky. Here people prayed to be forgotten, and they prayed with their faces to the floor.
It was the man’s youngest daughter who was the unluckiest of all. He was so beautiful that the sun herself noticed and had in fact fallen quite in love with him, and never let her rays stray from his face for even a moment while she hung above the rim of the world. So the youngest daughter slept with his face jammed into a pillow, and with coverlets piled over his head, but the sun would not let him sleep unnoticed. Every day she found him, and every day she woke him while everyone else was still asleep. Beauty is never private.
“Beauty does not belong exclusively to you,” the man told his daughters. “Beauty is a public good, and you are responsible for it.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” the youngest daughter asked. The sun burned hot on his forehead.
“It means — in a sense — that according to a certain understanding you belong to everyone,” the man said.
“By that reasoning,” his daughter said, “I belong at least partly to myself. Certainly at least as much as I belong to anybody else.”
“Don’t be clever,” his father said. “Go and play outside, where people can see you.”
The land near the man’s house was very old and thickly wooded. In this forest, beneath a linden tree, there was a well full of standing water. In the heat of the day, when the sun’s attentions became unbearable, the man’s youngest daughter would run across the highway and into the woods, where the trees stood so close together that almost no light reached the ground.
He would take with him a golden ball, as round and as yellow as the sun. He would throw it straight up in the air, then catch it when it came down; he never threw it in any other direction. It was his favorite pastime, and he never tired of it.
On this day, it happened that he threw the golden ball so high into the branches overhead that it disappeared into the spreading darkness, only to drop suddenly far to the left of him and vanish with a smothering sound into the well. He leaned over the edge and looked down, but the water was so dark, and the well so deep, that he could not see the slightest sign that anything had ever been there but scum and mosquitoes. If anyone had tried to console him in that moment, he would have sunk down onto the stone and refused them, but no one did, so he continued to lean over the well, looking down.
Also, he was not stupid, and knew better than to dive into water he didn’t know how deep, when there was only one way in or out. Eventually, however, someone came along and noticed his crying (as someone generally did), and called out to him. He looked around to find the voice and saw that a frog had thrust its flat, wet head out of the well. The frog looked like a calf’s heart with a mouth slit across it.
“I was crying because I lost something that I love.”
“I can help you, but what will you give me if I bring you back your plaything?”
“But I did not ask you to help me,” he said, “so why should I promise you anything?”
“You are sitting on my well,” said the frog. “You are beautiful, and you are crying, and I saw you before anyone else did; that is almost the same thing as asking, or being asked, anyhow.” The frog brushed its hand over his, and the man’s youngest daughter had no answer for that.
“I don’t know what I should promise you,” he said. “You can have anything else that I own. I could bring you something, if there was something that you wanted, and that you could not get for yourself, I suppose. My chain of office that my father gave me.”
The frog said, “Keep your boyish treasures — I don’t want them, nor is there anything you can fetch for me I could not get myself. I do not need an errand boy. But if you will accept me as a companion, and let me sit next to you at your father’s table, and eat from the plate you eat from, and drink from your cup, and sleep in your bed; if you would promise this to me, then I’ll dive back into the well and bring your golden ball back to you.”
“Yiiiiikes,” the boy said slowly. He thought of his father’s words: You are responsible for your beauty. “Well,” he said. “I could promise all this to you, if you brought it back to me.” He hoped that maybe the frog was joking, although he had no reason to believe it was; people rarely joked with him. He thought, as he often did before making a promise, that perhaps he would not have to keep it, or that maybe the promise would not be so bad in the keeping as it had been in the making.
At any rate, as soon as the frog heard him say yes, it stopped listening to him and dove back into the water, a dark clot darting swiftly under the surface, until it disappeared from sight entirely.
A few minutes later the frog paddled up to the edge of the well with the golden ball bulging between its thin lips and spat it out onto the grass. Its tongue was a livid purple and bulged out of its mouth. But the youngest daughter was too happy to pay much attention to how the frog looked. He was so relieved, in fact, that he picked up the ball immediately and ran for home.
“Wait,” said the frog, wheezing and dripping. “Take me along. I cannot run as fast as you can; that is not my fault but yours.” But he could no longer hear the frog, and quickly forgot about it and what it had done for him in the forest.
The next day the youngest daughter was sitting at the table with his father and all his sisters, when something with a lipless mouth and thumbless hands hauled itself up the front steps of the house. It knocked on the door and called out, “Daughter, youngest, open the door for me!” So he ran to see who it was, and opened the door wide to see the frog sitting there, panting from the strain of crawling up the stairs. He slammed the door shut and sat back down at the table. His father saw his face and asked, “Why are you so distressed, and who was at the door?”
“It was a frog,” he said. Then: “We are going to have to wash the front steps.”
“Did someone knock on our front door and leave a frog there,” his father asked, “or did the frog knock and expect to be let in?”
“Well,” his youngest daughter said. “I think it wanted to be let in.”
“I did not ask what the frog wanted,” his father said. “I asked if the frog expected to be let in.” All the other daughters had stopped pretending to eat at this point and stared in open excitement at the prospect of watching one of their number get into trouble.
“Well,” his daughter said. “Only — yesterday, when I was sitting near the well in the forest, my golden ball fell into the water.”
“Sitting near the well, or on it?”
“On it, Father. Sitting on it, and my golden ball fell into the water, and I was crying over it, and I was crying so much that the frog brought it back to me, and because it insisted on repayment, I promised him that he could be my companion, but I did not think it would be possible for the frog to leave the well, because — don’t frogs have to live in the water? And now it is sitting outside the door and wants to come in.”
“If you were sitting on the well and not just near it,” his father said, “then you must keep your promise.” Just then there came another knock at the door.
“But I did not really promise it,” the youngest daughter said. “It made the promise for me, and to itself, and I did not really ask it to get the ball. It volunteered.” He scrunched down low in his seat, too late to escape notice. He really was a very unlucky daughter.
His father said only: “You should not have sat on a well that was not yours. Go and open the door, and let the frog in.”
He went back to the door and opened it, and the frog hopped inside, then followed him back to his chair. It sat at his feet a moment and then said, “Lift me up next to you.” He did not move until his father insisted. Then he did it.
The frog sat next to his hand on the table, and said, “Now push your plate closer to me, so we can eat together.” Its breath smelled like old coins, and the youngest daughter shuddered but brought the plate closer.
Finally the frog said: “I have eaten everything I wanted to eat. Now I am tired. Carry me to your room and put me in your bed, so that we can go to sleep.”
The man’s youngest daughter began to cry. “Maybe you would prefer a little bed of your own,” he said.
“Put me in between your knees,” the frog said. “I will be warm there, and the only thing that will get dirty is you, and you can wash.”
At this the youngest daughter shook his head and shrank back in his seat. His father grew angry and said, “You took help when it was offered, and you inch now at repayment; do not make use of someone else’s property, and do not offer someone your beauty, if you do not intend to repay them in kind.”
The youngest daughter carried the frog upstairs and set it in a corner of his room, where it sat and stared at him. Next he got into bed without looking at it, but as he was lying under the blankets, it came creeping up to the foot of the bed. The frog said, “I am tired, and I want to sleep, too. Pick me up, and put me in bed with you, or I’ll tell your father.”
This was one request too many, and the youngest daughter became violently angry and shook all over. He threw back the blankets, picked up the frog, and flung it against the wall as hard as he could. “Here is your payment, and here is your thanks — now keep your peace!” The frog slid down to the oor and began to croak. It croaked louder and louder until his father filled the doorway, and picked the frog up himself, and placed it in bed with his daughter. Then he left, closing the door behind him without saying a word.
The frog was all the softer for having been thrown against the wall. It crawled underneath his legs, cold and close, and pressed a lipless kiss against the back of his knees. The daughter wished that all his skin was dead and gone. By and by the frog fell asleep, and the boy lay awake and staring all night, and for many nights afterward. He was very unlucky.
About the Author
Mallory Ortberg is Slate’s “Dear Prudence.” She has written for The New Yorker, New York magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Atlantic. She is the cocreator of The Toast, a general-interest website geared toward women. Mallory is the author of Texts from Jane Eyre and The Merry Spinster.
Excerpted from THE MERRY SPINSTER: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg, published by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY. Copyright © 2018 by Mallory Ortberg. All rights reserved.