The Frog-Wife
Catherynne M. Valente


Lean down to me,

to my green and dripping mouth—


I will tell you a secret.


Frogs keep secrets like flies:

black and sweet, under the tongue,

squelching under swamp mud,

under webbed feet,

under rotting cattails.


Lean down to me—

lean down, I cannot reach—

lean down,

down to me,

and I will lift my long red tongue.


That day—

that day when the sun

was silver in the marsh-fog—

that day I did not catch

your arrow in my mouth.


I meant to catch it—

I meant to dazzle you

with my dexterity,

with my grace. But


the silvered sun flashed in its feathers,

and it entered the loose and mottled skin below my lip

cutting through the thin jaundice-yellow flesh—

and if I had been singing just then,

if it had been full as a little wet moon,

the shaft would have killed me.


Instead, it punched through my silence

like a fist through gauze,

and the roof of my mouth broke open—

blood splashed down

as through a thatch,

as if it meant to fall neatly into a tin pail,

and could not understand

why there was nothing to catch it

but my wide, quiet throat.


I drew it out of me, wrapped

in willow-whip-fingers,

and I did not cry,

for frogs cannot.

It pulled loose

like a lover leaving my body.


And you came just then, just then,

dragging slime-scoured boots

through salamanders’ nests—

you came just then,

when I held your arrow in my little hand,

surprised at its weight,

coughing back my hanging strips of skin,

and staring,


with these old black

unweeping eyes.


I swallowed my own blood,

and the silvered sun was behind you

like an icon set carefully

on a cracked and dusty mantle.

I swallowed it all,

though my ribboned throat

flapped like a drowning thing.

I swallowed—

and held out the arrow to you,

with a maiden’s well-bred smile.


You did not see my blood’s sheen

or how the feathers stuck together,

slippery and red.

            But you covered my bald green head

            when the rain came

            with the tails of your fur-trimmed coat,

and I was so warm, Ivan Tsarevitch,

so warm,

against your skin.


The thatch of your house never leaked,

and my head was never cold—

each night you lay closer to me,

and each night I smelled less and less

of eels and grasshoppers.


Each night you came nearer to me,

and I thought the three rubbery chambers

of my marsh-sodden heart would seize

like three struck drums.

And once—oh, once!—you put your hand

over my throat,

and for a moment I thought you knew,

I thought you knew.

But you moved in your sleep

and your fingers, your golden fingers,

fell away.


And I would whisper,

when the night brought you to me:


Kva, kva, Ivan Tsarevitch?

Why do you look so sad?


I think,

I think I only wanted

to hear you speak to me

like a wife.


Kva, kva, Ivan Tsarevitch?

Why do you look so sad?


Even so I wove you the shirt you wanted,

though my wet, bulging hands

bruised and bled under the needle.


Even so I baked you bread you wanted

and glazed it over with honey,

though my leaf-colored fingers

blistered on the oven.


Even so I made myself a woman,

because you wanted it, Ivan Tsarevitch,

because you wanted it.

And I wore nothing but white and silver—

save that I could not wear those pretty shoes,

I could not fit their arches,

but laced up long boots

to hide the spider-pale webbing

still strung between my woman-toes.


I know you only wanted to keep me—

I should not have put those pearls in my hair;

I should not have caught up my waist in silk,

it was too soon, too soon—

but I only wanted to keep you.


It is all right.

I forgave you

before you ever found that little bundle

under the stairs,

all wrapped up in tamarind leaves.


I felt it in my throat first,

that old scarred sac

that once bellowed at the moon—

I felt it there, like the arrow,

a scald, as though a bubble

had burst in a boiling pot.

I clutched at the place

where you first entered me,

clawed at it, and could not breathe.


You burned up my skin, Ivan Tsarevitch,

and the emerald of it,

the emerald which cost me so much,

turned black

and curled in at the edges

like a ruined book.


            It is all right.

I do not mind

that you could not wait.

I wanted you, too,

and some days

the skin weighed so heavy

my bones wept.


Happily, oh, happily

have I bled and burned for you,

Ivan Tsarevitch,

happily have I torn open

both a wide, rose-strewn breast

and a muddy cheek,

cold and small.


Because we could not wait,

you and I,

I am lying on the edge of the sky,

and my legs have long swung over.


But because of that slashed song-sac,

because of those scorch-tracks on the skin,

            I know you

are even now

listening to the tinny voices

of rabbits

and ravens

and pike flashing

in running water.

            I know you

are even now

sleeping with the fur-trimmed coat

against your unshaven face.

            I know you

are even now drawing that old arrow

from your beaten leather quiver.

            and I know

you see it—

you see it suddenly,

in a flash of sun,

showing silver through the fog,

my blood,

my first blood,

still bright and slick

along the stiff fletch of feathers.



About the Author:

Catherynne M. Valente’s work in poetry and short fiction can be found online and in print in such journals as The Pedestal Magazine, Fantastic Metropolis, The Women's Arts Network, NYC Big City Lit, Jabberwocky, Mythic Delirium, Fantasy Magazine, forthcoming issues of Electric Velocipede, Cabinet des Fees, and Star*Line, and anthologies such as The Book of Voices (benefiting Sierra Leone PEN), The Minotaur in Pamplona, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #18.  She has authored a chapbook, Music of a Proto-Suicide, the novels The Labyrinth and Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, and two collections of poetry, Apocrypha and Oracles.  Forthcoming works include novels The Grass-Cutting Sword and The Ice Puzzle, as well as her first major fantasy series The Orphan's Tales, which will be published by Bantam/Dell in 2006. She currently lives in Virginia with her beloved husband and two high-maintenance dogs, having recently returned from a long residence in Japan.



Poem © 2006 Catherynne M. Valente.