“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.
Liril looks at her.
Melanie is laughing. She is looking upwards at the sky. She is hugging her hands to her own chest now and it is awful and Liril wants to cry but Melanie had asked that she stop crying, so she doesn’t.
“Melanie,” Liril says.
“’Why do we suffer?’” Melanie asks. “’Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?’”
“We don’t,” Liril says.
“No,” Melanie says. “Not ‘we don’t.’ It is ‘because of the elephant.’”
Liril looks blank.
“You go,” Melanie says.
“I can’t go,” Liril says.
“It’s easy,” Melanie says. “All the answers are elephants.”
It is beginning to seep in through Liril’s reserve. It’s too ridiculous.
“You go,” Melanie insists.
“What’s gray and awful,” Liril says, hesitantly, “and has a shiny tie?”
“Oh,” says Melanie. “That one could be a frog.”
Liril makes a squinchy face.
“Or an elephant,” Melanie says. “An awful elephant in a tie. Why did the elephant step on the grape?”
Liril shakes her head.
“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”
Liril closes her eyes.
Please, she thinks. Please go away.
It is too late. She is beginning to laugh. It is escaping her. Awful things will happen and it will be her fault, it will be her fault for laughing, it will be her fault for accepting this precious gift that is given to her life.
“What’s gray and wrinkly,” Liril asks, instead of laughing, “And antithetical to the covenants of the world?”
It’s almost like having a will, being able to ask a question like that.
“What the hell kind of word is ‘antithetical?’” Melanie asks.
And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.
[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]
They go to Liril’s house. Liril opens the door. She goes in and turns around and she is inviting Melanie inside —
“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.
She is standing there, frozen. It’s a whisper. It’s a strangled, horrified little whisper. It’s barely loud enough to hear.
Melanie straightens. She braces her feet. She gives a tight grin to Liril’s mom.
“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.
It’s a weird thing to hear from a ten-year-old girl.
A moment passes.
Liril’s mom doesn’t move; so Melanie just shrugs, and nods, and pretends their words were greetings; and she walks past Liril’s mother, and takes up Liril’s hand, and goes up to Liril’s room.
That’s the first time the two of them meet.
The second time they meet, Liril’s mother doesn’t say anything at all.
The third meeting, though, a few weeks into their acquaintance, she’s found some kind of peace.
She stops Melanie at the door. She can stop her, this time. She’s not terrified, this time, and that means that Melanie has to pay her mind — a tall woman like her, with the ability to call the police and the like, maybe even overpower Melanie, physically, with her raw adulthood’s might.
“Go up to your room, honey,” Liril’s mom says, to Liril.
So Liril does.
Liril’s mom leads Melanie into the living room. She makes hot tea and little plates with tea sandwiches. She brings them in. She sits down, facing Melanie, to talk.
Melanie takes a sandwich.
“Thank you,” she says.
“She says you’re a good person,” Liril’s mother says.
“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.
Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.
“Weird,” Melanie decides.
“So I’ve decided I can’t hate you. And so I am not going to tell the monster that you are here, and have him hale you away and raise you in the customs of the monster’s house; or, failing that, cast you back against the wall and pierce your eyes and heart with the Thorn that Does Not Kill, or hang you from a cross and put razor wire on your brow and let you bleed; or stake you out on some bleak hill for the carrion birds to feed. Because I would enjoy seeing him do those things to you, I would enjoy seeing you suffer, but I shouldn’t go that far for somebody I don’t hate.”
Melanie puts her sandwich down.
It has become unappetizing.
“I would be haled away,” she says, “and raised in a monster’s house?”
“He doesn’t have children,” says Liril’s mom.
Melanie thinks about this.
“It would be nice to have a house,” says Melanie, “and customs.”
Melanie gives a little snort. Then she shakes her head.
“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.
“Yes,” agrees Liril’s mother. “Children are so very good at avoiding being caught by monsters. It’s practically a trend.”
“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.
“One day,” says Liril’s mother, “you will find him; or he will find you; and you will meet the monster. And then you can decide whether to tell him that I betrayed him. You can decide whether to tell him that I had you here, that I knew you were here, a girl of the monster’s line, and I didn’t even like you, and I kept it from him anyway. If you tell him that then you will have more than enough revenge for what I am going to do to you today, but you’ll also prove that Liril’s wrong.”
It’s hard for Melanie to believe she could stomach this woman’s sandwiches and tea at all.
“If I may ask,” says Liril’s mother, “how do you live?”
“What are you going to do to me today?”
“No,” says Liril’s mother. “It is my question now. It is your question later. How do you live?”
“I don’t understand,” she says.
“I mean,” Liril’s mother says, “are you—fostered? Did you grow up here? How do you live?”
“Oh,” Melanie says.
She shakes her head.
“I steal,” she says. “I carry messages. I live with the fairies in their dells, sometimes.”
“You must be very cunning,” Liril’s mother says.
Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.
She is standing up.
“You won’t do this,” she says.
“What am I going to do?”
Why am I afraid? she asks herself.
It is the expression on Liril’s mother’s face. It is subtle but familiar. She has seen it on her brother’s face. The last time she saw it Billy was holding up Papa’s head —
The words are not what she’s expecting. She doesn’t even understand how they can stop her; how they can catch her up; how they can freeze her; how, for that matter, it could mean anything to her at all, when Priyanka says:
“There is a King.”