small textlarge text

Katherine Gleason

Prince Among Beasts

Download MP3

The phalanx of parents rises to leave. I check my list. One more consult to go.

“She can get her grades up,” I say, my voice high.

“You’ll hear from us,” says one of the women, the student’s mother or stepmother.

“Great,” I say. I squeeze my toes together. My feet are hooves—hard, fast, powerful.

“You fail her, we sue,” one of the dads says.

“Let’s not escalate,” another mom says. “Not now.”

He turns his swollen face to her. The rest of the group shoos them out the door.

I take a breath. Check my list again. Brian’s mother. Brian, the kid who scrawled obscenities on the wall during our quiz on the American Revolution.

In she swishes. Silk, leather, a whiff of cucumber with an earthy hit of ambergris. She plops her bag, a huge designer satchel, probably a twenty-thousand-dollar one, on my desk.

“I don’t know why I came,” she says.

“Well, thanks for being here,” I say. I have a script, an approved list of talking points.

She takes out her phone.

“So, Brian,” I say, gripping my toes into balls.

She grunts.

“It’s still early in the semester. I’m just getting to know the kids. Maybe you could tell me, does he like to read? Does he have a favorite genre?”

“Damned if I know,” she says. “But his grades.”

“He could do better. He will do better.”

She sighs, jabs at her phone. “My husband,” she says, “he’s concerned.”

“We can get his grades up. There’s time, no need to worry.”

She leans forward. I recoil, although her scent draws me closer. Is she about to call her lawyer? She grabs her purse, drags it into her lap, and pulls out a huge frog. She deposits the creature on my desk. The animal blinks, flutters its front toes, settles itself, eyes wide, on a stack of quizzes.

“Your prince charming,” I say.

“No joke,” she says. She puts her phone away. “I don’t think the kid reads. No, not at all. He and my husband,” she seems to nod at the frog, “they’re more video-game types.”

“Okay.” I look at my notes.

“I used to read,” she says. “You know, before.”

“If you can encourage him to read.” The frog stares at me. “I mean…uh…” I reach one finger out. The skin under the frog’s chin is marble-smooth. It closes its eyes, head tipped back, as if purring. My eyelids droop. A sigh runs through the room. In the distance, a violin sings a solitary A. We all inhale.

Her eyes travel from my finger, up my forearm to my shoulder, then light on my face. I blink hard, rub my nose, drop my hand back to the desk, rapping my knuckles. My eyes well.

“You will find yourself,” she says.

I try to smile, but my lips won’t quiver into place.

“Now, about Brian.”

The frog lets out a croak that sounds like “Joan.” The vibration surrounds me like sweet pond water. More tears come from my eyes.

“It’s just a reflex, the reptilian brain,” she says.

“Amphibian,” I say.

The frog raises one forefoot in seeming approval.

“You’re a reader, right?” She cradles my bruised fingers, her hands velvet warm.

Tears run down my cheeks.

“It will get better,” she says.

The frog croaks again.

“Yes,” she says, looking at the beast. They stare at each other for a moment. She hands me a neatly folded handkerchief, the edges embroidered in green.

The frog hops a few steps closer, his gaze a whisper on my skin.

“Can you describe the properties of lavender?”

“What?” I say.

They both nod encouragement.

“Lavender draws clarity, love, fertility.” I recite. “It’s also used for purification and is associated with the planet Mercury and the astrological sign of Virgo.”

“Book learning,” she says.

The frog smiles at me, I swear.

“How are you with research?” she asks. “Any foreign languages?”

“I was a Classics major,” I say and start to sob all over again.

She pats my hand. “Latin! Ancient Greek! How marvelous.”

“But they’re dead languages,” I say.

“Dead to whom?” she says.

The frog draws still closer.

I clutch her handkerchief and am engulfed in a delicious cloud—mint and lavender with a hint of rosemary. I peer down at the fabric in my hands. The embroidered leaves flutter and send out new tender shoots. I don’t understand how I drive this animation, but I’ve seen such activity before.

I look up and catch the frog’s eye. Is he horrified or intrigued? He and his wife gaze at me fixedly.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to. I... .” I try to give back her handkerchief. But she refuses.

“I’m not a witch,” I say, planting both feet, hard on the floor.

“That’s what they all say.”

The sad little fern on the windowsill uncurls a new frond. The distant violin sings out again.

“You have skills,” she says.

The frog’s head bobs up and down. He points the toes of one forefoot at me. Brian’s mother gives the frog a stern look, nods, a quick snap.

“No more crying,” she says. She rises, scoops up the frog, and takes my hand.

She pulls me to my feet. My legs are spring-loaded columns, catapults. I grab the fern for good luck. We dash from the classroom, weaving between gaggles of parents. My much-dreamed of hooves clatter down the stairs. She runs beside me, her scarves flying out behind us.

➥ Bio