Once upon a time a girl called Adelaide lived with her type-A middle-class parents in a hi-tech high-rise on the edge of a city. She was named Adelaide as she was such an ugly baby and her cosmopolitan parents both spoke French, in which language the word for ‘ugly’ is ‘laid’. As she grew up her features failed to improve. The only way she could bear to look at herself was in the countless selfies she took and immediately doctored in Photoshop so that the crooked nose became straight, her deep-set small eyes large and lustrous, her unremarkable mouth graced with inviting lips.
“I’m sorry Adelaide,” her father had said, “Plastic surgery is out of the question. Your mother has priority in that respect, and you know how much the time-share takes out of our budget.”
Poor Adelaide, with no friends, no date, and parents too busy tracking their many investments to take much notice of her, became more and more depressed.
Adelaide looked forward to holidays in their time-share apartment in the East wing of an old château deep in the rolling hills of Limousin. Her own room, with its antique fire-screen, comforting brass bed and fading prints of the Massif Central, faced the sunrise; she would open the huge wooden shutters as soon as the first light glimmered through the slats, and gaze out over the lawns and the fishing lake. Now it was summer and the sweet air was full of insect life, birdsong and the crooning of frogs. Her father would be out all day therapeutically cutting wood with one ear on his business phone, while her mother picked cèpes and made cheese.
One morning when – unknown to Adelaide – the planets conspired to fling wide the doors to the Supernatural, she wandered down to the lakeside to say hallo to her favourite frog. This was a particularly large green frog with intelligent eyes; it always came to the lake margin where she would sit for hours with a snack of local bread and goat’s cheese watching the Swallowtails and dragonflies.
“I wish,” said Adelaide to an especially beautiful yellow and black butterfly as it settled on a reed stem, “that I could change places with you. Then I would be pretty and free and happy forever and ever, and I wouldn’t have to go back to my horrible life in that horrible city.”
Now, the frog – again unknown to Adelaide – was in fact her fairy godmother, who also very much looked forward to these family holidays when she could stop living as their city neighbour’s yappy Schnauzer and enjoy a spot of cold-water swimming.
“No sooner said than done!” she croaked … and all of a sudden Adelaide found herself up in the air over the lake and plummeting toward the water. She flailed her arms – but they were now of course wings; the frantic activity lifted her briefly out of danger onto a passing breeze.
“Oh!” cried Adelaide… but of course only vibrated her proboscis. “I’m flying! How did this happen? Where is my body?”
Her body was now the home of the erstwhile Swallowtail which had no experience of such a dauntingly complex nervous system and, failing to achieve lift-off from the lawn, passed out with shock.
Adelaide meanwhile, thrilled with her new freedom, rode the breezes until she reached her own window. Inside was her mother tidying the bedclothes she had left strewn on the floor after a hot night.
“Mum!” she called … but of course there was no answer as there was no voice to be heard. Her mother turned to watch a Swallowtail butterfly beating itself to death against the glass.
“Silly thing!” she exclaimed, opening the casement and blowing the insect back into the air. She watched it flutter unsteadily toward the lake where her daughter was dreaming in the grass.
Adelaide opened her eyes. She had been dreaming of being a butterfly; she remembered the window, and her head ached. The frog was watching her from a mossy stone.
“That wasn’t a great success, was it?” said the frog – except of course all her god-daughter heard was a croak.
“I loved flying,” thought Adelaide, “but maybe a dragonfly would be more fun. They are so fast! And utterly beautiful. Oh I so wish to be beautiful!”
No sooner had she formed the thought than she was back in the air again – this time in a vivid scarlet body on wide iridescent wings that flashed in the morning light. The delighted girl darted from lily to lily, reed to reed, unaware that something large and dangerous had come between her and the sun.
The frog leapt in alarm onto the twitching creature that had once been Adelaide, now host to a disoriented dragonfly.
“I know this is hard,” said the frog,”but you must make the effort to get up; otherwise that heron which is stalking across the lake toward my oblivious god-daughter will have her for breakfast and you will have no body left to go back to!”
The dragonfly’s vestigial mind caught the drift of the frog’s exhortation and slowly, painfully the human limbs hoisted the girl-body off the ground.
“Shout!’ said the frog.
“?” thought the dragonfly.
“Then wave the arms!”
“Oh … fly, for heavens sake!”
The arms flailed in the sunshine; the heron, startled, drew back just as he was about to snatch the scarlet morsel in his beak … and then, thankfully, flapped slowly away.
Adelaide came to once more – oddly not on her back next to the reed bed but standing with her arms in the air.
“My goodness, that was a close call!” said the frog. “Please can we stop this?”
Of course, Adelaide didn’t get any of that. All she remembered was a glorious dream of being a dragonfly, and she wished with all her heart that she could be back in the air again. A blackbird was singing high in one of the chestnut trees beyond the lawn.
“Oh, if I had a beautiful voice like that, and could fly from tree to tree, I would be so, so happy!”
The fairy godmother sighed. “Well, at least this is the third and final time,” she thought. “Nobody gets more than three wishes on the trot.”
She watched the inevitable exchange; the blackbird momentarily forgot its song, and the girl beside her started babbling and hopping before falling over and beating the ground with her hands.
Adelaide nearly fell out of the tree – she wasn’t used to perching. She tried her new wings … and flew effortlessly into the adjoining conifer. It was wonderful! And it was getting on toward breakfast time. She felt desperately hungry. She thought of worms. Down there would be all the worms in the world in their secret places under the lawn. All she had to do was fly down, dance, and strike.
As she hopped through daisies and worm-casts she had no notion that she might be in danger again. But the frog had already seen it coming: the ginger château cat was also out in the fresh air looking for breakfast, and had crept soundlessly within pouncing range of the inexperienced bird.
The real blackbird was of course extremely bright as most birds are, and swiftly got the hang of its massive new body.
“OK, I see what’s going on here,” it said in French to the frog. “You don’t have to ask. Leave it to me. Poor girl, she hasn’t a clue!”
So saying, the blackbird hauled itself onto its new feet and ran shrieking toward the cat. That was the very moment when, like a spell of fine weather, the spell of the celestial configuration broke and in an instant bird and girl were back in their own bodies and the cat arced onto its prey.
“NO!” yelled the restored and traumatised Adelaide. “You don’t get my favourite bird!”
She fell forward, grabbed the ginger tail and yanked with all her might. The cat yowled with pain and anger, releasing the shuddering blackbird, and dug its claws into Adelaide who yelled again and hurled the marauder into the middle of the lake where it rapidly learned to swim.
“Time for a heart-to-heart,” thought the frog.
When Adelaide looked up to see where her bird had gone, she found herself gazing into the kind eyes of an elderly woman in a green and brown dress. The blackbird was singing in the chestnut tree, and the frog was nowhere to be seen.
“Now then young lady!” said Mme. Grenouille (for that was her name), “Don’t you think you would rather be a kind-hearted and brave human being than a beautiful flighty creature always at risk from predators? Look into the water…”
Adelaide looked. She saw the face she had loathed – but it was shining! An inexplicable rush of love and hope overwhelmed her.
“When you come back next summer a different frog will be waiting at the lake. Give him a big, big kiss. That’s all I’m going to say!”