In the vineyards of the west, where the sun was neither too weak nor too harsh and it did not rain any more than was necessary for a good harvest, there was once a plague of frogs. These frogs were not native to the region but appeared without warning one spring in great numbers. Small and bright yellow they invaded the countryside, burrowing into the rich, red earth and destroying the roots of the vines.
The people, who generally had no quarrel with wildlife, now found themselves in a constant battle to save their crops.
“What shall we do?” They asked each other when the Council of Growers held an urgent meeting. “These frogs are like nothing we have seen before and their numbers are increasing rapidly.”
“Poison?” One young man suggested. He was new to the business having just inherited his father’s land.
“And kill the vines too!” His more experienced fellows were horrified. “We have no poison able to distinguish between living things. If we poison one we poison all.”
“Will nothing eat these frogs?” Another asked. “I have seen many birds and reptiles preying on the brown vine frogs.”
“Nothing, it seems.” He was told. “Those same birds and reptiles seem wary of these new arrivals.”
The weeks passed and the small grapes that had appeared on the vines began to shrivel and the growers feared for their livelihoods. Whatever they tried, failed and the little yellow frogs continued to multiply until the ground in the vineyards appeared to be constantly moving as they burrowed beneath. Then, when all seemed lost, a man appeared at one of the outlying farms claiming that he had heard of their plight and that he could rid them of their unwanted visitors. He was a ragged fellow with nothing but the clothes he wore and a long and twisted staff but the growers met together and decided that, given the hopelessness of their situation, they would lose nothing in hearing what the man had to say
So the ragged man came before the council and taking off his hood they saw that, instead of the old man they had expected, he was young and his eyes shone bright beneath a tangled mass of dark hair.
“Esteemed council,” he said bowing to them. “I understand your problem well and I come here to offer you a solution. It may sound impossible to you but I give you my word that, if you agree to my terms, the yellow frogs will leave your land and your vines will return to producing a good harvest.”
“Tell us a little of who you are and where you are from,” the head of the council said. “And you can be certain we will listen for we have tried many things to drive out the frogs and each time we have failed. If we lose our vines we lose everything.”
The man thought for a moment and then he smiled, and his teeth were as white as bleached bone.
“I shall tell you my story,” he said. “Then I will give you a solution to your problem and after that we will discuss my payment.”
“We are not a wealthy people.” The head of the council told him. To which the ragged man replied. “Do not fear. I will not ask for more than you are able to give.”
The council looked at each other and nodded their assent to his request. A chair was brought and the ragged man began his story.
“Many years ago in the swamplands of the far south there lived a man, a magician, of great skill. He did not like the company of other men and so he kept himself to himself, preferring the company of the creatures who lived around him. One day, while he was emptying his fish traps, he came across a basket, hidden in the reeds, and inside this basket was a child. At first he thought to leave it be thinking that whoever had left it would return but, as it began to grow dark, he realised that the child had been abandoned and so he gathered up the basket and took it back to his hut.
Each day he returned to the spot to check that no one had been searching for the child but time passed and there was never any sign. The child, a boy, grew quickly and the old man found in him a willing pupil to whom he might teach his secrets. The ways of nature and its creatures and the magic that might be found in them. When the old man died he gave the boy his twisted staff and sent him out into the world to make a life for himself.”
“You are that boy?” One of the councillors voiced the question all wished to ask.
The ragged man inclined his head and said, “yes and I have wandered since that day using my knowledge where it was most needed. Over the years my abilities have grown and, with them, my magic. It is with this magic that I will be able to help you.”
“We have no experience of magic here.” The Head of the Council told him. “What will you do to end this plague?”
“I will speak to the frog king and I will convince him to leave.”
The members of the council looked at each other and some were a little sceptical. It was not that they did not believe in magic, for they most certainly did, just that they could not imagine this ragged man speaking with a frog.
“I can see you are not convinced of my ability.” The ragged man stood up as if to leave but the Head of the Council raised his hand to stop him.
“Perhaps you might provide a small demonstration,” he said. “Would you agree? Something that will not tax you unduly?”
The ragged man thought for a moment and then nodded his head.
“That seems fair,” he said. “Shall we go outside?”
Outside the meeting hall, in the very centre of the village, stood a great tree. This tree had been planted when the first men came with their vines and was thick with age. Its great branches hung down heavily and in those branches, each year, the red-capped weaver birds came to build their nests. Several pairs were nesting there now, eggs just about to hatch. The ragged man stood beneath the tree and looked up into the branches above his head.
“How many nests are there?” He asked the Head of the Council.
“Seven, always seven.”
“And how many eggs?”
“Fourteen, it does not vary.”
The ragged man laid the palms of his hands against the tree.
“I will speak to the eggs and ask them to hatch,” he said. ” Then I will ask the chicks to sing for you.”
As the council watched he closed his eyes and began to whisper. No one could make out his actual words but every man there felt the power contained in them. Around the tree the air grew still and a silence, as thick as that preceding a storm, enveloped the group. Then a cracking was heard overhead and into that silence fourteen, tiny birds joined together in song.
The council were astounded and marvelled at the ragged man’s power and all agreed that they would accept his help. Most had forgotten that he required payment and those that had not remembered him saying he would not ask for more than they were able to give and were content.
On the very next day the ragged man took up his twisted staff and went out into the vineyards in search of the frog king. The growers watched him move among the dying vines poking at the ground and sometimes lying down as if to listen. Days went by and some began to think that he was a charlatan and that the singing birds had been a mere trick. Then, one evening the ragged man came into the inn where the council often came to talk and told them he had found the frog king on the land belonging to a man named Brough. Brough had been one of the more sceptical growers but when he was told of the ragged man’s discovery he was as glad as the rest that their plight might soon be over.
At dawn the next day the ragged man sat cross-legged among the vines on Brough’s land and tapping the soil with his twisted staff began to sing. He sang all day and was still singing when the sun went down. As the moon rose he lay down and all through the darkest hours of the night he did not pause. On and on until, finally, he fell silent and slept on the red earth.
The men of the Council waited patiently for him to wake and as dusk gathered the ragged man finally rose and made his way down into the village. There, under the great tree, he found the council waiting for him.
“My work is done,” he told them. “The yellow frogs will bother you no more and in time your vines will recover and grow as they did before.
The men of the Council were filled with relief and gratitude for what the ragged man had done and it was then that they remembered that he required payment for his services.
“Tell us what we can give you in return,” said the leader of the council. “As you know we are only grape growers and have no great riches but we will give you what we can for you have given us back the means to live.”
The ragged man thought for a moment and then he smiled.
“You are good and honest men,” he told them. “My needs are few so I will ask you only this, that once a year, on this same day, as the sun goes down you will leave three baskets of your plumpest grapes at the crossroads.”
The growers were puzzled but agreed and with a smile and a nod the ragged man left the village.
Many years went by and the village prospered. The vines grew well in the rich, red soil and the grapes were fat and abundant. Buyers came from far and wide for they made some of the finest wines in the area. It was not long before the nightmare of the yellow frogs was forgotten and some of those who sat on the council began to question the need to continue with the practice of placing grapes at the crossroads. It seemed to them that some trickster was profiting from their toil and they grew angry and resolved to leave only empty baskets at the crossroads.
“The ragged man is long dead,” they told themselves. “Someone else must be taking advantage of our generosity.”
So, when the night arrived, four of their number placed the baskets in their customary place and hid in the undergrowth alongside the road to keep watch. The moon rose, large and full, and just after midnight a ragged figure with a twisted staff approached. Leading a knock-kneed donkey on a halter he walked slowly, although his gait was clearly not that of an old man, and the watchers felt justified in their suspicions.
“Ha!” One man turned and grinned at his fellows. “Whoever he is seeks to give the impression that he is the ragged man which we all know is impossible.”
“Indeed.” Another hissed at him, returning his grin. “The ragged man is long dead. What shall we do?”
“Nothing. That he finds the baskets empty is enough.”
Hunched in the shadows they waited.
Closer and closer, the imposter seemed in no hurry. Tap tapping with his staff as he walked, as if keeping time with a tune only he could hear. Finally he reached the cross roads and leaving the donkey free to crop the grass at the road side he uncovered the first basket.
The ragged man’s reaction was clear in the way his body tensed beneath his cloak and, although his hood covered his face in shadow, the watchers could imagine it creased into an angry frown. He stood very still for some moments and then, without a sound, went calmly back to his donkey and looked up at the moon.
“What is he doing? One of the watchers asked.
“It matters not.” The young man who had grinned in the darkness said softly. “He has received our message. There will be no more payments from this village! Whoever he is, he must try his luck elsewhere, for we are not fools.”
They stayed hidden and continued to watch as the ragged man sat down near to where his donkey, oblivious to all but the sweet grass, continued to graze. He seemed to be mulling something over and after a while, a conclusion seemingly reached, he laid down, stretching himself out with the twisted staff at his side. There he stayed until the moon began to sink in the sky and the first birds heralded the approach of dawn. Finally he rose and taking hold of the donkey’s halter led it back the way he had come.
The men did not move until they were sure he had truly gone and then leaping up they made their way jubilantly back to the village, laughing and slapping each other on the back. Three baskets might not seem much but grapes were money when all was said and done. As they crossed the square in the growing light, still jostling and congratulating each other on their success, the man who had first broached the idea of leaving the empty baskets stopped suddenly and began hopping around on one foot.
“What is it?” His fellows cried, as he hopped to the old tree, and leaned against it to keep his balance.
“Ugh!” The young man replied and pulling a face he showed them the sole of his boot. “I seem to have stepped on a little yellow frog.”