The Little Frog Man

When I was five years old I had an odd but magical experience in a redwood forest in Napa, California. My aunt took my mother and me out for lunch at little Italian restaurant, where we were seated on the back patio beneath a grape-covered arbor. When the two women became engrossed in grown-up conversation, I took advantage of the situation and wandered off to explore. 

I discovered a tiny pond with a rock border, and the bottom was covered in undulating velvet moss. The water appeared shallow at the edges and grew darker in the middle where an island of water lilies shaded silver minnows as they darted in and out of its cover.

Thrilled at my discovery, I sat down at the edge of the pond and removed my socks and shoes so I could wade in. But just as my toes touched the water a small voice shouted out, “No!” 

I looked up in surprise and saw a little man standing on a lily pad across from me. He was about ten inches tall, dressed in a black top had and vest, and he was holding a silver-handled cane. As I stared at him in wonderment he shook his head, waved his cane and warned me sternly not to go into the water.

When I obeyed and remained seated with my toes in the water, he lowered his cane and smiled.

Moments later I heard my mother call my name and then her chiffon skirt swept past my face. She lifted me to my feet and took my hand, and as she led me away I looked back at the pond just in time to see the little man jump into the water and disappear. 

When we got back to our table my mother complained to my aunt, “She could have fallen in, they should have a railing around that thing!” Then she scolded me gently for wandering off as she struggled to put socks and shoes back onto my wet feet. 

I tried to explain that I’d been talking to a little man in a black hat with a silver cane who told me not to wade into the water. My aunt replied in a matter-of-fact tone that there was no such thing as tiny men and he only existed in my imagination. I insisted to the point of tears that I really did see him and he truly was real, but my aunt was having none of it. “That’s nonsense! You saw a frog and your imagination fooled you into thinking it was a man.” 

Despite not being believed, I never forgot that experience. It was only in later years when I revisited the restaurant that I realized I’d been sitting on the edge of a deep, open well. If I had stepped into the water I would have surely slipped down its steep, moss-covered sides, sank into its depths, and drowned before anyone knew what happened.  

When I think back to that day I choose to believe that my little man wasn’t an illusion and I really did see him. It had to be so, because how else could he have saved my life? That experience left me with a fond memory of the magical thinking of childhood and the knowledge that life is filled with unexplained things like little men with silver canes, guardian angels and inexplicable messages that come to us from mysterious places.

I’ve always wanted to paint the little man, but whenever I’ve set out to portray him as I remember him from that day at the well, I’m never able to finish - and I end up painting a frog instead. Perhaps little men like mine are only meant to be revealed to children, in fragile moments when innocence sparks the kind of magic that is summoned for their eyes only.

 So here is my little man, painted in his earthly disguise.


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