It’s impossible not to notice, she rolls out a raffia mat in the same spot every day now. Men with fedoras and sunflower seeds in their teeth spit stripes and lay out stalls for the tourists. The women drag chairs to their door and thread beads onto necklaces, faces pale as saints, legs jerky. They’re all watching the beautiful girl with the knife.
The boys in the street stare at the blade sliding along a silvery belly, the girl poking a finger around to drag out a frog’s secrets. The limbs shake, skinless hands wave at her toenails smooth as seashells.
‘Hey, you had enough frogs yet?’ a boy shouts, ‘no one eats it anymore you know. It’s dirty.’
‘You know why some people are called dirt poor?’ his friend adds, ‘everything they eat is full of mud.’
The boys are bored of skimming stones and hearing the river gulp down their efforts. They’re sick of fighting over their brother’s porn magazines in the boathouse. There’s this to gawk at instead, a girl squatting by a pan, knife in hand, barefoot. One slip and she could chop off a toe. They hope she will, and hope she won’t.
‘You must really hate frogs, eh?’ another boy looks at her, regretting his mother coming at him with scissors yesterday, snipping his fringe. This really is a beautiful girl, so beautiful he needs hair in his eyes. It hurts to look at her full-on in the sun.
‘Not particularly,’ she says, frog dangling. It looks like it’s dancing before she chops off the head and tosses the legs into a steel bowl. It chimes for longer than anyone would think. It’s still chiming when an old man comes over, insisting her knife needs sharpening. She refuses his whetstone. She refuses the cloudy lemonade of the women nearby, as well as their advice.
‘You know,’ they say, ‘it’s not smart to do your frog skinning outside. We’ve all been there, we all need a bit of frog sometimes, but do it in private. You’re pretty, no one ever kissed a bride with a belly full of flies.’
‘You don’t say.’ The girl tosses a skin onto the pile. The flies buzz, victorious, boasting their day has come. Young women wander by and waft them away. Girls not much older than her, all trying to look richer than they are. The eyelashes they stick on are so fat they don’t know what their fiancés really look like until their wedding night.
The girl hacks through their giggles, hitting bone, glancing at the young man coming out of the bicycle store to wash bugs off the window. He won’t do it fast. He sprays polish and buffs, cringing at the squeal of the ghosts being rubbed off the glass.
He pretends not to see her, but the boys in the street all know he did. They know the pair used to meet at the boathouse. Pressing their faces to the cracks, they saw whispers, and clothes peel, and fingers like feathers. They pretended to be there for the porn, but it was something more. It made a boy wonder if that’s what love looked like, if love was wandering into a derelict building and not being able to see a stack of glossy naked people in the room.
‘I couldn’t marry her,’ the young man in the bicycle shop says, ‘after I met her parents.’ Withered and crude, shuffling around their small wooden place with paint like scabs, he knew they were frog eaters for sure. ‘I have a decent place here. I could do a lot better,’ he says.
His friends nod, looking at the girl, unable to take their eyes off her, leaning over the pot in her khaki vest, frying frog on her stove and looking directly at the bicycle shop, lifting another leg, biting in and licking the oil off her chin. The boys that laughed at her earlier surround her, bringing frogs in coffee cans, dripping nets, algae on their fingers. They want nothing more than to bring her the biggest frog and see her peel it wide open, pull at its ribbons the color of rivers and leave them on the outside.
Angela Readman’s stories have been winners of The National Flash Fiction Day Competition, The Costa Short Story Award and The Mslexia Short Story Prize. Her debut collection Don’t Try This at Home (And Other Stories, 2015) was shortlisted in The Edgehill Prize and won The Rubery Book Award. She is also a poet; her latest collection The Book of Tides was published by Nine Arches in 2016.