[Back-story: I wrote this about 5 years ago or so. It was an idea that popped spontaneously into my head one night. I had been thinking on some of the characters for my RUNEHAMMER series and their backgrounds/motivations and I guess that was what fueled the germination of this idea. This is the original as it was first written, with no revisions or editing. The first and only pass and then forgotten.]
The old man reached carefully into the wooden box sitting on the desk between him and the boy. The boy hated it when the old man made him sit across from him at the old desk in the study. For one thing, the desk was huge. He felt like a dwarf next to it. The second problem was the chair the old man always offered him. No matter when he visited the old man, somehow he always ended up in the same chair. The legs were too short, which made him sit with his knees bunched up in front of him. Worst of all, though, was that it made the old man’s desk seem even bigger and today that was really annoying for the boy, because it was preventing him from seeing into the mysterious box sitting there between them.
The old man stopped what he was doing, his right hand hidden inside the box, as he peered down at the young boy. “Are you still with me today?” he asked, smiling.
“Yes, sir,” replied the boy meekly.
“Good!” exclaimed the old man. “I wouldn’t want you to miss…this!” he said with a flourish, pulling his hand from the box and placing it palm up on the top of his cluttered desk.
The boy leaned forward eagerly to see what wonder had been released from the mysterious box. As quickly as his hopes had risen, though, they fell. In the old man’s hand sat a frog, and a particularly ordinary frog, at that. It took no special skills to read the disappointment etched across the young boy’s face. The old man smiled even more.
“What? Were you expecting the King’s crown or something?” he asked gleefully.
The boy scowled. He wanted to say “Why, yes, I was!”, but all he could do was to shake his head slowly in a silent and sullen “No”. The old man continued smiling.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“A frog”, replied the boy.
“Excellent!” exclaimed the old man. Suddenly, he snapped the fingers of his left hand over the frog. There was a sharp pop and the frog was gone. A small rock was now lying in the old man’s hand. “Now, tell me, what do you see?” he asked calmly.
The boy looked puzzled. It was a rock; surely, the old man could see that? He hazarded a guess. “It’s a rock?”
The old man cackled with glee. “It’s a frog!” he cried triumphantly. “Can’t you see?”
The boy squinted, leaned forward, and peered as intently as possible at the frog-that-looked-like-a-rock. He leaned his head to the left. He leaned his head to the right. No matter how he looked at it, though, it still looked nothing like a frog. The old man sighed, snapping his fingers yet again. The boy was now staring at a small block of wood.
“What do you see?” repeated the old man, this time quietly. He was staring intently at the young boy across from him.
“A block of wood?” whispered the boy tentatively.
Oh, dear, thought the old man. He’s going to be a tough one. “A frog”, he whispered to the boy. The boy sat back in his chair, dejected. The old man sighed deeply and placed the block of wood on the desk in front of him. Snap! The frog was now sitting there quietly, staring back at the young boy.
“Terram, auqam, auram!” snapped the old man suddenly. The boy jumped. “Well?” the old man inquired.
“The…the…three states of matter, sir?” he squeaked.
The old man was smiling again. “Nice to see you’ve learned something in Brother Thaddeus’ classroom,” he said. He leaned forward on his desk, his bearded chin resting on his clasped hands before him. He seemed to be studying something on the other side of the room, as far as the boy could tell. At length he spoke.
“Everything is composed of matter, whether it is a frog, a rock or a block of wood. That can never be changed. We can change its appearance, we can make it look like something else, but the very essence remains immutable. Do you understand?” He looked questioningly at his listener. The boy sat there dumbly, afraid to speak. The old man sighed yet again.
“The frog, though it looks like a rock or a block of wood, never stops being the frog it originally was.” He paused, studying the young boy sitting confused in front of him. “Things are not always as they seem, lad”, he added with a twinkle in his eye. “Now, be off with you! Brother Thomas has an intensive grammar lesson in store for you, so pay attention!”
“Yes, sir!” shouted the boy, as he shot out of the chair and bolted for the door of the study, as fast as his sandaled feet could carry him. The old man shook his head sadly and leaned down to peer at the frog before him, now staring back at him intelligently.
“It’s going to be a long apprenticeship, isn’t it, Humbert?” he asked the frog. The frog only stared back at him.