Frederic and the ladybird
Isabel really liked playing with Frederic. Frederic is a baby. Soon he will be one. He lives a few houses down from her on the same road. First, it's fun playing with a baby. Second, his mum makes delicious biscuits, and third, she tells really good stories. Three good reasons to go to Frederic's house. Often.
That summer's day, Isabel walked down to her little friend's house in the afternoon sun. She rang the door bell. Frederic's mother came and opened the door.
"Hello, Madam. Can I come and play with Frederic?"
"Yes, of course you can. Come in, Isabel. Oh dear, he's crying. He's just woken up from his nap. He'll be so happy to see you."
After he was washed and changed, Frederic's mother asked Isabel if she would mind taking him for a little walk in his pram. Frederic's mother added:
"Isabel. You are five years old now—nearly six. I think I can trust you. You are a big girl. I will strap Frederic in his pram. You just follow this little path to the right, past the cemetery and into the fields. But stop before you get to the woods. Don't go into the forest with my little baby. Then you can come back here. That will be a lovely walk for you both."
"OK," replied Isabel. "You can rely on me. I will look after Frederic as if he was my own little brother."
Isabel felt very proud to be treated like a big girl, to be trusted to look after the baby all by herself. She left happily down the path, pushing the pram in the beautiful sunshine. She walked past the cemetery wall and found herself between the last house of the village and a field of corn. She could make out the forest in the distance.
Suddenly, a ladybird circled round Isabel and rested on her index finger. It was very pretty and very small. All red with little black spots.
Frederic looked at Isabel and lifted up his thumb. The little girl thought that the baby wanted to touch the ladybird, so she held her index finger against his thumb and waited for the ladybird to slowly climb onto Frederic. Frederic looked wide-eyed at the ladybird.
"You can even make a wish," suggested Isabel. "You can ask for something that would make you happy."
Obviously, Frederic is a baby. He can't speak yet, let alone make a wish.
Just then, Isabel heard a "ring, ring" behind her. She turned around. It was her friend Jay passing by with a friend.
"Hi Isabel," repeated the other boy.
"Hi Jay. Hi!"
"Is that your baby?" teased Jay.
"No, it's not my baby," answered Isabel, laughing. "It's Frederic. I'm taking him for a walk."
"OK then. Have a good walk, little Mummy," called out the other boy.
Isabel watched as they rode off on their bikes. She looked at the baby and jumped. Frederic had put his thumb in his mouth, probably with the ladybird still on it. She couldn't see the ladybird anywhere. Frederic must have swallowed it!
The little girl pulled his thumb from his mouth. Frederic started to cry. She opened his mouth with all her might and looked inside, the ladybird wasn't there anymore. He had really swallowed it. First she got frightened. Then she felt guilty. She was supposed to look after Frederic. One moment of distraction and the little boy had eaten a ladybird.
What would happen to him? Would he die? Was it really serious? Was the ladybird still alive inside his tummy?
Isabel turned around with the baby and walked back to Frederic's mummy as quickly as she could.
"I've brought Frederic back to you."
But feeling very guilty, she didn't dare to say anything about the ladybird.
"Already?" asked Frederic's mother, surprised. "Did you have a good walk?"
"Yes, thank you," said the little girl in a quiet voice.
"Would you like some biscuits, Sweetheart?"
"No, thank you Madam. I better go home now."
Frederic's mother realized that something had happened. Isabel never said no to one of her biscuits. Frederic seemed happy. She didn't want to press the little girl so she said goodbye with a smile.
Isabel went back home. She didn't have the courage to tell her mother what had happened. She went up to her big brothers' bedroom to find Bertrand. He's 19 years old and revising for his exams.
"Is it serious if you swallow a ladybird?"
"You swallowed a ladybird?" asked Bertrand.
"No," answered Isabel. "I didn't swallow a ladybird. But is it serious if you do swallow one?"
Bertrand thought for a moment.
"I don't know," he replied. "I don't think so. It can't be too serious."
"You don't know for sure," said Isabel with a sigh.
She left the bedroom, but didn't feel reassured. Clearly, Bertrand didn't know if it was serious or not.
She went into her bedroom to find Benjamin.
"Yes, Isabel," replied the boy.
"Is it serious if you swallow a ladybird?"
"No," affirmed Benjamin. "There's a boy in my class who says he swallows spiders."
"Alive?" asked Isabel, disgusted.
"Oh no. I don't think so," supposed Benjamin.
"Have you already seen him eat one?"
"No, I've never seen him. But he swears he does. I don't really believe him though. I think he says he swallows spiders so people think he's interesting."
"That's disgusting," said Isabel. "But if you swallowed a ladybird alive, do you think it would be serious?"
It was then that Isabel's big brother realised that his little sister was worried. Something must have happened. As he enjoyed teasing her, he decided to say something to get her even more worried:
"If you swallow a ladybird alive," explained Benjamin, "it's terrible because the ladybird gets into your stomach and starts scratching to get out. So you roll around on the floor in pain. Eventually, the ladybird will manage to make a hole and climb out. So then you have blood everywhere. It's horrible, and you could die."
Isabel covered her ears with her hands. No! She couldn't hear any more. Poor baby! Poor little Frederic! What would happen to him?
She ran out of the room in a panic. She went downstairs and outside to the end of the garden. She didn't even play with her dolls. She stayed there, with her back pushing against the walls of the play shed, worrying about what would happen to Frederic and what would happen to her.
That evening at table, Isabel hardly ate a thing. She said she wasn't hungry, but it was because she spent the whole time thinking about the ladybird, and she was scared. She had her shower and went to bed. Mummy and Daddy came to kiss her goodnight but she kept her worries to herself.
When Benjamin came up to bed—he slept on the bunk bed on top of his little sister—she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep, until she fell asleep for real.
Suddenly she opened her eyes. It was night time. The window was open. A few stars lit up the dark sky. In the distance, the wind blew in the pine trees and she could hear a fox's cry and the hoot of an owl from the forest beyond the river.
Just then, Isabel saw something moving on the windowsill, it moved to the floor, and then it was on her bed. It was ladybirds! Hundreds and thousands of ladybirds had come into her bedroom through the open window. They crawled across the carpet and onto her bed. Some of them were already on Isabel.
She noticed that three of them were much bigger than the rest. They were about an inch big. Isabel had never seen such big ladybirds. With their legs, they were pushing a tiny funnel that seemed to be made of gold.
Isabel was so frightened that she couldn't cry out or even move. The three ladybirds put the funnel into her hear.
Suddenly, she noticed the biggest ladybird of all: bigger than her hand. It came towards Isabel. It walked up her chest and stopped near her chin.
"Isabel?" squeaked the ladybird.
"Yes," replied the little girl, trembling with fear.
Her heart was beating like a drum and her face was wet with perspiration.
"I am the queen of the ladybirds."
"I can see that," murmured Isabel. "You are very big."
"Listen to me carefully. I saw you give a little ladybird to a baby to eat."
"No, it's not true!" said Isabel, defending herself. "I didn't give it to him to eat. The baby just put his thumb in his mouth. I didn't do it on purpose. I got distracted."
"I saw you," affirmed the queen ladybird. "I was there. I saw you with my own eyes. Something bad will happen to that baby."
"Oh no, please," begged Isabel. "Please don't make anything bad happen to Frederic. He's a good little baby. I don't want anything to happen to him."
"Listen to me," said the queen of the ladybirds. "I am ready to wipe the slate clean and forget about it this time, but you will have to do something for me - for us."
"I will," promised Isabel. "I'll do anything you ask."
"Concentrate on what I am about to tell you," continued the queen of the ladybirds. "I will only say it once. If you walk along the river that runs behind the end of your garden, you will get to a little bridge made of wood."
"Yes, I know where it is."
"Just next to the bridge is a big oak tree. It has a huge trunk that is hollow because it was struck by lightning many years ago. We raise our babies in the hollow of that tree trunk until they are big enough to fly with their own wings."
Isabel listened in silence.
"But recently, six spiders came to live in our oak tree. They eat all our babies. Before the sun sets tomorrow, you must kill all six of those spiders. Only then will baby Frederic be free of the curse that threatens him."
"I will do it," promised Isabel. "I'm frightened, but I will do it."
The big ladybird turned around and left. The three slightly smaller ladybirds removed their little funnel and Isabel could no longer understand the language of insects. All the ladybirds left her bedroom the way they had come.
Isabel got up. She looked out of the window and felt reassured. She couldn't see them anymore. She went back to bed and fell asleep.
The next day, she had to go to school. Isabel was five and a half. She was in Year One. She was very distracted in class. She didn't play with her friends and she didn't listen to her teacher. She just drew ladybirds all day.
All she could think about all day at school was what she would do after half past three, when she could finally take care of the six spiders in the oak tree. She hardly ate any lunch.
Back at home, she hesitated. How do you kill spiders? She wouldn't be able to do it. What if she asked Bertrand?
She climbed the stairs to her brothers' bedroom. Bertrand was not there. He was a student at university. But Benoît was there.
"Will you help me? I need to kill some spiders."
"You need to kill some spiders? I'm very busy now; I've got a new computer game. I'll help you tomorrow."
"No. Now!" insisted Isabel.
"I said tomorrow. I haven't got time now."
"You never have time for me!"
She slammed the door. She was furious. She went into her bedroom. Benjamin was just finishing his homework. He was seven and a half.
"Hey Benjamin. Will you help me kill some spiders?"
"OK," said Benjamin. "That sounds like fun. Wait a minute while I finish my homework."
"How long will you take to finish?"
"Five minutes," promised Benjamin.
Five minutes later, he was ready.
"Come on, let's go and get a hammer. It will be easier to kill them."
They both went down into the basement. Isabel was happy because sometimes Benjamin wasn't very nice, but today he seemed to be in a good mood.
"Let's take this hammer here. Where are the spiders?"
"They're by the wooden bridge next to the river."
"I see. Let's go then."
The door bell rang just when they were about to leave. It was two boys Benjamin's age. They asked their friend to go and play football with them in front of the church. Benjamin gave the hammer to Isabel.
"I'll come and help you kill spiders another time."
And he went off to play with his friends.
"Oh no!" sighed Isabel. "Everyone's deserting me..."
But she had to do as the queen ladybird demanded. The little girl wanted to protect Frederic. So she set off courageously, walked across the garden and entered the flower field by climbing under the fence. Then, she walked along the river, side-stepping the brambles and stinging nettles. She arrived at the little wooden bridge.
She looked all around her and saw a huge oak tree on her left. The tree was really gigantic. It was incredibly wide. She had seen it before. She went over to it and walked around the trunk, trying to find a crack, but she didn't see one.
Hollow oak trees do exist, Isabel knew that. But this one didn't look as if it had ever been struck by lightning. It had two or three low branches. Isabel climbed up. She was good at climbing trees, but she didn't dare to climb very high.
Still no crack to be found. She was very careful while she climbed, looking where she put her hands and feet: she didn't want to touch any spiders. But she didn't see any.
From up there, she could see Frederic's house in the distance.
"I wonder what's happening to him, poor little baby," she thought to herself. "I feel terrible, it's my fault, and I didn't even say anything. There's no hole here. I can't kill the spiders. I'll have to go and tell everything to his mummy."
The brave little girl walked over to Frederic's house. His mummy opened the door with a big smile.
"Hello, Isabel. Have you come to play with my baby?"
"Hello Madam," replied Isabel in a quiet voice. "I have to tell you something."
"I'm listening," said the lady.
"Well," started Isabel. "Yesterday, when I took Frederic for a walk, we saw a ladybird. It landed on my finger. Frederic put out his thumb and I thought he wanted to have the ladybird too. So I let the ladybird crawl onto his thumb. Just then, my friend Jay cycled by with one of his friends and I talked to them for a bit. But when I looked back at Frederic, he had... he had..."
Isabel couldn't say the words. She was on the verge of tears.
"Sweetie," interrupted Frederic's mummy. "Do you think my baby swallowed a ladybird?"
"He didn't swallow it. When you brought Frederic home I could see straight away that something had happened that you couldn't tell me about. So I undressed him and gave him a bath just to be sure. I found a little ladybird, half squashed, under his t-shirt."
Isabel looked at Frederic's mummy with her eyes open very wide.
"But then, he didn't swallow it!"
"No. He didn't swallow it," Frederic's mother reassured the little girl. "Do you think a ladybird would let herself be eaten by a baby? She quickly flew out of his mouth and then fell onto his chest. But you know Frederic would have spat her out anyway..."
"Oh! Madam, I was so frightened!" cried Isabel.
"Poor little girl!"
Frederic's mother gave Isabel a hug.
"Anyway Isabel, there was no need to be so frightened. Even if my baby had eaten a ladybird, nothing would have happened. Baby's are much stronger than you think!"
"But then, the big ladybird and the golden funnel in the night—it must have been a dream. Oh I'm so glad. I'm so glad!"
"Would you like a biscuit now?"
"Oh yes, please, Madam. I'm very hungry."
Isabel had hardly eaten since yesterday because her stomach was knotted with worry. She gobbled up three biscuits before going home.
She kissed her little friend Frederic, who giggled, and she skipped back home singing...
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton