When I See the Toad

Allison Wyss

When I see the toad, just staring at me, I scoop him up, flip my skirt around my shoulders and wedge the little puss ball headfirst into the slit between my legs. I guess I’m curious, want to know what will happen.
            The toad doesn’t die. Comes out sputtering. But when he settles down, he stays. He stares.
            I don’t have time for the nonsense. I smooth the skirt back down and to the house I go. The cottage where I live and also where I brew things and such.
            The toad follows.
            Must not be one of my guys after all. They’d know better, you’d think.
            I go about my business. I skin and clean the rabbit that’s strung on the hook in the shed, roast the loin for lunch, then grind and spice the rest for sausage. Not much in this world is tastier than rabbit sausage.
            The toad hops up the stone steps, right through my open door. The same toad.
            Maybe he is one of mine. Maybe he liked the humiliation. Maybe once he smelled the cunt of the witch that cursed him…well, maybe he can’t get enough.
            I eat the roasted rabbit with a salad of tough greens from the garden. A splash of lemon would brighten the salad, but of course there is none to be had. Lemons! Why do I think of such things?
            In the morning he’s in a different corner, still staring at me, as I throw water on my face, tug a comb through snarled hair. I don’t often bother, but now with this odd guest. Well.
            Breakfast is porridge, of course. Stirred and stirred until my arm nearly fails, but worth every stroke. Some honey. And cream from the goat.
            Not a bit left over for the toad.
            I don’t know which one of them he once was. But how could I remember them all?
            He’s watching me. The toad. Crouched in the corner, his eyes follow me, or maybe they don’t, as I feed carrots and onions to the stew pot on the fire. I stir. He croaks.
            Boys and men, rambling through my garden, pulling rabbits from my woods, plucking daisies for their sweethearts. They call me Bony Knees or Old Fuzzy. What do they want, when they do that, but to be toads?
            He jumps at midday, hops closer to the fire, and I think he’ll hop right in. Stupid toad.
            So I poke him back with the spoon. I don’t much like touching, though his skin is soft like suede. An unlikely feel, it lingers on my palm and tingles, still, between my legs. It was yesterday when I held him to me, in the woods.
            When I weed the garden, hack the thistles from among the turnips, I’m bent so I do look old, I suppose, over this hoe.
            Mrs. Elbow, one called me. I know how he got the elbow part. I’m all elbows in my cloak that drapes like a tablecloth. Just skinny points stick out the corners.
            But Mrs? Was he mocking me, that one? He got what he deserved.
            There’s nothing to do in the garden today but pick a few bright peppers. Shall I munch them raw? Or dice them up and into the stew with them?
            In the afternoon, the goat is loose again. She pulls her peg and up she goes. But I know where—through the woods and there she is, nibbling. I prod my pocket for the bread crust, the bait to pull her back and what do I find but the toad? He springs from my pocket to the leaf-covered ground.
            It’s not that they have better to call me. Miss or Ma’am, though I crave it…it wouldn’t sound right, not through those fleshy lips. Not aimed at me, the crone, living lonesome in these woods.
            Days pass, weeks. Still, the toad stays.
            And the fire is hot but I poke it hotter. Too hot for the weather but not for the stew and sweat is running, bubbling out beneath my skirts and the shirt that is rolled and tucked. Curse the toad—he’s watching and I won’t strip further.
            I’m not even a crone yet, though they don’t know it. Or maybe they do. Maybe it’s the smell of blood that draws them.
            I’ve turned the magic into other things. Like the men into toads.
I’ve had no children, past the one. Her arms were wings, her legs were claws. She’d have been a wonder if she’d only learned to breathe.
            And so the magic. Who can blame me? Who but the boys, the men, and then the toads?
            The toad won’t make a noise, not a croak or a hiss. Not today, it seems. But his throat swells again and again, shrinking between swells to nothing. My own breath slows to match his.
            They don’t know my name. Too much power to be lost in giving it, can you blame me?
            I shouldn’t have kissed him, not with those lips, too powerful. I never learn. Never learn to be careful of the magic.
            I poke the fire then the stew. This pot’s only dinner.
            Another day, another week. The toad is still with me. His eyes peer out, but from the other corner now. He doesn’t even blink.
            Why am I so certain he’s a he? No way to tell, not that I know. All toads, like all men and boys, they look alike.
            Only wings and claws make a difference. But breathing, too. What about the breath?
            Did he steal a peach—this toad, this man, this boy? Ripe and fuzzy? Juice oozing down his shirt and through his fingers? Well, how did it taste, little toady? Was it better than the bugs you eat now?
            In the morning, I pry apart the meat grinder. Before drawing water for myself, for my face and my porridge, I draw it for this. Rinse out the rotten scraps of rabbit. It’s the toad’s fault that I forgot, that I left it screwed to the table to rot and to stink for all these weeks with tiny bits of heart and ear and liver.
            His stare—it isn’t accusing like I thought, not angry. I think he pities me, the monster. How dare he?
            I rub petals on the table—hyacinth and primrose. Scatter them through the room to mask the smell. I rub them on my arms and legs. Crush them between fingers black from the rich dirt of my garden.
            I haven’t seen him eat a bug. Not a bread crumb either. In all this time. Does he eat? Is he trapped here, enchanted by my smell, my spells, or by the memory of my smell? Can he smell? Why won’t he leave? Why won’t he hop away to eat some bug or other food? Must I feed him? I can’t be responsible. I can’t be blamed.
            The sun is down and the fire is low. I quench my last candle and search for the glow of his eyes, that toad, but I can’t find them.
            The sun rises—he’s on my chest when the sun shines in and wakes me. He doesn’t blink but the pulsing of his throat is like blinking. It swells and then it shrinks, thick skin and soft. Yet it’s so delicate. If only—if he didn’t breathe so softly. If he didn’t stare at me like that.
            I pick him up, cradle him in two hands.
            There’s magic, I remember it now, magic in my other lips. The softness of them. Between my legs. A different kind.
            I bring him to my face, so close my eyes lose focus and he’s fuzzy. Not a toad at all, but a patch of soft green color. He could be anybody.
            A kiss, so quick, and he’s fumbling, naked in my bed. A full grown man and pink skinned beneath the wiry hair.
            He had four legs, but now it’s two, plus arms. Tangled up in sheets and in my limbs. I jump up, untangle, while he thrashes.
            I thought I’d know his face. I thought I’d know it.
            He doesn’t look at me.
            The creature finds his feet, finally, crashes into the stew pot with a hiss that slops stew on the floor and a bright welt of burn into his thigh. Then he’s out the door and running, naked, into the woods.
            Maybe he wasn’t one of mine, after all. Maybe I’ve just cursed a toad to become a man.
            “Beth!” I call after him. “My name is Beth.”

Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her work has appeared in [PANK] Magazine, the Southeast Review, the Golden Key, Juked, and elsewhere. She teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.