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Toad Words

Posted by | June 26, 2014 | Writing | 15 Comments

Frogs fall out of my mouth when I talk. Toads, too.

It used to be a problem.

There was an incident when I was young and cross and fed up with parental expectations. My sister, who is the Good One, has gold and gems fall from her lips, and since I could not be her, I had to go a different way.

So I got frogs. It happens.

“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though. Hmm. What was I saying?”

I spent a lot of time not talking. I got a slate and wrote things down. It was hard at first, but I hated to drop the frogs in the middle of the road. They got hit by cars, or dried out, miles away from their damp little homes.

Toads were easier. Toads are tough. After awhile, I learned to feel when a word was a toad and not a frog. I could roll the word around on my tongue and get the flavor before I spoke it. Toad words were drier. Desiccated is a toad word. So is crisp and crisis and obligation. So are elegant and matchstick.

Frog words were a bit more varied. Murky. Purple. Swinging. Jazz.

I practiced in the field behind the house, speaking words over and over, sending small creatures hopping into the evening.  I learned to speak some words as either toads or frogs. It’s all in the delivery.

Love is a frog word, if spoken earnestly, and a toad word if spoken sarcastically. Frogs are not good at sarcasm.

Toads are masters of it.

I learned one day that the amphibians are going extinct all over the world, that some of them are vanishing. You go to ponds that should be full of frogs and find them silent. There are a hundred things responsible—fungus and pesticides and acid rain.

When I heard this, I cried “What!?” so loudly that an adult African bullfrog fell from my lips and I had to catch it. It weighed as much as a small cat. I took it to the pet store and spun them a lie in writing about my cousin going off to college and leaving the frog behind.

I brooded about frogs for weeks after that, and then eventually, I decided to do something about it.

I cannot fix the things that kill them. It would take an army of fairy godmothers, and mine retired long ago. Now she goes on long cruises and spreads her wings out across the deck chairs.

But I can make more.

I had to get a field guide at first. It was a long process. Say a word and catch it, check the field marks. Most words turn to bronze frogs if I am not paying attention.

Poison arrow frogs make my lips go numb. I can only do a few of those a day. I go through a lot of chapstick.

It is a holding action I am fighting, nothing more. I go to vernal pools and whisper sonnets that turn into wood frogs. I say the words squeak and squill and spring peepers skitter away into the trees. They begin singing almost the moment they emerge.

I read long legal documents to a growing audience of Fowler’s toads, who blink their goggling eyes up at me. (I wish I could do salamanders. I would read Clive Barker novels aloud and seed the streams with efts and hellbenders. I would fly to Mexico and read love poems in another language to restore the axolotl. Alas, it’s frogs and toads and nothing more. We make do.)

The woods behind my house are full of singing. The neighbors either learn to love it or move away.

My sister—the one who speaks gold and diamonds—funds my travels. She speaks less than I do, but for me and my amphibian friends, she will vomit rubies and sapphires. I am grateful.

I am practicing reading modernist revolutionary poetry aloud. My accent is atrocious. Still, a day will come when the Panamanian golden frog will tumble from my lips, and I will catch it and hold it, and whatever word I spoke, I’ll say again and again, until I stand at the center of a sea of yellow skins, and make from my curse at last a cloth of gold.

Terri Windling posted recently about the old fairy tale of frogs falling from a girl’s lips, and I started thinking about what I’d do if that happened to me, and…well…

15 Comments

  • Just love everything about this Ursula, especially the bit about frog words and toad words. :)

  • Gail says:

    I love this! Now I’m picturing the heroine teaming up with wildlife groups to reintroduce endangered/extinct critters, which is a better happily ever after than any number of fairy tales.

  • Clara Kelley says:

    This is so fitting and timely after watching David Attenborough’s special on Frogs last night on PBS!

  • Heather R. says:

    Lovely.

    (I continue to hope and pray for a collection of your re-imagined fairy tales.)

  • Mean Waffle says:

    Wow.

    “Now she goes on long cruises and spreads her wings out across the deck chairs.”

    You have a knack for fitting the fantastic into a very believable reality. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself nodding and thinking, “Yup. If it worked, that’s the way it would work.”

  • scarlett simpson says:

    I like this story because it has frogs and I have a grandma that likes frogs.
    Scarlett, Aged 5.

  • Anna says:

    As the daughter of a growing line of conservationists, as a lover of fairytales, as someone trying to find the gold cloth in her curses, there is so much beauty to find in this story. I am in love and in tears. Thank you for making this.

  • Mark the Medic says:

    It’s beautiful. The whole thing — the concept, the words, the narrator’s voice, the little details (such as the African frog sale), and above all, the glorious and tragically rare frogs. Sheesh. You should use this as a fundraising text for some sort of amphibian conservancy or death-to-chitrid-fungus project. Or not; whatever. It’s *beautiful.* Wow. If frogs elect a human spokesperson, they should totally choose you. (In fact, nine out of ten frogs polled responded with “rrp!” or “EEE!” or “gronk,” which suggests very high levels of support even among the notoriously hard-to-capture leopard frog demographic…) Anyway. Awesome awesome awesome. (Ribbit, gronk, EEE!)

  • Darla says:

    I don’t know what magic makes just about everything you write into a happiness generator. But it works, and please for the love of Mike don’t stop.

  • Brian says:

    This is one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve heard or read in some time. Well done. Found it reblogged on http://startrekrenegades.tumblr.com/

  • Surely this is a children’s book for you to illustrate? I’ve read much worse Newberry Award winners…..

  • Ms. Vernon; I thought you should know (if you don’t already) that Lois McMaster Bujold liked this enough to post a link to it on her Goodreads blog. If I didn’t al;ready love your writing, he world alone would be sufficient to get me to give it a try.

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