The Toad’s Jewel
by Cat Rambo
The toad knew there was a jewel in her head. She had not been told so by the philosopher who wrote many years ago: “It is a repugnant and venomous beast, but contains a stone of great value in its head which cures bites and poisons.” He went on to speculate about cosmological Prima Materia and symbols of the First Matter of the Great Work.
All of this would have been lost on the toad.
She knew the jewel there in the way that one knows one has hand or foot or tongue. She could feel it in her head. A fierce light shifted beneath her warty skin, the gem’s facets changing their plane of inclination as though contemplating another angle of thought.
The toad was a clever toad. Furthermore she lived on the borders of the land of Faerie, between it and the swamps of Wick, inhabited by reptiles and insects, which feed upon each other.
No animal-–or human, for that matter-–can live near that place without being touched by it and so the toad was subtler of thought than her counterparts. When she looked at the sun, she thought more of its beauty and roundness than its light or heat, and in the evenings when the fireflies played, she did not hop out to catch as many as she could, but rather sat in a damp patch near a tree’s roots and watched them while eating less aesthetically pleasing grubs.
Because she was self-aware, she could not help but puff up at the thought of the sight she made, or would have made if split open, with the splendidness of her gem and the intelligence of her actions. In this sort of thinking, she was like all other thinking creatures.
But thoughts of this sort entered the gem. In there, they could not escape, but rather bounced from edge to edge, trapped and unable to break free. And so she grew more and more puffed with pride, to the point where her appearance was a little odd, as though bloated with too many mayflies.
As she watched the fireflies, it came to her that she was more intelligent than they. “They are machines made of chitin and ichors,” she thought. “All they do is shine on and off. If I directed them, think of what I might create–a symphony of light that stretched as far as the eye could see!”
Absorbed in such speculations, she thought harder and harder. The idea came that she might direct the fireflies to feed on specific things and thus alter the color of their flashes. With color came possibilities of syncopation, and after that she thought of enlisting the help of nightingales, who she respected more than the fireflies and would be willing to court with sweet flatteries in the speech of animals, a language of gesture and scent and thought and sound.
This scheming was not as far-fetched as it might seem, since fireflies are easily bullied. She would not have been able to make them colored–such experiments are always risky–but she would have been able to entice the nightingales into accompanying them and the thing she might have achieved was something no one else had ever dreamed of in the world.
It was the freshness of the toad’s dream that attracted the wizard.
Pettigrew, a wizard of some notoriety but little actual power, was out walking in the morning in order to catch a mist sylph. He was less a magical scientist than a tinkerer, and he had designed a device, a pearl of prophecy, that required a sylph’s tongue to function.
His luck had been better than the sylphs’, for he had caught not one but two. One, injured in the taking, sat sulking at the bottom of the collecting jar. The other, uninjured but perturbed, fluttered against the lid, clinging to the air holes punched there (Pettigrew valued freshness in his ingredients) and uttering imprecations that might have been more effective had they not been too high-pitched for the wizard’s ears.
While some consider mist sylphs interchangeable, the sylphs themselves find it an entirely different matter. The sylph beating at the top of the jar thought of herself very differently than the sylph sitting disconsolately at the bottom. Peony (for this was her name) was irritated by Alaric Prosperine Tailwind’s (for that was his name) lack of action, but underneath that lay a touch of social awe. Sylphs are actually quite family conscious, and while Peony was of little account, this was far from true of Alaric.
Had sylphs had royalty, he might have been a duke, or perhaps a sub-prince, one removed several times from ascension to the throne. His family was expressed in his name’s length and complexity.
The jar jostled about.
Peony cried, “Come and help me! Perhaps we can twist the top off from within, if we both fly in the right direction.”
But Alaric would have none of it. “I can’t do anything with my arm like this,” he complained, clutching the bruised limb. “It’s broken and agonizingly painful.”
Peony eyed the air holes. If they were larger, she might have tried to make her escape through one, but she could tell that they were simply too small for her to do more than insert a spindly arm through.
She clung to the lid’s underside, wings fluttering, as it swayed. Pettigrew’s strides threw her back and forth against the walls. Alaric lay flat and clutched at the jar’s floor with his good hand while uttering cries of dismay and terror.
“We’re dead,” he shouted. “Captured by a wizard! Our bones will be ground up to make love potions. Ah! Why did I ever agree to go hunt for fermented mulberries?”
Peony snorted. Drunk on mulberries. No wonder he had been captured! She herself had been out working, gathering dew used to distill beauty potions by her aunt. The two of them depended for survival on the trades that could be made with the vials of liquid.
She had seen a glittering bead beneath a large fern’s arching leaves. She had not seen Pettigrew crouching behind a nearby shrub until his net had swished over her head, stunning her. She had come to her senses only once she’d been placed inside the jar.
She glared and stared. Her companion in misery might have resigned himself to his fate; she was determined to go down with a fight.
Pettigrew was oblivious to the drama taking place inside his collecting jar. Sylph interactions did not interest him. What was the use of being human and a wizard, if not to rule over lesser creatures? Sylphs were a natural resource, meant to be consumed. Why else did spells exist that required things such as their tongues or wings?
Up ahead, he saw Faerie’s border and paused. The one wizard who dwelled in Faerie was jealous of his tenure there and killed other wizards, draining them of their power. Pettigrew was not a particularly powerful wizard, preferring subtlety to brute force.
But he knew things could be found on Faerie’s borders not available anywhere else. Forces acted there. Plants never seen before grew for a day before withering and vanishing, never to be seen again. The birds that flickered through the trees there had learned to speak human words, and they sang songs that told all of the secrets of this world and the next, if only one had time enough to stand and listen.
So he edged closer, thinking to himself that Faerie was a wide realm, after all. There was little chance that his rival would be at the same spot overlooking the wide lawns and a copse of black-barked trees.
As he huffed and puffed his way up the hill, he sent his thoughts out before him, like a catfish’s whiskers, searching for danger.
It was thus that he came across the toad’s aura, which shone on the psychic plane. It glimmered like netting around some phosphorescent fish drawn from the depths. Psychically, it tasted like lemon and glitter. It made Pettigrew’s mouth water and his eyelids itch with anticipation. He congratulated himself on having the courage and perspicacity to visit Faerie’s borders, despite the dangers.
He felt through the underbrush for what he knew must lurk there. He hadn’t expected it to take a toad’s shape, but he was quick enough to snatch the toad up and pop her in another jar.
Pettigrew’s collecting jars were of his own design. Each had a hook set in the metal lid, by which he could fasten them to a belt. He did this now. Peony stared in wonder and terror at the toad’s distorted image, only an inch away from her face. To Peony, the toad’s pebbled skin and great golden eyes blinking at her seemed menacing and full of further danger. She retreated to the jar’s other side.
The toad was bemused to find herself in this odd, new place, and irritated that she had been pulled away from her schemes of fireflies and nightingales. She was not clear what had happened. Living on the border of Faerie, she had encountered a wizard only once before. She was not afraid, but she was annoyed. The sunlight through the glass dried out her skin. Pettigrew had not thought to line his jars with grass, since he did not care much about their inhabitants’ well-being. Quite the contrary.
He was hunting through a drift of leaves, having spotted an oddly colored mushroom, its gills the sullen purple of a bruise. The jars clinked and clattered together. Alaric held his hands to his ears, moaning that the din would kill him long before the wizard did.
Peony gesticulated through the glass, trying to catch the toad’s attention. Together they might work out some plan of escape. In any case, the toad looked like a more helpful companion than Alaric. But try as she might, the toad simply blinked at her as though contemplating some inedible insect.
“Hateful thing,” Peony said at last, and let herself slide down the glass to bump shoulders with Alaric. At some other time, she might have enjoyed the proximity, since he was young and handsome, but right now nothing could cheer her.
Meanwhile, the toad chewed things over in her ruminative way. She didn’t know why the wizard had picked her up. A naturally cynical nature assured her that it was not for any purpose that she would like.
She licked the glass in order to find out more about it. Across the way, the two sylphs shrieked in horror at the sight of that long tongue, but she ignored their complaints. Inside her head, the jewel revolved, presenting possibilities and permutations of the future, most of them dismal. The glass puzzled her, air that had hardened and chilled to impenetrability. She croaked.
Pettigrew was picking through mushrooms, sorting them into a collecting bag. At the resounding croak, he said “Shhhh.”
The toad repeated her plaint.
“Shhh!” the wizard exclaimed again. He didn’t want to kill the toad until he had examined her. Sometimes magical phenomena depended on a creature’s being alive. He looked around for something to stuff into the jar and muffle the toad, and finally dumped his mushrooms in, swearing under his breath.
As the mushrooms tumbled down around her, the toad attempted a jump that would take her out of the jar, but she only hit her head on the glass. She subsided and studied the sylphs. They resembled fat dragonflies, and she was growing hungry by now. She hunted through the mushroom bits and found a stray grub, which the horrified sylphs watched her eat.
“He’s going to feed us to that . . . thing!” Alaric exclaimed.
“Or that thing to us,” Peony mused. Her sense of absurdity was lost on Alaric. “Look,” she said, “we have to get out of here.”
But Alaric lapsed into stupefied depression. Peony stared at the toad.
The toad stared back. It was learning all sorts of things in its contemplation. It was curious about these talking dragonflies.
Much could have been solved at this point had the toad acquired the power of speech along with thought. Alas, it had not.
When Pettigrew finally skulked away from the forest, casting glances over his shoulder lest someone be sneaking up on him, he returned home.
He placed the jar with the sylphs high on a shelf in his workroom. They would keep while he absorbed himself in his new curiosity. Taking up the toad, he put it in the bottom of a large metal box, its sides too high for the toad to jump out of, and furnished it with handfuls of grass and a bowl of water.
The toad explored its surroundings while Pettigrew attempted to discover what, exactly, he had caught. Unlike the toad, he could not sense the jewel, only the jumble of thoughts that it caused in the toad’s mind.
“Perhaps it is a crossbreed,” he thought. “Some magical reptile in its ancestry.” He measured the creature and recorded its dimensions in a small red-bound notebook. After that, he went to fetch his tea. He was a man who loved his comforts, and had enspelled his kitchen to produce a pot of tea and several crumpets each afternoon.
Peony examined what she could of the room. It was cluttered but well lit, stacked with books and bell jars and stuffed animals. She nearly shrieked aloud when she realized that close at hand, a stuffed sylph stared at them with despairing eyes.
Pettigrew took taxidermy as a hobby. He prided himself on presenting specimens in tableaux depicting their natural habitat. The stuffed sylph hung, through a clever arrangement of wires, above a bouquet of silk daisies and laburnum. The angle of its wings did not look entirely natural, and to Peony that only increased the horror of its appearance. She wondered if the wizard planned to stuff them, and if so, what sort of flowers he would use. She hoped that it was roses. She liked roses.
The edge of the shelf lay inches away. If she pushed hard enough, perhaps with Alaric assisting her, could they rock the jar and make it fall? She shoved experimentally against the glass. Yes, she would need Alaric’s help, slight though it might be.
The toad, watching the sylph’s performance, did not think much of it. She’d decided that the wizard had selected her because of some great work in which her highly individual nature was required. This conclusion pleased and flattered her, but she was not sure what part she was meant to play, and still harbored reservations.
She was also acquiring the concept of language, from hearing the sylphs talk back and forth, and Pettigrew’s mumblings to himself, and her own need to communicate with something other than insects and birds.
She was a vain creature, but not to the point of foolishness.
Pettigrew came into the study with a tray on which a brown-glazed teapot steamed, accompanied by a white mug thick to the point of unbreakability. This mug had accompanied Pettigrew through wizard’s college, and post-college, and early years, up to this point, where he might be reckoned middle-aged in the terms of wizards, or early middle-aged, still unlearned in some areas and with a hint of brashness that was fading into caution.
He dreamed of a great discovery. Perhaps a spell that he could teach to a favored few, who would in turn propagate it and his name throughout the ages. What form this might take, he was not sure. Pettigrew’s Potent Philter or Puissant Potion were two he had considered.
Or to realize a Truth. While wizards generally kept their discoveries to themselves, all knew some spells, the building blocks of magic, so to speak, as well as some so useful or basic that they had become common, like Lope’s Infinite Step or Ripley’s Refreshment, which produced a glass of water and a random piece of fruit. Things could be learned by taking such spells apart to study the basic Laws at their roots.
He was not sure what would come out of study of the toad, whether it was more likely to be one than the other, but his hopes were high. Something about the toad’s aura, the flux of thoughts in its eyes, something about the way it felt, so strong and alluring. Pettigrew, who had never played a hunch in all his life, would have bet that life that the toad would yield something career-advancing.
He put aside thought of his pearl of prophecy. It would keep; the sylphs were capable of living for at least a week in their jar, longer if he kept them supplied with water and fresh flowers.
He considered the toad, rolling a pithing needle back and forth between his fingers. He laid the tool back in the jar of murky blue fluid that had contained it, and shook off the flecks of liquid accumulated on his fingertips. They sprayed outwards.
One landed on the surface of Peony’s jar, sudden as a snake striking. She gasped and backed away from the glass before advancing again to peer through it. Seen through the droplet, the study was blue and charcoal chiaroscuro, and the type on the backs of the leather bound books wavered like daddy long legs, unintelligible even if Peony had been able to read.
Pettigrew peered down at the toad while the toad stared up at him. From Peony’s vantage point, it seemed as though they goggled at each other, bulge-eyed as certain goldfish, puff-cheeked and plump. She wondered what the wizard saw in the toad.
She turned to Alaric. “If we wait until the wizard is gone,” she said, “We could work together to topple the jar, breaking it, and escape out that far window.”
“Are you insane? We’ll be smashed to bits!” Alaric cradled his arm and moaned. He eyed her. “You could come over and make it all better,” he said throatily.
Peony did not find him as attractive as she might have under different circumstances. She sighed and turned her regard back to toad and wizard.
Pettigrew squatted down, ignoring his knees’ creaking. He said in the wizards’ tongue, as close to pure language as anything can come, and spoken by demons, elementals, and angels alike, “What is your name?”
The toad regarded him and blinked one slow blink.
He frowned. “Can you not speak?” He snapped his fingers and went to his shelves, searching through racks of vials. He pulled out one that roiled with dark purple, put it back, and took out another that gleamed green, an alarming foxfire shade, which might have illuminated the room had it been darker.
Setting it down, he went to the shelf where the sylphs’ jar sat. Peony fluttered against the side in alarm while Alaric curled whimpering on the bottom. Pettigrew’s fingers hesitated over Peony, then reached for Alaric. She tried to follow him out of the jar, but the lid slammed down before she could escape.
Alaric dangled between two fingers. Pettigrew reached for a needle-tipped syringe in the blue liquid.
“Fight!” Peony shouted. She beat her fists against the glass and screamed until she was hoarse. The toad listened from its metal box and croaked as though distressed.
The other sylph hung, eyes glazed and fixed on some internal landscape.
When the wizard inserted the needle, Alaric twitched as though stung by a wasp.
Peony looked away.
When she glanced back, she saw Alaric deflating, like a balloon being drained, skin folding inward in protest against absence, as Pettigrew drew the syringe’s plunger back.
He shook the wisp of Alaric from the tip. It drifted like a dry leaf to the floor. Pettigrew unstoppered the vial and added several drops of fluid from the syringe. An herbal scent came from it, clean and strong as mountain air, smelling of yarrow and pine and coriander. In the jar, Peony sniffed and felt her heart lift despite the horror. Her jaws and tongue felt strange, tingled as though magic-kissed.
The toad felt something in her head other than the jewel. The new thing nudged itself around the jewel, which reformed as she thought of it in terms of words: glittering and faceted and splendid. It made her even vainer, to think that such amazing things resided in her head. She opened her mouth and croaked out, “I!”
“I?” the wizard said, nonplussed.
The toad continued to croak, lost in a solipsistic reverie, contemplating something that had been lost on it up till that point: the idea of a word that communicated its existence: “I. I. I.”
The wizard replied, “You?”
The toad paused, trying to introduce this new concept at cross-purposes with the idea it was celebrating. It said, more doubtfully, “I. I. I?”
“Indeed,” Pettigrew said. He returned to the desk and ate his crumpet, staring at the toad.
The chime beside the door sounded. Pettiggrew started from his reverie, leaving the study in a scuttle of robes and rustle of papers.
The visitor, a pretty villager, had come seeking elixirs to preserve the dewy freshness of her skin. Pettigrew swelled as much as the toad, taking the liberty of stroking her cheek with a reverent forefinger as she fluttered her eyelashes.
Back in the study, Peony rocked back and forth on the shelf, alternating runs at the glass jar with fits of sobbing.
When evening crept over the garden outside, the wizard saw the maiden home, and stayed to drink a glass of brandy with her father, who fancied himself a country philosopher, even though his most determined resistance to any of the wizard’s arguments was to challenge him to define his terms and then to say, in a tone simultaneously mysterious and awed, “It always boils down to where you draw the line, don’t it?”
Replenished by brandy and the goodwife’s frumenty pudding, which held even more brandy in its gelid depths, Pettigrew staggered home and fell into bed without a further thought of his captives in the study, collapsing still dressed.
Down in the study, Peony had given way to despair. Around her were scattered the silvery leavings of her tears, which Pettigrew would no doubt be delighted to discover, for they were integral to several esoteric spells.
The toad had given up croaking. Some quality of the echoes to her “I. I.” had put her off, as though chastened. She wondered why the wizard had not returned. Surely he could have no greater fascination to pull his attention from the phenomenon that was herself.
Moonlight drifted in through the dusty lace curtains, inherited from Pettigrew’s landlady, who had initially put them up in order to achieve a genteel atmosphere. Later, giving up on the gentle-mannered gentry she had hoped to attract, she resigned herself to the wizard, who at least was a steady source of income and unlikely to relocate, particularly given the amount of clutter he had accumulated in the intervening years.
The lace, a floral pattern, interrupted and reinterpreted the light, cast it in ornate shadows across the carpeting. The light, crossing and recrossing, shuddered at intervals, as though a spider web plucked by an exploratory spider’s leg. It pulsed, taking on a rhythm reminiscent of a human heartbeat.
As it beat, it took on more solidity. At length, that solidness translated itself into something, like a picture coming into focus. It revealed a hawkish face, a scalp that quill-like tufts of white hair rode, spiky and owl-natured.
Peony stared downward, mouth agape and tears forgotten. The toad, trapped in its zinc box, could see nothing, but she inflated her throat and hroomed out a melodic note that quickened Peony’s breath as though it had electrified the air.
“Ssssh,” the being who had coalesced said. Said offhandedly, but bands of steel clamped around the toad’s head until she could make no sound. Peony pressed the heels of her hands against the glass and hoped. She didn’t know who this was, but she could tell that he was no friend of Pettigrew’s.
He or she. For as the figure moved around the study, it seemed first a slight, aged man, and other times a slim woman whose age could not be told, but whose shape was that of someone just entering puberty. Sometimes the figure’s fine, corn silk hair fell to her ankles; other times only to his neck, loose and flowing as river waves.
Whoever it was, they were new to this room. They examined it with interest, running a finger along the spines of books and reading titles, fingering the leaves of the desiccated aspidistra in the corner, paging through the notes on the desk. At the last, it chuckled and cackled to itself.
When it peered up at Peony’s jar, his face (for it seemed a he at the moment) was clearer. Not an entirely human face, but one that might have begun human and become distorted and changed by other forces. He took the jar down and unscrewed the lid.
Perhaps he was touched by the sylph’s plight, but it seemed more likely he was after the trove of tears Peony had scattered like mouse droppings along the bottom of the jar. Once the sylph had fluttered out, he collected these drops and tucked them in her pocket and turned back to the toad’s box.
The toad stared up at her, golden eyes shining like coins in the moonlight, and would have spoken, but steel bands still held her tongue.
“Little bait,” the interloper whispered. “Little trap, little trick, are you ready to go home?”
“I,” the toad would have said, but it couldn’t speak. The figure seemed to understand, for it leaned forward and plucked the toad from the bottom of the box. Its fingers were cool and sure and sinewy.
Up above, Pettigrew had tried to ignore the noises from his study. When you experiment with living creatures, you expect noise, and he had grown accustomed to the toad’s booming “I.” But that had been replaced by other noises, more alarming ones: a distinct rustling, as though a breeze scattered papers and then a sound like laughter.
He remained in bed. The linens were warm, and like most wizards, he knew what really could lurk beneath the bed, and minded his toes accordingly. But the noise didn’t die down, and it provoked visions: a creature escaped from a collecting jar was wreaking havoc in; a misplaced curse had emerged from its den below the armchair and was changing all his experiments; magic had seeped into some household object, now knocking about in a misdirected effort to fulfill its purpose.
Then he thought, “What if it’s a thief?”
He knew that unlikely. Thieves avoid wizards, for the same reason that they avoid houses with very large dogs. But on occasion, a thief might be employed by some rival wizard, and dispatched with the appropriate protective spells, in order to take some treasure or bit of useful research.
Had someone discovered what he had found? Did they know something about the toad and were anxious to get it back before he unfolded its secrets? He jumped from bed and flung on his dressing gown. The toad might represent his only chance at fame. It could not be lost.
When he entered his study, he was horrified to see the figure, sorting through a rack of vials.
“Stop!” Pettigrew shouted. He drew himself up to his fullest height. “Stop or face a wizard’s wrath!”
“But you invited me, brother,” came a silken, epicene voice. “At least you brought my creature in. Was that not meant as invitation? I took it as such.”
Pettigrew’s eyes flitted to the empty jar. Peony, seeing no way out the closed window, had taken to a higher shelf, awaiting any opportunity to make for the outside.
“Sylphs are a penny a dozen,” he scoffed. “Tricky to take, but easily replaced. You came chasing those?”
Ah, no,” the figure said. Now Pettigrew saw that she was a woman, a beautiful one. “You took my toad.”
He was flustered and bewildered. To have entered his cottage, she must have some magic about her. Was she a rival wizard? But she was so beautiful! He stammered something out and stepped forward. When her lips met his in a kiss sweet as ice-wine and fiery as a red-hot coal, he lost himself in it.
The toad could not see what was going on. To the horrified sylph it was clear. Pettigrew shriveled as he clung to the other’s lips, deflated as though, minim by minim, his fluids were being drawn away. His features shrank inwards, wrinkled as a raisin, until he was only a leathery scrap. The woman plucked it from her lips and dropped it to the floor.
Now she flickered from male to female and back again as though uncaring of gender, as though it were some outside force, like wind or rain. She picked up the toad and tucked it in her pocket. She was pleased with herself. It had been a clever ruse. It was hard to lure wizards to the boundaries of Faerie, where she might feed upon them while eliminating any threat they might form in the future.
She opened the window. The sylph darted out, swift as a fleeing cat and just as careful to stay out of reach. He smiled as he watched Peony go, and touched the trove of tears in his pocket. It had been a good day, and so she left.
As he walked, she talked to the toad, and the toad replied, and they schemed all the way home, calculating how to coordinate the fireflies.
Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her popular online writing classes, see http://www.kittywumpus.net