If toads could talk, we’d all be a lot better informed about the world, I think. They can keep so still, they’ve probably sat by and watched most of history unfold, and no one’s noticed them. Until they startle someone with an ill-timed croak and get kicked away, or until they startle someone with some far-fetched story that gets them kissed and turned into a prince. Oh wait, that was a frog. And there is a difference, you know, because frogs jump; toads walk. Or at least they waddle. But for sure, they migrate…
The other night we had some friends over for dinner. What follows is a very brief sampling of the stories told as we basked in the post-dinner glow. Names and locations have been changed to protect the jobs, privileges, dignity and overall reputations of those involved. Because otherwise, I’d have no friends left.
If Toads Could Talk
Our conversation had turned to fascinating methods for disposing of common pests. I shared a story about my dear Great Aunt, who holds a special place in my heart for her fondness of dispatching ground squirrels with the semi-auto .22 rifle she kept leaning in the corner of her laundry room. Some laughed appreciatively at my descriptions. Some couldn’t completely hide their expressions of quiet worry. One person, we’ll call her “Friend A,” contributed by sharing a pest-control story of her own.
She talked about a friend of hers who dislikes the chemicals, poisons and pesticides normally used for insect infestations. This posed a problem on the occasion when, coming into her kitchen, she discovered her sink swarming with black ants. Washing them down the drain only postponed the inevitable; the ants simply crawled back out or came back via another route. What was she to do? That’s when she remembered the large toad that frequented her country garden. With a contented smile, she went into the garden, retrieved the plump toad and strategically placed it in her swarming kitchen sink. When she came back an hour later the ant problem had been… ‘contained’— and both she and the toad were happy.
The ‘kitchen sink toad’ inspired a great deal of mirth, but I could see the wheels turning in one guest’s head as she mentally reviewed the story. “What if the toad had jumped out of the sink while your friend was away?” came the reasonable question. I could tell the thought of an ant-bloated toad, slopping around the house unsupervised, troubled her. Still recovering from violent laughter, a different guest, “Friend B,” tried to assure her. “Oh, toads can’t really jump very well. He never would have made it out of the sink.” This seemed to satisfy her until he added, with a disconcerted look of his own—“…but they do migrate.” All conversation stopped at that point as every head in the room swiveled his direction.
“I was hunting one year up a steep hill that rises between a sharp bend in the river,” he began. “After a long, dry climb I had only one thick patch of brush left to break through before reaching the top.” Pausing for effect, he shrugged his shoulders and eyebrows—“And that’s where I saw the toad.” Because it wasn’t necessarily a funny story, just bizarre (don’t toads usually hang out near water?) a different guest took it upon himself to add some humor. “Friend C,” as we’ll call him, suddenly began imitating the things a toad in such a situation might likely think or say. He did this with the help of several excruciatingly funny facial contortions and voice modifications. When people you’ve always thought of as 'serious people' begin imitating the thought processes of stranded toads in mixed company, it’s a marvelously freeing experience.
Cowboys & Indians
You know those things you watch on TV that are so painfully funny you actually feel embarrassed for the person involved, even though you’ve never met them and won’t be held accountable for their mistakes? This is one of those stories. “Friend C,” a.k.a. ‘the toad whisperer,’ told about being asked to lead the communion portion of the service in a church he was attending. Naturally feeling very nervous about this important and never before handled responsibility, “Friend C” prepared a brief talk with diligence. “All I could think of was how glad I was that things aren’t the way they used to be,” he told us solemnly. “How wonderful it is that we don’t have to worry about sacrificing an animal every time we do something wrong, how great it is that we can simply come to God, one-on-one without a priest, because of what Jesus did as the final & foretold sacrifice, once, and for all.”
To illustrate his gratitude that ‘things aren’t the way they used to be,’ “Friend C” began telling the congregation a story about how, when he was a child, the favorite game he and his friends used to play was ‘cowboys & Indians.’ “I was really getting into it,” he said, “really elaborating on how, when we played, the cowboys always won, when a lady in the front row raised her hand sharply and interrupted, ‘Well you didn’t win this one.’”
“I was confused and flustered,” he said. “I looked at my wife and she was just looking back at me like, ‘What in the WORLD are you doing?’ And that’s when I remembered,” he said as we all sat on the edge of our seats, “that’s when I remembered that half of the audience was made up of Native Americans.” We laughed and laughed, but it was painful laughter. We all felt his pain. ‘How terrible,’ we all commented sympathetically, ‘that’s just awful.’ He told us that after he realized his error, he fumbled and mumbled his way through the rest of the service before finally sitting down, feeling about as spiritual enlightened as moldy shoe leather. Later, a sympathetic friend and one of the Native Americans attending that day, patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry," he said with a quiet smile-- "we played cowboys & Indians too.”
I’m still not clear whether the toad “Friend B” saw on the summit in his story was plodding along methodically, taking the most logical and direct migrational shortcut to a different part of the river, or if he found the toad resting motionless and content in the shade, a quiet sentinel watching the progress of a lone human ascending a long hill. But does it matter? Either way, the intelligence implied is immensely disquieting. Alas, if only toads could talk.