By BARRY VAN-ASTEN
THE UNSPEAKABLE TOAD
Things certainly were different indeed, for it seemed as if the world had suddenly lost its pulse; as if it had suddenly put its foot down and cried ‘enough!’ and refused to turn anymore. Things inside and things outside, all had changed, like looking at things for the first time and realising that everything has a right to be, and a place to be, no matter how strange. ‘I don’t suppose anything will ever be as it was’ she thought as she walked beside the calm river that looked so lovely in the golden sunlight. After walking a short distance, she decided to stop at the river’s edge to look at her reflection, but Pegamina was quite astonished to find that there was no reflection whatsoever. ‘Perhaps it’s a magical river’ she thought for it was a very odd river indeed and not like any other river she had ever seen before. ‘I wonder where it goes’ she thought to herself. And after peering into it for a short while, she suddenly dipped her fingers into it and put them to her mouth, quite why she did this she did not know but it tasted like all the nice things she had ever tasted, though she did not know specifically what things. And as she looked about her she could see an old clock tower on the opposite side of the riverbank, just a little further on. It had a large wooden wheel, half-hidden in the river and the reeds that seemed like it hadn’t turned for so very long. ‘Such a sad and lonely place’ she thought as she looked upon its dark windows and its little garden shaded by the trees. ‘I wonder who lives there’ she said to herself, ‘if only I could cross the river, I would so like to go inside’.
‘There’s a bridge!’ said a voice.
‘Where’s a bridge?’ said Pegamina.
‘Where bridges begin and bridges end of course!’
‘Who’s talking?’ inquired Peg, looking round but seeing no one.
‘I’m talking!’ and out from behind an old tree stump, a croaking toad suddenly jumped and said:
‘How do you do, how do you don’t!’
'Hello, I do very well thank you’ answered Pegamina.
'And how do you don’t?’ said the quizzical toad.
‘I don’t very well’ Pegamina replied, somewhat bemused.
‘Splendid’ was all that the toad croaked.
‘But who are you?’ said a puzzled Pegamina.
‘I’m the unspeakable toad but it’s of no consequence. A charming day, don’t you think?’
‘Oh yes, quite charming. But tell me, why are you unspeakable? I didn’t even know toads could speak’.
‘Of course toads can speak! But toads are quite unspeakable. No one wants to talk about toads, do they?’
‘I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it’ said Peg.
‘You see! No one even thinks about toads; quite unspeakable, quite’ said the sad looking toad. ‘It is a fact, you know’ he continued, ‘that if beauty is a prison then toads are exceedingly free, being exceedingly ugly, don’t you see?’ and the toad jumped towards Pegamina, which made Pegamina jump a little too. ‘But you know’ he began again, as he took a deep breath, ‘ugliness is only beauty undecided which way to go, but when she does go, she really goes! There’s no way of stopping it, not even by putting a carpet over it. Nature will take its course, of course’.
‘Oh yes, of course’ agreed Pegamina, yawning. And then she changed the subject:
‘Toad, can you tell me who lives over there?’ and she pointed to the clock tower on the opposite side of the river.
‘That’s the time mill, nobody lives there or ever goes there; it’s a very sad story, would you like to hear it?’
‘Oh yes, I would please’ and Pegamina sat down.
‘Then I shall begin’ said the toad, stretching his neck.
‘Oh, is it going to begin “once upon a time?”’ Peg said excitedly.
‘Please don’t interrupt, there is no time here and you will shortly see why’ snapped the toad, trying to look important, but only managed pompous.
‘I’m sorry, do go on please’ said Pegamina shyly.
‘Well, it all happened long, long ago in the days of time, when things moved forwards and were measured in equal parts according to the time mill that kept the time, all the time. Now, in this time mill there lived a small boy and his grandfather who was the custodian of the clock; a very important position, you see. Well, the young boy, having no other little friends to play with became very strange indeed in his behaviour. He would stand for hours on end, just looking out over the river, as if he could see things others could not see and he would talk in a strange language; a nonsense language that no one could understand. Such a sad and lonely little boy with his dark eyes and his pale face, as if all the colour had been drained from his little body to leave only a grey shell behind it...’ and here the toad broke off from his story ‘did you know that during the day toads are green and grey, but during the night, toads are pink and white?’
‘That is interesting, but please will you continue with your story’.
‘Yes of course. Where was I?’ said toad scratching his head.
‘You were saying that the boy had no colour!’
‘Ahh yes, well, even without colour he had a strange and fascinating beauty, though he did have some fanciful ways! He became so afraid of the sun that he was never seen outside of the mill during the daytime and his grandfather became so worried that he would try all manner of things to give the boy some sort of interest in life but all to no avail. Well, gradually the boy grew much worse and there was no getting through to him. He would not eat, he would not sleep, and he would look at nothing but his own feet...’ and here the toad broke off from the story once again, ‘did you know, that toads are very fond of feet? There is an old custom in this land and a song that goes with it:
We tread on the toads on toad-treading day,
We tread the little toads quite away
Until they have no more to say,
For every day is toad-treading day!’
‘That’s all very interesting, but I should like to hear the rest of the story please’ Peg yawned.
‘Story? Oh yes of course. Well the boy had quite retreated from himself; found somewhere better to live, I suppose’ and the toad laughed, but seeing that Pegamina did not find it at all funny, he continued:
‘One night, the boy climbed to the top of the clock tower for you see he had quite fallen head over heels in love with the moon! Did I say “heels”?’
‘Yes, go on!’
‘Well, he was standing on the edge of the tower, reaching out to capture the moon when suddenly he reached too far and fell from the tower and into the river – whoosh...plop!’
‘Oh no!’ cried Pegamina.
‘Oh yes!’ laughed the toad, ‘it was all very tragic. You see, because the great wooden wheel that turned the cogs of the old clock dragged him under the water where he was unable to free himself. The wheel jammed and would not turn, and so time, so to speak as it used to be known, stopped, never to begin again’.
‘That’s a very sad story, but tell me, what happened to the grandfather?’ Pegamina said, a little tearful.
‘Oh he was so overcome with grief that he destroyed all the inner workings parts of the clock: its cogs and shafts and its spindles and weights until it could not be put back together again, and so now, only the great wheel and the clock face remain. He died a very lonely and miserable old man soon afterwards. And no one has been there ever since’.
‘I should like to go there’ was all Pegamina said.
Some time (if there were such a thing as time) elapsed before either the toad or Pegamina spoke again, for each had been thinking of equally important things. In Peg’s case, it was the story of the boy in the time mill that loved the moon that killed him. And as for the toad, it was feet, feet and more feet!
‘But wouldn’t you be afraid?’ the toad said, not liking the silence and thinking of nothing else to say.
‘Afraid of what?’ asked Pegamina, still gazing at the clock tower.
‘Ghosts of course!’ whispered toad.
‘Oh, I can’t say that I wouldn’t be afraid, not until I have actually seen one, so to speak’.
‘I think I should be very afraid’ said the toad, and having no more to add he rolled onto his back and remained there for quite some time. And Pegamina just gazed at the river.
‘Toad’ Pegamina said in a quiet tone of voice.
‘Yeeeeeeees’ he elongated.
‘You said there is a bridge’.
‘So I did’.
‘How may I find it?’
‘Why, you follow the course of the river, of course!’ puffed the toad.
‘Oh yes, of course’ sighed Pegamina.
‘Toad’ she said again, just as quietly.
‘Yeeeeeeees’ he croaked.
‘I shall have to be going now for it is getting quite dark and I don’t much care for the dark’.
‘Then we must say goodbye!’
‘Yes, goodbye toad’ Pegamina said stretching out a hand.
‘What are you doing?’ said a perplexed toad.
‘I’m saying goodbye!’
‘But that’s not how it’s done!’
‘Oh, isn’t it?’
‘Then how is it done?’
‘By the treading, of course!’
‘What did you say toad?’
‘I said by the treading’ he repeated.
‘Treading me, of course!’
‘But won’t it hurt?’
‘Oh yes, terribly!’
‘Then I should rather not, if you don’t mind?’
‘Oh but I do mind! In fact I insist! Every day is toad-treading day, don’t you know! It’s tradition and you can’t fight tradition!’
‘I can and I will!’ stamped Pegamina.
‘You can’t and you won’t!’
This exchange went on for quite some time, if indeed there were such a thing as time, until eventually Pegamina became so cross that she shouted:
‘I think you’re a very silly toad and I don’t wish to speak to you anymore!’ and at this, the toad hitched up his neck and puffed out his cheeks and croaked:
‘Why does no one talk of toads? We are so unmentionable! The green unspeakable!’ and he sighed before jumping into the river and out of sight again.
Pegamina and the Unspeakable Toad