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art by Steven R. Stewart

Toad Sister

Joanna Michal Hoyt grew up in Maine as a homeschooler; she now lives with her mother and brother on a Catholic Worker farm in upstate New York. She spends her days tending gardens, goats, and guests and her evenings writing odd stories, others of which appear in Mindflights and in Scheherezade's Bequest (forthcoming).

My sister Amy came back smiling from the village well, saying she'd drawn water for a beggar-woman. She gasped when the first rose fell from her mouth, followed by a rain of diamonds. She'd thought it reward enough to see her kind lovely face mirrored in the woman's eyes. But it didn't take her long to decide that she deserved the gift, and that her sharp-tongued older sister deserved less.
I was fool enough to resent that, so when I went to fill a kettle and a lady asked for a drink and asked after my sweet pretty sister, without asking how I was, I bade her draw water for her sweet pretty self. I faltered when the snake fell from my lips.
Amy said she couldn't stand all the snakes and toads underfoot. I said she could blame her benefactress. She said it was past time I learned to hold my tongue. No coins or roses came from that exchange. Amy wept beautifully as she left. She was probably still weeping beautifully when Prince Felix found her.
On my way to the grain fields I saw them under the dog rose. Amy gazed into his eyes, pouring out admiration, flowers, and gems. He smiled like a midsummer morning.
"Her jewels won't pay your debts," I told him. "One kept for a month. Most vanish in a day or two. I hope your promises last longer. If not, don't you go making them."
Felix recoiled from the snake at his feet and said in his beautiful voice that he loved my sister truly. I looked narrow-eyed at him. He told me less beautifully to be off and stop maligning them. I asked how I could possibly malign two who were so well-matched in beauty, sense, and honesty. Something smooth fell into my hand, flashing jet, gold, ruby in the sun. Felix exclaimed that Amy's goodness had turned my curse to a gift like her own. He reached for the necklace he thought I held, to hang it on Amy's neck. She screamed. He flinched. The coral snake fell to the ground, slithered away. Small wonder that I was banished from the realm.
Three years I lived alone in the forest, near the highroad. I made myself a decent hut and a fine vegetable garden. I grew no flowers. Sometimes I sheltered travelers, pretending I was mute. They described the old King's death, Felix's coronation, the jeweled splendor of his court. They said his servants had driven away all snakes and toads from the royal city, and were beginning to do the same in the countryside. I clenched my teeth. Alone again, I raged until even I was repulsed by the creatures hopping and coiling about my ankles.
Later they said the King's debts mounted. No one would buy jewels from him. Without money he couldn't feed his people, for insects were devouring the grainfields. I listened, stone-faced. Later I wept.
The last traveler described rats everywhere and people swelling with sores, burning with fever, dying in agony. The King gave what little alms he could. The Queen traveled speaking words of comfort. The scent of her flowers masked the smell of death for a little while; only a little while. I left the traveler to find his own supper while I took the road to Felix's kingdom.
I strode into the great hall. The courtiers were dancing. It was a sight to make a stone weep: their pinched faces and their gems, their tired legs dragging behind the music. Amy, sore-lipped, spoke rose petals into the hands of a servant girl. The petals were followed by small yellow flowers and then by garlic bulbils. I blinked. Roses for the pain of sores, witch hazel and garlic against infection. There was some use to that. It wasn't enough.
"Sister," I said. The black snake thwacked the floor, slithered under the draperies of Amy's throne. A rat scurried out. My snake struck, swallowed.
"You need me," I said. "You don't like it, and I don't like it, but you need me."
"Yes. And when have I sent to ask whether you needed me?"
The rose she uttered was fragrant, but its long stem was thick with thorns. I saw them cut her lips.
"You knew."
She bowed her head, bit her lip, looked at me.
"I'm sorry, Vera... You're here, thanks be. You'll have the chamber next to mine."
"I'll stay outside."
"A pavilion in the garden, then. We can't feed you as well as I'd wish...."
"The harvest. The bugs. I heard. Toads have their uses too."
She smiled; not the sweet smile people loved her for; something sadder, truer.
"So they do."
A small toad quivered on the floor between us. On its forehead gleamed a tiny jewel.
The plague lasted almost another year. I traveled the roads, naming the ugliness I saw until the rats were gone. Amy traveled with me speaking healing flowers. She grew haggard, but she still had lovely eyes, and she learned to look straight at me without contempt or envy.
The plague passed. My snakes protected the stored grain, and my toads ate the insects so the next spring's crops grew well. The real creatures that Felix had driven out began to return, so sometimes I had rest.
Amy and Felix would welcome me into their court, but I've said no. He's still in debt, and the courtiers still avoid me. But I've a big garden bordering the palace land. I grow marigolds between the rows of tomatoes. City folk and village folk come to ask for a true word. Some even enjoy the slender grace of the green ribbon snakes and the melodious calls of the tree frogs.
I've seen the jeweled toad on my land and on Amy's. He's as large as my two hands. The jewel has grown too. I've seen Felix eyeing it. I've told Amy he's to leave it alone.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 25th, 2011

Author Comments

I always did like snakes, and fairy tales too.
I think I started out as a fairly sweet-spoken child, eager to please and be pleased by other people. Then I found my way into work that mattered to me, and soon I had to notice the difference between wishing to please and wishing to help, and had to get used to saying (and hearing) things that were true but not pleasant. It took some getting used to; after one conversation I came away with a vivid image of toads dribbling from my mouth. But sometimes toads are what's needed, I thought. So the story began.

- Joanna Michal Hoyt
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