Fairy tales aside, I once fell in love with a toad. I was about ten years old and at a girls’ summer camp, where whenever we weren’t riding horses, we were pretending to be horses.
I must have been building one of those interminable obstacles over which we (the girls, not the horses) jumped with our snorting elocution and prancing dressage. As I dug around for rocks, I spied at the bottom of a log, huddled in fear, a little toad.
It was mostly brown and slightly green, with black spots and dry bumpy skin, blending perfectly into the log. It was much smaller than the frogs I’d seen at the edge of the pond, and better yet, it didn’t dive away as soon as a human approached. In fact, it held perfectly still, as if camouflage could protect it from the enormous world.
“Ew,” said my friend and fellow horse Joanie as I picked it up. Still it rested in my hand, without trying to escape. “You’ll get warts.”
“That’s an old wives’ tale,” I said, full of scorn and a little worried she might be right. The toad immediately let loose something wet on my hand. “I think it just peed.”
“Ewwww,” said Joanie, running away.
I wasn’t the squeamish type; I was used to baiting hooks with earthworms and gutting my own fish. I decided to name my toad Tobias.
Forgotten were equestrian etiquette and the massive, hot beasts, for here was a tiny, gentle creature I could hold in the center of my palm. I stroked its warm, bumpy back with a forefinger and it let loose some more liquid.
In those days there was no Internet, so I had no way of knowing that probably the liquid was defensive toxin, not pee. It didn’t bother me a bit. Though the news is filled with stories of dogs who eat toads and keel over dead, that kind of toad (Rhinella marina, formerly known as Bufo marinus, a.k.a. Cane toad) is a really big invasive species mostly around Florida. This was a sweet little Bufo americanus, a regular old American Toad, very common throughout the northeast and quite harmless. In fact, they eat garden pests – slugs, snails and insects.
I fixed up a glorious cardboard box terrarium for Tobias, complete with moss, twigs and a tinfoil lake, and began to spend my free time hanging out by the horse barn with a flyswatter, perfecting ways to stun flies. I wanted to catch them alive. It was actually quite difficult to stun not kill, but I suspected that Tobias might shun dead food.
After three days, Tobias was looking pretty peaked. He was very skinny, a shade of his former robust self. With anguish, I showed him to my Crafts teacher Miss Eva, a very sweet and sympathetic young woman who had a knack for knowing how to talk to children. Miss Eva suggested that I might need to let Tobias go. “It’s hard for wild creatures to be pets,” said Miss Eva. “Sometimes they just need to be free.”
With tears in my eyes, I took Tobias back to where I had found him, halfway down the hill from the Crafts Cabin and across the path from the wild blueberries. There I gently placed Tobias back on the cool, moist soil and he hopped away.
I’ve always believed that the little toad survived my extreme love and grew strong again in his natural habitat. I always remember, even all of these many years later, little Tobias when I see a toad, as I did the other day.
My son Taylor and I were working in our shade garden. It’s our memorial garden for Spencer and HD, my son and my husband, Taylor’s brother and dad. We were just about finished. We’d said goodbye and Taylor was walking away; I was gathering a few last leaves. As I bent down, I saw the little toad pictured above, holding perfectly still on the side of a big oak.
Camouflage is the first line of defense. I crouched by the little guy and said hello, resisting the urge to touch. Instead, I took its picture. The toad didn’t move. I wanted to call Taylor back, to show him how cute, how soft, how remarkably camouflaged the toad was, but Taylor was already gone.
For some time, we crouched there, the toad and I. And I thought about how a single moment of delight can be the very best of love, after all. There is something amazing in a single moment, and something amazing, too, when a natural thing goes free. So after a few more minutes, I put the rake away and left as well. There were the trip home, and dinner to be made, and a dog to walk, a sunset to watch, and a host of other moments yet to come.