When The Toad Sings (And Other Stories of Love)

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

A mysterious older woman revisits her favorite New York City bistro late one night to reconnect with a long lost friend.

When The Toad Sings

(And Other Stories of Love)

by

V.E. Kimberlin

 

The robust aroma furled up from her cup of just served cappuccino. The steamed milk floated on top, the murky cloud of the cinnamon swirling into designs with the artistry of a spider spinning its web. No, not a web, she thought, a golden Fibonacci spiral. And suddenly that’s what made her remember where she was. Her mind had wandered once again into a reverie. She wondered if anyone around her had noticed the nameless woman sitting alone, now and then talking to herself at a darkened table by the café’s indoor pond, noticed that she, too, had been staring. But she was long used to the odd looks of others, so her sketchbook was open on the table beside her, a charcoal pencil in one hand and some pastel crayons nearby at the ready. A perfectly passable incomplete little sketch had begun. Obviously, something was missing in it.

The little pond in the middle of this late night Upper West Side patisserie was famous, if only to New Yorkers. But that was plenty enough. Many a couple had fallen in love here, become engaged here, married right here beside the pond with large brilliant golden and multi-colored koi slithering, cavorting among the rush of tall live cattails against the choir of frogs and, most of all, Herman, a giant elderly toad that sometimes crawled out of the water onto a large beam of ocean driftwood to lounge under the glare of a hot spot light. It had been installed to simulate the sun all year not just for the beauty of the pond but for the warmth and comfort of its amphibian star entertainer, who, if he felt like it, would come out to sing. This had gone on for a very long time, although (to the great disappointment of his fans) Herman had inexplicably stopped singing a number of years ago and now only deigned with great coaxing and bribery from management to occasionally make appearances.

She smiled again. Yes, someone had indeed been staring, but a someone not human. They were old friends, she and the toad. And he remembered her, had sensed her presence once again nearby, had waddled out from his underwater cave to his favorite perch on the driftwood while she had been sipping coffee and reminiscing; waiting for her to come feed him crickets on the sly as she had for so many decades when they were both so much younger, until life forced them to part company. It had been years and about a million miles since she had been able to return to her beloved New York City and favorite haunt, but there had not been a chance to say goodbye.

She blinked back tears of joy so grateful to see him still alive she could have kissed him warts and all. So much she had discussed with him at late hours as she sat in a chair by the pond to sketch him while he always listened so attentively, commenting only with the occasional gurgle. All the boyfriends, the achievements of her work finally on exhibit, the successes when they went on to galleries, the sales, the reviews, the interviews. But then on a turn of a dime the devolve to miserable jobs with miserable bosses just to pay the rent and eat a meal; the evictions, the addictions, the illness….

“I never forgot you, Herman,” she whispered as softly as possible from the table. Still, the strange, haunted note of her voice carried far enough that a young couple at a nearby booth looked up at her. They were very much in love, two young men holding hands across the table as they planned their wedding here. They traded quizzical glances, shrugged and looked away. “Do you forgive me?” she continued. “Will you sing for me again? I'm home now to stay.”

Herman's ancient body shifted a bit on the perch, and he stared harder at her before his slow blink. Not moving too quickly herself these days, she went to the edge of the pond, leaned over the rail, and despite the prominently posted “please do not feed us” sign, emptied a small carton of live crickets as close as she could to the driftwood branch nearest his throne. Watching the transaction, the greatly entertained lovers grinned and discreetly sent her a thumbs-up hoping the waiter, who had worked here longer than the toad had been alive, would not see. Meanwhile Herman’s large mass didn't seem to move at all, but his almost indecently long tongue flicked in and out like lightning to scarf up the crickets. Exhausted and breathing heavily, she made her way back to her chair to a now tepid cappuccino. The toad ate his fill while the other frogs and fish converged to snatch up what he left behind. The now alert waiter furiously rushed over to admonish her but stopped suddenly as Herman’s slurping abruptly ceased.

Then the bubble of his toad’s throat sac began to grow, to bulge into a balloon so large it almost dwarfed the rest of him, expanding greater than anyone, including the waiter, had ever seen before. And he began to sing and sing and sing. He sang of his joy to see his dear friend once again, he sang of his joy for the young lovers, he sang of thanks for delicious crickets, his joy of this his best audience ever, for the warm light above him and the kind humans who tended him, his fellow pond dwellers who kept him from being lonely and all the cattails to play hide and seek amongst in his youth, his joy that he would soon be free of his too old body.

She smiled through it all, her promise fulfilled, and absolution granted. “Thank you, Herman,” she murmured, the tears finally flowing unrestricted.

The waiter, forgetting to be stern, stood speechless. The couple’s mouths were similarly agape. The few patrons still in the cafe at this hour also went quiet and listened in wonder until Herman’s croaks drifted into silence a few minutes later.

After a lull, everyone applauded and there were shouts of “Encore!” all around. When it was finally quiet again, the waiter finally remembered he was supposed to reprimand his errant old lady customer, who had, he realized, seemed very familiar. But now upon turning to scold her he found her slumped, head lolled back with eyes closed and a sublimely peaceful smile in a lined face that seemed to be dropping years by the second. Her half empty cup of cold coffee had toppled over and spilled onto the sketch of the pond she had begun.

His eyes went to an old magazine photograph on the wall taken there in the café of a beautiful young woman sketching by the pond. He had served her many times, had even been a little in love with her. But she would soon be famous and glamorous, and he was just a waiter with wife and children at home.

And then the splash from the pond behind him. The couple at the booth gasped simultaneously, leaped to their feet and ran to the pond rail. One of them shouted for help. The toad had not gone back to its cave below but was drifting belly up in the pond water, his still body occasionally bumping against the beam by the force of ripples from his fall while the frogs and fish finished off the crickets around him. Someone finally noticing there was an old woman slumped at the back table was calling 911, someone else began to cry, cell phone camera lights were flashing, the manager at the cash register was frantically calling him to come help restore order, clear up and close, but the waiter couldn’t move a muscle, his eyes were fixed on the coffee-stained sketch. What moments ago had been only the thin lines and strokes of what seemed to be the beginning renderings of a simple landscape had emerged out of the spiral-shaped stain – in full, joyous, glorious, impossible color -- into a portrait of a toad singing in a pond of cattails and the smoky silhouette of a woman standing with canvas and easel in the background.

 

THE END

© V.E. Kimberlin 2022

1,400 words

Draft 012622-D1b


Submitted: November 19, 2022

© Copyright 2022 V.E. Kimberlin. All rights reserved.