ToadGirl by Kerry Byrne

A spine hangs around her neck. As a picked-clean bone had hung around her father’s. She cannot be sure how far back the initiates stretch on her paternal side, but with the family’s standing in the village, she imagines a long ancestral line. 

By the reed shore edging Whittlesey Mere, she squats low to the near-dry ground, enclosed by a forest of feathery arrows taking aim at the swathe of sky. On a different morning, she’d let her eyes swim in its navy, spy the nose of a wild colt racing the wind in the clouds and inhale the honeyed fragrance of meadowsweet frothing on the boundary of the drained bed. But for now, she waits in her hidey hole, ignoring the peals of nearby church bells and the distant drum-drum of trains slicing time.  

“Your pa’s Toadman. Your pa’s Toadman,” the boy sang over and over as he followed her home from the market. He scuffed the scree along the path, provoking dust and picking up stones to pelt her back. A sliver of flint ricocheted off her right ear, a misthrow, drawing blood. She wanted to turn around then and face him, to bare her knuckles like teeth and punch-punch-punch his freckled nose until his vest matched the rust of his hair. 

But she prized her load: in one hand, a small basket with two taters, a soil-creased carrot, and a bramley rolling around its bottom; in the other, a black ewe’s head resting in a hessian sack. And there were the cramps, the wetness too. The worry it might trickle down her thighs, announcing something she didn’t yet understand to the farmer’s feckless son. 

Patchworked into the fens, the village held a tight-knit texture with a church at its centre, and a public house at its heart. The locals were suspicious of her family, of the men’s unnatural gift with horses. Her father, the local farm carter, had married at an early age, as had his father and his father before him, their young wives bearing them each a son before dying in childbirth. Warmed by the flames of a turf fire and the dark rum in their bellies, generations of farmers, fishermen and fowlers, usurped by turf-diggers, sedge cutters and dyke dredgers had chewed over rumours of poisonous warts infecting wombs, of bulbous bodies splitting the poor lasses in two.

“Tis a pact with the Devil himself, I’d warrant it,” they’d slur. Or a variation. “He breaks their women so their spawn can master the wildest of stallions.”    

Her mother had died like the others, pushing out the slip of a baby only to bleed puddles of stagnant water, its punky stench, leaf-damp and primordial. Though steeled for his wife’s demise, her father could not conceal his horror when he unwrapped the blanketweed to reveal the child’s soft fleshy line. Rubbing the femur at his neck, he cursed this twist in his fate and upturned the table, plates smashing against the flagstones. He kicked out at the logs spitting in the hearth, desperate to talk with his love, to seek her measured advice. At a loss, he picked up the bundle as if to throw it into the fire, but looking at his daughter’s face, he saw the same bronze eyes, their horizontal pupils black as midnight pools. 

“Tell me, Pa. Tell me.” 

She mopped his brow using a cloth, cool with rainwater she’d collected the day before and cast in the shade. It did little to help. She had hoped the goodness in the broth might ease her father’s fever, but his eyes were as glassy as the dead ewe’s, the mattress soaked to the slats beneath it. His limbs twitched as if possessed, his lips vomiting strings of words which made no sense, communicating terror fluently. 

“Tell me. Before you go. I beseech you.” 

“I daren’t tell my own son, if I had one,” he said, trembling from fear or fever she could not be sure. 

“You must tell me, Pa. Without the gift, what will I do? Beg for food and shelter? With only my womanhood for currency?”  

His eyes widened with the memory of her expression at the blood smearing her thighs, the slug-like clots in her knickers, his struggle to build a bridge of words to explain. Raising his arm, she thought he meant to strike her in his madness, but instead he cupped his hand around the back of her head, pulling her towards him until his breath scolded her ear and soured her nostrils.  

On the yard, it was rumoured that the scrawny outlander pillaged the wetlands at night for fish and fowl to supplement his wages. By the stables, she asked the poacher to bring her a toad, a female toad, which would be bigger and heavier than a male, but to catch both, so she could stamp out any trickery, and only then would she hand him the crop, hinting at its power to make a horse obey only its owner, though she knew her father had never the need to use it. 

After a futile search in the coppice, she found an anthill on the edge of the fallow field and pegged the toad to the ground close by. She visited on the hour, guided by the church bells until a pristine skeleton bleached against its black peat grave. Brow-wrinkled, she dismantled it, secreting each bone into the pocket of her skirt, carrying them close til the warmth of her had dried them out. 

By the white fluff of a dandelion moon, she went to the bottom of the garden, over the turnstile to the paddocks, and through the coppice to the stream, larricking along its boundary with the wheat field. Mist ghosted her feet, darkness amplifying the sound of her trying to be quiet. As she reached the clearing to the bank, a bat swooped across her path, quickly followed by another from the opposite direction. She wanted to stop then and curl up into a ball until sunrise, spooked by the bad omen: she should not have defied her father’s instructions over the sex of the creature. But as if sensing her doubts, half-formed images floated up from the water, wisping against the stout sky: her hand lost in his, a pebble skimming over the rippled surface, the splash of legs racing sticks corkscrewing on the current. Their laughter was more an embrace than sound. 

Tipping her face up to watch the last tendrils stretch moon-wards from the stream, she grabbed all the bones from her pocket and tossed them into the cool night air. As each one hit the water, it screamed: the screams of her mother, the screams of all the mothers before her. Her father had warned to plug her ears with cloth to block out the unnatural sound, but on hearing it, she had no need, translating the love in their throats. Watching the bones float downstream, she tracked the one travelling back to her against the current. It too was screaming, a singular voice, the voice of her mother, though how she knew this she could not explain. Ankle deep in the numbing flow, she fished it out and held her prize up to the silvery light, fingering the knots along its column. 

She walked back into the village under a haemorrhaging sky. In the churchyard she searched the headstones tilting this way and that on grassy waves, sinking into the earth on borrowed time. Angels stood tall amidst flocks of crocuses unfurling like fists in the morning sun; ravens rarked and grubbed at graves. At last, she found the row she sought in the shade of the trees against the back wall. The headstones were piebald with lichen, marked only by a small engraving of a toad. Rubbing the bone at her neck, she leaned over to kiss the top of each cold slab in turn. 

There is a shoot planned at Holme Fen that afternoon. 

She tends to the farmer’s horses now, gaining respect in her own right after breaking a pair of feral colts he’d bought cheap at the market. She is the one to plant the idea of a hunt in the farmer’s mind with all her talk of the plump fowl she spies near the mere on her evening walks. She knows he will send out his son, his only child, up ahead to birdscare. Crouched, hidden in the reeds, it’s his red halo she is looking for now. 

She hears him before she sees him, the beat-beat-beat of his stick against the rushes. From the depths of her diaphragm, she produces the deep foghorn of a bittern. The draw of such a rare meaty bird brings the boy close, so close she thinks his stick might strike her. She calls again. It is only when he is in front of her, in line with the flossy bullrushes at the edge of the bed that she sings his name over and over. As he turns, she launches, the power of her back legs propelling her forward against his chest, pushing him into the mere. Sinking, he screams out to her, his body writhing to free itself from the mud, arms flailing. Crawling back into her hidey hole, she squats and watches, listening to the peals of nearby church bells, the distant drum-drum of trains slicing time. 

About The Author

With a backdrop of sky-filled waters and endless horizons, Kerry lives and writes in the Cambridgeshire fens. Her writing has been published by streetcake magazine and Selcouth Station, with work forthcoming in Pidgeonholes. She is currently studying towards a Creative Writing MLitt at Glasgow University.

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