In Every Shade of Yellow
Calpurnicus stretched his legs behind him one by one and sighed. He glanced back at his sled and smiled slightly at his small but beautiful collection. It had been a successful day. “Toads,” his mother had said, “are neither hunters nor gatherers,” as she peered down at the dirty, torn scraps of petals held out to her. And she had been right. No matter how hard he tried, there was simply no way to carry it all.
Of course, this was not entirely what his mother meant. “Toads,” she would say to him, much later in his life, near the very end of hers, “are neither predators nor prey.”
At the time, however, Calpurnicus believed his mother was referring to what she considered to be his most frivolous habit—collecting flowers. Toads, he had thought to himself, most certainly could become gatherers (hunting was a subject that, at that point, remained untouched in Calpurnicus’s young mind), if only they had the correct tools. His first attempt was a rather large, exceptionally sturdy maple leaf, whose lobes curled up slightly to create a perfect den for his findings. It soon grew ragged and brittle. His first failure.
Calpurnicus went through a long list of odd bits and pieces, improvised bags and bundles made from whatever trash he found lying Creekside. Once, he found a discarded hummingbird’s nest that he wore atop his head like a hat, placing the petals and leaves he found inside as gently as a mother rests upon her eggs. This was, of course, a great insult to the hummingbirds, and he was lucky his mother had found him before anyone else spotted her disgrace of a son sporting a lost home as a vessel for his childish fancies. Or so she said, in an uncharacteristically impassioned defense of a different species.
But the sled was his final and ultimate triumph.
He glanced back once more, still smiling, lost in his memories. Its once-sharp edges were bent to keep his various findings from falling out, and its logo and colors had long since faded. All that remained of its former self was the soda tab hooked to the front, through which Calpurnicus had looped a length of rope that he hefted over his fleshy shoulder. A half-wilted daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), several deep purple, almost blue soapwort blossoms (Saponaria officinalis), a particularly intricate finger of lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), and the crushed remainders of what he suspected might be a grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) were laid carefully on the old Coke can, smoothed and burnished from so many trips Creekside.
His smile slid away as the daydream faded. He was a middle-aged toad in a forest, heaving a load of broken flowers towards what was now an empty house.
Any other animal might have expected a string of visitors: Family, friends, perhaps a few stragglers from the ancient past. But his mother’s death had not garnered much attention—or any attention at all, really. He’d sent word to the customary sources: Her home pond and adjacent lakes or rivers. Most frogs and toads moved to freshwater sources every few years to spawn, but after the year of his birth, they had stayed in the little hut between the onion grass and dandelion fields, further from Creekside or Lakeside than was customary. As far as he knew, he was his mother’s only family—which seemed preposterous, he thought to himself, not for the first time, in a species that could lay up to thirty thousand eggs twice every year. But his mother had never tolerated questions much.
“Where are they?” he had asked one day, straining under the bundle she insisted they bring every time they went Lakeside.
“Where are who, Calpurnicus?” his mother answered, irritated. When he didn’t answer, she snatched the sack away and cuffed him on the snout. “Really, it’s not that heavy. You’re being dramatic.” Her eyes bulged as she strained to lift it. Puffing, she dragged it behind them. “Now, who, Calpurnicus, where are who?”
He pointed at the family of ducks waddling across the sandy shore, their webbed feet imbalanced on the soft, powdery sand.
“Use your words, Calpurnicus!” She was now attempting to roll the bundle in front of her.
“Them. Others. Why don’t we have them?” he asked softly.
She sighed sharply and turned away. After a few more minutes of struggling, she stopped and began to unpack.
“We don’t need anyone else, Calpurnicus,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically soft. “We have each other.”
She touched the star-shaped wart on the top of his head quickly, tenderly, then began readying him for the water.
“I can swim on my own just fine, Mother.”
The edge crept back into her voice. “If you want to get in that water, you will wear your floater and your whistle, do you hear me?”
He nodded sullenly.
“Good.” She looped a soft string around his waist once, twice, three times, measuring carefully so there was an even amount of length remaining on each end of his body. She threaded the end of the string on his right side through the hole in a large, slightly dirtied chunk of Styrofoam and pulled it tight around the piece of Styrofoam so it fit snugly against his waist. She did the same to his left side. They looked like lopsided wings, clumsily attached at his sides. She produced a second string, at the end of which was an acorn cap. She tied that string to Calpurnicus’s right front leg and stood back, admiring her handiwork.
Calpurnicus let her lead him down into the water. As always, he ignored the eyes of other animals as they watched the two toads hobble along, fascinated by the scene unfolding before them. He bobbed in the warm water, unable to move freely or touch the sandy bottom. But his mother was satisfied. He was floating. “Ten minutes, then I’m back to check in. Behave yourself,” she said and marched back up the bank to sit in the shade.
The wind turned him in a lazy circle. He stayed, stationary but buoyant, and wished to be anywhere else. His fruitless attempts to push himself towards the rushes had caused the mother duck, gliding nearby, to chuckle to herself as her ducklings bumped into one another behind her, occasionally shrieking with glee. While the mother duck was busy fishing for minnows, three of the braver ducklings approached Calpurnicus. Keeping their distance, one asked, “What are you wearing?”
“It’s so I can float,” he said.
“You look silly,” said another, her voice squeaking strangely as she quacked. “I know,” he answered miserably.
“We float all by ourselves,” the middle duckling said smugly. Calpurnicus nodded. Still huddled together, they ventured closer.
“Wh—” but their next question was cut off by a strangled honk and a flurry of feathers. The mother duck, having emerged from her dive and seeing her children conversing so closely with this strange toad—a cane toad—took off suddenly and landed rather clumsily in the limited space between her ducklings and Calpurnicus. Glaring at him, she guided them away, quacking angrily.
Disturbed by the noise, his mother hurried down the bank and splashed into the water, gasping.
She dragged him back to land and up the bank, muttering to herself. “Simply outrageous, can’t even comprehend the level of—”
“Mother,” Calpurnicus whispered, “she was only looking out for her young.” Blazing, his mother turned on him.
“Don’t you ever,” she croaked, furious, “defend another animal who treats you that way. Never. I don’t know where I went wrong with you, really, but it simply astounds me.” She continued under her breath the whole way home.
It was their last trip Lakeside. It was also one of the last times Calpurnicus remembered his mother talking about having one another as if it were a good thing. As he grew, he failed to meet her expectations again and again.
Calpurnicus yelped as his toe caught on a stray twig mid-step. Dropping the rope to his sled, he leaned down to examine the delicate webbing between his toes. It was tender, but not ripped. He hobbled to the nearest suitable stump, upon which he carefully laid out his lunch, and, doing his best to elevate his sore foot, sat down to eat with his favorite book.
While many animals enjoyed a robust meal full of flavors and novels packed with adventure, Calpurnicus was content with a bottle of Sal’s Slip-Net Slim-Fit River Water and his well-worn copy of So You Think You Can Plant: Botany with the Best, and cubed algae. Calpurnicus hefted the enormous book onto his stump and opened to “You Could Have Flowers, Or-chids.” It was a terrible pun. A flavorless cube of algae dissolved in his mouth as he flicked through the pages and settled down to read.
“Fascinating,” Calpurnicus mused to himself, making a mental note to read more about the different familial growing patterns of different plant species and sub-species. “Simply fascinating.”
“What’s that?” A low squawk broke through his reverie. Calpurnicus turned, startled, to see a giant yellow eye peering down at him. He let out a strangled croak and felt both his bladder and parotids release before tumbling off his perch.
“Now, really, there’s no need for that nonsense,” the eye grumbled. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that hungry.”
Calpurnicus blew out the small chunk of cubed algae that had lodged itself in his right nostril and did his best to brush himself off. Unfortunately, he was covered in food, water, and, thanks to those damned natural instincts, his own secretions, both toxin and urine. He straightened up and addressed the rather large Blue Heron who had so rudely interrupted his lunch.
“What do you expect, startling a fellow as such?” He retrieved his water bottle and tried to wet his handkerchief surreptitiously.
The heron let out a throaty guffaw. “Well, aren’t we just the most proper of all the toadies!” Her feathers were streaked with what Calpurnicus supposed was a week’s worth of mud. “There’s no need for that here, honey. Go ahead and clean yourself up. I could use a good spruce myself.” The heron dipped her head awkwardly and ruffled her primaries, stirring up a cloud of dust.
Though it was terrible manners, the toxins did tend to dry quickly. While cane toads were immune to the dangers of their own bufotoxin, if he waited too long to clean up, it would form a thin crust and itch like hell. Sighing, Calpurnicus began to rub himself clean. He paid special attention to the warts around his glands and made sure all and any poison was removed. Not only was it annoying to walk around with bufo on the skin, but it was also extremely rude—and Calpurnicus was anything but rude.
“Always pleasing other animals,” his mother had complained, “apologizing, ashamed to be a Cane toad.” She expected him to stare other animals down, to make them ashamed of their own prejudices, but Calpurnicus felt they were justified. This was, to her, almost unforgivable.
The heron’s beak was bent, scratched and streaked with dust.
“Didn’t mean to startle you, little toadie. Just saw your little get-up here, that’s all.” She gestured to his sled and the array of flowers, her great yellow eye wheeling towards his book, which was now sprawled in the dust near her talons.
“I collect flowers.”
“Well, I could’ve guessed that!” Her bill clacked as she laughed. “What for?”
Calpurnicus paused. Nobody had ever asked him that before. In fact, nobody had really asked him anything about his collecting before. He had no friends to show any interest in his hobbies, and his mother had disapproved of his “obsession” right up until the end of her life. He banished that thought in particular from his mind. Whether she approved or not was no longer relevant.
Calpurnicus was at a loss for words. “I appreciate beauty,” he said softly. Satisfied for the time being, he folded the now-sticky handkerchief into a tiny square and placed it carefully on the ground beside him. He felt the heron’s eye follow him curiously as he hopped to his sled, took out a rather large, smooth half of a pistachio shell, and returned to his handkerchief. Refusing to engage, he began to dig. He sensed the heron settling down to watch but was determined to ignore her. After scooping out a few inches of dirt, he placed the soiled handkerchief into the hole and packed the earth firmly over it.
He could hear the question rumbling up her long neck and spoke before she opened her beak. “It’s deadly to the smaller creatures. I’m not interested in having that guilt on my shoulders.”
The heron clicked her beak and leaned back as if to arch her neck. “You don’t meet many of you with such a sense of heroism.” She sounded amused. Her eyes were a vile shade of yellow, and they bulged hideously as she squawked.
“Many of you?”
“Toxics.” Answered with silence, she continued. “Little toadie’s got a chip on his shoulder, eh? What is it, then?”
“We all have our struggles, ma’am. I prefer not to disclose mine to strangers.”
The heron opened her beak as if to speak but seemed to reconsider. Calpurnicus placed his now-empty water bottle, the container of algae squares, and his book on the sled and hefted his rope. Dipping his head courteously, he resumed his trek home.
“Neither predators nor prey,” his mother had said, and she was right. Instead, they were simply enemies to all. Never mind that Calpurnicus didn’t ask to be poisonous. Never mind that Calpurnicus didn’t mean to secrete bufo. Never mind that Calpurnicus did everything he could to ensure the safety of everyone around him, regardless of his own well-being. Never mind all that.
Cane toads were usually only truly welcome among their own, and Calpurnicus was even more isolated than most. He was entranced by all things beautiful, but he was, in fact, a very ugly creature. An outsider in the animal kingdom and within his own species, he was a lonely child and an even lonelier adult. Most Cane toads were aware of the social stigmas against them and did their best to accommodate other animals, but not his mother. She refused to apologize for existing, she said, and shook her head when Calpurnicus tried to explain to her that it wasn’t their existence that frightened the other animals, it was their poison.
He could barely remember the first accident. A young fox decided to jump out and surprise him during a game of hide-and-seek. Threatened, Calpurnicus’s parotid glands released, and a thin layer of bufotoxin covered his body. When the cub realized he had frightened the young toad, he apologized as many animals do: With a quick but friendly lick. Neither animal realized Calpurnicus was covered in poison that could kill a full-grown animal in a matter of minutes. The cub barely survived. His mother had told him it was natural for younger toads to release their bufo instinctively. It was parental negligence, she insisted, for not informing their cub how to play properly with others. She told him not to feel guilty. But he did. Calpurnicus was an anxious, fearful child, and the lack of control made him even more anxious. The more anxious he became, the harder it was to quell the release. Although he eventually managed to harness his instincts, he had a longer list of mishaps than most. Not only had he grown terrified of companionship, but he housed deep within him a fear that he was, in fact, a truly evil creature.
Neither predator nor prey. Cane toads did not hunt. They did not track and kill and feast. The occasional fly or bee or beetle, perhaps, but most kept a strict vegan diet. But they were nobody’s prey, poisonous as they were. The common toad, perhaps, would cause stomach pains, violent illness at the worst, but the cane toads’ bufo was lethal, even to humans. Invasive species. Any community with more than a few toads was considered a cane colony, and shunned.
So Calpurnicus stuck to his flowers and kept quiet.
He passed the onion grass that marked the path back home, humming to himself. The trip to his mother’s grave was short, and he placed the flowers on top of the small stones he had arranged to mark the space.
“I know you didn’t much care for my flowers, mother,” Calpurnicus mumbled, feeling rather foolish. He was, after all, talking to the ground. “But as a gesture—”
There was a strange, muffled sound, one he had never heard before. Calpurnicus turned and saw the heron flapping furiously, her mud-soaked wings clearly weighing her down. She landed in a flurry of dust and unpleasant odors. Once again, his parotids and bladder both released.
“I’m Madge.” Her voice was loud and her accent, Calpurnicus noted, was uncouth. She had to have followed him here. How had she followed him here with all that noise? Was he really that obtuse?
“Came to pay my respects,” she said.
This was unexpected.
“Your mother was a good friend of mine.”
This was even more unexpected.
“Didn’t have many friends, that old green bag,” Madge said brusquely. “You toads aren’t the only ones who animals don’t like.” She bent her enormous head so Calpurnicus could see her neck properly. It was twisted and scarred, almost crooked, and up close, her beak was even more bent than he had previously thought.
“Nobody likes a dirty bird, toadie. I grew up in the same town as your mum, hated cane toads just as much as everyone else. But when I got shot—” she blinked and pulled away suddenly, placing a giant claw on his mother’s stones with surprising grace, “—she was the only one who would come near me.” Madge bent her head and brushed her ugly beak softly through the still-fresh dirt. “Ain’t that right, Selma?” she whispered to the ground.
“No, toadie, you wouldn’t have known that side of your mother. We were plenty young, much more hopeful than we had any business being, ugly as we were.” Madge paused. “But she was different, long time ago.” She sighed, and suddenly she looked very old. “After it all, she couldn’t come back. Came here. Can’t say I blame her. Had to leave myself. Find some peace. Never found it.”
“After…what all?” Calpurnicus felt his throat tighten. His mother spoke very little of her life before the little hut in the fields.
Madge blinked and looked at him. Her eyes, he found himself thinking, were not ugly. They added a certain grace to her misshapen head. They were a bright, pure yellow. Almost like sunflowers.
“I’m sure you wondered why you’re her only one. Why she kept you so close. Never let you live much of a life, I suppose?” She cocked her head.
Her eyes were cornflower yellow, Calpurnicus thought. And they widened and softened when she spoke, not in a grotesque way, but with empathy, concern, excitement, joy. With emotion.
“It was late July. Never rained like that in late July, never did.”
Her eyes were beautiful. Luminous. How could he have been so wrong? He, who loved all things beautiful. Calpurnicus felt himself floating away on her words and into her eyes.
“Been maybe ten, eleven years since.” Madge shivered.
Liquid gold. Pools of liquid gold, rippling when she moved. Incredible.
“It was her first spawn. Very first. She was so excited. Little too excited, if you ask me. She’d go down to the damn water and check about seven times a day,” Madge grumbled, “dragged me with her to look. Tellin’ me how you’d all changed so much since yesterday.” She ruffled her feathers and let out a squawk.
Her eyes kept him grounded as he listened. Safe.
“You were just old enough to drown, though. When the flood came.” Madge sighed. “Every single one.” Her eyes, two ripe moons, finally met his. “Except you.”
The evening was singing around them.
“She had such a soft heart, your mother. Wasn’t like other toads. Most just up and had more eggs but her, she never did. Raised hell when any man came near her. Kept you so close I thought she’d kill you just by that alone.”
Madge closed her eyes, and Calpurnicus was lost.
“You were young. Too young to remember, toadie, but you went swimming in the pond where all her other littles died. I think that broke something in her. She scooped you out of there fast and up and left the next day.” Her eyes were still closed. Her neck quivered slightly. “We were leavin’ anyways. Can’t stay in places after things like that. Not toadies like your mom. Soft bellies. Soft hearts.” She laughed.
Calpurnicus found his voice. “She never told me.”
Madge blinked her eyes open and looked at him softly. Warmly. “No, I can’t imagine she would. Loved you, though.” She nodded. “Oh, she loved you. Maybe a bit too much,” she mused. “Love like that, when you know you won’t survive one more loss, it’s heavy. Can’t hold it all in one place, on one toadie. Gets too much. Comes out wrong sometimes, real wrong. Strong, though. She loved you strong.” She stood up. The story was over.
She stretched her crooked neck as best she could and ruffled her feathers. You all right there, toadie boy?”
Calpurnicus nodded. “Yes. I can’t say I’m not astounded—”
“Ah, but still the most mannered toadie in all the land.” She winked. “You’ll be just fine, there.”
“I suppose I will.”
“I don’t mean offense, but—” she dipped her head towards his mother’s grave once more, “—we were never very good at goodbyes. Best stand back, little toadie. Tends to send out quite a cloud.” She winked again and flapped clumsily, thumping her wings.
Calpurnicus glanced at the flowers he had placed so proudly on his mother’s grave, now covered in dirt, fluttering away in the wind from Madge’s lopsided take-off.
“Strong, though,” Madge had said. “She loved you strong.”
“Madge!” He called out, squinting through the haze. “Madge, wait!”
The heron settled, as did the storm of dust and sand.
“There’s so many of her things, back home. And I could—I would thoroughly enjoy more of your company. Please, stay for dinner.”
Madge smiled. “Your mum would die all over again if you let me in her house in this state, toadie.”
Calpurnicus laughed, surprising them both.
“I bathe in the stream behind the onion grass fields. If you’d like, I could assist you in your…. Sanitary exercises.”
Her eyes rolled in their sockets, wild and graceful. Chrysanthemums in the late fall, Calpurnicus thought. Blooming despite the frost.
“You are one strange toadie.” She clicked her beak, something that Calpurnicus suspected was a habit that one might grow fond of, and stretched her wings. “Alright, let’s go. I have a few stories for you. Hold onto those warts, now.”