Toad’s Mouth – Joyce Janes

It would be difficult to find a more wicked, bitter, old man than Abe.  He was born during the worst storm in living memory, maybe it was a bad omen.  Indeed his poor mother suffered for many long days before she delivered the frail twisted, baby. Horrified by the sight of the misshapen child, Abe’s father went to the barn behind the cottage, and shot himself, unable to cope with the shame brought on his family name.

Abe’s mother never forgave her husband but it was her child who suffered the brunt of her anger, as she berated her poor son throughout his childhood. Abe proved to be a slow child who found learning difficult and it was only with the support of a stick that he was able to manoeuvre his twisted limbs around.

When he reached the age of sixteen his mother died.  Abe was not sorry to be free of her constant nagging and wicked ill treatment.  He inherited the cottage, a tumbledown wreck with a leaky roof, and acres of abandoned, overgrown land. Unable to farm the land himself he resented all offers of help.  Requests from neighbours to rent and work the fields were refused.  Preferring to live like a tramp, wallowing in his own filth, the selfish Abe would rather see his land run to ruin and the villagers starve than allow them to use it.

He devoted his life to causing trouble and upsetting people.  Abe grew to be a spiteful young man who thrived on being as nasty as possible.  At home he led a solitary life, for who would want to spend time with such a nasty misfit, he was not quite normal, some would say odd. Of course the more time he spent alone, the stranger his behaviour became, in short he lived a lonely, miserable existence.

When he could Abe ignored and avoided his neighbours, any happiness he observed in their meagre lives made him angry, he hated them.  Most of all he hated their noisy, joyful children.  Children reminded this bitter man of the misfortune life had bestowed on him and their playful laughter became the bane of his days, tormenting him from morning to night.  Occasionally they teased him as he walked through the village.  He tried to ignore the comments, the mock hobbling behind his back, but he stored these slights, these insults, piling them on his shoulders, another burden to carry, a burden to torment himself with.

One day they would find out how it felt, one day he would make them all suffer. Then something happened which made life bearable for Abe.  It was Tommy Bradshaw a harmless, silly boy who thought it funny to copy his neighbour’s peculiar gait and call him names.  As Abe wished, with all his heart, that his tormenter would be struck dumb, the boy seemed to choke on his own taunting words.  Tommy suddenly, and mysteriously, was unable to speak.  Shock registered on the child’s face as he stared at the old man, horrified, knowing, realising this was Abe’s doing.

Tommy ran as fast as he could, occasionally looking back over his shoulder, his pale eyes staring in disbelief at the old man. Abe’s crooked face broke into a uneven grin.  What had he done? How did that happen?  He realised he had a gift, the first bit of luck in all his 62 years.  Now they would pay, all of the villagers.  Things were going to change now. And things did change, Abe became a monster.

The farmer’s crop went mouldy shortly after he argued with the old man about a gate left open. The dairyman, refused to give Abe credit, he lost all his milk as 5 of his churns simultaneously cracked and leaked.  The shepherd, a very conscientious man, had 4 sheep die in strange circumstances shortly after arguing with Abe.  Then, worst of all, children began to disappear.  The villagers scoured the area but once gone, no child was ever seen again.

Abe watched them, the parents, sobbing, distraught, longing for their lost children.  He thrived on their pain, he didn’t care how much suffering the families felt.  Abe’s heart had turned to stone years ago.  He knew where the children were, but he wasn’t telling.

One day a beggar woman came to town.  As she walked toward the village she had to pass Abe’s cottage.  Feeling tired she leant on the fence. Abe, of course, wasn’t about to allow anyone to take a rest on his land, let alone lean on his fence. He hurried out, stick waving at this stranger.

‘Oh, you poor man,’ the woman cried, but Abe was having none of it, He shouted abuse and threatened to douse her in pigswill if she didn’t move along. The old woman stared at him, surprised at his uncharitable behaviour and foul language.

‘You my man, should watch your words or one day you will suffer., she told him

‘Suffer, me suffer, can’t you see you stupid old crone, can’t you see how I have suffered all my life, now it can be your turn.’

Without further ado he threw, first his stick, then a bucket of swill, which struck the woman, making a large gash on her forehead.  With blood pouring down her face she staggered along the street into the village, Abe’s hysterical laughter ringing in her ears. The villagers rallied round and, despite worries for their lost children, they helped the old woman.  They treated her wounds, fed her and gave her shelter until she recovered her strength.

One day she saw Abe walking toward her as he surveyed his overgrown, unkempt land. As he approached she heard sounds, quiet, crying, pleading, distraught, mewing noises and, as he walked away, the sounds faded.  With surprise she realised the voices were with Abe, on him, surrounding him, clinging in misery to his coat, tiny voices pleading for help. She stood and watched as he moved slowly into the distance.  She decided to follow him.  Eventually they came to a stone wall surrounding a patch of woodland.

It was then the old woman saw Abe’s secret.  She was shocked and horrified, for at the base of every tree was a cage, each with a small child in it.  Half starved, cold and dirty some of them cried, puny little mews of frightened, exhausted children, but many sat silent, staring with glassy, terror filled eyes resigned to their fate. Unable to stop herself the old woman cried out and prepared to face the vicious old man.  When Abe realised she had followed him he was furious.  He raised his stick and vile abuse poured from his lips. The old woman raised her stick and a wild wind rose from nowhere to whip the stick out of Abe’s hand, flinging it far into the air and away.  Stunned the old man continued to scream abuse at her.

What no one in the village, including Abe, realised was that the old woman was a witch, a witch who thrived on putting wrongs right, making good from evil, and she was not going to allow this man to carry on his evil ways. She waved her hand toward him.  He felt as if he had been punched and he began to shrink.

She turned him into a toad.  ‘That should stop you causing any more trouble,’ she said.

But it didn’t stop Abe, he stamped his tiny webbed feet and carried on shouting.  The voice that came out was not that of a tiny toad, it was loud, strong and evil, it was still that of the wicked old man.  His mouth wide open, lips quivering, foul, vile language continued to flow from this little toad.  Suddenly he remembered.  He had power too, after all look at the things he had done to the boy, Tommy and the farmer, the dairyman and the shepherd.

‘I will turn myself back into a man,’ he told himself.

He concentrated hard, took in a deep breath and puffed himself up to twice the size.  He smiled.  ‘ I’ll show her,’ he thought, as he took another deep breath puffing himself up again.  He was still a toad but he was growing and in no time at all he towered above the old woman.  All this time he continued to shout his wicked, foul words but now as well as the vile language great globlets of spit burst out through his flabby lips and poured onto the witch. She had no alternative. She waved her hand and turned the giant toad, mouth still open, into a toad of solid stone. The toad’s mouth was, finally, silent.

Abe could only watch as the old woman released the children and returned them to their now joyful, parents. The toad’s mouth remains forever at the side of the road as a reminder of the wickedness of the old man, Abe.

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