I encountered a toad in the dark, on the pathway of the apartment complex. I nearly stepped on him, which was – I confess – mortifying. I don’t like to step on anyone if I can avoid it. It’s very rude. As I was trying very hard not to be rude, I introduced myself to the toad, and struck up a conversation with him.
“Mr. Toad, what are you doing in the middle of the walkway in the dark where anyone who is not looking down might step on you.”
Mr. Toad gruffly replied, “’Tis a small price to pay, being stepped on, for all this warmth. Concrete holds so much heat in the night. It warms my cold blood like a hot stone. Until I can find my one, true love, I won’t have any other heat this cool night.”
“But, why not find a stone?” I said, “This is a dangerous place, with stiletto heels and dogs that have spent long hours cooped up in small apartments. Goodness, my wife never leaves the apartment without her Doc Martens. She could wound you without even feeling the bump!”
“Ah,” said Mr. Toad, “That is exactly what I am doing right precisely here. You see, if a woman finds me and kisses me, I turn into an accountant.* As for the dogs, they might love me in their way. If a dog kisses me, I become an angel. An angel is a far better thing to be than a lonely toad.”
I agreed with the toad. I bowed to him before stepping around him, on my way into my apartment. I thought nothing of this moment. I thought of work; I thought of a book I was reading; I thought about my own true love, my wife. She was from Germany, and was making apple strudel tonight. It was her mother’s recipe. Also, I had to feed her cat, lest the cat negotiate away some of my strudel. Cats are very persuasive creatures, after all.
After a few days had passed since my encounter with Mr Toad, I had long forgotten about him until I nearly stepped on a moth on the landing outside my apartment. The concrete was an excellent disguise for the mottled black and gray creature. I was lucky I had noticed the creature in time not to step on it. I bent over and investigated. The black and gray bump, with a feathery texture, was like a rock carved from cotton. It was beautiful. I asked the creature if I could take a picture.
The moth said, plainly, “No.”
I recognized the voice. “Mr. Toad, is that you?”
“I was a toad, once. Now, I am a moth. Please, call me Mr. Moth.”
“How on earth did you become a moth? I thought you were trying to become an accountant or an angel!”
“Ah, of course I remember my youth, before this transformation, when I sought out the love of a woman or the love of a dog. Alas, I was a fool. I discovered, instead, the love of a cat. A wicked Siamese as large as a bobcat wanders these halls, too. It found me lurking for love. It gently rubbed my back, and purred rapturous nothings into my ear. I followed the cat into the bushes where the wicked creature carved me open. The wicked feline extracted everything from me except for my bones. This, alone, should have killed me. However, cats do not like to kill their victims. Even after all my bones had been stripped, I was still alive. The cat – playfully – re-fashioned me into a moth. These feathery strips you see are actually cartilage that was sliced to ribbons. These dark eyes are empty of all but my soul. All these black spaces in my mottled wings are, in truth, an absence. This perfect camouflage of concrete is mostly due to the holes all through me, that show concrete through the wings.”
“This is terrible! Poor creature, is there anything I can do for you?”
“No,” he said, “I will just wait here. I have learned many new things as a moth. For instance, moths don’t come from caterpillars. Moths are the product of housecats that carve moths from the living bones of prey. We are, all of us, works of extreme craftsmanship. Every winter – when moths seem to die – we are collected up into a grand exhibition and a team of elder cats choose the finest, most beautiful moths and reward the winner with a piece of very stinky cheese. The wicked Siamese has me under close surveillance lest some bird find me before the masquerade ball. I am, frankly, terrified of him. If you see him, can you please run over him with your car?”
“Oh, no, I could never do such a horrible thing.”
“Oh, well. Thank you for your company, good sir. I do not know what moths become when beautiful women kiss them. I wait here, patiently, hoping to discover that I have become an actor, a musician, an artist, or some other kind of beautiful, broken soul. Dogs don’t seem to notice me, though. I suspect this is due to some interspecies politics that I do not quite grasp, or else some magic feline spell.”
“Cats are, assuredly, magical creatures, Mr. Moth. I am very sorry for you. Yet, I am also hopeful that some lovely woman will come along and kiss you into your new, healed life. May I take your photo, and maybe a woman will find your picture and fall in love? You are, truly, beautiful even if such beauty came at a price.”
“No, good sir. I do not want the wicked cat’s craftsmanship on display for all the world to see. Besides, I can see you do not have your camera with you right now, and you’d have to go inside and inconvenience yourself. This would, I suspect, make you late for whatever thing you are in such a rush to attend in that jacket and tie. Might I suggest changing out of jeans into good, old-fashioned slacks?”
“I appreciate the advice, Mr. Moth, but this is appropriate attire for my current function. I feel sorry for you, sir, and I wish you all the best. I will respect your desire not to be photographed.”
I bowed to the moth. He bowed to me as best he could in his condition. He spread his wings and flew away, away, away.
When I got home that night, I sought out my wife’s cat and asked about the sad story of Mr Toad who had become Mr Moth. My wife’s cat, just like my wife, was born in Germany, and spent her whole life in the confines of our apartment now that we have moved to America, with my employment.
The cat said to me, some in German some in English, that in her country, cats do not do such awful things.
I asked her what cats in Germany do.
She said that they prefer to sculpt their victims into flowers. The timing has to be just right, or else the bulb will burst open too soon into a bloom, and die in the frost.
Each breed of cat is assigned a different flower, in Germany. There is no competition. There is only punishment to those that neglect their duties. She was taken from her mother too soon to learn the true art. She tries their best in the apartment, though, carefully measuring her blows against spider, lizard, and bug. She’s trying to make peonies, because that is what their mother taught them.
Sometimes, she practices on paper towels or Kleenex, trying to get that perfect rumpled puff of the peony just right.
I gave the cat a box of Kleenex, and I marveled at her mastery.
When my wife came home for dinner, I told her the story of Mr. Moth. Then she kissed me, and I turned into a dishwasher. This happens a lot, I have noticed. Fortunately, such transformations are not permanent once one has become a human.
*As we all know, upon kissing: frogs turn into princes; toads turn into accountants; snakes turn into thieves; lizards turn into insurance agents; rats turn into trash collectors; dogs turn into soldiers; cats, of course, turn into nothing at all for what else could they possibly desire to be?
J M McDermott is the author of Never Knew Another, Last Dragon, and Maze. He lives east of Atlanta in a maze of bookshelves, empty coffee cups and crazy schemes.