The Desolation Toad
Coraline was destined to be the last. Her mama, Emma Walker, took to bed immediately after the difficult birth, where she grew weaker and more frail as the days passed. She was laid to rest in the Walker family cemetery shortly after her daughter’s first birthday. Coraline could remember nothing about her.
Everything she knew about Mama had come from Granny Mag. After their mother died, it was Granny Mag who took care of Coraline and her two older brothers, William and Nathan, moving in to their cabin on the warm side of Spenser Mountain, several miles south of where the Dogleg Bend Trading Post sat along the river.
Papa walked the line most every morning, even Sunday, checking his traps from the day before. He didn’t have many so he was choosy about his spots, and his favorites were spread out over a half day’s walk. Every day Papa traipsed into the misty hills with his hunting rifle, with Coraline watching from the loft window as the West Virginia morning swallowed him up. He always gave her a kiss and whispered, “My little dog-flower,” before he surrendered himself to the mist. Granny Mag, having been named after the magnolia blossom herself, said it was because she was as pretty as the pink flowers on the dogwood.
“He sees your mama in you. You’re his only baby girl.”
By this time Coraline knew about her other sisters. Emily had died of fever before she turned four, and Margaret hadn’t lived long at all.
“They was both sickly youngins right from the start,” said Granny Mag, tying some fox fur to a charm bag. “That’s the way it is sometimes, child. I seen it over and over.” She reached out and tousled Coraline’s hair. “Not you though. We always knowed you was special, that you was a special girl.”
Granny Mag smiled when she said things like that, the kind of smile that burrowed deep into Coraline’s eyes until she could feel it digging in her heart.
Coraline didn’t feel very girly. With two older brothers, she’d grown up from the dirt like a little tree, poking her branches into just about anything. Granny Mag was always yelling at her to get her hands off something, especially toads.
“Coraline,” said Granny one day, in the high pitch that meant she was tired of repeating herself, “you best quit handling those toads. Heaven help ye if you ever got aholda the desolation toad, then you’d have some trouble!”
“The word’s des-o-la-tion, girl.”
“What’s a des-olation toad?”
“Never you mind,” said Granny Mag. “That’s for granny women to know, not little girls.”
“Is it pretty like that one?”
“Only you, Coraline, could find a toad pretty. No, now you just stop handling toads once and for all.”
“But nothing, Coraline. You’re six years old. You mind your Granny.”
Even Papa obeyed Granny Mag when she said to mind.
Desolation. It sounded like a preacher word. Coraline mulled it over, turned it in the soil to see if anything would grow from it. But nothing did.
For a few weeks in the sudden spring of Coraline’s eighth year, a spectral scream echoed through the dark, across Spenser Mountain. The boys all strutted with excitement. The fathers paced in vigilance, their eyes seeking the hand of fate. Papa’s traps went untended, and he carried his rifle with him everywhere. Several hunting parties ventured into the hills, but the cat was a ghost, crying, untouchable, always from the other side.
Danger, though, could no more stop Granny Mag than a stiff breeze, and when word came that Jenny Smith was in the throes of childbirth, she readied herself for the walk down the mountain.
“Coraline, your Papa and brothers will be back soon. You are not to move from this cabin, you hear?”
Inside, she played with the rag doll Granny had made, but eventually Coraline could hold it no longer. She had to use the privy. Peeking side to side, she made her way out the door, crossing the yard to the gray outhouse. She knew that the snake carved into the top of the door was Granny Mag’s doing, but she could never quite figure out why the old shack had a little chimney on top. When she finished, she hurried back to the weathered porch and lingered, looking across the open landscape in front of the cabin, fields of yellow, white, and green, pushing upward as if to catch the very mountains around it. She scanned the distance for some sight of her father and brothers coming home to free her from her imprisonment, but there was no movement in the meadow. All was still.
It occurred to her that she had been outside for a while and everything was normal. Everything felt safe, and soon she was playing in the dirt, snatching young beetles and watching their legs jig. Not long after, the old, wild grapevine just inside the wood line seemed safe enough too. She crossed into the cool world of bark and leaf.
Coraline refused to swing out from the flat rock like William and Nathan did. It was too high for her, but since she wanted the biggest swing possible, she ran straight toward the hanging vine at full speed. She leaped for it and grabbed hold, her feet flying out in front of her even before the bark under her hands slipped, and her head snapped downward, bouncing off of the leaf mold on the forest floor with a soft thud. She felt the jolt, her head hummed like a bee then turned to the roar of a train, coming on fast.
She woke to the sight of branches and blue sky, the sound of spring birds, and her brothers’ voices, coming closer, calling her name.
Propping herself on one elbow, she looked around. A movement from a few feet above pulled her attention to the flat rock, and there lay the cat. Tawny perfection, beautiful Death, gazed down upon Coraline.
This would be the first face permanently etched in her memory in mere seconds. The seemingly random white marks around its eyes, the black around its mouth, the wide nose that Coraline could have laid her hand on and never touched either of the silver-green eyes that peered through her now like she thought only Granny Mag could do. The mountain lion’s back legs were haunched, ready for action, but the upper half of its body was sprawled across the rock, right leg hanging loose over the side. And its expression. Later in life, she would only be able to call it bemused.
The bull rope of a tail twitched and swished, cutting the air. Muscles rippled under loose flesh as it patted its massive paw against the side of the rock, bobbing its head toward her, like it was telling her to do something. Of course, she could do nothing. She hadn’t moved a muscle, paralyzed on one elbow, becoming more and more aware of her brothers getting closer, unable to shout a warning.
The cat rose with a languid motion. It looked once more at Coraline and padded away with a softer step than should be expected of a hundred-twenty pound creature. Her brothers crashed through the forest line as it passed out of sight.
Her oldest brother, Will, screamed, “It’s the cat!” and ran back to the house to grab the rifles. He and Nathan pursued it into the hills. Later, Granny Mag pursued him with a switch. She was none too happy that the boys hunted the animal that had spared her granddaughter’s life. “Don’t you know a spirit blessing by now?” she hollered, as Will dodged behind the rocking chair. “Ain’t you never listened to nothin I said?”
Cornered, William produced a claw they’d found embedded in a tree the cat had scratched. Granny Mag took it and spared him the switch.
“But I was gonna keep that as a good luck charm!” William cried. Granny Mag gave him her coldest stare and there was no arguing with that. His luck, though, had indeed run out. Papa had a thing or two to say to him about chasing the animal without seeing to his little sister first. Those lessons were imparted between lashes of the belt. When he finished, he called for Coraline.
“You know how lucky you are,” said Papa.
Coraline nodded, looking at the floor.
“I’m going to guess that the scare learned ya more than my belt ever could.”
“Not a person on this mountain would ever disobey your granny. She’s a wise woman. She don’t say things just to say ’em. You remember that.”
“I know, Papa. I’m sorry.”
That night she woke to find the mountain lion in her bed, bobbing its head and pawing at her with its massive clawed foot as if prodding her to action. She was not afraid, and when the cat stood, she followed it, though she wasn’t sure, once outside, how she got there. The cat led her up the dirt road toward the cabin where Granny Mag had lived before moving in with them. It jumped onto the front porch and sprawled there. As she approached, it purred. She reached out for it and then found herself back in her bed. Later she told Granny Mag about the dream and got one of those looks.
Granny Mag didn’t say anything to her for three days, but on the second day she approached Coraline and, without a word, slipped a knotted necklace over her head. Dangling from the leather, the cat’s claw rested on her chest. From that day forward, she was Granny Mag’s apprentice.
Over the next years, as word of Coraline’s dreams spread across Spenser Mountain, it became common knowledge that she had received her gift of the Sight from the catamount. Later in life, Granny Cora sometimes wondered if it was the bump on the head that brought about that particular gift, and the cat was just amused to see it happen.
Coraline presided over her first birth by the age of sixteen, long before she was to have any children of her own. She learned to make tinctures of mullein for Della Harper’s asthma, and infusions of licorice, coltsfoot, and marshmallow root for when the cough would spread across the mountain. She learned to recognize all the herbs and mushrooms before Granny Mag ever started teaching her the charm-making.
In the winter of her twentieth year, Papa slipped on a loose stone while checking traps and tumbled into a steep ravine. Coraline and her brothers laid him to rest beside their mother.
At twenty-two, nature would wait no more and presented her with a tall, bright-eyed young man named James Milton. She met him when he came to ask for medicine for his ailing father. The air between them burned hot from the beginning, but Coraline was slow to reciprocate his feelings.
“A granny woman ain’t no nun,” said Granny Mag, and that was that. Coraline was soon married, and within a few years gave birth to two boys, Jacob and Daniel. She and James shared the duties of the house, farm and domestic, and as long as she had an infant, Granny Mag let her tend to her own family. Over time, though, Granny Mag watched the boys more and more, while Cora took the walk to deliver the medicine, the charm, or the baby. Jacob was seven when Granny Mag took ill for the last time.
At thirty years old, Coraline knew everything Granny Mag had to teach her, except for the one thing she’d always meant to ask. Granny Mag’s eyes opened wide before she told her the last, dark truth.
Some fifty years after her encounter with the catamount and five years after her beloved James was killed by a life of hard work, Granny Cora knew every inch of the mountain. She knew the secret hollow where the ginseng grew like dandelions, the spot at the top of the mountain where the wind wouldn’t blow, and every spring and stream as if it were her own heart or an artery in her body that flowed outside of her. She lived in deep awareness of the life around her, filled with signs and portents and responsibility.
Now that her grandchildren were coming of age, she moved to the cabin where Granny Mag had spent her last fifteen years. From there she intended to give herself completely to the mountain and its residents for whatever time she had left.
With her face shrinking like a dried sponge and knees aching like a broken heart, she set out every morning with her walking stick to gather supplies or call on patients. During her life she had seen many children into the world, including her own grandchildren, but none of them seemed to have the Sight, no dreamers or truth-speakers among them by all appearances, and she was starting to fear that she might be the last granny woman on Spenser Mountain. While she clung to some hope for Jacob’s youngest daughter, Amelia, there had been no indication of anything unusual and the girl was near fourteen. Still, she kept looking for the signs, and taught the girl much of the traditional medicine.
Her eldest, Jacob, hadn’t been pleased about her move to the cabin.
“I don’t like you being all the way up there by yourself, Ma.”
“Quit your worrying Jacob, I’m fine.”
“Takes me a half hour to get up there on foot. You shouldn’t be so far.”
“So ride your mule then. It’s easier to make my rounds from up there. I’ll hear no more of it.”
He had no choice. Cora was the highest authority on the mountain.
“Ma,” he said once, “even old Daniel Webster couldn’t win an argument with you. I bet Grover Cleveland couldn’t get his way if your mind was set agin it.”
Family sometimes pulled her from her center. It had always been that way. Living in Granny Mag’s old place, Cora resonated completely with the life around her. The sounds of the mountain were a constant language that she heard more easily when centered in the quiet. Here she was sharpest and most aware.
So, when the summer storm split the night, she sat breathless and wide-eyed, listening as the curtain ripped from in front of the other world.
The lightning strike reverberated through the very stone of the mountain. Though it was some distance away, it shook the cabin. There was little doubt in Cora’s mind. Something bad would come of it. Always did when the door opened between worlds. She set out just after dawn to find the spot, sliding, forced to catch her balance in many places. Yesterday, the mountain had shown her a disturbing portent, a turtle gutted by a hawk, its empty shell falling from the trees and rocking back and forth on the path in front of her. And now lightning, the crack between the worlds. Cora was taking no chances. She brought her charms.
She found the spot within an hour, just above the hollow where her family lived below. The lightning had ripped a black birch in half. The tree was completely burnt, as was a circle some thirty feet wide around it. And there, at the base of the chunk of charcoal which used to be a beautiful birch, something sat.
It was unmistakably a toad, but freakishly large, nearly eight inches long and six inches wide and therefore slow to register on Cora’s mind. Further complicating her comprehension of the creature was the fact that it was predominantly black, with dark brown highlights along its lumpy skin. The colors blended into the burnt, black, and muddy space around it.
In that moment, she knew what it was.
“Only us grannies know about the desolation toad,” Granny Mag had said on her deathbed. Cora hadn’t been able to tell which was causing her more pain, the dying or the telling. “Just hope you never see one, child. It’s said the gaze of the toad brings ruin onto you and yourn. I mean total ruin, y’hear? I heard it told Jamestown fell to the gaze of the toad.”
Granny Mag looked away.
“Oh! I wish you hadn’t asked about that, wish you didn’t remember that at all. It’s a bad omen Coraline, a bad omen.”
“Is there nothing to be done for it?”
“Nothing,” said Granny Mag, appearing to drift away on a pool of sorrow. “I met a granny woman once passing through here who warned me it was near. She survived seeing the thing but couldn’t do nothing to stop the tragedy that followed. That was just before the cholera hit up north. I forget how many years back. She was heading to North Carolina, hoping the rest of her family wouldn’t be dead when she got there.”
“I remember hearing about the cholera, Granny. Little more’n six years ago, I reckon.”
“Well Coraline, you never heard about nothing past the outbreak. Never heard about how it wiped out two entire families, entire bloodlines. The ones not taken by disease or the Brothers War died in all manner. She told me. Pray the spirits you never see one girl.” Cora promised she would.
But now, here was the toad. On her mountain! So close to her own kin! Granny Cora clutched the lion claw that rested on her chest.
Something had to be done. This could not happen. It would not, if she could help it. Despair covered her up like carnivorous ivy. For a moment she considered killing the thing, picking up the largest rock she could find and smashing it beyond recognition. Immediately, though, she remembered Granny Mag chasing William with a switch for not respecting the magic.
It sat motionless, staring at her with its haughty, disapproving frown, its brown eye sockets bugging out of its black head, a blinking, winking freak of oblivion.
“You have to take the bad with the good,” Granny Mag would have said. Even with this knowledge, Cora could not let it roam free, so close to gazing on her family. She pulled the burlap sack from where she kept it tied to her walking stick and approached the creature. The toad did not attempt to escape as she shoved it in the sack with trembling hands. Her charms would have to protect her. She would hide it away, where it couldn’t gaze on anyone, and ask the spirits what to do.
At home, Cora found an apple crate, put the desolation toad inside, and covered it with heavy boards and stones. She surrounded the box with every talisman and bit of mountain magic she possessed, praying and chanting all through the day and night for the assistance of the spirits.
Near dawn, she saw Granny Mag in her mind, as she often did when she prayed.
“It is more powerful than you Coraline, more powerful than the mountain, the earth. You must respect the toad’s purpose. You must let go.”
“Is there nothing to do? Nothing?” Cora was pleading.
“Might as well try to strike the moon from the sky, girl. The thing must serve its purpose. If you would hope to change its course, then stand in a willow circle, say the words, and beg the toad for mercy. But I’ll warn you that mercy is not the toad’s disposition. It is not the creature’s nature to leave until its work is done, no matter how long it takes.”
Cora had to try. She had no choice. Her duty was to her family and all the families on and around Spenser Mountain, to all those babies she brought into the world.
The willow she kept for medicinal purposes wouldn’t do. It would require a trip down the mountain to find the long flexible shoots she would need to fashion a proper circle. She was exhausted, but set out immediately, dragging her old frame down to the closest willow she knew, and then back up the mountain, loaded with a burlap sack full of long, young willow shoots.
As she cleared the last crest and passed into view of the cabin, pain pinched her chest. Jacob stood there, working on the old out-building that once housed the wood pile. She panicked, but had no breath to yell at him. Jacob saw her and waved.
“Howdy, Ma,” he called out. He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the mule behind him. “I brought ol’ Jerry up here for ya. Thought I’d turn this into a little stable over here.”
Maybe it’s alright, she thought. Maybe he didn’t see.
“Jacob,” she finally caught her breath to say. “I don’t need a mule.”
“Aw, Ma, Jerry’s a good mule. He done his part. He needs a break. Carrying you up and down and around this mountain won’t be a thing to him. It’ll be the good life.”
“Jacob—” she started.
“I won’t hear any more of it, Ma! Honestly! If you want to stay up here, then you take ol’ Jerry, here. That’s it! Granny or not!”
“Alright, build yer stable, but stay out of the house! I got granny goings on in there.”
“You know I don’t pry, Ma,” he paused. “But I poked my head in there looking for ya and I hafta ask, where in blazes did you ever find a toad that big? That’s a prize-winner there, for sure!”
She dropped her bag, ran for the rickety wooden step to the porch and through the ill-fit door. The apple crate sat undisturbed, covered by the heavy stones and boards. The toad squatted atop the crate, partially covering one of her pitiful charms.
It was already too late.
Oddly, Jacob was not the first to die. Her grand-nephew, Lucas, drowned that very afternoon in the river, high and powerful from the rain the night before.
Cora didn’t know this when she wove her willow circle, stood in it, and said the words, when she begged the toad for mercy with all her humility and an honest account of the good people of Spenser Mountain. The toad, placed in the circle before her, did not move, did not attempt to escape. It gazed. At what, she could not tell.
Two days later, Jacob was killed when a winch chain snapped at the mill in Dogleg Bend. Over the next several months, misfortunes fell one after another, a devastating fire, a suicide, a wagon accident, sickness, even a drunken murder. Eventually, Calvin and Amelia, her grandchildren, were her only last living relatives. She had sent them closer to town, to stay with a young family she had helped in the past. She didn’t want to risk them seeing the toad, who for all this time sat in her cabin, atop the apple crate, surrounded by impotent charms. Magic could not stop desolation.
After each funeral, she returned to the cabin and asked if it was enough now, but the toad only persisted in its implacable frown. Granny Mag had said there was no fighting it and Cora knew, at her core, that magical beings must be respected. She believed it until the day they buried her grandson.
It rained. And the preacher, a young firebrand, new to the area, said, “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.” He looked at Cora. “Only through the heart of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will we be saved.”
Only her beloved Amelia remained.
It sat still as death on the crate when she returned to the cabin. The thought of the family’s utter extinction, the thought of Amelia dying next, fueled her simmering rage as she turned on the toad. “I paid you your respect! But now I’m beginning not to respect you so much!” Her eyes burned almost as hotly as her cheeks. “Oblivion is easy you cursed toad! It’s the living that’s hard!”
The toad winked at her.
She shrieked and grabbed her father’s old hunting rifle which leaned against the wall. “Well, if you love desolation so much!” She shot it between its bulging eyes, splattering otherworldly toad all over the walls and ceiling of the cabin, then dropped to her knees and apologized to Jesus.
Granny Cora died after a series of three heart attacks that began a week later.
During the first, her Sight opened to a vision of her granddaughter, with the mountain lion looking over her from the flat rock of her youth. She believed now that the girl would survive.
The vision moved on in the way of dreams, fogging, shifting, lurching, and she saw Amelia, now grown with a husband and three children, living on the mountain, taking care of the family land. Amelia wasn’t a granny woman, but Cora saw her, in the vision, occasionally walking up the mountain path to her granny’s cabin, smiling bittersweet as she remembered the past.
She awoke on her back, on the cabin floor, at peace. She could die now, she thought, sacrifice herself and pay the toad’s final price.
The second heart attack occurred two days later, harder and more sudden than the first. It began in darkness, until a pinprick of light began to grow, stretching out in front of her. She looked upon a field, or at least what used to be a field, in the old world somewhere, she thought. Now it was burnt and blighted. Huge scars were dug across the landscape and tangles of sharp metal thorns decorated the scars. A cloud of yellow wind swept across the landscape like the sulfurous fumes of hell. She saw a boy on his knees, propping himself on a bulky rifle, choking to death in that poisonous air and, in that instant, knew it was her great grandson under that metal hat. He was the last, taken in some future war. The bloodline was dead. Cora awoke wishing she was. The left side of her body would not move but she managed to drag herself to Granny Mag’s old rocker and pull herself into it.
She had not moved when the third, and final, heart attack struck a few hours later.
The Sight opened to her once more and she was helpless to refuse it. Again, the vision thrust her into a blasted, pitted land, with huge scars and clouds of death floating through the air. As her vision pulled her back and away from the land, she saw great, nightmarish, metal beasts eating and vomiting the earth and, for as far as she could see in that direction, all was devastation. It looked like the end of the world and the horror of understanding soon dawned upon her.
This plateau of ruin was all that was left of Spenser Mountain, her mountain. They were all gone, the mountain spirits, the animals, the streams, the trees, all life’s creation, swallowed into some dark hole. Everything she loved, gone.
Then her vision flew her up and away from the rutted destruction on her way to the other world, and below her she saw a tiny speck in the middle of the ruin that seemed more densely black with a gravity all its own. Even from high up here, she knew what it was. Because only a granny can truly understand desolation.
After a twenty year hiatus, C.M. Chapman returned to writing fiction in 2012. His first publication was in the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He also published in Cheat River Review and Dark Mountain in the U.K. He is currently developing a chapbook with Latham House Press and is a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award in Fiction. His piece, “The Desolation Toad,” is part of the thesis collection he produced in the MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he is graduating in August and has accepted a teaching fellowship.