The well on the ranch was five foot deep. The water was clear and cold. The afternoon summer sun had been very hot on the girl’s back and she knew her skin would burn red soon. She had been helping her mother hang the clothes to dry on the line and decided to wander off and follow an old toad to the well.
The old toad watched the girl and didn’t know what he could do as she dove right in. His children had grown and his wife had died suddenly from heat stroke. The old toad knew the stones that lined the well were mossy and slippery. And he was scared for the girl. How could she ever climb out? He hoped the girl’s mother would find her daughter before evening. But what if she didn’t?
The girl heard her mother calling. She was hesitant to call back for she loved splashing and bobbing in the refreshing snow freezing water. The old toad figured out what he should do. He bounded over to the kitchen door and sat on the front steps and croaked and croaked. He would not stop croaking until the mother laid down her wooden spoon. She had been making cold potato soup for dinner and had turned the oven knob on low so only a small blue flame crowned the base of the pot.
“What is it?” the mother said to the old toad. She had always thought toads were shy and not so beautiful, somewhat like the mother herself when she’d been a young girl. In fact she had a pet toad she would hide under her princess bed while she slept. Her parents never found out and so she was very fortunate. The pet toad knew it would slip out the window in the morning and eat all day in the pasture and then return to the cool floor under the young girl’s bed at night.
The mother remembered how the toad of her childhood was her only friend in first grade and second grade and third grade too. And then one spring day the toad never came to greet her from school and she knew it probably went to toad heaven wherever that was.
The old toad on the doorstep jumped down and through the wilting waste of a garden, and without a thought, the mother decided to follow. As she followed, she called out for her daughter but it seemed she was only swallowing her words. The mother dropped her wooden spoon as she hastened, but it didn’t matter. Her daughter was more important than any bowl of potato soup. The old toad continued to croak and croak. His voice sounded like the cranky muffler of the mother’s red tractor as it plowed through the fields of barley and wheat.
By this time the girl in the well starting swimming happily in circles. She told herself she was a wondrous mermaid. The girl imagined she had a golden tail covered with glittery stars. She imagined her hair was long and beautiful as the Spanish moss that draped the oak trees in fall, the oaks that she climbed with all kinds of woodland creatures more than anyone could ever imagine. How these same oaks embraced her throughout every season, embraced her fully like the arms of her mother.
The mother convinced herself that the old toad might be the grandson of her once pet toad. She convinced herself the animal had wisdom to share, that it might know about her lost daughter.
“Toad,” the mother said. “I trust you. I trust you more than any angel, any saint, and maybe I trust you more than God himself.”
A wind started up, an unusual summer dry wind, and the piles of brittle leaves began to swirl and sting like honey bees. The clothes began to flap wildly on the line and many linen dish towels hurried off their wooden pins. The towels swept over the mother’s eyes and blinded her. Could it still be 100 degrees out, she thought. And what about my daughter? She has fainted in the summer heat before. She has suffered from boils on her legs and shoulders. Her skin is milk-fair. Did the girl remember to slather the sun block on this morning? And still the mother called and called for her daughter. The musky-scented bruising wind took her words and hurled them down to the creek bed where the stream was full of wild trout that sometimes the mother and the girl fished for and sometimes the mother fried up their bellies for supper. Dust began to swirl too, dust that came up from the deer trails that led through the burrs and thistles. The mother stood rigid as a stag when it’s sighted by the hounds of a hunter. She knew the fear. She had that fear now, a fear for herself and her daughter. And her strong lungs hurt from the calling. It was then the toad jumped on the mother’s work-gnarled feet, jumped from her toes to the wide basin of her hand right after she had swiped the beads of sweat from her forehead. And then the hammering wind died down and the dust swirled no longer. Suddenly the mother had every faith the toad would lead her where she needed to go, to find her daughter. But her daughter was still spinning around and around. The girl felt her legs starting to weave together or was she only imagining it so. She felt her hair lengthen and pour magically down her shoulders. How did this all happen? Wasn’t she following some old toad? But maybe she wasn’t.
The girl thought it was much more pleasant in the well than at school where the children teased her for her big ears and her tiny hands. And the girl’s teacher never scolded any one of them. The girl often fell when she jumped rope, kept tripping over her shoes and blooding her knees. And she was chosen last every time for a game at recess. She told her mother and her mother said she understood, for the mother had only one friend to call her own when she had been a girl. But she never would tell who this confidante was.
The toad and the mother edged closer and closer to the well, but a rattlesnake blocked the way. The rattlesnake hissed and curled around itself like the rings of time found on a tree. An eagle had been watching from its high perch in the oak, the same oak the girl had climbed, the same oak with limbs that had encircled the girl like her mother at night. The eagle flew down and extended its awful claws and snatched up the hissing snake and sailed with it through the heavens and behind the moon until no one could see it, not the mother or the toad or any woodland creature.
The toad had hopped over the rattlesnake and shimmied up to the lip of the well and watched the girl spinning like the Milky Way itself. Her eyes were shut as if she were sleeping.. The mother called for her daughter, but by now her language was almost foolish and tinny. She peered down the well, but was that her daughter? The girl’s thick hair had grown down to her ankles, and shimmered gold as the nuggets the miners panned for in the creek in back of the house. Her daughter’s legs had weaved into one long spectacular tail for she had turned into a mermaid. How could this be, the mother thought. The girl looked up and saw the feed pail by the well, and the rope attached it. The mother lowered the pail with the rope and called for her daughter to bail out the water. The toad tried to jump into the pail but the pail kept dumping him out.
The girl opened her eyes and saw her mother calling for her, but the girl remained in the clear water, making a delicate imprint like a fingerprint-whorl. As she spun, she became more and more radiant. The mother saw the mermaid girl smile. The toad jumped away back to the pasture. He knew his work was done when hearing the mother laughing in the distance, a joyful laugh. The mother knew her daughter believed in mermaids for how many times had they gone to the ocean and her daughter had seen them and told her so.
“Oh mother,” the girl in the well said, “ someday I will slip out of here and walk on land and come in for supper. But for now I have never been so happy.”
Leonore Wilson teaches creative writing in Napa Valley. Her work has been published in such places as Iowa Review, Third Coast, TOUGH, Quarterly West, MAGMA, Laurel Review, etc. Recently her family home and ranch burned to the ground in the LNU wildfire of Northern California
Artwork: Anna Dittmann, Molt