Leopoldo Lugones (1874 – 1938) was an Argentine journalist and writer influenced by the Symbolists. “The Bloat Toad” (1906) is typical of his slightly off-kilter tales. This week, WFR.com is also running Larry Nolen’s essay on translating “The Bload Toad.” This new translation first appeared in ODD?, the first of an ongoing anthology series we’re editing. — Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
One day, playing in the villa where my family lived, I stumbled upon a little toad that, instead of fleeing like its more corpulent relatives, swelled up extraordinarily under my stoning. Toads horrified me and it was my pleasure to pelt as many as I could. Thus the small and obstinate reptile soon succumbed to the blows of my rocks.
Like all those raised in the semi-rural life of our provincial cities, I was knowledgeable of lizards and toads. Besides, the house was situated near an arroyo that crossed the city, which contributed to an increase of such creatures. I share these details so that it is well understood how surprised I was to note that the atrabilious toad was entirely unknown to me. Well, time to consult. And taking my victim with all precaution, I went to ask the old maid, confident of my first hunting enterprise. I was eight years old, she sixty. The event had, of course, interest for both of us. The good woman was, as was the custom, seated by the kitchen door, and I waited to see my story taken in with the accustomed benevolence. Scarcely had I begun when I saw her get up hurriedly and snatch the gutted, nasty creature from my hands.
“Thank God you didn’t leave it!” she exclaimed with signs of great happiness. “We’re going to burn it right away.”
“Burn it?” I asked, “But what’s it going to do, if it is already dead?”
“Don’t you know that it is an escuerzo,” my interlocutor replied in a mysterious tone, “and that this little animal revives if you don’t burn it? Who commanded you to kill it? That ought to be the end of your stonings! Now I’m going to tell you what happened to the son of my late friend Antonia, may she rest in peace.”
While she spoke, she had gathered and lit some wood chips, over which she placed the escuerzo’s cadaver.
“An escuerzo!” I said, terrified under my mischievous demeanor: an escuerzo! And I shook my fingers as if the toad’s coldness had clung to them. A revived toad! It would freeze the soul of a grown man.
“But do you think to tell us a new battle between frogs and mice?” interrupted Julia with the amiable, confident coquettishness of thirty years.
“Nothing like that, Señorita. It is a story which has happened.”
Julia smiled. “You cannot imagine how much I know…”
“You will be content, so much more when I intend to take revenge on you with your smile.”
While my fateful game was grilled, the old maid told her story, which is as follows:
Antonia, her friend, a soldier’s widow, lived with the only son she had with him, in a very poor little house, distant from every town. The youth worked for both of them, cutting wood in the neighboring forest, and so passed year after year, walking life’s journey. One day he returned, as was the custom, in the afternoon to take his mate, happy, healthy, vigorous, with his axe on his shoulder. And while he did this, he told his mother that on the root of a certain very old tree he had encountered an escuerzo, whose swelling up did not stop it from ending up as a tortilla under his axe’s eye.
The poor old woman was full of pain upon hearing this, begging him to please accompany her to the site, in order to burn the animal.
“You have to know,” she said, “that the escuerzo never pardons whoever offends it. If they don’t burn it, it revives, follows its killer and does not rest until it has done the same to him.”
The good youth laughed greatly at the tale, intending to convince the poor old woman that it was a good hoax for scaring bothersome boys, but beneath worrying a more mature person. She insisted, however, that he accompany her to burn the animal’s remains.
He joked with her, all references to how distant the site, over the injury that she could cause to herself, being already so old, in the calm of that November afternoon, but it was useless. At all costs she wanted to go and he had to decide to accompany her.
It was not so far, a mile and a half or so. They easily came upon the recently cut tree, but for all that they poked through the splinters and loose branches, the escuerzo’s cadaver did not appear.
“Did I not tell you?” she exclaimed, beginning to cry. “Already it has gone; now already it doesn’t have this recourse. My father San Antonio shelter you!
“But what foolishness, to afflict yourself so. The ants will have taken it or some hungry fox ate it. You have an odd view, crying for a toad! It’s best to return, as it is already dusk and the humidity of the pasture is damaging to you.”
They returned, then, to the little house, she crying always, he attempting to distract her with details of the cornfield which promised a good yield if the rains continued, until returning anew to the jokes and laughter in the presence of her sadness. It was almost night when they arrived. After a thorough check of every corner, which elicited a new round of laughter from the youth, they ate on the patio, silently, by the light of the moon, and he was disposed to spread out his saddle in order to sleep, when Antonia begged him ‚for that night at least, to consent to enclose himself in a wooden box which she possessed and to sleep there.
The protest against this petition was fierce. She was shocked, the old woman, he had no doubt. To whom did it occur to think of making him sleep in such heat inside a box which surely would be full of vermin!
But such were the supplications of the ancient woman, and as the youth loved her so, he decided to accede to this caprice. The box was big, and although a little drawn in, it would not be all that bad. With great care, the bed was set up in the back. He placed himself inside, and the sad widow took a seat beside the furniture, dedicated to passing the night in vigil in order to close it if there were the least sign of danger.
She calculated that it was midnight, as the very low moon began to light the room, when suddenly a little black shape, almost imperceptible, jumped over the lintel of the door which she had not closed due to the great heat. Antonia was shaken with anguish.
There it was, then, the vengeful animal, squatting on its hind legs, as if meditating a plan. What evil the youth had done in laughing! That little lugubrious figure, immobile on the moonlit door, was growing extraordinarily, taking on monstrous proportions. But what if it was not more than one of those familiar toads which enter the house each night in search of insects? For a moment she breathed easy, sustained by this idea. Then the escuerzo suddenly gave a little jump, then another, in the direction of the box. Its intention was clear. It was not pressured, as if it were certain of its prey. Antonia watched her son with an indescribable expression of horror: sleeping, lost to dream, breathing slowly.
Then, with an unquiet hand, without making any noise she let fall the cover. The animal was not deterred. It continued jumping. It was already at the foot of the box. It went around it deliberately, it stopped at one of the angles, and quickly, with an incredible leap for its small size, it planted itself on top of the cover.
Antonia did not dare to make the least movement. All of her life was concentrated in her eyes. The moon now bathed the entire room. And behold what followed: the toad began to swell up by degrees; it grew, it grew in a prodigious manner, until it tripled its size. It remained so for a minute, during which the poor woman felt all the anguish of death pass through her heart. Then, it shrank itself, shrinking until it recovered its primitive form; it leaped to the ground, went through the door and crossing the patio it finally lost itself among the grass.
Then Antonia dared to lift herself, trembling everywhere. With a violent gesture she opened wide the box. What she felt was so horrible that a few months later she died a victim of the fear that it produced.
A mortal cold left the open box, and the youth was frozen and rigid under a sad light in which the moon shrouded that sepulchral victim, made stone now under an inexplicable bath of frost.