The Toad and the Bird by Paul Shepard

The toad was a hideous lump, like an overgrown insect—truly monstrous in his infinite ugliness. He made hideous sounds too, with his lipless ungodly mouth. His voice sounded like farts.

In Spring, when all the animals are filled with love, the toad spied a gorgeous, gorgeous songbird. Even high up in the tree he could see how much more beautiful she was than all the rest. And he couldn’t classify her as this or that species—each of her distinct feathers appeared to him a separate, magnificent color. She was, in short, as beautiful as he was loathsome. Enraptured, he moved his flat purple tongue, belching to himself with his fart-voice: “Oh highest heaven! I’ve never seen a lovelier creature! If only such a beautiful bird could learn to love me!”

Love is supremely ambitious. And the toad, trembling with hot nerves, dragged his toad-gold out of the muck and carried it to the tree’s root. In putrid croaks, he cried up to her: “Beautiful bird! Look at all my toad-gold piled high! Look down at my bottle-caps and sewer pennies, my aluminum shards and gleaming buttons, my pretty stones, look down! Such treasure could never approach the worth of your loving me, but is it not a fine token of how I pine for you, how I suffer without you?”  

His beloved looked down to the ground and saw. With keen avian sight, she perceived every warty imperfection on his wrinkled body and each distinct blink of his thick eyelids. She likewise saw in full detail his precious toad-gold—neither of which mattered to her. For his voice, wretched to all other ears, was to her a brilliant music. So unlike the arrogance of the male birds who’d courted her (all of whom she despised). The songbird, too, was immediately smitten. At the top of her tiny lungs, she called out to him “Oh, your told-gold is very pretty but means nothing to me—all I desire is your love; that we may love one another forever!”

But her words were unheard. The other birds and their friends (the hateful and unstable squirrels) were so repulsed by the toad that they fell to shrill, cacophonous chirping and chattering. They held the songbird to keep her from flight, and the squirrels drove the toad away with a hail of acorns, shrieking their maddening laughter.  

Love is most ambitious and unrequited love is awfully desperate. Oily tears on his mug, the toad waddled pathetically through the thicket, hating his ugliness and raging at wicked, arbitrary Nature. In time, he came upon a damp, dead dove. He donned its skin, blood slick on his hide, leaving the beak open a little so he could see without (he prayed) being seen.  

The ambition and desperation of such love is unequaled. It can yield nigh supernatural things. This is the only explanation I can give you for how it was that the toad, grasping at warped bark, managed to clamber up to the highest branches of the tree. He did this at night, and very quietly, so he went unnoticed until morning by all the birds and squirrels. He was unused to such height, and didn’t dare to sleep. When dawn came, and the birds began their chorus, he kept his wide, rubbery maw locked tight—for his farty voice would surely betray his identity. To his anxious and joyful surprise, his darling fluttered to a spot right next to him, and began to sing! The toad was so moved by her aria that he nearly fell from his spot on the branch.

Then she turned to him, and with a voice like young laughter and Christmas bells mingling, inquired of him: “Friend dove, why do you not sing with us?”


The toad was horrified and silent. His little grey smudge of heart quickened its beating. Can you envision his anxiety when the bird continued—“Why do you not respond, friend dove? What has become of your beautiful voice?” What was the poor toad to say? He began to tremble, and gripped the branch with all his might, to keep from falling out of the tree. The gorgeous bird leaned very close to him, and the toad nearly fainted when he saw the shock of recognition—she perceived, through the gap of the dove’s dead beak, two heavy-lidded black eyes—eyes that could only belong to a toad.  

The bird’s apparent shock turned into undeniable joy. She spoke, her voice sweeter than the juiciest of delectable water-bugs: “Oh, my darling, how can it be you’re finally by my side?…” and told him about how she’d wanted to respond to him, the day before, but was stopped by her neighbors. The toad’s heart exploded with joy and tears of love filled his dull eyes—unable to contain himself in his elation, he let out a dooming gasp—“Oh, beautiful bird! I’ve never before in my life been so happy!”  

But of course it was a grating croak like a fart, straightway alerting all others to his true identity.

And they were immediately upon the toad, beating their wings and cawing. The squirrels snickered as loudly as ever, pelting him with acorns. They pecked his dove skin to shreds as he clung to the tree-branch, struggling to maintain his perch. His beloved began wailing. Her heartbroken chirps inextinguishable, she clung to him throughout the storm of violence, wrapping him in her rainbow wings. She remained so, cleaving to her toad, even as he finally lost balance and plummeted.   

As they fell, the toad embraced his bird with extreme gentleness—he did not want to hinder her flight to safety. But she held him with a desperate force. The last thought in his warty head being this: that he was not pulling her down but that she herself chose to share his fate—we can imagine that he died very pleased.      




Paul Shepard is a language-artist from the Syracuse, N.Y. area.  He is a graduate of Bard College and is chairman of KBL ( where he works tirelessly to promote his artwork, lifestyle and ideology.  He is "kbliterature" on Twitter and Paul Adams Shepard on Facebook.