A retelling of the fairy tale Diamonds and Toads by Charles Perrault
By Mary Lamphere
Once upon a time, just across the tracks, there lived a woman and her three children. The eldest daughter, fourteen year old Lilly, resembled her father, making her a constant reminder of the “betraying detestable asshat”. The middle child, Amber, twelve, was the spitting image of the mother and therefore favored. The baby, two year old Michael, was the unlucky boy.
“Lilly, I need you to go ‘shopping’.”
“Want me to bring Michael?”
Tucking her cigarette butt into an empty whiskey bottle, the mother exhaled a stream of smoke. “Naw. Be easier to filch if you’ve got both hands free. Plus,” she added with a smirk, “I know you’ll come back if I keep ‘im.”
Lilly slipped the strap of her worn satchel over her shoulder. She dreaded scavenging from the dumpsters behind the stores, but refused to outright steal like her momma wanted. She walked through the ‘hood to the park on her way to town. She stopped at a fountain, withdrew her plastic bottle from the bag and filled it. Continuing on, she heard a retching cough. On the ground beside a bench, Lilly found a hunched body.
“You okay?” Lilly asked, helping the old woman up. The coughing persisted. Lilly retrieved her water bottle and unscrewed the cap. “Drink.”
The old woman clutched the bottle, lifted it to her mouth, and drained it. Sated, she said, “Thank you.”
“I’ll get more.” Lilly jogged around the bend, refilled the bottle, then returned. “You can keep it.”
“That’s very generous of you.”
Lilly shrugged. “Unfortunately, it’s the least I can do.”
“I wish I could do more.”
The old woman reached out a gnarled hand and gently stroked Lilly’s skin from the hollow of her neck up to her chin. “Kind words are good to hear, from your mouth to my ears,” she said.
“Excuse m—” Lilly began. Gagging, she spit into her hands. “What the—” Again, more tumbled forth. She stared at the pile collecting in her palms. Jewels! Many sizes, many colors, all glinting in the arc of the street lamp. Carefully, she tilted them into her bag. She held the sack up and spoke again. “Are they…” the gems clicked against each other as they dropped to the bottom, “real?” She caught another rainbow stream.
“They’re as genuine as your kindness.”
Lilly rose and took a few steps. The satchel heavy in her arms, she turned. The old woman was gone. Lilly called after her, “Thank you.” The words emerged jewel free.
Had that really happened? She swallowed hard then peeked into the sack to see the glimmering emeralds, diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.
She ran through the park, through the declining neighborhood, across the tracks, and finally hopped up the three wooden steps to the trailer where her family resided. She couldn’t wait to share the news. She bound over the threshold and stopped dead, mood abated.
The mother lay sprawled across the living room sofa, passed out. Michael sat beside her. Eyes wet, face red and puffy, the fading handprint on his chubby cheek still discernable.
Lilly gently removed him and put him to bed beside her. When she awakened the following morning, she knew the old woman in the park must have been a dream. But no, there in the bag were hundreds of stones. Hundreds! Even if each gem were only worth one dollar—which she knew they were not—they’d still have hundreds of dollars. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt this good.
“Momma,” she called from the kitchen as she sliced a browning banana for Michael.
“Shhh,” the mother said, stumbling to the counter.
Lilly handed her a cup of water.
The mother chugged it down.
“Gimme some bread.”
Lilly offered a prepared plate with several pieces of buttered toast.
Lilly nudged the clearly visible container closer.
“What is it?” the mother demanded. “I can feel your eyes on me like a bird on road kill.”
Lilly cleared her throat. “I, um, I have—”
“Spit it out.”
“I have something to show you. I think you’re go—”
“You get some good stuff last night? Five finger discount at the old Pick’n’Save?” She waggled her fingertips, gritty with sugar.
“No. But…better!” Lilly passed the satchel.
The mother peered inside. She looked at Lilly. Then back in the bag. She lifted it. Felt the heft. Dumped the contents onto the counter. They rattled and spun on the chipped vinyl. The mother fondled the gems. She cupped them, sniffed them, and touched the tip of her tongue to them. “These real?”
“Who’d you rob?” Amber asked, entering the kitchen.
“These are real?” the mother asked again.
“Uh-huh. I’m pretty sure. Yes.”
“Pretty sure. Yes,” Amber mocked, her head bobbing.
The mother began separating the stones by color. Amber joined her, organizing each color by size.
“How do we get more?”
“But…” Lilly stammered. “There’s plenty!”
“Plenty is never enough,” the mother said. “Now, tell me, where’d they come from?”
Lilly told them about the sick old woman. She told them about offering water. About the woman stroking her neck. And about the jewels filling her mouth.
“An old woman in the park?”
“I want to meet her, momma!” Amber said.
“Of course you do. You can go tonight.”
“But—” Lilly sputtered.
“But nothing. I’m gonna take these to the pawn shop, trade ‘em for cash.” The mother paused, gaze cutting straight through Lilly. “Tell the truth, are they stolen?”
Lilly balked. “Of course not!”
That evening the mother handed Amber the satchel. She added a water bottle. She gave her a hug and sent her on her way.
Amber took shortcuts. She crossed lawns and hopped fences and knocked over garbage cans. She slowed when she reached the park, eyes peeled for the old woman. She was about to give up, mentally calling her half-sister every name she could conjure, when she heard a ratcheting cough. She headed toward the sickly sound and found the old woman on the bench, bent and hacking. Amber wanted to keep walking. Lilly hadn’t mentioned how dirty and smelly the old woman was. She approached and held out the bottle of water. “Here.” The old woman peered up. “Take it.” The old woman wheezed. “C’mon,” Amber said irritably. The old woman patted the wooden seat with an arthritic hand. Amber looked at the empty space on the bench beside the filthy hag.
“Sit,” the old woman urged between fits. Amber sat. She set the water bottle between them. The old woman lifted the bottle and fought with the cap. After a few agonizing minutes, Amber snatched the bottle, twisted the cap easily, then slammed it down on the bench. “Thank you,” the old woman said after taking a deep sip.
“Ha! Was the least I could do.”
Amber scoffed. “Well, I could hardly do less, right? So, where’s my prize?”
The old woman’s gaze softened. “Ah,” she murmured.
Amber scooted closer. She lifted her head, exposing her neck. “Come on, I haven’t got all night.”
The old woman stroked Amber’s neck and mumbled, “Cruel words are hard to hear, from your mouth to my ears.”
“Is that all—” Amber belched wetly. “Oh my g—” A stream of mud, earthworms, and toads flowed from her parted lips. “What the,” she began and immediately regretted it. Amber screamed through gritted teeth and ran all the way home. Outside the trailer, Amber hid behind a broken fence, opened her mouth, and spoke. There was no landslide of earthy creatures. She leaned against the planks and groaned with relief before storming into the trailer to exclaim, “Lilly lied!”
“What?” the mother asked.
“Shhh,” Lilly whispered, a sleeping Michael in her arms. “Let me put him to bed.”
Both the mother and her younger twin stood in the kitchen, hands on hips, identical brows furrowed.
“Amber says you lied about the old woman.”
“You didn’t find her?”
“Oh, I found her. But the stinky old hag wasn’t magical.”
Lilly sunk into the recliner. “Maybe it was a onetime thing.”
“You’d better hope not,” scoffed the mother. “I gave the jewels to the fence and he took forty percent for an exchange fee. You’ll go back tomorrow, Lilly,” her mother stated. “And I’ll come with you. Amber can stay here with Michael.”
“But momma—” Amber whined.
“Can we at least go shopping? Buy some groceries?”
The next afternoon, Lilly and the mother took the beat-up old Buick to town. They went to the store and Lilly selected some fresh fruit and veg. She grabbed a couple cans of soup, crackers, bread, and jelly. She was giddy when her mother handed her a fifty dollar bill to pay. On impulse, she added a Gatorade and Luna bar to the purchase. For the old woman.
They walked to the park, the streetlamps coming to life with the setting of the sun.
“I love this place,” Lilly said.
“Where is she?”
“I wish we lived clos—”
“How much farther?”
“I’d bring Mich—”
“Don’t you ever shut-up?”
They continued in silence. At the sound of the cough, Lilly ran ahead, around the bend to the old woman on the bench. She uncapped the bottle and handed it over. The granola bar, too. “It’s so nice—” a splattering of jewels cascaded from between her lips. Lilly turned to meet the mother’s eyes. “Momma, this is—” More stones clattered to the ground.
The mother was on her knees scraping up the shiny prizes. “Keep talking!”
“Hello,” Lilly said, contributing to the mother’s haul. The old woman sipped her Gatorade and watched the mother curse the failing light as she swept her hands along the ground. With concerted effort, Lilly continued, “How can I—” She paused for a pouring of stones. “—thank you?” Another colorful gush. The mother frantically scrabbled to scoop them into a new Prada purse.
“Always be kind, my dear,” the old woman said, then disappeared.
She looked up. “Why aren’t…” The mother gazed around. “Where is she?”
Lilly shrugged. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“But the jewels!”
“You have plenty.”
Amber met them at the door. “Well?”
The mother raised the leather bag weighted with treasure. “Guess who’s rich?”
Carrying the grocery sacks into the kitchen, Lilly called, “Who wants soup?”
“Why’s she so special?” Amber pouted.
“She’s not,” the mother said. “You probably found a different old woman. Missed the crazy witch.”
“Don’t call her that!” Lilly exclaimed.
“Why not? That’s what she is. You think just anybody can turn words into diamonds and then disappear?” The mother considered for a moment. “I wonder why it only works when she’s around?”
“I won’t keep going,” Lilly said. “It’s someone else’s turn.”
“Amber, you and I will go to the park tomorrow,” the mother said.
The next evening, the mother and her favorite daughter wandered along the paved trail until they heard the cough. The eagerness in Amber’s step faltered the closer she got to the old woman.
“Here’s a drink for ya’.” The mother winked at the old woman then handed over the paper wrapped bottle. “Soothe that cough.” The old woman thanked her. “Can you enchant this daughter, too?”
“I believe I have.”
“You did? But—Amber, you said…”
“Momma, I—” Out tumbled wriggling spiders and iridescent beetles in a variety of sizes. The girl slapped her hands over her mouth.
The mother turned on the old woman. “What have you done?” A slight lift of a shoulder was all she got in response. The mother grabbed the old woman’s sweater. “Why?”
“Cruel words are hard to hear. From her mouth to my ears.”
The mother paused. A light flickered in her eyes. She released the old woman. “Very well,” she said. “Enjoy the whiskey.”
Sidestepping a splatter of sludge and squirming creatures, the mother said, “Zip it, Amber.”
“No jewels?” asked Lilly upon their return.
“Not tonight,” the mother said coolly. She patted Lilly on the shoulder, the most affection she’d ever shown her.
Fast forward to now, far, far from the tracks, Lilly sits inside a locked dog crate resting on thick white carpet in a grand living room. She begs and pleads, stones tumbling from between her forlorn lips.
Amber, a ball gag in her mouth, dutifully removes the tray from beneath the cage and collects the gems.
The mother holds a glowing cigarette tip near the thigh of the scared and squealing brother. Around her neck is a rope of twisted gold chains heavy with jeweled charms. And two shriveled witch ears.