Toad Purses Make Her Vomit
The smell of the toad purses made Gabriela cringe every time she walked past the wall where they hung from their straps. The craftsmen had tanned the hides of the toads Nando brought from the jungle and from the tanned hides made purses that—instead of dangling from the thongs thrust through their mouths and their anuses—sometimes with blood still on them—hung from braided straps with buckles on them and clustered on the wall like large brown raindrops.
But still the toad smell was so strong that when Gabriela dreamed, the toads grew to the size of horses chasing her through the jungle and across the creek. When she was alone in the shop, she felt the toad eyes—now nothing but hard little black beads—staring at her. Still, it was the smell that tortured her most.
The scent wasn’t like the smell of cowhide, which was clean, and it wasn’t the smell of a sheepskin, which was musky, it was the smell of something crawling out of the dark on four legs, the smell of a fearsome creeping animal, long of tooth and sharp of claw, the smell of the dead, the odor of dried blood, the reek of pus in a deep infected wound seeping its waste onto the floor.
At night in the shop, when Nando left her to go out drinking with his friends, Gabriela had the urge to take all the toad purses and burn them. But she didn’t want to touch them because when she did she ached for days. She imagined herself bleeding to death standing in the creek that ran through her village.
All summer the Norteñas—in their white shorts and low cut blouses—came into the shop to discover the fascinating toad purses. Right away they wanted them—Oh look! they always said, It’s a giant toad—and then Gabriela had to unhang the purses from their perches and wrap them in paper. If, by chance, she brushed against one of the skins as she worked the burning in her grew so intense she became sick and wanted to vomit. She always waited until the Norteñas, carrying their new toad toys and jabbering about what a surprise it would be for the girls back home, stepped out the door and then she—pain rising from her belly to her eyes until tears rolled down her cheeks—ran to the back of the shop where she vomited, always expecting to see a monster emerge from her mouth.
One Monday, there entered a tall thin Norteña with short hair, accompanied by a shorter and darker companion. Gabriela stood at the rack of toad purses waiting while the women spoke as though they were alone. Gabriela waited in her polite quietness until her Ellen Cole classroom English, like a flower blooming in her chest, sprang from her mouth and she said,
“They are made from toads trapped in the jungle.”
And joy of joys, she said the words right, just the way Ellen Cole had insisted—They. Djungul. Djungul—what a hard sound, but she’d said it.
The tall woman glanced at her, smiling as if a genie had just sprung from the glass of the counter top.
“Oh,” she said to her short friend, “she speaks English.”
“Jess,” Gabriela said but as she spoke, she cringed because she heard Ellen Cole’s voice hammering at her—No, Gabriela, not Jess. It’s a simple sound EEEE ssss, YESSS.
“How much cuanto in dollars US?” The tall woman said.
She handed one of the toad purses, big as a platter, over to Gabriela, who felt her skin shrivel when the toad eyes raked her eyes and she blushed. The heat of shame suffocated her and the short woman, laughing, said,
“Look, Mignonne, you’ve made her blush.”
The tall one named Mignonne said,
“Maybe she has been kissing toads, hoping one will turn into her prince.”
“In Oaxaca?” The short woman said.
And then Mignonne lifted a second purse from the wall and handed it to Gabriela who, short now of breath and burning with fever, sweated as her hands gripped the purse by its leather strap that smelled of death and blood. For a moment the Toad Headed Soldier sprang into her mind unbidden and, trembling, she leaned against the glass counter, feeling faint and gasping. Mignonne, touching Gabriela said,
“Are you all right?”
“No, she isn’t all right,” the short companion said. “she’s sick and you just better hope it’s not infectious or we’ll be here with Montezuma’s revenge for the next week.”
Gabriela bent over, gasping as if her lungs had burst, and Mignonne fanned her with the toad-skin and the skin brushed Gabriela’s cheek and she vomited.
“Shit,” Mignonne said.
Reeling back from the spewing of Gabriela’s belly, which included what was left of her lunch—a pork tamal with tomatillo sauce and a cup of posole—Mignonne looked down at Gabriela as if she were a monster oozing out of a thick green soup.
It was then that Nando entered from the storeroom carrying six toad purses.
Gabriela, on her knees, sweating, looked up at Nando, pleading, but she couldn’t speak. Nando ushered the two women away, leaving Gabriela wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand. Gabriela heard Mignonne say,
“That poor girl, she must have the flu.”
“Jess jess,” Nando said. “Enferma … seek. Very seek.”
Gabriela watched him at the cash register as he took their money and guided the two women, still talking, out of the shop.
And then he turned to Gabriela, hatred thick in his eyes.
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Genre – Women’s Fiction
Rating – PG
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