I went camping and the moon was full and when it reached in the sky to eleven o’clock I abandoned my fire and walked. The San Rafael River gargled like the sound of a thousand thrushes in the distance. The desert sand glistened.
I walked alone and smoked until I thought I saw a butterfly of the white, quarter-sized kind that hop from clover to clover in public parks and dandelion fields. And I thought, “No way. That can’t be a butterfly.” And I wondered why butterflies do not play in the dark. And then a flutter or hop again caught moonlight and captured my attention and my unconscious said, “It’s a toad.” And I shone a flashlight and looked and saw a toad.
I watched him under my light, watched his pupils dilate and constrict as I washed the beam back and forth. I watched his silvery skin expand and fall in a subtle breathing motion. Then I hesitated, and touched him. I don’t know why I call it him. He seemed to like it, my touch that is. In fact, if toads could purr I’m sure this one would’ve eked out a pleasant growl. I picked him up, fearing he would jump, and to my surprise and satisfaction he burrowed himself into the palm of my hand as though he’d discovered a pocket of warm mud. I felt tiny webbed feet knead against my wrinkled life-line. I wrapped my thumb over him, gently like, as though he were a sparrow, stroked him once behind the eyes, and together we walked under full moonlight. I felt the coolness of his skin, and I wondered what it must be like for an amphibian who has spent his life more or less belly down in the dirt and mud, traveling at a sloth’s pace, to now be four feet above terra firma, in the grips of a sweating creature, moving at the stroll of humankind, roughly three miles per hour. He had that same look on his face that I suspect I did when I took my first hot air balloon ride.
By the time we arrived back at camp, Mr. Toad was perched along my long sleeve about the elbow, peering into the dark, as if navigating from the mast of a ship. I imagined that he would be a forever companion, eat the ants in my camp the way a cat does mice. So I set him down near a swarming pile of burgundy thoraxes and wandered into the brush to piss. When I returned I looked down and saw no toad. I felt used, as though a one-night stand had just ran out the back door. The ants still swarmed. But then I noticed an unnatural mark in the soil, a deviation, so I shone my light and there I saw two black eyes embedded in nodes, protruding from the body of a thing nestled in the sand grains. “Ah. You’re right,” I said. “Bedtime.” I flicked the beam up and away before clicking it off, and briefly I glimpsed a pupil burst like a black firework, spread like spilled oil.