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When I first spoke in toads and snakes, I hated them and tried to kill them. They rendered me unfit for human company; I blamed them for everything.

But centuries passed, and I learned many things.

Above all, I learned to keep my own counsel.

Most of the people who knew me thought I could not speak. I worked in a library. When people asked me questions, I pointed.

I only let myself speak during my lunch break and at home. I took my sack lunch down to the riverfront park every day, so any amphibians I produced had somewhere safe to go.

On a day not so long ago, I sat on my favorite bench overlooking the river. The sky was pale blue with spring, and birds called in the quickening air. Light green flowers dangled from the branches of the maple trees. Paperwhites bloomed in shaded hollows.

I ate my yogurt and banana, then got out my list of unspoken words. I tried six. “Legume.” A small brown toad with golden eyes. “Dobro.” A spotted lizard with brown and white stripes across the back of its neck. “Protuberance.” A tan serpent with a black head. “Spavin.” A diamond-backed rattlesnake. “Upanishad.” A fire-red salamander with black spots. “Concupiscence.” A green-backed bullfrog.

The toad sat in my hand. The others raced, ran, or hopped away.

Sometimes I looked them up in books, but I usually couldn't identify them with certainty. A color would be different, size wrong, feature changed. Perhaps a function of magic.

I set my hand on the ground, and the toad, with one last long look into my eyes, hopped off.

And then a thing I dreaded happened for the first time in a long while.

With a rustle, a young man emerged from the bushes. (Later, I learned that he often observed wildlife from hiding.) He overflowed with questions, and became irate when I wouldn't answer.

He had seen me speak. He wanted me to do it again.

I packed my trash, glanced around to see that all my animals had disappeared, and walked away from him, not answering.

He saw my name tag, FANCHON BUFO, though, and from there derived my telephone number, and then he gave me no peace.

“How is it that each one is different?” the young man asked me.

Evening shut down the sky outside, and street lights drove back darkness. We sat at a table in a deserted coffee shop. My choice of meeting ground. Our reflections gradually displaced pieces of view where it was darkest outside. Steam rose from our coffee cups, possible prayers, doubled in the window's world.

After that one encounter, he had kept calling me and begging me to talk to him, and every “no” I gave him left me with another marine toad, the largest of all toads, and not so easy to care for, since it needs salt water. I had finally said “all right” (two small garter snakes), and picked a place to meet that wasn't home.

“It's a marvelous thing,” he said, peering through his glasses at me. His brown hair was shaved short on the sides and left long enough on top to flop forward and obscure his vision. Through the lenses of his glasses, his eyes looked pale and strange.

I shook my head. I sipped coffee. He wouldn't call it marvelous if he had lived with it for four centuries.

“But each word, a different species,” he said. “That it happens at all is amazing. That it happens with such variety is—is stupendous!” He reached across the table and touched my hand.

No one in all my life had looked at me with such longing and appreciation.

I am not by nature fair in any way. My countenance is, at best, pinched; my eyes are narrow, as are my lips; my form is thin and bony; my hair long, but not thick or wavy, a dull dark-brown color with no interesting words to describe it.

My best feature may be my hands, with their long, narrow fingers, or perhaps my long narrow feet and dexterous toes, though no one other than myself had seen my feet in an age.

Across the years I have done many things to change my appearance, sometimes wishing to render myself more attractive, sometimes less. I have cut my hair; grown it; dyed it; braided it; shaved half off and stiffened the other half with hair spray. Why not? I seem condemned to live forever; I may as well experiment.

I have had adventures as a result of some of these looks and my silence. The best I store, and the rest I forget.

I thought of my diamond-and-pearl-speaking sister, who married a prince. What a beauty she was. How could any man resist a woman who was beautiful and spat wealth with every word?

Did she ever know she was loved for her own self?

Did she even care?

Ah, well. That was her story.

Mine was different.

“Talk to me. Please,” the young man begged, stroking the back of my hand.

I shook my head. I stared at him across the Formica-topped table. I glanced down to where his soft, pale fingers touched the back of my hand, and wondered what I felt. Not attracted, not repulsed; but a little less weary, perhaps.

“Say something,” he whispered, “anything. Please.”

A car drifted by in the street outside, headlights glaring, then gone.

“Something,” I said. A small green treefrog plopped to the table top.

The young man caught his breath, held it behind his teeth.

“Riggit,” said the frog, looking here and there.

My water glass was filled with ice. No safe haven there. I put out a hand to the tiny creature and it hopped up onto my palm. We were too far from a stream; I wouldn't have picked this place to meet if I had suspected I would speak. Maybe I should only use snake words. I couldn't always remember which words produced what.

The young man leapt up and went to the counter. He got a glass half full of tap water with no ice in it from the waitress, and floated a piece of toast on top. The treefrog was happy in the glass.

I smiled at this young man.

He smiled back. His face turned sweet. I saw something there I liked.

So our courtship began.

His name was Newton. He lived on an estate with his parents. Soon I went there to visit and found ponds and marshes and woodlands all looking as nature had left them, and inside the mansion, a wing of rooms where Newton studied cold-blooded animals without killing them. Those from other climates had comfortable terrariums full of the plants and soils and the temperature of their homelands.

All his life he had been fascinated by reptiles and amphibians, he told me.

He waited for my every word.

At home, with my orange tea-kettle, my slippers, my books, and my nineteen-inch television, I sat with my feet propped on the ottoman and considered options.

My sister had married a man who treasured the jewels she spoke. If I accepted Newton's proposal, would I not be doing the same cowardly thing?

When had I ever had such an opportunity before? Would there ever come another? Why not be loved, even if not for myself?

“My prince,” I said to my room. Two brilliantly colored poison arrow frogs. “I love you.” “I” was a snapping turtle; “you,” a gila monster; “love,” a giant cobra that raised its head, fanned its spectacle-marked hood, and hissed.

None of my creatures ever hurt me. It had been a while since I had produced so many poisonous ones at once, though. I called the zoo and they sent the usual handler over to pick up the animals. Because of the phone call, I had a good menagerie by the time Sheila arrived.

She shook her head the way she always did. She thought I bought exotic pets and didn't know how to care for them. I shrugged as I always did and appreciated her deft technique with the snake-catching stick. We nodded our farewells to each other.

I started a list of words that produced poisonous animals. I liked Newton and wanted him alive. If that changed, well, the list would still be a good thing to have.

When I had taken enough time to think it over, I said yes (a banded gecko) to his proposal.

“I do” produced a baby snapping turtle and a small pit viper which I caught before it woke to its surroundings. I put the snake in the pocket of my wedding gown before Newton slipped a gold band onto my ring finger. Newton caught the turtle and slipped it into a pocket of his tuxedo. It didn't even bite him. We both smiled, and I felt effervescent.

I moved to the estate and gave up my library job, and for a time Newton and I were very happy, each in our own way. I had never had someone appreciate my words before. Heady wine.

One day I sat on a stool in the room with the salt-water tanks in it. Newton had been pestering me to tell him a story. I was tired just then and kept shaking my head. Finally I yelled “No!” and a marine toad the size of a basketball plopped into my lap.

“Beautiful,” breathed Newton. “That's the biggest one yet! I've got to get the camera.” He dashed out.

I touched the toad's moist, mottled back. It gazed up at me with huge golden keyhole-pupiled eyes. It looked wise and strange and wild. I lifted it until I stared straight into its eyes. Its pale throat fluttered.

My biggest “no” ever, I thought, and kissed its wide mouth.

It changed, then.

In a moment between my legs stood a prince as beautiful as night, with eyes as dark as secrets and hair pale as sunlight. He was dressed all in burgundy velvet. He grasped my shoulders and kissed me again. I had never tasted anything so wicked or wonderful. “We've been waiting,” he whispered, “all these years we've been waiting.” He closed his arms around me. My nose bumped his chest. He smelled of violets. “Enchantments intersect,” he said. “There aren't many doors into this world remaining, and for those of us trapped long ago and never loosed . . . we pray for you and await your every word.”

The door slammed. “Who is this?” Newton demanded, behind me.

I felt a strange tightness in my chest. I thought of all the frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, efts, turtles, and crocodiles across the centuries. I remembered killing the first ones. How I had hated my mother for sending me to the well to meet the fairy who cursed me.

At first I killed them. Then my mother drove me from home, and everyone I met despised me and sent me anywhere so long as it was away from them.

When I had no one else left, I had learned to like my creatures, even as I learned not to make so many.

The prince's arms loosened and I pushed away. I stared up at his beautiful face, then glanced around the room, at tanks that hosted my words. I touched my lips. The prince smiled and nodded.

“Fanchon, who is this?” Newton asked me again.

I rose and went to a tank. An orange-eyed turtle stared at me through the glass. I lifted it from the tank and kissed its mouth, and it turned into a mermaid. She could not remain upright; she splashed and sprawled to the floor. Her tail fin spread wide and iridescent and damp across the cement. For a moment I stood, trapped in that resonance, the concrete and the fantastic.

She kissed my foot.

“Oh, man!” Newton started videotaping.

I wanted to tell him to stop that, but I wasn't ready to deal with another giant boa constrictor right now.

With the first prince at my shoulder, I went to each tank in the salt water room, lifted each creature, kissed it. Toads and sea turtles, a few snakes, and then a wolf eel, which didn't change when I kissed it. The first prince put it back in the tank. I glanced at Newton, who said, “I had that before I met you.”

I went through all the rooms of the Reptile and Amphibian wing, trailing more and more people behind me, leaving empty terrariums and tanks in my wake.

Transformed, my creatures were people of different sizes, shapes, and colors, and they wore clothes from all over the world and all through time. Most were princes. Some were kings. A few were princesses, and there were sheikhs, pashas, caliphs, sultans, sultanas, queens, emperors. The one cobra I had spoken since Newton and I married turned into a rajah.

My lips were sore. There were so many glittering people they couldn't fit into our wing of the mansion, and they opened windows and doors and went outside. They spoke in murmurs to each other. All gazed at me as though I were their savior.

Newton kept taping.

At last I sat down on a bench in the garden and studied these fantastically beautiful people. (One of the larger princes carried the mermaid out and put her in the fountain.) In clothes like that, with looks like that, what could they do in this day and age? Walk out into the world and get mugged? Get jobs as supermodels? Actors? Prostitutes?

I thought of all the creatures I had sent to the zoo with Sheila. All the ones I had let loose in the riverfront park while I worked at the library. All those who had lived out their aquatic or dirt-dwelling lives and died without ever being kissed.

My first prince sat beside me on the bench and stroked my cheek with the backs of his fingers.

How could I have known that locked inside my living words were such fabulous people?

“It's the nature of curses to crush things,” he said. “We were all cursed, and you were too. Nested in your curse was the blessing of our freedom.”

“I don't know whether to ever speak again,” I said, then looked down at a lapful of squirming lizards, snakes, and toads. Wearily I lifted a small spadefoot toad and kissed its mouth. It turned into a very comely girl in scanty Arabian Nights-style garments. She went behind the bench and massaged my shoulders.

Newton put down the videocamera and seated himself at my other side. He leaned closer. “I liked them better before,” he whispered in my ear.

If I kissed him, would he turn into a frog?

Of course not. I had kissed him on our wedding day, and since. He was the only stable person in sight.

We had a backyard full of strangers with no clear futures or destinations. Every word I spoke produced another stranger. What were we to do with them all?

I could lift their curses. Could they lift mine?

I kissed my last sentence from animals to people and leaned on my husband, who put his arm around my shoulder. “It's okay,” he murmured. “It's okay. Better or worse, it's okay.”

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