A Farewell Note, or How to Get Lost in the Woods

In the two and a half years that I’ve been editing Tiny Donkey, I’ve never written about my favorite fairy tale. It’s a lesser known story from the Brothers Grimm (although, as fairy tale enthusiasts, you probably know it!) called “Fitcher’s Bird,” about a young heroine who outwits an evil sorcerer and saves her sisters in the process.

One thing I love about “Fitcher’s Bird”–something that Pauline Greenhill writes about in “Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars”–is that the story doesn’t have a Disney-perfect ending. The heroine doesn’t marry a prince, inherit a kingdom, or even return to a simple-but-cozy cottage to live out the rest of her days. Instead, as Greenhill writes, “There is no happily-ever-after in ‘Fitcher’s Bird,’ the tale ends with the death of [femicidal sorcerer] Fitcher and his cronies. [Heroine] Fitcher’s Bird is last seen on the path from Fitcher’s house, speaking to the sorcerer, again a truly liminal location.” There’s something freeing about this ending and it’s refusal to be tied up in a happily-ever-after bow–something that allows for multiple possibilities and paths.

When we started Tiny Donkey in April 2015, it felt like we were beginning from that unknown place in the woods. With the blessing of Fairy Tale Review’s founding editor Kate Bernheimer and the help of then-prose editor Joel Hans, we started this journal with the question, “What is fairy-tale nonfiction?” Over the next two and a half years, we published fairy-tale-esque memoir, cultural criticism, academic analyses, and experimental prose in attempts to find answers. We accompanied this work with interviews of our favorite fairy-tale writers and thinkers, from Carmen Maria Machado to Aaron Mahnke to Kate Bernheimer herself.

We still don’t have an answer to our query, but we have lots of ideas of what fairy-tale nonfiction can be. In so many ways, we’re still in the middle of that enchanted forest–except, instead of just a few of us editors, these woods are now crowded with our contributors and readers, our supporters and interviewees. It’s nice here–overgrown and full of chirping birds, scurrying animals, and unknown prospects and potentials.

And this, dear reader, is where we’ll leave you.

We’re ending Tiny Donkey for one of those usual reasons: not enough capacity. Over the past few years we’ve all grown and changed as writers, editors, and humans, and other projects have started consuming our time and energy. For example:

    • Former editor Richard Leis continues to read, write, and submit poetry and fiction, and participates in workshops at the Writers Studio Tucson and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Leis recently won the Writers Studio’s Write-to-Read award and read his poem “These Are the Animals You May Eat” at Tucson’s Antigone Books.
    • Editor Anna Lea Jancewicz’s short story collection (m)otherhood is forthcoming this autumn from Widow and Orphan House Press, and she continues her work as Editor-in-Chief of Rabble Lit, a journal of working class literature that you should definitely check out, if you haven’t already.
    • Editor René Ostberg has been writing but experiencing a year of full rejection.  On the plus side, she recently moved and now lives across the street from a river with a railroad tracks close by. She enjoys watching the river rise and recede from week to week and listening to the traffic and trains roll by at night – it brings comfort and perspective in distressing times. She might self-publish something called Heartlandic by year’s end – check in on her at her website for updates if you like.
    • Editorial assistant Gabriel A. Jiménez is at work on a collection of short stories, and will soon be applying to graduate programs. His long-term goal is to become a literature professor.
    • Editorial assistant Cat Solewin is editing a local author’s memoir manuscript and is an editor at Rain Shadow Review, an annual anthology of writing from current and formerly incarcerated writers put together by Richard Shelton and Erec Toso. Cat will be graduating from the University of Arizona in Fall 2018 and applying to Creative Writing MFA programs to further develop her fiction writing.
    • In July, I began working at the University of Arizona Poetry Center as the Education Programs Assistant, a job that enables me to combine my interests in social justice, education, and creative writing.

The Tiny Donkey archive and the work it contains will remain online for future readers. We are indebted to all the writers and interviewees who contributed to this project and to Fairy Tale Review’s Kate Bernheimer, Joel Hans, and Jon Riccio, who so graciously made space for this journal in the world.

–Wren Awry, Founding Editor

Editor’s Note: Understanding Anarchism: The Stone Soup Tale

The media is awash with think pieces on anarchism. What a time to be alive.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought that within my lifetime I would see black bloc or Antifa become household words. But following the Inauguration Day protests in D.C., and in the aftermath of the white supremacist assaults and terrorist attack in Charlottesville, these terms are on the tongues of, or are at least being googled by, average Americans who never before have cracked the spines of a Bakunin volume, or even considered that anarchy has a meaning beyond its being maligned as a synonym for chaos.

The hot takes on the ethics of violence, and the vivisections of community defense strategies are riveting, the kind of sexy that scores the clicks. What’s missing from the conversation is an examination of what the overwhelming bulk of anarchist theory really looks like in practice. The vast majority of everyday anarchists have never slung a Molotov cocktail, and are far, far more likely to regularly wield a soup ladle as their weapon of choice. Your garden-variety anarchist is probably digging in your local community garden as we speak.

In my experience, most of what anarchists do is feed people.

In fact, one of the most elegant illustrations of anarchism is to be found in a pithy folk tale, old and widely known, about a collective feast that burgeons from nothing but a rock.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

Two strangers come tramping into town. They are wretched and lumpen, and they are hungry. They ask the town-folk for something to calm their gnawing bellies, but are turned away, told at each house that there is nothing to spare.

Perhaps some of the householders turn them away because they cringe at the color of the skin the travelers wear, or because the lilt of their mother tongue sounds hateful to their ears. Perhaps some fervently claim that no human deserves food without first having earned it through the selling of their labor or the proving of their virtue. Maybe even most of the neighbors truly believe that they just haven’t got enough to share.

So the hungry two wander to the river, and at least slake their thirst. One of them pulls a soup pot from their satchel and builds a fire. They fill the pot with water and drop in a stone from the riverbed. Before long, there is a pleasant aroma. The strangers begin to laugh, they sing a little. A curious villager approaches, and then another.

We are making this fine soup, they say. If only we had just a sprig of herb to help the flavor.

If only one among you had just a stump of a carrot.

…just a scrap of potato, just a splash of oil, just a sliver of garlic…

a few beans

a golden onion

Soon, there is a lively crowd of villagers eager to make their small contributions to the bubbling pot.

Everybody eats.

Then perhaps somebody brings out their drum, another produces a fiddle. Perhaps there is dancing in rings and telling of stories and nursing of babies and braiding of hair. Maybe one neighbor fetches their hammer to fix another’s wagon. Maybe some older folks teach the children the names of the trees and fungi and wildflowers that grow along the bank.

 

Anarchism is non-hierarchical, non-coercive community organization for mutual aid and benefit. People, as equals, voluntarily sharing and helping and loving their neighbors so that every individual is cared for and the collective thrives.

It may sound like a fairy tale, but it’s happening right now.

 

In hundreds of autonomous chapters across the country, anarchists in Food Not Bombs have been, for thirty-five years, collecting otherwise wasted food from individuals, businesses, and even dumpsters to create free meals for the hungry in their communities.

They make a lot of stone soup, but that’s only the beginning.

Community gardens, medic collectives, Harm Reduction projects, Really Really Free Markets, organizing workers, outlaw road repair, rogue traffic patrols, prisoners’ advocacy, tenants’ unions.

All of these things are anarchy in action.

Prefigurative politics is often described as “building the new world in the shell of the old.”

Our new world has already begun, birthed from a stone in a pot.

We are making this fine soup we say.

If only we had just a sprig of herb to help the flavor…


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Anna Lea Jancewicz.

Interview: Saul Millan of Vox Urbana

Vox Urbana is a seven-piece bi-national band from Tucson, Arizona that infuses Latin sounds with elements of rock. The band breaks language barriers and stereotypes through their repertoire and distinct grooves, and includes a guitar, keyboard, sax, trombone, bass guitar, congas, and drums played by a diverse roster of musicians. Vox Urbana is a small ensemble of incredible talent who aim to expand their musical horizons and share the stories of others.

The band uses a style of folk music known as corridos to compose songs about the border community. A corrido is a story told in song. The word comes from the Spanish verb “correr,” which means to run, and indicates there will be a running narrative. Corridos are often about oppression, history, and the daily life struggle of those less fortunate. The band has been working on a project called Cumbia Corridos, a musical story-sharing project that tells the stories of immigrants crossing the border and Tucson’s marginalized denizens.

I spoke with Saul Millan, the band’s trombonist, who joined the band about four years ago when he bumped into Enrique “Kiki” Castellanos, the band’s co-founder and guitarist, at a supermarket. This chance meeting catapulted Saul onto an extraordinary journey of personal growth and experience.

The Cumbia Corridos project has helped immigrants tell their stories of struggles and overcoming challenges. How has the project influenced the band’s approach to music, as well as your personal lives?

For the band, this project definitely helped shape the understanding that our music can be a powerful tool. It influences us to write music that carries a message and theme, emulating corridos–the classic Mexican-style of songwriting that includes writing a story. This was the first time I wrote on a concept album and the testimonies redirected my approach on how I composed music.

Continue reading Interview: Saul Millan of Vox Urbana

Engaging Fairytales as a Millennial

by Tennessee Hill

The best college course I’ve taken thus far is Fairy Tales as Literature with esteemed fairy tale scholar and part-time fairy godmother, Dr. Christine Butterworth-McDermott. Halfway through covering the classics, a classmate remarked that they felt disillusioned by the tales. This shocked me. Were they really expecting Cinderella’s stepsisters to go unpunished, or Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant to live forever, or bread crumb trails to not get eaten by birds? Had they never heard of a jealous stepmother decapitating her child via chest lid à la “The Juniper Tree”?

As a millennial, I’ve seen my peers expect fairy tale figures to fall in real love the first go-around, sans magical spells, and Neighbors Wolves to give Little Reds a break. There’s a naive desire for rabbit holes like carnival rides, to get out when it’s not fun anymore. As young people, we’ve waded for too long in the pool of Disney where everything is lovely and resolves itself. Now, sitting in a classroom being asked to engage with “The Juniper Tree” or Perrault’s “Cinderella,” it feels like a veil has been torn.

The idea embedded in “happily ever after”–that life is changed for the better in a split second, void of consequence or reality–is one that should be laughed off the stage. But when presented with it dressed like an old lady offering to tighten the corset laces of a hidden princess, there’s shock when the princess is left to flounder on the cottage floor, suffocating. Well, Bluebeard looks like the husband type, forget all those missing wives.

Maybe that’s why there’s an ambient sadness when Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents, or Donkeyskin’s father pursues her so. It’s too close to home. Having gone to the pages to find a happy family, friendly creatures, and a predictable trajectory to follow, there can be a bitter feeling of having been tricked out of a good time. To me, that’s all the more reason to dig both heels in and reside in fairy tale literature.

Generations have walked through the forest before, lantern-less and trusting. Millennials: I’m convinced we’re more fortunate than we realize. With fairytales as our guide, we can make it through, too.


Tennessee Hill is a Senior at Stephen F. Austin State University working toward her BFA in Creative Writing. She is an alum of the Sewanee Young Writers Conference, a 2017 AWP Intro Journals Award nominee, and was a finalist for the 2017 Dan Veach Younger Poets Prize. She has work in The Sandy River Review, Jenny Magazine, Kaaterskill Basin, Elke Journal, and forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review.

A Feminist in the Kingdom of Trolls

by Kathryn McMahon

[Content warning: This essay mentions sexual assault.]

The protagonist’s motivation in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” has taunted me since childhood and needled my writing. To my feminist mother’s delight, by age three I was pointing out sexism on what little TV I was allowed to watch. We lived in Maryland with my Norwegian grandfather, in whose kitchen hung a witch to ward off evil. At Christmas, tiny elf decorations called julenissen abounded. With a heart for magic and an eye for criticism, I read Scandinavian fairy tales, and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” drew both my wonder and scorn.

In the fairy tale, a peasant gives his youngest daughter to a polar bear in exchange for gold. The polar bear takes her to his castle and forbids that she speak to her mother alone. The bear is secretly a prince cursed by the troll queen. He only resumes his human form in darkness when he sleeps with the girl. She endures this until she visits home and, “disobeying” him, confides in her mother, who gives her a candle. One night while the man is asleep, the girl lights the candle and accidentally wakes him. The troll queen whisks him away to marry her daughter. How sad that our heroine has lost her handsome, royal rapist! She must go rescue him—and suffer constant victim blaming along the way—finally winning him back with her ability to clean his shirt. Whoo.

I loved the idea of traipsing through the frozen north with someone to protect me, and would later discover what a maternal archetype bears are with origins in Paleolithic bear worship. Mother bears emerging from hibernation with their cubs made bears symbols of rebirth and fertility. The “great she-bear” constellation Ursa Major has a storied past that existed long before its Greco-Roman myth. And then there is Artio, fierce protector and ultimate mama bear Celtic goddess, whose influence trickled down to my own Irish surname (McMahon means “son of the bear”). While the fairy tale evoked a Jungian response in me, I didn’t understand why the prince’s disappearance was the girl’s fault, or why she wanted him back. Stockholm syndrome was not something I knew of yet, and I remain unconvinced that wealth was her motivation. So what changed? What drove her to face death—via troll predation—to rescue her captor?

While this depends on the retelling, at an essential level, these questions spur my fiction. I write to understand people. What causes characters to act in ways that surprise themselves and even the reader? And how is this made believable?

The answer to both is rich character development made possible by feminism. To craft fully realized characters of any gender is a feminist act. This doesn’t mean the characters proceed as feminists. But giving them the capacity for the breadth of human emotion and behavior undercuts traditional forms of gender and thus creates compelling, multi-dimensional actors. And as a reader or writer, it only makes the story more satisfying when I don’t simply face the trolls, but demand to, prince or no prince.


Kathryn McMahon’s fiction has appeared in Three Drops from a Cauldron, CHEAP POP, decomP, Necessary Fiction, Menacing Hedge, and Rose Red Review, among others. She lives in Vietnam with her wife and dog and tweets at @katoscope.

Interview: Leland Heathco & Brian Maddock

Leland Heathco, Joseph Bell (who could not be reached for an interview), and Brian Maddock co-authored a piece titled “Legacy in Red” which appeared in the 2014 edition of the Rain Shadow Review, an annual publication that consists of work by current or formerly incarcerated writers (you can read the story at the bottom of this post). I was struck by the powerfully executed reimagining of “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which the reader sees the concepts of power and gender reversed from the original. The red cape no longer represents a weak and startlingly naïve young girl, but instead a line of powerful women whose roles are complex and nuanced. In the same way that their characters consist of layers not previously attributed to them, interviewing these men helped me see past my preconceived notions and afforded me a richer, deeper view of a world that I had previously looked at with a certain shallowness. I encourage you to please look at the information provided after the interview about various prison writing programs and ways to become involved.

Brian Maddock is a 49 year-old kid-at-heart who graduated from AZ State University with a Bachelor’s in Computer Information Systems. He has worked in large IT departments developing and fixing software to help businesses operate. He enjoys hiking in the woods, swimming, reading fantastical stories, and public speaking. He has published poetry, essays, and children’s stories while incarcerated and would like to explore the medium of flash fiction. Brian gets a kick out of teaching beginning Spanish, computer basics, and essay writing, but enjoys learning equally well. He is an Arizona native and would love to eventually reside near the Pacific coast.

Leland Heathco was born on May 5th, 1957. He was raised in southern Alabama on the east coast of Mobile Bay, in a small farming community called Barnwell. Because of his father’s work as a pipe-fitter, the family traveled, which provided a cultural awakening for him as a young boy and gave him an early opportunity to learn about cultural diversity. Leland learned about working hard side-by-side with migrant workers on the farms. After dropping out of school in the eighth grade, his first job was working on a copper smelter down in the Playas Valley, not far from Animas, New Mexico. In May of 1975, he joined the Army for four years. He has been married twice and has four sons. Leland suffers from chronic free-spiritedness, and been to 27 states, including Hawaii. He also traveled to the Philippines, Germany, and the Isle of Crete, and firmly believes that travel is good for storytelling.

I understand that the piece was put together collaboratively between the three authors with no agreed upon theme or prevalent story line. Why do you think the story ended up as a reimagining of “Little Red Riding Hood”?

BM: This story began as nothing more than a blank notepad passed among three aspiring writers, each producing one line and passing it to the next as an exercise. The first line spoke of a hunter’s moon in a forest; the next author chose to add an owl on a branch. Ultimately, the word “wolf” led to a line of thought centered on the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale. From there, the “red cape” developed into a symbol for a strong line of heroines, and soon the coalesced fantasy/fairy tale emerged from the amorphous lines we all contributed.

LH: The collaboration started the same way that most of my writing does. A word or a line comes to me that seems to stand out, begging for my attention, so I write it down. I’ve often thought that what I write already exists, and I’ve been fortunate that the words were given to me to write. I respect Brian and Joe as writers, and I don’t think this piece would have turned out the way it did without them. I was curious as to what might emerge if writers with different styles were to write together using a single sentence and no outline or story idea. The collaboration is the reason for the “Riding Hood” theme, which really materialized when the wolves were introduced. But, I did not want to write about Ms. Hood in the same way that she’s been depicted before. She brought herself into the story, but with a little help from me and my “Brothers of the Pen.” She is not a child, but a young woman coming of age, and coming to terms with a responsibility she does not want, however, there is honor and strength in her bloodline that will not allow her to back down from what’s before her. She is a thinker and a bad ass.

Continue reading Interview: Leland Heathco & Brian Maddock

Ancillary to Memory

by Benjamin Winkler

I can still recite the entirety of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.” It unknots itself from my tongue with the same cadence as shma-yisrael-adonai-elohainu or the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s almost as if the words themselves are not important but the act of worrying them. I used to carry a turquoise stone and a Garden State Parkway token in my pocket for the same purpose.

All of these were central to growing up in south Jersey, between the Pine Barrens and the City, but the memories bound up with this cultural flotsam are much more pleasant: I’m four or five and sitting with my mother on the beige sofa, finger pressed firmly to page, sounding out words like “quince” and “runcible.” I used to carry books with me everywhere, in the car, to school, in the red wagon my parents would pull me up the hill in to the Garden State Discovery Museum.

Lear’s was the first poem I ever loved and the first I ever memorized, but it was only later I learned to understand the words without the Jan Brett illustrations I knew. And then I wondered what it was like to sail across the ocean, or pierce my nose, or fall in love across a species.

I later stored away lines by Berryman and Bishop, but those are subject to forgetting. I have to look for them, to coax them out like the piggy-wig in the woods. I think the mysteries of memory are a lot like dream-logic: We don’t know why something is there, only that it is and could not be otherwise. We can tease it apart pacing around a living room or on a pricey analyst’s couch, but ultimately that your mind found this important is all the reason you need.


Benjamin Winkler lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA. His work has previously appeared in RHINO, The Ilanot Review, and Lockjaw Magazine. Find him online at www.benjaminwinkler.com or on Twitter at @cmdrcallowhill.

Interview: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.

After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.

Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.

Continue reading Interview: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

We Look At Each Other

by Kimberly Campanello

The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.
-Audre Lorde

He forbids us from knowing anything. From finding anything out. From unlocking the door, behind which we suspect there are so many more.

He doesn’t leave us alone, as you might have thought, with a ring of keys. He doesn’t leave us with a test after extracting a promise of obedience. Instead, he’s everywhere. He won’t leave us alone. We are given no keys. We don’t have the run of the house, luxurious beds, diamond chokers.

Instead, we do our work where we can.

He doesn’t leave us, ever. He hovers around our meals, our games, our songs. Every day, every night, he tells us things, sometimes in a short burst of speech, a tiny phrase. Sometimes he goes on for hours.

When he’s silent, we thrash in our beds, trembling for more. Will he ever tell us about the door? Will the door ever be a thing he talks about? We tarry at our work. We burn soup.

We ask about the door. He says we don’t care enough about the door for him to say anything about it. He says many things about himself, over and over again. He reassures us of his love more than once.

We get tired of this.

We get bolder.

We want to talk about the door.

We ask about the door again. He tells us to sit down. The question is too difficult to answer, he says. We are being unfair.

He talks about himself, about things, about us, but never about the door.

He won’t look at us anymore. We look at each other instead. We look at the others. And they look at us.

Still, we keep asking him about that door. We are really asking about all the little doors and rooms behind it. We are asking about the whole house.

We know because we saw the plans. The old woman shared them with us. They were in the cellar wrapped around old garlic bulbs to keep them dry. The old woman had known a time would come to unroll the crumbling paper in the light, to show the plans for the whole house.

She knows we have come at last to open these doors. She knows we have come to plumb the house’s depths. We have come to tear it down.

And we have come just in time because the plans are faded, almost invisible. The woman might have died. The garlic might have rotted into the paper. All might have been lost.

When no one is watching, we tattoo the plans onto our bodies in indigo blue. When we get through that door, we will always know where we are.

The old woman says the garlic is sprouting now that it’s seen some light. We look at each other. We have forgotten his name. We know where the door is. We have the plans.


Kimberly Campanello was born in Elkhart, Indiana, and is a dual American and Irish citizen. Her poetry collections include Imagines (New Dublin Press), Strange Country (The Dreadful Press), Consent (Doire Press), Spinning Cities (Wurm Press) and Hymn to Kālī (Eyewear Publishing). MOTHERBABYHOME, a book of conceptual and visual poetry on carceral practices toward women and children at the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland, is forthcoming from zimZalla. Her play Constance and Eva on the radical sisters Constance Markiewicz and Eva Gore-Booth will be produced in London in September. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University in the UK. www.kimberlycampanello.com

Editor’s Note: Let the Toads Fall From Your Lips

Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads”[1] is a story of two sisters whose character traits are cleaved along the usual fairy tale lines: one sister is beautiful and preternaturally kind; the other plain and rude. The pretty, sweet sister meets an enchanted woman at a well and the woman gives her a peculiar gift: each time she opens her ruby mouth to speak, flowers and gemstones fall from her lips. The other sister tries to replicate the first one’s success but is cursed, rather than blessed, by the enchanted woman. Toads and snakes escape her mouth when she opens her pencil-thin lips. Although Perrault sends the diamond-mouthed sister to marry a prince and the toad-spewing sister into the woods to die, he didn’t really need this ending to clarify which sister was bad and which was good. It would have been clear to readers of Perrault’s day, for whom diamonds were shiny symbols of wealth and toads were associated with devilry.

The connection between toads, frogs, and evil has deep roots in Western folklore and religious literature. Throughout the brutal and bloody witch trials of 15th-18th century Europe, toads were frequently considered the familiars of black magick practitioners, hopping about villages to carry out the work of warty, spiteful sorceresses. In Roman mythology, rude villagers forbade the goddess Latona from drinking clear pond water, even after she implored, “‘Why do you refuse me water? Water is free to all. Nature allows no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water.’” As punishment for their refusal, Latona turned them into frogs.[2] And in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the second plague the God of the Hebrews casts upon the Egyptians is that of frogs: “They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs.”

That sounds like a terrible plague, but when the Ancient Egyptians weren’t beset with frogs they venerated them. The Egyptian goddess of fertility, Heqet, was frequently represented as a woman with an amphibian head. This association between frogs and fertility was related to a natural phenomenon: millions of frogs were birthed when the Nile flooded, a yearly cycle that provided much-needed water for Egyptian crops. Similar associations are found in Aztec and Ancient Greek cosmologies, recognizing amphibians’ crucial ecological roles.

Frogs and toads are still important although, these days, they’re dying off. “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction. The culprit is a deadly fungus called batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). While the origins of Bd are uncertain, one thing seems clear to scientists who study the issue: it was spread by the shipment of Bd-carrying frogs around the world. Two possible vector species, African clawed frogs and North American bullfrogs, are “widely infected with Bd but do not seem to be harmed by it.” The African clawed frogs were transported to other continents for use in pregnancy tests in the 1950s and 60s; North American bullfrogs have both stowed away on ships and been intentionally exported for culinary purposes.

“Extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels,” Kolbert adds, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”[3]

When I re-read “Diamonds and Toads,” I find myself daydreaming about meeting the enchanted woman at the well. I imagine thousands, maybe millions, of humans–those of us concerned about the mass extinction racking the earth, an extinction caused by our species–lining up to talk to her, saying rude things and getting cursed in return. Perhaps some of us would, like the naughty sister, spill toads from our throats, repopulating amphibians across the earth. [4] Perhaps the fairy woman would tire of that curse and vary her punishments. Corals and mollusks, leopards and lemurs would leap from our mouths; those very same animals consumed by human spears and axes, guns and poison, by the pavement that has been poured over the earth.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry


[1] Heiner, Heidi Anne. “The Annotated Diamonds and Toads.” SurLaLune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/diamondstoads/

[2] Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable. 1859. Dover Thrift Editions, 2000.

[3] Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction. Picador, 2014.

[4] Of course, you could argue that those frogs would come down with chytrid fungi in due time, that they too would be wiped out. But this is a fairy tale. Fairy tales aren’t supposed to make perfect sense.