Chapter Three

Leaves rustled high above her head. Was that wind blowing through trees? The smell of dry earth filled her nose. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant, but she had a vague feeling it was much too close to her nose.

She didn’t move, not even to open her eyes. Enjoying the foggy wellness, hovering between wakefulness and sleep, she tried to prolong it. She knew it would disappear the moment she let her eyes see what was beyond her lids. Too soon, however, a noise disturbed her doughy pseudo-sleep. She tried to ignore it, and moved a bit to make herself more comfortable. Just as she found the perfect position for falling back into a gentle sleep, she heard a loud, insistent croak. She grumbled in reply. The croaking came again, and this time it was much closer to her ear.

“What?” she asked in a voice as thick with sleep as it was with annoyance.

Words mingled into the croaking sound. Did someone say “Wake up?” she thought.

She opened her eyes and gasped. Only a few feet away, a human-sized toad towered over her. Its brown, speckled arms were as long as her legs. Wide awake now, she pushed herself back along the ground while still staring aghast at the giant toad. Was she still dreaming?

“Get up.”

Sitting up, she stared at the toad in disbelief. “Excuse me, what?”

It made a sound that could only be described as a huff as it replied, “You have slept enough.”

Though not groggy anymore, she clumsily got to her feet and took a few shuffling steps to the left. The toad turned to face her as she moved. Her mouth went dry. She took a step back and bumped into a hard surface. Her hand jutted out and she looked behind her to see the enormous root of a tree. It went up to her shoulder. Taking her hand away, she looked back toward the giant toad. It hadn’t moved. She looked around. Where am I? Panic began to creep into her mind. What is this place? It was a beautiful summer morning, but how long did she have before nightfall? Her heart was hammering in her chest. Just as she was about to start moving away, the toad blinked once, slowly, and moved toward the spot where she’d been sleeping.

The toad croaked. “You are lost.”

It wasn’t a question but a statement of fact. This made her nervous. However, his voice had cut through the tension. She collected her thoughts. “Y-yes”, she said, “I think so. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. Do you think you could help me?” She didn’t hold much hope of that happening. To her surprise, the toad took a step closer to her. She blinked.

“I came because you are here.”

Her mouth fell open. The toad shook a little. Could it be laughing? She closed her mouth. “I don’t understand— ” she said, annoyance edging her words. It seemed the toad was enjoying her confusion. Is he making fun of me? Are all toads like this?

She tried again, “Why are you so huge?”

“I am not.”

“Yes, you are!”

“No, you do not see.”

“Of course I do—I’m staring straight at you! You’re as tall as I am and I’m five foot four!”

“No, you are the one as small as I am.”

She looked around again and noticed for the first time the trees were much bigger than any she’d ever seen before. She also noticed that her head was still very close to the ground even though she was standing.

“Well,” she said, “that would explain why the roots are so huge. But why am I so small? What happened to me? And where am I?”

“The better question is, who are you?”

“Who am I?” A puzzled look crossed her face. “I’m me. Who are you?”

As the toad gazed at her, she could sense something akin to a smile hiding behind that seemingly fixed gaze. Was a toad even able to smile?

“I,” said the toad, “am Zurburt.”

The combination of the toad’s name with its croaking voice had made the name sound like a burp. She burst out laughing and couldn’t stop until her throat started to wheeze from lack of breath.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, still laughing, “but you have a very… uncommon name.” Feeling a bit shaky while barely containing a new round of hysterics, she tried to change the subject.

“Are there many talking toads here? Are talking animals a common thing in this place?”

Zurburt shifted slightly and asked her again, “Who are you?”

It seemed like the stupidest question she’d ever heard. “I just told you, I’m me. Why do you keep asking?”

Zurburt turned his gaze away and took a step to the side. He blinked twice, with a pause between, as if punctuating his thoughts. He turned to her again. “What is your name?”

“My name?” she said. Her gaze zigzagged as she tried to remember. “I… My name is…” What was her name? Confused and sensing something overwhelming slowly rising to the surface, she looked at Zurburt.

The toad returned her stare. His fixed gaze was so deep and so gentle that she felt as if she’d been looking into his eyes for years. This somehow had a soothing effect on her mind. It was as though he was talking to her but without any words or gestures. After what seemed like ages, he said, “You are Una.”

She blinked as if coming out of a trance. “I am… Una.” Feeling dizzy, Una slumped to the foot of the tree. “What’s going on? I feel weird,” she said as she lay herself down.

“Perhaps you do need more time to rest,” he said, as he walked up to the base of the tree. Looking as if he were about to climb it, Zurburt put his hand on the trunk, triggering a secret door. There had been no door frame visible before, not even a seam. He pushed open the door and walked into the tree. Una lost consciousness as the door closed again.

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