Nickel: A Cautionary Tale

Obadiah Toad was upright, honest, and sincere … because of his devotion to the Code of Toad.

This short story appears in my recently-released book, Protons and Fleurons: Twenty-Two Elements of Fiction. This fun fable was inspired by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:42).

OBADIAH TOAD WAS UPRIGHT, honest, and sincere. He strove to see justice done all around the Pond and to regard every creature as a fellow traveler. Obadiah had come to be that way because of his devotion to the Code of Toad.

The Code had been compiled by elder toads from time out of mind. Wise, observant, and meticulous, they had unearthed the truth about what led toads along the path of righteousness and what lured them from it. They put into practice the habits that led to peace and harmony and taught younger toads how to cultivate them, too.

The Code of Toad was, in short, the masterpiece of Pond Civilization. It was the ideal to which all toads looked, even those toads whose efforts at obedience were but a half-hearted leap. The Code was quoted in conversation, inscribed upon lily pads, and sung at the twilight chorus.

Obadiah Toad, like any toad of culture and sophistication, had studied the Code of Toad in his youth. He found it good and remained its lifelong disciple, for it taught common sense with the refinement of long experience and acute penetration into ranine nature.

  • Do no harm unto toad or frog, snail or snake, from the egg to the adult, taught the Code of Toad. Obadiah assented and obeyed.
  • Be loyal to the toadess your wife and raise your pollywogs aright, taught the Code of Toad. Obadiah was beyond criticism in that regard, as Esther Toad and all the little Toads were the first to testify.
  • Encroach not upon another’s lilypad nor snatch flies from your neighbor’s tongue, taught the Code of Toad. Therefore Obadiah was scrupulous in respecting his neighbors’ property.
  • Call none by a false name, saying not fish unto a frog, nor eel unto a salamander, taught the Code of Toad. Obadiah guarded his words as if every one of them was preserved in amber for examination on the last day.

And so forth.

As he grew in age and stature, Obadiah pored over all the points of the Code of Toad, seeking to conform his life to their sagacious dictates, for he loved the security and happiness that the statutes of the Code brought to him and his family.

Except for one. There was one statute that Obadiah Toad had not obeyed, had never obeyed. He couldn’t bring himself to obey it.

This made him very uncomfortable.

It’s only one of so many, he reasoned with himself.

It can’t be that important.

It’s impractical and unrealistic.

Even our forefather toads were not without error.

They introduced this statute without thinking through its consequences.

It’s a small matter if I overlook it.

But Obadiah Toad, scrupulous of heart, could not convince himself with these excuses. He knew that the Code of Toad was a work of sublimity, which meant that he himself was the flaw, the wart, the snag in the Pond, and would remain so until he observed the neglected statute.

Which was:

  • Give unto every toad that asks of you, stay not your hand from the frog that begs, open your fist at the entreaty of every creature from the merest to the greatest.

Obadiah’s soul protested. Every creature? It’s true, he granted, there are turtles who fall on hard times, muskrats who go hungry through no fault of their own. He was not averse to helping them and often had, for the Code of Toad also teaches: Blame not the unfortunate, rather extend your good fortune also unto them.

But, Obadiah had to admit, he had not extended his good fortune unto every creature who asked. It wasn’t practical; he had pollywogs to feed.

And anyway, it wasn’t always a matter of bad luck. Some creatures begged because they had slitted their eyes against the Code of Toad and would not trouble themselves to keep its statutes. And then, when circumstances invariably turned against them, they preyed upon the observant with their pleas for help.

In this manner Obadiah reasoned with himself, and in this manner he put off observing that one remaining statute of the Code of Toad.

But there came a day when all the reservations, anxieties, and doubts could no longer suppress Obadiah’s desire to give himself fully to the Code of Toad. That one unobeyed word of wisdom rankled and provoked him. He could endure it no longer. He would obey. He had to.

That afternoon, on his way home from work, a sickly newt issued a muffled request for a little something to assuage his pangs of hunger. Obadiah Toad promptly withdrew a nickel from his pocket and bestowed it, without ceremony or superiority, upon the pertinacious creature.

Then Obadiah bounced off, pleased, proud, and satisfied. He had overcome his false scruples. He had on that day kept the Code of Toad fully and completely.

And after all, it was only a nickel.

That evening he was exceptionally delightful with Esther Toad, a hilarity to the little Toads, a counsellor in need to a neighbor frog, a peacemaker for a school of fish in schism. He wondered at himself for his long delay in obedience, repented of it, rejoiced in the completeness of his self-giving.

Until the next day on his way home from work.

The newt was there again, waiting for Obadiah, he was sure of it. The sickly amphibious eyes lit up at the approach of the toad. His demeanor said plainly: I have received bounty from you before, and I hope to receive it again.

Obadiah cringed, waited, and heard the newt ask for money.

A technicality occurred to the toad. He had already given to this newt. Had he not thereby fulfilled his obligation? Could he not pass the newt by, guiltlessly?

It was an appealing explanation. Only it didn’t work, and Obadiah Toad didn’t need an interpreter or sage of old to tell him so. Open your fist to the entreaty of every creature: the sense was plain enough.

Obadiah didn’t have any nickels on him. He tossed a dime in the newt’s direction and hurried on.

That evening he was rather irritable with his wife.

The next day at work he was distracted because he was plotting a different route home. One that would take him where the newt was not. Because he could see it all now, as if the future unfurled before him like a fiddlehead fern. The newt would wait for him every day. Sickly or disobedient, unlucky or unrighteous, it hardly mattered. The newt would ask for more. He would no longer hope for more—he would expect it. And before long he would demand it. And Obadiah, tied by the statutes of the Code of Toad, would have to give, on and on and on. A daily drain on his pocket. Surely that was not what the Code of Toad intended?

At quitting time Obadiah hurried off and took the long way round to get back home, skirting the edge of the forest. There was no sign of the newt, who for all his idleness wouldn’t have applied his brain to outwitting Obadiah. The toad was satisfied, if not a little ashamed. His plan had worked.

Except that, in his path, lay two tiny voles.

Orphaned, from the looks of it, and easy prey for a circling falcon.

“What are you doing here?” Obadiah demanded, half alarmed and half annoyed. “You’ll be eaten in no time. Take cover!”

“Better to be eaten quickly than to starve slowly,” squeaked one of the tiny voles. “We lost our mama and papa. Can’t you do anything to help us? We’re so hungry!”

There it was again. The entreaty protected by the Code of Toad. Obadiah dug into his pocket and found a quarter. He flipped it at the baby voles. “Here,” he said in a gruff voice, “this should keep you awhile.”

“Oh,” said one of them, “you’re very kind. But I don’t think we can manage that coin. It’s too big for us. Anyway, it’s such a long way to the market. And we’re so hungry!”

The vole turned its enormous baby eyes on Obadiah, who was moved in spite of himself. He groaned and opened the drawstrings of his rucksack. “Climb in,” he sighed.

He was late getting home that night, on account of the longer path and the burden of the two baby voles, who however hungry still managed to be heavy. Esther Toad hardly knew what to say upon the discovery of two extra guests at dinner. They couldn’t be expected to eat respectable food, could they? Happily, the little Toads were eager to help and ferreted out some delicacies for the enfeebled voles.

They were bundled up and put to sleep on the floor of the living room that night.

Obadiah was almost useless at work the next day. He had taken an even longer route to get there, a dark and shady one through the forest, because he was afraid, now, of meeting anyone—anyone who might ask of him anything. He avoided conversation with his colleagues and averted his eyes from the boss, in case any show of friendliness might incite them to ask a favor.

In the evening, on his way back through the forest, he recited the woes that he would unload on Esther the moment he got home.

But he couldn’t get a word out: first, because he was winded from fighting his way through the crowd collected around his cottage, and second, because Esther unloaded on him first.

“There’s been a newt outside all day,” she complained, “saying that you’re known to help the unfortunate and couldn’t I spare him a crumb? I gave him something but I wouldn’t let him in, said I didn’t know a thing about him, but I should have let him in, because soon enough others passed by and this same newt informed them that you were a famous benefactor and would help them all. And they told their friends and now everyone here is waiting upon your renowned generosity. How did this ever happen?”

Obadiah only shook his head and muttered, “The Code of Toad.” Esther looked her shock that something so revered could be the wellspring of so much trouble. She fell silent.

“We’ll feed them,” he said, “and send them on their way.”

“They want not only food; they’re asking for blankets, too, and ointments for their sores, and a roof to protect them from owls.”

Heaving a sigh, Obadiah commandeered his little Toads to help him stretch a tarp in the backyard. By the time it was up, the charity cases were in a festival mood and quite pliant to his instructions about food and blankets. They didn’t even object when he admonished them sternly, “At first light I expect to see you all on your way.”

When dawn came, however, Obadiah was the first one up and off. He had never known the Code of Toad to visit such inconvenience upon him and his household. He must be doing something wrong, must be understanding it amiss. His only recourse was to call upon his teacher, the venerable and extremely aged Hezekiah Toad.

This was no minor undertaking, however, for Hezekiah lived on the far side of the Pond. One did not circumambulate the Pond lightly — not only for risk of eagles above and snakes below, but out of respect for the Pond itself. Its deeps were feared, its breadth venerated. Only such a one as Hezekiah would dare to make his nest among the cattails on its far side.

When, after an anxious hour’s journey, the trembling Obadiah reached his goal, he found Hezekiah meditating, his eyes half-shut. Obadiah saluted him respectfully and waited for the whiskery toad to acknowledge his presence. Having gained that, Obadiah launched into his grievance.

“The Code has always brought me joy,” he concluded after a detailed recitation of the last two days’ woes. “But now it is bringing me nothing but trouble. I must have misunderstood, but I do not know how to read it aright. Tell me, my dear wise teacher, who corrected me so many times in my youth. Where have I gone wrong?”

Hezekiah slowly shook his pale, warty, pendulous head. “Your trouble, my boy,” he wheezed, “is that you understood it aright.”

“That can’t be,” said Obadiah flatly.

“You did, and all too well,” said Hezekiah. “You do me proud, son-of-my-heart, for it’s a rare thing for even the most diligent of toads to get where you have gotten. Few advance far enough to make the mistake of thinking that the Code exists to bring you joy.”

“Does it not?” Obadiah was in a state of wonder, both at the compliment to himself and at the sudden revelation of the true nature of the Code.

“Well, it might,” Hezekiah conceded. “And I daresay most of the time it ought. But the Code never tells you that it’s a trick. A trap. A snare for the unsuspecting.”

“What do you mean?” Obadiah could hardly take it all in.

“The Code,” pronounced the ancient toad solemnly, “does not exist to make you happy. Or even to make you good. That’s just happenstance, if it happens at all. Its real intention is entirely otherwise.”

“I fear to ask what it is,” whispered the anguished younger toad.

“You know already,” said Hezekiah. “The Code intends you to make all these unfortunates your family.”

“My family! They’re — I’m — that is to say — I’m stuck with them?”

“You can turn them out, of course. You can turn them away. But if you do that, you’ll find you can’t keep the rest of the Code. You’ll stop obeying. It’s all one cloth. You have to keep it whole or not at all.”

“I always thought so,” breathed Obadiah, “but I never suspected…” He was dizzy, as though the Pond had suddenly become a whirlpool. “But what about you?” he asked. “Where is your family of unfortunates?”

“I sent them away,” said Hezekiah. “I could not do it. I abandoned the Code and came to live here alone.”

That was more than Obadiah could bear. With one great leap he bounded away, far away from his old teacher, his heart grieved nearly unto death, his mind awhirl, his very body in a state of panic.

But he could not escape his new knowledge, weighing heavier on him at every moment as he raced back home along the edge of the Pond, which in the dusk seemed at once ominous and infinite. The choice was plain enough. He was either to become the father to an ever-growing family of unfortunates—or abandon the Code of Toad, the very structure of his existence.

It infuriated him, for he never would’ve had to make the choice at all if only he’d neglected that one last statute, if he had let it be and quietly ignored it like everyone else. He could have kept the rest of the Code in happiness without any trouble.

But with one nickel he gave away all his peace.

It was too late. The nickel was spent, and Obadiah’s life remained an endless cascade of troubles and worries over an endless succession of unfortunates.

I should know, for I am he. My advice to you: hang on to your nickel.

The featured image and spot illustrations for this story were created by Mikey Karpiel.

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