Gingerella was born the child of Gypsies. Her mother and father were always away in town, helping the locals part with their money, leaving little Gingerella in the leathery hands and beetly eyes of Grandma Vaida. As a child, Gingerella spent many a day playing alone among the weeping willow trees that tended to crowd around the riverbanks like her people. The other children didn't like to play with her, for Gingerella was born with a club foot and was forced to wear a boot made of deer hide, which made running difficult, and swimming impossible. When Gingerella wasn't playing by the river, she clambered close to Grandma Vaida and watched her mix her potions and practice her spells.
Grandma Vaida didn't have much use for Gingerella when she was a child, and had even less use for her when she grew into a young woman. Chores were a chore for Gingerella with the constant scrape and drag of her club foot. She spilled things and dropped things and sometimes fell altogether, her face hitting the dirt. Grandma Vaida would merely tsk, her eyes to the heavens, her head shaking, as if God was trying her patience. "Poor Gingerella," Grandma Vaida would say, "with your looks and that foot, you better hope you find a blind man to marry you." Then she would cackle. After all, it was commonly known that if a Gypsy girl was ugly she better know how to cook or sing or dance to attract a man. But Gingerella had none of these qualities. And her two cousins, Harlotta and Petrushka, made sure to remind her of that every chance they got.
One day, while her cousins were primping and prettying, trying on skirts and scarves and high-heeled dancing shoes, and applying makeup and jewelry in preparation for a night on the town, Gingerella went down and sat by the riverbank and daydreamed. She took off her deerskin boot and soaked her feet in the cool water. Fish came and nibbled on her toes. She didn't mind. "Take it," she told the fish, referring to her club foot. "Take as much as you want." She kicked at the fish when they refused to eat her foot. She started to cry then, her tears falling like tiny raindrops into the water. "I wish I were dead," she said, an ache in heart as big as her foot. Suddenly, the river water nearby began to bubble, as if something were surfacing to take a breath. Gingerella had only time enough to pull her knees up to her chest before a creature that looked a giant ugly frog rose up out of the muck.
"I heard what you said," the giant ugly frog croaked.
"Who are you?" asked Gingerella.
"I'm Phibs, your wishing toad." The toad winked. "You name it and it will be done. But three wishes only."
Gingerella looked over her shoulder, at the collection of tents and wagons that made up the Gypsy camp. Her cousins Harlotta and Petrushka were getting ready to leave, taking practice twirls in their red skirts and high-heeled boots.
"I wish my cousins could know what is to be like me."
Phibs eyed the two young women in the distance. "Which one? It can only be one."
Gingerella thought long and hard about which cousin was meaner, though both were pretty mean. "Petrushka," she said at last, for no other reason than Petrushka had once called her a "useless freak."
Phibs blinked twice. "It is done!"
Gingerella stared after her cousins, who stepped up onto a horse drawn wagon laughing. They were then swept away toward town. "But she's laughing."
Phibs smiled. "Midnight, my dear. Well, gotta go..."
"But wait! How will I know?" said Gingerella, her face wearing the worry of someone who had just put something into motion that perhaps she shouldn't have.
"Oh, you'll know," said Phibs before sinking out of sight.
That night Gingerella lay in bed wondering what was going to happen to Petrushka. She wanted to stay awake until Petrushka returned but soon fell off to sleep. Later that night, in the middle of a dream a strange sensation occurred down by her feet, but Gingerella didn't wake until morning when her Grandma Vaida roused her with her bony fingers.
"Wake up, you! What have you done?"
Grandma Vaida's eyes were especially beetly this morning, but her fingers shook. She appeared afraid.
"I don't know what you mean," said Gingerella. "What is it that has happened?"
Grandma Vaida eyed her. Then she pulled off the covers on Gingerella's bed revealing her feet. Grandma Vaida appeared disappointed.
"Do you always sleep with your boot on?"
Gingerella looked down. The boot was there on her club foot. She must have forgotten to take it off before bed.
"I guess I forgot." It was then Gingerella heard crying outside the tent.
"Your cousin Petrushka is dead. Harlotta says she was dancing on the balcony of a rich man's home when the clock struck twelve and she fell. She screamed something about her foot, right before she stumbled backward over the railing onto the cobblestones below." Grandma Vaida shed a tear. "Such a beautiful girl." She got up then and left Gingerella's bedside.
Gingerella didn't know what to think. She stared at her boot and noticed that it looked as if someone else had tied the laces.
Later that day she went down by the river and called for Phibs to appear. The wishing toad surfaced as before.
"What is it now?" the ugly frog croaked.
"She's dead. You didn't say the boot was going to hurt her."
"Accidents will happen."
"I wanted her to feel what it was like to be me."
"And, if I recall, you said 'I wish I was dead.'"
"But that was before."
Phibs shrugged, his tiny shoulders jumping slightly beneath his thin ugly skin.
"Now what do I do?"
"You can wish again." The words left Phibs' mouth more like a question than an answer.
Gingerella thought for a moment. The wishing toad's offer was tempting. At last, Gingerella thought she had the answer. She said, "I wish Petrushka was still alive."
Phibs shook his head. "In order for one person to come back from the dead, another person has to die. I'm sorry."
Gingerella thought about all the bad things Grandma Vaida had said to her over the years, mocking her, making her the butt of many a joke for her cousins to laugh at and imitate. Gingerella hurried to speak what was on her mind before she changed it.
"I wish Grandma Vaida were dead instead of Petrushka."
Phibs blinked twice. "It is done!"
Gingerella was stunned at what she had just wished for. She watched Phibs sink back into the river.
"Midnight," the ugly frog gurgled, leaving a circle of bubbles behind.
That night, Gingerella was able to stay awake. She left her boot on where she could see it. Moments before midnight she felt her boot begin to squirm. She pulled back the covers and watched, under the moonlight, as the laces unlaced and the boot slipped off her club foot and dropped to the floor. She heard it thump off into the night until it was quiet once again. At one point she thought she had dreamed what had just happened, but that thought was suddenly made real when an ungodly shriek shattered the midnight silence. Gingerella stayed in her tent, unable to move. She heard the voices of her aunts and uncles. Then more screams filled the night. She waited, watching the dark at the foot of her tent. She heard a soft rustle and lay there shaking as the boot climbed back up onto the bed and slipped onto her foot.
She hobbled out of bed and joined the crowd that had gathered around Grandma Vaida's tent. She pushed through to see what had happened. In the kerosene light, Grandma Vaida sat in her chair. She sat as rigid as the chair itself, her eyes wide open, her mouth yawning as if unable to take a breath. Her eyes was no longer beetly but dull, her stare endless. Gingerella's aunts and uncles crossed themselves and mumbled Gypsy prayers.
"First Petrushka and now Grandma. What curse has found its way to us?" Gingerella's Aunt Sophie bellowed.
As the crowd of Gypsies disbanded, and another funeral was planned, there came a shout. "Look! Isn't that our little Petrushka?"
Out of the dark woods came Petrushka, still covered in dirt from the grave she was buried in. Her walk was not the graceful gate everyone was used to. It was as if her entire body was jointed and those joints had rusted.
Screams issued from the women as hexes were drawn in the air. Uncle Karloff, Petrushka's father, tears wetting his bearded face, took an ax and cut the walking corpse of his daughter down before more of this heresy was witnessed.
Gingerella ran to the edge of the river as fast as her club foot could carry her. She called for the wishing toad but the river remained undisturbed. That night she slept on the riverbank, hoping Phibs would appear, afraid of what tomorrow would bring. She dreamed of Grandma Vaida pointing her bony finger at her and asking, "What have you done?" At the first light of dawn Gingerella was awakened by gurgling sounds. She opened her eyes and there was Phibs.
"So, did everything work out as planned?" The toad's mouth was the same thin line as it always was, but to Gingerella it now appeared to be grinning.
"What are you?" asked Gingerella.
"I'm your wishing toad," said Phibs.
Gingerella felt the anger in her surge. The smug expression on the creature before her was created by years of tricking people into wishing for things they didn't want. It fed off the dreams of the weak, and the good nature of the innocent. Well, it was too late for what she had wished for, but she could perhaps keep the wishing toad from doing this to someone else.
"Be careful," Phibs said. Now the grin was apparent. It was just that Gingerella was too naīve to have noticed it before.
Gingerella spoke fast. "I wish you had club feet like me!"
Phibs stared at her. "Oh, you selfish little witch! You shouldn't have done that!"
But the wishing toad was already backing itself into the water, the grin gone from its face. If Gingerella wasn't mistaken, its skin appeared to turn a slight shade of red before it dropped beneath the surface of the water.
After a long day of two burials and hexes being drawn on every tent and carriage, night at last fell and a solemn quiet settled into the Gypsy camp. Some of the Gypsies drank in silence to try to forget the past two day's events. Others turned in early to go to find refuge in dreams. Gingerella stayed awake like the night before until midnight approached. With it came the strange occurrence of her boot adopting a life of its own, unlacing itself and disappearing into the night. She could hear the gentle flow of the nearby river. When she heard the first splash, she knew it was Phibs. A series of splashes followed, then a gurgling sound, thick and fluid, like the sound of water being pulled into giant ugly frog lungs...splashes by a creature whose webbed feet suddenly became deformed and unable to keep its host afloat. Gingerella fell asleep waiting for her boot to return.
In the morning the boot was still missing, her foot now naked. But Gingerella didn't mind, inspecting her feet as if they were newly born. She spread here toes and played with the webbing there. There was a balance to everything, she realized.
She couldn't wait to go swimming for the first time in her life.