Story time! This is a popular truyện cổ tích Việt Nam (old collected tales of VN) that fantastically explains the phenomena of toads croaking before a big rain shower. It also expresses the age old adage of not judging the greatness of things by their appearances. This story is called Con Cóc là Cậu Ông Trời (Toad is the Uncle of Heaven) and also goes by the name of Cóc Kiện Trời (Toad Sues Heaven).
You can read a longer version of the story in Vietnamese over here. And you can also listen to the story in Vietnamese over here. Finally, please enjoy this humble English translation; and as always, suggestions are perfectly welcome.
When Heaven Cried Uncle (translated and illustrated by Julie Nguyễn)
Once upon a time, the toad was still a creature as ugly and small as it is today, but was renown as amongst the bravest, the most daring. The toad’s legacy goes like this: In a time long forgotten, Heaven made a drought so vicious, so brutal, that the lakes and rivers were sucked dry, fires burned from one month to the next, and the trees died of thirst. There was not a drop in the world to drink. Even the great beasts of the jungle, the majestic, the beautiful, all and the same they lay despairing, waiting for death. What could they do to save the jungle, if they couldn’t even save themselves? Their strength was meant for hunting and foraging and fighting one another, how would this strength save them now?
Luckily, there was the little purple cousin, the toad, mottled and ugly with spots. With great aspirations to ascend Heaven and sue for rain to deliver the world from ignoble death, Toad set out on his way. Along the way, Toad came across a sad mangrove village, dry and drooping, full of dust and wind. From the shade of a dead treeroot, a grumpy old Crab asked him, “Where are you going in such a hurry, you ugly toad?”
Toad took no offense and told the Crab of his design, and then an idea struck him. “Say, Crab, why not come along?”
The old Crab scoffed, his sideways nature getting the better of him. “I’d rather die here than drag myself all that way just to beg at Heaven’s door!”
The nosy neighbors poked out their long noses. They praised Toad for his foolishness, they criticized Toad for his daring. They spoke left, they spoke right, they spoke backward and forward until no one remembered what anyone else was talking about. Someone told off that foolish Toad but by now the old Crab’s head was spinning, his sideways nature volunteered him for the road, no less! And Toad had his first companion.
A little further on and the companions met a slumped tiger, her breath coming in great dramatic gasps, and a melting bear, choking on his burning throat. Toad felt badly for his cousins and kindly asked them to come along. Tiger rolled her eyes but Bear nodded.
“Sounds better than lying here waiting for death. I see you’ve even convinced that backward old Crab to come with you. I will follow you, cousin Toad. So will this sardonic tiger as she has nothing better to do.”
The sardonic tiger didn’t have the energy to argue, and so it was that two doubled into four. Four would become six when they were joined by a wasp whose honey had dried to dust and a sun-burnt fox whose fur was singed and smoking. Toad led the companions on and on, a very long ways, until finally, they attained Heaven’s Gate. The massive doors were shut fast and it was only Toad of Crab, Bear, Tiger, Wasp, and Fox, who was brave enough to go forth and sound the Great Drum of Opening. But first, he turned to his companions.
“If we are to survive this campaign, I will need you all do as I say. Over there is a jar of water. Old Crab will hide himself within it. Wasp will hide behind the door when it opens. Fox must hide somewhere to my left, Bear to my right. And Tiger, please crouch behind me, out of sight.”
The companions, one and all, obeyed Toad. Finally, it was time. Toad jumped up onto the face of the Great Summoning Drum and struck it three times, each strike reverberating like thunder.
Old Man Heaven was having a pleasant dream when the drum’s voice disrupted it. He grumpily waved his hand, ordering forth the Thunder God to deal with it. Thunder shook the dust from his shoulders, brushed the cobwebs from his massive Lightning Hammer, and stormed out to investigate. He threw open the great doors but there was no one, nothing to see; just an ugly little Toad splayed across the Summoning Drum. Thunder raised his hammer but hesitated, looking from the Toad to his great hammer and back again. The damage this hammer could do was enormous, reaching even into the Fourth Realm of Hell; was this puny creature worth it? Thunder brought his confusion back to Heaven. Heaven grumbled in annoyance and ordered out Heaven’s Rooster, to peck that insolent Toad to death.
Heaven’s Rooster rushed out clacking and squawking and was just about to swallow up Toad when Toad ground his teeth. Instantly, Fox leapt out from the left and snapped her jaws down on that rooster’s throat. Toad sounded the drum again. Heaven was furious and set Heaven’s Hound on Fox. Heaven’s Hound had just charged out when Toad ground his teeth. Instantly, Bear lumbered out and blocked Hound’s path. The hound ran smack into that sturdy bear and died instantly.
Toad sounded the drum again. Heaven wearily rubbed his temples and waved his hand, permitting Thunder to wield his full authority, ending the matter. No one in the world could contest against Thunder’s Lightning Hammer. Heaven sighed and lay back down to finish his nap.
Thunder stormed out from Heaven’s Gate but just then, Toad ground his teeth. Instantly, Wasp shot out from her hiding place and flew into Thunder’s right nostril. She stung him where it would hurt. It is not an unremarkable thing, to see a God of Thunder burning up, and burn he did. Wasp’s venom spread like wildfire. Through the pain, Thunder recalled there being a jar of water somewhere near. He dropped his great hammer and with both hands, grabbed up the jar and shoved his entire head into water. But in there, waiting, just waiting for his fifteen minutes of fame, was the contrary old crab.
Pincers snapped and the Thunder God howled. The jar shattered and Thunder scrabbled backward, escaping toward the Gates. Toad ground his teeth. Instantly, Tiger leapt up, and with a warrior’s roar she tore that Thunder God in two.
Seeing the stalwart Thunder God dismembered thus, Heaven was so frightened that he begged for peace. He asked to receive the remains of his servant and Toad agreed, grinding his teeth. Tiger and Bear laid the two parts of Thunder together. Meanwhile, Heaven had to go himself to pour the nectar of life into Thunder. It was an insult, far beneath his dignity to apply himself to such a menial task but no sooner had he fantasized taking his revenge than Toad had ground his teeth. As one, the companions rallied together, ready to fight. Wasp with her venom, Fox with her swiftness, Tiger with her claws, Crab with his pincers, and Bear with his strength. Now, Thunder had just narrowly escaped his death. He wasn’t going to go through all that pain and agony a second time. He slunk down behind Heaven’s throne when no one was looking and hid himself. Heaven’s Armies, seeing the majestic Thunder God cowering thus, could not be assembled.
Heaven finally understood that he was beaten. He was finally ready to listen.
Toad jumped up onto the arm of the throne and opened his mouth wide.
“Four long years have we suffered from drought without a single drop of rain to relieve the dry earth. The trees wither and the creatures die of thirst. I thought that perhaps Heaven was busy with affairs, or that Heaven must at least be angry with us in the world. Who would have imagined that Heaven and his servants merely slept in laziness, forsaking their duties, forgetting the mortal world down below. Will no one relieve our suffering? We took it upon ourselves to come all this way to Heaven’s Gate to awaken Heaven’s awareness and to beg you for rain.”
Hearing Toad’s words, his companions trembled with passionate anger and Heaven was compelled to reply. “Toad and I are friends now, there’s no reason to let things get out of hand. I will call on the Rain God and the Windbag God to make it storm this instant. Are you satisfied?”
“That you’ve rescued our humble earth from ignoble death, we are immensely thankful. We will promise to return again the next time we are struck by drought, to beg for your deliverance.”
Hearing this, Heaven quickly shook his head. “Oh no, no, no, you needn’t bother coming all that way. If ever there is another drought, all you need do, Toad, is grind your teeth, and I will see to it that you are sent rain.”
To show his sincerity, Heaven ordered forth the Black Dragon to pilot the rain clouds and return the six companions to their homes.
The rain brought life back to the earth and the jungle grew lush and thick, the creatures and critters danced together, welcoming home their friends. And thus and thereon, whenever Toad ground his teeth, Heaven would send pouring rain. A thousand years after and it is still remembered in children’s rhymes:
Toad is the Uncle of Heaven
Whomever challenges Toad must first challenge Heaven