We were travelling in Podolia when we hit a particularly bad pothole and the car's front suspension broke. We veered off the road and into a ditch. Where, I hear you ask is Podolia? It's in the back of beyond, where Russia and the Ukraine meet, more or less. Depending on where you set the boundaries, parts of it have been at various times in Moldova, Austria, Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. In any event, most of the roads are rubbish, and cell-phone coverage is patchy.
Luckily we had passed a kind of farmstead not long before, so we hoofed it back there to look for help. There was an old farmer working near the road, or rather track. A nice old guy, with not too many words but more than willing to leave off his work and listen to our story. No, there was no telephone for miles; but the post bus would come by next morning. It could take us into the nearest town. Meanwhile, he said he would harness his horse and pull our car off the road. He insisted that his wife would be glad to give us a meal and put us up for the night.
As we went towards the farmhouse, the farmer went into the byre and picked up a jug of milk. There was a shallow earthenware dish by the door, and he paused to pour a little milk into it.
"For the cat?" I asked.
"No, for the old woman." He looked over his shoulder, and dropped his voice. "For the toad-wife. Do you not do this, where you come from?"
I thought perhaps something had been lost in translation, but shook my head. "No," I said, "We live in a city. No toads in the city, though many old women."
He grunted. "Well if you want to know about it, you can ask my wife tonight. She'll enjoy having a new audience for the story."
After supper that night – it was mostly a thick soup, eaten peasant style with a hunk of bread in one hand and a spoon in the other – I got out the bottle of tsuica I had in my case. It's a ferocious kind of plum brandy that the Romanians produce. We made a start on it, gravely toasting international peace and prosperity.
Then the farmer lit his pipe and stared out the window while his wife told us that there used to be an old woman, Baba Zhaba, who lived in the forest nearby. She was a witch, and could turn herself into a toad. She could make herself small if she wished, and she could puff herself up to be enormous, especially when she came out to eat naughty children, using her long sticky tongue to drag them into her mouth.
"I can see why you would be sure to give her milk!" I laughed.
"No, no, no," she replied. "You do not understand, no. You think it is just a story to frighten children. But listen, many years ago this was woman's work, putting out milk at night for the Baba Zhaba and her toads. Just like you, the men in the village began to think that it was only a fairy story, something to frighten children. They thought that there was not really any such person as Baba Zhaba. So when they came back from the inn at night, they kicked over the milk dishes outside the door and forbade the women to waste any more milk in this way.
"The witch sent out her toads as usual that night, and on the next nights, but each morning they went back to her thirsty and unfed. The toads became thin and weak, and she swelled up with anger.
"Now the women of the village knew well that Baba Zhaba would not stand for this, so when their men were out working in the fields one afternoon they took jugs of milk and went deep into the dark forest to the damp boggy clearing where the toad-wife had her home. They explained that it was all the fault of the men, and gave the witch the milk they had brought so that she would not be angry with them.
"That night Baba Zhaba sent out her toads again, but not to sit outside the houses waiting for milk. No, this time they crept into the houses and threw all the people into a deep, magical sleep. Then they crawled into the men's beds, and they bit off each man's privates and carried them back to the witch."
The farmer's wife paused and looked across at her husband. Then she continued.
"In the morning each man woke up, felt himself and found there was nothing there. Each looked at himself, and saw there was nothing between his legs. Of course they were filled with shame and tried to hide the terrible thing that had happened to them. But no one could keep the thing secret, for sooner or later he would be seen by someone as he squatted down like a woman to relieve himself. The women of the village guessed that this was the work of the witch, but they said nothing for it made the men much quieter and less troublesome.
"There was one, however, a young maiden, who felt differently about all this, for her young man was visiting the village on leave from the army. He was going away to fight the Turks, and they were engaged to marry before he left for the wars. 'But how can I fight the Turks when I am like this?' he said. 'And how can we ever marry?'
"His fiancée talked things over with the older women in the village, and they agreed that an exception might be made for her young soldier, if Baba Zhaba agreed. So the young man and his fiancée went off into the forest together, and told the witch of their situation.
"Now Baba Zhaba may have been a witch, but she was above all things our witch, a witch of our people. She was horrified at the thought that the Turks might see the young man squatting and think that our soldiers were all like women. So she took the young man round behind her hut and showed him a big meal chest that stood against the wall. 'Open that,' she said to him, 'and take out what you need.'
"The young man lifted the lid of the chest, and there he saw all the stolen men's privates, squirming and wriggling about as they fed on the oatmeal which the witch had put in to nourish them. The young man picked out a huge member, the biggest of all, and held it up twisting and turning in his hand. 'May I have this one?' he asked.
"The witch shook her head. 'Certainly not,' she said. 'That belongs to the priest. It has grown big and fat because it leads a life of idleness. Take one of the others.' And his fiancée, who had been peeping round the corner of the hut, breathed a sigh of relief.
So the young man chose something more modest, though fine enough to make the maiden's eyes sparkle, and the witch took him into her cottage to try if it would fit. When they came out, she had a broad smile on her warty old face, and he had something of a swagger in his walk. 'Go now!' she said, 'and give it to your bride. And then go and give it to the Turks!'"
* * *
"Well, that's not really the end of the story," said the farmer's wife, "but it is about enough for one night. The men in the village eventually came to an understanding with Baba Zhaba, and ever since it has been their job to put out a little milk each night for the toads."
"Damned nonsense!" said the farmer, puffing on his pipe.