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Isolates and Survivors: Stories of Resilience

The Toad Collector

Being a toad collector was an honourable profession, and Elliot Habitant didn't mind telling people that when he met them. "I could have been a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman," he'd say. "I could have cut people up for a living, or pulled naked women out of burning buildings, or stood in a room full of smart people and told them they were all wrong, but I chose different."

In fact, life had chosen for Elliot. His father had been a toad collector before him, and just like his family had always voted republican and eaten fish on Fridays, he was destined to be a toad collector. His job consisted of ridding local farms of toad infestations. Elliot knew that toads ate insects, many of them harmful to the crops, but the people that paid his fees felt otherwise. "Ugly spawn of Satan," Marguerite called them. For many, the toads were a blight on an otherwise healthy crop. A farm without a toad was considered successful, and few were those, faced with Elliot's initial pitch, who would not pay the fees.

Catching the toads themselves was easy enough. Elliot had three girls and two boys who were under ten and quick on their feet. They'd scramble into the fields hollering and yelling, startling the toads into uncharacteristically quick actions, then they'd scoop them into front-loading aprons, and when full, dump them into bins that Elliot had made from barrels he'd cut in half.

The real secret, Elliot had learned from his father, was managing the infestation. "Always work a few farms away from the last one, and always carry your own stock." No one ever asked what Elliot did with the toads, some of the more timid souls believing that he took them to the swamps and released them while others fantasized about his barrels slowly filling with lye, the toads guttering away the last of their frenzied pain in white powder. Actually, and Elliot told only his diminutive crew this trade secret, Elliot carried the toads with him. Pulling behind two horses the closed wagon painted with a representation of a toad only a squint could divine, few knew that the back was hopping with toads under where Elliot's kids chattered away the afternoon.

Occasionally times were tight enough that a toad ended up in the miscellaneous stew, as Elliot called it, but usually the toads went down the road with Elliot's business and were released into the fields of prospective customers. Then Elliot would withdraw for a few days, work slimmer pickings, until his presence was called for. Arriving with a serious look on his face, Elliot would listen with professional calm as the revolted landowner described an invasion from hell and dogs sick from eating toads. Then Elliot would suggest the eagerly paid price, call the kids down from the wagon and the next few days would be spent putting the toads back in the wagon from which they'd come.

Elliot was canny about his business, and he knew enough to pull into swamps to wait over Sundays when people might be around. He also knew when to take a vacation, and his kids, who had never gone to school and had grown up wild, would be treated to the circus. There they would prod the sleepy-looking two-headed calf and wonder at the elephant and moose, clinging to each other like laundry on a line, afraid they'd be cut and deformed and be hauled away for the freak show like Elliot had told them.

Elliot had envisioned a lengthy career. The kids would grow up and some of them would leave, but he could always get other kids who, dissatisfied with the drudgery of farm life, could be encouraged to run away with Elliot and his toad wagon. He was the next best thing to a circus in the backwater towns where he worked, and more reliable, since he came around every year. What put a stop to Elliot's business, and mocked the busy industry with which he unpacked his wagon and reloaded it again, was not the law, as he'd sometimes worried, but a lack of bugs.

When Elliot came to Riverbank, a fifteen house village along the broad sweep of the Missouri, he little dreamed that the business that had been so good to him was about to end. He drove past town, noting the newer cars and paint on the houses. Then he pulled his wagon back from the road along a field planted with tobacco and released his toads to do what they did so well.

Elliot lounged around in town, letting his kids run loose through the streets and vaguely, in the most pleasant way possible, threaten the local children. He waited for the inevitable call, "Toad man. Oh, Toad man," said like it was a question and a title. After two days of waiting, the call never came. Elliot loaded up a few kids, ignoring those who had gone missing and paying equal disregard to the ones who had joined for fun, angling their faces away from his and pretending to tie their shoes, afraid that they would be thrown off the wagon when discovered.

Once they arrived where the toads should have been littering the road, Elliot noticed the silence for the first time. Any country road is covered with birds singing out their hearts from every bush, and crows hanging from the wires, opportunists looking for a shiny meal. The narrow dirt road that Elliot stood on was silent and still, like something horrible was going to happen. Elliot looked to the sky for a tornado and the kids held their breath. Reassuringly, the drone of a tractor motor sounded in the distance, and then came closer. Elliot waited, as if it were a sign that would explain everything.

When the tractor came to the end of the row, and turned, dosing Elliot and his horses, and making the kids sneeze in surprise, Elliot lifted his suddenly greasy hands to his mouth, tasting the spray coming out of the machine. Perhaps because they were made more visible by the glistening waxy rain, he suddenly saw hundreds of his toads, lying dead between the rows. The tractor shut down, and even while Elliot saw the last of his business drain away while the artificial rain ran down the picture of the deformed toad on his wagon, the man approached. "You might not want to be standing around here," he said rather kindly. "Especially with them kids and all. I'm spraying poison to kill the bugs, and there's no telling what it might do to you and yours."

Elliot nodded, slapped the reins and the wagon pulled forward. The most recently acquired kids slipped off unnoticed over the next few miles, and when those who remained were so obviously the ragged ones he'd brought with him, Elliot went to the circus. Two towns over, passing by fields without an insect or a bird, without seeing a single toad or weed in the straight rows of tobacco and corn, Elliot left his remaining kids to the whimsey of the carnival. Even the carnies would take better care of them that Elliot could now. He watched the ragged backs of the fascinated children and thought about the hundreds of farmers he'd helped, about the children who had escaped with the toad man, and about how the only way of life he'd ever known was over.

Turning the wagon west like many before him, Elliot Habitant pondered how he was going to feed himself. "A bit late to be a doctor or a lawyer," he mumbled to himself, "and there's probably some spray to stop fires."

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