The Eastern Spadefoot

[creative nonfiction]

Toad hunting season begins in early March when the weather starts to break. Dew blooms on the scraggly lawn and mourning doves start nesting in the single crooked tree in our yard at the house we rented on Main Street. We only lived there about a year or two and I only remember the place in fragments: the sun rising through the window above the kitchen sink. The soft blue tiles in the bathroom.

This memory begins with Dad rushing upstairs. Billy and I are putting on pajamas, hair still damp and smelling of Dollar Tree shampoo. He tells us it’s raining and that we have to hurry. Toad hunting is so common to us that I know what he means. Billy whines and doesn’t want to go. Mom probably says something like “It’s getting late” but we have to go—we have to. We have to scramble into the blue jeep and go driving down the cornfield roads in search of toads, their soft bumpy bodies ambling on the asphalt.

The first real downpour soaks the soil and forces the toads out, or at least that’s what Dad tells me. Hungry from their winter sleep, they instinctively follow stringy pink worms across the road to feed. I remember how anxious this made me—the thought of how long the winding roads were and how many toads could be spaced out across all of them—how the toads must be starving from not eating all winter and how they could not know the danger of vehicles bounding through the damp night.

I could ask for more specifics about that house on Main Street from Mom or Dad, but I’m more interested in the impressions I have of this place we lived in so briefly. Mom and Dad’s room had a balcony with white metal bars. The house was a twin and the other side was overgrown and falling apart. We only saw the neighbors once or twice—two old men. Dad tells a story that he saw inside once and the whole place was stacks and stacks of newspapers.

I’m conjuring this night because I think it’s the night we caught the Eastern Spadefoot. Just Dad and I. Thunder making thick loud veins across the sky.

Dad was never scared of a storm—he would shout “Woah!” and “Yeah, will you look at that!” as the deep grey-black clouds churned above us. I never wanted the storm to end. I wanted to keep catching toads all night with him.

Where I live now, I have yet to find a toad. Each time it rains, I walk out down the stairs and through the slick alley towards the parking lot behind our apartment. There are two small tired trees there. I perch and think of toads. I don’t tell anyone else I do this. The first time maybe I was looking for them, but now I do it out of reverence.

We spent probably an hour taking turns running out in front of the car’s headlights to scoop the animals up. I would marvel at how gracefully and without hesitation Dad would cradle the amphibians to a plastic red sandbox bucket we were using that night.

I peered into the bucket to watch the toads climb on each other’s heads. I told Dad they were making a “toad pyramid” trying to escape. The walls were tall and they would never succeed. As we continued, the voices of the toads’ chirps grew until the sweet cacophony of their bell-like voices flickered around our short conversations.

I want to tell you that I noticed the toad then, but I didn’t. I saw the usual common toads with their simple variations of reddish-brown cobblestone skin. I would reach my hand in to feel their throat pulse in and out like tiny pocket watches. Only when we went to release them on the cool stone porch did we come upon the Eastern Spadefoot.

“It’s never been that I want to die, but more that I live in a constant state of missing imagined moments. It’s more that I consider the soil and how safe a burial might feel.”

It was part of the ritual that once back home, we would let all the toads go, pouring the bucket and watching the toads skip towards the bushes in front of the house. A few times we even witnessed them burrowing—wriggling themselves into fresh rich dirt.

“This one looks different,” I told Dad, observing the animal’s gold-foil eyes and greyish glossy skin.

It took him a moment. Pausing, he stared at the animal, too. He kneeled down close to inspect it and then picked the toad up with one hand. We watched the throat pulse and the creature try to wriggle free. He put the toad back into the bucket. “Yes… I don’t think I’ve seen one like that before.”

The Eastern Spadefoot remains in hibernation for most of its life, coming out only to breed and to eat, spending months at a time buried deep in the earth. It’s not even common to farmland, usually inhabiting mountainous Appalachia. What brought the animal to our winding roads and our night?

A memory is a thing that’s made. We went toad hunting so many times, but I roll each occasion into one—the night of catching the Eastern Spadefoot. I’m not sure if this was the same night that the lightning was blue and I asked Dad if he was sure it wouldn’t strike us. I’m not sure if we stopped at a gas station to buy cosmic brownies before Mom noticed we were home, but this is what I remember.

It’s almost as if my whole childhood has arranged itself into a night of searching for toads. I can feel my father’s coarse fingers around my own as he slips the Spadefoot into my hand saying, “It is softer than the others—isn’t that strange?” I’m nodding. I’m telling him we should get out the toad guidebook we have on the bookshelf in my room.

Do I stay with the toad or does he? One of us gets the book. I stay alone with the toad and watch as it tries to find a pathway to escape. What can the mind of a toad consider?

Sometimes in the alleyway between my apartment and the adjacent building, I feel like this toad in the deep strange bucket, only, there is no one peering down at me; only, there is a gate at both ends and I am an adult now and I can walk out down the streets in Mineola in any direction I want.

Each morning, I walk far in one direction. Across two busy streets and past tall luxury apartments and corner delicatessens. I walk the same path everyday and I’ve never once encountered a toad. I’m looking for them sometimes actively and sometimes in a faint subconscious way. When snow comes this year, I will consider their bodies buried safe in the soil. I will want to be buried safe in the soil with them.

It’s never been that I want to die, but more that I live in a constant state of missing imagined moments. It’s more that I consider the soil and how safe a burial might feel.

Do toads know their fathers? No. They emerge from soft eggs. A cluster in the pond. Briefly tadpoles. Growing legs. Growing rocky skin. Learning to swallow worms in the rain.

All the other toads have made their way into the grass and we sit together on the cool porch with the rain continuing to sprinkle on the road outside. The crooked tree in the backyard sways in the wind.

We find an image in the guidebook that matches our toad and the name “Eastern Spadefoot.”

I beg Dad to keep the toad but he tells me we have to let it go.

That old line “If you love something, let it go” is an impossible ask. It’s never felt true to me. I am twenty-three years old, still considering this toad we released into the bushes of that house on Noble Street. I am twenty-three years old and each time I leave my parents’ house, I feel like I understand them less and maybe that they also understand me less.

I used to think that if they started calling me by my name, if they started accepting my queerness and my transness, that it would feel complete, but there is more. We are a family of intimate strangers. I tell Dad the story of the Eastern Spadefoot over and over again because we haven’t had a memory of each other for almost a decade. What am I to him other than a child?

The last time I was there, I invited him to take a walk with me down a backcountry road. It was mid-day, but we might have found a toad. You never know. Though it is unlikely this close to the final cold snap into autumn. He explained it was too cold. He slipped into the basement and I walked the road alone.

It is worse that my father loves me—that the distance is an ache.

It would be easy to say that I am the Eastern Spadefoot. Not meant for here, not meant for there. It is truer that my father is an Eastern Spadefoot. That he came into focus that night when I was seven or eight and that it flickers still in constructed memories.

We never caught another one, though we once caught a green frog, and we once caught a salamander. And we did see the Eastern Spadefoot that summer on buggy nights. It would sit beneath a lamp on the side of our house, harvesting bugs drawn there by the light’s glow. Dad and I would sit near the metal doors that led to the basement. Dad might drink a beer while I watched the toad. Each time I would ask him how long toads live and if it would come back the next year.

Robin Gow is the author of the chapbook Honeysuckle by Finishing Line Press. Their poetry has recently been published in Poetry, New Delta Review, and Roanoke Review. They are a graduate student and professor at Adelphi University pursing an MFA in creative writing. They is the Editor-at-Large for Village of Crickets and a managing editor at The Nasiona where they run The Nasiona’s LGBTQIA+ series. Their first full-length poetry collection is forthcoming with Tolsun Books. They are the founder of the queer and trans poetry reading series Gender Reveal Party.