Inspired by the toad rush (Juncus bufonius), an unbeautiful, squat little plant with a liking for damp places.
It was rumoured that he could sleep under water. That was nonsense, of course. But he did choose to lurk around the forest pools, and brought with him a light-framed coracle, made of osier-wood and deerskins, and carried it from pool to pool on his back. When he sat down to rest, the coracle crouched with him, he resembled a giant toad sitting by the water.
This is probably where the rumours started, but you should never underestimate the power of suggestion upon the collective mind of the public. Some were upset at the thought of him lurking under the water’s surface. When sensible people said ‘prove that he does’, the silence was deafening. But the suspicions remained. Was he merely a man with a portable boat, or was he truly part toad?
‘Come now – no-one can live in a coracle. Surely you would be better off in a little cottage, Toad Man?’
It was kindly meant, but he was irritated. ‘I am very happy as I am, my good woman. And don’t call me Toad Man. It isn’t my name, you know.’
The village woman was thrown into confusion for a moment by his surprisingly refined tone, and then remembered she was talking to a complete ragamuffin. ‘Oh. Well. I was thinking you might appreciate it. There is a little ruined cottage in the forest just waiting to be fixed. And don’t call me “my good woman”.’
‘Ah,’ said the toad-man. ‘I see we understand one another. I thank you for the thought, but my coracle is all the home I need, and conveniently portable, too.’
The bulging of his eyes was so strikingly toad-like that she took a step back. ‘But surely,’ she said, ‘someone like you –’ she almost said a gentleman like you but caught herself in time ‘ – someone like you must be accustomed to something more…’
‘Yes. No.’ she was getting herself into deeper and deeper water. ‘It must be bitter cold in the winter.’
‘I sleep mostly in winter. I don’t feel it.’
She took this in. He sleeps in the winter, just like a toad. Under that coracle, somewhere near the water.
‘But you were gently bred, weren’t you? How came you to this?’
‘A first son inherits,’ said the toad-man, matter-of-factly. ‘A second son goes into the church. I am a seventh son. There was nothing left for me. I built my coracle and made my own life.’ He sidled towards her and breathed in her ear, ‘I am happy, except that I have no lady to share it. I don’t suppose you…?’
She threw up her hands in horror, as he had known she would. There was no queue forming to be the lady wife of a toad-man, even one in possession of his own coracle.
He gave a bubbling, watery chuckle as she rushed off.
Inspired by the adderstongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum), a curious plant of meadows and hedgerows.
‘You should not have let him in, ma’am,’ whispered the maidservant. ‘There is something wrong with him.’
The older woman shrugged. ‘It’s a desperate night. I wouldn’t leave a dog out on the doorstep in this.’ She jerked her head towards the window – grimy on the inside, rain-streaked on the outside. It seemed that the cottage needed to be turned inside out and cleansed. ‘Anyway, he’s a vagrant, no more. What is it that’s wrong with him?’
The maid glanced at the man snoring by the fire, steam rising from his wet clothes in unfragrant clouds. ‘Shush. I don’t want to say,’ she murmured. ‘He might… cast a spell on us. I think he could, you know.’
‘Shush, I said. He’ll hear us. We must get rid of him. When he’s dry. Or when the rain eases. He defiles your hearth, ma’am.’
The old woman looked first at her servant, then at the scruffy sleeper. Defiles was a strong word. ‘Defiles?’ she asked. ‘How?’
‘Did you not hear the hissing in his speech, ma’am?’
‘He has an… impediment.’ The old woman frowned. ‘It’s a misfortune. Not a reason to throw someone out into the rain.’
The servant came closer. ‘Your eyesight isn’t what it was, ma’am. But mine is still keen.’
‘Did you not see?’
‘See what?’ The old woman was becoming impatient.
‘Look closely,’ said the maid. ‘When he snores his mouth falls open.’
The old woman crept closer, screwed up her eyes and peered at the man.
‘Oh! That is unnatural,’ she said, pulling back sharply.
The man’s open mouth had clearly revealed a pale green forked tongue.
Look out for part 6 of The Herbarium, in which we wonder just who all these odd persons are and where they might come from.