The Things in the Mud by Carlton Herzog

THE THINGS IN THE MUD

     It may be said with some assurance that not everything meeting the eye is as it appears. Case in point: Johnny Proudfoot looked as if he had been chiseled from solid granite, a brown-skinned black-haired Adonis, whose very physical being radiated a larger than life strength, grace and nimble sure-footedness. Nevertheless, Johnny had a baked in habit of tripping over his own elegantly crafted feet, so much so he was called Johnny Tangle-Feet.

     On this day, Johnny had gone to the Raratona River to gather mussels and clams.  Since his natural clumsiness followed him everywhere like a shadow, it should have come as no surprise when he stumbled face first into the mudflat left by the receding tide. But Johnny believed this time was different and unnatural. For as he pitched forward into that shimmering smooth plain of sediment, he thought he saw bony hands clutching his ankles. He hit the mud with a slap and sunk into it face first. It filled his mouth, nose and ears.  Anger and revulsion consumed him as he thought of the bird and turtle droppings, the urine and dead things imbedded in that viscous noisome slop. He got to his feet, then slipped again, this time falling backwards, so that he was now covered head to toe with river mud.  

     Whether he had simply imagined those prehensile hands grabbing at him or not, was, to his mind, not relevant, since either way, this latest humiliation was simply another in a long line of mud related episodes.  After all, mud was the go-to weapon of his white tormentors: they took a perverse delight in throwing it at him, throwing him into it, and on two occasions, forcing him to eat as they held him down. To his mind, the universe, or whatever it was that ran the show, was not going to let him forget his degraded social status as a native American in the white man’s world, a mere thing in and of the mud no better than a lowly fiddler crab or a clam.    

    In the weeks that followed, he began having nightmares of muddy suffocation. Vivid and violent, the horror begins with disembodied hands dragging him into down into the mud.  In the recurring nightmares, he tries to scream but the moment his mouth opens the mud pours into his mouth and throat. Then there’s only the feel of a slow progressive submergence into darkness and death.  Then he wakes in a cold sweat, half-believing he nearly died, or did. The relentless frequency of the nightmares prompted him to visit the school counselor. 

      Nightmares are a normal part of sleep, a way to process the emotions and events of the day. The recurring nocturnal drownings are your mind’s way of releasing your anger and fear. Given your last experience on the river, and your run-ins with the local louts and philistines, your nightmares are a way for you to blow of psychic steam.  Forgive the pun, but I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over them.  Eventually, they’ll go away.

      Johnny found her take a little too glib and facile.  If he had been white, then maybe, he thought, she might take his concerns more seriously.

      So, he turned to his grandfather, a former Sioux shaman. He had a much different take on the nightmares:

      You are being visited by angry spirits. They won’t hurt you. They just want to get your attention, let you know that they’re there below waiting.  But they can be a pain in the neck.  I know. When I first moved here, they pestered me at night too. I’m going to mix you a potion that will block their influence so you can sleep.  It’s made from the hair of a donkey, the spleen of a turtle and the blood of a pig. And I’ll make you a chuchakata, or good luck charm, to wear as protection when the need arises. 

     It smelled disgusting and tasted worse. The first few sips made Johnny wretch, and when he could finally hold it down, his stomach boiled, and his head burned. To his grandfather’s credit, the nightmares stopped. Johnny chalked the success up to power of suggestion rather than any preternatural abilities possessed by his grandfather.  

     Johnny’s lack of confidence in his grandfather’s mystical abilities stemmed from his grandfather’s looking and acting more like a grizzled convict than a spiritual leader. Leather-faced, with a canyon deep scar running from his chin to just below his cobalt blue eyes and a smaller one across his thrice broken nose, he could have passed for a lifer at Alcatraz. During World War II, he had served in the Pacific as a code talker for the marines, transmitting secret tactical messages for the allies.  After the war, he had served as police officer for the Seven Tribes of the Great Sioux Nation in Nebraska. 

     Even though he was in his late 80’s, he was endowed with a vitality that bordered on the divine.  Perhaps that vital energy is what allowed him to survive the killing fields of the Last Massacre where California prospectors had killed 80 unarmed men, women and children—including his parents.  Like his parents before him, Jimmy Jumping Frog belonged to the Sioux Ghost Dance cult, a movement which foretold of the resurrection of dead ancestors who would kill the white usurpers and renew the earth.  

    He was not Johnny’s first choice for a living companion. He had come to live with him after his parents were shot and killed in that most white American of past-times, the mass shooting.  But in retrospect, he was exactly the kind of guide Johnny needed, someone who could toughen him up and school him in the ways of this world.

    His grandfather had the kind of perspective on life that Johnny needed. So, when Johnny came home from a protest where he and his pals had thrown bricks and piss-filled balloons at Neo-Nazis, his grandfather chided him.

    Sure, throwing piss at Neo Nazis is hilarious, but what does it accomplish? Once you add bricks and piss to the conversation it’s pretty much over. All you’ve done is sunk to their level. And nobody can claim the moral high ground when you’re all standing in the mud.

    Think about it: Martin Luther King didn’t do it, and he and his supporters had it way worse than you what with the dogs, the fire hoses and the beatings. 

    That kind of practical wisdom seemed incongruous with the mystical books filling his grandfather’s shelves, many of which centered on acquiring knowledge from the spirit world, such as the Inferi Sapienta (Wisdom of the Dead).  And then there was the oft repeated chant of deliverance and protection sung by his grandfather that always began as Whosoever readeth your spells daily over himself shall escape death and never suffer evil for very long. 

    As wacky as it all seemed, Johnny concluded, after some reflection, that his grandfather’s obsession with the power of the occult was a left-handed way of compensating for his feelings of impotence in a white dominated land, and nothing more.

    His grandfather’s house sat on the edge of wetlands that abutted the mighty Raratona river, a long winding twist of murky brown polluted water that snaked up and around that enormous reedy wetland.  Under natural conditions, the wetlands filtered the water, contained storm surges, and acted as a wildlife refuge. 

   Many years ago, it’s lushness and quietude attracted a small band of Egyptian refugees. They had fled persecution by Muslims, who branded them heretics for their allegiance to the old gods of ancient Egypt. They lived in mud-huts, built small temples to Ra, fished the river, hunted its wildlife, farmed in places and even made their own papyrus from the river reeds.

     Regrettably, the settlement stood in the way of the planned Chimera pharmaceutical complex.   Chimera ordered the settlers to leave, and when they didn’t, Chimera’s private security force—a hodgepodge of ex-cons, local criminals, and thugs—dragged the gypsies to a large mudflat created by low-tide and shot them. They left the bodies to slowly sink into the mud never to be seen again.  Or so an anonymous witness claimed.

     After that, the Chimera complex was up and running in record time.  Chimera made full use of the river as its personal sewer for industrial and pharmaceutical wastes, and the marshes around it as a landfill.  As a result, what had once been a thriving eco-system became a polluted wasteland. The plants and animals died, the water turned brackish and undrinkable, and the whole area smelled like an open sewer.

     Even more disturbing was the wholesale transformation of the wildlife. The gender bending chemicals in the waste gave birth to transgender fish, and later, muskrats and ducks. The flood of hormones and chemicals also altered the genetic pathways to such a degree that Chimera began producing actual chimeras through its waste disposal process. At first, the composites were simple fusions of form: a frog’s head on a fish’s body, fish fins on a muskrat, whiskers on a duck. But other larger and more complicated things soon joined that freakish menagerie. 

  Dead half-formed things and composite things were found drifting down the river or washing up on its banks. Other times blobs or sheets of skin filled with multiple mouths and eyes would flow out to sea in numbers that would rival a jellyfish bloom. Most defied classification, and the ones that could be identified were obscene abnormalities.

     But the most disturbing things were the human deformities that started showing up in the local maternity wards as the waste chemicals found their way into the food chain and water table.  The most grotesque were the two-headed babies, those born with two sets of arms and legs, and the crawling eyes and mouths moving on flippers. There would have been a public outcry, but Chimera was quick to dispose of the monstrosities and pay its hush money.

     In an ironic twist, somewhere around 1956, Chimera’s night-shift workers starting disappearing. Chimera doubled its security and hired private investigators with dogs to comb the area but could find nothing. The disappearances reached epidemic proportions in the 1960’s prompting the use of helicopters to search, but again, the missing workers were nowhere to be seen. 

     It wasn’t long after that the search teams started vanishing. Fear gripped the rank and file employees, so much so that Chimera could not keep enough people to stay in business, and eventually abandoned the area. The property deteriorated, so that by the time Johnny arrived at his grandfather’s home some 50 years later, wind and weather and neglect had taken their toll: the once glitzy state of the art complex looked like the ruins of a dead civilization. 

     Over time, life slowly returned to the water and the land. And as it did, the Excelsior Corporation, a land developing conglomerate, saw that new vitality as a business opportunity. Its 

plan was to build a residential waterfront community complete with golf course, shopping mall, and parking garage.  

     Unfortunately, for it, Jimmy Jumping Frog’s land sat square in the middle of where Excelsior wanted to build.  At first, they tried the carrot: friendly sales letters and personal visits punctuated by generous offers of cash.  But Jimmy had no intention of selling. His grandson would often ask him, and the answer would always be the same:

      Why do you stay here when you can go anywhere and live like a king with the cash, they’re offering you?

      I have a sacred duty to stop the white man from poisoning this land again.  If they want me gone, then they’ll have to kill me.

     This land is not worth dying for.

     Isn’t it?  Without good land and clean water there can be no future.

     Johnny’s gut told him that this would not end well for either one of them. Things would get worse before they got better.  

      A week later, things came to a head. Three of Johnny’s usual tormentors pushed him inside a locker, and one of them asked him: Are you a casino Indian or a Slurpee Indian? Then they dumped a blue sports drink on his head, and laughingly said, Warpaint Geronimo.

      After they walked off laughing, Johnny pulled himself out of the locker and followed them into a class room. He grabbed a large stapler and cracked his interrogator in the head.  Then he 

turned on the other two. One got away. The other one got it in the mouth.  There were copious amounts of blood pooling on the floor when the teachers grabbed and hauled him away. 

      When his grandfather brought him in to contest the pending suspension, things got testy between him and the principal.

      They torment him every-day, yet you just sit back and do nothing to stop it, so how else can he defend himself against these bullies? Why aren’t they suspended? 

      I understand your frustration, but there’s a big difference between aggravated battery and a soaking with a soft drink. He’s lucky he’s not in jail, but that might change. The other students’ parents want to press charges; they want to sue the school. I can’t just let him back.  Time off is just what he needs to think about what’s he done wrong.

     Speaking of time, yours is about up.

     You think that threatening to get me fired will make me back down?

     That’s not what I’m talking about Paleface. Your day of reckoning is fast approaching.  

     Don’t threaten me old man with your crazy old-world Indian mumbo jumbo.  My brother is the chief of police. I suggest you take your grandson and go. 

     That’s where the matter was left–suspension for the rest of the semester.  It would have been much worse, but Johnny’s science teacher Mr. Timko offered him a job as his research assistant.  He was doing a study of the local wetlands.  So now Johnny could make some money and at least have something to fill in the gap on his resume. 

     Timko had him sieve mud using river water, put the samples in petri dishes, and look for mud creatures using hand lenses and microscopes. Johnny learned that mudflats support an abundance of life with an estimated 40,000 microscopic organisms living in a double handful of mud alone.

       Johnny found that Timko had a thing for mud, what some would call an obsession that translated itself into his being a walking encyclopedia of mud information of the weird kind. 

       Mud cults proliferated in the ancient world, especially in places like the flood plains of the Nile Delta.  Primitives saw mud, a mixture of earth and water, as a fertility fetish. They also believed it was the mother of the great Nile predators, such as the crocodile, the hippopotamus and the lion. 

        In Polynesia, the tribal legends speak of the mud giants—the Gommatas—who protected the locals by stomping the European invaders to death. In India, legends abound of Vishnu—the protector–using mud tidal waves and mud slides to cleanse the world of evil, chaotic and destructive forces.

        In both modern- day science and religion, mud is seen as much more than just a simple mixture of earth and water but a power unto itself. Modern day Christians hold the belief that mud cleanses the body and soul, as when Jesus healed the blind man by smearing mud on his eyes. For his part, Darwin, in the Origin of Species, acknowledged that a simple muddy bank like the one we’re standing on, has the power to evolve endless forms most beautiful and wonderful.  

        I myself have often wondered if mud could be conscious in some way with a kind of dim self-awareness Since we don’t know how our own minds emerges from the three pounds of glop between our ears, then how can we discount the possibility that mud operates as a matrix for 

primitive thought, especially in places where dead animals and people decompose, and their remnants have been absorbed into the ground?  

     Corny as it sounds, I think of mud as a doorway between what was and what can be, a ghost-filled graveyard and the womb of time with endless possibilities waiting to be born.  

     Johnny listened politely to these adventures in conjecture and whimsy but thought to himself that This guy is as nutty as my grandfather.

     They spent five Saturdays doing the sieving.  At times, Timko was tedious; at others downright absurd. But hanging with him still seemed saner than sitting around the house with his grandfather who sang to the crawdads and chatted up long dead ancestors, as if he were the Sioux version of Sylvia Brown.     

     Following his fifth outing with Mr. Timko, Johnny came home to find his grandfather being strong-armed by six rough looking men.  He walked in and they all got quiet until one of them said: If you don’t care about yourself old man, maybe you’ll care about your grandson. 

     The man grabbed Johnny by his ponytail and pulled him over in front of his grandfather, who had a big bloody gash on his forehead, puffy eyes and a swollen lip.  

     How’s about I cut out the kid’s eyes for starters?

     That won’t change anything.

     The next moment they were pushed out the door at gunpoint.  The eight of them walked to two large motorboats moored at the river.  The men dragged their captives on board, and the two boats headed into the wetlands.  They had gone about a mile when they turned down a channel 

on the opposite bank.  The boat traveled about two miles before it came to an enormous mudflat created by the receding tide. It was the same place Johnny had tripped and fallen into the mud. 

     The goons pushed Johnny and his grandfather out and told them to walk.  No sooner had they hit the surface than they began to sink.  To motivate them, the men started shooting into the mud.  The only thing they could do to keep moving was to crawl on all fours like great sea turtles. 

      While you’re crawling in that vile stuff, you’ll have time to think about our offer. At the end of that time, we’re going to ask you again about selling us your property.  And if we don’t like your answer, we’ll shoot you dead, and leave your bodies for the birds and fish and whatever other hungry things live on the river. 

      Johnny was getting tired. He worried that Pops would have a heart attack or a stroke before he could answer, let alone sign any papers. 

     Pops, we gonna’ die out here; you need to give them what they want. 

     No, we not gonna’ die. Just be patient.  Are you wearing the charm I gave you?

    Yes.

    Things gonna’ get interesting here in a minute or so.

    And then he began to chant: 

     Hail Thoth, Lord of divine words and master of Papyrus,

     Who madest Osiris victorious over his enemies,

     Make me then to be victorious over my enemies in this place

     Hear my petition:

     Reach deep into the earth for me and bring forth your blessed children—our protectors–who shimmer in the mud. Rise then mighty Ammit, balancer of the scales; rise too, Kek and Kakeut, children of chaos and darkness.

     No sooner had those words come out of his mouth than the mudflat began to bubble and roil. And it began to stink. Not the standard polluted river mud stink they had been breathing for the past fifteen minutes, but the sulfur infused, mephitic breath of hell itself, a miasma so putrid, so acrid, it burned their eyes and throats, and would have seared their skin were it not for the muddy integument covering their bodies. 

     What happened next seemed like a nightmare, and to this day, Johnny doesn’t want to admit its reality.  He heard a great rumbling and could feel what seemed like the entire planet vibrating, as if its very atoms were alive. He turned to look behind himself and saw an enormous shape rise from the flat. It swayed back and forth, and as it did, the mud slid off it, revealing first the head of an enormous crocodile and the body of a lion. Its mouth opened revealing rows of jagged teeth.  It roared, a rumbling bellow that resonated through his body and must have echoed for miles.

     It surveyed the kidnappers with cold reptile eyes. As it did, some of the men opened fire to no effect. Its enormous muddy paw hammered one boat down into the mud then shattered the other into splinters and boards, sending the occupants flying into the reeds. It didn’t matter if they survived the landing because a moment later, they were dragged back by the serpentine tongues of enormous frog-headed beetles.  They pinned the men them on their backs with their rear legs, then used their barbed forelegs to tear open their chests and expose their still beating hearts.  Then one by one the frog headed beetles used their tongues to rip out those hearts and offer them up one by one to the great crocodilian thing. 

  The crocodilian held out its paw. In one was a still beating heart; in the other a feather.  For a moment, it seemed to be weighing them against one another, then promptly stuffed the heart into its enormous maw.   

     Johnny and his grandfather watched the grisly feast with a mixture of satisfaction that justice had been meted out to their tormentors and sheer terror that they might be next.  But they left them alone, and when the gruesome business was completed, the crocodilian submerged into the mud along with its confederates. 

     After the weighing of the hearts had concluded, Johnny and his grandfather noticed that there had been an audience on the opposite bank, though not of the living.  The restless spirits of the massacred gypsies had risen in spectral form to see justice done, if not to those who murdered them, but to those like them.  Their stone-faced expressions signifying the grim emotionless approval of those bereft of a physical body and its accompanying emotions.

     Without a word, Johnny and his grandfather crawled back to the beachhead and slowly made their way over the reed stumps along the bank. By the time they got near the house, the tide had flowed in, so they swam across the river to the opposite bank.   Johnny remembered cleaning up and collapsing on his bed.  The next day at breakfast, he asked Pops what exactly had happened. 

      All you need to know is that the mud gods will always protect us here. 

      Johnny wanted to call him crazy, but he couldn’t deny what he had seen and the fact that the two of them were still alive.  Johnny knew that he would never look at mud the same again. 

     Those terrible and enigmatic animals could be nothing other than the manifestations of the ancient Egyptian gods called forth by my grandfather. The how and why of their existence is beyond me.  In the end, I don’t need to know how a clock works to know the time.  And the time is one of quiet reverence for things I don’t understand.  

    

      

    

    

     

       

    

    

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