Mud

Here’s one from my personal archives. I wrote the original at the end of 2010, and have edited it for clarity and length.

___

In the beginning, there was mud. There was light, too, and water, and dirt, and the roiling mass of magma bubbling below the earth’s crust. Before living creatures crawled the planet, there was mud. Ooey-gooey thick pasty stuff heavy with clay, thin sandy sludge, sticky goop rich with nutrients—mud was the primeval womb of the physical world.

~*~

One day, when I was nine and living in Louisiana, I came home from school and, struck by some stray spark of delicacy from whoknowswhere, took a midday shower, fixed my hair, and put on a denim-and-lace dress and one of my favorite necklaces. I looked very nice. My mother even said so. Once I finished dressing, I went outside to ride my bicycle around and around the cul-de-sac, where my siblings and our friends were having a raucous mud fight, and as I set off, I called out to them, in airy tones, to be careful not to splatter me with mud. As I rode, I lost myself in a highly romanticized half-daydream of my beautified person riding along through the crisp early autumn air, in slow motion like something out of a movie, and when I was inevitably struck by an enormous clod of mud, I careened into the red brick mailbox, challenged the one responsible to a fist fight, and never made another attempt at self-beautification until the end of the eighth grade.

Turns out you can buy special Dead Sea mud—mud soap, mud shampoo. People go to spas to take baths in the stuff. It’s supposed to be filled with minerals and be good for cleaning your face and fixing problems like eczema, psoriasis, and arthritis. They say it’ll even make you look younger. Mud soap! What’ll they think of next?

I spent my childhood falling out of trees into mud puddles; slipping down muddy embankments to a little coulee in our Louisiana neighborhood; throwing mud at my siblings, friends, and imaginary villains in the lot next to my house; attempting to build wattle-and-daub forts; hiking through the muddy rainforests of Thailand; and splashing in the mud left behind after rainstorms. I never realized it was the secret behind my great beauty, but somehow, as I stopped playing in the mud so often, I also began to age.

~*~

In my early 20s, I was hiking with a friend near a sprawling dry riverbed in southern California. She’d brought along a machete for hacking our way through thick bamboo groves, and when we came upon a gigantic sunken mud pond, my companion began carving a path around it. It looked about six inches deep with murky water, and its surface was situated six feet below us as we made our slow way around a moist cliff held together by innumerable bamboo roots. We were headed for a fallen tree—the sort that makes a terrific bridge. 

The dirt under my sneakers seemed soggy, and I thought briefly of the movie cliché—the ground falls out from under the villain’s feet and he plunges to his doom, the cliff crumbles beneath the heroine but she is saved just in time, the dirt dissolves and someone dies just as you think they’re safe. I glanced for a second at the dense leaves to my left, the narrow, raised strip of dirt beneath me, and the pond far below me to the right, imagining myself falling in slow motion, my drawn-out movie star Noooooooo! ringing through the bamboo. I thought how I would land hard after penetrating those six inches of water, how I’d be soaking wet and bruised, how I might sprain something, and how I hoped I wouldn’t break a bone because I’d only ever done so once, and it was my nose and I hadn’t known it was broken until months later so it really didn’t count.

My companion stopped to examine the tree bridge and a large clod of dirt actually fell out from under my shoes as I stopped behind her. I looked down, moved my feet quickly to the left—and then the ground was gone.

I shut my mouth out of instinct, so I fell in silence. There was an enormous splash, and muddy water landed on my face and shirt, but there was no real impact like I had expected. Instead, there was an exaggerated moist thwump, and when I opened my eyes and looked down to assess the damage, I was waist-deep in rich, black mud. I wiggled my legs to see if they hurt anywhere, and they did not, but when I tried to lift them, they made a sucking, squelching noise and wouldn’t budge more than a few inches. I started laughing, half because I had never been in such a ridiculous situation, and half because I had scared myself nearly to death getting there.

My horrified companion scrambled across the fallen tree and offered me a large stick from the other side of the pond. With a squelch, a splash, and a suction pop, I crawled forth out of the primordial ooze feeling exhilarated and alive in a way I hadn’t known since childhood. Water rushed to fill the place I had vacated.

~*~

When you walk through mud barefoot, it squelches through your toes and feels cool on the warm tops of your feet. Sometimes it smells wholesome and pleasant and earthy and rich, but sometimes it smells like something died in it, which usually means that something did. If you let it dry on you, it gets pale and leaves little fissures along places where your skin bends a lot, but sometimes it’ll turn scaly on places like the tops of your feet, which shouldn’t bend, and you can sit and pick the scales off one at a time with your fingernails, or make patterns by selecting certain scales to remove, and certain ones to leave. 

If your mom finds you and hoses you off and then turns you loose again, pieces of grass stick to your wet arms and legs and feet, and that’s how the grass always seems to get into the house.

Sometimes you can find mud that has dried into palm-sized thick pieces that you can lift off the ground. They’re great for throwing because they make a satisfying heavy sound as they break, but before you do that, you can draw on them with sticks, or play anthropologist and carefully catalog them as pieces of broken pottery in an Egyptian tomb. You might learn somewhere that in some places, they use mud instead of Band-Aids to stop bleeding, but if you try it on your skinned-up knees, your mom will get upset and take you to the doctor to get a tetanus shot, which isn’t any fun at all.

~*~

So mud is life-giving. But mud can be destructive, too. Maybe Dead Sea mud can restore your youth and give you Cleopatra’s complexion, but a mudslide could kill you, make you disappear never to be found again. Bacteria thrive in mud, living on the nutrients from dead plants and animals and insects—the soup gives rise to all living things, not just humanity. Mudslinging is a staple of corrupt politics. When I was a high school senior living in Thailand, the Boxing Day tsunami killed two hundred thousand people in Southeast Asia, and many of the survivors stayed in the hospital recovering for months. They had mud in their lungs.

~*~

My parents took my siblings and me to Yellowstone National Park one stiflingly hot summer when I was fourteen, and they spent the entire time fussing at us kids not to get too close to the edges of the raised wooden paths because we could fall into mud pots and burn to death.  We said we were already burning to death anyway. Some of the mud pots boiled slowly, big bubbles rising to the surface and breaking with thick moist plops.

Turns out there might be mud volcanoes on Mars. We have mud volcanoes here—they function like regular volcanoes, only they erupt boiling hot mud instead of lava. But while the ones here typically make people think of death, the ones on Mars makes scientists think of life. Where there is mud, there is moisture. If there really are mud volcanoes on Mars, there could be living things crawling out of the ooze right at this very moment. This instant may be the beginning.

___

Does anyone else kind of miss running wild in the mud? Or some other guilty pleasure from childhood? Share in the comments below!

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