The Mud Man of the Blackstone
A New Myth by Paul-William Gagnon
The headwaters of the Blackstone River were a bitter mélange of factory and storm outflow surrounded by industrial brownfields so drab they sucked blue directly from the sky and vanquished it. It was as if the place had been long ago hunched upon by an evil god. Residential streets abutted those headwaters: nearly identical dead-end avenues, each with rows of three-decker clapboard houses on one side and rusted chain-link fences on the other. The obsolete cinderblock coal cribs which once buttressed the chain-link fences had long ago crumbled into broken-toothed gaps. Even though the fences no longer completely walled off the brownfields and headwaters, in the minds of those who lived along the nearby streets the fences went on and on. The gaps could not be crossed or even seen. It would take a visitor from another neighborhood to notice the gaps; he would point them out and say, Hey, what’s in there, man? But no one would answer him, and later that day or evening someone would pick a fight with him and he would find himself crawling to his car or bus stop while dodging a sea of fists and boots.
The neighborhood particular to this story—long since razed to accommodate a hulking shopping plaza—had more claim to the children who lived there than did their parents. The neighborhood had the children and the children had the Mud Man who lived in the polluted headwaters.
Nothing had lived in those headwaters since the mid-nineteenth century when the last living wolf of Worcester County, and of all New England in fact, limped out of the Quabbin uplands to avoid the buckshot of the sheep and dairy farmers. The wolf hid in the thickets of the headwaters, eked out a thin living on the dwindling muskrat population and was forgotten. Even as it was announced, a few years later, that the “last wolf in New England” had been shot somewhere further north in Maine or New Hampshire, the wolf that had been hiding in the headwaters of the Blackstone persisted unknown, and when it perished at last, it died not of hunger or sickness but of a loneliness so crushing that in no time at all its fur had turned into mud, its blood into water, its bones into dust, and the dust was carried out to sea and forgotten properly.
After the wolf died, the headwaters began to die too. The grasses and weeds that had sprouted haphazardly from the bleak fields around the banks drew back and withered like hair around the edge of a wound. Muskrats, migrating upstream from places where the industrial runoff was diluted by cleaner tributaries would arrive at the headwaters stripped of all flesh except for the tough, furless skin of their tails which propelled them along (a tail, as any child can tell you, will continue to thrash long after an animal is dead). The water became so toxic that if a bird were to so much as dip the tip of its beak into the headwaters it would die on the spot, sinking and vanishing as quick as a ball of lint sucked into a vacuum cleaner.
One day, a new hole appeared in the fence that separated the headwaters from the neighborhood that bordered it. No one could say how the hole got there. Unlike the gaps caused by the crumbling coal cribs that checkered the street, the hole was not natural; the links had been shorn away deliberately. The adults of the neighborhood were too blind to notice the hole. Only the children could see it. To ask why someone would cut the fence did not occur to the children. Windows, doors and machinery were routinely vandalized; trash cans, cars, and even live dogs were doused with gasoline and set on fire; people were pummeled within inches of their lives in incidents just as pointless. God—if there really was a god—was a drunken pugilist. That someone would destroy a fence that protected nothing, held nothing in or out, made perfect sense to the children. The question was never why destruction? but rather who destroyed?
One of the children suggested it was the Mud Man who cut the fence. And yet, before the hole appeared in the fence there was no Mud Man. Before the hole in the fence the children never saw the River or even knew the River was there—the River with its rich, ebon bank sludge, the torn scalp of brown weeds surrounding it, the remains of muskrats clinging to the banks like discarded popsicle stick sculptures, the dark miracle of birds turning into ephemeral balls of lint. It was a new world and, lifeless as it appeared, the children believed that there had to be creatures who inhabited it just as there were creatures that inhabited the streets and alleys. And so the children made up the Mud Man.
Before the torn fence, the Mud Man was nothing more than a hummock of sludge, a stubble of withered phragmites, a jot of oil on the surface of the water shaped like a question mark.
The Mud Man, he’s the one who broke the fence, said Timmy, who had already heard of the Mud Man from Todd.
Who is the Mud Man? asked Alicia.
He’s made of mud and muskrat skeletons and he has weeds for hair and his teeth are rusty bits of metal.
Not metal, said Joe, sparkplugs. Burned out sparkplugs.
No, they’re not sparkplugs, said Cecelia.
Then what are they, dummy?
Thorns like on that thorn tree over there, said little Noah.
Thorns, they all agreed. They had begun with something organic; had they finished with something made by human beings the Mud Man would have fallen apart before he rose an inch from the river. Little Noah knew: it could not be sparkplugs; it had to be thorns. The dark half-moons beneath Noah’s eyes lent him a prescient sadness that the children could not challenge and did not want to, for when Noah spoke to them he spoke the same quiet truths that Death speaks.
As the stories of the Mud Man grew, so did the Mud Man. His chest pumped with a muddy heart. He flopped from the coal-tar water and waltzed about like a wino. The children saw him out of the corners of their eyes. They dreamed of him at night. He was dangerous they knew, but comfortable because they had invented him.
In the neighborhoods of the headwaters, wants were invented to stifle needs so insufferable they grew inward and were soon encysted and forgotten. The children wanted lots of things. They had Christmas lists as long as Biblical lineages. The Mud Man wanted only to be a child. You see, he was made by children but was not a child himself and so he could want nothing else. Right down to his muddy muskrat bones he wanted it: to skip rope, to throw a ball against a fence, to shriek a child-joy-shriek. He wanted to ride a bicycle. One night he fished an old Raleigh out of the muck but he was clumsy and peddled only to the edge of the fence before falling off. He found baseballs too, their hides rotted and spilling string; he would try to hurl them but the balls stuck to his squishy hands. He chased the children out of the corners of their eyes, to make them shriek (how he loved the sound) but all he could do was gurgle unhappily. The Mud Man couldn’t even cry properly; when he tried, his face would melt off and he would have to spend the next few days shoving mud and dead grass into his skull to reconstitute himself. Most of all he wanted to cry. He wanted to be the child that he was at heart.
The children saw the muddily cast up bicycle and rotted baseballs; they heard the gurgling sounds; they dreamed of the chaser in their dreams. But they did not really understand the Mud Man. Sometimes they left him offerings without knowing that they were doing so. Plastic toy army men. Dolls with tattered hair and missing limbs. Leggo blocks. A pair of old sneakers. A spent balloon. The Mud Man would pick up each offering, hold it up to his puddle eyes and squeeze it tight between his knotty mudfists.
None of the children—including Noah—guessed that the Mud man wanted to be a child. When the other children ran from the Mud Man, Noah, with his flimsy limbs and body as fragile as a cooked pea, would fall behind, wheezing. The others would tease him: You better run, Noah, or the Mud Man’ll get you! But Noah could not run very fast. The dark circles around Noah’s eyes were the sad bruises the soul makes when hammering its way out of the body from within.
If everything in this story were just, Noah would not have to die; he would live on to transform his neighborhood, to set up a light in the darkness. And yet the neighborhood was lined with rusting hotrods set on blocks: effigies to Death, the gyration required of all things living and inanimate. The gutters were lined with broken glass. In ten thousand years, archaeologists will sift through a strata made of the sand of bottles that were smashed in gestures of enraged despair; empty bottles that contained no messages. That an innocent like Noah might perish before he blooms, that a river might die and carry the smell of death on its surface like fog, that the last wolf in New England might spontaneously exsanguinate alone in an ignoble wasteland—these are all parts of a hidden parable, each death a bottle that carries the sins of the rest of us directly to the sea where they find rest until the day of redemption.
Eventually Noah became too sick to leave his house.
There are places for the dying—places where, in a pretext of hope, the dying are shunted to like once-beloved now-rabid circus bears. Noah’s parents were told of such a place; they made their sad arrangements to send Noah there.
The night before Noah was to be sent away, the Mud Man lumbered through the broken fence. He moved down the street leaving clods of oily mud behind him. There was purpose is his slogging steps. The children dreamed of him. Noah rose from his bed, febrile and shivering, and unlocked the front door. The Mud Man was there. The Mud Man embraced Noah, flowed around him like marshmallow.
They said that Noah drowned but his body was never found. The police did have trouble explaining the muddy footprints that led to and away from the house but it was suggested that Noah, in his delirium and sadness, left his house and went to the River, waded in, changed his mind, walked back to his house, changed his mind again, and at last returned to the River. After all, the footprints were Noah’s.
But the children knew better. The Mud Man ate Noah, they said. Sucked him under with the muskrat skeletons and hubcaps and rotten baseballs.
Men from the Department of Public Works came by and repaired the hole in the chain-link fence the next day. The newness of the shiny steel section stood out in stark contrast to the massive gaps at either end of the fence where the cinderblock cribs stood, crumbling and impotent. Nonetheless, the gap was sealed; the children who had invented the Mud Man grew up and forgot.
Three days after Noah’s disappearance, a bridge repair crew found a living baby near the city line, floating in a yellowed styrofoam cooler. The bridge engineer happened to know a childless couple who lived down River, in Grafton or Uxbridge, who wanted children but could not have any of their own. The engineer had political connections, and the child was adopted by the childless couple.
The child was named Moses because of how he had been found. Years passed; Moses grew, unremarkable except for a deep, acidic longing that filled his eyes when he gazed upon the River. The couple that had adopted him did not live far from the River; there was a small grassy riverside park just a short walk down the street from their house. And although the River was sick and fishless, that far downstream the banks were fertile enough to support hedges of spare, wooly reeds in which red-winged blackbirds occasionally perched, and the flow of the water was pleasant enough to watch. Moses’ adoptive parents took him to the little park on Saturdays, smiling at him and at each other, thinking, how fortunate, we, him, us, but never telling Moses how it was that he was found.
Very early on, the adoptive father noticed how Moses glanced longingly at the flow—always upriver, never downriver. The father was a preacher, an academic, or a minor politician: someone used to speaking in such a way that conveyed great—if sometimes false—certainty, and he spoke with that uncompromising authority when he told Moses, You are right to glance longingly at the River, son, for the River is more than a grand metaphor of Hope; it is Life itself made whole and visible, ungraspable but navigable. But you are wrong to look upriver, for Life ever flows out and toward the sea, and never back into the past’s dim testaments.
Since the adoptive father was a kind man and mostly good, Moses took his words to heart and from that point on focused his longing on the path of the River toward the sea. And so, like a bent nail his bent longing did not drive well into life; often he felt carried from one frustration to the next. He dreamed of drowning, his mouth full of mud, his cries reduced to gurgles. He took no interest in schoolwork or sports, participating in each with mediocrity, and the girls shunned him for his knotted brows, pessimistic humor, and for his sweat which smelled like dirt.
Moses was seventeen when, unable to bear it any longer, he took to the River. It was a mid-spring day, unnaturally humid and warm. The air was full of the scent of things striving to be born. From the garage Moses took a bag of nails, a bough saw, a length of rope, a hammer, a pair of gloves, and a rusty ax. He carried these things to a grove of young white pines nearby the banks of the River and not far from where he lived, and he toiled all day and into the next. The blisters on his hands bled into the fabric of his work gloves. When he finished, he returned to his house, stuffed a pillow case with canned goods, and said goodbye to his mother and father. Like a vision of Huckleberry Finn sans ragged straw hat, he set off downriver on his makeshift raft.
Moses did one other thing before he set out: he dug up a small white pine sapling, carefully bundled its root ball in an old shirt and placed it in the middle of his raft. He told himself that he would plant it where the River met the sea.
Moses knew that he wouldn’t necessarily have better luck if he refused the false hope that his journey would be easy--but having rejected false hope, regardless of luck and in spite of suffering, he would be less likely to fail.
And he didn’t fail. Not when he had to dive into the cold, inky water to dislodge the raft from a snag that felt like the arms of a dozen dead men. Not when he came to the dams—which he had known were there but had forgotten about—and had to disassemble the raft nail by nail, knot by knot, carrying or dragging each beam around the dam to the spillway, then reassembling it whole again (at the Millville Gorge it took him two full days to portage and reassemble; he lost two beams in the current). Not when a group of Woonsocket boys set upon him from a trestle bridge with a barrage of bricks, bottles, and spit. Not when he lost his pillow-case-and-canned-goods anchor while he slept, the rope slipping loose in the middle of the night, and he woke to find himself arrived in Narragansett Bay, the diffuse flare of Providence behind him, proverbial and incendiary City on the Hill. There were no stars; the sky was blind without them. In the dense fog the Bay seemed to extend infinitely before him but there was no question of paddling back toward the glow of the city. Moses believed that he would die if he paddled back, that the River, hating his cowardice, would rise up and destroy him. So Moses floated with the undetectable current, the tree sapling cupped between his knees to keep its roots from the brackish water, hoping that he would not be carried beyond Jamestown and far out into the Atlantic before sunrise.
With sunrise came the same cruel longing that had driven him downriver, heavier than it had been before he set out—even as he dipped his index finger in the water and tasted salt; even as the whitecaps coursed back and forth across the not-too-distant mouth of the Bay like prides of albino lions; even as the occupants of pleasure boats out of Newport—which he could see clearly in the morning light—greeted him with snobbish mirth, feigned indifference, or exaggerated concern. Noah did not respond; perhaps he sensed beneath each reaction an unrequited desire so jealous that it had to be destroyed and remade into something less personal than it was.
Gould Island was near to his stern; the mouth of Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic straight ahead, the waves now mowing the raft with ever larger ripples, and so Moses paddled furiously until he reached the island with its stunted oak trees and gooseberry thickets. A heron, its face primordial as that of an Egyptian deity, startled from the brush as Moses nudged his raft against the cobbled shore. Several boats were moored nearby. Ignoring them, Moses carefully picked up the white pine sapling and waded in, dragging the raft with his other hand. He placed the little tree above the high water mark then sat down and cupped his face in his hands. The brackish water had left burns on his skin; the gravity of the impending sea crushed him. His hair was matted, his arms and legs were filthy, and he felt lonely to the bone. It was in that piteous state that he met Lucy.
Lucy’s father owned a modest sailboat; each sunny summer weekend he drove from the suburbs of Hartford to the Narragansett Bay with his daughter. They would spend the entire weekend on the boat—he would fish while she basked in the sun—returning late Sunday evening. He did this not so much for his own enjoyment (he would have liked to have spent more time at home, fuddling about his three-acre suburban yard and pale blue ranch house), but for Lucy because she was an only child, and because his wife had passed away and he had no other vessel to pour his devotion into. On those Fridays when the rain had already settled in and was predicted to linger on through, they remained at home; Lucy would curl up into a tight ball and would not speak until evening—only then to sadly kiss her father on the cheek and say goodnight. But on the weekends that they chose to travel to the bay and risk the possibility of rain, miraculously and without exception, it never rained—not once in the ten years since Lucy’s father had acquired the boat.
To understand these things—the miracle of rainless summer weekends, Lucy’s sadness when the preemptive Friday rain prevented her and her father from journeying to the Bay—you must first know and believe that there are people of exceptional purity for whom a particular law of nature or suffering bends the way light bends as it passes through clear water. For instance, the Inuit baby left in the snow bank who does not die because the cold favors his innocence; the aged Cuban fisherman who alone of his crew survives a hull-crushing storm because the sea has fallen in love with his humility; the Bedouin who can stand in the whirlwind while the flesh of his camels is sandpapered down to the bone because the coarse wind has tasted the sweat of his honesty and has found it worthy. Each becomes a habitat to that which would otherwise have destroyed him: the flesh of the Inuit child is cold to the touch and his blood runs blue as ice; the hair of fisherman forever smells like the sea; the breath of the Bedouin will blow out a candle twenty feet away.
Lucy was loved by the sun. Her face, riotously honest, in which nothing could be hidden or shadowed, was a collection of summers. Her skin was so dark she was often mistaken for a Latina; her hazel eyes were so pale they were nearly golden. She had been approached by many young men, each of whom imagined he could conquer her. They pitted themselves against her unnatural immunity to the sun. But because they were proud, because they coveted the power that the sun had given only to Lucy, the sun was merciless with them. They withered and fell away—faces blistered, tongues swollen, lips chapped, passions shriveled—and went home to seek out girls with soft, pale thighs and shy eyelids.
While Moses sat on the shore with his face in his hands, a thick cloud passed beneath the sun. He felt the heat sucked out of the air; he shivered; instinctively he peered between his fingers to determine how soon the cloud would pass. In doing so he noticed that the cloud had a narrow hole in its center, and from that hole blazed a hot sword of light. His watering eyes followed the beam downward to where it had galvanized the bow of a twenty-foot sailboat moored nearby, illuminating what he took at first to be the upturned face of a ship’s figurehead. As the beam inched forward, the figurehead seemed to lean out and into it. Moses squinted; it must be the ship turning in the current, he told himself. But then the figurehead detached from the base of the bow to swing forward from the jib rigging by one hand. Moses stood upright. He took a quick step forward, compelled by a brief and irrational impulse to avoid blocking the path of the sunbeam so that the figurehead would not be deprived of light. But then the cloud parted, not all at once but in bits and pieces; light bounced across the water like flung silverware.
Lucy swung down into the water—chest deep—and began begun wading to shore, laughing and reaching out with her hands to cup water and light. If she noticed Moses, she gave no sign.
Moses knew right away that he was in love but he had no intention of courting Lucy; the sight of the sea had left him sick with futility. But neither could he do nothing. He could taste the dryness in his throat was and he knew that if he spoke his voice would sound hideous. I should give her something, then. He groped in his pockets, but they were empty; he scanned the raft—the waves were tugging at it now—but there was only a burlap sack with nails and a hammer in it.
Moses knew that he was supposed to kneel, but he couldn’t bring himself to—it was shame, not pride that prevented him; he did not want to frighten Lucy or impose on her, merely deliver the gift and depart at once so that his filthy presence would not offend her—that would be best.
He held his gift out to her with both arms.
That’s a tree, said Lucy.
Moses nodded; he tried to look at her feet, failed, tried to look at her feet again. She would not let him.
You’re giving me that tree?
I was going to plant it when I reached the sea, croaked Moses (the hideousness of his voice did not disappoint him). He held his gift out further. The weight of the tree made his arms shake.
You went down the River, said Lucy. Like Huck Finn. Where did you start?
Near the beginning.
Lucy glanced at the raft (which the waves were struggling to tug from the shore) and bit her lower lip. Like many people her age, she had a poor sense of geography. For all she knew the Blackstone River began somewhere in Labrador and even though she did not know where Labrador is, that is the distance she imagined Moses had traveled.
Lucy looked at Moses then—looked at him the way the sun looks at a thing, X-raying it, backfilling the shadows with the color of ripe tangerines—and loved him. For his humility and spirit, yes, but more so because his eyes were as dark and lusterless as muddy earth; even sunlight could not penetrate them; they were denser than black walnuts. But most importantly she loved him because his sweat smelled like dirt in the springtime.
Lucy’s gaze reminded Moses that he was still young and good. He did not know it at the time but it was only that which kept him from drowning himself in the Atlantic.
Lucy took the tree, touching Moses’ hands as she did so—and said, Then let’s go plant it. And they did.
Meanwhile, the tide had pulled Moses’ raft out into the Bay. Lucy’s father, who had been watching the boy and his daughter--he offered her a tree, carried the tree alive the length of the river, so he can’t be a cruel or careless boy—said nothing as the raft edged into the waves and vanished around the corner of the island.
The father offered Moses a ride on the boat.
The romance of Moses and Lucy was lush and enviable. Before long, the couple moved in together—to the first floor of a aged green duplex in Millbury, just one town away from the headwaters of the River--because I don’t want to be far from my parents who are now retired, Moses convinced himself. Lucy had wanted to live near the Bay but agreed to live up river, because I love you so much, she told Moses.
Moses replied, How much?
Lucy told him: More than anything—except the sun.
Moses was only a little bit jealous.
They dreamed of the same things all young couples dream of; things so ordinary there is no need to speak of them here. Lucy took a steady job as a florist and attended college part-time. She brought home seeds and flowers from work and planted them in every place imaginable. She was fascinated with planting them in clothing and once even dared to transplant an orange marigold into the upturned hat of an old man who was sleeping on a bench down the street. On another occasion, she planted a pea in the palm of her hand and patiently held the little ball of dirt and its seed cupped and level for five days until the seed germinated.
Moses was obsessed with the River. On the weekends when they went to meet Lucy's father on the Bay, Moses insisted taking the back roads down through the valley, sticking as close to the riverbank as possible. The proximity of the River would agitate him and they would often stop the car so he could walk to the River’s edge and thrust his hands in the flow. This calmed him but it made him dizzy too; his knees would shake and his tongue would slur; Lucy would lead him to the back seat of the car where, resting, their bodies smoothly puzzled in a Piscean embrace.
Moses never worked long in one place; he was hurled from disappointment to disappointment. His employers found him careless and distracted. Eventually he took the only job he could retain: working at a salvage yard in the city, in the center of the brownfields, not far from the headwaters of the Blackstone. The owner of the yard was frost-haired, half-blind, and had a pocked and stippled face. You’re a sour one, the old man told him two weeks into the job. You waitin’ for life to hand you somethin’?
I don’t give a shit if you fire me, Moses replied.
Ain’t goin’ to fire you, son. This is the filthiest job in the city. With your disposition, what else are you good for?
Moses would return from work in the evenings, his clothing and hair soiled with grease and solvents; his sleeves eaten through with battery acid and the skin beneath splotched. It’s killing me, he would tell Lucy; I’m good for nothing. God is sending me there to die.
You’re good for more than that, Lucy would tell him. I see it in you and I love you.
Nearly as much as the sun, Moses would remind her.
And Lucy would nod her head, affection unwavering, and reply: Yes, almost as much as I love the sun. Then she would kiss him and ask him why they didn’t move and reminded him of the pine tree they had planted on Gould Island. Would he consider a move? Okay he would say, but the next day he would tell her, not yet, next month I promise.
Then Moses would go out to walk by the River. In Millbury the grasses and reeds along the banks grew stunted and half-heartedly green; frogs were born with deformities reminiscent of the works of Picasso; red-winged blackbirds with mercury-glazed cataracts hopped through the grasses hunting crickets by sound alone. Moses would lean over the River like a bent willow, or wade right into it and pound his fists on the water: What do you want? What do you want of me? Sometimes he would cry— the most frightening sound you have ever heard—a sound like mud gurgling through a sewer grate. Then he would claw his way up the wet bank, slog home and crawl into bed stinking of sweat, mud, and dead grass.
Moses lost his job shortly after the old man who ran the salvage yard died. The new owner—a distant relative of the old man—took an immediate disliking of Moses and refused to pay him for two days of work that the old man had failed to record before he died. Moses threatened to quit, which is what the new owner wanted to hear.
Moses stood at the bus stop clenching his fists and looking back toward the city. It was 10:00 a.m.; Lucy was at work. The next bus was a two-hour wait. Moses punched the transit sign then shook out his fist. He would walk back to the salvage yard and— damnit— he would demand his back pay. He looked at the River.
He would walk up the damn River and get his paycheck.
Later, Lucy led Moses to the bath with one hand, cut his clothing off with scissors (there was so little left of them worth saving) and washed him. But the filth of the River would not come out; Moses’ skin was stained with it. He had lost his voice—shouting, wailing, howling, taking in mouthfuls of water that burned his throat like Draino—and could not tell Lucy what he had seen: how the River died by degrees as one approached the headwaters, which were utterly dead—how even the wind would not blow there; the air above was a grey vacuum. How the poisons were not contained as was commonly believed, for even though the heavy metals and toxins were held back by concrete and stone dams, the greatest poison—the dearth of beauty—spread out through the abutting neighborhoods unchecked and invisible to all but the extremely sensitive, most of whom would die at birth or go insane. The worst part of it was this: Moses knew that he had gone up the River to do something far more important than get his paycheck—what, he did not know but he knew that he had failed. Everything I do to sticks to my hands; he told himself; I’m made of mud and failure.
Moses scribbled on a piece of scrap paper with a pencil: I’m dying. But the opposite seemed true to Lucy, who looked at him as the sun looks at things: Moses had never looked so alive; she had never loved him so much. So that he would feel what she saw, she led him to the bedroom and made love to him. He felt cold beneath her; his stained skin was slippery as a fish; the muscles of his abdomen flowed into his groin like water flowing into a chute.
Moses fell asleep after they were finished but Lucy remained awake and ran her hands over his back. The moon had risen, red and gigantic; its cool, unhurried light engulfed the bed. Moses’ flesh glistened with sweat, was fertile with it; to Lucy his back looked like a field of rich, ochre soil. It enamored her. Not entirely aware of what she was doing, she went to the kitchen and returned with a paper bag filled with seeds. There were mustard seeds, caraway, and fennel; packets of leftover flower and vegetable seeds; and there were dry beans of course, and some flax, poppy, and sesame. Lucy poured them over Moses’ back and massaged them in with a loving, single minded-fascination. She massaged and massaged and the seeds worked deep into flesh and disappeared, and then Lucy fell asleep. Under the glow of her face, which was like the sun, the seeds germinated.
All night long the seeds grew into plants and spread. Down Moses’ back and legs they migrated; then across the bed sheets and the bedroom carpet, then onto the living room floor, splitting the old hard wood. They unhinged the front door. Out onto the spare, thin strip of lawn they flowed, and across the road, dense with flower heads, an intoxicated-eyed jungle racing toward the River, coursing along its banks, unstoppable as a pampas fire. Everything it touched was carried along and made fertile; trees that had been fruitless for years masted with drupes overnight; ripe acorns pummeled the ground heavier than a hundred-year sleet; maple keys chopped the sky into slivers with their whirling. The trees and vines grew until the east side of the River was consumed; the vegetation roved back and forth along its length as if unsure where to spread next. Then a tall cottonwood, jerked to its knees by the weight of moonseed and Virginia creeper vines as thick as the thighs of stallions, conceded; it stooped over the River carrying with it the cascading green carpet, and the west back of the River was engulfed.
The green poured north, to the headwaters, to the old neighborhood of Noah, the Mud Man and the mended section of fence (which was now rusted and indistinguishable from the old fence). Roots sank deep into the River's bed; lily bulbs and cattail tubers, dormant for decades and coated with cadmium and mercury, sent forth shoots. Grass and clover unrolled across the land in tidal sweeps; entire brownfields were extinguished by vast slaps of waist-deep hay. Fences were systematically crushed by the knees of sycamores. Innumerable roots vacuumed poisons from the mud and water and rendered them as harmless as spit and air—you could hear it, a sound like an entire auditorium filled with people sucking on straws. What could not be nullified, the roots thrust deep within the earth, encysting it there, starting the long, slow pupation that would someday transubstantiate deathly metals into gems and crystals.
On that night Death was thrown upon His back and trampled.
Lucy slept through the morning. When she awoke, Black-eyed Susans had rooted through the carpet; they were waist deep, golden, and heavy with seed. She searched the garden for Moses, and although he had not left, he was gone.
Evidence of the miracle was everywhere. Lucy knew that she couldn’t speak of it to others, as obvious as it was: cars rooted to their parking spots by trees and vines; bicycles lifted into canopies, their wheels split and burst where trunks and branches had grown through the spokes, muscling open the metal rims, stretching the rubber tubes and tires into bracelets. Acres of corn and grass had obliterated parking lots; the roofs of buildings were as lush as the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon. No one but Lucy noticed the change. Everyone else woke believing that they were born into it—the River so fertile and laden with life it was as if a race of ancient gods had been buried beneath it, their faces pointed up.
Lucy was pregnant. She gave birth to a boy. The child had brown hair and skin dunduckety as mud; even his fingernails, the insides of his mouth, and the palms of his hands were brown. The sclera of his eyes were white but the irises were little brown nuggets as patient as seeds. The doctors told Lucy it was a condition but she knew better and flushed the medication they gave her down the toilet. The other kids picked on the boy but his smile was as indestructible as sunlight.
The child grew up knowing exactly what he wanted to be. He wanted to be a navigator like Christopher Columbus, but a nicer man than that old cardinal pillager. He told Lucy, who said: You can be whatever you want.
I can’t tell you the boy’s name, for his story ends in the place where names have no meaning. When he left, he headed down the River, not up, passing the white pine that Noah and Lucy had planted, and was lost at sea, never to be heard from again. On the day he left, Lucy, who was so full of love, loved him more than the sun itself.
Unless otherwise noted, all content © Paul Gagnon, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.