Swamp surrounds the village for as far the eye can see. The soggy soil of our secluded homeland is little more than sponge, sopping up so much water even the slightest of us must strap strings stretched across stiff wooden slats to our feet or else risk being swallowed whole by the sludge. Too many have become meals, preserved in the muck for unsuspecting outsiders to stumble across on a daring jaunt to our far-flung wastes.
It’s why we’re the People of the Mud.
One of the reasons, at least.
Big sister, unruly and untamable, always donning a reckless sort of snaggled smile, became one such meal.
The night she was swallowed was like most nights in the wastes. Damp air clung heavy to our skin, its dankness cloying in our lungs. Every breath tasted like a chunk of mud we had to choke down. It felt like we would suffocate in our home, like the very air wanted us to.
Who wouldn’t want to escape? Who wouldn’t want to try?
Big sister hushed me in my hammock when climbing down from her own disturbed me, jostled the tenuous ropes holding us aloft and together. Shh, shh… She pressed her lips to my forehead, gave me her softly crooked smile, and then said, in a conspiratorial whisper, It’ll be our little secret little sister, yes?
I didn’t get a chance to croak out a response before big sister slipped away, over the slim ledge of our room’s tiny window, which was little more than a slit in the wooden slats of our shack, and into the wastes. Her muck- shucks remained, I noticed at daybreak.
She never returned for them.
Flesh and blood, an elder in the hobbled hut stilted ‘side ours said when it was clear big sister was another meal for the wastes. The mud demands it.
Mother and father said nothing in response to the elder. Nodded, yes, but they kept their mouths shut. Held tighter to their silence than they did big sister. I kept my mouth shut too. Choked down the dank air of our home. Swallowed the bitterness.
I said nothing when no vigil was held. Nothing when I was moved into big sister’s hammock and my old one was filled not a year later by another child. Nothing when big sister’s muck-shucks were pried from my protective hold and broken into bits by father, strung together again by mother. Remade, so carefully, for a smaller pair of pitter-patter feet.
I said nothing when bitterness turned sour and seeping.
In the swamp, the mud is not the only thing that makes demands, that requires sacrifices. The water, too, has wants. Has hungers. There is a ritual that must be performed before it will let our dead lie.
We must honor the passed with one last memory of a loving touch. Must comfort them a final time, skin to skin, or else risk their disgruntled, starving spirit coming back with a vengeance for what was denied.
Flesh and blood.
This hunger thickens the air, sticks to our skin like soil to muck-shucks. Burrows deep down the backs of our throats and settles solid in our lungs.
It thrums through our veins.
It slithers out of the murk and into your hut at night. Up into your hammock. Coils ’round and ’round you till its smooth, scaly touch is all you can feel.
It sneaks up on you while you’re muck-shucking at dusk. Watches you with beady eyes from razory reeds, saw-tooth grass, biding it’s time till you tempt fate too far and then it is tusks through your soft tissues.
It is a jagged-jawed maw lying in wait at sundown in the shallows’ shadows. Scaled hide shades of dark red in the day’s dying light. Eyes dim until the moment mother leans too far for the laundry line and topples down into the drink. Till father wades in too deep to rescue her and is sucked under.
It can be a gentle shove too much. A helping hand pressed too hard to mother’s back. A nudge too knowing towards a hopeless rescue.
Sometimes, it can be a mouth kept shut. A cry for help choked down. Swallowed.
The water settles slowly, red ripples staining the surrounding mud. Feeding it. The soggy soil savors the blood as if starved for it. Just above the murky surface, snaggle-toothed snout slinks. Shadows give it a crooked curl, an almost smile. Then, with a single thrash of its reptilian tail, it fades back into the wastes’ muddy maw. Finally able to rest.
Baby sister wriggles in my hold.
“Ma? Da?” She mumble-grumbles, pointing a pudgy finger at the settling murk. “Go?”
“Shh….” I soothe her struggling, her searching, my voice less than pacifying from long disuse. “It’s a secret.”
I glance down at the red streaks still swirling in the murk, the bone fragments floating like the broken bits of an old pair of forgotten muck-shucks. They weren’t forgotten.
“Our secret, yes?”
I hope you enjoyed that! This is yet another story inspired by a Twitter prompt. In this case, it is a second draft of a story I published on this blog a while back. It will probably not be the last draft of this story, either. Most of my stories are all works in progress. I’m sure plenty off writers can relate! Anyway, let me know what you think!