Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Cracks in the Mud

I've been traveling for weeks over dark, still water, so deep that the roots of the giant trees are completely hidden. They rise like wooden pillars from a floor of black marble. The water's getting shallower now, though; the cypresses are showing their roots, not just their knees. Some of the ridges between knee and trunk are high enough to stick out of the water. A few of the oldest trees have whole flying buttresses. There are stands of cattails here and there, clustered around the trees like green cuffs on wooden sleeves, and sedges with seed clusters in every imaginable shape. It's early in the year for them, but things tend to grow out of season in the Great Shwamp. I picked a few stems of box-sedge near the boardwalk. Each branch was tipped with a perfect little cubical seedpod, punctured at the top to let out seeds, like a tiny saltshaker. (I've heard that some mice actually use them that way.) Another sedge nearby had seeds arranged in perfect five-pointed stars. Mounds of red mud rose from the water a bit farther on; they were mostly bare, except for a few tufts of marsh grass. They had an uneasy, temporary look to them.

I began to suspect that the calmness of the water was not as constant as it seemed. The only solid things in sight, besides the immovable trees, were new ground and even newer plants. There had been storms here recently.

The mounds got larger as I walked, still bristly with marsh grass and the occasional sedge. Some of the larger ones had dried on top. The surfaces were cracked in the crazed patterns of dried riverbeds. A man in spectacles and a rather dusty coat was splashing between them, making rapid, precise sketches of the patterns. One trouser leg was rolled up; the other had fallen down and was dangling in the water. He didn't seem to notice. His feet were scaly and webbed, like a duck's.

"Good morning," he said, not stopping to look at me. It was late afternoon. "Stay on the boardwalk, please. Don't step on the mudbanks."

He needn't have worried. Even the driest ones were obviously the sort of mud that eats your boots and stains your socks for eternity. I had no intention of stepping on them; I told him so. He didn't seem to be listening.

"I've got to record them," he muttered. "Just a few more dry spells should do it. I'm so close. So close. It's almost complete."

"What's almost complete?" I asked.

He turned and stared at me as if I had asked what air was. "The message, of course!" he sputtered, blinking furiously. "You don't think these patterns just happen, do you? They're written! Written, I tell you, and I'm going to find out by whom! It's taken me years to decipher the language. No one else would even try. I'm so close... So close..."

He stared into space for a moment, lost in what I assume was thought, then seemed to lose all his patience at once. "Why am I even talking to you? I don't have time to waste talking! It could rain any minute and erase part of the message! There are two mudbanks I haven't recorded yet! I can't afford any more distractions! Get out!"

I got out. I was tempted to stay nearby (out of sight, of course) and wait for the reader to finish - just to see what happened - but despite his hurry, there's no telling how long that could take. It could be weeks before the rain comes and erases the cracks. Even if I could find somewhere dry to sleep, I don't think I could resist following the boardwalk that long. I have to find out where the path leads.

In his own way, I suppose, so does he.

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