They rose from the mud grunting and pushing each other out of the way. Bumping, they’d stick for a moment, break apart. They jumped from the wet ground, lifted the caked earth as high as their legs could pull, immersed to the ankles. They were stuck. At the edge of the swamp one strained forward, toward me. I jumped back as it reached out.
It still held out its arm in my direction. I looked at its face and the lips seemed to move but the mud mouth could not speak: it gurgled.
There were voices all around me and I ignored them. I took another step back and kept stepping. #
I came back at night, alone. I parked right outside, no secrecy required. There was a short wooden fence; I climbed it with a step and a vault, and a drop onto surprisingly hard ground. I took a moment to catch my breath. I was a couple hundred feet from the edge of the pool and the land was clear except for a few bushes. My eyes would soon adjust to the dark.
It was a downhill slope but I didn’t have to clamber, just wend my way down slowly and not let the couple of drinks I’d taken for courage make me stagger too much. I wanted to be at the edge of the muck, I just didn’t want to get there too fast. And I came alone as I’d come alone this afternoon, because I didn’t know anyone I could bring.
At the edge of the pool the brown murk was calm. I crouched and looked toward the middle. That creature this afternoon needed something from me and I had refused it. The wind blew cold and I zipped up my leather jacket.
The pond was too thick for even the slightest ripple. I blinked, struggled to stay awake. My palms were on the ground, fingers pointed behind me. The ground was soft, but not mud. Something crawled up my arm and I glanced at it, a small spider and I let it crawl. Mud was all that concerned me.
I sat there, eyes narrowed, legs outstretched and shoulders slumped, head nodding back then forward. Until between blinks I saw small lumps, knuckles of mud. Then they were not knuckles but ridges of heads. They didn’t gasp for air as they emerged. They moved up toward the shore as though on an escalator.
They were monsters, their individuality hidden beneath layers of mud, their humanity smothered by it. They reached full height with the rising sun and I stood with them.
Night died; morning light crept over the horizon like an unwanted future. The figures approaching were the greatest shadows. Yards away, they advanced in my direction. My foot hovered a moment then stepped onto the dark lake. The surface was solid enough. I did not sink so I took another step.
Small creatures, insects and worms, moved in the mud. The mud was where they were, not what they were. I drew closer. I was twenty feet from the first half dozen mud people and there were two more rows behind them. I stopped walking. They moved slowly toward me, reached out.
I tried to step back but my foot wouldn’t move. I looked down. The mud was at my ankles now. I twisted one foot and it turned only slightly. I kicked and twisted and turned but the creatures were nearly touching me. One reached out and I pulled back. I violently yanked one foot free and leapt back as hard as I could, but the other foot would not leave the mud and I turned and fell facing shore. They were behind me, reaching for me, I could feel their arms in the air as my face hit soft wet ground and plunged through it.
I swallowed mud and it flooded into me, my mouth open and unable to shut as I sank.
I don’t know how long I fell: long enough for fear to leave me. I was dropping, not drowning. And I began to rise. There was mud all around but I was barely encumbered. I could see what was near me, could hear all around me, could feel what I touched but it was all mud. My arms grew heavier with mud that clung and pulled me, a cast that my body bore as it churned upward. I had to crest the surface and join the others, but I also wanted back that world I’d left behind.
My hair rose first. My brow came up, flesh covered by mud but otherwise exposed. I wanted the air, although I could tell that I would not breathe as before. And as my face appeared to the world I once knew it was those who were like me I needed to know. I would rise among them, and the people I had known before would be the new strangers.
Turning my neck was difficult, but I saw them beside and above me as I emerged and opened my mouth.
“I’m one of you now,” I tried to say. “Help me.”
But my mouth was covered with mud and so were their ears. I didn’t hear what I said, so how could they? Maybe it was enough to know that no one could understand us. We could never be like the people we had left. We could never again be recognized as people except by one another.
I joined the others, stood among them now. I reached toward the one on my right but he reached toward the shore, so I reached toward the one on my left. He also reached forward. I stepped with them, we walked as one. I reached forward, too: we would gather what was ours.