The following story (abt 1700 words) was originally published in the Stories of Hope Anthology early this year. It’s about hope that comes after the fires.
And now I share it with you, and through story, send hope to all those who are suffering the fires in California, San Fran, and everywhere else, that it will soon be over, that we can move forward.
Muddy n Milli
Fires passed through the other day, the white-bearded old man said. He stood next to the ancient River Red Gum and gazed across the lake. They’ll be back tomorrow.
Milli shuffled her feet.
I have to find her before the wind turns it back this way. She’s alone and I’m the only one who knows what she needs, where she hides.
The Muldewangk are not your friend, the old man said, his face stern.
Oh, I know. The fishies say she’s so ugly they’d rather run into the fire-front than face her. They’re idiots. Muldewangk are shy, they’re quiet. Live in a sucking mud-hole. Milli smiled. And slimy and venomous and they make horrible noises worse than fart-games with the boys. She crossed her arms over her chest and blew her contempt for such tales through pursed lips.
They are all that and more. The old man brushed away the ash that littered the air and settled on his skin. Don’t you think you should be afraid of a creature so large, so dangerous, so ugly? If men fear her, why don’t you?
Men fear them because Muldewangk live in mud, Milli said. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Not all the way bad. Just ugly, is all.
What do they do with the mud? Do you know, little girl? Do they capture their prey with it? Does this monster like the taste of little girls who go out in the night air? He wasn’t smiling.
Live in it, is what I said. They don’t eat it, can’t eat fish or water-plants. My brother – his name’s Eddie – told me they eat little girls, but that’s not true. It’s not, or I wouldn’t be here. You’re as big a liar as Eddie is. You don’t know her. She’s my friend. She helps with my pots. Milli jutted her chin at the old man.
You have many pots in the river? He turned his head toward the rows of fish-funnels stacked against the old shed at the end of the boat-ramp.
Many, many fish-pots. And she helps me with them, chases the best fish my way. She don’t eat them. Muddy – that’s what I call her – eats flowers and grass and grasshoppers and butterflies. Mostly purple flowers, but any flower about to burst into full bud will do. They use the purple colour to shade their skin.
That’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think? How can I believe you’ve seen a Muldewangk if you say such things? The smile split his face with bright white teeth.
I saw Muddy do it. She swallows the flowers, and her skin wobbles like a ripple-tide, and the colours swirl like oil on water. It’s beautiful. It’s why I keep coming back. Not because I’m bewitched or anything … she lets me see her magic.
How can such a young girl know if she’s bewitched? Is she grown enough to ask her aunties and uncles to make sure of her mind? The old man leaned against the tree.
This is my river, my lake. I know all its creatures. And now I’ve helped save the land animals from the flames, I have to find Muddy’s new hole before the fisherman find her. They want to kill her, ’cos everything ugly must be evil, right? Muddy loves me. She holds me in her arms – or fins if you want to be picky, so I’m real safe – and shows me the way the water changes the banks, how it makes deep water sinks one day that are gone the next.
It sounds to me like you don’t listen to your elders.
When the moon comes out, she’ll come up for air, but that will be too late. I need to find her. Can I borrow your boat?
If I weren’t an ancestor ghost, would you take the boat?
She’s my friend. The last of her kind. I am her guardian. If you’re my ancestor ghost, you’ll watch over me, won’t you?
Did I say I was your ancestor? I could be the ancestor for the owner of the boat, and watching it for him.
Can I take the boat?
Do you wish to return to life as a little girl after your search?
The harsh stink of hot eucalyptus on the air stung Milli’s nose, made her eyes water. The stories were fresh in her mind. The aunties sang the warning songs after the fires passed too close yesterday. The words were a test of her learning. She could say no, and Muddy would have permission to take her to be the new Muldewangk. Muddy would have a child. The legend would continue. Or she might eat Milli. All the stories said the Muldewangk ate little kids.
But if Milli said yes and returned to her ordinary life, Muddy would be alone forever. Or until someone else gave up their shape to become part of a new life. A new being. Milli smiled at the outline of the ghost. He wasn’t one of her family; she could lie to him.
Yes, Milli said, and crossed her feet at the ankles and her fingers on both hands behind her back. Yes, I do. Can I borrow the boat now? This was the modern world, no one believed in monsters anymore. The old man was playing with her, seeing if she’d give up. Testing to see if she thought it was a game of imaginary friends, or if the stories were so real that she, a little girl, believed it.
Silly old muril-man. It was all real. Once she found Muddy and helped her get to the deeper water on the other bank, all would be well. Milli would bring the boat back and put it right up there next to the old tree. No one would know.
Except the ghost-elder. Who wasn’t even her elder.
Milli pulled the canoe into the water, leapt in and picked up the paddle. She wouldn’t use the paddle, only needed it to feel the vibrations in the water. Shallow water. Summer. Think like Muddy. Where was the cool water, the deep mud?
The boat flowed with the tide, plished against the small wavelets as the bow dipped and cut. Thrums carried across the surface. A fish leapt into the air, splashed heavy on its side as a warning to other fish.
The next change in the water was deeper, a throaty growl that reverberated through the boat and her body.
Not a dog The growl wasn’t above ground, It came from beneath the water. A voice, calling to Milli.
I’m coming, Muddy, she whispered.
Bubbles floated on the air, popped as they touched the water, released a hard, pearl-green shape with tail and fins. Not fish, not anything Milli had seen before. She leaned over the side to sniff the air of a bubble as it burst. Hot, smoky air whooshed from the broken globe.
Milli, girl, you came. Muddy’s head rose from the high bank cut deep from the last flood. Sparkles rose from the water, bubbles in colours as ethereal as abalone-shell seen by moonlight that hid behind tearaway clouds.
Babies? Milli gazed at the hundreds of bubbles, some blue, some green, some purple. One or two a deep dark red, as hot to look at as the heart of a fire.
My children need care, Muddy said. I have borne my eggs from the ravages of fire. I have raised them to this point, the eggs have hatched in the flame of new life.
You can stay here, Muddy. I’ll put up markers so no one comes. I can live here, protect you.
Ah, that is not the way it is. I am one, and I can be only one until my work is done. I send my eggs along all the tributaries, I send them near and far: from lake to river to stream to waterhole; from coastal tributaries to the deep artesian to the plunging cliffs of the deepest seas, I give them the life that was mine.
Why can’t you stay? What did she mean? Milli wondered if it was like a spider. No. They weren’t eating her.
The tiny scales along Muddy’s body erupted in rows, floated away. The bubble-babies glowed in the water like sprites, spun in circles that sang of joy and freedom.
But Muddy dulled with each loss of a scale, each bubble that burst.
You give them your life? Milli’s eyes burned, but she wouldn’t cry. It wasn’t grown-up to cry. Or maybe it was.
It is what must be. I make way for my children. They are the ones who go forth to continue the story. You will go forth into your life and make the world right for your children.
Milli’s throat clammed shut. She didn’t want to lie to Muddy.
You will, girl. We all do. It is the way of our mothers, of all mothers. Only through our children can we know our stories continue.
A boat gurgled across the widest part of the lake towards Milli. The water split into bow-waves.
You have to go, Muddy, she said. The fishermen want to eat you.
Not this one, not this time. Muddy rose out of the water, her body taller than the old red-gum, thicker than its trunk. Not glossy now, grey and white with swatches of blooded mud and scratches of blackened coal.
The old man swung his tinny close to Milli.
Is it time? he asked.
Muddy opened her mouth, showed her double rows of fangs, oozed viscous, oyster-grey goo from her eyes and ears and nose. A sound rumbled through the air, throbbed on the surface of the brown water, rattled the sand on the bank.
It is time, Muddy said. Air rushed from her body, shrank the skin, released all the colour and spirit and life.
The bubble-babies floated in the air, joined themselves at tail and fin, swung up and down until their sound was an afternoon wind over dunes, a soft dirge that rose into a song of rapture.
Muddy sank down, slid under the surface, gleamed for a moment as silver-grey in the dark water. Then she was gone.
Time for us to go, the ghost-ancestor said.
Did you know her, too? Milli asked, still watching the mud-hole.
I knew her mother.