Walter and the Fat Boy in the Mud
by Robert Ervin Layden
"Come on, kids of all ages. It's too wet for haying. I know a fishing hole you people have never seen. Eat up and let's go."
My Uncle Walter was pushing his chair back from the breakfast table. Normally during haying season, he would have been in the field an hour ago. He issued the invitation primarily to my mother and me, visiting his family on our yearly trip to New Brunswick.
Raindrops glistened on the grass outside the window, matting it and exposing the dark Canadian soil beneath. I was ready for adventure, though hesitant. I questioned uncertainly, in an uneasy eleven-year-old kid's voice which wants to come out like a thoughtful adult's:
"Why is it too wet, Walter? Why can't you hay in the rain?"
He often called me "boy." I knew that the appellation encompassed more than my age.
"You just don't hay in the rain. The hay is all wet and clumpy. It's awful to bale, hard to move up to the wagon. When you pile it in the barn, it's still wet. It will rot in the fall or get moldy before the cows can eat it."My uncle's voice was a blend of melodious range and distinctive, penetrating rasp, a timbre neither tenor nor bass. Hearing it on the phone for the first time, a caller would feel sure this man was all freckles, bramble, and whipcord, yet with resonantly gentle depths.
"I've even known it to cause barn fires. Something about the wet hay all piled on top of itself, over the months it gets hot and catches on fire. What do you rich Americans call it? Spontaneous combustion. Wheeoh, how you folks run the mother tongue."
Walter was a lean 5'10". Not coiled to strike or smooth Hollywood muscled, but Canadian farmer autochthonous, of bone, gristle, muscle. His sandy red hair, still wiry waves, was faintly graying, a light dusting, a timely premonition of a snow onset.
The skin on his hands was subtly wrinkled, freckled leather, with a blush so evanescent that glancing away, you couldn't be sure you had seen it. The texture was thick but with a fineness that bespoke the loving efforts of a crafty master. Blue cord veins raised the surface. The structure and musculature suggested a quiet strength naturally controlled.
I had seldom met a man like him in Boston. He was modest, almost shy about his experiences and expertise. A highly respected cattle man who bred prize-winning stock, he talked as if he simply milked cows twice a day. He was even a country veterinarian of some repute, that other farmers sought him to castrate their bulls. This tidbit fascinated a kid from orderly, civilized Massachusetts.
In the cavernous barn lined with rows of gray metal cow yokes for milking and feeding times, I asked him about castration, that time he provided more detail than I had sought. My stomach queasy, I thought of home. The dentist fixed teeth, not cars, and the farmer sowed and harvested; he didn't perform what sounded like major surgery on animals. That was done by skilled veterinary surgeons in a hospital, not by a guy in a barn.
Walter's reticence extended to his work as a hunting guide. In the fall and early winter, when haying was finished, he was hired by serious deer hunters coming from outside the area. He avoided novice hunters, I'm sure because they were completely unattuned to the rhythms of the woods.
I know he had a mildly similar attitude toward me. I was a pudgy, pampered city boy who fell over his feet, showed fear too easily, talked too much, and could become disoriented in a small, wooded field. When I visited him as an adult, he would humorously comment,
"You know, Matt, you were the last person I ever expected to turn out so well. You were so spoiled, so clumsy, so worthless in the woods or on the water."
By contrast, Tommy, my cousin and contemporary who lived with Walter, was adroit and disciplined, beyond his age. He had learned to survive young. His father died unexpectedly when he was four. Tommy was always ready. He was slick but polite; his clothes were neat, his wavy red air was always in place, naturally.
Walter had never taken me to his prized fishing spots, feeling probably that I would mar them or injure myself. Streams with just enough current and depth so I could fall down but not drown were my playgrounds. Thus, this rainy day his invitation both excited and vaguely unsettled me.
Walter, Tommy, Mom, and I drove off. Mom had grown up here. She had fished when young, and years in the States hadn't dulled her abilities nor weakened her joy in the pursuit.
After nearly an hour, we stopped beside a muddy plain, the length of an irregular football field, as we stood in our end zone by the roadside. The area was bounded left and right by indifferent alder bushes, some of which had grown into harshly virescent trees. The black-brown expanse was clotted with coarse, green tufts of wiry-bladed swamp grass above which were wraiths of frail mist. At the further edge was a heavily flowing river, so mud-murky that it seemed an extension of the land until one observed the intensity of its current manifested by only a ripple here and there.
Not our customary, sun-sparkled, amiable stream, this was an ominous Canadian force, surging forward with fearful quietude. Its edges were not flat, friendly banks but oozing slopes without purchase or handhold. I imagined that if I fell into this primal momentum, chilling because there was no malignancy here, just ineluctability, I would be lost. Scattered logs, escapees from log runs I guessed, were clutched by the bank mud at one end, angled out down-current at the other. The pastel relieving the bleakness of black, brown, and gray was hostile green.
We removed our gear from the trunk. As we approached the mucky slope to the mud flat, Walter gave us instructions.
"Where you're going is down to the water. Big trout there, and you won't have to work to catch them. You will have to work along the way.
"See those bunches of grass? Step only on them. Don't step in the mud, it's deep. The river backs up here often, floods the area, water seeps down through the surface soil. When you get to the edge, try to walk out on one of those logs, and get your trout."
The mud was daunting; however, its danger seemed to be that we would sink a bit, get muddy, soil the car's upholstery. We started off, I the last voyager. The clumps of thick, rough grass were actually small mounds, some six inches across, a few nearly two feet. They were inches up from the mud's surface, as if they wished to be dissociated from it, escape it altogether, but their visible, supporting roots held them in place. The distance between the clumps varied, from under one foot to three and more.
Clutching my rod, tackle box, and the large can of worms, I began. Tommy, well ahead of me, unencumbered and foresighted, had stuffed a small packet of hooks and weights into his pocket and wrapped some worms in a piece of paper bag he evidently found in Walter's trunk.
I went along easily for a few hops, charting a neat course to the water. Then I landed on a lonely tuft, three feet from its nearest friend in a forward direction. The mounds afforded no space for any running start, so one had to leap from a stationary position. I teetered on this mound, a parody of a flabby, drunken man with a middle ear infection attempting to cross a stream by hopping rocks. I could not propel myself to the next tuft, and I would not turn back.
Impulse or rationality, I took a middle course. So what? I'd get a little muddy. Everybody expected it anyway. I could joke it away. I scissored my legs widely, right foot first, and took a step. Onto the mud, into the mud with an immediacy that allowed no time for emotions. This was my first experience of the complete absence of fear facing danger, that cold at the center which provides space for evaluation and likely reaction. Passivity was the sole response indicated here.
Immersion to my thighs seemed instantaneous, but then the downward movement became slow motion, as if the mud wished me to experience each sensation separately and in minute detail. The cold moved upward over my abdomen. Random thoughts filtered through: I hadn't really anticipated getting muddy up to here. Damn, the souvenir photos in my tan shirt pocket would be ruined. The sensation was akin to gradually slipping down into a bath long sitting in a chilly room at home, but the clinging, viscous substance was not watery, yet an almost welcome embrace. My arms were still on the surface, as if I were floating in a neighbor's pool in early autumn.
I recalled that in films when a person is being sucked down in quicksand, his friends shouted "Stay perfectly still. You'll sink faster if you move."
When I first saw that scene, I thought the advice silly. I would be thrashing and flailing like a beached octopus, but I didn't. Staying still was quite easy. Movement would have required effort.
The absence of panic was unique and undeniable as the mud coldly reached my neck. Why am I not screaming, paralyzed with fear? Instinctively I gulped a breath before the slime closed over my mouth, nose, eyes.
Mud unctuously crept over the top of my head, drawing up hair to points I felt, and still I descended. My eyes remained open, and before them eased brown, oozing mud; air bubbled up in ordered strings from my passing. An eerie, silent world for an eleven year old. I looked at the root tendrils of the grass as I passed. My ears registered an occasional, remote pop and quiet sibilance, almost friendly.
Since all movement seemed slow, I could not determine how deeply I had sunk until my rate slowed. The bubbles and the ooze continued before my eyes, and the clammy embrace remained. I must be deep, I thought, this muck was beginning to press more heavily upon my chest. I recognized, in fact, that my need for breath was becoming urgent.
The intensifying urge for respiration pressed upon me for several beats, and for the first time I felt the clanging of panic. Soon I must have air, instead I would breathe muck. My senses said I was stationary, now moving slightly upward. Slowly I oozed or was sucked toward the surface. The same bubbles and tendrils moved in my vision, but now in a reverse direction. I would have been joyful, even waved to them, but the burning in my lungs and around my ribs consumed me.
My padded buoyancy overcame the mud's power. I gained momentum and broke the surface like fat, cork bobber suddenly released from its fish by a broken line. I shot above the mud to my shoulders and remained there, gulping air frenziedly.
Walter and my mother were near. Tommy was, I discovered later, smugly fishing from one of the logs. He said then,
"Well, what could I do anyway? Walter was there."
Walter was shouting,
"For God's sake don't move your arms or legs."
No doubt he had seen the same films, but where was he when my head was feet under mud? Surely he was frightened for my safety, though I did consider, cynically cool, that his status in the family and as a guide would be irreparably damaged if he lost a fat nephew on a simple trek to a muddy-banked river.
He got me within reach by extending his rod, and he and Mom hauled me up onto their large tuft.
"Oh, boy, I should have told you about this quick mud, but I didn't want scare you kids, and there is so little of it here. Just your luck to find it. Let's go home and get you cleaned and straightened up. You're gonna be fine.
" Mom agreed in a quavery voice, but I resisted, newly assertive after my ordeal. There is something to be said about the formation of character by trauma - not much, but something. I wobbled down to the water and managed to get out onto the log where Tommy was casting.
"For Chris' sake don't tip this over, you fat bastard.
" Not over exactly, but on my first cast I caused the log to wobble slightly in place. We splashed to the water and submerged, then bobbed up. In the lee of the log, near shore, we were unthreatened by the current. Water I knew, having been under so many times; it was almost a friend. Besides, it washed the mud off.