The Mud Jury by T. Fox Dunham

“I want to have my ashes spread out here,” Cindy said, pulling free the cords securing the kayak to her truck. Mr. Crow helped her with the knots. “Water’s gone bad,” he said. One of the few Munsee tribe to remain in Cape May, he’d worked the water since he was a boy, and you always just expected to see the old man out here. When all the others left, he refused. He picked up the light kayak, carried the boat on his shoulder then lowered it onto the dock. Cindy grabbed her kit from the car, slipped off her shoes and reviewed the data from the last survey on her phone. Then, she slipped it into a plastic pouch she wore around her neck. She’d use it to take photos, notes, but she wouldn’t have any signal once she left the channel. The marsh was a dead zone.

“Try not to get too much water or mud on you.” Crow pulled out a Lucky Strike and tore off the filter.

“The water’s getting better,” Cindy said. “I’ve been checking the quality.” For two summers, she hadn’t dared to go further into the streams, fearing the devastation would shatter her heart, but recent tests had given her hope she could return. She’d only found tranquility out on the marsh, alone from the world, escaping as a teen from her father’s drinking. Now, she could come home.

“You’re one of those scientists from the company,” he said, taking a drag. Wind blew through the three white feathers that sprung from his black and silvery hair. “You poisoned my home.”

“I know you’re angry. Everyone’s been hurt so much.”

“The mud’s angry.”

“It doesn’t feel. It’s just earth.”

“You poisoned its spirit, and you must make peace.” He lit the cig, and its coal burned crimson in the incipient dawn.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Cindy said. The harsh smoke burned her eyes. Crow said nothing else and drilled through her with unfathomable eyes. She gave up the argument. She’d just have to do it. Cindy put on her gloves, locked the clasp on her lifejacket and checked her gear, ensuring she’d brought the proper screening kit then loaded the pack onto the aqua-green kayak. She scanned their side of the channel, searching for life, activity, commerce. Miss Marty’s Marina rotted into the channel. White and black gull crap painted the docks and building. Deep-sea fishing gear—string, sinkers, broken poles—littered the ground among torn t-shirts and brochures. Most of the craft had sailed out, sold to northern bay businesses. The last remaining boat—their whaling ship for tourists—rusted at her dock and leaned to port, probably taking on water. Coming down here reminded Cindy of visiting derelict cemeteries where the brush grew wild, tangled and teenage vandals had busted many of the stones.

The clouds glowed from early dawn light. Cindy had left when it was still dark, hoping she wouldn’t encounter anyone. After a year spent in Trenton and Cape May courts, fending off lawsuits—even a day before a congressional committee—she’d been rightly cleared of any wrongdoing; though technically the safety of the tanks had been her responsibility, she couldn’t be held responsible for poor industry standards and micro cracks on equipment built during the 1950s. However, the locals still held Cindy accountable. They broke her windows, slashed her tires, and if they recognized her out on the waters, they’d yell obscenities from the shore, even chuck dead fish or rocks. There were times she’d nearly moved. After the usual cleanup techniques failed because of the way the molecular structure of the pollutant bonded to the salt in the water, most of ARK’s staff had resigned and started over, but she had grown up here.

“You shouldn’t go out there,” Crow said. She couldn’t get over the width of his mournful eyes—eyes that saw all but had been forbidden tears, eyes full as the moon. “Its spirit is angry. Spirit as old as the ocean. There are no courts to protect it. Fines and jail sentences won’t make it better.” She’d make this better, alone if she had to. Life would return. Life always returned, though sometimes it took thousands of years. Still, the recent samples showed hope, but Cindy had to go deeper into the marshes to sample concentrations of methyl-5 before convincing people to return.

“Push me off?” she asked the old crow. He leaned down on his knees and pushed her down the incline into the water. Cindy paddled, stabilizing her heading. The boat glided on the channel, and she turned left, heading to the mud banks and tall grasses.

Home.

Her phone rang, interrupting her reverie. It surprised her she still had a signal. Bea Smith called. “Bea. What can I do for you? Bob okay?” Bob worked with Cindy at ARK, an engineer. If anyone knew these waterways better, it was Bob.

“He hasn’t come home! He said he was going fishing early Friday. Took his new boots and rod.”

“Bea, are you sure he’s not . . .?” Cindy tried to be delicate about his drinking. He’d been hitting it hard since the accident.

“He always comes back early in the morning. He’s never been out this long.”

“I think I spotted his truck on the way in, Bea. Don’t worry. I’ll—Bea?” The call ended. Her phone showed no signal, and she fed it into the watertight pouch. She paddled for the entrance to the marsh, clearing the docks, struggling against the currents. If she didn’t keep paddling, they’d spin the kayak about and throw her into one of the banks. Somewhere above, a seagull cried, but she couldn’t see it in the poor light. Finally, it came into view, flying lower over the waters, then it dove straight at her boat. She ducked, having fended off enough ravenous birds on the boardwalks of New Jersey. It flapped its wings, hovering above her and gouged at the back of her neck, drawing blood, shattering her reverie. The bird screeched and bit her hair, pulling free a clump. She yelped in shock, smacked the bird back into flight then laughed at herself. The bird probably mistook her for a meal. She shook it off and rubbed at the rip in her scalp. Blood smeared her palm, and she wiped it on her wrap. She trembled from the encounter. She’d heard of other bird attacks out here but never so violent before. Could the land be angry? Cindy rejected the idea. She respected native culture, but she believed in science first. The bird could have been sick, poisoned even. They didn’t really understand the chemical’s effect on avian brain chemistry, and it was all the more reason she had to keep going, to understand. Cindy took a minute to breathe, calming herself after the attack, before pushing on into the marsh’s heart.

She paddled through the shallow and muddy waters of the winding streams that spun and twirled through the marshlands, once again exploring the waterways and channel that cut Cape May into an island, giving the beach community access to the Atlantic. She spotted more gulls and sandpipers  and hoped they wouldn’t be aggressive. The fowl gazed at her, watching as she passed, frozen in place then returned to cracking shells and picking insects from the mud. Cindy took out her test kit and sampled the perimeter waters. While she drew water with an eyedropper, she spotted a stray jellyfish puffing along with the current. Most of the local population died out in the early days of the spill, and to see one was a great sign of renewal. The chemical odor that had permeated the sweet ocean air had cleared, no longer polluting the rancid and earthy aroma of rotting vegetation, mud and brine. Cindy closed her testing kit then paddled against the current, gaining speed, penetrating deeper into the marsh. The labyrinthal streams twisted and turned, and as the tide changed, new channels opened and others shut or drained into an impassable mud wall. By the afternoon, not even a kayak could navigate the sanctuary, and the land would belong again to the fish, fowl and spirits. For eons, the marshes spawned generations of wildlife. They lived in these marshes, died then decomposed in the mud, feeding the next chapter of life, driving the ecosystem. This cycle generated a force like a turbine—a spiritual energy that could almost be sensed. Cindy declined to believe in the ancient gods, but on mornings when the wind settled, the marshes whispered, singing its power, speaking with the voice of ocean spirits. Cindy took comfort in the human dominance of the natural world, but deep down, she knew she was just another crab at play in these waters. If she died, her flesh would feed its life force too like any other animal.

Cindy turned the corner, fought the current then slowed and dipped her testing kit into the water. The sample declined to change color, indicating purity, and she didn’t spot any traces of the spill. She still couldn’t believe it. The water should have been polluted for at least a decade, but here was the evidence. Somehow, the marsh healed. It shouldn’t have been possible, but nature refused to be understood. Mr. Crow had said this land had a spirit; perhaps truth existed in the metaphor. He’d also said it was angry. Just then, something stung her leg, and she nearly dropped the kit into the water. She looked down into the base of the boat. Two white crabs had found their way into the kayak. She laughed again. “Sorry boys. Good to see you, but I’d prefer not to be breakfast.” She swept them away with her hands.

Cindy paddled by rusting docks and wooden piles driven into the mud. She kept to the center of the stream, maneuvering around the shallows at the edge of  the mud banks where grasses grew tall and wild. Bleached shells like tiny bones littered their roots, and the occasional crab scurried over the mud, picking at insects. She turned the corner and spotted a boot sticking out of a mud bank. At first, she thought it was just flotsam or jetsam but looked too clean. The footwear resembled Bob’s, and Cindy steered the kayak, trying not to ground the craft in the mud, but the current grabbed her. The plastic boat hit the bank and dug deep. Seagulls protested then took wing. She paddled against the viscous mud but only succeeded in filling her boat with slime, smearing mud down her bare thighs. The shore clutched her boat in a fist and refused release. She struggled to emancipate her craft, rocking the kayak, hitting the bank with her paddle, but suction trapped the kayak. After several minutes of fighting with the mud, she realized she couldn’t get it free from inside the boat. Before the spill, all she had to do was wait for a crabber or another kayak to find her and get help, but she’d be out for days before anyone found her. Cindy had to get free on her own but couldn’t trust the ground. The marsh mud sucked a person down like quicksand. Still, she hoped this patch of ground would prove solid, supported by bedrock, and Cindy maneuvered out her leg and tried standing in the shallow water. The mud swallowed her limb above the knee, and she twisted it out. Filthy sediment—the stinking muck composed of decaying reeds, grasses, shells and fish—coated her skin. She gagged, spit vomit into the stream then waited for her stomach to calm before trying again. Cindy called upon her field training. She had to disperse her weight so she wouldn’t sink, though she detested the idea of slithering through the muck. Still, she had no choice, and if that was Bob, he could have been dying of a heart attack. She sighed, secured her gear then crawled out of the kayak, spreading her weight on the mud bank. Slime coated her bathing suit, wrap, even clumping up her blond hair. She stopped, spitting up vomit again then composed herself. Cindy eased out onto the bank, and the mud declined to eat her. Then she grabbed a rotting pylon that used to be a telegraph pole and pulled herself off the kayak. She tangled in the reeds and sweet grass, dislodging mobs of bugs and tiny shellfish. Screeching seagulls flew overhead, protesting her intrusion, and Cindy pulled herself through, reaching the other side of the bank. She spit out rotting plants and wiped the matter from her lips. Raw chemical odor burned her nose, and she noticed the oily texture of the methyl-5 floating on the pools left after the passing tide. Nothing lived in that area, and dead plants, animals littered the edges. Dead and bereft patches spread across the horizon of waterways—the final remnants of the spill. The pattern of soil erosion and water currents intrigued her; perhaps something in the ground had filtered the pollutant—a better theory than magic spirits—but she had to get herself the hell out of there before she could continue collecting data.

Something stung her calf, interrupting her concentration. Another brazen crab had snipped at her leg. She brushed it into the water then began the process of turning around to get hold of the kayak. Two more crawled out of the grass and snapped at her leg. “Get away!” She kicked them off, but several more of the critters took their places. The crabs drew blood, cutting and slashing her flesh, and salt water from their shells worked into the wounds, burning like acid. She kicked at them again, but nothing spooked them. The crabs resumed their work on her flesh, slicing and snapping. At first, it merely irritated but as more joined the mass, her legs burned. She kicked and kicked, sinking deeper into the mud, but soon the scavengers surged on the bank, turning the island pink. She pulled one off her back then another. A few tangled in her hair, poking at her skull. The mass crawled over her body, up her arms, down her back and finally she snapped, kicking and twisting herself deep into the mud, screaming at the sky and sea. Roots manacled her legs, securing her at the mercy of the crabs, and she struggled. The mud sucked her down deeper, locking her to the ground. Above her, she heard gulls screeching. Wings flapped closer, whipping her back and head. Seagulls swooped down and cracked her skull then lapped at the bloody mud. A daring gull flew close to her face and just floated there, playing witness, watching her suffer.

“Help me,” she yelled, sobbing. No one could hear her. Even if she could reach her phone, she’d have no signal.

Mud smeared her face, blinding her, but she could hear the seagulls. One of the birds pecked at a fresh cut on her cheek, ripped off a strip of flesh then swallowed it down. The other gulls circled overhead, and she held her breath, choking on a sob. The birds joined the crabs, stabbing with their beaks for a meal of skin, muscle and blood. A thousand daggers shredded her body, and she wept, out of wind from screaming. Cindy thrashed and managed to pull herself out of the mud, but her ankle snapped under the pressure. Pain shot up her leg then soon numbed. She stopped feeling any pain, and her head spun and twirled. Cindy fought up the side of the bank, kicking and smacking away ravenous seagulls. The wind blew fast through the reeds. The currents swirled the muddy waters. The choir of the marshes stirred and celebrated, joining the feast on their assailant. Company lawyers had protected her, blocking liability, blaming weak state regulations, but now the sea cast its judgment—and execution. Cindy reached the boot that had drawn her to this spot. She grabbed it, evicting bugs and flies. Two blackened toes tumbled out, and she tossed it at the stream. Bob had come first. Now his flesh fed the marsh.

She sobbed and moaned, then for a brief moment, the crabs ceased snapping. The gulls flew at a distance. The wind eased. She sighed. Was it over? Cindy mumbled apologies, begging for leniency, mercy from the spirit. The mass waited.

“It wasn’t my fault.”

The jury closed on her, chewing, stabbing, clawing and eating. She wondered how long it would be before she passed out from blood loss. Light dimmed, and Cindy felt like she was spinning. She shivered in the morning sun, and in her terror, she searched for a little relief to ease her spirit into the waters. At least her body would rest in the layers of moribund fish and crab, rotting reeds and leaves, sunken in the mud, and the thought comforted her before she blacked out.

T. Fox Dunham lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Allison. He’s a lymphoma survivor, cancer patient, modern bard and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, was published by Gutter Books. A major motion picture based on the book is being produced by Throughline Films. Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality or Searching for Andy Kaufman, a book about what it’s like to be dying of cancer, was recently released from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Fox has a story in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from MGM and Fandemonium Books. Fox is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and he’s had published hundreds of short stories and articles. He’s host and creator of What Are You Afraid Of? Horror & Paranormal Show, a popular horror program on PARA-X RADIO. His motto is wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: http://tfoxdunham.blogspot.com

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