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[Excerpt from] The Saints of Mud
The water of the Missouri Ozarks was low that day. The brothers had lain by the water’s edge in mud as thick and wonderful as frosting, and they had talked about knives. Charlie was young and innocent and didn’t want to be anything, but he was all-knowing and all-cool, as most eight-year-olds were. Michael was eleven, but really twelve because he rounded up, as most eleven-year-olds did. They had worn ripped jeans and left their shirts at home, and their heads were banded with strips of cloth and crow feathers, like the Indians. They were wild and messy and fresh, and they knew it.
“Someday, Charlie, you’re going to be twelve like me. Then you can have a knife like mine. But you’re too little now,” Michael said, opening and closing his pocketknife. It had a carving of an eagle, his bowed wings frozen like sails as he soared over dappled mountains. Engraved below the eagle was Michael’s name.
“I ain’t too little! You cut yourself yesterday anyways,” Charlie said, rubbing sticky-wet balls of mud on his chest to keep the deer flies away.
“Oh, stop that, mom is gonna whip you into shape if you don’t stop making a mess of yourself,” Michael said. He giggled. “You sure do look like a swamp monster though.” He sat up, scratching the top of his wheat-colored head and squinting across the lake. “We’re gonna need some food if we’re gonna survive the long night. Commander!”
Charlie stood and saluted Michael, muck rolling down his rounded belly. “Yes, SIR!”
“I need some good firewood so I can roast a pig for the troops. The best wood you can find. Now get going!”
“Yes, SIR! But where’s the pig, sir?”
Michael crouched, rubbing his bare legs and belly with mud. He grinned. “Well, I guess we’ll have to be the pigs. Now go!”
“Sir yes SIR!”
Charlie ran down the beach. Wood littered the damp sand, and rounded rocks gathered in colonies across the shore. The water sighed as it nibbled Charlie’s feet and bubbled around jagged blocks of wood, greasy with the oil of faraway boats. But this wood wouldn’t do. Wood for Michael’s fires had to be beautiful, almost too beautiful to burn, dry and graceful and worthy of poetry. When the good ones snapped, they sounded like death, and when they burned, they sounded like a thousand haunting stories carried off in the smoke.
He had passed a grove of young sapling trees when he saw the handsome mound of sticks. They were scattered across the beach like sad little bodies, crowding around a grainy boulder that was lodged at the water’s edge. He gathered them as he approached the boulder, cradling them in his arms like treasures. He reached the largest stick and began to tug it loose from the sand. A blur of motion caught his eye, and he looked at the boulder. It was a snake.
Its eyes were amber and glossy, slitted like a cat’s, and they stared at Charlie with an inhuman hatred. Its head was flattened and broad, and jutted out from a body as swollen and thick as a dead dog. It was the color of the mucky water that rippled around its rock, gray-brown and ugly, even for a snake. Its white mouth was gaping, and its pipette fangs were wet and pale, like the carcass of a dead fish. It was a cottonmouth. It loved water and killed children.
Charlie sucked in air, trying not to scream, trying to be a brave man. He wasn’t little. The snake was a kid-killer, but he wasn’t a kid. He remembered what Michael had told him. Stare a snake right in the eyes, and he’ll get awful scared and run away. Charlie glared hard at the snake, but it remained motionless, its scaled body coiled in a tight ball.
Charlie felt his fingers trembling, and one of the sticks that he cradled fell to the mud, throwing him off balance. His leg shifted near the snake’s head. A heartbeat passed, and then, in an explosion of force unknown to Charlie, its curled body launched toward his calf. He watched, every millisecond dragging by, as the snake’s fangs disappeared into his meat like railroad spikes. The snake’s body slid off the rock and slapped his leg with a sickening thud.
He screamed, falling backwards into the sand, the pile of wood clattering on his bare chest and arm. A million hot needles pricked his leg, and a fire grew toward his upper body. He tried to get up, but his leg felt dead, like a chunk of burning firewood was attached to his hip. Every movement shifted the splintery sticks on his bleeding chest. He lay there crying and kicking, each minute terrible and long and hopeless. The snake clung on, its head motionless and hard like a tumor hanging off his leg. He vomited in the mud.
Then, above the sound of water and his own ragged breath, he heard someone scream his name. It was Michael. His footsteps pounded through the sand, closer and closer, and Charlie looked up through a fog of tears to see Michael bolting toward him, jumping over water-logged sticks and rocks, his blond mess of hair matted with beach sludge. He was coming like a nearing storm. His open knife glinted in the weakening afternoon sunlight.
He threw himself down by Charlie and grabbed the snake at the base of its ugly striped head. In one violent motion, he pushed his fingers into the serpent’s cold eyes and twisted his hand. A second passed, and the writhing snake opened its jaws. Michael whipped the cottonmouth from Charlie’s leg, clenched his knife, and let out a savage yell, plunging the blade into the snake’s body once, twice, three times. Its body fell limp in his fist, and he threw the heavy snake into the mud, where it landed with a thick slap. Charlie watched, delirious from the pain and poison and knowing he would die. This was it. If he died, then he wasn’t a man. Michael was right. He was little. He closed his eyes.
Suddenly, the weight of sticks on Charlie’s chest lifted, and he felt a wet hand grab his shoulders. His head flopped on his neck like a piece of meat, and he vomited again. His eyes struggled open. Michael’s other hand slipped under Charlie’s arm, and with a rough pull, yanked him up. Charlie watched motionless, his body burning and unresponsive, as Michael thrashed with him in the mud. A long minute passed. Then Michael stood, pulling Charlie across his back and shoulders. A piggyback ride.
Charlie heard Michael’s voice and strained to hear.
“…this one thing, just one. Don’t let go. Don’t let go, Charlie.”
Charlie mustered up the last weak ounce of strength he had, pulling it from every muscle and tendon in his body, and he threw his hands around Michael’s throat, intertwining his fingers. Michael was talking again.
“…to sleep, Charlie, don’t you dare go to sleep!” Then, with Charlie biting his lip to stay awake, his brother ran. A warrior, Charlie thought. He was still going to die, but Michael was a hero, and that was good enough. He closed his eyes again.