[Excerpt from] The Saints of Mud

May 29, 2012
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“You don’t think Mom’s gonna get mad if we take it out?” Charlie had said.
Michael crouched on the splintery dock below him, struggling with the thick ropes that tied the canoe down. The field grass was hot and wet that day, and the lake was windy. 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 were going fishing.
“Nah, I’m big enough,” Michael answered, the wind tossing his golden hair as he fumbled with the wooden beast.
“But Mom said that we always have t—”
“Don’t be a mama’s boy. You’re making me nervous anyhow,” Michael said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Now hold this rope.”
Charlie snorted. He was no mama’s boy. He pounced on a buckle at the front of the canoe, and the boys’ hands danced along its body until the last rope fell with a gurgle into the water. They pushed the canoe in.
“Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Michael said, wiping water onto the back of his pants. He stepped lightly in. The canoe groaned. When Michael had sat down at the front, he beckoned Charlie in.
“Go real slow, Charlie, like me.”

Charlie stepped in delicately, like he was tiptoeing through the house.

“Now we’re real Indians, huh Michael?” Charlie asked.

Michael grinned. “Like in the movies. But now we gotta go fishing,” he answered, pushing away from the dock. The water lapped at his oar as they glided through the bumpy water.

“Now the first thing we gotta do is find a good spot,” Michael said. He pointed to a grove of trees a half-mile down the bank. “If I were a fish, I’d go there.”

They took turns paddling, practicing their Indian war cries as they went. The hot wind was picking up speed, tossing glinting sprays into the belly of the canoe. Charlie was growing nervous.

“Maybe we should head back to the dock, Michael,” he hollered above the whoosh of waves.

Michael peered out across the lake. “Yeah, this wind sure is pretty str—”

Suddenly, a wave reared its head under the canoe, crashing against the wood like a savage animal. Charlie whipped his body toward the wave, too sharply, before he could stop himself. The canoe groaned in agony, rolling over on its belly in surrender, and cold water closed over Charlie’s head. His bare feet struggled to find its footing in the soft lake mud. He breeched and blinked the water out of his eyes and strained to see Michael’s familiar blond head. He saw the tip of the canoe poking from the water like a lonely piece of driftwood before sinking into the darkness. A yellow head emerged from the water near him.

“Michael, you’re alive!” Charlie yelled, straining to keep his head above the water.

“Course I’m alive, my feet are touching the ground,” Michael said. He grabbed Charlie’s arm, and the two paddled to the nearby beach. They dragged themselves onto the wet sand, and Charlie collapsed onto his back in tired agony. The merciless wind licked his wet chest and legs. He looked out across the water to where the canoe had drowned.

“I don’t think Dad’s gonna be happy, Michael,” he whimpered. Michael didn’t answer.

Michael sat on his knees in the hot sand next to him, studying something in his lap. Charlie peered in his hands.

A wet piece of cloth was draped across his legs. It was coated in a slimy layer of green algae, and it dripped in the sand. Michael wiped the cloth on his thigh, and a shimmer of red flashed under the mud. Charlie’s eyes widened. They scooted down to the water line and shook the fabric in the cold water, allowing it to lick off the grime of fish slime and gray-brown muck. When he finally pulled it out and held it in the air, the wind grew silent, and the brothers grew silent, and the water ceased its soft moan. It was a flag, crimson and pure and uninterrupted, like a pool of blood, so deep someone could lose themselves in it, or drown in it. It rippled in the breeze around Michael’s fist, like a bird fighting for flight, and Charlie could almost hear it sing a haunting melody, perhaps about the currents and the water and the endlessness of sky. It’s edges were tattered and wonderful, like graceful fingers stroking the wind, and tiny frayed strings flicked across Michael’s hand. A line of black letters burned across the plain of red like a fire’s ashes:

Charlie stared at it, feeling unworthy, forgetting about the canoe and thinking only of red and black. He touched the cloth, and both of their hands fluttered over the grime in awe.

“It’s probably from a pirate ship,” Michael murmured, pulling it out of the wind and holding it close to his chest. “It’s awful pretty, isn’t it?”

Charlie nodded, the words caught in his throat.

“It was in the mud on the bottom, where the canoe sunk,” Michael said. The torn flag curled and quivered in his arms, trying to free itself.

They were explorers now. Treasure-hunters. They fought the endless waves after a shipwreck, thirsty quicksand, mud. They fought it all, and rose from the water with something beautiful.

“Charlie?” Michael asked softly.

“Yeah Michael?”

“This is our flag now.”

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