Fiction

Mud

Brown shapes move across the screen, leaving dark streaks in the mud behind them. Salt glitters, and some darker crystal. The bodies move purposefully, now and then a flash of teeth that must be laughter. Happy workers, covered in the earth they think they’re saving. Later the mud will dry on their skin, cracking and burning.

It was Lucien’s idea to recruit them from the protest camps. A sort of joke, but it’s turned out to be very practical. We give them free Care for Country T-shirts when they sign on, aluminium water bottles, moisturiser. This is something they believe in. They will work for next to nothing.

It took three floods to get here: the churning of the river’s mouth, the wetland’s reclamation. The few remaining residents retreated inland, dragging their insurance claims behind them. The salts were in the water long before that, released from the main plant on the ridge. Shut down before the disasters, before anyone knew.

Some life has managed to hang on. A few birds, half-a-dozen fish species, one rare frog in low numbers. Too unattractive to matter much, except to these kids.

A heron swoops down in a corner of the screen, its legs extending tentatively. I keep a sharp blade on my desk, which I use to open letters and clean my fingernails. A group of youths surround and exclaim about the heron, and I nick my thumb with the blade and have to suck it. The big bird is apparently stuck, but doesn’t struggle. The blood in my mouth is bitter.

There has been no sign of the item yet. We’ve dredged a wide area, set up levees either side to keep the waters out while they work. The lowland is unsalvageable but nobody tells the kids that. The fools think they are healing it. Making a nature reserve, doing restoration and mitigation works along the flood plain. They don’t know it will flood again within months. They don’t even know what they’re looking for. It’s simpler this way, less risk of accidental disclosure.

The item isn’t valuable in a conventional sense, which is not to say you can’t put a price on it. Less than buying the whole world, as the saying goes, but a significant contribution to my asset portfolio, nonetheless. Many’s the day I’ve felt the dead weight held me back. But I miss it.

I don’t need to be bound to it. I just want proof that I own it.

They dig junk from the mud and wheel barrowloads to the warehouse to be filtered. I zoom in on the shed, where more of them sift through the rubble in teams. So far, they have found an amazing variety of waste, from kitchenware to construction material. A few bones. An inexplicable amount of LEGO.

The bulk of it is shipped away to waste disposal in Indonesia. We tell them we’re recycling, but it’s mostly dumped at sea to save on port fees. Costs have had to be brought down; the board is indulging me. I watch the extractor spit out children’s shoes, sodden paperbacks, an animal skeleton with the collar attached. It isn’t there.

Machines would do this quicker but they lack delicacy. There are retrieval experts you can call in, some world-renowned, but they are expensive and would draw attention to what I’ve lost. I shouldn’t have taken it with me. Shouldn’t have left it at the plant. Lucien asked me, was it really so bad to live without one? A little chest pain now and then, a vague Saturday-morning ennui. I told him I didn’t get where I am by letting go.

The young people are still enjoying themselves. It’s only been a few weeks. We provide cheap drinks and food, and even started to bring bands down for Fridays. Lucien had a fellow import some decent hash, though obviously we sell that, scooping up what’s left of their wages after they’ve paid for the dormitories and food.

The showers will remove most of the toxins. Only a small minority will feel any ill effects and with luck most of them won’t notice for years. By then we will have moved on, restructured and extracted ourselves. The missing item will be back on its shelf.

I can’t carry it around with me like an ordinary person; it’s much too burdensome. I like to know where I stand. I should have had it encased in steel like my mother’s, which still gleams at me from its glass case. She once told me they were precious. Lot of good it did her in the end.

On the screen, it’s started raining. The siren must be going; the kids have begun to make their way to camp.

I zoom in on a youth who stands alone. Watch as they hesitate and bend down, hands descending into the thickness. They pick something up and shake it. Look around.

They are all under strict instructions not to fuck with anything. NDA’d and waivered to the hilt. Maybe this one is too stoned to remember the rules because they shake it again. I switch tabs, check the map; a supervisor is on their way, a yellow dot proceeding along the platform’s tidy line. Good, good.

They hold the item out for the rain to wash clean. I hear my breath pause.

The item is small. No bigger than an emu’s egg. Their face streaked, they put the item to their mouth and sniff it. Like they’re about to kiss it, but they don’t. They wrinkle their nose, wipe the item on their shorts. And then they put it between their palms and twist.

Its shell comes away, and everything hesitates.

I haven’t seen it in years. My chest fills with air as a dark streak of particles shimmers into sky. All that pent-up energy from its confinement. For a moment I’m as stuck as that bird. But then I react.

I press the intercom. “Break the levees,” I say. “Drown the site.” It will look like an accident. We’ll hold a memorial, of course.

There is a pause. “The item?” Lucien quivers down the line.

“It’s gone,” I say. The air in my chest is cold. I should feel free.

“Good, good,” says Lucien, but I can’t answer. It moves too fast for that. It’s a shower of ashes at the window already. It’s a dark stain breaking through the glass.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Mud".

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Jennifer Mills is an author, editor and critic. Her latest novel is The Airways.

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