Muddy Water
By: Steve Carr

The Sue–Marie leaned slightly to the right, just enough of a tilt that it made me wonder how long it would be before the two rusty smokestacks would snap in two. The steamboat had become trapped in clay–like mud that held it in place in a mudflat just a short ways inland. Most of the white paint that had originally covered its upper two decks and wheelhouse had been worn away with time, exposing rotting wood and warped boards. The paddle–wheel had partially collapsed but remained attached to the stern of the boat as if put there as an afterthought. The river that flowed alongside the mudflat was dull brown and had the odor of the dead carcasses of the livestock it had washed from the fields and farms during the frequent floods. In the heat of the day, the air was thick with buzzing insects that swarmed a few feet above the river.

Miles upriver, thick black clouds unleashed sheets of rain that filled the swelling river. Thunder rumbled.

Sitting with her back to the land, Sister Beatrice lifted the rowboat oar out of the water and rested it across her lap. She reached into a pocket in her black habit and pulled out a small metal flask, unscrewed its cap, and then took a long swig of the contents. She lowered the flask and loudly belched, sending the aroma of whiskey wafting from her toothless mouth. She held the flask out to me and shrugged her hunchbacked shoulders when I shook my head.

A drowned goat bumped against the side of the boat, and remained there, its horns tapping against the boat like Morse code.

She put the oar into the water and looked upriver. "Another flood is on its way. It's only a matter of time until it reaches us," she said. She began to paddle, first on one side and then on the other.

The goat was caught by a current created by the oar and floated away.

"How long has the Sue–Marie been there?" I asked as we slowly neared the muddy shore. The currents smacked against the bank sending off firecracker–like resoundings.

"Hard to say," she replied. "You're the first visitor to it in a long time, though. People used to gawk at it from the other side of the river, but that doesn't happen too much anymore. Its just become part of the landscape." She coughed up a wad of phlegm and spat it into the water. "The folks who live on it stay to themselves."

I adjusted the wood box that was sitting in my lap and gazed down at the top to see if I could see any movement through the air holes. In the dim light inside the box I could see Toa Ma lying on the green silk cushion twirling one of her red fans.

"I've been traveling the world for many years. I had no idea if the Sue–Marie still existed," I said. " I returned with something that only the captain of the Sue–Marie would be interested in. From everything I had heard it's a very unusual steamboat."

"It's a steamboat from hell," she said.

When the boat hit the bank, jolted by the impact, Sister Beatrice let out a grunt. She drew in the oar and tossed a small anchor into the water. "Be careful crossing the mud to the boat," she said. "In some places it's like quicksand that will swallow you right up. We've lost a few good sisters that way."

She didn't move as I climbed over her and stepped from the bow of the boat. I sank up to my calves in the cold, gluey mud and watched as bubbles came to the surface, as if living, breathing things lay beneath the mud. I placed the box on my shoulder and held it there as I turned to say thank you to Sister Beatrice for bringing me across the river, but she had pushed away from the shore and was drifting down the river with the flask to her mouth. A murder of crows circled above her.

I looked up at the hill on the other side of the river. The Gothic convent of the Sisters of Defiance built atop the hill was partially hidden by a shroud of fog. The gargoyles on its facade, above its arches and flying buttresses, scrambled from place to place. The hard rock music being played and sung by the sisters drifted across the landscape.

The mud made a sucking noise with each labored step I took. A few yards from the boat, I called out. "I bring an addition for your carnival."

The life saver that was thrown to me flew through the air like a Frisbee and landed at my feet. I slipped it around my waist and allowed myself to be pulled through the mud and up to the first deck of the boat.

"I'm Deeter. I'm Klaus." The men conjoined at the skull smiled at me with pointed yellow teeth.

I looked down and realized I had lost a shoe in the mud.

#

Everything in the cabin had been tacked or nailed down to keep from falling from the tables and dresser or sliding against one wall. The walls and floor creaked as if the boat was afloat. Green and yellow mold covered the curtains and bedspread that were eaten through with holes. The cabin smelled like stagnant water. I sat on the edge of a rickety chair and scraped mud from my shoe with a large, wooden spoon. In the box sitting on the bed, Toa Ma was humming her favorite song. I was keeping watch on a bloody eye that had been staring at me through a hole in the curtain. I wiped the last of the mud from my shoe with a moldy lace doily, and then threw the shoe at the window. The eye disappeared.

A few moments later there was a knock on the door. I crossed the rotting threadbare carpet and opened it. What stood at the threshold was a six foot tall creature, part human and part lizard. His skin was green, scaly and reptilian. He looked at me with dull yellow eyes and flicked his long, red tongue. He was naked to the waist, revealing a muscular physique. A long tail extended out through a hole in the rear of his ragged pants. He held in his claw–like hands a tarnished silver tray on which sat several covered plates and a corked bottle of wine.

"Madam thought you might be in need of nourishment," he said with a thick lisp. He thrust the tray into my hands.

When will I get to meet her?" I asked.

"After she's been washed," he answered. He turned and scurried down the walkway, his long, pointed toenails clicking on the floorboards, and disappeared through a doorway toward the stern of the boat.

My attention was immediately drawn to the sounds of screeching like that of a wounded rabbit coming from one of the covered plates. Blood oozed out from under one of the other covers, forming a pool on the plate. With my stomach churning and without hesitation I took the bottle of wine from the tray, ran to the railing and tossed the tray with everything else that was on it out into the mud and stared in disbelief as a swarm of albino worms crawled out of the mud, covered the tray, and took it beneath the surface, leaving behind suds–like bubbles.

I went back into the cabin, closed the door, and went to the bed. Toa Ma had stuck one of her folded fans through one of the air holes and was waving it about. I put my hand on the fan and pushed it back down. "Behave yourself Toa Ma," I told her.

"Toa Ma hungry," she said.

I took a small pack of crackers out of my pocket, opened it, and fed her bits of cracker through an air hole.

"Why you no love Toa Ma anymore?" she mumbled, her mouth full of cracker.

"You've tried to kill me, twice, Toa Ma," I said. "I don't know how you got your hands on that poison while we were on that train in France, but I would have died if there hadn't been a doctor on the train."

"You bad man," she said with a cough. "Toa Ma need to wash down these crackers."

I uncorked the wine, sniffed the contents, and took a long swig. I stuck the end of the cork through an air hole and listened as Toa Ma licked the wine from it.

The sun was setting and the shadows in the cabin were creeping out from the corners and from under the tables and bed when I laid back on the rotten bed cover and fell sound asleep.

#

Upon waking in the darkness the first thing I noticed was that the box was gone. I sat bolt upright and nearly fell over due to dizziness and the feeling that my brain was spinning inside my skull. I leaned over the edge of the bed and puked out a small puddle of the undigested wine that had turned the color of bile. I wiped puke from my mouth with the back of my hand, put on my shoe, and opened the door. Streaks of jagged lightning momentarily set the swirling storm clouds aglow, and cast flashes of bright white light on the mud, the river, and the other shore. A torrent of rain fell from the sky.

Right outside the cabin I stepped on something slick with my bare foot and looked down to see a trail of drops of blood from the door to the window that was smeared with bloody hand prints. I took several steps toward the steps leading to the upper deck when someone from the other end of the walkway called my name. I turned to see Deeter and Klaus. Their bodies no longer looked cojoined and they were walking toward me. I waited at the bottom of the steps. When they reached me their heads were attached.

"Madam hasn't completed her bath but she will see you now," Deeter said.

"Good, because my box has been stolen," I said. "The merchandise in that box comes from the other side of the world and I brought it here specifically for the Sue–Marie carnival," I said.

"It's in a safe place," Deeter said.

Klaus pointed to the top of the stairs. "Shall we go?"

I climbed the stairs and they followed. On the second deck walkway a woman lying on her back and with bird–like wings spread out from under her was stretched out on a deck chair. Her hair was platinum blonde, her eyes were lined with black eyeliner, she had long eyelashes that appeared fake, and her lips were painted fire engine red. She was wearing a slinky, ankle–length, pink satin dress. She took a drag from the jeweled cigarette holder she held in her left hand, and exhaled several smoke rings. She looked me up and down, from head to toe, seductively.

"Do you think Marilyn Monroe was murdered?" she asked.

"I wouldn't know."

She sat up, fluttered her wings, and gazed out beyond the covered walkway. "Do you think were going to be flooded again?"

"Possibly."

She gazed at me and batted her eyes. "Have you come to live with us?" she said huskily.

"No, I haven't," I answered. "I'm only here to do business."

She took a drag from her cigarette and blew a series of smoke rings. "That's too bad. You and I could make beautiful music together."

"Restrain yourself, Patricia," Deeter said to her.

Klaus rolled his eyes, looked at me, and said, "She's nothing but a tease anyway."

Klaus grabbed my arm and the two men led me down the walkway. We stopped outside a door where coming from the other side was the sound of a woman's shrill voice yelling. Klaus opened the door and I staggered backward, knocked back by the pungent smell of rancid meat.

"Do you want to see Madam about your merchandise or not?" Deeter asked, pointing the way into the cabin.

I held my hand over my nose as I walked into the cabin. Burning oil lamps held in brass sconces lined the walls, lighting Sue–Marie carnival posters that hung below the sconces. On the posters were pictures of the carnival attractions: Lizard Boy, Bird Woman, one of a man who bled through his eyes and fingertips called The Incredible Bleeding Man, and likenesses of Deeter and Klaus, apart and joined at the head, proclaiming them to be The Amazing Conjoined Twins. There were several posters of an acrobatic group of four dwarves called The Tumbleweeds, and one poster that announced the carnival had the smallest collection of humans and animals in existence, with images of a miniature elephant, a polar bear, a moose, and two men and one woman, all who were no larger than a normal sized hand.

There was no furniture other than a stack of mattress in the middle of the room. Lying naked on the mattresses was a woman so enormous that folds of fat hung over the edges of the top mattress and collected in mounds on the floor around the makeshift bed. She chewed on a man's lower leg, spitting out bits of hair and skin that landed on the layers of skin beneath her chin. The Tumbleweeds scampered around her, pulling apart her folds of skin and licking out scraps of human flesh, dried blood, and her excrement. Taking the leg from her mouth, she screamed at them. "I don't feel clean yet. No food for you until I'm completely bathed."

Unable to hold down the vomit that had arisen in my throat from what I was witnessing, I spewed it onto the piles of half–eaten rabbit carcasses and human scalps that lay at my feet.

She tossed the leg aside and looked at Deeter and Klaus. "Tell those sisters to bring me a younger priest the next time. This one was old and tough." She then stared at me through squinted eyes, and said, "I'm Sue–Marie. Welcome to my carnival ship."

"I brought a very valuable addition for your carnival," I said, trying to ignore the Tumbleweed who was licking the mass of sweaty hair under her left arm.

"I saw her, briefly," she said. "She's very pretty. What can she do?"

"Her name is Toa Ma and she does a fan dance and she can sing a little," I answered.

"I don't care about that," she said. She smacked one of the Tumbleweeds on the top of his bald head when his tongue grazed blisters that arose from a patch of purplish rash between her thighs. "Everyone in this carnival has to contribute in some way to keeping our little family healthy and happy while we're stuck in this mud."

"Toa Ma's very handy with poisons," I mumbled.

Sue–Marie pushed away one of the Tumbleweeds who was slurping up bits of the priest's leg from the side of her bloated face. "Hmmmm. That could come in handy. Even the mildest priest resists when you're trying to slit his throat."

"Where is Toa Ma?" I asked, not seeing the box anywhere in the room.

One of the Tumbleweeds spread Sue–Marie's swollen toes on her right foot and inserted his tongue in between the two middle ones. "That tickles," she squealed. "Get away from me, all of you. I'm clean enough."

The Tumbleweeds ran from the cabin.

She gazed at me, thoughtfully. "I've seen a lot in my lifetime," she said, "and I think I'm now seeing a man who has feelings for his merchandise."

My face reddened. "I've traveled from the other side of the world for two months with Toa Ma and I've grown oddly fond of her, but I'm interested only in the money I can get for her."

"While we're stuck in this mud she won't be as valuable as she would be if we were afloat," she said. "Everyone's value increases when they're no longer stuck."

"I understand."

She waved at Lizard Boy. "Go get her and let's see what she can do."

At that moment there was a hard thump against the hull of the boat and it rocked first to the right and then the left and then corrected itself. Deeter and Klaus and I momentarily struggled to maintain our balance.

"What was that?" Sue–Marie screamed.

We ran to the door and threw it open. The river had jumped its banks and swift currents of debris–filled water rushed downriver. The boat was suddenly buoyant.

From the convent came the voices of the sisters singing a rock version of "The Hallelujah Chorus."

"We're afloat," Deeter and Klaus yelled, separating their heads and rushing to the walkway railing.

I turned to Sue–Marie. "Toa Ma's price has just gone up," I said. Then the boat lurched forward and tilted hard to the port side, throwing me out of the doorway, across the walkway, and over the railing. I fell into the water and was pulled under.

#

A year later the white paint on the Sue–Marie gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. The passengers crowded the walkway gawking at the exhibits. Patricia spread her wings and lifted a few feet off the floor. Lizard Boy swallowed a live rat whole. Blood Man cried tears of blood and dripped blood from his fingertips. Toa Ma sang and did a fan dance.

I opened my mouth and vomited buckets full of muddy water that turned to blood. I stopped long enough to take a breath, and then filled several more buckets.

Sue–Marie said I'm one of the carnival's biggest attractions.

THE END

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