Part Three- The Secret Life of a Village Idiot
It’s near on a week since Mudboy- the only other person that I have found in this time who has all his senses- near on a week since he stopped pretending that he could not hear me. In that time he’s shown me where to find the sweeter berries that grow deeper inside the wood and a half dozen kinds of nut trees and how after spending a few hours gathering nuts he roasts them in clay pots stuffed in among the embers of a fire. He’s got a fire ring- stones and stores of kindling wood- set out half under a hillside. He’s also got dried herbs and grains stored in the same little hollow. And, I’m wondering how anybody in the village could think this kid daft. The other thing we’ve been doing- my way of paying back for sharing the good vittles- I’ve been teaching him to talk. Not that I’m much of a teacher, but he’s sure enough learning English faster than I’m learning signing.
The morning is hot with the coming of summer and already the inside of the long house is unbearable with the heat and smells. The villagers don’t seem to mind the heat and I wonder if that’s another residual of the plague because it’s just me and Mudboy who ever seem to mind the fire’s intensity or- today- the heat of the sun. Maybe some of their nerves got all fried up along with their senses- maybe they just don’t feel the heat the same. Mudboy and I are sitting in the shade of the long house- he’s coated in a new layer of thick mud with seeds and bits of grasses and sticks caught in it- and he don’t smell too bad. In fact, he’s got this aromatherapy thing going on. I, on the other hand, am sweating like a pig- I almost fit into the village by the smell of me.
The sun hasn’t even reached the noon high and Mudboy wrinkles up his nose at me and says, “Trav, come,” and leads me to his little hollow. Once we’ve got there, he picks up two empty clay pots, pushes one into my hands and repeats, “Trav, come.” I follow him to the riverbank upstream of the village, thinking that we’re maybe going swimming, but instead we just fill the clay pots with cool clean water. When we get back to the hollow he starts picking out herb pots and I’m thinking he’s fixing to introduce me to his version of iced-tea, but then he dumps the two water pots into a hole in the dirt, sprinkles in some of the herbs and digs his hands in up to his elbows in the mud pit to mix it all up. Now I cotton on- it’s a wallow.
“Trav, come,” he invites me, and hell, why not? The villagers all think I’m as crazy as Mudboy anyway.
“Don’t mind if I do,” I tell him as I strip off my shirt and reach down to the coolness of the mud. Twenty minutes later, we’re both caked in it- and now I understand how both pigs and haughty women could find mud baths so appealing- it’s cool and smooth and the herbs smell better the longer I’m wearing them. I think I could even manage spending a hot day in the long house if I were coated in all this sweet chilly stuff. Now, I’m pretty sure that Mudboy is a genius.
After spending most of the day by the wallow in the hollow reviewing vocabulary words- mud, muck, water, hot, more, nuts, more berries, sun, etc.- we go back to the village and the long house for dinner and- sun of a gun- if the whole place doesn’t seem much less harsh under the soothing influence of a coat of mud. Even the bitter bread tastes better. I absentmindedly wonder if there might be some kind of funny herbs in the mix, so good do I feel.
So, the natives have been treating me about the same as they treat Ol’ Muddy since I got here, but since I took up the mud baths three days ago, it’s been more severe. Used to be that if something needed doing and I ken how to do it- move that thing, drive that gigantigoat plow, bring water in for the Old Mother- if I knew how to do it, I did it and the others would give me a nod or a smile like a think you and I knew I was earning my supper, bitter as it was. Now, I try to help with anything and, sure as not, someone of them will block me from it. I guess putting on the mud- giving credence to Mudboy and his strangeness- puts me in the Village Idiot category, too.
Being in the Village Idiot category isn’t all fragrant muck and lazy days- there’s also the complementary beatings. From the way Mudboy takes the too rough treatment and obvious razzing from the village men, I reckon he’s taken a lot worse from them sometime when they thought he’d stepped out of place or maybe they’d just felt like seeing how much he could take for fun. I keep wondering when one of them is gonna try that on me and if fighting back- which I know I will- will loose me my only compadre.
I don’t get to worry over that long because I see the Big Fellow come lumbering up behind Mudboy- and I can see that he knows it’s coming, what with the Big Fellow not knowing how loud he is- he comes up behind Mudboy and knocks him upside the head, but good. I’m across the big village square from them, but I’m on my feet before it even happens and I see Mudboy stumble and fall before I can cross to them. A group of men are laughing that strange animal laugh they all have, enjoying the Beat-the-Stuffing-Out-of-the-Little-Guy Show. Once on the ground, Mudboy just rolls himself into a ball and lets the Big Fellow kick the shit out of him. I hit the Big Fellow at a run and manage to knock him down. Even as I know I’m not any kind of match for this guy, I can’t stop myself from throwing punches- blind rage I didn’t know I had in me- Mudboy might just be the best among them and there is no stopping my stupid sense of decency from defending him.
So we tussle and, after about a minute of me getting pounded on, Mudboy shows some gumption and joins in. After that, it is all downhill as a couple of other men pull us all apart. By the time the dust settles, I think I might have a broken nose and Mudboy’s left shoulder is out of joint, but at least the Big Fellow’s bleeding from the side of his head- I’m not sure if I did that or of maybe Mudboy bit him.
I spend the next few hours in disbelief that, one, I had that kind of angry in me, two, I had let myself start feeling so protective of the boy- I can’t call him Mudboy anymore- you don’t call a friend by a name like that unless he knows what it means, so I’ll have to give him a new one- and, three, that the other villagers- even the Old Mother, who was so protective of both of us- the other villagers sent us packing for getting beat down on account of being different. I reckon it’s been almost four hours- if my judgment of the sun is in any way reliable- and we’re just sitting at the edge of a field outside the village, the edge of the wood, right on the border between.
Getting booted from a village I didn’t much like and had only set foot in days ago is no hardship for me, but for Mud- no I can’t call him that no more- for my friend, it is the end of all he’d ever known- a feeling with which I’m intimately familiar. I had to pretty near drag him from the village when they told us to skedaddle and once we’d reached this borderland, he just plopped down on the dirt and refused to go any further- and I knew exactly what he meant. He didn’t seem to be much affected by the pain of his dislocated shoulder but there wasn’t anything I could do about him losing his people so, with a little elbow grease and a barbaric yawp, I fixed the shoulder. I just hope he ain’t banking on me fixing the other- I don’t know where or how to go from here any more than he does. A little bit ago, he slid from his stunned state into slumber, curling up on the ground next to me. The sun is setting and I should wake him and get him to the shelter of the hollow, but he’s snoring and I’m tuckered out, too, so I plan on just resting here a spell.
The chill of the falling evening wakes me some time later. We are still setting on that borderland between village and wood. My friend is still sleeping beside me in the near-dark.
“Hey, buddy.” I nudge him awake. “We should get some dinner. Come on.” I hustle him to his feet, trying to pull only on his good arm and we walk into the wood and make for the hollow.
We make a strange little society of two here in the wood- a couple of hermits. For three weeks, as summer came into its full, we’ve been living what would have been an idyllic existence- there’s plenty to eat and there’s the cool fresh river and the decadence of the wallow and each other’s company- it would have been idyllic had we not been so completly miserable. And, when I say we, I mean my friend- I have yet to settle on a new name for the kid, which I think might have to do with a delusional attempt at not getting too attached to him- as if he is a puppy who followed me home.
Home- that’s the problem. I hadn’t had much of one for years before the ol’ flashitty-nashitty, so I’m not the kind of homesick he is. I find him standing in that same spot on the edge of the wood, staring at the village as if he’s trying to think his way back into the place. All he has ever known. On days I find him there, I coax him back to the hollow, mix up some good mud and some good food and eventually he perks up some.
I’d take him somewhere else, anywhere else, if I thought he’d come with me, but I don’t expect he would and I don’t blame him.