|Mudpuppy D and the Red Bird
story by Ralph C. Young illustrations by Jim Hunt
Author's note: This story goes back to Lord Cecil Calvert and his repeated requests to his brother, Leonard Calvert, the first lieutenant governor of Maryland, for a red bird.
Lord Calvert stayed in England (actually Ireland) to protect his proprietary from challenge, and not being able to visit, asked that parts of Mary's land be brought to him. He received most of what he asked for - except the red bird.
In a letter of 1638, Leonard wrote his brother: "I had procured a red bird and kept it a good while to have sent it to you but I had the ill fortune to loose it by the negligence of my servant who carelessly let it out of the cage."
Mudpuppy D was tonging for oysters in the Choptank River. Mudpuppy was an oysterman in his mid-30s. A short man with a barrel chest, he looked like a keg of nails with legs according to his friends. He tonged for oysters because that is what he did best.
It was early winter. A warm front had moved from the southwest, and a light fog hung over the water. Mudpuppy had navigated his way to the bar slowly, marking time and compass readings, using his intuition to guide him. He found the oyster bar easily, but after dozens of fruitless licks he pulled out a five-gallon bucket, put a chew in his mouth and just sat there.
The peace and quiet of the fogged-over river was a consolation for the poor pickings. There was no wind to speak of; the water was gray and smooth. The only waves were the dying remnants of tanker wakes, long low swells that hardly raised the boat.
Several minutes had passed when he heard the ruffle of wings beating against the air. The sound ceased with a scratching of claws against wood. Barely visible through the fog, perched on the cabin roof, was a red bird. The bird was a large cardinal with scarlet red feathers. He surveyed the bird as it surveyed him, neither moving anything but their eyes. The bird spoke.
Pray good sir, I am at thy mercie. I feare I can no longer make flighte. Could'st thou provide me saftie from my pursuers?
Mudpuppy D was no stranger to talking animals, having encountered a magic oyster several years back. He was surprised by the dialect, however, which was like the speech of the old-timers on Smith Island. He spit a thin stream of tobacco juice into the water.
"You lost or somethin'?" he asked.
Please sire, there is precious little tyme, replied the bird. Will you provide me refuge?
Mudpuppy was having a little trouble sorting out the words, the bird spoke so quickly and so roundaboutly. "You need a place to hide, is that it?" he asked.
The bird hopped down on deck. I haile from the past, from tyme long past. His Lordship desired a Red Bird for his amusement. His brother posted a reward for my capture. I was months in a tiny cage before I escaped, and now they hunt me again. The red bird raised its head. Hark, a vessel approaches.
Mudpuppy D got off his bucket and walked toward the bird, which nervously stood its ground. He opened the door to the tiny cabin in the bow of his boat and climbed in. The bird hopped behind him and jumped up to the bow, almost disappearing into the darkness.
"You're welcome to stay here, if it suits you," said Mudpuppy. He backed out of the tiny cabin, closing the door behind him.
Vessel in the Mist
Mudpuppy heard the canoe before he saw it. Through the mist came a dugout canoe, three, maybe four feet wide and every bit of 30 feet long. An Indian stood tall at the bow, and another 10 knelt along the length of the canoe, paddles in hand. The Indian at the bow was tall and well limbed, with long black hair on one side of his head, the other side cut short. His face was painted a dark reddish brown; his chin, neck and chest were painted blue. He wore a necklace of teeth, claws and hawks' bills. On his forehead was a fish formed of copper. He wore a mantle of deer skin over his shoulders and a skirt of deer skin about his waist.
Mudpuppy eyed the canoe. It seemed to be made from a single log, though he had never seen a tree large enough to produce such a log. The Indians made him uneasy. They didn't look like Indians from the movies. They looked real. Too real.
The Indian spoke in a tongue that made no sense to Mudpuppy. Mudpuppy shrugged. The Indian gestured to the stern of the canoe. Mudpuppy could hardly see the other end of the canoe through the fog. The oarsmen maneuvered closer to Mudpuppy's boat. As they came alongside, Mudpuppy realized just how tall the lead Indian was. It was then he heard the voice coming out of the fog.
"Ahoy, mate. Have you seen a red bird come this way?" The voice spoke in the same dialect as the bird.
Mudpuppy considered the question for a moment. "Might have. Why?"
"We offer a prettie reward for the Bird."
Mudpuppy saw the source of the voice through the mist. It was a small white man, dressed in clothes made of a coarse cloth.
"What's so important about this bird, anyway?" asked Mudpuppy.
"This is his Lordship's bird. It was caged, to be sent to his Lordship on the next ship, and the damnable bird tricked me into releasing it. My master was so sorely inflamed he condemned me to recapture the fowl if it took me all of eternity. What year is it now, pray tell?"
"Two thousand," replied Mudpuppy.
The little man thought carefully, scribbling numbers in the air with his finger. "Three hundred and sixty-two years. Seems longer."
"You been chas'n this bird more'n 360 years? An' you ain't caught him yet? Don't say much about your huntin'," said Mudpuppy.
"Ahh, I've caught the scoundrel many times," he said with a gleam in his eye. "But every time he deviously frees himself. He's the devil, he is." Looking back at Mudpuppy, he winked and asked, "Say mate, would you have some rum?"
"Got no rum. Got some whiskey, though," he added. He went up to the cabin to fetch the bottle. As he stuck his head in, the red bird scolded him in a very low voice: Bade him leave, and quickly. He is the devil, truly the devil.
Mudpuppy took the half-full bottle from a drawer. "Funny, he says the same about you."
He went back on deck. The canoe was alongside. Mudpuppy was uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the Indians. Vague memories of school teaching about the Nanticoke and Assateague Indians swirled in his head, but these men were nothing like the poorly drawn figures in text books. These men were big, strong and real.
Mudpuppy handed over the bottle of whiskey. The little man took a long, deliberate draw, then put the bottle on the gunwale. Mudpuppy scratched his head. The whole situation was much too confusing for him. He eyed the whiskey but decided against a drink until he had sorted this red bird thing out. "Just how much is this bird worth, anyway?"
"A man's soul," replied the little man. "My soul."
Mudpuppy rubbed his chin. "Your soul ain't worth much to me, no offense. You got anything else?"
"Name your price. Anything at all, anything for that bird."
Mudpuppy wasn't the brightest of men, but he wasn't a fool either. "You got a treasure hidden on that boat of yours? How you gonna pay for the bird?"
"A small matter, sire. Once I deliver the bird to my master, he will be so pleased I am sure he will grant you whatever price you desire."
Mudpuppy's brow furled up as he considered the promise. "This master of yours: He's still alive after 360-some years? You want I should believe that?"
The little man looked forlorn. "Perhaps I speak out of turn. I should not make such promises. I really have but little to offer, just these few coins, some beaver skins, a few pounds of tobacco and my vow to secure for you what riches my master will grant you."
Mudpuppy considered the offer. His judgment was somewhat influenced by the presence of the Indians, whose gaze had not left him. The little man took another draw on the whiskey, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Mudpuppy decided the little man was a force to be reckoned with despite his small stature. The decision came easily.
"You help yourself to that whiskey," he told the little man as he headed toward the bow. He was greeted by the bird's pleading voice.
Please sire, I beg of you, do not turn me over to that rogue. I promise you great rewards if you protect me.
Mudpuppy rummaged through the drawers, looking for something to secure the bird with. "Iff'n you haven't noticed, there are slightly more of them than there are of me. 'Sides which, a couple beaver skins for a bird seems like a good trade. Never had a beaver skin."
The bird's voice picked up a tone of indignation. You would trade a cardinal for a few beaver skins? Pray, hath thou considered the cardinal virtues? Justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude: Are these new concepts to you?
Mudpuppy rubbed his chin. "I heard of cardinal points on a compass; never heard about them virtue things. 'Sides which, there ain't no injustice in trading a bird, and it's prudent to avoid fighting with them Indians. I didn't take a drink though I sorely wanted to, an' I'm stickin to my decision." He found a thin leather strap and tied it to the bird's leg. The bird did not resist.
What about my freedom? asked the bird. If thou deprivest me of my liberty, is that not injustice? You promised me refuge; now you condemn me. Is that not injustice?
Mudpuppy looked at the bird anew. "You call yourself free? Three hundred years of bein' chased?"
Thou speaks the truth, my lyfe is difficult. Still, I prefer this existence to captivity, and that is the meaning of liberty. The bird paused, looking over his captor. You sir, your lyfe seems difficult as well. Would thou tradest for this lyfe for a more comfortable one, locked in a cage, fed by hand, denied the freedom to go as you wish?
The bird had struck a chord in Mudpuppy's mind. He thought about how poorly he felt when the rivers froze over, when he would be trapped in the house for weeks on end. He remembered the time just after the twins were born, how he had worked in the tool factory because he needed the money. He remembered how warm and comfortable the factory was - and how much he hated being trapped at his workstation. He went back to the water because he valued his freedom more than a steady check.
He looked at the bird, then took his knife from his pocket. He cut through the leather strap until there was just a thread holding it together. He winked at the bird. "You better make this look good."
You are a noble man, sire.
Bird in the Hand
Mudpuppy walked on deck with the bird on his hand. The little man danced with glee. He threw the beaver skins into the boat and tossed the coins on top of them.
Mudpuppy handed over the bottle of whiskey, "Here, you need this a lot wors'n me."
The little man could hardly contain himself. He took another swig of whiskey, then put the bottle down in the canoe. Mudpuppy handed over the bird, which passively stepped from one hand to another. The little man took a firm grasp of the leather strap. He barked a command to the Indians, and the canoe pulled away from the boat.
"I thank you sir," spoke the little man. "You have done a fyne thing this day."
The canoe disappeared into the mist. Mudpuppy D picked up the coins and put them in his pocket. He was looking over one of the beaver skins when he heard the shriek cut through the fog, then the barely audible epithets: "Damn! Damn, damn, damn! Am I doomed for all eternity to pursue this awful bird? Curse this crimson fowl, and all who covet it!"
Mudpuppy D smiled as he heard the faint flutter of feathers overhead. He started his engine and headed the boat away from the canoe. A few minutes later, he broke through the mist into bright sunshine, warm bright sunshine. The water was smooth all the way to the shore. A formation of snow geese flew overhead.
"It's a good life," muttered Mudpuppy out loud. "A good life."
Ralph Young, of Severna Park, contributed to Bay Weekly in its early days, and readers from those years may remember having made Mudpuppy's acquaintance.