Editors note: Regular readers know Mudpuppy as an old-time Chesapeake Bay waterman who surprises himself by understanding the language of animals. Every so often, his journeys on the Bay bring him to our pages.
Mudpuppy D laid down his tongs, sat on a bucket turned upside down and looked at the pile of oysters heaped on the deck of his boat. He stuck a pinch in his mouth and relaxed, taking a break before culling the oysters. His back ached, his arms were sore and his hands were numb, but he had eight bushels of oysters to show for the pain.
The wind was cold and wet, the boat rolled under the waves, straining against the anchor line. Every few minutes, a wave slapped against the hull, sending a spray of icy water over the gunwale and onto the deck.
Mudpuppy D was a short stocky man who looked like a keg of nails with legs. He was in his 30s, and he had been working on the water for 20 years. Tonging for oysters is what he did best. He earned his name while still a young child. Whenever his mother turned her back, Mudpuppy would make his way to the grassy wetlands next to his house and immerse himself in the mud. It was a daily routine, summer or winter, for his mother to hose him down on the back porch before letting him back in the house.
Mudpuppy was about to start culling the oysters when he was startled by the sight of a large blue heron on the stern of the boat. There had been no warning, no flapping of wings; the bird seemed to materialize out of thin air. The heron stood four feet tall, half of which was legs; its gray body blended into a white throat and crown. Two black stripes ran on either side of the crown. Mudpuppy and the heron eyed each other cautiously. Mudpuppy finally broke the silence.
I dont spose yore a talkin bird.
The heron turned its head to the right, eyeing Mudpuppy with her left eye. She pointed her long beak down and turned her head to the left, now eyeing him with her right eye.
All birds can talk. It is listening that is difficult for us. The heron lowered her head, her neck curving to form an S. She looked at Mudpuppy straight on. Redbird said I could trust you.
Mudpuppy looked around suspiciously. His friends arent nearby, are they?
They are well up the Rappahannock. We wont see them again for weeks.
Dont care if I never see them again. Redbird OK?
Redbird is fine. As I said earlier, he said I could trust you.
Trust me to do what?
Oh, Oh: Here It Comes Again
Just a small favor, sir.
For years I have feasted on the bounty of the Bay, eating fish, crabs, clams, mussels, eels, frogs, snakes, lizards, dragonflies, even mice and grasshoppers. I have tasted almost every creature that lives in or about the Bay, but I have never tasted an oyster. Many times I have picked them up, but my beak cannot penetrate the shell. Just once, before I die, I should like to taste an oyster.
Mudpuppy spit a thin stream of tobacco juice over the leeward side of the boat. He stood up and slowly straightened his back. He pulled a rusty buck knife from a crack in his culling board. The heron grew nervous at the sight of the knife, stepping alternately on one leg, then the other, and slowly spreading her wings. Though only half extended, her wings stretched four feet from tip to tip.
Mudpuppy laid the knife down on the board. Need that to open the shell. The heron folded her wings back together.
Mudpuppy leaned down and picked a small oyster out of the heap. With a flick of his wrist, he opened the shell and tossed the top half over the side. The oyster, though small, was plump and free from disease. Mudpuppy walked slowly to the stern, holding the oyster in his open palm. The heron was clearly nervous but held her ground.
When Mudpuppy was a few feet away, she stretched her neck out and nibbled the oyster out of the shell with her long pointed beak. With the oyster firmly clamped in the tip of her beak, she raised her head, her beak pointing to the sky. With a few swift, tiny movements, the oyster dropped down the beak and into her mouth. Mudpuppy eyed her long thin neck as the oyster traveled down her throat. The heron made a low guttural arrrr, with long rolling Rs.
That is the most delicious animal I have ever tasted, said the heron. You cant imagine how awful some creatures taste. Toadfish, dragonflies, mice and rats with their scratching little claws
Mudpuppy shucked another oyster, trying not to think about rats scratching their way out of his throat. Nuther?
Why, thank you, I dont mind if I do. The heron deftly nibbled the oyster out of the shell and swallowed it, again making the guttural sound. A very enlightened species, I might add.
Mudpuppy D grunted. Iffn you dont mind, I got work to do. Without waiting for a response, Mudpuppy shoveled his oysters onto the culling board. He culled the oysters, throwing the undersized ones over the side and back onto the bar. After a few minutes passed he asked. Whatd you mean by lightened?
The heron thought for a moment. Put simply, enlightenment means comprehending the ultimate reality of life.
Mudpuppy D placed his hands on the culling board, twisting his back in a vain effort to make the pain go away. Dont take much to comprehend the reality of my life.
That may be true, replied the Heron matter of factly. But on a grander scale all lives are interconnected in a way that very few truly comprehend. Each species has achieved a different level of that comprehension, and I noticed that the oyster was surprisingly advanced.
Mudpuppy mulled over what the heron had said. Howd you know that?
From the taste, of course. You can tell a lot about an animal just from the taste.
Mudpuppy made a mental note to remember that tidbit of information for later, but he was stuck on the enlightenment thing. It was hard enough for Mudpuppy to accept talking animals; enlightened talking animals was one step too far. Explain this en-lightment thing to me.
The heron was preening itself with its beak. When the bird did not reply, Mudpuppy added: And there might be some more arsters in the deal.
At the Top of the Tree
The heron stopped preening and looked directly at Mudpuppy.
Very well, but you wont understand it. Life is a continuum. When your present life ends, a new life commences. As your comprehension of the ultimate reality of life increases, your life form advances from the most ignorant creature to the most enlightened. A bacterium may advance to an amoebae, a worm to a mole, a mouse to a deer. You can also go backwards, or stay where you are; its up to the individual. Its rather like a tree, where the lowest creatures exist at the roots, and the enlightened creatures exist at the tips of the branches. The entire journey takes 9.6 billion years.
Just where do people fall on this tree?
Sadly, humans are not on the path to enlightenment. Greed, lust, anger, jealousy, vanity, hatred: These emotions blind you to even the most basic natural realities. Humans serve as examples to the other species as what happens when you stray from the path.
Mudpuppy shucked another oyster and offered it to the heron. The heron ate the oyster and returned to preening itself. And herons? Where are herons on this tree?
At the top. Herons are one of the most enlightened of all species, living in perfect harmony with nature. We live in a state of bliss, accepting the impermanence of life as you would accept a cloud in the sky.
Dont see much bliss in eatin rats. replied Mudpuppy.
I said you wouldnt understand. Might I trouble you for one more oyster?
Mudpuppy grunted and shucked another oyster. The heron thanked Mudpuppy and flew away.
A Little Enlightenment Goes a Long Way
Mudpuppy was not really surprised when the heron returned the following day, and the day after that. At first the heron was a relief from the solitude, but in time Mudpuppy grew tired of the herons visits. The begging for oysters didnt bother him as much as the birds condescending demeanor. After two weeks of daily visits, Mudpuppy informed the heron she was no longer welcome on his boat.
I quite understand said the heron. It was rather rude of me, eating your oysters when it is clear you have little to spare. If it would help, I can remunerate you for your losses. In my search for food, I frequently find artifacts in the mud; would you accept them in compensation for the oysters I consume?
Mudpuppy considered the offer. Insofar as he only fed the heron oysters that he would have culled anyway, there was no financial loss, but the word artifact intrigued Mudpuppy. Truth was he didnt like the heron, but now that a business transaction was suggested, how he felt toward the bird didnt matter. He didnt like the owners of the packing houses he sold to, either. In fact, if Mudpuppy D only did business with people he liked, he wouldnt sell many oysters.
You bring by these artifacts, well see what theyre worth.
The following day, the heron appeared and regurgitated a Champion spark plug, a rusty can opener, three bottlecaps and a ring of keys onto Mudpuppys deck. Mudpuppy looked down at the collection of artifacts and shook his head. Fraid this just wont cut it.
The heron pleaded with Mudpuppy. Please sir, just a few oysters. I searched for these items all morning, and now I am very hungry. Certainly these items have some value.
Mudpuppy D shook his head out of pity. He shucked two oysters and fed them to the heron. Thats it bird. Dont come back.
The bird did come back a few times, but Mudpuppy shooed her away. He didnt see her again for two weeks until he spotted her on the packing house docks at Tilghman Island. A few of his watermen friends were shucking oysters and tossing them to the heron. The bird looked poorly; she had lost weight and her feathers were disheveled.
The watermen were making a sport of it, adopting bird-like stances and rewarding the bird with an oyster every time it mimicked them. You ever see such a thing, Mudpuppy? asked one of the watermen. I never got within a hundred feet of a heron. This one comes right up to you. You think its a pet or something?
Nah said Mudpuppy, spitting a thin stream of tobacco juice into the water. Just some dumb bird that comprehends the ultimate reality of life.