The lake had been drained for weeks. I could see human and dog footprints along the drying lakebed. My photo of two turtles sunning on a log would be much better taken from a slightly closer angle.
The surface was solid until the moment that it wasn’t.
I was walking gingerly, testing each step before I put my foot down, then suddenly I was up to my knees in thick, squelching mud. The only reaction I managed was to throw my arms over my head to save my iPhone. Had anyone been watching—and I thank the universe that the landscape was missing an audience—it would have looked like one of those ubiquitous quicksand scenes of 1960s cinema. You cannot, by the way, drown in quicksand, as it is denser than human bodies, and I was not going to drown in this mud.
But I wasn’t getting out of it either. I strained upward on each leg. No movement. I wriggled my upper body in circles. No movement. I was stuck.
At the time, I was two-thirds of the way through the spring semester of what felt like the longest academic year of my twenty-five-year career. I was teaching a brand-new course online that was, let’s just say, failing to “spark joy.” We were all one year into a global pandemic. My child was struggling with online learning. Other than syllabi and emails, I had not written a word since the previous summer. That morning, I had accidentally hit “reply all” on a message that should have been private, earning a sharp rebuke from a colleague. Weariness ate at my bones.
I took a walk to shake the rust from my body, to restart the gears in my brain.
And instead, I was mired in more gunk.
The turtles were gone, the photo forgotten.
I contemplated my options. Call my husband? The police? The fire department?
“Oh my god!” cried a voice behind me.
I turned as far as I could—not much when up to your knees in sludge—to see a gray-haired woman and her black dog scrambling down the shore of the lake toward me.
I debated between humiliation and relief. I chose relief.
Tying her dog to a tree, the woman tucked a wide, flat branch under me for ballast, and I began to dig with the long stick she brought me. The dog barked and barked and barked, jangling her nerves and mine.
“Quiet!” she barked back while hovering just out of reach of the covetous slime.
I dug and dug. Water and mud filled in the space that I made, but slowly—so slowly—the hole grew larger. I eventually dragged my right leg from the mud. I began to dig around my other leg. Time passed. Minutes? Hours? Finally, the suction let go of my left foot with a resistant, sad slurp. My savior pulled me away from my muddy prison. As soon as I was safe, she untied her barking dog and left. I do not know her name.
The mud of a lakebed does not fall off when you brush your hands together; it does not smell fresh like the topsoil you use to plant your annuals from the garden center every spring. It clings like a leech, reeking of decay. Rub zucchini and kale left days too long in the vegetable drawer of your fridge on your body; that’s what I smelled like.
I used my precious iPhone to call my neighbor. She picked me up with her passenger seat covered in old towels. Generously, she did not even crack a smile.
At home, I took a luxuriously long shower—washing grime from my body, my hair, my brain—and climbed into bed. Within hours I could barely walk; every muscle ached. I watched mindless Netflix shows while wrapped in a blanket and cried for two days.
I did not touch the reading I had assigned, the ungraded essays. My first two full days without working for more than three months.
And all I did was cry.
When I told my best friend about the lake, she declared, “But don’t you see? You got yourself unstuck.”
“Yes?” I said doubtfully. “Yes.”
Kirsten L. Parkinson
Kirsten L. Parkinson is a professor of English and director of the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at Hiram College in Ohio. Her creative and scholarly work has appeared in Arcturus, Nimrod International Journal, Broad Street, Confrontation, Literature/Film Quarterly, Dickens Quarterly, and Midwestern Folklore. When she is not teaching or writing, she is reading or baking. She lives with her husband, daughter, and cat in the Cleveland area.