It was an odd sight, one I didn’t expect to see when I ran into the woods, the bullies on my heels, their calls of ‘You’re going to get it when we catch you,’ still loud in my ears. I believed them, too. I wasn’t like everyone else. I wasn’t popular and I didn’t come from the best family, with the best clothes and three cars in the driveway and a nice house with all the bells and whistles. We weren’t the nuclear family with a mom and dad and 2.5 kids.
No, we lived on the other side of the tracks in a small house in a rough neighborhood where gunshots weren’t uncommon at two in the morning. I rode the bus to and from school and we hung our clothes out on a clothesline after we brought them home from the laundromat. Yeah, we couldn’t afford to dry the clothes, just wash them. I wore hand-me-downs from Aunt Rosalyn’s neighbors, and most of those clothes were too big for me.
I was different. Daddy was white and Momma was black in a time that type of relationship was still frowned upon. My skin was the wrong tint of white and the wrong shade of black. I guess, having to deal with that, I saw things differently. I still do, but back then, when I was a young girl trying to find my way in a mean world, seeing things differently was just as bad as being a ‘gray baby.’ And I think that is why I came across SAMM. Yes, SAMM, with two M’s–It stands for Sand And Mud Man.
The bullies–Jack Olson, Mickey Darbey, and Knollwood Herring–had chased me from school that afternoon (like so many others). And, like so many others, I ran as fast as I could, hoping and praying those three white boys wouldn’t catch me. If they did …
I made it to the woods and ran right through the branches of some smaller trees, creating my own pathway and stumbling along as I went. They stopped at the edge of the woods, as if they were afraid to follow. I did not stop. I ran until I reached the stream that split the woods in half. By then I could no longer hear their taunts. I dropped to the ground, my knees sinking into the soft mud of the stream’s embankment. I put my face in my hands and cried. I pulled my hands away and looked at the right one. There was blood on the palm. I wiped at my cheek. At some point, a branch must have sliced skin because when I pulled my fingers away bright blood was on the tips.
Staring at the blood, my mind slowed to a crawl and asked a question. How was I going to survive another day with those jerks around, much less the remainder of the school year?
I slid onto my bottom and scooted back against one of the cypress trees, wedging myself between the upraised roots in order to get comfortable. I didn’t care about the mud on my pants–again, hand-me-downs, a size two big, a pair I just wanted to chunk anyway. Mom might be mad, and I would have to explain to her why they were so dirty. What was I going to say? What was I going to do?
And the tears flowed. A snot runner escaped my nose and I wiped it away with the back of one hand.
Then I saw It. It stood on the other side of the stream, a dirty, gray stone creature that looked as if it had been chiseled right out of the wall of a mountainside. Its features were rough, and its arms came almost down to its feet like a rocky gorilla, but it stood straight, not hunched over. Its face was square and its jaw jutted out, a mouth carved into it, complete with three teeth. Its eyes were hollowed out holes that held darkness in them—something so deep it made me shiver to look at. Though it seemed like someone had just dropped it into the woods without a care, the large, thick vines that were tethered to its wrists and ankles told me this creature, this thing, had been placed there intentional. Whatever it was, this thing was dangerous.
I stood, my heart pounding harder than it had when I fled a beating I was sure to get later. I stared up at the thing. It couldn’t have been much more than a statue someone no longer wanted, an art project gone terribly wrong, maybe. I didn’t know, but it fascinated and terrified me all at once.
Carefully, I approached it, tip-toeing as if to keep it from hearing me. A twig snapped under foot and I was startled as if someone had fired a gun. My hands went over my head and I dropped to the ground. I think I screamed. When it didn’t move, I cautiously stood and continued toward it. I reached the edge of the stream and stepped into the icy water. Chills raced up my legs and tailbone and right into my spine. The water soaked through my sneakers and holy socks, but I didn’t care. Seconds later, the cuffs of my oversized jeans were wet all the way up to my shins.
On that side of the stream I could see it better. The stone of the sunken into the ground feet was covered in green moss that travelled up its legs and just passed both knees. The stone was also weathered and cracked and chipped. There were grooves where rain had worn away pieces of it. The knees and elbows were hinged, and the shoulders and wrists were ball sockets. The vines that held it in place were more like branches, thick and brown and green, leaves clinging to it.
But it was its chest that caught my attention and held it for the longest time. The stone had been smashed in and the edges of the hole were a much darker gray, as if
(it had a heart, Meghan)
it had bled, but that was impossible. It was nothing but rock. Rocks don’t bleed.
I reached up and let my fingers trace along the ridges of the hole. It was rough, and some of the edges were dull, but a few of them were sharp like glass.
I pulled my hand away with a scream in my throat. A sharp pain ripped through two fingers. I stumbled backward, my foot slipping in the mud. I tripped on a rock and landed in the water. My scream was cut off by the shocked inhalation of chilly air as the water spilled over me. I scrambled to turn around, fell back in, this time face first. I swallowed gritty stream water before I was able to get my hands beneath me and shove myself up. I stood, soaked from head to toe, and hurried out of the water.
On dry ground, I ran to the tree I had sat at when I noticed the thing, and hid behind it.
My breaths were loud, a wheeze coming from my chest. I whispered silently, “Please don’t hurt me. Please, don’t hurt me. Please, don’t hurt me,” all while my mind screamed Run!
It spoke two words, its voice deep and, for a lack of better term, gravelly.
I wasn’t sure I heard it correctly, so I remained with my back firmly planted against the cypress tree and my feet on two of the roots jutting up from the ground. Then it came again, and this time I heard the sadness in its voice. Or maybe it was pain.
It didn’t matter if it was sad or in pain, or even if it was scary, I heard something in its voice that said, ‘I am here and I am alive and I need help.’
I turned around and placed my stomach to the tree. Slowly I eased my head from behind it so I could see the creature. Its head was down and moving slowly from side to side as if looking at the vines that bound it to the ground like chains.
With each movement of its head came the rumble of stone on stone. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was crying and the sound wasn’t the rubbing of two rocks together, but the sound of its voice as it bawled like a little baby.
I stepped from behind the tree, and eased a few feet off to the side. When I did, it looked up. What could only be tears spilled from its hollow eye sockets, creating black streaks along its gray face. Its jaw looked as if it were trembling. It cocked its head to the side and lifted its arms as high as they would go, which wasn’t much further than his thighs.
“How?” I asked. I wasn’t scared. That’s the thing. I wasn’t scared, though I should have been. This creature made of rocks should have terrified me, but in that moment, with everything I had been through over the previous couple of years, I felt a connection with it. “How can I help you?”
It cocked its head to the side again, something I immediately found endearing, and then it looked down at its wrists and the vines that held him.
(You have to set him free, Meghan)
He raised his arms again, this time pulling the vines as tight as they would go.
“I can’t break those,” I said.
Without realizing, I had approached it. My toes were on the edge of the stream when I became aware of how close I was to it. Water gently lapped against my shoes. For a few seconds we stood looking at each other.
How can you say no to some … thing that says ‘please?’
I crossed the stream and stepped onto the other side. At first I tried to pull the vines from the ground. What was I thinking? If it couldn’t pull them free, how did I expect myself to pull them free? Still, I strained for about two minutes, my face growing hot and my arms and legs tugging for all I was worth. My hands slid up the vine, pulling the skin away from my fingers. I looked at one hand and saw the slices in the two fingers and blood spilling from them.
“Wow, that’s deep,” I said, then up to the creature, I spoke, “I can’t pull them from the ground. Do you have any suggestions?”
Honestly, I didn’t expect anything, but it did have a suggestion. “Cut.”
“Cut? Do you mean cut the vine?”
His neck rumbled as he nodded.
“I don’t have a knife.”
He craned the round ball that was his neck toward the water.
I looked at the water. It was the first time I actually heard the sound of it babbling along, flowing over the rocks and along the embankments. The peacefulness of it relaxed my muscles and cleared my mind. I don’t know how long I stood there staring down into the stream, looking at the many rocks there without seeing them. The stone on stone grind shook me from the nothingness that had swept over me. In the water was a rock, about the size of my hand and flat. It looked like it could have been apart of an old Native American tomahawk. I reached down, the water like ice to my skin, and worked my fingers beneath the edge of the rock and the sand that held it. Silt washed away with the roll of the stream and the rock came free.
The rock was the same gray as the creature, and it no longer looked like it could have been part of a tomahawk, but something else a heart, maybe.
“Please,” it repeated.
I stepped out of the water and knelt down on the ground next to one of the vines.
“Can you pull it tight?”
It lifted its arm as far as it would go and the vine stiffened. I ran my hand along it, snatching leaves from their anchors as I did so. Then I lifted the rock above my head and brought it down as hard as I could. The tip tore a small chunk from the vine and the creature bellowed, a sound like it was in a pain so horrible it would crumble and collapse to the ground or face first into the stream.
“What? What’s wrong?” I stood, backed away and looked up at it.
The tears were back and streaming down its face and dripping off of its chiseled chin. One of his fingers pointed at the rock in my hand. I looked down and almost dropped it. It had been wet earlier, but it had been gray. Now, it held a dusty purple tint to it. At first I thought it may have been smudges of blood from my sliced fingers, but then I rolled it over in my hands and realized it was pulsing, as if it was a beating heart.
I know my eyes became wide. I don’t know how I didn’t drop the rock to the ground or back into the stream.
“Is this your heart?”
A rumbling nod came from it. “Put back.”
“Put back? You mean, back into the water?”
A shake of the head was followed by, “No. Put back.” Though its arm was tethered with the vine, it turned its hand over and pointed the best it could to the hole in its chest.
“Put it back there?”
He nodded again.
I stepped in front of him and stood on the tips of my toes. I held its heart in my one hand and stretched as far as I could. Even then I couldn’t get the heart back into the hole. I was too short.
“I can’t reach,” I said and rocked back on my heels. “Can you …”
“Well, well, well. Look what we have here, boys. It’s the mix breed.”
Startled, two things happened all at once. First, I lunged upward and pushed the rock into the hole of its chest. Second, I spun, tipping myself off balance and pitching forward in the wet mud. I almost righted myself, but my momentum splashed me into the stream, again face first. For a second or two my head was under the water and in that brief amount of time I had never been more afraid of anything. A thought, fleeting but very possible, darted through my mind: what if they pounced on me as I lay in the water?
Get up! Get up, Meghan!
They would drown me.
My heart leapt into my throat and the very real fear of dying pounced on me, just as I expected Jack Olson, Mickey Darbey, and Knollwood Herring to do. As I pulled my head from the water, that is exactly what they were about to do. They spilled from the trees, each one carrying their own brand of nastiness. My mind screamed, Surely they wouldn’t beat up a girl, but the part of me who had always dealt with people like them, both young and old, knew that is exactly what they intended to do.
I tried to stand, but slipped on the rocks and fell back into the stream.
They laughed and it sounded like the cackles of hungry hyenas. I pushed myself up to see Knollwood splashing into the water and reaching for me, his big hands on the ends of tree trunk sized arms, a lock of his dark hair dangling in front of his dull brown eyes. I tried to turn, to run away, but he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
“Hey, gray girl,” he said and grabbed me around my waist, lifting me up out of the water. “We’re going to have some fun with you.”
My mind screamed. My voice followed. Their laughter grew louder.
I didn’t think, so much as acted. I swung an elbow back, connecting with the side of Knollwood’s head. He cursed and flung me to the other side of the stream where both Mickey and Jack waited. I landed on my hip. The pain tore down one leg and up into my back. I cried out with the new found soreness in my lower body.
“You’re going to pay for that, gray girl,” Knollwood said. He held his ear and stomped from the water. He gave a nod and one of the other two boys grabbed a handful of my hair.
“Get up.” It was Mickey. He pulled me to my feet by that handful of hair. I tried not to scream but I was scared and cornered and there was nothing I could do. Three against one and I would be destroyed.
Knollwood approached me, hands in tight fists, that angry sneer on his face. I didn’t expect the first thing that happened. The second one, I did. Knollwood spat in my face. That was the unexpected thing. The punch to my jaw was the expected one. it was hard and jarring and my head snapped to one side. Blood filled my mouth where my teeth caught the inside of it.
I couldn’t help the tears that fell. At that moment I not only hated my three tormentors, I hated myself. I had been bullied my whole life because I was different, because my parents were different colors and my skin was not quite brown, but not quite white. It was that natural tan most teenage girls want. Momma always said, ‘Some people God bakes a little slower and they turn out white. Some people God bakes a little longer and they turn out black. You, Meggie, you God baked just long enough and you turned out perfect.’
I didn’t feel so perfect right then. Truthfully, I never felt perfect, not even around my family.
A slap came to the back of my head, a heavy, stinging sensation. That was followed by a fist around the same spot. My ears began to ring and pain exploded inside my head. My stomach rolled and I suddenly felt like I would throw up. Before I did I glanced up. Everything was hazy. Knollwood was a blur of white flesh that moved in jerky motions. Their voices were now echoes in my humming head. The world around me ran together. Before the punch to my stomach sent me to my knees and Mickey let go of me, something moved behind Knollwood. It wasn’t the wind in the trees or an animal. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, just that it was on the other side of the stream.
Then came that last, gut rending punch. The air flushed from my lungs and I was falling. I landed in the water, again, face first. The pain in my midsection was dull, but intense and the rush of the stream played in my ears like a song I would hate my entire life. I pushed myself from the water to try and take a breath, but no air reentered my lungs. A snot bubble rolled out of my nose and my mouth hung open.
Then came my death. Okay, what I thought would be my death. My mind was scrambled and I couldn’t breathe and I heard this weird laughter and taunts from the boys and this other sound … this sound like stones rolling down a hill. A hand grabbed me by the back of my neck and shoved my face into the water. My forehead struck one of the rocks, but that pain didn’t matter. What mattered was I was going to drown right there in a stream barely a foot deep because I was different. At least the sound of the water was in my head and not their hateful voices. At least that would be the last thing I heard.
Spots formed beneath my closed eyelids as water rushed into my mouth and filled my nose. My head thumped. There was a train on the tracks of my skull and it’s horn was loud. My ears popped and my stomach begged for air it would not get.
Then, just as suddenly as the attack had begun, it ended. The weight holding my head in the water was gone, but I was weak and could barely push myself up. The muscles in my arms gave out the first time. The edges of my life were closing in on me. The locomotive in my skull was bearing down and about to crush my head. The water in my lungs …
You’re going to die if you don’t get out of the water, Megan!
And I was out of the water. I don’t know how I got my arms beneath me, but I did. I crawled to the edge of the stream and collapsed onto the muddy embankment. From somewhere in the world, I heard screams and those rolling stones tumbling down a mountain. I coughed several times and water spilled from my mouth. I rolled onto my side, my hand ending up in the water. The locomotive in my head was still there, but its horn was now off in the distance. I tried to open my eyes, but the only thing I wanted to do right then was lay still, not move and pray wherever the three bullies had gone, they would not be back. Eventually, the pain in my lungs and chest and stomach and head subsided and I dozed off into the black land I thought was death. Honestly, I welcomed it.
I didn’t die. That’s obvious, based on this writing. I woke up on the embankment still on my side. My body ached and my head still thumped its angry tune. My hair was matted to my face and my jaw was swollen. The residual bitter tastes of blood lingered on my tongue.
I opened my eyes, my vision blurry at first. Slowly, it cleared and my heart almost stopped. Hunched over in the stream next to me was the stone creature. It stared at me with its darkened eye sockets. I tried to scream, but nothing more than a whisper came out. If he meant to finish the job Knollwood, Jack and Mickey started, here was his chance and I couldn’t fight it. I was tired of it all, tired of being different and of being bullied because of it; tired of being looked at like I was a freak show.
It reached down with one stone finger and stroked my face. It was cold to the touch.
It took a few seconds to realize he had spoken and it wasn’t a word of hate, but one of concern. He repeated it.
I sat up. My stomach rumbled and I barely got my head turned before I threw up grimy, gritty water, mixed with blood. My face was hot and sweat spilled off my forehead. My stomach lurched a second time, but nothing came out. I wiped my mouth, turned to the creature.
It shook his head several times, as if to say not to be.
I looked around. The world was back to normal. The trees were brown and green, the water of the stream was mostly clear, the rocks appearing to wave with the ripples of the water as it rolled on by. The embankment I sat on was wet and muddy. And there were foot prints in them, most of them clustered around where I sat.
“Where are they?” I asked, fear leaping up into my chest. I got on my knees quickly. My head swam and black dots clouded my vision. Dropping to my hands, I took several deep breaths until everything came back and the edges of my vision was normal again.
“Gone,” it said.
It nodded. “Gone.”
“Where’d they go?”
It lifted its hand and pointed behind him.
I started to move so I could see, but decided not to. A strong realization swept over me right then. That rolling stone sound I had heard when they were trying to drown me, that odd movement I had seen before they shoved my head under the water had been the creature that sat beside me.
“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t need to look for them. I also didn’t need to know they would never bother me, or anyone else, ever again.
“Thank you,” he repeated back. It wasn’t a question, as if he was asking why I said that, but it was more something he was saying back to me. I didn’t get it at first. When I looked up at him, I saw the hole in his chest was no longer there. Instead, it was closed up, though there were cracks and creases in the stone.
The rock I had found in the water had been his heart. Before, I wasn’t sure, but right then I knew. I also knew, his thank you was just as much for me saving him as mine had been for him saving me.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
His head rolled to the side, rumbling as it did so. Though the dark sockets didn’t change, there was something quizzical in them.
I nodded. “What do they call you?”
He tapped his chest with one finger and shook his head slowly. “No name.”
“You don’t have a name?”
Again, he shook his head from side to side.
For several seconds I sat, staring at him. I looked at the ground. One of my hands had sunk into the mud. I looked back at him. “SAMM.”
Again, his head cocked to the side. “SAMM?”
“That is your name. SAMM—Sand and Mud Man.”
He—because it was a he—nodded at this. “SAMM.”
I stood, my muscles ached and my body hurt. The sun was setting, casting an orange and purple hue on the world. Soon the sky would turn gray and that would be swallowed up by the early darkness of night. I was not going to get home before any of that happened, but I didn’t have to worry about being chased and beaten and drowned by hateful people. My worry was Momma and Daddy and them being angry that I was late from school, by several hours. I would have to explain where I had been and what had happened to me. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but I hoped once I told them what had happened, they would believe me.
“I have to go,” I said. “But I’ll come back. I promise.”
“Yeah. I have to leave. I have to go home. My parents are probably really worried about me and …”
“Yeah. Home. The place where I live.”
SAMM stood. The ground shook beneath me when he did so. He craned his neck back and looked off into the trees. “Home.”
My heart hurt for him. I didn’t know how long he had been out there, tethered to the ground. I also know I would have been dead if not for him. But the reality of where I was and what had happened started to sink in and I knew I had to leave; I had to get home. I also knew I would return, the next day if I wasn’t in so much trouble.
“Bye SAMM,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?”
“Bye,” he repeated and gave a little wave.
With tears tugging at the corners of my eyes, I went back through the trees, the same ones I and three bullies had come through earlier in the day. I came out where I had went in and I hurried home as darkness settled in. As I neared my house I thought about how ridiculous my story would sound. There was no way they would believe me. But I didn’t have anything else and I didn’t have the time to make up a lie, or a series of them.
I walked up the sidewalk that led to our small house. Daddy sat on the porch stoop, a cigarette in hand. Momma sat in the rocker. She didn’t have a smoke, but she looked like she could use one.
“Where have you been, Meghan?” he asked.
I crossed the front lawn to the steps. I didn’t need to answer Daddy’s question, but the one Momma asked next.
“What happened to you?”
She stood and went down the steps, pushing by Daddy as she did so. Her hand was warm on my face as she turned my head, first one way then the other.
“It was some boys who don’t like me much.”
“They roughed you up pretty good,” she said.
“Who were they?”
“Knollwood Herring, Jack Owens and Mickey Darbey.”
“I’ll be having a talk with the school tomorrow about them, but for now, tell us what happened.”
My heart sped up. Sweat formed on my face and in my arm pits and down the center of my still damp bra. “You’re not going to believe me.”
“Try us,” Momma said and went back up the steps. She sat in her chair and they both waited for my story. I told them everything, but when I reached the part about finding SAMM I saw Momma’s eyes brighten up.
“He was made out of stone, wasn’t he?” she asked.
“And he was near the stream?”
“What did you name him?”
This stopped me. I didn’t know how to answer her question. I was certain she thought I was lying and was now playing along and when I was done, one of them would take me inside and lay Daddy’s belt to my behind.
“SAMM,” I said.
Momma smiled. “I called him Martin.”
“I called him Martin,” she repeated. “After Martin Luther King.”
My eyes must have become wide and I know my mouth dropped open. “You believe me?”
She laughed. “Oh yes. He saved me one time before, too. Or maybe it was someone like your SAMM.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“We were worried about you,” Daddy said and snuffed out his cigarette on the concrete step. “Now that we know you are safe and why you were late, there is no need to be mad at you.”
“And there is no reason for me to go to the school and talk to the principal about those three boys.”
“Why is that?” I thought I knew why, but I wanted—needed—to hear it from her.
“They’re not going to find those boys, at least not alive.”
She didn’t need to say anything else. She would go on to tell me the story of how she came across SAMM—Martin, to her—when she was a teen, in the midst of racism.
“And Meghan, there’s no need to go back to see him. He won’t be there.”
“But I told him I would go back.”
“He won’t be there, Meghan.”
I guess this is the end of my story, but there are a couple of things you need to know. First, they eventually found Knollwood, Jack and Mickey in those woods. They appeared to have been stoned to death, at least that is how the papers put it. Who did it? They don’t know.
Second, I went back to those woods the next day, on my way home from school. I wasn’t scared, as I had been the day before. I went in at the same spot and I followed the same path, most of which were broken branches and trampled down grass—the path I made when I ran from the bullies. I made my way to the stream. The foot prints were still there from the day before. I crossed the water, not trying to keep from getting wet. There was a wider swath in the foliage. I followed it until it ended abruptly.
I called for SAMM, but I never found him. I didn’t find Knollwood or Jack or Mickey, either. All I know is SAMM was gone, and Momma had been right. It made me sad that I didn’t get to see him again, but I understood, as I hope you do, now, that each and every decision we make in our lives has a consequence, good or bad. I was different from most kids back then, and because I was different, SAMM found me. I didn’t find him. Those boys chased me into the woods and SAMM was there, but he wasn’t there to save me, but to test me, to see if I would do something for him. By finding his heart—which is really the soul of a person—and giving it back to him, I freed him from his bonds. By saving me from those bullies, he freed me from my bonds. That day changed my life, as I’m sure, my little girl, it will change yours.
Some stories are easy to write. This was one of them. I saw a picture on social media one morning, drawn by a young girl—I believe she had been thirteen when she drew it. It was of a stone creature with vines holding its arms and legs in place. I saved the image and later printed it out. That image became the basis to S.A.M.M. It also hangs on my wall at work, right next to my desk. I don’t know the little girl, who is probably a young woman now, so I won’t post the image with the story. I also won’t post her name.
What I will say is thank you to her for drawing the picture. It made my mind run and this story is the result.
I hope you enjoyed S.A.M.M. If you did, please like the post, comment and share it to your social media pages and help me get my work out to the world. Thank you.