Mudfish and Pythons

Mudfish and Pythons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Mudfish and Pythons

Man can live for about forty days without food, and about three days without water, about eight minutes without air . . . but only for one second without hope.

Hal Lindsey

The trailhead of San Elijo Lagoon, nearly invisible in the foliage, is a door into San Diego County’s largest coastal wetlands. I’ve hiked it with many people, but my hiking partner today knows more about survival in the wild than any of them.

Benson Deng, now twenty-five, was seven years old when he fled a thousand miles barefoot across Africa, keeping his two five-year-old companions, a brother and a cousin, alive. They ran into the night to escape death when their villages in southern Sudan were attacked.

Camera around my neck, I grab water bottles from the car. Before setting out, we read the posted information about rattlesnakes and mountain lions. When crossing Sudan, Benson witnessed boys killed by lions. “Our lions are not true lions,” I explain. “They are part of the cougar family and weigh less than you. Not six hundred pounds like the African lions.”

Benson seems unphased and forges ahead. The eucalyptus trees canopying the trail sway in the ocean breeze, playing a soft percussion to the caterwaul vocals of ubiquitous crows. Walled-in by snarled undergrowth, the first quarter mile is a jungle. Breaks in the foliage reveal mounds of dead pampas grass that resemble villages of queer thatched huts. When my son, Cliff, was a preschooler, we’d come here to “troll village.” With a plumed felt pirate hat and plastic cutlass in hand, he’d slash and stab the grassy huts, driving imaginary enemies from their hiding places.

No hat or sword for Benson, just the longest pair of legs I’ve seen on anyone his height. I’m lathered in sunscreen and swaddled in long sleeves, but Benson is bare-armed in a tank top, his ebony melanin a superior sunblock to any cream or lotion. He’s told me that on their trek, they walked mostly at night. Nevertheless, I imagine their sun exposure was extreme. Benson had shorts, or underwear as he calls them, but his cousin and brother had nothing. Like Benson, they, too, are blessed with skin that can withstand the equatorial sun. In that situation, I wouldn’t fare better than a naked mole rat.

The trail narrows to single file, and we catch our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. I’m in the rear, trying to keep up, much like a hippo keeping pace with a gazelle. We come to cattails soaring over our heads and Benson stops. “We have this grass in Sudan.” He yanks out several green reeds, plops onto a nearby log, whips off a shoe and sock, and loops the reeds around his big toe. His nimble fingers braid expertly. Slipping the finished rope through a loop, he hands it to me. “If night comes, you can tie up your goat.”

I give the cord a hard tug. “The goat’s there for the night with this.”

Proceeding on, the sun warms our backs and the ocean fills our nostrils. Mist huddles in low areas, trying to escape the rising sun, while snowy egrets lift their feet like ballerinas, and blue herons, still as statues, deceive their prey below. Benson strays off trail. “Mudfish like to live here.”

“What does a mudfish look like?”

“Like an eel. To catch one you must know the sound they make to call their mates.”

“What sound is that?”

Benson puffs his cheeks. “Hooph, hooph.” The sound is like an owl with a lisp.

“Did you ever catch one?”

“Many times. The spear is best, or you can push a grass stalk down their hole. When they bite the stalk, you pull it out.” He jabs with a stick. “They like this type of mud.” Like Smilla knew snow, Benson knows mud. As he pokes around, I envision him as a seven-year-old on that terrible exodus, at times drinking his own urine and eating mud to survive. “But you must be careful catching the mudfish with your hand. If it bites it won’t let go until it dies.”

“Spear method sounds better.”

“Yes, but in muddy water you could hit a python or crocodile.”

“Oh.” Spear the wrong beast and you could end up wearing it or missing a leg.

“Pythons are dangerous. One ate my dog. A good dog. He’d go with me all day. I didn’t have to bring food, he was so fast he could catch gazelle.”

“Then how did the python catch your dog?”

“My dog chased a squirrel into his hole and the python grabbed him.” His voice drops. “A very good dog.”

Farther ahead, he points out plants, describing how his mother would utilize them as food, medicine, or tools.

Even though I helped Benson, his brother, Alepho, and their cousin, Benjamin, structure their memoir, They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys of Sudan, it still remains unfathomable to me how little boys endured such extreme hardship. When I hear of their ingenuity, smearing urine on their bodies to repel fire ants while picking mangos, or harvesting and roasting termites, the more impressed I become at their heroic survival and recollection of detail.

“You were so young. How did you learn and remember so much?”

“I helped my mother.”

As Benson’s mentor through the International Rescue Committee, I’m usually leading him through the bus system, applying to college, or filling out medical insurance forms. If you can imagine growing up in a remote village, five years of fleeing a war, followed by nine years in a refugee camp without running water or electricity, then you can begin to understand what it takes to adapt to life here. You won’t starve or be eaten, but even though you speak the language, few understand your accent, social customs seem illogical, a missed bill and your credit is ruined forever, and cars can imperil your life as easily as a feisty lion.

The adjustment is overwhelming, but Benson is the champion of adaptability. Here only four years, he runs the computer and digital photography system at a large company, instructs me on the esoteric features of Microsoft Word, and shows me how to use my new picture phone. I enjoy these role reversals, especially today when he’s teaching me how to survive in his world. Even visiting with park docents, I didn’t learn as much about my surroundings—or at least it didn’t stick with me like mudfishing, tying up my goat, and avoiding pythons will.

We make one more stop at a huge twisted eucalyptus that reigns over the wetlands. Benson drags large dead branches into a pile. Naturalists frequent this preserve with clipboards, recording the minutest movements of nature. I hope none will bust us for this most unnatural accumulation of wood.

“Take a picture, please. If this were Kenya, I would be a very rich man.” In the refugee camp, food was scarce but firewood even more so. Those willing to risk their lives collecting outside the camp could sell it for a premium. I raise the camera. Standing before me in the sunshine, his wiry arms full of the sun-bleached branches, with that sparkling smile in his eyes, Benson looks wealthier than anyone I know.

Judy A. Bernstein

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