The Mud Fam

SIS DIRT, the Second of the Mud Fam, stood on the edge of the jungle, staring down the narrow path. Heavy fig and yaro tree branches dangled over it. Drooping vine bridges spanned its scant width, easy crossing for the snakes and gekko. The path was near invisible if a girl didn’t know where to look.

But Dirt had known the path her whole life, knew it better than any girl alive. She wasn’t there to learn its winding curves.

She was waiting for her sisters. They were out on their morning run, the start of every Bower’s day. For the younger girls, the morning run helped build the endurance, strength, and discipline they’d need for Bowing competition. For the older girls who were already competing, the run gave them a chance to prepare their mind for a day of hard training.

A small part of Dirt missed it. Those jaunts through the jungle had made up much of her early life. But those years were behind her. Now she was an elder, more suited to a day of tea and sitting than one of runs and hard training. She was almost seventeen, after all.

Dirt heard her sisters before she saw them, their footfalls echoing through the bush as they rounded the bend and jogged into camp. Swoo was first, of course. Even in training, she needed to win. Despite the long run, her half-length top only had a few dark drops of sweat. Her pants, baggy around the thighs and cinched at midcalf, had none. What would have been a workout for some was barely a warm-up for Swoo.

“Na good day, Sis Dirt,” she said, still jogging in place.

“Na good day, NoBe Swoo. Where are na Bibi?”

Swoo shrugged. “Too slow.” She drew her handaxe from her waistband and squared off with an imaginary foe. The handaxe was for chopping wood, but Swoo used it mainly to practice chopping enemies. “But I say to them, ‘Any Bibi too slow will feed na jungle cat.’ So they will hurry.”

Dirt suppressed her irritation. It was Swoo’s duty to watch over the young ones. A Fam was only a Fam if each sister played her role.

“While we wait for na Bibi,” Dirt said, “your Sis Dirt wants tea.” She gave Swoo a flat look.

Swoo scowled, then went to get the requested tea, mumbling under her breath.

Dirt turned back to watch for the younger sisters, but called out over her shoulder, “I cannot hear you, NoBe Swoo.”

“Your tea is coming,” Swoo said sweetly before adding, in a lower voice, “you shabby goat.”

Dirt ignored her. Swoo lacked the size and fat a Bower at her level should have, but she more than made up for those in other areas. She was as unbearably confident as a Flagga boy, tenacious as a starving street dog, faster than any other NoBe and half of the Sis. She’d finished the season with five wins in a row and, with her exciting Bowing style, Alashy dance skills, and fashionable haircut – shaved on both sides with a high strip of tight curls leading back to a fluffy bun – had become a fan favorite.

And she knew it. Her ego was growing faster than her belly.

Any other day, Dirt would have disciplined her. But today, peace was more important than pride. If Dirt had to swallow one to keep the other, then so be it.

Soon the Bibi came huffing out of the jungle. With her long strides, seven-year-old Nana led the way. She was the skinniest Bower that Dirt had ever seen, but her body was tall and strong, and she had a quick mind for technique. Little Snore, straggling behind, was the opposite. Short, more round than long, and with plenty of good child fat left on her bones, the four-year-old had the look of a future champion, but the mind and mood of a very sleepy mamba. When she was awake, she was tireless and always plotting trouble.

When she was awake.

“Sis Dirt!” Nana said. “Na good day!” She was missing a lower tooth, knocked out in yesterday’s training. The gap only made her smile more endearing.

“Na good day, Sis Dirr,” Snore said with theatrical exhaustion. She collapsed onto her back, swinging her arms and legs in the dirt like she was splashing in a puddle. “Sis Dirr, I am tired.”

“Up, up, ” Dirt said. “You are home. Na training must begin.” They groaned their disagreement.

The Mud camp lay in a muddy clearing amid the South’s untamed jungles. In the rear corner was the Mud Fam’s sleep hut, a driftwood shack bound by twine. Beside it lay the garden, which was half for crops – peppers, tea leaves, various fruits and vegetables – and half for chickens. In the center was the fighting ring, essential to any Bower camp. It was five strides in every direction, filled a finger deep with golden sand, and enclosed by a ring of canvas sandbags that divided it from the muddy grass of the rest of the Mud camp.

As Dirt ordered the Bibi into the ring to begin the day’s training, Swoo returned with the tea and an eye roll, offering both to Dirt before sitting over by the sleep hut to watch.

“Time to train, Swoo,” Dirt said. She could ignore the eye roll, but she couldn’t ignore the break from routine.

“Why train with na Bibi? I am no longer NoBe.”

It was somewhat true. Swoo would be a Sis next season and no longer compete as a NoBe. But the next season hadn’t started yet, and the girl needed to show some humility.

Dirt wanted to say something sharp, but she looked over at the sleep hut, where Sis Webba slumbered, and thought better of it.

Peace, not pride, she said to herself. Peace, not pride.

So instead she turned back to the Bibi.

“Stand strong!” Dirt boomed. The Bibi hurried into their Bowing stances, feet shoulder width apart, one in front and one behind. They bent their knees just slightly, hands up, upper bodies loose. When they were in position, she began the Bowing sequence. “Slap na water!”

The two Bibi did as told, rolling their shoulders, palms reaching out and smacking down atop an invisible waterline.

“Ride na wind!”

They crouched low and surged forward, so close to the ground that each girl’s rear leg dragged through the sand before she hopped back to her feet.

“Trap na fire!”

They smacked palm against palm and tightened their grips around the waist of an imaginary enemy.

“And Bow to na earth!” Dirt finished.

They were supposed to bend forward or backward or rotate sideways, bodies arcing like the unique swoops of narrow tree trunks.

But they were young.

Nana, indecisive as ever, couldn’t commit to any direction. So she did all of them, wobbling around like a palm in a monsoon. Completely ineffective.

For Little Snore, it was playtime. She fell forward, flat on her face. Her coughed giggle dispersed the sand around her mouth.

As the Second of the Mud, it was Dirt’s responsibility to train the Bibi and NoBe. She had to teach them not just the rules and traditions of Bower life, but also the fighting art of Bowing. She had learned long ago that she didn’t have the spirit for competition, but she knew the craft of Bowing well and had made herself into the best trainer she could be.

“Breathe easy, Nana,” Dirt said in a low voice. As usual, Nana was stiff. Even though she’d done the sequence a thousand times, her shoulders were tight with worry.

Nana let out a long exhale, the way Dirt had taught her years ago.

“Snore, up, up!” The youngest Mud sister stood back up and fell into her Bowing stance.

Once the Bibi were settled, Dirt continued. “Again!” she growled.

Even as the Bibi flopped through their techniques, Dirt felt a warm pride watching her sisters train. Ever since she was a Bibi, she’d dreamed of being the First of a mighty Fam, one with hundreds of sisters and a camp large enough for them all. She’d dreamed of walking among the ranks of her sisters as they trained, fixing their technique, adjusting their posture, giving a word of encouragement here and a reprimanding look there. Though she would never be a champion Bower herself, she could still experience the glory of victory through her Fam. That would be her legacy.

Her dream still eluded her. She wasn’t a First, she was a Second. And the Mud Fam didn’t have hundreds of sisters, it had five. But every tree started with a seed, and with water and sun and a little bit of –

“Chaaaiii,” Swoo exclaimed, watching the Bibi with mock disgust. “You Bow like sicksick dogs.” She hopped to her feet and headed for the ring. “I will show you.”


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Excerpt from DAUGHTERS OF ODUMA published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Moses Ose Utomi.