It was a warm, late summer’s evening, and Sparkle stood, knee-deep in the Holt’s river near Laughing Creek, looking up at the stars. She raised her arms over her head, mud dripping into her hair from the pan she held in her left hand. She leaned back, deepening her stretch, then let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. She was content. This part of the river was quieter than others – still, she wasn’t so far from others that she couldn’t hear the occasional burst of laughter or splashing.
Dropping her arms, Sparkle looked toward the riverbank, where a pile of muddied rocks – gems, she hoped – lay waiting further cleaning and inspection. Gently tossing her pan to the bank, Sparkle then slipped into the water, refreshing herself before the work she had left to do. When she surfaced, her eyes met the eyes of Meep. The child was standing on the bank of the river, looking at her.
"Did you find anything slimy?" she asked Sparkle eagerly. Then Meep dropped to all fours with a small splash on the muddiest part of the bank where it met the water's edge, and dug her hands into the rich, wet, black dirt. "This is the best place!" It seemed unlikely that she meant this particular spot -- probably just the river in general, or at least the quiet spots. Her brown eyes were wide and focused on her small fingers wiggling through the thick river mud, skimming along just below the surface as she searched for a no-doubt very slimy prize.
The smith couldn't help but smile - her young aunt’s enthusiasm was contagious, and Sparkle enjoyed digging in the mud, too, but for different reasons. Walking out of the water, she watched the child and sat down next to her night's finds.
"Oooh!" Meep squealed suddenly, her hands wrapping around what looked like a patch of wet dirt, as she wiggled her way from her knees to her feet in a crouch over whatever she'd found. Her eyes alight with glee, the cub raised her hands out of the muck, clutching a confused-looking, mud-covered small shellback. "Look, look!" With the awkward balance of a child, Meep lurched to a full standing position, then tiptoed the few steps to Sparkle to display her prize.
Sparkle looked into the eyes of the little shellback that was trying to swim in the air around little Meep's hands, moving its legs back and forth as if it thought it was still beneath the surface of the riverbank. It had probably been sleeping, nestled into the rivermud, where it was safe from -- most -- of everything that might be trying to find it.
She had to laugh. The shellback's eyes were wide, and behind the turtle, Meep's eyes were filled with delight. Sparkle didn't want to discourage her aunt from looking for "slimy things," or from enjoying her find, but she also felt badly for the creature, who seemed to want nothing more than the safety of its muddy home. "Meep," Sparkle said, careful not to sound discouraging.
"Can I keep it?" Meep interrupted.
"No," Sparkle said gently, thinking fast, "but you can come visit it and your other slimy friends here at its home."
"Aww, all right," Meep agreed reluctantly. Taking the shellback right back to where she'd found it, Meep gently placed it back in the mud. "Bye!" she told it, as it nestled its way back into hiding. "What'd you find?" Meep asked Sparkle, turning to grin at her. Somehow, the cub was now covered in muck up past her elbows, all along her legs and the front of her clothes, and had the wet dirt splattered on one side of her neck and cheek.
Sparkle wasn’t certain that Meep would find the muddied gems as interesting as a slimy squirming shellback, but that didn’t stop her from picking up one of the filthy rocks and holding it up for Meep to look at.
“Ooh, a clump of mud!” Meep said, moving closer and reaching her hand out to take it.
“Not just mud, Meep,” Sparkle said happily. “There’s something inside it that’s even better! Wash it off – you’ll see!”
"Inside?" Meep echoed eyeing the clump in her hand with a mixture of curiosity and amazement. "What is it?" She stepped up to the water's edge and bent to rinse off the rock in the slow moving water. "Meep!" the cub squeaked as the mud came away, revealing small bits of shining color peeking out through the slime. "Sparkle! What is it?" she repeated, rubbing at the dirt with her thumbs to get more of it off of the gem.
Sparkle grinned. The cub's reaction reminded her of her own excitement when she had first discovered these hidden river treasures herself. Sparkle had moved to where she was beside the cub, leaning in closer to where Meep held the clump of rock. From where she was crouched, the smith could make out a few of the colors emerging from the mud - there were greens and yellows, but the most prevalent color was a deep pinkish-purple. If Sparkle was right, the cleaned-up, shaped or cut version of the stone might turn out to be a sparkling ruby.
"It doesn't look like much right now, cubling," Sparkle said, eyes twinkling, "but with some work, that particular rock will be a brilliant red ruby."
"Wow!" Meep exclaimed. Sparkle was pleased to see the cub take such an interest in something that she herself --
The half-washed ruby flew out of Meep's hand as the cub tossed it back into the river with a splash. "Look, Sparkle!" she went on, her eyes focused on something tiny and black wriggling in the shallow water where it met the muddy bank. As Sparkle stared, still in a bit of shock, Meep lifted the tiny river creature out of the water in one hand, then let it cling, dangling from her forefinger as she examined it with methodical cublike curiosity. "It's a sticky black river worm!"
Sparkle choked back a screaming howl of rage. Meep... had thrown her precious ruby away... for a bloodworm! She watched as Meep, entranced, observed the slimy, squirming creature and decided not to argue about the value of things – to the cub, the bloodworm was a better treasure than a ruby. Though Sparkle disagreed, she didn’t want to force her values onto her aunt. But she did want that ruby back.
Sparkle stood and, ignoring Meep and the worm, made her way back into the water.