“Empire of Mud” By James Roderick Burns

I, GIMPY, EMPEROR of the Mudflats, declare that henceforth this place—formerly known as the General Register Office, Edinburgh, and within the avian community, as home to the crazy bird lady and her seeds—belongs entirely to me! I hereby extend my empire up from the Forth and all its cowering estuary creatures, along the spine of the shore and into the heart of the city. To all inhabitants, I say this: I have heard your whispers, your gasps and moans as my brethren and I threaten your overstuffed sandwiches, your bulging polystyrene clam-shells, and they are as nothing! Nothing. You will submit without question to the yoke of seagull discipline, and you will like it.

Furthermore, I give notice at this time that all attempts by parties of humans, known and unknown, to challenge, destabilize, or topple my regime will be subject to the harshest penalties, up to and including dismemberment and death. You have never hesitated to impose such harsh justice on my kind—witness my missing right leg, its blackened and sickening stump—and so I and my henchmen will respond in a similar manner, tolerating no resistance. You will not find us kind masters, but neither will you suffer unduly, if you remain within clearly-demarcated lines.

To begin with, let me address certain issues.

“You there! Yes you, with the grin! Put down that morning roll and listen.”

In my current empire, there are rules and pecking orders no creature in its right mind would disregard. The mussel does not avoid the wader, nor the periwinkle the great, prying oystercatcher; and both submit to the flapping authority of my wings. From now on, the crazy bird lady is to be recognized as a central component of the Register Office ecosystem; no attempt is to be made to prevent the scattering of her seedy offerings about the cobbles and the sunken moat, where the tastiest morsels often end up, and my lower-class kin (the pigeons) roll about in bloated ecstasy. Any human seeking to interrupt this natural process will be summarily dispatched by the guards.

Secondly, there will be no further talk of vermin control. It is highly offensive to address the gull community in terms such as “flying rat” or “massive vermin,” and even mild expressions such as “what a bloody nuisance” are banned forthwith, their usage deemed a hate crime, with appropriate penalties applied. You may, however, continue to refer to the rodent population in whichever terms you like. I and my brethren are not averse to snapping a rat’s neck, for both hunt and sport, and their plated tails do provide a delicious frisson on the way down. Offerings can be left on either side of the bicycle-storage bins.

You may also have heard, from your office gossips or other unreliable sources, the supposed tale of my injury. Let me set the record straight in terms you will understand. It was not sustained as a result of trapping my leg in the thick plastic harness of a six-pack of beer, snagged on an iron peg sunk into the breakwater near an abandoned rowing boat, with four or five subsequent hours of frantic pecking to get it free, followed by a long and bloody lopsided flight to the back of an amusement arcade, where I jammed the stump into a sparking electrical outlet in order to cauterize the wound. The arcade was not immediately plunged into darkness, nor did its owners run outside with sticks and brutally beat me away into the night; neither did I lie half-dead in the shadow of an old brickworks for an unknown number of days, flapping ineffectually at the stump with a pink wingtip and cawing for my mother.

Rather, the injury—a proud battle scar and symbol of virility—was the result of an epic dogfight between me and a kettle of hawks drafted in by the authorities to clear up the pigeon infestation in a nearby bus hangar. They lunged, they spiraled, they spun about, as birds of prey do, willfully slashing at my plumage, but I emerged victorious with their feathers in my beak, and none shall say otherwise! This is the true tale of your leader’s valor. Any other scurrilous version will be suppressed by the guard, and transgressors silenced.

In the empire of mud, there is much richness—of spirit, of silt, of mollusks. But, alas, there is also an abundance of work. Taking off from the nest to survey the Forth, or beyond, the great brown expanse of the North Sea; taking wing with a beady eye that sees beyond sand ripples to the scuttling legs of fleeing crabs, the movements of fish under grainy water; all very worthy, I am sure, but also quite exhausting! How to compare to the fat ooze of a half-eaten kebab, the silky scents emerging from a fish-and-chip box spiked on a rail? What use is work, when its rewards are of such miserable paucity?

No! I come instead to this stony vale of tears to begin my reign anew. And why, you ask—you there, the aberration, with your clutch of raw veggies and hummus in its environmentally sound waxed-card container—why here, you demand? I shall tell you! There are perhaps other realms whose sandwiches are more plentiful, where the bins brim with uneaten biscuits and the streets round about run over with discarded chicken bones, but there are none whose primary mission is to patiently listen, gather and record information about those who cross its threshold.

Are you listening, you data miners and recorders of fact? Are your administrative ears pinned back, your pens and keyboard-tapping digits braced for an assault upon the dull and sleeping world never before even countenanced, let alone seen? Do you fear the mighty, prophetic words of your seagull overlord, your—


James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form poetry collections, most recently The Worksongs of the Worms (2018), a short fiction chapbook (A Bunch of Fives) and editor of A Gathering Darkness: Thirteen Classic English Ghost Stories (2016). He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.

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