Scrofulous Mudd was first published here in May of 2016. The story itself was prompted by the first line. Once I had that, the rest of the story followed.
Scrofulous Mudd was a dirty old man.
By that I mean he was an elderly man who sorted through the leavings in ancient privies and wrote highly boring papers detailing the history of what he uncovered. He kept himself moderately clean, and took baths every Saturday unless an additional effort was required, such as for his mother’s funeral.
I suppose his fascination with filth began with his elegantly disease-ridden name. His was a difficult delivery, and when the elderly volunteer came around asking about the new baby’s name, Maude Mudd was still a little out of it. A scholar of Roman Literature, what she had actually said was “Rogellus.”
The volunteer, a retired nurse of infectious diseases, had misunderstood her mumbled words. Thus, Scrofulous, or Scroffy, as he was known at school, was given a name difficult to live up to.
Young Scroffy never knew his father, nor was any father named on his birth certificate. He assumed his had been a virgin birth, as his mother had never said otherwise and to his knowledge she never had gentlemen callers.
In truth, Maude’s single night of passion with the Professor of Antiquities had occurred after both had consumed far too much sherry at a faculty mixer at the at the beginning of fall semester. Hung-over, embarrassed, and terribly disappointed by sex in general, she immediately accepted the offer of a research position at a University far, far away, in Scotland to be exact.
It wasn’t until several months later that she realized she had a little Mudd in the oven. Things were different in those days, and rather than lose her position at the University for being morally unfit, she padded her chest, making herself appear to be merely stout. She hired a live-in housekeeper and continued with her work until the day of his delivery, which occurred just at the beginning of summer break. When the next term began, a much slimmer Professor Maude Mudd returned to school as if nothing had happened.
Nanny MacDuff cared for young Scroffy as much as she was able, which was not a lot, as she had a pinched heart, but she did do her best by him. Many times Scroffy and his pram were left parked outside the post office, forgotten until Nanny arrived home and suddenly wondered where the washing powder she had tucked in his carriage was.
However, she saw to it he was as clean and well-fed as any other child. Both the infant Scroffy and Maude Mudd’s house were vigorously scrubbed daily, and both shone like polished chrome.
Never having been a maternal woman, Maude felt she had fulfilled her parental obligation, by hiring a nanny. While she did occasionally ask after his health in a general sort of way and whether he was doing well in school, she rarely had any reason to communicate with him.
As a small child, the books in his mother’s library fascinated him, but that room was strictly off limits. Nanny explained that little boys had dirty fingers, and so he should never touch the ancient, irreplaceable tomes. However, he often stood just outside the door, peering in, wondering what mysteries lay concealed within those pages.
Scroffy spent his childhood at boarding school. He did well in primary school and was a good student during his secondary years. It was there he discovered history could be uncovered by digging through the garbage left behind by our ancestors, and it was a science called Archaeology.
Perhaps it was his lifetime of rigorously enforced cleanliness at the hands of Nanny and the various Matrons, or perhaps it was the only rebellion he could think of, but dirt, and what it concealed, attracted him.
He was rarely invited home for holidays, and thus, Maude had nearly forgotten about her son when she was surprised to receive a letter from him thanking her for his education. He also explained he would be taking his newly earned Doctorate in Archaeology to London, and hoped she would understand.
In London, he indulged his passion for filth, digging up medieval midden heaps and privies, sifting the soil, and exclaiming over dubious treasures. Unlike his fellow scientists, he didn’t mind the filthy conditions, and relished a good, big find, feeling as if the night-soil of generations past somehow filled in the blank, far-too-clean slate of his childhood. He also began acquiring his own library of rare books, and manuscripts of historical significance, all of them shining a little light on the dark, dirty realities of medieval life.
It was said by his peers that Scrofulous Mudd knew more about the dark ages than the people who’d actually lived through those times. Had he been told that to his face, he would have agreed.
Forty years passed, during which time Maude Mudd rarely gave any thought to her absent son, although he thought of her at times. At first, he’d hoped for a letter or card, or an invitation to Christmas dinner but eventually gave up believing there was any connection there.
He had a brief, cordial conversation with his mother at Nanny’s funeral. Maude was heartbroken at Nanny’s loss, and terribly concerned she would never find a cleaner with as much respect for the many irreplaceable manuscripts in her library as Nanny had embodied. Scroffy had agreed it would be difficult. On the train back to London, he comforted himself with the thought his old nanny was in floor-polishing heaven.
He was a congenial, if obsessed, guest at faculty dinner parties, and was always willing to talk about his work. The more fastidious guests suspected he was invited as much for shock value as anything else. Conversations would stutter into pained silence when he began describing how the layers of earth and ancient human waste concealed the shards of history, things tossed into the privy or accidentally lost.
The arrival of the main course would inspire the observation that usually he found evidence of what people in various strata of society dined on, in their petrified dung. Then he would casually mention he didn’t watch the telly, as he spent his evenings with his microscope, puzzling over samples.
Time passed, the world changed, and having been born and raised in a life of academia, Scroffy evolved with it. He rose to a high post at his university. He had a team of several young women and men who were as intrigued by the waste and garbage of the past as he was. The BBC made several documentaries on what his work digging up medieval privies had unearthed, and how our ancestors had really lived.
When Scrofulous was sixty-five, he received a letter from Maude’s solicitor informing him of his mother’s passing. He had inherited the house and her library, which, as a child, he was never allowed to touch.
After the funeral, he walked through Maude’s house, looking into rooms that seemed so large when he was a child.
Walking through each room, he saw his mother had found another cleaning person as deeply offended by dust and dirt as Nanny MacDuff. Every room smelled of furniture polish and gleamed in the light shed by windows so clean he had to look twice to see they were there.
The ancient tomes that were his mother’s closest companions seemed as much a mystery to him as she had been.
A book lay on Maude’s desk, with an envelope sticking out of the top as if marking a place. A pair of clean, white, cotton gloves lay beside it. He opened the book, seeing it was a first edition of a famous treatise on an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia. It was a book which he also had in his collection, albeit his was a later edition. Then he saw the envelope was addressed to him, from his mother.
“I never really knew you, as my work precluded everything else. Nevertheless, I have always been pleased you were successful in your career. But whatever you do, wear gloves when you handle the pages of these books.”
Scroffy reflected that even in death Maude cared more for her books than her son. Yet, the scientist in him realized she must have left something behind for him to dig up about his own history, and he intended to discover it.
He looked down at the book in which he had found the note. The author had been one of his professors, a solitary man obsessed with antiquities, and who only came to life when discussing some of his more obscure finds. He’d learned a great deal from him, finding a kindred spirit when it came to unearthing the past.
He wondered why Maude had chosen that book, when she had been a scholar of Roman literature, and inherently unable to discuss anything else. He sat down suddenly, his knees giving way under the realization she had chosen the only way she knew to tell him something important, something she had withheld from him for all those years.
Nanny’s words came back to him, about little boys having dirty fingers. He was aware of how little had changed, that he was in actuality a dirty old man, due in part to his advanced age, but mostly to his profession. Accordingly, he drew on the white gloves and opened his mother’s desk. He pored through his mother’s papers, physician’s instructions, tax returns, payroll receipts–being who she was, Maude had been unable to dispose of any. She had kept everything, but had filed them as neatly as she had kept her library. He searched and sorted until he came to the year prior to his birth.
The light had begun to fade when he refiled his mothers papers as neatly she had originally, and shut the drawer. For a long while, he sat in his late mother’s study, staring into the gloom, thinking.
Having met both his mother and his father, and found them to be exceptionally solitary people, he concluded that his existence could only be explained as a miracle. And while, as a boy, he’d often wished for a less arduous name to explain to new acquaintances, he was terribly glad his mother hadn’t named him after his father.
If ‘Scrofulous Mudd’ had been the cause of the occasional fist fight at school, he suspected Hamza Pigg Jr. wouldn’t have been any easier.
Scrofulous Mudd © Connie J. Jasperson 2016, All Rights Reserved