Oowama loved mud. As large as a school bus, though many times longer, the giant worm swam and played along the muddy lakes and streams. Only when he grew tired did he slither out to curl up along a flat rocky bed. There, he basked in the sunlight or slumbered in the moonlight. Even then, the sweet smell of soil lingered nearby.
Oowama could think of no greater paradise than his beloved Mud Lands.
One day, Oowama swam upon a delightful surprise by the edge of the Mud Lands. A long branch stuck out from the neighboring Forest of Harmony. Though his home was filled with all types of mud roots, those sweet leaves were a rare treat. He squirmed up to the muddy bank, lifted his long neck, and nibbled away. The nibbles turned to bites; the bites turned to large chomps.
Half of the tree was bare of leaves when the wolf emerged from behind. He had silver fur and piercing blue eyes. His head was tilted up as his teeth glimmered in the sun.
Though Oowama dwarfed the wolf, those sharp teeth and his angry growl made Oowama feel very, very small.
"What do you offer us in exchange?" the wolf asked.
"What do you mean?" Oowama said. Oowama retreated from the tree and dipped his chin back into the mud.
The wolf skipped back as mud splashed up. "You flop around all day," he said, "only to eat of the forest? What do you give us in return for our leaves?"
When Oowama didn't answer, the wolf lifted a paw and gestured out to the Mud Lands beyond. "Tell me, worm: what good comes out of your dirty, mud-filled trekking?"
Oowama craned his head to the sprawling pools of mud. "It's fun," he said. "You've never played in the mud?"
"Never." The wolf flashed his teeth.
Oowama could not help but shiver, a shiver that raced down his long, long body.
"Until you have something useful to do for this world," the wolf said, "stay away from our leaves." The wolf snarled, then disappeared between a pair of trees.
Oowama coiled back. Without the wolf's steely gaze, his anger at last flooded out. How dare the wolf say he was of no use? There would be no Mud Lands without Oowama to mix the mud all day long.
But... there was nobody in the Mud Lands except for Oowama. Would it matter if the Mud Lands dried up? Oowama knew he wasn't a selfish worm who only cared about himself. Yet, he could not help but wonder: what did he do for others?
The worm crawled to a rocky outcropping. Tired and heavy, he collapsed in a coil. Nonetheless, it took a long time for sleep to hold.
The next day, he splashed, played, spiraled, twisted, curled, flopped, then drew to a stop. The joy of his swims had turned sour. Even the mud did not smell quite as sweet to him. All thanks to the words of the wolf.
A single question lingered in place of all the fun Oowama once had. What good was he doing for the world?
With a sigh, Oowama swam back to where the Mud Lands met the Forest of Harmony. If the Mud Lands offered him neither joy nor purpose, maybe the forest would.
The trees were clumped together tight, and even when he found a gap wide enough to squeeze through, he still needed to thread and wiggle around to navigate the forest. Even worse, the forest was littered with bushes, rocks, and branches that scratched and poked him as he passed by.
Despite the discomfort, Oowama searched for ways to help others. He pruned trees, but for every dead branch he cleared, two live ones were knocked off as well. He yanked out choking vines, only to uproot the plants with them.
He used his large body to loop around a cluster of young saplings. For a while, they were safe from gusts of wind and prowling animals. However, when Oowama let out a hefty sneeze, he rolled right over and crushed the whole lot of plants.
Oowama groaned. What good was a mud worm in a forest?
The answer revealed itself as he looked over his shoulder. A long, dirt pathway snaked behind him, back from where he first entered the forest.
He turned to an owl perched in a nearby tree. Her neck had slowly swiveled as her black eyes followed Oowama's progress.
With a smile, he said, "Aren't I doing a good job of paving a path?"
"A path of destruction," the owl said as she ruffled her wings. "Many forest creatures once lived in the bushes you flattened and rocks that you've cast aside." She took flight and disappeared behind the canopy of trees.
Oowama wilted, for he had no idea how he could possibly help the forest. "Doesn't anyone want my help?"
Even the bustling bugs and skittering squirrels froze, for they did not want their scurries to be seen as a call for help. Oowama, eyes shut, waited for a small peep in the forest, even just one voice who could use him. It never came.
When he woke up the next morning, small vines had crawled into the folds of his flesh and now held him in place. It would've been easy to break free. But why bother? He had no use, not here and not in the Mud Lands. In time, the vines would hide him. Then, even if he couldn't help, he'd stay out of everyone's way. Though it was still morning, he shut his eyes once more and soon fell into a deep sleep. One week passed, followed by another.
The vines continued to grow, a vest of green that tightened with each passing day.
He awoke to the rough paw that scraped his cheek. Oowama's eyes lazily drifted open to see the wolf with silver fur seated before him, blue eyes darkened under a gray sky.
"Worm," the wolf growled. "The forest is in danger."
"Oh." Oowama was too weak for much else. His eyes shut once more.
But the wolf pawed at him again. With a growl deep from his throat, he said, "We need your help, mud worm."
Oowama was so tired; he could not even work up a scowl. "You'll find better help elsewhere," Oowama said. "Let me sleep. Otherwise, I'll just bother someone else." He let out a large yawn and already started to doze off…
"It's not about the forest," the wolf said. "It's about the Mud Lands."
Oowama's eyes fluttered wide open. One does not quickly forget their home. "What of it?"
"With nobody to stir the mud, the Mud Lands dry up. With no water trickling from the Mud Lands, our forest begins to wither." The wolf scratched a paw along the dirt. "You must return to the Mud Lands and stir the mud again. Our time runs short before it completely dries up, and all of our homes are lost."
The thought of returning home brought a feeling of warmth he hadn't felt since- well, since before he met the wolf.
Oowama tried to squirm forward, but the vines clung tight to him. He shook and shimmied, but from weeks without eating, he was too weak to break loose. "I can't," Oowama said. Already, the mud worm felt his eyes growing heavy. For if he could not free himself from the vines, what else could he do but sleep?
The wolf stalked along the side of Oowama, scraped at the vines to reveal a patch of Oowama's skin. "We shall help you," the wolf said and let out a howl.
As it pierced the air, lumbering bears and flapping sparrows of many colors charged in to pick, pluck, and scratch at the vines. Before long, the worm was free once more.
Though the weeks without eating left him weak, he was also smaller, thinner, and could navigate the forest with greater ease. More than this, the mere thought of returning home pushed Oowama faster than he imagined possible. It did not take long to follow the wolf onto the face of his beloved Mud Lands.
Or what once was the Mud Lands. Rough, cracked soil filled a wide expanse. Clumps of brown weeds, nothing like his mud roots, dotted the landscape. The air was parched, missing all the humidity and sweetness. The hard dirt that scraped upon his stomach was painful, but the sight of his dying home hurt even more.
Oowama followed the wolf to where a group of creatures huddled around the last remaining soft spot. Tigers, bears, squirrels, and birds all fled as Oowama rushed forward. He knew time drew short, and with a mighty leap, Oowama aimed himself for the hole-
But the mud did not yield easily. He pushed and squirmed, but his weariness was too great. He simply could not break through.
He rolled from the hole, exhausted. "I can't do it," Oowama said. And though Oowama saw the fear that shrouded the wolf and the other forest creatures, that alone wasn't enough to energize Oowama. The worm was simply too weak. "I just can't," Oowama whispered. For what he believed to be the last time, Oowama gazed across the dying Mud Lands, then shut his eyes once more.
But a paw, followed by the nuzzle of a nose, kept him from sleeping.
Oowama cracked his eyes open a sliver, a sliver which quickly widened.
For as the wolf stepped back, his silver snout pushed forward a single branch filled with the long, green leaves. "Please," the wolf said. "We need you, Oowama."
With his last bit of energy, Oowama inched forward. He took a bite from the branch, swallowed.
Not a wing rustled, nor a paw shifted, as the creatures of the forest waited, breath held. Even the wind did not blow.
And then a warm laugh filled the Mud Lands. Fast as a dart, Oowama sprang forward. He snatched the branch up, gulped it down in one crunch. He shuddered in delight before twisting back towards the final opening to the mud. He leapt twice as high as before, and then he threw himself at the opening. Like butter, the mud parted before Oowama's newfound strength.
And at last, Oowama returned to paradise. The mud soothed him, healed him as it filled the many cuts and holes accumulated from the forest. The warmth of the mud never felt so right. It was a blanket that warmed him and snuggled up tight.
The mud bubbled with Oowama's laughter. It was good to be home.
He reached the depths of the gooey slop before rocketing back to the surface. Round and round, he wound his way through, spiraling up and burrowing back down. Bit by bit, the mud softened. Even with the energy of the leaves, it was hard, tiring work. Nonetheless, Oowama also knew it was exactly what he was meant to do. For, at last, he had a mission, one that he was uniquely suited for.
He was so successful that, as he emerged to crumble up another piece of dirt, he stumbled upon the wolf who had slipped into the mud. With a rumbling laugh, Oowama lifted the flailing wolf back onto solid ground before Oowama disappeared back down.
An hour later, he emerged to a warm blue sky. Much to Oowama's surprise, the still-muddy wolf and his fellow forest inhabitants gathered in a circle around the muddy opening. An even greater surprise sat nearby: a pile of branches filled with large juicy leaves.
Oowama pounced upon them. Somehow, they tasted even sweeter than the first branch.
Only when the wolf spoke a few minutes later did Oowama pause from his feast.
"Oowama. Already the rotting plants of the forest have perked up." The wolf gestured across the distant dirt landscape, then bowed his head. "We are indebted to you, for you have saved our home."
All around, the bears, panthers, tigers, sparrows, owls, squirrels, and even the bugs cupped their paws, wings, and spindly legs together in gratitude for the hero they never truly appreciated.
Patches of red touched the worm's cheeks.
The wolf lingered by Oowama; his head bowed low as if sniffing a particularly interesting chunk of dirt. He let out a long sigh before he looked once more at the worm. "I'm sorry," he said in a low purr, "for taking you from your home. For not appreciating all you've done and given us."
"I forgive you," Oowama said. "Only with your help could I see how much I can give to the world." Oowama said help – for though the wolf was cruel at first, goodness came of it in the end.
But still, the wolf remained by the worm. Almost shyly, he said, "And when you are done eating," the wolf said, "would you perhaps… be willing to take me down into the mud again? I've not had such fun before in my lifetime."
Oowama laughed. With a final crunch of leaves, he scooped the wolf up with his tail and made his way for the mud hole. Other creatures grabbed on and, before long, they were all spinning and swimming and dancing together in the heart of the Mud Lands.
Over the coming weeks, with the help of the other animals, it did not take long for the rest of the surface to soften, the Mud Lands muddy once more. With it, a true harmony fell upon the Forest of Harmony and the Mud Lands beyond. Not only did the creatures all have a unique role to play in its upkeep, but they also had a place for fun.