A Moral Victory

Afternoons Mason fishes from the crest of Meadow Haven. By three he has completed his school work, said his afternoon prayers, done his part to advance the mission by e-mailing potential converts from the database. He can enjoy some rest and relaxation. As far as he knows, God is not opposed to bass fishing. Mason knows he is not the son of nature, since that would consist of some kind of twisted paganism. He is the son of God’s son. Surely Lord won’t mind if he dangles a nylon line in the water. Mason knows from his lessons that nature is ours for the making. Mason is filled with certainty. Though Mason hasn’t caught anything yet, persistence is a virtue. A fish drawn from the lake would be something like a moral victory.

Dangling his legs between the steel fence, Mason casts his line far below to the surface of the lake. Mason knows that next year, when he’s sixteen, he may lose interest in such things—especially if his parents permit him to acquire his driver’s license. Temptation may breed a change of heart, of soul. This is not a guarantee by a long stretch. But still. It is enough that his parents let him go fishing “out there” in the secular world. So much of Mason’s life is circumscribed, pinched into 510 Daisy Drive. Though he has met a handful of the neighboring kids, Mason feels they have little in common with him. Mason considers himself open-minded, but the ubiquitous agnostic world-view is as alien to him as any imaginable. He understands home-schooled children, but the “publics” are a whole different breed.

As his line dangles in the muddy pond below, Mason closes his eyes. Though he must fend off unsacred thoughts on a daily basis, Mason is not immune to them. Occasionally Mason succumbs to them, though he tends to push those incidences off to the side. Still, Mason has purposefully imagined sordid acts, and on several occasions late at night Mason has even allowed such thoughts to infiltrate his mind to such a degree that he was forced to take matters into his own hands. It is Nature’s fault, Mason knows. Corruption of the corporeal.

Mason closes his eyes. He holds the rod gently in his hands. The grass by the fence tickles his legs and the scent of pine cones and clover and lilac overwhelm him, and Mason curls his legs around the fence and allows his back to recline into the cool bed of grass. Even this is forbidden by his parents. “Nature is a seductress,” his mother says. “Rest your faith in the glory of God.”

A better seductress would be J. Lo, Mason thinks. Or Beyonce and J. Lo intertwined, skin on skin, limbs on limbs, bosoms, lips, hair flowing. Mason tries not to use the Internet for evil devices, but at times when his mother is upstairs, occupied with her baking or folding laundry, he can’t help himself. So many seductions, so little time to indulge in them. Though he is filled with shame, Mason sometimes wonders how anything so pleasure-filled could be shameful.

Immersed in fantasy, Mason feels a sudden tug on the end of his fishing line. He lifts himself from the grass, slightly dizzy from the head-rush, and Mason reels in the line. It is quite heavy and Mason can feel movement at the end of it. He leans back and uses his feet as leverage against the fence. He reels for some time.

When at last Mason pulls the line through the fence he can see he has not caught a fish at all. Rather, a small turtle. The turtle has apparently swallowed the hook whole and a line of blood dribbles from its mouth. It seems unable to breathe.

Mason is not sure how the Bible instructs him to act in such a case. He knows he should be merciful, but how? What kind of mercy should he show? Mason watches the eyes of the turtle in clear agony. He lays the fishing rod in the grass, allowing the turtle to at least rest its hard shell on the ground as it bleeds. This is not what Mason expected.

Mason can’t bear the sight of an animal in such excruciating pain. Mason closes his eyes and stomps his foot down on the animal’s protruding neck. Hard. He does this three times—this gives Mason no pleasure at all. The turtle attempts to withdraw his neck, but it is too late. Still seeing the animal writhe, he stomps five more times, harder. Mason wipes his bloody sneakers on the grass, looking around to see if any one saw him. Removing his pocket knife, Mason cuts the fishing line and lifts the lifeless body of the turtle.

Mason doesn’t know if he did the right thing, and he doesn’t know if turtles can actually rise to heaven (Mason wonders: does a turtle have a soul?). He offers a small prayer for the turtle anyway: “All-powerful and merciful God, we commend to you, turtle, your servant. In your mercy and love, blot out all the sins he has committed through turtle weakness. In this world he has died: let him live with you for ever. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”

Mason looks at the ropey neck as it dangles from the turtle’s shell. Mason drops the body below and watches it splash into the muddy water. Mason considers this a burial. Mason hopes the body sinks right away, but instead it floats. It floats until Mason can’t stand to look anymore. His hands are wrapped around the fence posts. Mason lifts the fishing rod and tosses it down the embankment as well. Mason doesn’t watch to see where it lands. He turns his back on the grass, the pond, and the floating turtle and walks away to prayer, to hearth and home.

Nathan Leslie’s six books of fiction include Madre, Reverse Negative, Believers and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection (2009). His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, Baltimore Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books). He has also written for The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and O.C. Weekly. For the past five years Nathan has served as the fiction editor at Pedestal Magazine. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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