Mark McClure


A MISSIONARY MAN


"Dammit, Dammit!" Jessup Hill cried out the words, surprised and angry that he’d been so careless. His injured hand cut the air in a series of wild, instinctive arcs, splattering drops of brick-red blood across his face and neck. He paused after a moment, his face contorted as he wiped blood from the mangled fingers. It left a long, greasy streak down one side of his dusty pants. After several swipes enough blood had been wiped away that he was able to look more closely at the wound.

"Got me good. Damn" he said, a bit more quietly this time. Jessup scrambled up the creek bank. His feet pawed at the loose dirt as he fought to maintain his balance, his dripping right hand held protectively at an awkward angle. At the top, a dozen feet or so above the creek, he bent, pushed his cap back from his forehead and concentrated on the dark recess of weeds and rotting timber the big snapping turtle had been hiding beneath.

A hot mid-morning sun was angling it’s way past the low hills that flanked his property and the warm rays cast long, dangling fingers of light into the water. It had begun as a fine morning, everything sweet and green and as familiar as it had always been. The flat expanse of his land was carpeted with thick grass and the incomparable earthy smell of cut hay. The creek was low, the day hotter than most—probably, he thought, a sign of what the summer was going to deliver in full force later that month. In an uncharacteristic moment he had sat down and enjoyed a break from the heat. There, in the shade by the creek, with his back to sixty acres of land he owned free and clear, Jessup had felt at peace.

How long had it lasted? Five minutes? Maybe less. Then he’d seen the turtle.

It later struck him as typical, expected—although he had been genuinely surprised when the big snapper had first shown itself on the creek’s edge. It had been that initial shock and his uncontained eagerness that had provoked his wild, frantic approach through the shallow water. His intention had been simply to get a closer look at such a specimen and it was pride, not anger, that had been sparked by the thought of such a large turtle occupying his stretch of the creek. Snapping turtles were common enough for the area but his one was big, bigger by far than anything he had ever seen anywhere else.

Jessup narrowed his gaze into the murky water. Had he spooked it?

If he had there wouldn’t be any sense in running the quarter mile back to his place for the pike—once the turtle got moving he could easily lose it in the thick cloud of silt and muck his hasty retreat from the water’s edge had stirred up.

"Where are you, you big fucker?"

Jessup smiled coldly. It seemed for the moment his intrusion had not been enough to dislodge the large snapper from beneath the bank.

That was good.

That meant he could take his time, get some ice and a bandage on his hand—maybe even a pull from his bottle in the garage while he was at it—and come back better prepared.

He moved back from the bank, whistled a low gasp through clenched teeth and sat straddling a rock. The turtles hooked beak had ripped a jagged tear through his right index finger and thumb. The blood had slowed to a steady drip that pulsed with each labored breath he took. It was beginning to swell and Jessup thought that a quick soak in the cold water might do it some good. He stood up, a bit dizzy and moved a few steps, then paused—suddenly unsure. The creek flowed slowly this time of year and the dark, muddy water was taking some time to clear. He couldn’t bring himself to climb back down and wet his already mangled fingers without being certain the turtle had moved back beneath the bank. It was silly, he thought, to wonder if it had bit him on purpose and even more so to believe it might be waiting for a chance to finish the job, but one look at the clouded surface was enough for him to stop and cast a nervous glance up and down the stream. To his right, the bank dropped sharply in an almost vertical plunge directly into the water—so, that way was out of the question. To his left, the clouded mess raised in his hurried pursuit of the turtle drifted in a wide, steady flow downstream. Jessup raised his injured hand above his head and waited for both the blood to stop flowing and the creek water to clear; when more than five minutes passed with no sign of either happening, he turned and began the slow walk back home.

The path back to the yard was dark; shadowy foliage hung along its edge and the air was stale with mildewed earth. Now and then, at long intervals, there stretched across his path a bright bar of light where the sunshine fell through a gap in the thick leaves. The moist heat was doing little to ease Jessup’s foul mood. He pressed his injured hand against the fold of his stomach where it pulsed and throbbed. He had wrapped it loosely in the wet confines of his dirty T-shirt – unable to dip his hand into the creek again, but willing to venture close enough for that, if nothing else.

Jessup passed beneath a break in the trees and stepped into the sun. He was a big man, stripped to the waist, overalls knotted about his thick hips by the suspender straps, his upper body bare except for the handkerchief wrapped in a tight noose about his neck and a dingy-green baseball cap perched precariously over his right ear. The sun moved behind a single cloud and in the deepening light everything took on an unfamiliar, somewhat sinister, air.

His son Dean had gone down into town earlier that morning, using Jessup’s truck for the errand. It was still early enough that it might be some time before his return. The thought of his long walk back to the house followed by a considerable wait for the use of his truck caused the already dangerous expression on his face to turn and darken. It wasn’t logical, to be angry with his son for an errand he himself had told him to perform—and there was no chance Dean might be goofing off to prolong the trip. Jessup had been perfectly clear with him when he’d left—Dean was to buy items from the short list his father had pushed into his hand along with two crumpled tens and a mixture of loose change.

Moving gingerly along, Jessup considered the turtle. He remembered reading somewhere—most likely while waiting for a haircut in town and almost certainly from one of two publications, Readers Digest or Field and Stream (the only two magazines Jessup considered worth a shit)—that a big snapping turtle will fight if cornered. Jessup had laughed out loud as the author of the article explained how at some point the big snappers realized they didn’t always have to tuck inside their shells at the first sign of trouble. Eventually, they realized that whatever might be bothering them at the time wasn’t so frightening after all. Well, maybe that magazine had been right all along.

It was cooler, the sun somewhat covered by the passing clouds that had moved in during the walk back to the yard. Jessup felt a blessed sense of relief from the languid breeze. It was hard to make sense of how he was feeling in the heat, but now the weak pallor of light thrown across the hard clay of the yard made him feel like it wasn’t even daytime anymore. The wind picked up a bit, rustling through the yard and banging a faded sign against its posts. It read: Jessup Hill, owner.

"That’s right," he said. It was a tired and sad sound that sent its hollow echo around the neglected and empty space. Time had moved on and nothing had changed. He was still here. When he had neared the fence coming back from the creek he could see through the warped planks and missing slats the long rows of mangled autos, each one dropped there carefully with purpose, with order. They looked less familiar, the shadowed confines beneath each twisted, rusting carcass more sinister, alien and not his own. If he had to stand with his back turned to those forms as day turned slowly to night, with the shadows growing longer as they stretched out across the clay in a crooked claw toward the shed…well, he was tired of thinking it through.

The clouds thinned and sunlight pushed at the shadows. It made it easier to ignore the sounds he imagined growing at the edges of the yard. Now, and he supposed it was sometime past three, he leaned back against the fence and the wood groaned heavily. It was small sound, pitiful and quickly swallowed in the silence that followed.

Jessup looked out, past the neat lines of wrecked and rusting cars, the mixed heaps of metal and wood, across the width and breadth of his life’s work. Time was running out; the turtle couldn't wait. He began to shuffle across the yard. The wind had died, leaving little more than a faint breeze that kicked up a lonely dust devil. It danced a brief, pathetic spin across the clay as he reached the shed and stepped inside.

The pike was there; right where he had guessed it would be—hanging on two ten-penny nails above his workbench. He paused and took a drink of water from a gallon jug sitting on a stool. It was cool, but tepid, metallic and he wondered how long ago it had been placed there. Jessup hadn’t spent much time in his woodshop, or even cared to think about anything but running the salvage yard, since Elizabeth had left them. That’s how he always thought of it, too—since she left ‘them’. It was easier that way, in those rare and brief moments when he did consider his wife, although he knew it was him, and only him, she had grown to despise.

Still, it felt good—cool—inside the shed, and the feel of the pike was comforting. He could sense the deadly purpose and utility in its weight, the simple, brutal nature of its design. Jessup moved to the single, grimy window and stood for a moment looking out. The sun cast a muted glare onto the hardpacked clay of the yard; more than ten thousand square feet of fenced in junk, worthless wrecks of smashed autos, rotted wood and rusted appliances. Why did he even bother? The simple plank wall that comprised his fence was warped and bent with time and he could see straight through it in places, out into the fields that grew wild and untilled, down the dry road that fewer cars passed along each day. The roses his wife had grown in a wild riot all along that side of the house had died or been cleared away, but the sun—the sun still fell in an even, soft expanse of light just as he’d remembered. He turned back and faced the darkness of the shed. The shadows had gathered again, painting the interior a pale gray gloom.

Jessup stepped from the dark cave of the shed and tried to flex the twisted fingers of his injured hand. "Fuck a duck!" he cried, bent again with the pain and more angry than ever. He stayed like that, with one large, big-knuckled fist pressed squarely against his thigh, and waited for it to subside. When it was done, and he felt like he could continue, Jessup began moving toward the creek.

He wondered about her more these days, spending the quiet, lonesome time recalling the moments he’d hurried past and the words he’d left unsaid. One image in particular kept returning: Elizabeth alone in their room, one hot afternoon, listlessly drawing a brush through the strands of the long, silky brown hair that hung about her shoulders. "What are you doing that for?" he’d asked, surprising them both with the question. "It’ll only need fixing again tonight, and then again tomorrow."

She looked at him hard, and it was that image—the one time he saw himself through her eyes—that remained with him on this day.

Jessup walked back to the creek then, warily, climbed back down to where he’d last seen the big snapper. He eased up next to the shallow water, senses alert—drawn to the spot with a magnetic attraction, the pull palpable and stronger than any sense of fear or caution his earlier encounter might have suggested. The turtle was there, tucked into the space between the water and a small sandy ledge, hovering inches above the lazy current. It turned its head in a lazy arc and slowly drew its long neck from beneath its shell. It fixed him beneath the cold stare of two shining, glass eyes no bigger than a nail’s head. He watched them, dead and unblinking, as the hooked line of the snapper’s jaw worked itself slowly open and shut, open and shut.

The turtle was bigger than his first, panicked glimpse would have led him to believe and his excitement swelled. The mottled green and brown shell was stretched across the small cave; he guessed it to be more than three feet long. It was split square down the middle by a spiny ridge worn slick and smooth by time and the steady current of the creek. The image jarred his memory and the one occasion he had seen a turtle anywhere near this size—a pet kept in a children’s swimming pool by a man named Red Smith. Jessup had been picking up the rotted carcass of a neighbor’s septic tank when a man standing across the way called him over to a high, rickety fence. The two had exchanged some small talk, vague pleasantries, and then Red had suddenly asked if he liked turtles.

Jessup just shrugged, but leaned in after a moment and looked across the fence into a filthy, scum-lined tank—and into that same dead-eyed stare. It had been the biggest turtle he’d ever seen, the biggest, that was, until now. Red had proceeded to swear up and down he’d picked it out of a bass pond less than a mile from where they were standing, and not less than five years earlier. He had guessed it to be close to four when he’d first dropped it into his kid’s pool...he said they fed it dog food. If that turtle had been close to ten (it was more likely half that age, Jessup could tell that Red was a serious shit talker) then Jessup could only guess at what age this one might be…ten, fifteen years old? He wasn’t even sure that was possible, still—it had surely been alive a very long time. Probably spent most of its life right here on his property, growing slowly larger—and meaner, too, while Jessup went about his business unaware.

Jessup waded into the cold water, bent low, and stared down into the dark cavity. He could see the wet shine of the snapper’s shell, could see the rough bunches of callused skin pushed out in tight folds behind its neck and feet. It seemed to him there was some strange, dangerous beauty in this turtle that might serve as a reminder of what he’d been through (and mostly, he thought with a bitter smile, what other people had put him through) and maybe, just maybe—some hint of a way out.

Jessup hadn’t always felt like such a bastard. He hadn’t believed himself mean-spirited or even intolerant, at least not on the inside. He just regarded himself as Jessup Hill; a decent man, hardworking and honest, but more importantly the last person on earth you’d ever want to cross. He did have a temper, that was no great secret—but he only acted on it a small fraction of the time, usually without any serious incident, and always with some measure of self-restraint (Jessup had always known when to stop—and that was just before he found himself in any serious trouble).

But now he felt as if he’d unwittingly stuck his hand under another creek bank, one bordering a much larger, all-encompassing sort of river—and had come up on the seriously short end. It struck him as a pretty lousy way to live and the bitter feelings rolled up his throat in waves, crashing against his better judgement, soaking his sensibility with their icy caress—much like the cool water of the creek had begun to wet the thick leather of his work boots.

Jessup was soaked to the skin from the ankles down. He clapped his hands over his eyes, rubbed his forehead, dug at the thin hair. He crouched there while the fury and desperation built inside like a ticking bomb. He had begun to cry, the hoarse sounds too deep, too aged. The low rasping barks gave way as he let his arms sink slowly with a heavy sigh. He felt better...still, he could not shake the feeling. The image was too strong a presence in his mind, it hung there and he bit into it with relish, savoring its bitter sting and refusing to release its hold until the message had been well sent and received. Each moment brought him closer to a complete understanding of sticking his hand beneath this bank, deeper even than he imagined years ago. It was now far too long ago for him to change, or even remember exactly when and where it’d all begun, but that didn’t matter either. What mattered was his reaction at that moment must have been nearly as violent and unexpected as today’s. Could you be expected to behave like a thinking, kind human being when your hand was torn to the bone? Could you be expected to rationalize, sympathize, empathize when that hooked, dark maw rose out the murky water and arrowed it’s sleek profile straight at you? When those same sandy waters of your youth that had once seemed so curious, so inviting and full of promise turned violent and ill-tempered…was it so unreasonable to feel such a sense of bitter loss…and to rage and fume as each precious moment was being wrenched away?

Jessup didn’t think so.

He thought it was quite unreasonable to hold a man accountable for his actions under such circumstances. Unfair to judge his behavior, to count his merits, as he hopped about, up and down the bank, trying to stop that incessant throb and knowing (and this was almost worse than the injury itself) that the smallest misstep would send you spinning down onto the slippery rocks, crippled and bleeding for the current to wash away.

Jessup peeled back the folds of his T-shirt; first to reveal the sticky red layers of clothe and then, with a grimace, the mangled remains of his bloodied fingers. He held them there, invitingly, as the blood began to flow again—a slow drip he waved back and forth across the stream where it mixed with the waters.

He stayed like that while the shadows drew into tight bunches all around, and thoughts of his wife returned.

Elizabeth had not changed the thin white dress or the slippers she always wore. Her hair was uncovered despite the chill, and the sun's first rays brought a golden gleam from deep within its brown folds. She did not take the narrow, rutted road; she walked across the deserted field, where the wild grass bent delicately beneath her small feet and fell in a soft caress among the folds of her long skirt. His wife disappeared among the brush and willows that grew thick along the edge of the deep, shadowed forest; and she did not come back again.

In the woods around him an invisible chorus of crickets had begun; but what Jessup heard was the sound of her footsteps climbing up through the dew-frosted field and the rustle of her skirt against the long, wet grass.

He thought of his wife, his son and all that had happened. Jessup thought of all this and still, he held them there, unwavering, as the turtle moved closer.

* * *

copyright 2001 Mark McClure


Mark McClure is 33 years old and lives with his fiance and their two dogs in Boulder, Colorado. He has been writing fiction off and on for most of his life. Most of the stories he creates are from the horror genre and set in the backwoods of Appalachia—his childhood home. You can contact Mark at jenkaya@aol.com. "A Missionary Man" is his first published story.