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The quality of mercy.

The Quality of Mercy

The sky began to brighten in the north on that early-March day, as the roiled, greasy-gray clouds of the allnight storm began their retreat to the south and west.

We sloshed our way along the bank of the creek, "our creek' to us, a pair of ten-year-old males. We had decided on a tour of inspection of our holdings to see what damage the storm had wrought. And the creek was still there, still wandering its earnest, four-foot-wide way through the meadow, which was spongy underfoot with the gray-green, dead-alive promise of what would soon be grass. The rocks had not been harmed, we noted with satisfaction, and the pool beside the willow was still a pool, despite what must have been a temptation to go and join the sea. But the grass along the edges, and along the upper bank--the tough, fibrous evergreen grass that seemed to defy everything in its turn--was lying flat in its place, all tips pointed regimentally after the departing waters. So we were somewhat angry with the water, as a bully who destroys a myth.

But the overall loss was slight. Our creek was still alive and our plaything, and there were no other little boys to take it, and claim it, and mother it, and dam it with clods of tough, worm-filled sod and its own rocks. And there was none to pelt its muskrats and scare its minnows and trap its crawdads and capture its tadpoles. So we inspected --hermetically sealed in parkas and overshoes--sloshing through the drowned grass and rat-furred moss with the utter confidence of proprietorship.

We worked our way slowly, examining every inch, the way one does for hurt to valued property, while the excited air buffeted us with the first live messages of coming spring.

George found two marbles just below the gravelly spot beyond the willow pool, one chipped a little and the other polished by the sand and water to a better-than-new luster. I found a small earthenware jar with a clear, glazed finish and a kiln burn on the bottom side. I told George the jar was a remnant of the days when Indians used to camp along the banks of the creek. (I almost believed this to be true, and I wanted to.) George wondered who had lost the marbles. And great was our excitement and wonder that the creek was still as it had been, yet giving us new treasures, saved for years for some such special day as this.

And in the spot where the stream curved, and ate its way into the bank, where the red slash of clay towered upward for six feet above the trotting water and looked like red Swiss cheese--there were the muskrats, hiding in their daytime holes. With joyous whoops we attacked their sanctuary, hurling small rocks and stones toward the holes, around which the missiles of our last attack stuck in the mud like stone pickets. The savage satisfaction of the attack and the power, welling in our blood like rare narcotic, to do destruction to these small creatures always sank a little in our hearts when a stone would dart into the depths of one of the holes. Then there was no satisfying smack of rock on mud, but only an echo, which could have been the sound of murder, and bright-gem eyes in the dark narrowing in pain and going out without the sight of another dawn. So, saddened by the ultimate outcome, we broke off the attack until the next time, not knowing if we were murderers or not, but hoping not, with all the desire serious doubt can bring.

Then we were explorers along our new-old creek--La Salle, De Soto, Lewis and Clark, voyageurs with muskrat hides stalking the banks of the Mississippi and other, lesser streams, seeking cautious trade with Indians.

Until George discovered the fish, swimming weakly in the stream.

We squatted on our heels in the creek-bed gravel, watching the fish struggle in our mighty, six-inch-deep Mississippi as it tried to make its way upstream. It floundered on the shoals of flattened boulders, its back appearing above the water in its struggle. It was a carp, about ten inches long, and far too large for our stream. Evidently it had been washed down in the torrential night from a safe pool somewhere far away, perhaps beyond where the stream goes under the railroad tracks and disappears into the earth. Now it was trying to get home, upstream, from where it had come so easily the night before.

The tail that beat feebly upon the shallow water was split and ragged; scales were missing from its battered side, and somewhere in the middle of the fish there was a wound, where pinkish flesh hung tattered out beyond the skin. It rested now, in sheer exhaustion, every slight movement crying out that it was one more movement too many beyond the range of life's endurance.

We watched without a word as the tired fish learned of our presence and tried instinctively to dart away, but only wrenched its way into the shallows, where it fell on its side and was carried back by the stream into the pool by which we knelt.

Great was our concern for the trapped fish fighting hard for present life, mindless of a further soul, with the instinctive courage that man admires in himself, but tends to call bestial in the beast, and we searched about for means of rescue.

George found the bottom of a milk bottle, but that was too small; I discovered a small coffee can near the willow pool, but the bottom had rusted out. So we used my waterproof parka hood instead, bulging it full of muddy water, carefully scooping out the failing fish, and dropping it into the sodden hood. We began our march of mercy down the length of the creek and across the road, headed for the big pool in the bird sanctuary, where the water was 5 feet deep and 20 across. And as we walked, fast but gingerly, holding the water-filled hood like a suspended binnacle and staggering somewhat with the weight, some of the water slopped out and dampened our clothes; it began to leak slowly through the waterproof hood, leaving a damp trail along the paving as we hurried along the road toward the deep hole. And every spilled drop was blood, and every step nearer, life.

At last we came to the sanctuary and slipped past the chain-link fence where the fence had to stop for the bridge of the creek, and we slid down the worn trail to the bank of the pool. The fish was almost dead, and its back was above water again in the hood.

I lowered the hood into the shallow water at the edge of the pool, and as the edge of the hood fell away, the fish drifted out into the water, its fins moving feebly, but fast, lying on its side on the surface. We stood mutely in the mud and watched the fish fight for life again.

Its tail moved convulsively, and it moved forward several inches, turning almost upright with the motion. Several more times it did this, nearly turning upright every time until, at length, it was successful. Then, with its mouth taking great gulps of air from the surface and its gills moving in convulsions, the fish slowly swam around the pool, merely moving, for there was still no strength or purpose in it. And still we didn't speak, as the fish seemed to grow new strength before our eyes. It gulped and it thrashed its gills for five full minutes, as if cleansing out the putrefaction of near-death with the new oxygen-full water.

George flipped a small stone into the water, a few feet from where the fish rested. With a small swirl, the fish disappeared, and the eddies made by the stone and the fish rocked one another into submission in the small wooded pool.

As we stared after our success, glowing inwardly in our Samaritanism, George knew why I had snapped at him when he had asked, back when we first put the fish in the hood, if I were going to feed the fish to my cat.

At home, the soggy parka hood was hung up to dry by my mother, who thanked me with her voice for the gift of the earthenware jar and wondered in her mind just what it was that made boys do senseless things like throwing the tops of their parkas into the stream.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Pennell, H. Barrett, Jr.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1987
Previous Article:Life after "Dallas." (Susan Howard)
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