Despite the indomitable nature of many species, this cannot save them from the prodding lurk of man. Levi Compson understood this inequity as his family scouted over the Altamaha River—wading with sticks—prodding the shallows for Flathead catfish. That day, all the Compson boys were on the river with Levi, second in age, but last in prepotency. His father, Jed would always hold that title. Winston, the oldest brother, was the father’s second—retrieving beer and cleaning Jed’s Weatherby shotgun after Jed decided to fire a few rounds into the sky aiming for higher divinities but barely hitting cloud.
Dwayne was the youngest after Levi. He had successfully wrestled a 43-pound catfish from his hole the first time they made the trip from Bradfordville, crossing the Florida-Georgia state line up US-319. The boy didn’t even wait for his spotters. He stuck his foot in the hole ripping the fish up by the gills screaming obscenities, perking up infernal ears. They celebrated that night with Jed gutting the fish, slathering the cat in batter for a deep fry. Olivia, the mother, insisted they use plates but Jed wanted the fry traditional.
“Can’t have no fish fry with plates,” Jed said gulping a bottle of E&J brandy. “Just eat it off newspaper. Makes it easy for sharing.” He handed the bottle to Bobby Lee, the cousin who would drink his mind coarse and his stomach rotten right along with Jed. Only Bobby didn’t get angry when he was drunk.
The family sat around their small home in Bradfordville, a small town crested up against the line dividing Florida from the rest of the country. The Compson’s house was persimmon orange; but after a few decades of sun, you could barely tell the house was painted underneath the mold. Levi always felt closest with his mom. Although he didn’t have the same Catholic sensibilities that governed Olivia, he shared her gentleness. The boy liked bowling and would read after Mass on Sundays hiding from his brothers and cousin who always wanted to hunt or go mudding—loud activities that scattered the animals and left the land brittle.
“You got no brimstone in your gut,” Jed would say to his second oldest. “No fire.”
Levi moved slowly, his feet in the mud, expelling gas from the rotting vegetation below which bubbled up into his nostrils from the tea-colored river. He was wearing thin black tube socks, the kind the Compsons called ‘church socks.’ The socks were protection from the sandpaper teeth of the catfish. Dwayne was up ahead—he had already caught two cats on this trip—poking along the mud bank whenever he saw downed logs, feeling for the virulent flatheads. The fish defended their holes where eggs lay in the back with ferocity. Levi had a stick too, half-heartedly poking downward at the bank wishing he wasn’t wading in the murky river.
“Got one,” Dwayne called from ahead. “Big one, daddy come look! Winnie, you gon’ drag this one out?”
“This one’s Levi’s,” said Jed; “He ain’t caught one yet this trip and it’s time he wrestled out a big one for the fry.” The boys obeyed. Levi poked his stick beneath the water exploring the lair, trying to visualize the hole—understand the dimensions—ready himself for the submerged wrangling. His stick hit something. From the feel of the resistance Levi knew it was a catfish—not a snake or a gator. The fish jolted but Levi could only guess at the cat’s size. The hole was big.
“Get down on in there and watch them gills boy,” Winston said.
“Winnie, shut the hell up and let your brother do it,” Jed said; “Go on Levi. Stick your hand inside and remember when he bites down, shoot your left hand across his head and grab for the gill plate. Don’t go deep. That’s where it’s sharp. With your right hand grab his jaw and pull. When he’s out that hole. Lock him with your legs.”
Levi had managed three separate trips to Altamaha managing to never wrestle a catfish, making himself sparse whenever Dwayne or Winston found a hole. Levi would hang back and watch the water churn, fresh mud permeating the already brown water, his brother’s gripping a catfish the size of their chest, dragging it from the river onto the mudbank.
Without an escape, Levi shifted closer to the hole—its concave roof extending above the water. He took a deep breath and went under sticking his hand inside. What felt like a giant blunt mouse trap snapped, clamping down over his wrist. The cat rolled—its grip taking Levi, his legs sticking up from the river, his head in the hole like a drowned terrier.
The Compson family was seated in the first row with Jed furthest in the pew, followed by Winston, then Dwayne—Levi and Olivia at the flank. Levi’s baptism would be the last item on the pastor’s agenda—let the audience walk out with an ardent finale. Levi was the first to be baptized and would soon join the pastor in a pool, fully clothed where he would be dunked—atoned for his sins.
“Our scripture reading this morning will be from the book of Job,” said the pastor, a sturdy man with a storyteller’s voice—brazen, full of whimsy.
Levi looked up at the crucifix which hung menacingly from the arch in the sanctuary of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church. Painted blood dripped from the stigmata points, the feet of Christ, the gash where the Holy Lance pierced Jesus’ side when the Romans found themselves impatient on the Cavalry. The ceramic statue had pasty skin, an exaggerated look of mazarine anguish on the crucifixes’ eyes. The messiah stared down at the congregation below looking synthetic, manufactured like an amusement park decoration. Or a doll.
Levi was Olivia’s firstborn. He and Dwayne were her own but Winston was from Jed’s first woman. Baptizing had been a point of contention for the Compson house in the early years. The Sunday ritual was Olivia’s rule and kept her happy. Just as the rule that Jed had to keep his alcohol under control until after dinner. These simple rules kept the Compsons from each other’s jugulars. Jed swung the pendulum between a devout man who read the scripture and sang the hymns while other times he would drink so much he pissed himself. For years, Levi watched his father drink to a stupor. Still, Jed was cleanly shaven the next morning—munching on bacon before they left for Mass.
Jed never had a particularly good reason for not wanting the boys to get baptized. Winston hadn’t even attended a service until Olivia was drawn into the picture four years into the oldest boy’s life. Another 12 years before any of the Compsons would take part in the Baptismal Service. Levi was chosen because he would not argue. He would go gently into the deep pool below the plaster crucifix where Jesus was pinned to the cross like a sticky note.
Winston held the quarter is his mouth after guzzling down the Genesee Cream Ale before spitting the coin back down on the table with a metallic ping. Suds foamed down from the side of his mouth. He wiped them off with the tail of his sleeveless shirt. The boys were playing quarters at the time when the sun was at its highest in the sky. The panhandle heat beat down on them inside the tin shed. School wouldn’t begin for another few weeks leaving the Compson boys with simple pastimes. Bobby Lee, the only one of age supplied the Genesee. The quarters were scrounged from crevices.
The four boys stood in a circle in their father’s shed taking turns bouncing the quarter into a pint glass, halfway filled with sudsy ale. If the quarter landed in the glass, the one who bounced it chose who would drink next. The smell of burps filled the shed. Dwayne picked up the quarter, expertly bouncing the coin, letting it slide off the tip of his thumb so that it spun through the air landing right in the middle of the pint—splashing beer over the four boys, already sticky from the heat, letting beer drizzle from their mouths unable to finish a whole chug.
“Winnie,” he said. “You go again.”
“I just went. Make Bobby go!”
“Ain’t no challenge for me. I been drinkin’ my whole life.” Bobby Lee picked up the glass pint, tilted his head, guzzling the suds back in a few quick gulps. As he set down the glass, he burped so erratically his eyes crossed. The boys howled with laughter; “Who next?”
“Levi your turn.” Levi was already full of beer and he waited anxiously for the feeling of having to relieve himself so that he could make room for more. He feared there would be no more room left if he had to chug again and the beer would occupy the space in his throat, sit right there in his esophagus. Levi picked up the quarter and missed.
Bobby Lee was next up, sinking the quarter with repose. Levi watched as the quarter swerved to the bottom of the glass—the carbonation forcing it through an oblong path, “Levi your name on this one.” The boy took the beer already knowing there was no room left. He was already dizzy, wanting to lie down but knew no matter what position he was in, the room would spin and he would grip his pillow, pull his knees to his chest until he would have to run to the bathroom. Levi took the pint in his hand and began the laborious chug, willing each swallow to pass to his stomach. Levi’s mind was stronger than his body.
Once Levi started vomiting, he couldn’t stop. Not until the jettison bile was nothing but froth in the corners of his mouth. He could hear his brothers laughing as he hawked and spat. His brother’s laughter billowed in his mind, surrounding him. Ashamed he went to his room to close the door—block out their jeering.
The catfish thrashed like a fighter jet caught in a downward spiral—rolling over and jerking its head with Levi’s hand gripped tight in its jaw. The boy had been underwater for a while now trying to get his left hand to find the slit in the fish’s side where he could grip the gill plate. His right arm burned with exhaustion, but his lungs burned with more ache. The boy went up for air. Levi was surprised by the shallowness of the churning water as he stood. The fish was monstrous. Half its body still submerged in its hole—the cat’s frayed tail backpedaling—forcing Levi down onto his knee. Levi gulped for air and pivoted himself against the river’s bank, the right side of his head below the water making him tilt so he could maintain his grasp while still breathing. He felt his father next to him; “Get him! Slip that hand into his gills and tug him out. Don’t let go!”
“I can’t,” Levi said, his heart ricocheting in his chest; “He’s huge! I think he’ll pull me under.”
“Just hold him,” Jed said; “Let him tire for a second while you rest then you’ll have to dive back down there and pull him out again. That cat might be stronger but you’re smarter boy.” Levi’s father showed him again how to slide the hand into the fish’s gills and pull from the boney plate, “Don’t matter if he’s big as a damn tractor. You get them gills, Levi. He’s yours.”
Levi wanted to let go, wanted to just let the fish be and go home where it was dry. As much as Levi wanted to release the catfish he held on. “C’mon Levi you can get ‘em.” Dwayne said; “Tug that son of a bitch!”
Levi could feel the pressure of the catfish backing up—getting ready to roll. He knew he had to give him some fight before he rolled again. With his loosened grip, if the cat rolled, he would get away and Levi would have to go further into the hole—get him to bite his hand again. Levi began hyperventilated quick breaths. Then he dove back into the murk chasing his cat.
From the bottom of the pool, Levi watched his air bubble up to the surface of the baptismal font. He could see the wood arches in the ceiling of the church above him. The boy didn’t expect cold water, gasping as he first waded into the pearl-colored pool, the pastor behind him, his hand on Levi’s shoulder. Before dunking the boy, the pastor addressed the congregation, “Now we come together celebrating Levi’s baptism in these waters, in this church, he’ll join our march with Christ.”
The congregation applauded. Levi wasn’t listening. He was watching his fingers bob in the water casting ripples through the pool, vaguely aware that the entire church stood in declaration after being asked if they loved him. The pastor waded closer to him taking Levi’s right hand, cradling the boy. The pastor whispered to him, “Levi I will now submerge you. When you come up you will have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior.”
Levi was held underwater long enough to exhale, watch it rise and burst above the surface then listen to a single heartbeat before the pastor pulled him back above the surface. The congregation whooped and applauded as the pastor embraced him proclaiming him born again.
Levi could see his mom beaming from where she stood in the front aisle clasping her hands coming together in ecstatic clapping. Jed was clapping but his eyes were bloodshot. He looked tired through his smile. His father caught Levi’s gaze, shuffled his stance and looked away. Winston’s mouth was open—a dull, bored look like a cow grazing while Dwayne seemed intent on being the loudest clap in the church thrusting his hands together in exaggerated percussion. Levi shivered, even as the pastor embraced him, helping him from the pool.
As Levi walked toward the back of the sanctuary where he could dry his clothes, he caught a glimpse of the crucifix hanging above him, feeling just about the same as he had when he woke that morning. Only now he was wet.
It began in his gut and spread to the rest of Levi’s body. He would not come back empty-handed—not this time. The water around him boiled. The powerful fish rolled and spasmed in a desperate fit. The boy’s right hand clutching the fish’s jaw, his left hand grasping the fish’s slimy body. Levi kicked off the mudbank forcing the cat from its hole, its full body exposed for the first time. Underwater it looked colossal. The sheer size of the fish filled Levi with exalted fear, but he never let go—tightening his grip on the fish, refusing to let the cat swim to the open river.
Levi came up for air ripping the fish’s head with him as he tried to stand, forgetting the shallowness of the water, falling onto his back, the cat sliding onto his stomach. Suddenly he was face to face with his catch. The fish lay on the boy’s stomach, its full weight crushing down on his chest. Levi could see its gills flapping open, see the trees on the other side of the bank through the slits. For a moment, he even saw confusion turn to a stunned terror in the fish’s tiny primordial eyes as it realized it was no longer in its own world, now above the water.
“I’ll take him Levi,” Dwayne said, but Levi yelled him off, finding new strength in his muscles as he stood, now both hands in the mouth of the flathead. Levi stood with his fish, it’s tail receding into the Altahama’s brown water.
“I got him,” he heard himself saying; “Look! I got him.” The fish dangled from the boy’s grip—the fight beaten from him.
“God damn, Levi! That sucker must be more than 50 pounds; he’s bigger than you,” said Winston. “We could have the whole neighborhood over to eat him.”
“I think we should let him go,” Levi said looking at his father. One this big, he’s probably older than all of us, probably keeps this river stock full of catfish.” Levi looked at his father but refused to plead. This was his fish. Still, he waited to hear what Jed would have to say about the matter. He lowered the fish back into the water without loosening his grip, letting water flow back through the fish’s gills while the cat hovered in the water without trying to swim away, its small eyes looking back at the boy.
“Your cat, your call son,” Jed said; “You right boy. That big one spawns this whole river.”
Levi let go. The flathead catfish didn’t move. Levi worried it was dead. His father told him to give the fish a little nudge, get the water moving through its gills. Levi did as his father said and walked over the catfish, gently pushing him toward the open mouth of the river. Slowly the life came back, its tail started moving. The Compsons watched as the catfish swam back defeated but very much alive. Levi knelt into the muck, enjoying the way the mud felt as he sank lower into the water, hearing the cipher of the river. Exhausted he lay down floating in the water, went under once, then came back up—the catfish swimming somewhere nearby.
Ian Lindsay works as a reading teacher in Title 1 public schools in central Florida. In his spare time, Mr. Lindsay writes feverishly and can be found writing on-demand poetry on his typewriter at local events. His work can be read in The Eckerd Review, Fleas on the Dog, and more.