This Turtle’s Heart

By Al Maginnes

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There are secrets to how things are made, and they hold the world together. Learning these is part of what keeps us alive. How to clothe yourself and fry an egg, how to wash your clothes and show up on time. I thought about this today while I hung a pair of folding doors and decided, for once, to follow the directions. Then it was process, not mystery, and soon, I had two doors opening nicely, then closing again.

I had never heard of a trotline or seen one run until my roommate and his fishing buddy, an overmedicated vet, decided to run one in the mud-colored river that cut our town in half more decisively than any set of railroad tracks ever could. In two weeks, they snagged only a few catfish. They cleaned them by nailing their heads to a tree, pulling the skin off with pliers. The flesh tasted like clay, the heads remained hanging from nails, prehistoric, gaping. 

One afternoon they pulled a long cooler from the back of the truck. A turtle half the size of a pitcher’s mound lay canted in there, stinking, miserable, while they debated how to cook it. I’d seen chickens and hogs butchered, often ineptly, and knew precision was not always needed, as  long as the result was meat on the grill. Turtles, I was told, were different. A secret that must be taught. 

My roommate found a guy who cleaned the turtle for some wine, a couple of joints, a few packages of frozen catfish. The back porch was tacky with blood, the turtle’s heart lay beating in a pile of guts. My roommate’s partner, filled with VA-distributed downers, slept in a chair on the front porch while we doctored a thin stew of turtle meat, onions and potatoes. All night Ikept walking onto the back porch to look at the turtle’s heart. 

Three days that bodiless heart continued, one secret that need not be learned or explained, just a muscle willing to go on without a body if that was what living meant.

Al Maginnes