TUESDAY: Painted Turtle


Copyright is held by the author.

OUT HERE OFF of Cow Bay Road we had no car, no old horse, or even a flat-tired bicycle to ride away on. There was no kind of transport available whatsoever, except walking away on your own two feet. We did have a cat though and she was as big as most any dog I’d ever seen. She was striped, light grey on dark grey and called Bullet.

Our father was a few years our mother’s junior, another kid really and he was in the Navy. He was working as a cook down in the ship’s scorching bright galley making all the meals for all the other sailors. He was stationed 100 miles or more away from us in Halifax. The ship was a big, flat aircraft carrier named “The Bonaventure,” but the men called her “Bonnie” like it’s a girl. The commanding officer was named “Scruffy” O’Brian. I guess he was. She carried over 30 tough little fighter planes and attack-copters and a crew of almost 2,000 men. Rarely did we see our dad. When we did, it was most often a surprise and almost always a disappointment.

My mother, like all the planet’s poor and the pioneers before her, was an efficient recycler. More of a re-user really. Our school lunch was often wrapped up in empty plastic Wonder-Bread bags, or artfully folded into miscellaneous magazine pages. I liked that. One day it was a woman’s pretty face and another time a picture of a cool car. She tried using newspaper one time but stopped that when we told her that the words were showing up on our sandwiches. They laughed at us at school and so there were fights that we won and some that we lost. Doing our business, we may have insulted local business wiping our little butts with the Yellow Pages.

Our home was a ramshackle little house, or a cottage, or maybe even a cabin on a dusty gravel road with no name. It was set well away from any town and so, making do, made sense. Our mom was mostly on her own out here with us three kids near the forest where you could smell the ocean’s salt and hear the crows cawing and whales sadly moan and the boats of fishermen calling out to each other in a thick blinding fog. The rustling woods mingled with the waves of the water, both vast and shockingly beautiful and sometimes scary, all of it pushed around by the wind: a spirit we only see when it dances with the others.

We were happy here, being nowhere. I was five. My older brother Dennis was seven now and the kid sister Lindy was three or four I guess. We were all about a year and a half apart, and so, it got confusing. One day you’re a year apart and then just like that, after a birthday, it was a two-year difference. Our road sloped softly to end where a shallow clear creek seemed to laugh along over granite grey stones wandering off to find the ocean. Jacques lived there by the water alone in the little log cabin that he had built. He was huge and hairy and nice. He spoke only French.

Our big old cat Bullet disappeared one day, which turned into three. As much as I liked Bullet, she also frightened me. She had worked on dad’s navy ship for a few years catching and killing rats before she came to live with us. This was not a pretty little purring house cat that a child slept with and cuddled and petted and talked baby-talk to. She was a savage beast with claws as long and as sharp as a wolverine. At times as dangerous as the nearby dark and creaking woods.

Bullet had skulked off as slowly as the perfect feline hunter, slinking along like only cats do, low to the ground with unwavering and unblinking wide eyes. Sliding silently into the shadowed bush behind our house intent upon some unseen conquest of capture, playful torture and then a slow ugly death. Bullet returned to us jungle-struttin’ with a twitching and mangled prize of a chipmunk to proudly place at our feet.

After three days and nights, the bunch of us had given up any hope of our cat being alive. But, Bullet did return home to us with trophies. Her face was a crazy little dartboard of pain and porcupine quills, quivering as she approached where we sat out back at the busted-up picnic table, taking turns carving different things like hearts and letters into the wet grey wood with a knife we found buried under a flat and rust-coloured rock. I think maybe I saw a shimmer of shame and then revenge flickering in her fierce old amber eyes like the full moon playing hide-and-seek behind fast moving clouds.

I gripped her hairy bulk in my arms, tight against my chest, as if I’m wrestling with my brother and I have him in a bear-hug. He and my mom took turns with the pliers yanking the needles out of the cat’s face and talking to her sweet, and soft. Bullet’s eyes were tightened into fierce satanic slits of agony. Lindy stood back from us quietly crying. Bullet fought hard to escape the pain. She did finally struggle free leaving two screaming claw lines of blood down my arm as she leapt away. We scrambled and cornered her by a pile of muddy boots and dirty shoes at the back door. Growling and hissing she finally slumped down in defeat and stayed still and resigned, flattened out like a lumpy old rug across the floor, as we carefully removed the remainder of the quills. Walking away, I looked back at her, and she looked up at me defiantly. I knew she’d be gone before sunrise.

Stumbling in the half-light of early morning to the bathroom for a loud and lengthy piss I saw that Bullet was not curled up asleep where she should be, on the mat at the door, like some mutant guard cat. My brother and I and Jacques searched the silent woods for a full day expecting to find her shredded body just past the next tree or a bend in the river. We called out her name and whistled as if she was a lost dog, but we found nothing of Bullet. Two weeks went by and I missed the warm and immense weight of her on my lap that numbed my legs. Some mornings I would wake barely able to breathe with her asleep, more growling than purring upon my bony chest. I missed that too. Summers, Bullet could spend entire long lazy days asleep on the front steps like a hillbilly hound-dog that we took care to step over, often twitching in her dreams or nightmares, of I wonder what.

Mom told us that Bullet was okay. She said that Bullet had probably gone off with some other cats to see what was on the other side of time. The other side of time she said, was a big empty space where everything was a possibility. Whatever that means? She explained that Bullet was big and tough and smart that she could handle herself anywhere she may be. Mom also said Bullet might come back home to us someday, but maybe not — probably not. My sister and I hugged as she cried. Dennis stiffened and glared down at the kitchen floor looking more angry than sad, as if Bullet had not run off, but had been stolen from us. Behind his big thick glasses that made him look both goofy and smart, he shared our mother’s entrancing sky-blue eyes. Little Lindy’s were very different. Hers, like our father’s, were a luxurious dark chocolate brown that reflected you back at yourself like black and dangerous water inviting you to dive in and you knew you shouldn’t. But just might risk it.

The intense and urgent campaign started there and then for us to have a dog. Not just a dog, but a puppy dog. Mom gave in quickly and easily, having seen our hurt at the loss of our good buddy Bullet. Our father arrived home with some sailor friends a few weeks later. When he opened the car door to step out an anxious and very alive tiny perfect German Shepherd puppy raced straight at us and drenched our faces with warm wet kisses and pulled at our shirts and pants to play. We stayed as still as cold cement waiting for our father’s instructions. His orders. His three navy pals stood around us wavering and wobbling like they’re silent drunken security guards.

“So what do we name this stupid fuckin’ dog?” our father barked, smirking and looking at his navy buddies for support. They let out some thin and empty guffaws and shuffled in the gravel, looking at each other in bug-eyed embarrassment.

I yelled out “Nipper!” with conviction. “He nipped me” I said.

“Yea, yea whatever kid — Dennis, what about you big shot — ideas? No? No surprise, you are supposed to be the man of the family when I’m away working — working to guard this family from Commies and creeps — shit.”

Dennis squirmed and stared back at him with an intense hatred. Our father wore the same big black framed glasses. He looked stupid and mean and not at all smart. “I’m not some soldier, I’m just a kid. I want to call the dog ‘Scotty.’ You said that you were Scottish, and so, we are too.”

“Scotnip,” my mother announced brightly. And so it was so.

I watched big Jacques trundling steadily and carefully down the dusty road towards our place. He had his arms straight out before him like a waiter with a clumsy tray of sandwiches and sloshing fish soup. Even in this midsummer heat he was wearing his huge and ragged bearskin coat. As he grew closer to me I could see that he was sweating heavily, and breathing hard, and that he carried a flattened out cardboard box. When he came closer still, I saw that on that cardboard was a small flattened out animal the size of a baby raccoon. It wasn’t a raccoon though. It was our puppy Scotnip. Jacques laid down the cardboard with the dog’s crushed body on the steps before me. I think I saw a tear streak down his filthy face as he turned away home. He mumbled, “Je regrette mon petit homme, mais . . .” I knew what regret meant.

The dog’s body was like a dirty old doormat with a toy dog head stuck to it. His gleaming black eyes were wide open looking up at me and he seemed happy somehow. The big pink tongue was still shimmering wet and hung out past his perfect white teeth and gleaming black gums and the blood at his mouth. I could smell the heavy thick sting and stink of rubber and tar. His heat rose up at me like a soul rising towards the empty cemetery sky scratching at my red wet eyes making me seem to cry a little.

After Jacques helped us to bury Scotnip out back in the soft dark dirt by the rushing river we went home walking like little broken robots of the woods through tall dry grey grass in a numb and strangling silence. Everything thrummed like we’d been punched in the gut and boxed in the ears or maybe a meteorite had crashed beside us. Each of us stranded alone in our confused little kid sorrow or inexplicable shame. Back at home, there was no frantic and silly discussion or any hint of any interest from us three children in having kittens or puppies or a beast of any kind as a pet. Our enormous tiny hearts had been shrunken to the size of jelly beans. We were, all of us, somewhat stunned and grim and silent for a few days after the disappearance of Bullet, and then this, quickly followed by the sudden death of Scotnip. A cottony foggy haze of mourning, and a slow motion of life enveloped the family. Mom looked sad, but she acted all jolly, like everything was okay, and always will be. I went to the woods hoping to find new friends, an owl, a squirrel or maybe a rabbit or something.

The turtle that he brought home to us that first cool fall morning was enormous. The shell was the size of a garbage can lid. This turtle was a painted turtle. I don’t mean a “painted turtle,” I mean a turtle that has been painted. Someone, somewhere, at some time, with the subtle skill and sophistication of a Spanish mosaicist, had taken a considerable amount of time, effort, and ability to meticulously colour each section of this prehistoric amphibians shell. Still though, it looked like a four-legged trashy Tiffany lamp escaping a yard sale.

He told us that he had carried it in his arms out of the ocean near his warship. He claimed the turtle had tried to swim away and that he dove under the waves and caught it. He said that he punched it in the stomach a few times, proudly showing us the reddened knuckles of his right hand. “I haven’t seen the stupid thing’s head since,” he said gruffly laughing. There was a large and rusty steel ring screwed deep into the center of the turtle’s shell. Our father passed a heavy metal chain through this to secure the turtle like a vicious guard dog to the tool shed just out back of our place.

We brought out a battered tin pail to her filled with water and a good pour of salt, just like in the ocean where she really lived. Lindy came back with a dirty cereal bowl that she snuck out of the kitchen sink. I tapped the side of the can of worms we’d been digging up and saving for fishing into the bowl. Dennis suddenly yelled, “I know, I know — wait-wait-wait!” He bolted into the house by the back door stumbling on the cinder block steps. Inside, he gently scraped and scooped up a handful of dead flies that had tried to escape through the window glass, their dried and fragile bodies piled in the sunlight along the windowsill in the living room behind the couch. The crumbly remains he scattered as carefully as stardust over the writhing worms. We looked at each other nodding in mutual self satisfaction.

“Ugh,” said Lindy squinching her nose.

In the morning fog we found the giant turtle and the heavy chain gone. The pail of water and the shed were still there, but lying over on their sides in the dirt and the weeds. I don’t know if the turtle or the worms ate the flies but they were gone too.

Dennis and I, we were doing our best, struggling to set the shed upright again. It seemed though, that the more we worked, the worse things got, as tools and assorted trash steadily tumbled out through the gaps between the walls and the ground. Then just like that, the shed just stood right up. It was our dad that lifted it. Stuff was strewn across the dirt and weeds around us. We begin to pick up empty paint cans, struggled and failed with the cement mixer, carried a bow-saw together, rolled a propane tank, carted rakes, dragged shovels, and sorted out no end of different smelly rags and strange tools. My shin got cut pretty bad on the saw teeth and it was bleeding down into my left shoe. The blood was warm and sticky but the cut didn’t hurt much. I spotted a small yellow rectangular tin with a red-tipped plastic top that I quickly picked up and handed to my brother. He held it up high above his head smiling at me devilishly. I responded with a who-cares shrug.

Our father snapped it from his hand saying, “Come here you boys, I’ll show a good trick. Now, stand still there by the shed-put your arms straight out with your palms up.” We did as we were commanded. He filled our cupped hands with the clear stinky fluid and searched his pants pocket for his Zippo lighter and found it. I felt horror and excitement to see my hands on fire. Past the blue-orange flames and hot twisted air I saw my father’s crazy-man smile. I wasn’t afraid of him. I was afraid of becoming him.

It’s early and distant rustling wind quiet. There is only the happy chatter of the sparrows talking outside on the slouching telephone wire, and a gull I can’t see, faintly crying out over the ocean somewhere. In the corner of the kitchen stands a plastic bag as tall as I am swollen with puffed rice. Without Bullet here, the mice will be in it soon. I reach in and scoop up a bowl full and carry that to the counter beside the fridge. I pour thin white and watery powdered milk over the cereal. I rescue a lone bruised banana that is under intense attack from a horde of fruit flies and slice it into my bowl as I carry it outside to the front steps to sit and eat. The grass and the gravel are still wet with the morning dew reflecting the new rising sun a million times over into tiny mirrored droplets like a vast army of insect eyes staring back at me.

Mounted above my head, and out of my reach, is a big brass ship’s bell. Our mother rings this bell to call us back home from the woods or the water. If the rings are long and slow, she is calling us for dinner. It’s rare, but when the rings are short and frantic, there is trouble of some kind. Something like an accident, or a fire or another thing pretty bad. Maybe dad’s home.

There is a nearby field that I like to run through that is sprinkled with purple and yellow flowers like candles on a cake. I run as fast, or maybe even faster than Superman through this magic meadow that tilts slightly upwards towards the endless clean white empty-page sky. At the very last edge of the Earth I leap into the soft strong arms of the air. Raising my hands up high I fly through this perfect shimmering space to the forest of the great pines where I land lightly upon a strong bow, far up and out of sight of anything, or anyone. I sprawl limply aching there, dangling across the rough branches in a pitiful theatrical attempt at appearing injured. Even though I’m hiding, I want to be seen.


  1. The problem I have with much literary fiction – if indeed this piece is fiction and not a memoir – is that I often end up wondering whether I missed the point or whether the writer was just slapdash or trying too hard. This piece is in many ways a lovely, evocative read and the passage about Bullet the cat is magic, but what’s this really about? We get hints that the father is a bad dude – lighting his kids’ hands on fire, Mom rings the bell for an emergency when he arrives home, but they go nowhere. I found the switches of tense took me out of the narrative as well, the final paragraph simply didn’t make sense, and there was no resolution.

    So did I miss the point, or is this just another of those too-clever-by-half-pieces where the whole point is that there is no point, and the reader is expected to collaborate by making of it what she will? What started out with huge promise ultimately disappointed. I would stick with Bullet and ditch the rest.

  2. Understood Dave. Literary Fiction can be difficult particularly for readers who prefer a safe linear path in a story. Here are some recommendations for you. Hope this helps and thank you for your interest and critique. Stay well. http://flavorwire.com/409714/40-trashy-books-that-are-actually-worth-reading/view-all

  3. DAVID, I took a look at the website. All good stuff! Now, While I don’t need everything spelled out for me, I did get a bit disoriented in your piece, especially the ending where you switched tenses for no reason I can fathom, from a realistic paste tense narrative to this present tense imaginative passage where the kid flies up into a tree and lands on a bow – did you mean bough? Tell us, why did you do that? And did you mean us to conclude that Dad was a jerk? Or was it indeed your intent to just put it all out there and let us make of it what we will? Because I did love the writing…

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