She’s got her system down: a fly on a string, to lure a snapper to snap; a sharp carving knife to sever an extended neck. Simple. Safer than other methods. She’s lost toes to other methods. She’s lost fingers. Snappers have wickedly sharp beaks. No one knows that better than she does. There are safer ways, of course. A heavy enough rock lobbed from a distance can shatter a carapace. Shatter a spine. You don’t have to get close enough to lose digits. But that way is cruel. Jenny doesn’t like cruelty.
She doesn’t like killing turtles, either. But it has to be done.
There are two turtles today, which is the right number of turtles. They’re near the pond, behind the house where Jenny lives with her grandmother. Where Jenny’s parents used to live. It is a place where turtles rarely go anymore. A place the turtles have learned to avoid. The coincidence of finding them here heartens Jenny. It is as if they have been guided here. By something inside them. Guided to Jenny’s fly on a string. To Jenny’s knife.
She kills them easily. Two quick swipes are all she needs. One for each turtle. She’s good at killing turtles now.
Once the turtles’ heads have been safely removed from their bodies, Jenny settles into the messier task of opening their shells and peering inside. She doesn’t dwell on the details of this process. She tries not to see the bones or the fluids. She doesn’t vomit. She hasn’t vomited in a long time. But she could. She still could, if she allowed herself to look too closely. Only one fact bears significance: once the turtles have been laid open, their shells pried apart to reveal all they contain, it is clear that there are no ghosts trapped inside.
Jenny curses, then reprimands herself for the slip in her language. Jenny doesn’t talk like that. She’s a good girl. But she’d been so sure. She is used to disappointment, used to the empty shells, but these two had seemed so perfect, so precisely right. But no. She’ll still be killing turtles tomorrow. For today, all she has to show for her efforts is another pot of turtle meat. Her grandmother will be pleased at least. Gran loves turtle meat.
With her armload of turtle carcass, Jenny pads back to the house. She steps her bare feet into the basin of water beside the door, rinsing the blood from between her toes. She leaves the meat in a strainer over the sink, where her grandmother will clean and carve it. Later, she’ll clean the shells and bones herself. She can sell them to a man who turns them into “genuine replica native art,” which he in turn sells to tourists and curiosity collectors. For now, she scrubs her hands and forearms under the faucet, then climbs the stairs to her bedroom.
It is the same bedroom she slept in a year ago, though so much else had changed. One year ago, Jenny was only twelve years old. Her parents were still alive. In those days, she spent most of her time out in the woods behind her house, and that hasn’t changed really. It used to be fun, though. Back before she hunted turtles. Before she started carrying her knife and her fly on a string.
And, of course, one year ago, her bedroom had not been haunted by the ghosts of strangers. There are seven now, muttering to themselves, shuffling about among her clothes and knickknacks. They play with her toys. They wear her socks. Very few of Jenny’s possessions are actually Jenny’s anymore. The room has become a boarding house for ghosts, and Jenny is less an inhabitant than a caretaker.
Two of the ghosts have learned to be small, have taken up residence in her old dollhouse. They like to sit together on the little wooden couch, staring at the little wooden television with its painted-on image of a young man kissing a young woman. Mostly the ghosts ignore Jenny. They aren’t her ghosts. They’re other peoples’ ghosts, and they resent that their own children have not hunted turtles on their behalf. Their own children have sacrificed neither toes nor fingers, have not learned how sharp a turtle’s beak can be. Jenny knows. The ghosts keep their gratitude to themselves. Just as Jenny keeps her own gratitude to herself. But she knows this too: it is only because of the ghosts that no one will ever take Jenny away from her house or make her live with some other family. Who could stand to take in a girl with so many foundling spirits bound to her? Adopting such a menagerie of haunts would be unbearable.
Tonight one of the ghosts has wound up Jenny’s music boxes. There are twelve of them, all built by her father in his basement workshop. Papa had been a watchmaker by trade, but music boxes weren’t so different. Each played a dainty tune, well suited to sweet little girls, like he thought his daughter ought to be. Sometimes Jenny winds one up, if only to pretend. The ghost, however, has wound all twelve boxes, creating an unbearable discordance of syrupy tinklings. He is trying to dance to the various tunes, but only manages to twitch un-rhythmically, his elbows banging against the walls. Jenny won’t watch these weak gesticulations. She changes her clothes quickly, then exits, stepping quietly back down the stairs.
Water is running in the kitchen now—Gran is washing the turtle meat. Jenny knows she ought to help her grandmother in the kitchen. Her daily hunt usually saves her from this chore, but her daily hunt usually involves two or three hours of searching before she finds a turtle. The search is the part of the hunt that Jenny enjoys—walking down by the river, beating bushes, stomping through mud. There are deer to be spied on, trees to be climbed. On a good day Jenny doesn’t find any turtles at all, and just spends her daylight hours stalking through the trees. Finding those two turtles right outside has robbed her of her escape. Really, she ought to go back out, continue her hunt, since her first kills offered no reward. But she won’t kill more than two in one day. That’s the limit she has given herself. Her gift to the turtles and her conscience alike.
Jenny walks into the kitchen just in time to see Gran slurp down a scrap of turtle meat. Gran always remembers to cook Jenny’s meals, but often forgets to cook her own. Or simply prefers them uncooked. Jenny hasn’t asked.
“Anna,” Jenny’s grandmother calls out. “Anna, come help me in the kitchen.”
Anna is Jenny’s mother. Anna is dead.
Of course, so is Jenny’s grandmother. Death has not cured the senility of Gran’s old age. Lost limbs are easily re-imagined in their proper place. Cancers simply forgotten. But senility is a trap—Gran must first remember that she is dead, and no longer subject to living ailments before she can reclaim her wits. Senility is a forgetting disease, and the fact of her own death is lost to her. She doesn’t remember the failure of her heart three years ago. She doesn’t remember the turtle that snatched her soul and swallowed it down. She doesn’t remember the butcher’s knife that Anna used to free her.
Believing herself to be alive does have advantages. Gran hasn’t forgotten how to eat. She hasn’t forgotten how to clean the meat from a turtle’s bones, or how to cook it into a nourishing soup. She hasn’t forgotten that she loves her granddaughter. When she sees Jenny, she smiles.
“Mama’s not here, Gran,” says Jenny.
“Oh, she’s out? Did she go to buy salt?
“No, Gran. Do we need salt?”
“Can’t make soup without salt.”
Jenny checks the salt box, and yes, it’s empty. She doesn’t particularly like going into town. People don’t like her there. They don’t like how she lives alone. They don’t like what she does to the turtles for miles around. But she doesn’t dislike going to town either. She prefers it to watching her grandmother suck on strips of raw meat. And there are never any turtles in town; she can leave her knife at home. She pulls an old pair of tennis sneakers from the hall closet and slips them onto her bare feet.
It isn’t far—an hour’s walk along a paved road. She can easily get there and back before dinnertime. If she were in a hurry, she could take her father’s car, as she has done in the past, during the deep cold of winter and the high heat of summer. The townspeople don’t like to see an underage girl driving a car, of course, so she always parks at the edge of town and walks the last little way. But today is cool and she’s in no hurry. She prefers to walk, just like her mother used to do.
Jenny often walked with Anna on her trips to town. Papa always offered them a ride, but Anna declined, preferring the slow and quiet hike. It was their opportunity to talk together, mother and daughter, away from the rest of the family. Talk about school, about the changing world, about what it felt like to fall in love.
It was on one of these walks that Anna first explained about the turtles, how they swallow ghosts, how the ghosts long to be freed. Jenny was only seven the first time this was explained to her, but she listened attentively. She had seen turtles behind her own house, had seen how swiftly they could snatch a dragonfly from the air. She instinctively understood that they were not to be trusted, not to be taken lightly.
She was ten when Gran died, out by the pond, the worst place a person could die. She had seen Gran’s ghost waft up from the corpse, begin to coalesce into human shape, but there were turtles nearby, as there always were in those days. Just as quick as Jenny could blink, Gran had been snapped up and swallowed.
Jenny had cried out for her mother, but Anna wasn’t home, she was in town with Papa. Jenny knew the turtle needed to be killed, needed to be opened up so Gran could climb back out. But she had never before done such a thing, had no idea of the process, and no weapon to use. She thought about running for a kitchen knife or for her father’s woodcutting axe, but she was terrified to leave the spot, terrified that the turtle would slip away while she wasn’t watching, carry her Gran off into the pond and never return. So she sat in that spot, staring at that turtle, keeping it in sight until her parents came home three hours later. Anna had come out the back door after finding the house empty, taken one look at Jenny, the turtle, and her own mother’s body lying in the weeds, and immediately understood. Without a word she went back to the house for her knife.
Jenny paid careful attention to the extraction that followed, and learned her lesson well.
Although she still enjoys the walk to town, Jenny finds her own thoughts a poor substitute for her mother’s voice. And walking so far in real shoes makes her more aware of her missing toes; the imbalance of her foot against the insole of her shoe is somehow harder to ignore than the feeling of grass passing through the gaps when her feet are bare. Still, the trip will be worthwhile; it is early, and she comes to town so rarely. She can afford to dally today. There is no need to go straight to the grocery. She hesitates, considering where she might go. She sees the pet store, but she is no longer permitted through that door. The shop owner doesn’t believe in ghosts, and so he despises Jenny, believes she should not be permitted near animals of any sort. She misses them, misses the company of creatures she isn’t obliged to kill. But that’s not something she can explain to the shopkeeper.
Next, she considers the doll shop. Jenny has already lost interest in dolls herself, but thinking of the tiny ghosts in her room, she decides to pay the store a visit. She has bought them gifts in the past, and they enjoyed them, even if they haven’t acknowledged Jenny herself. Instead, they pretend that they have just returned from shopping, pretend they have selected their own new furnishings. They debate whether the upholstery matches the carpeting, whether they ought to have purchased service for twelve instead of eight, whether they gave the deliveryman an appropriate tip.
The shop is small, the shelves densely packed with everything a young girl could want in hand-carved miniature home goods. From basic tables and chairs to kitchen appliances, to linens, to lights and electronics. There is a tiny working radio, but it is too expensive. She considers a tiny bassinet, but rejects it quickly—she does not want to encourage the little ghosts to pretend they have a child. It would upset Jenny to watch such a thing. She rejects blenders, brooms, and lawnmowers. She will not trick them into pointless labor.
When she sees a plump armchair with a lever to make it recline, she is reminded of Papa, of his evening relaxation, with his feet up and a book in hand. Jenny takes the chair from the shelf, hoping the little man will enjoy it as much as her father had enjoyed his own. For the little woman, she settles on a claw-footed bathtub. They deserve these small luxuries, the two little people. Jenny is sure of it. Lastly, she looks for something to adorn the bare walls. She chooses a miniature set of paintings by a woman artist from years ago, five tiny images of flowers and bones, soft and lovely.
She takes her intended purchases to the counter and hands them to the shopkeeper. He wraps each piece in tissue paper before placing them gently into a paper bag. She reaches into her pocket, but the shopkeeper won’t take her money. He gives her a sad smile and waves the money away. Being an orphan has its advantages too.
It’s time for Jenny to finish her chores. She slips into the grocery quietly, not looking at the teenaged cashier, but she knows he’s seen her. She knows this boy. He’s a little older than she is, a grade ahead of her back when she still went to school. They used to be friends, she and he. One year ago. Before he was old enough to have a job. Before she was old enough to live alone. They used to eat their lunches together at school. They used to sneak into the movie theater to watch the R-rated movies when their parents thought they were safely asleep in their own houses. They used to kiss each other in the dark and giggle beneath the flickering projector. One year ago.
She used to borrow his bicycle when they had plans, so she wouldn’t be gone from her house longer than necessary, and so she wouldn’t be walking alone on an unlit and isolated road. She would take it home after school and hide it in the woods by her house, where it waited for her ’til night. As she slipped out her window and down the tree, she’d anticipate the coming ride as much as the forbidden movie, the illicit kisses. She loved whizzing along with no one to know where she was or what she was doing, pedaling with all her might, carefully swerving around the nocturnal creatures whose eyes flashed light from her single headlamp back to her.
She has no bike now. Her parents never bought her one, and it’s an extravagance she can’t afford. She has electricity to pay for, oil, and gasoline for the car.
And groceries, of course. She quickly selects the items she needs without lingering over them. A pound of salt goes into her cart. A box of English tea. Some carrots and potatoes and beets—Jenny loves the solidity of roots, would make her whole meal of them if Gran would let her. A bottle of cider vinegar and two of cooking oil. Lastly, a bar of chocolate for herself and a small package of crystallized ginger for Gran. She doesn’t usually purchase treats, but today she feels indulgent. She has probably purchased too much—her bags will be heavy on her long walk. But she doesn’t mind. Her arms are strong.
Jenny brings her items to the register, where the boy she used to kiss silently takes her money. She hands the bills to him with her left hand, the one missing two knuckles of the ring finger and one of the pinky, but he doesn’t seem to notice, doesn’t indulge her with recoil or gasp, even though she holds her hand out longer than necessary, willing his eyes to leave hers and find instead her bitten hand. He opens his mouth and almost says her name, but then doesn’t, and Jenny is glad. She has nothing to say to him. She cannot be his friend anymore. It crosses her mind to go to his house, to steal his bike. To make it hers. She won’t do that of course. It’s only a hatchling of a thought, and she crushes it down even as it’s just emerging. She leaves the store without looking back to see if the boy is watching her go. She won’t allow herself to know.
She carries her packages all the way back home again without once stopping to rest.
When Jenny arrives, Gran is out in the garden, tending the tomatoes, turning soil, pulling weeds. Jenny slips quietly into the house. The turtle meat has been moved to the icebox to keep until Gran is ready to cook it. A pot of water sits on the stovetop, waiting to be turned into soup. Jenny puts away the groceries, refills the saltbox, stashes the sweets in the pantry to save for after dinner. Then she heads back up to her bedroom with the gifts she’s brought for the inhabitants of her dollhouse.
The room is quieter now, the music boxes having wound down, the dancing ghost now hiding in Jenny’s closet, sitting on the floor, trying on all of Jenny’s shoes, one after the other. He pays no attention to proper pairing; on his left foot he is wearing a scuffed Mary Jane that hasn’t fit Jenny in years. He is in the process of removing a brown leather sandal from his right, in favor of a paisley rain boot. He grins, pleased with his selection.
The ghost of a young woman lies on the bed, asleep, Jenny’s old stuffed rabbit clutched to her chest. She turns over abruptly, disturbed by Jenny’s entrance, and her hair falls down over her face, eliciting a loud sniff. She buries her face deeper into the pillow, trying to shut out the waning sunlight.
The other three ghosts sit in the corner, muttering to each other. When Jenny enters, they briefly fall silent, look at her suspiciously, then resume their hushed conversation, voices now even lower. They are plotting against her, she knows. She suspects they were powerful men in life, which is why they resent her more than the others. Owing their freedom to a child galls them. But their plots are always frivolous-they have plotted to hide Jenny’s bar of soap. To spread strawberry jam on the insoles of her slippers.
Jenny ignores them, turning her attentions to the dollhouse, already beginning to remove her new accessories from the bag as she glances from room to room, seeking out her diminutive tenants. She finds them in the master bedroom. The two little ghosts are having sex. Making love. There is no shyness in them. They lie atop the covers, fully exposed, oblivious to the missing front wall of their home. Jenny is mesmerized, can’t help but watch them. The woman lies on her back, knees raised, eyes closed. There is a brief flurry of motion, and suddenly the woman is atop the man, arching her back, grinning and shaking. The grin is infectious, Jenny can’t help smiling with the woman, smiling down on her and her partner, but the pair is slowing now, relaxing into each other, collapsing onto the sheets, no longer grinning, just content and quiet. They are soon asleep. Jenny alone is left smiling, though she isn’t sure why. She isn’t sure why she suddenly wants to cry either, as all the warmth of a moment ago leaves her, and she’s left grinning at nothing, foolish and alone.
She quickly distributes the gifts she has brought. She doesn’t linger over the task, just slips them into the house quietly, so as not to disturb the now sleeping couple. The tub goes into the upstairs bathroom. The recliner goes into the living room, near the television and the bookcases. The artwork she leaves on the kitchen table. She will let the ghosts decide for themselves where to hang the paintings.
When she turns away from the dollhouse, she finds the sleeping young woman is no longer sleeping. She is sitting up, looking directly at Jenny.
“You’re here again,” the ghost says.
“I’m always here,” says Jenny. “I live here.”
“You should knock before you come in,” the ghost says. “Don’t you know about manners?”
“No,” says Jenny. “I don’t.”
She leaves the ghost in her bed, leaves her bedroom, and returns downstairs to the kitchen.
Gran is washing her hands at the sink, done with her gardening. She has brought some onions from the garden to add to the soup she’s making for dinner. She slices the tops and bottoms from the onions, then cuts them in half before removing the bitter skins which she will toss into the compost bin later. As she is about to turn back to her cutting board, she is delighted to spy Jenny by the pantry, watching her cook.
“Oh, Jenny, there you are,” she calls. “Have you seen your mother? I need her to go to the store for salt.”
“I’ve just been, Gran. We’re all stocked up and I refilled the box.”
Gran lifts the lid of the saltbox to peer inside. “Oh, so you did! Such a good girl.”
And Jenny is a good girl. She spends the whole rest of the evening helping her grandmother in the kitchen. Chopping onions. Slicing carrots. Stirring the soup. They’re both quiet as they work. Jenny doesn’t need to talk. But it’s better to be near a ghost who remembers her. A ghost who knows her name.
Over dinner, Jenny tells of her trip into town. About stopping in the doll shop, about the clever toys she has seen. She tells Gran about the little working radio, and how she plans to save up to buy it. That is a lie, but it’s a lie that pleases her grandmother. She loves to hear about the odd little things the world has to offer, even if she’ll never see them herself. The soup is delicious, but Gran never raises her spoon to her lips, just stirs it around and around. She’s had her fill of turtle already, before the meat ever went into the pot. That’s fine too. They can pretend together. When they have finished, Jenny puts the soup from Gran’s bowl into the fridge with the rest of the leftovers.
“I brought you a present, Gran,” Jenny says after the dishes have all been washed and put away. She goes to the cabinet and takes out the ginger candy she purchased at the grocery.
“You didn’t!” Gran says, so pleased to be thought of.
“It’s just some candy, but I thought you’d like it.”
Gran takes the package with a great smile. “Oh, ginger!” she says. “That’s my favorite! How did you know?”
“I’ve always known, Gran. I just haven’t seen any in a long time.”
Gran opens the package carefully, prying the cellophane ring from the container’s rim. The lid pops off easily, and she removes a small piece and places it on her tongue. She closes her eyes, savors the sharp, sweet bite.
“It’s been years,” she says softly. “The last time I had ginger… when was it?”
“I think it was your birthday, Gran,” Jenny says, thinking back.
“No, it wasn’t then. It was licorice on my birthday. And brittle toffee the birthday before that.”
“I guess I can’t remember. I don’t see it very often.”
“It wasn’t so long ago, though, I’m certain. It was another day, not my birthday. I was out walking. Oh, it was a beautiful day! I was out back, walking, and I went down to the turtle pond. We both did, we took a walk. There was a lovely breeze, and the air smelled so fresh, so we didn’t want to be inside. It was so cool down by the pond. And I lay down in the grass…”
Jenny has erred. She sees that now.
“Jenny? Why would I do that? Why would I lie down in the grass?”
“It was a nice day, Gran. You just wanted to have a nap outside. That’s all.”
“No, that can’t be right. It can’t be right. I’m an old woman. I can’t lie down on the ground. I wouldn’t be able to get up again.”
“But you did, Gran. See, you must have. Here you are!”
“No. I didn’t, did I?” Gran’s mind has never been so clear. “I died.”
Jenny is silent. The package of ginger falls to the table-not from her grandmother’s hand, but through it. It passes palm and fingers as if nothing were there at all, spilling the golden candy across the table.
“Jenny, you were there. Tell me. Did I die that day?”
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s out. She’s not home.”
“Oh, Jenny. I remember… I remember a man. A thief.” The bite Gran has already swallowed tumbles out from inside her. It strikes the chair beneath her and bounces to the floor.
“I know, Gran.”
“He killed them.”
“Oh, my poor Anna!”
“And he tried to hurt me, before he realized I was already dead. But he didn’t hurt you. Thank god, you stayed asleep…”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“You never came out of your room…”
“I wasn’t in my room.”
“Thank God you’re okay.”
“I wasn’t home. I was out. I snuck out after dinner. I went into town, to a movie.”
“But Anna… oh, my Anna…”
“I snuck out to see a boy.”
“My poor little baby girl…”
“I should have been here to see them die. Should have been here to catch the turtles that took them. But instead I was out kissing a boy. “
“They were gone by the time I got back.”
“I don’t remember turtles…”
“I never saw them, and now I can’t find them. I don’t know where they went.” And now Jenny is crying, as she hasn’t done in months.
“Jenny, I don’t remember any turtles. They were inside. They died in the house. There couldn’t have been any turtles.”
“There must have been! There must have been turtles. Or else where are they? Where else would they have gone? Why would they leave me here?”
“Sometimes they do, Jenny,” Gran says. “Sometimes they just do. Not everyone can stay.”
“They wouldn’t just go,” says Jenny, but Gran isn’t listening now, just crying, they’re both crying. It is Gran who stops crying first, not because she has cried herself out, but because she has cried herself to sleep, right there at the table, sitting upright in her chair. Jenny lets her sleep a few moments, long enough to dry her own tears, long enough to settle herself back into the present. Then she sweeps the ginger from the table back into its tub. She cleans the chewed bit from the floor, returns it to the tub as well, then stashes all of it back in the cabinet. She lightly touches her grandmother’s shoulder, rousing her. Gran opens her eyes and she smiles at her granddaughter.
“Oh, I dozed off at the table again, didn’t I? Such a foolish old woman.”
“Why don’t you to go bed, Gran?”
“Is your mother home yet?”
Jenny doesn’t want to answer. But, of course, she must.
“Not yet, Gran. She’ll be home late.”
“I suppose I can’t wait up the way I used to. She’s a grown woman, after all. I shouldn’t worry so.”
“She understands. She knows you love her. But you should sleep.”
“Well, would you ask her to wake me when she gets in? Only so I’ll know she’s here. I’ll sleep better if I know she’s home.”
“I’ll ask her, Gran. I promise.”
“Such a good girl. Have a good night then. Don’t stay up too late.”
Jenny watches her grandmother slowly head off toward bed, waits for her to pass out of sight. Then she removes the package of candy from the cabinet and slips out the back door. Down past the garden, across the grass, all the way to the turtle pond. She tosses the candy into the water, all of it, every little piece. She won’t buy any more, won’t bring any more into the house.
She won’t make that mistake again.
© 2015 by Alexander Danner
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