Fiction

The Back of the Turtle

BY


Book jacket courtesy of HarperCollins CanadaHarperCollins Canada

The man stood at the boundary of the beach, in the shadows of the hanging cedars, and listened to the heavy surf run in from deeper water. The beach pitched up sharply here, the high sand soft and dry. Farther down, the shore was firm and wet, and footprints vanished with each step.

He didn’t hear the dog until it came bursting out of the ferns and the underbrush. It raced past him, cut a wide arc in the sand and seagrass, and galloped back, snorting and trembling.

“There you are.”

He could build a fire to chase away the cold and the damp. A fire would ease the ache in his hands, and he could warm the drum, turning it over and over until the heat pulled the hide tight against the wood frame.

“What about it? Would you like a fire? ”

On the far bluff above the beach, the motel star blinked pale blue. At one time, perhaps when the motel had been fresh and crisp, the neon sign had read, “Ocean Star Motel” and “Vacancy” and “Welcome,” but the damp fog and the corrupting salt air had made the sign undependable.

He imagined that people strolling the solitude of the beach might find such a sign an irritating presence, but as he made his way across the sand, the four letters that remained seemed oddly reassuring.

As though the old motel might mark a place of shelter and safety.

He stopped and knelt. The sand was dark and fine. Thick. More like clay. He picked up a handful and squeezed it as hard as he could. Then he set it down and watched as it slumped and melted away.

“Post hoc,” he said to no one in particular, “ergo propter hoc.” Behind him, he could feel the sun roll out of the mountains like a bright wave. He touched the sand again and tried to remember which of the diving animals had brought up the first lump of earth.

“Muskrat,” he told the dog. “Or maybe it was otter.”

He stepped into the lapping surf and waited. It would not be long now. And then the waters would part, the sand flat would rise out of the receding tide, wet and dark, like the hump of a massive sea creature, and the path to the lonely cluster of rocks in the distance would clear, straight and narrow.

The Apostles.

During much of the tidal cycle, they were little more than a low-lying cluster of bleak crags, beaten by the waves. But when the moon turned to face the earth, the sea would pull back to reveal tall columns of basalt smoothed and sharpened by wind and water, slanting into the sky, and braced against the racing currents.

The dog moaned and looked back to the high sand. “It’s okay,” said the man, “you don’t have to come.”

At one time, the lower reaches of the Apostles had been covered with orange starfish, black mussels, and purple urchins. Crimson crabs had scuttled in and out of the crevices and cracks, and green sea anemones had fluttered against the rock like grass.

But not now.

Now all that remained of that community were the bleached bodies of barnacles still bound to the rock. As they had been in life.

It was impossible to avoid the brittle shells, and, with each step, they shattered under his feet. The rock itself was smooth and slick at first, but, as the man climbed, the basalt turned ragged by degrees, scored with deep channels and razor flutes. Near the top, he found the narrow saddle, a tentative refuge, a place from which to watch the tide come in and cut off any escape.

He had been here before. And each time he had retreated to the beach before the sea swallowed the rocks.

Not this time.

He turned towards the eastern mountains, angled the drum to catch the rising sun, and began a memorial song. But the elk skin was too soft now, too damp. The beats slid off, and his voice was drowned in the rushing water. In the distance, he could see the dog laid out on higher ground.

And in that moment, in that moment, he thought about retreating once again.

But the path back was only a memory now, all safety choked off as the sea ringed the Apostles in ink and foam.

He began the song anew, picking up the beat and raising the pitch, so that his voice carried above the slicing surf. The sun was full in his face now, the sky blue and polished. It was going to be a good day.

But as he turned back to the ocean to encourage the tide, the drum died in his hand.

“No!”

The fog had come out of nowhere. Dank and dark, its mouth gaping, it raced across the water and swallowed the dawn whole and complete.

“No, no, no, no!”

He slumped against the side of the saddle. So this was how it was going to be. No sun. No blue sky. No last view of the forest and the mountains. Just a wet abyss and the pounding thump of the waves.

Wonderful!

He had wanted sunshine, had no intention of dying in shadows. He had lived his life that way. He wasn’t asking for much. A low tide, so he could get to the rocks. A high tide, so he couldn’t get back. A little privacy and some light, so he could see the world at the moment he left it.

But here was that wizard fog again, and, as he watched, the trees and the mountains and the dog on the beach disappeared without a trace.

Okay. No sun.

So be it. If that’s the way it was, so be it. He took off his jacket and laid it on the rocks. A soft, cloth-and-leather jacket, black and tan, with “Crow Fair” stencilled across the back above a panorama of tipis, with a banner that read, “Powwow Capital of the World.” It was a special jacket, strong and powerful, and even Sonny, with his endless babble about salvage, didn’t bother him when he wore it. The photograph was in his shirt pocket. He didn’t need to look at it again. He had looked at it countless times.

He removed his glasses, stripped off the rest of his clothes, and took up the song once more, stronger this time, aiming his voice into the heart of the fog. But the breakers were having no truck with ceremony. They surged over the Apostles and sent him sideways. The drum was soaking now, but it had never sounded better. He had never sounded better. Maybe singing in the fog was like singing in the bathroom. Maybe the acoustics were always better in wet places.

The rising tide tugged at him, tried to pull him in.

“Soon enough!” he shouted, breaking off the song and wedging himself tighter into the rock. “But not yet!”

And then he felt it.

Something in the water touched him, grasped his leg for a moment and then was gone. A small fish probably or a piece of debris. Or maybe something larger. Something looking for a meal. He pulled his feet further up the rock and watched the ocean roil below him.

At first he didn’t see it. Saw only the vague shadows of the running tide. And then it was there. A hand thrust out of the water, then an arm, fragile, a slender branch caught in a flood.

And then a pool of black hair, floating around a child’s face. He quickly shifted his weight and reached for the arm, just as a wave broke over his back and sent him sprawling, the salt rising in his nose and mouth like blood, the water burning his eyes. Two more waves broke against him before he found the child again, closer this time, almost at his feet.

“Hang on!”

He caught the arm, awkwardly, his own shoulder twisting with the strain as he waited for the water to float the child closer to the rocks. Then he arched his back and pulled hard in one long motion.

A young girl.

Thin as tin. Cold and naked like him.

“It’s okay.” He gathered her in his arms, so she wouldn’t slip away. “It’s okay.”

He could feel her shaking, and he wished he had something warm to wrap her in. But his clothes were gone. Washed off the rocks.

Except for his jacket.

It had been driven into a crevice. The leather was sopping and cold, but he draped it over her anyway, hoping it might provide some protection from the wind and the spray.

He rocked the girl gently, trying to comfort her. “It’s okay.” The waves came faster now with hardly enough time between each surge to catch a breath. And in that moment, the girl turned and tried to break free, holding her arms out as though she wanted to return to the water.

“No,” he said softly, pulling her back. “No.”

She pushed away again, reached down into the foam, just as another wave slammed into the Apostles and flung both of them backwards.

“Sonofabitch!”

The basalt cut into his shoulder and thigh, and he could feel the blood run warm on his skin. He had only one arm around the girl now, but as he struggled to regain the saddle, he saw a second body rise out of the swirling water.

“Stay here!” He lifted the girl onto the saddle, forced her arms around the rock, and quickly slid down the side of the shaft, searching for a ledge he could stand on.

“Here!” he shouted. “I’m here!”

And suddenly the sea was alive with people. He caught a young boy by the hair and dragged him to the rocks. Then a young girl and an older woman. Another wave and an old man. Two young men. All naked and cold. Their mouths filled with water. Their eyes wild with life.

Patiently, his arms and back in agony, he caught each one in turn, until there were a dozen souls clinging to each other, as the surf thundered around them.

And then for no reason other than exhaustion and exhilaration, he began to sing again. Not the memorial song. A grass dance this time. A fierce song. A song for warriors. For now he knew these people. They were the sea people. The first people. The ones who had come from the ocean when the world was new. The long black hair. The fierce eyes. They had heard his song, and they had come to be with him at his dying.

Or perhaps he had summoned them. Perhaps it was time for a new beginning. Perhaps it was time for the twins to walk the earth again and restore the balance that had been lost.

He quickened the beat and imagined that the song alone had brought them forth, that his singing alone could hold the ocean back. And then very slowly, one voice at a time, beginning with the girl who had first reached out to him from the water, the people began to sing with him, their voices higher and sharper than his.

Until the tide turned again, and the fog began to clear.

Then as the melting light revealed the shore and the trees, the sea people touched his hand in turn and slipped back into the calming water.

He stayed on the saddle. And when the sun returned and the sky was high and cloudless, he waded to shore, watching the while for the young girl with the long, black hair, hoping she would appear to greet him.

But the only person waiting for him, when he limped back to the beach, was the dog.

This appeared in the December 2014 issue.

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