When you and Rosie trotted in, I was twelve feet off the ground with a nail gun, trying to finish the screen porch I’d started two years back for your grandma.
“That was quick,” I said. You looked like your mom, in your cutoffs, your Broncos shirt, your hand shading your eyes. “Fish on vacation?”
“You gotta see what I found.”
“A painter. Stopped right in the middle of a step . . . like a spell, like . . . like climate change.”
“Not likely,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
You’d snuck up on it until you knew you didn’t have to. Laid down your pole. Called out. Then holding either side of the shell, you lifted the turtle off its writhing shape in yellow maggots. Here it was in your hands, head, legs, tail, intact on the outside while inside all those new lives hatched. The smell of . . . the stink of . . . “decompa . . . compa . . .”
You’d set it on a stump out of the road. Swore a woodpecker drummed over you. You said, “The trees hugged in.”
Here, where I’d first hardcore inhabited the wilds, a lynx study for my undergrad senior thesis, you had what I called your “mystical moods.” Like your mom’s, I’d say. And I plead guilty, too. For ten summers you’d come to the Canadian edge of northern Minnesota from Salt Lake City, this our first alone. At the Magnetic Lake cabin I’d built over years—off grid. Our inaugural 1,300-mile migration together, me up from New Mexico, where your grandma and I had taught. You and me and my Gordon setter Rosie. Your grandma had called it “our moveable feast.” I picked you up in my green Honda Ridgeline you named the Wilderness Express, you with your books, mostly field guides and comics, no Nintendo—your dad stuck in his new dean’s job. He’d been my student, but you know that, how he met your mom.
I killed the compressor. “Maybe I should take a photo for my calendar.” My northwoods calendar I’d sent out at the end of every year except the last, photos of what you called my “Forest friends”—moose, bears, beavers, foxes. You thought a lot about friends.
“Her obituary picture.”
“You know animals couldn’t care less about obituaries.”
On the way, past the moose pond, the blueberry patch with what looked to be a good crop coming along, we sang the one verse to a song we’d written together in our guitar practice sessions. I’d brought you your own guitar. We called it, “Listen to the Loon.”
Listen to the loon as she flies,
How she yodels across the skies.
We’d mastered our yodels by belting, “Little old la-dee who?” the old knock-knock joke.
I’d learned when I was your age, lead-singing with my brother’s country rock band until he shipped off for Vietnam, but you outdid me. Up there with Jimmie Rogers, Patsy Montana, Hank Snow, with your pure kid voice. And here’s the thing we’d noticed singing outside—the birds joined in. Especially with yodeling. Warblers, white-throated sparrows, even the jays in their yacky way. Sometimes ospreys whistled. Sometimes Rosie even crooned with us.
All that sound, ours and the birds, and the wind like water high in the aspen leaves, went silent when we turned where you said, and you grabbed hold of my arm. Rosie pointed. The warmth left the air. The turtle, or what had been a turtle, perched on a birch stump not five feet in front of us, a black feather, white tipped, balanced on its shell. You stared, trembled. Muttered, “Thank you,” shut your eyes.
Your lids burst open and you angled a startled look at me. Flies hummed. Heat. The sun flickered through needles, leaves. Rosie sniffed.
I crouched, the turtle frozen mid-motion, as promised, no evident injury. “Very, very cool.” I gave you a thumbs up. “And that feather.”
“I didn’t put it there.”
“Whoa. From a pileated.”
“The one drummed, I bet. A present.” You showed your dimples. “For the turtle. The turtle’s spirit.”
When a pileated actually goddamn shrieked behind us, I jumped.
I snapped the close-up that would become February’s, that eerie ancient olive face streaked with yellow, smiling, pin-hole pupils centered in black slits beneath the sheen still on its eyes.
I didn’t worry—not much. Your therapist said you should be fine without sessions over the summer. I’d been getting you together almost every day with the Schmidt kids at the cabin down the shore.
“So . . . so how about this, buddy? We’ll honor it—”
“Her.” You said that, and I couldn’t hold back thinking of your mom again, how like her you were and how much we both missed her. And your grandma, both gone in that unthinkable rollover Christmas before last.
“Take her to the cabin—to learn from. Set her out back and—”
“And we’ll watch how she’ll disappear.”
“Down to her shell.”
“She carried her own coffin, Grampa.” That stopped my breath.
“More like her . . . her own . . . record,” I said. “Her own history. Her—”
“Taph. You’re smart, Diz.”
“You bring the feather, Grampa.” You lifted the turtle. Showed off the black and white pattern framed in red on the underside of her shell. Walked with her in front of you like an offering.
“Tell you what, here’s an idea. I’ll take a shot of it every day at the exact same time to—”
“I will. Let me.”
“Okay, you will.
“Like time lapse.”
“Right. To. . . to see what she can tell us.” What she could tell us? Seems morbid when I say it now. Seemed like it might be therapeutic, then.
You set the turtle on the round granite boulder out back you’d long ago named Comet. You crossed your hands on your chest and bowed. “Great Mother Turtle,” you said. You wedged the feather into a seam in the cedar siding just over your bed in your loft.
Every morning after breakfast we visited the turtle on her rock ringed with grass and daisies. You took pains to kneel in the exact same spot, sit back on your heels posture perfect. I counted down. At nine on the dot, you pressed the shutter button. If the sun was out, it gleamed on the crown of the shell. In rain, the camera cloaked in a sandwich bag, the both of us draped in ponchos, drops ringed the shell’s scalloped edges. In one shot you caught a lightning flash on its side. “It got Frankensteined,” you said. You’d seen the movie one stormy day at the Schmidts’s, which I regretted.
Before we left the turtle, you always, hands crossed, bowed. So I started bowing, too. After dinner each night we looked again, bowed again—no photos. I thought perhaps a bear would find her, or a fisher or a martin. No. After the maggots, only small, dark, wriggling creatures, and black beetles. You said, “I like how many things eat her.”
It happened very slowly, the drying of the skin, the vanishing of the eyes, the curling of the feet and tail. Gaps opening to the inside around its limbs. Where life moved.
Days, you mostly traipsed down the road with Rosie to fish the Cross River elbow. Often you went with Chloe Schmidt and her little brother Nelson. The three of you also built a “secret hut” I heard you whispering about, and, if I or their mother, Susanne, could watch you from one of our docks, you swam—we had anchored a shared swim platform between our two properties—and kayaked. Our first time together at the water, Susanne, who’d had her own trials, said, “I can see Dizzy’s adjusting, but how about you, Cliff?”
“One foot after the other. Diz doesn’t give me much choice.”
On rainy days you played cards or Catan or drew or made hats and birds from colored paper. Sometimes you and I would strum guitars for Chloe and Nelson, and they would sing along. I tried to teach harmony on “We Shall Not Be Moved.” At first they made a point of checking on the turtle, too, but that ended after a week or so.
One day when Nelson was busy with Legos and you’d gone to the bathroom, Chloe said to me, “Mr. Billman, I . . . I think Dizzy’s not just Dizzy anymore.”
“He knows things.”
But you came back, and you’d put on this gorilla mask that your mom wore once for my birthday—the indignities of being a primatologist—and you snorted and pounded your chest, and Chloe said, “I hated when King Kong got shot on a building.”
“I’ll save you.” Nelson rammed into your legs. Then you put the mask on him and the three of you wrestled, Rosie dashing in circles.
I didn’t give much thought to what Chloe had said about you, not really.
Not until you had taken a total of 34 pictures.
July 24th. Overcast, the almost purple clouds fisted, twisting, swinging into each other above the lake. The temperature falling. Daisies past their prime. Wind gusting your hair, keeping the mosquitoes at bay, you knelt, the turtle shell a dark oval tunneled through on the comet of stone. Swung your face to me. “Her head. It’s off.” You held it up between your thumb and index finger—the tiny skull sheathed in green skin streaked with black. The eye sockets empty, the lower jaw gone. “It’s over. Holy shit.”
“Sorry, Grampa, but . . . it is.”
“It’s nearly nine.”
In that photo, the skull, balanced on the crest of the shell, seems to explode as a drop of rain spatters off it. Before a downpour hit. “Let’s go, buddy.” Still you sat, hood forward, eyes on the turtle shell and the turtle skull. “Now, Diz.” Finally I lifted you, nearly had to drag you inside the warm cabin, you mumbling something I couldn’t make out.
I tugged off your poncho. You stood stiff, hair dripping, face gleaming, a shiver in your lips.
“I’m . . . I’m not afraid.”
“Of what? Diz. Maybe you’re getting sick.”
“Of how it happens.” Your face relaxed. You insisted on hustling into the storm to bow once more to the remains of the turtle. With me.
The next morning—windless, the lake like crystal down the slope, light flaring—I let Rosie out as usual, made coffee, ate without you. You who were usually up before me. I read, got dressed, and still no sign of you. No sign of you with nine o’clock just twenty minutes off. So I climbed the ladder to your loft, peered over the edge and could see what I had feared—feared almost every morning. The covers thrown aside, your bed empty. The feather was gone. I shouted from the porch, “Diz. Dizzy!” Your fishing pole still leaned beside the door. And, I realized then, Rosie had vanished, too. Rosie’s with him, I told myself. She’ll look after him. I phoned Susanne. Nope, no sign of you there. Chloe and Nelson knew nothing. I asked Susanne to ask about their hut. She put Chloe on. Chloe said, “It’s a secret.”
“Could Dizzy have gone there?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Please, Chloe, I’m very worried about him.”
“I told you.”
“He wasn’t Dizzy anymore.”
“Please give me back to your mother.”
Susanne managed to get Nelson to tell her how to find the hut, not that I believed you’d be there. But if you were, you’d be fine.
It’s just another day, I told myself, except nine had passed with no picture. And where was the camera? Was I surprised to find Comet bare? The turtle, there on top for over a month, reduced to its shell and skull, gone?
I admit I sat. Sat on that smooth rock in the middle of the wilds. A raven scraped its call and . . . I leaned forward, elbows on knees, and when was the last time I’d cried? Then Rosie nosed my hand.
And there you were, eyes rimmed with tears, not five feet away, clutching the camera. “Grampa?”
“Where . . . where’ve you been?”
“It wanted her hid.”
“It . . . it wanted me to be the one. To take a last picture, the lake, her and the feather where she . . .” You swiped at your nose. “Now you know what?”
“I’m going to take your picture.”
You stared at me though the camera. “Grampa, whatever you do don’t smile.
And you would insist I use that picture next year as January’s. “It’s your calendar.” The last, December’s, the one you took that morning: a ring on gleaming water beside a floating feather.
A loon unrolled its call. Without a signal, our special harmony, we launched our voices: “Yo-dee-oh-lay—ee—who!” Who echoed into the cavern of the painted darkness of our lake.
Echoes. What I’m trying to say. Louder and louder. Me at 95, can you believe it? Here in this hospital bed, you beside me, you and my crying granddaughter, as I slide, inside this shell, into those depths.