If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Richard Hartwell: The Sea Turtle

“A month. Perhaps two. This type advances rapidly.” Not that it was unexpected, at least some pronouncement had been, this was a second opinion after all, but this compressed economy of the rest of your life has a certain shock value attached to it nonetheless.

“Are you certain it’s that short?” The grave-looking man in the white coat squirms in his leather chair behind the oversize walnut desk; files and medical magazines piled in neat stacks to his right since he is left-handed. This last observation makes you think about all you have read concerning the intellectual and artistic capabilities of left-handed individuals. In turn, this thought makes you elevate this doctor a step higher. You are right-handed. You listen more intently.

“No one can be that certain of course. You must understand, there are so many variables: diet, surroundings, and the mental outlook of the patient. What about you?” A longish pause as you think about this again. You don’t respond. “What about you; what are you going to do? What are your plans? Is there anyone at home to help? You know we can control the pain. I can recommend several hospices.” You feel ambushed by staccato questions, always have. Yes, you feel lousy. No, you have no one to help at the end; three husbands, no children, a diminishing number of friends scattered to the ends of the earth, none close or close at hand. Ends of the earth? What a shitty concept. Pain? What kind of pain: physical, mental, emotional? Yes, you have an increasing trifecta of pain. Trade-offs? Always something, always hoping what is gained more than offsets what is lost. Hospice? Hell no! Knowing you, you will finish where you are most comfortable. But just where is that now? A small, sardonic chuckle, mirthless, doesn’t quite escape your lips.

“Yes, sure, I have help, of course. And no, I don’t think a hospice is necessary.” God, the workload on your desk: submissions to read, reviews, responses to write, you still have to coordinate that opening for . . . Oh, to hell it! What does it matter? As if these things are going to be your legacy.

You travel down the elevator in a sort of petit mal trance until the arrival bell in the mezzanine cancels your zombie-like indifference and brings you back to the present moment. Taking out your cell phone, you hit your office number, key for voicemail, and leave a curt message for your assistant: “I’m not coming back in today. Cancel that 4:00 o’clock meeting and I’ll email some instructions later. Have a good weekend.” After you disconnect, you realize you didn’t add, “Best and see ya’ later,” sort of a simple tagline with you; changes are starting already.

* * *

The woman finds that she longs still for the majestic trees along the embattled coast of Northern California and Oregon. It is not so much that she has forgotten about them as that their influence has been superseded by urban seduction for many years. Continuing north, she searches in her mind for memories of the cleansing scenes of the trees as early morning fogs burn off slowly to reveal first their trunks, so contoured with crags as to mimic the face of aged Indians who once roamed about these woods. Then slower still, with the thinning and rising fog, upper branches are disrobed while still their uplifted spires thrust through the fog in challenge of wind and the earthly energy of gravity.

These scenes are not pristine, neither in the woman’s memory nor in reality, nor is there any pretense that they are, regardless of all that has happened to the forests and to her, too. She recollects also those rotting trunks of fallen giants, leveled by forces even greater than the two-hundred-year-old pines or the thousand-year-old redwoods. Through storm and quake and slide, and even through the fury of volcanoes, some of these trees survive to their majority and have now become passionately identified with longevity in the natural world and environmentalism in the wider world, not so natural. Only, only -- longevity itself is the unnatural element. For only with constant change, for only with cyclic re-growth, can these giants be re-membered, dropping cones to seed themselves, re-newed.

The bits and pieces, the shards that they drop, their seeds, become the continuity by which they will be re-placed. But if they do not fall, if they are not periodically vanquished, the very shadow of the parent can preclude the growth of the child. For only in the death and downfall of the mighty giants is there sufficient light and life to sustain new seedlings. The woman knows this without conscious connection. She was born just north of here and raised there and grew among these coastal forests. There is a level of comfort that attends the growing familiarity of her surroundings. The woman didn’t expect to return now, but chance also re-seeds lives.

Nature is random and sporadic and often allows for multiple actions. Only man creates an environment in which the growth of the big trees becomes an “all or nothing.” Even the forest fire cleanses, providing a random change and a chance for escape and continuity. To a degree, perhaps, it has been a cleansing mental fire that has allowed the woman the chance to escape from San Francisco.

The woman has driven several hours through the night and into a dawn that hardly differs from night. True, dark ideas slowly become gray shadows and then transform into washed and indistinct realities. By true dawn, trees become trees and buildings become buildings; even the water-dazzled, yellowed dual lights with their spinning rays as they draw closer finally turn into cars with headlights. They also are random and sporadic. None appear in her rearview mirror. It is just a fleeting thought, but she realizes she isn’t really chased, not even running away. Why has she chosen to come back?

She passes the border with a mental connection that it is just one more line crossed, one more boundary ignored or suppressed or willfully confronted. Most of her life has been premised on a self-sufficiency that borders on the manic. To honor the border crossing, she rapidly depresses the horn button in the center of the steering wheel three times and is less than gratified with three spastic, tinny squeaks. She laughs at herself for retaining a childish belief in the magical effects of certain rituals. So much of her life is still ritually obsessed.

About an hour after crossing the border, the woman slips into the town of her birth, childhood and adolescence. She isn’t hungry and doesn’t seek out a restaurant. She is tired, but not enough yet to seek out a motel. It is still fairly early with practically no Saturday morning traffic on the business bypass, let alone on side streets. She starts driving up and down some of these streets not really knowing what she is seeking, but not without purpose either. Her elementary school is still here, but her high school is now a middle school and a fancy new high school, new at least to her, lies farther up the hill away from the ocean side of town. For some reason this saddens the woman more than seems reasonable. The new school looks like a model prison, rising out of a nearly empty parking lot. She recalls walking to school, her school, and only rarely catching a ride with a friend or neighbor. Everything was closer then, smaller and more compact.

The woman makes the rounds of a few more disappointing changes in town then seeks out a motel near the beach, to the west of the bypass. The VACANCY sign flashes in front of an older motel, not one of a national chain. She turns into the drive and parks in front of the single-story appendage marked OFFICE. Her check-in without a reservation is uneventful; she pays for a day with a card, but leaves the account open, not knowing if she will stay longer. She doesn’t know why. It just seems right. She finds her room easily, unlocks the door with the bronze key on the end of a diamond-shaped, maroon tag, and lets herself in. The room is nondescript, basic, functional, but without warmth. It sort of reminds her of the house on Fish Trap Road farther up the river valley. She didn’t go out there this morning. It is, after all, just a house now, assuming it is still there, and built of sad memories, but un-peopled now. She won’t go out there; doesn’t need to. But there are other places she needs to go, things she needs to do, or wants to.

* * *

You, Cyndi, slip out of your shoes before you open the motel door. You don’t carry them, but leave them there by the TV stand. You want to walk on the beach, have to, embracing a solitude and winter chill, transporting you back thirteen years. Over your white turtleneck sweater you pull on a light windbreaker, more fashion statement then protection, zip it up and pull up the collar. You still have on your work pants, but these are wash-and-wear and lightweight. You check the locked door behind you and pocket the key in the jacket pocket. You turn to your right, past number eight, and then right again, through the passageway and past the ice and soda machines and the glassed-in fire extinguisher. The breeze freshens here, more than in the motor court, funneling from the beach, choking down and speeding up as it passes through the valley between the two buildings. You fight against the wind to escape the motel and shoot out onto the beach.

Much is as you remember, perhaps more than you have any right to expect after seeing the changes in town. There is an expanse of hummocks, ice-planted in rusts and browns and tans. Some of these mounds have undoubtedly shifted around all over the beach. Some have probably shifted back; like you, too. There are the lattice-worked passages of sand, wrapped like the tendrils of jellyfish around abstracts of ice plant, licking through the rise and fall of the dunes. And there is the wide expanse of the ocean, slate today and without horizon, lost against a lowering afternoon sky crushing the water. Near the shoreline is an older couple, two elder gentlemen holding hands, one of them bending occasionally to turn over shells, pocketing some surreptitiously, as it remains against the law to remove anything from the beach. It is now a posted, formal marine sanctuary; you saw signs at the top of the bluff. Years ago it was just a beach and a make-out rendezvous for local teenagers.

In the middle distance you see the gray-white flash of foam as the winter storm surf breaks against the jetty. The deep resonant boom of the breakers measures a syncopated back-beat, interspersed between each visual splash of wave; sight, then sound, then sight, then sound: crosscurrents of rhythm sometimes overwhelm both senses. The evening gulls float and drop and rise again. Balanced against the cycle of onshore winds, they search the tangled remains along the high tide line. One group of gulls continues to swirl and swoon in a merry-go-round pattern off to your left. By ones and twos they are joined by others of their race and, as in any crowded neighborhood, arguments arise. It is the louder-toned screeching of these quarrels that catches your attention.

* * *

Thirteen years is not enough time to forget the big bitter things or the important small things. You know that the gulls must be squabbling over a meal, possibly disgusting, but you are drawn in that direction anyway, more to prove the rightness of your recollection than out of any real curiosity. You have to traverse the intervening hillocks and the windswept sand keeps crumbling and shifting beneath your bare feet as you slip back down the slope, a half stride back for each one you take forward. You realize it is sort of a familiar feeling and smile in spite of yourself. You begin to feel the futility of this exercise in the ache of your calf muscles and then recall that as a girl you used to scrabble across the dunes using the better footing found on the aprons of ice plant draped from the edge of the eucalyptus groves out to the high-water line.

Out of some latent habit of adult insecurity, you turn to make certain you are not observed. The beachcombers are far down towards the jetty looking away together, far off out to sea, too far to see what you are doing even assuming that they care. No one else is on the beach, out of place. There are no silhouettes above and behind you, outlined by the gas station and motel glare from the highway.

You step out of the sand path and onto the rust carpet. The slimy scrunch of ice plant is slippery momentarily until your toes automatically recall to curl down like ice crampons taking purchase on a glacier. The broken ice plant is almost that cold. After two or three strides you re-catch the hang of it and quickly trudge over the first of the low brows towards the growing crowd of gulls. As before, you leave a trail of crushed imprints in your wake.

Your feet turn colder quickly as the night wind play against the juices from the trampled plants. The cuffs of your pants darken, dragged through the syrup of the ice plants. You hardly notice. You concentrate on angling towards the gully where the birds frenzy, approaching from upwind now that the breeze is turning offshore in the gathering deep twilight and dropping temperature. So many small things seemed to return of their own accord, unbidden, unshared. You crest the last incline with the dim glow of the town behind. Your darkened shadow spooks the gulls feasting below. You know you can’t scare them off for long. Arrogance and hunger will quickly defeat fear and they will swarm again in waves, relying on sheer numbers to overcome the intruder. But the brief interlude brought on by your surprise is enough for you, alone.

Captured in the instant of mergence of focal point and shutter speed, your pupils expand in the darkening gloom. You see the great green sea turtle lying in the bottom of the shallow depression. The turtle is upended; the belly has been pierced by the gulls’ orange-tipped spears; of a hundred frenzied soldiers of the beach.

It is not a huge turtle, perhaps only two feet across -- a young adolescent really, like you were, back then -- and it is no longer the graceful ballerina of the sea it has been. One flipper is mangled, bent uselessly backwards, grotesquely, and her eggs -- for it is a she -- what is left of them, what could have become her children, cascade from what must once have been a much-swollen abdomen, are strewn across her carcass and onto the sand and into the gulls. Belly and eggs, all pierces and violations. The turtle is no longer a beautiful creature of the ocean, freedom, and the night. She is now just food for the gulls, carrion, and soon for the crabs, and then for the ants, and finally for the other opportunists of the coast. All this seems like steps on a downward spiraling food chain.

This is all captured in your first glance, but only absorbed over time as you sit on your haunches on the down slope of the nearside dune and upwind from the stench. The pungent, yet pleasing, odors of seaweed and salt, even of the mudflats, are here mingled with those of death and decay, and the slight coppery tinge of blood. The gulls quickly return to the carcass, unperturbed by your continued presence, giving you time to absorb the scene and think of us.

It was violent, for the turtle surely, but the turtle was wrong, too. Wrong beach. Wrong month. Wrong turning. Bad timing or bad karma! Something had been wrong with this turtle, or perhaps many things, and now it was being useful, in its way. We should be so lucky.

* * *

We aren’t saddened, not really, not in a large sense. Reminded perhaps. We fold our hands, one on top of the other, over our flat belly. Without movement, the chill begins to settle deep within us and we don’t linger. We take one last look as we stand back up, a snapshot for the future, and scatter the scores of birds upward into the dark. As they began to resettle, to feast again, we turn and retrace our way back across the dunes toward the motel on the bluff. It is easier this time, guided by the pale halo over the highway. We try to step into the same depressions in the ice plant. They are barely darker than the surrounding growth and sometimes we just break new trail. Above the bluff, across the highway, rising on the slopes above town, the new-growth forest has barely begun to take hold; the rape of the forest is no longer new, but the scars will remain for a long time.

We push our way up the last steep grade into the alcove of the passageway. The screams of gulls and throbbing of surf has been diminishing, slowly replaced by the whine and hum of the occasional car or truck passing in front of the motel. All these sounds echo to us, reverberating in the cavern of the passageway. We turn left past number eight and let us back into our room.

We pause in the doorway momentarily to stamp our numbed feet, hurting some feeling back into them, pounding some of the sand onto the walkway, scraping some more off on the doormat. It isn’t a very thorough job of scraping. We give up and step onto the shallow shag carpet mottled in shades of russets and umbers, much like the tongues of ice plant on the dunes. We cross over to the bathroom and drop the maroon diamond door key on top of the brown laminate table. We enter the bathroom and start the shower, then peel out of our damp clothes, letting them fall to a pile in the center of the floor; yesterday’s castaways mixed with sand and sea spray and sap from the ice plant. We start to cry; this is all so familiar: wrong turnings, lost eggs, soiled clothes, shortened expectations – even our frozen bare feet.

We realize we’ll have to wash out the clothes by hand and dry them as best we can for tomorrow. We step into the shower, still crying, adjust the nozzle to stream water over our face and plaster down our hair, drowning our thoughts behind, as well as those ahead of us, in scalding billows of steam.

Although we don’t want to, not really, not yet, we think about tomorrow. In the morning, in our rinsed-out and drip-dried clothes, we’ll turn left out the door, past number six, down to the manager’s office. We’ll take the room for another day, perhaps another week. Then we’ll go out, go to town, shop. We’ll get a heavier jacket, warmer pants, fresh underwear, maybe even some hiking boots; we’ll keep the turtleneck. We’ll look at the beach by day. We don’t feel chased anymore. Perhaps we’ll even make friends with the beachcombing couple. We’ll see if the turtle is gone by then. We’ll play it by ear.

Cyndi, through your eyes I look down at our hands still lightly rubbing our belly, you reminiscing. We stop, turn off the shower, and try to stop the tears. Yes, we’ll play the rest of our life by ear, together; long-term memories merged with short-term future; complicated but completed.

Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school teacher language arts living in Southern California with his wife of thirty-five years (poor soul; her, not him), their disabled daughter, one of their sons and his ex-wife and their two children, and eleven cats. Yes, eleven! He has previously been published in: Midwest Literary Review, The Stray Branch, Flashquake, PigeonBike, Steam Ticket, Burnt Bridge, Indigo Rising, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thoughtsmith, The Rainbow Rose, Catapult to Mars, The Camel Saloon, The Shine Journal, Candidum, Red Poppy Review, and others, both print and e-zine. When not writing he wishes he were still pushing plywood in Coquille, Oregon.

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Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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