Turtle Voices

Rain splinters my view of the fisherman, his bare feet a blur as they speed him to the far end off the beach. What are they shouting, his woman and the children? I have trouble with those words on the best of days. Now, this storm, the shrill voices and the mountains of salt water exploding on the rocks transform the language of the conquistadors to so many mad muffled cries. They revert, that’s what they do. The Indians who fish these waters speak Spanish better than I, but they revert sometimes. Odd syllables emerge then, atavistic murmurings which threaten to rip open the fine roll of their adopted castellano. When they are jubilant and aroused, as they are now, watching the fisherman run, the danger of total reversion to their native tongue is most clear and present.

I cannot understand them for the surf in my ears, and cannot see exactly what they see for the cactus liquor shooting from my gut to my brain, then dribbling own again over my eyes to blunt whatever perceptions the natural elements may have left me. They are pointing. All the others under the shelter with me are pointing, the woman and the children and the two (also unintelligible) Germans are pointing in the direction of the fisherman. If only I can follow the line begun at the German’s shoulder, follow it down his khaki’d sleeve to the sunburned hand, take it out to the pad of his stubby first finger…and this is the hard part…concentrate…concentrate…Jump it! Jump the space from finger’s end to fisherman and sure enough…There he is, endlessly running in place, smaller, becoming smaller and smaller as the rain melts him and the sand swallows him up and the dry gallery in shades of brown cheers him on and on.

They are trying to explain to me, these good people are trying to explain to me exactly what is happening, what the man is running toward. I smile at the mouth but don’t dare take my eyes from the moving speck.

The mescal is finished. I raise the bottle to look up through its bottom, and pick at the worm with a strip of palm.

In the brown and purple village near Mexico City, Carrie hung on to the poets and painters of the foreign colony, and lived through them. The men she chose, and there were many, were hangers-on of a hanger-on. They were Mexican boys in a rock band, or young American businessmen who were headquartered south and spent weekends in the village for its climate and bohemian reputation, or they were vacationing college teachers who saw the colony as an exotic coterie of non-conformists, living far from the real world alongside natives who still spoke the language of the Aztecs.

She wouldn’t take the pill after her husband left her, over a year ago. She couldn’t get pregnant, she said; she was sterile, she knew. All those men, all the time. She and Anna and I might go to a party, and Carrie would be with a man in five minutes, but really with him, taking him home in half an hour. At the café, often she couldn’t sit still until some male friend joined our table. On Sunday nights that summer, we met at Stella’s and the seven or eight of us women would eat, and make music, and speak softly, and march our private fears in front of each other until three or four in the morning when we raced for the big pond and swam under the dark cliffs where the Great Feathered Serpent was born. In August, when Carrie found out she was pregnant, she told us on a

Sunday night. She talked for two hours, all by herself, then she laughed and cried at once and finally jumped up and stripped naked and said, “Let’s go swimming, now!”

For awhile, Carrie stopped collecting men, and since she didn’t need them any more, they seemed to like her better. She pulled out her twelve-string guitar again, for the first time in months. On a Sunday night, she told us she once had her own show on Seattle T.V. and played her theme song. It was rusty, very rusty; but we knew it was still far superior to any of the other music we picked and tooted that night.

When Anna and I returned from Brownsville, we heard our friend had paid an enormous sum for an illegal abortion in Cuernavaca.

At Jose’s party, someone else was playing her guitar, and Carrie sat in the kitchen eating men by candlelight.

The “doctor,” they said, used belladonna to ease her spasms, and she hallucinated under the cheap potion. The dark man in white fragmented into a team of medical gardeners, all scraping out her womb with small hand rakes. She choked on her screams and they gave her large doses of caffeine, but the antidote was not enough. Carrie no longer needed the pill or any other control, she knew. As a woman she was incomplete. Her insides had been scoured dry and she told us she lost the mushy plumbing every woman needs to grow new life.

Deadly nightshade.

Running again, returning at a plodding run, the fisherman shoulders a flailing green burden. He’d spotted the turtle down the beach with the eagle eye of a man who must compete with other animals for his food. Jubilant, he is, jumpy and proud are the

woman and their children. He puts the huge, mottled shell on a level spot and motions the Germans to stay back with their cameras and their loud talk. Only the youngest child continues to squeal and the Germans clack their shutters and speak matter-of-factly as if they had witnessed such scenes a thousand times and now only condescend to record the wonder for Der Spiegel.

And where did I read about turtles laying eggs? Perhaps it was in the telephone office in the village, waiting for the call to come through from New York. Yes, the ragged pocket magazine was vintage 1960, and on its cover was a great green turtle, like this one peeking a scaly head from under her shell. A female turtle will travel thousands of miles to find a special spot to lay her eggs, it said, a spot she knows by instinct, like radar in her womb.

I should have turned to the back where the story was continued.

Instead, I read the next article about a man who hadn’t slept in twenty years, since his lover was killed in a London blitz. No doctor has been able to help the man, said the story, no cure for his eternal watching can be found. His bed is never rumpled, and for years his only solace was his all-night cigar stand near Victoria Station. When English law closed the kiosks between midnight and 6 a.m., he wrote to the Queen requesting special consideration. But the Queen refused. Even now I see the picture of the dear man, his dark eyes circled by well after well of sleepless gray. He’s walking toward me now, the dreamless man is walking toward me and his thin lips curl into a zombie’s grin.

Will you have some more mescal, señorita?” asks the fisherman.

If only I had read on about the turtles. Would I understand better what is happening here now? A green armored mother flicks sand into the air. The storm is

breaking up and the turtle digs her deep sandy nest. I try to pry the cork from the new bottle but half of it gets pushed inside and blocks the neck so the clear golden stuff only trickles into my glass. I drink to the phone call from New York that never came through.

Susan wouldn’t even tell me, her own sister, how it was at the end. She described the beginnings well enough, how she and Robby were walking down the Champs Elysee one sunny morning, still on their extended honeymoon, when she felt she was going to faint. They stopped for tea then climbed the Eiffel Tower, where Susan vomited gloriously with all Paris at her feet. They fascinated me, those letters from abroad. I was awed by the experience of my little sister, married to a soldier and actually as pregnant as I can remember mother being pregnant with her. And she described the steps along the way, how it was hard to go to the bathroom sometimes, how this ached and that burned, how paella made her sick now and how wonderful it all was. Later I found out nobody believed her when she said she was ready, the doctor said, “Not until morning, at the earliest, my dear,” Robby went home to sleep, the nurse turned of the lights. Mother always said she should have come home to have her baby, that she had no faith in foreign hospitals or army doctors (Daddy was a navy man), and that “we,” meaning our female line back to great-great-grandmother giving birth an a wheat field outside Warsaw, always had trouble with our “firsts.” The end for Susan was lonely, her cries ignored while her head burst and the bed was suddenly wet. When the nurse came in to give her a sedative, she found Susan straddling the bed with one foot on the floor, the sheets flung off, and little sister bending double to grasp the head tearing through the lips between her legs.

The rain has almost stopped now. The clouds are moving fast and low so the respite may be short. I won’t get too wet if I walk from the shelter down the beach and around the point. If I can just wait for this wave to recede… But no, must get my feet wet after all and round the point quickly so I won’t be sick in sight of the Germans. The Indian family doesn’t care, but those Germans—they watch everything. Somehow I mind that they should know. The hazy sluice of the horizon still flows between them, but sea and sky are trading top and bottom. Not enough time to dig a little hole…

I cannot tell if I am sick from the mescal or for the new life in me. The slimy product looks the same, doesn’t it? I cover it with sand, like a good camper, and watch the pink crabs burrow in front of the wave.

Around the point again, I cannot walk back to the shelter. The sun is breaking through the clouds, the severe tropical sun which can suck up a tide pool in minutes. Already the rocks are dappled dry. It swabs the shine from the turtle’s shell until only her eyes remain glistening. They glitter for the ordeal she is going through, the excruciating ordeal of birth that has carried her from a strange sea to this beach to that pit where egg after egg is born into a sandy nest. And all nearby, all save the mother are vigilant – all those unconcerned with the pain and decision of birthing are ready to pounce upon the new birth. The mouths of the fisherman and his family salivate in anticipation of the delicacy, the Germans reload their cameras. Flesh-eating birds swoop low to survey the mother’s progress. Standing on top of the shelter’s roof, Katherine Hepburn wears Mrs. Venable’s summer chiffon and whispers to me across the sand: “Sebastian guessed that possibly only a hundredth of one per cent of their number would escape to the sea.”

In 1966, when such things were brave and rare, Esther didn’t know or care who was the father of her child. And I, still an undergraduate, could say to my Anthropology T. A., yes, I have a roommate who doesn’t know or care who the father of her child is.” I was big on vicarious bravado those years.

Her family paid new attention, and I heard, for I had moved East by then, that the baby became everyone’s business. She married, they said, for love, and divorced for her own reasons, after another child was born.

Last winter I went back to Berkeley and took the top floor of the house where Esther lived below with her two children. Always I’d remembered her midnight insights, her anger and self-knowledge, and recalled her as the most independent woman I knew. In a week my model was shattered, in a month the scene became painful to watch.
Can I say, “she struggled to make ends meet,” and have the words mean anything at all? For struggle in that house was a constant thing, a cohabiting monster, a river that flowed over the stone of Esther, hourly, daily, monthly, just as hard to escape, and causing erosion just as sure and permanent. Monthly she demeaned herself, begging Jamie’s father for money. She stood in line for food stamps, waited long hours at clinics when one of the children was sick. Of necessity she became a pest to the neighbors, begging babysitting here, rides there. A steady job was out of the question – the only kind she could get wouldn’t pay transportation and someone to watch the children. Every few weeks I’d see her leave the house to work a convention or a trade fair, brochures under her arm and breasts spilling out of a peasant’s blouse, or wearing a green lame pantsuit with “A Better Idea” stitched on the butt.

That morning I heard her footsteps on the stairwell.
“Come in, the door’s open.”
The big watchdog, Noodles, stood at Esther’s side.
“Hi! Can I borrow some was paper? It’s our day at the Brownies,” she said,

rolling her eyes.
At 2:30 the footsteps came again, fast and furious this time, and Esther burst in

without knocking.
“That dog,” she trembled. “That damn dog! The cookies!”
The blond hair stuck out in coils, the blue eyes flashed dark and unbelieving. Her

whole body was taut to the point of snapping.
“I walked to the store,” she said, “for some sprinkles. When I got

back…Noodles…he’d ate them all! All the cookies!”
Her look was so urgent, her words so comic, I didn’t know which tack to take.

Then she drifted away – her body stood there shaking but I could see Esther herself slip away into some dark private vision of domestic horror and stress.

“I’ll go with you,” I said. “We’ll buy some more.”

“Don’t you see?” she sobbed. The words came in clipped bunches. “…cost too much…need dozens and dozens…starts at three…home-made…show the other mothers…show Tina…I love…always…always…always…”

Uncontrollable now, on her knees, she tore at her skirt, the rug, the paper. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her like a pillow. “Esther…Esther! It’s absurd. Overreacting. It’s a simple daily crisis!”

She whimpered and eyed me curiously. I spoke more calmly, still holding her by the arms.

“You can’t just crack up over some cookies.”
“Over some cookies?” she whispered.
She bolted from the floor and began a macabre, screeching chant which I couldn’t

quiet: “Over-some-cook-ies…! Over-some-cook-ies…! Over-some-cook…” Emergency Mental Health Services was acquainted with Esther, so I didn’t have

to spend much time with forms. I arrived at the Brownie meeting to deliver three packages of Oreo’s and two gallons of Hawaiian Punch, brought Tina home, collected Jamie from a neighbor, fixed them dinner and picked up their mother from the hospital. She was drowsy from the sedation they gave her, and when I checked downstairs at nine, I found the three of them, Esther and her children, asleep on the couch, inextricably wound up in a loving triangle before the flicking gray eye of their T.V. set.

From across the beach I see my turtle is finished. Her neck pivots from the shelter, to the sea, to me, and back again to the sea. She lingers over the eggs, gathering strength, and those under the shelter are patient: they know the fruit of her womb is theirs, that in the end she has no control.

When finally she begins her crawl down the beach, the fisherman brings a plastic bucket, allowing the Germans to come along this time. I walk nearer and watch the eggs, two by two, disappear from the nest. They are round, like golf balls, but the shells are smooth and thin. They appear fragile – I can almost see through them – but none break as they are counted into the bucket. Noventa y cinco, noventa y seis, noventa y

siete…Ninety-eight eggs. I am astounded but the fisherman frowns and says the number is not good at all, that he has found three times that many in a single pit. Nevertheless, he composes a victory face like an actor about to make an entrance, and swings to his feet, facing the shelter. The woman and children squeal and jump, but this time I do not even try to understand. The fisherman lifts the bucket with one arm and raises the other in salute, as if he had laid every egg himself. The turtle does not look back.

Cracked shell by cracked shell, I am jolted from the trance. The children suck the yellow mucous and giggle until it drips from their chins onto their little brown chests. The yolk dries to a dead crust on the woman’s arms and her cotton apron, and still she digs in the bucket for another egg. The Germans feel superior to the gross habits of the natives as they snap away with their cameras. I grab my belly with both hands. Are you still there? Hang on, little egg, I’ve got you covered. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. But I have never been brave, always I have been afraid of pain, of accountability. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. A dark cloud swings low, but the squall blows dry.

No one notices as I cross the beach to the road.
“Good-bye, family. Good-bye, meine Freunde. I’m off to catch a bus.” The wind fills her nest with sand, and the turtle rides a wave out to sea.