Friday, August 3, 2018

Turtle Bay by Henry Hitz

When his marriage fails, a man returns to his parents' house and retreats into his shell - literally. This story by Henry Hitz first appeared in Magnolia Review.

The collapse of your second marriage has left you feeling numb, wandering around in a fog, unable to think, or feel, or do much of anything. You left her, so you don't really have a place to stay. You impose upon your friend Matt for a while, but it's clear you are in the way of his complicated marriage. You decide to leave the Bay Area and head back east.

You collect some supplies and hole up inside your Toyota camper, hauling your camper shell on your back, complete with bed, refrigerator, stove, stereo, library. You wear nothing but turtleneck sweaters even though it's summer, you drive, slowly - very slowly, out of California, across the country, stopping only every other day or so when the white line begins to blur, camping by the side of the road, all the way to Pike Lake, your ancestral home in exurban Wisconsin.

You allow yourself two months to recuperate before you will have to return to your job as a writer for an environmental magazine. After a brief tour of the place to find your old haunts: the boathouse, your shack of a hideout, your dank mad-scientist laboratory in the basement, you hibernate in your old room, your childhood room, with walls and ceiling of manly knotty pine.

You expect your father to be mad like he was the first time, when you left your first wife, the mother of your children, ten years ago. He said to you over the phone: "Divorce, revolution, suicide, it's all the same thing." This time he says, "Your generation is more honest than ours was. I don't know of too many of us who were completely monogamous."

You don't want to know more. You clam up. You do feel like a clam, a shell-shocked shell of a man, a clam whose body has been sucked up clean out of its shell by carnivorous parasites. There are traces of your ex everywhere in your old room, left from your visits here as a couple, ceramic elephants on the window sill, Victoria Holt novels in the book shelves.

You expect to crash, to freefall into the abyss of despair, and you are prepared for this, you look forward to crying it all out, but the tears don't come, instead, there is just a sublime peace, an exhilarating sense of freedom, and a clammy emptiness.



You sleep for days. No one bothers you. When you finally do emerge from hibernation, you resemble a zombie from one of those "living dead" movies. You can't feel a thing. It frightens you. To get out of the house one calm evening when the forests surrounding the lake glow yellow in the sunset, you take your father's old hand-made lapstrake rowboat (he once gave it to you, but you still think of it as his). You row all the way to the north end of the lake, Turtle Bay. The boat fills with water up to your lower calves. You see that the bay looks different. The oak forests between the lake and the newish superhighway have been cut down. There is a monstrous barge anchored in the center of the bay, piled high with weeds and mud.

When you get back to the house, you ask your father what is going on.

"Oh, you 're talking about a big brouhaha there," he says. "Old man Melieren thinks he is developing a fancy sportfishing resort on his property. The Village fathers, you know they 've spent their lives insuring the exclusivity of their domain on this lake, are not pleased. He challenged their ordinance against commercial development on the lake in court. He won."

"That's it? Isn't anyone doing anything?"

"There've been appeals, but he's got a lot of money and some powerful allies."

You remember the rumors. Your friend Carl used to help spread them. Melieren was a reclusive old German who owned a blender manufacturing company in Milwaukee which was reputed to have built some of Hitler's gas ovens during the war. There was also talk of Chicago gangland connections, and you remember as a child seeing bullet holes after a shooting in one of the houses on his vast estate.

You learn that the alignment of forces in this present battle is far from simple. The working-class fishing interests who want more public access to the lake and the unions who want the jobs and hate all Pike Lakers - Milwaukee's power elite - equally, are pushing for the resort. The powerful state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at first went to bat for the resort advocates, until an enterprising naturalist discovered a rare spotted turtle (clemmys guttata) an endangered species - in the marshes around the edge of the bay.

Your father tells you that the DNR has called a hearing on the issue which will take place the first week you are here, but Melieren has already started dredging the bay, apparently so he can have a fait accompli before the hearing has a chance to rule. This is the barge you saw, a dredge.

With nothing better to do, you go with your father to the hearing. Personally, you are torn. You certainly sympathize with the turtles, but the exclusivity of the Pike Lake snobs turns your stomach. This latter group uses the turtle issue, but they kill these same turtles elsewhere in the lake when they spray the weeds with defoliants to improve the swimming near their own lake frontages.

At the meeting, you see childhood acquaintances now grown, playing out their roles. You've seen none of these people for years. Ted is here, balding, a high-powered lawyer, representing the Village. Your old heart throb Maggie - Ted's sister - now fat and domestic, has organized a contingent of residents. "Well hello, Barney," she says. Her voice is chilly, as is that of the others. You have learned to recognize the tone, something like: "How could you marry a black woman and embarrass your family so." You don't go out of your way to tell any of them you've separated. They'd be too obviously pleased.

Your father surprises you by speaking at the meeting. He actually gives voice to reason. "As an old fisherman myself, I can understand the need for lake access. But a resort is likely to bring the power boats and the jet skis, which won't help the fishing at all. May I suggest a compromise, a smaller scale public access, without the controversial resort?"

From the silence of the crowd, it is clear that this viewpoint has pleased no one.

The hearing issues a weak decision which gives Melieren ten days to cease-and-desist his dredging operation, plenty of time to complete the job.

On the way home that night, silence once more prevails between your father and you. On the superhighway, right where you can see Turtle Bay through the newly thinned trees, you spot a small animal in your headlights, a turtle, laboriously crossing the road. You brake and swerve to miss it, but you fail, and it squishes against the tire of your camper truck. You feel something jump into your ear.



All night long, your ear itches.

In the morning, you hear the voice for the first time.

"Hello, Barney."

You twist around in your bed looking for the source of the voice.

"My name is Slrp. I will be your teacher."

Oh-oh, you think. You stay in bed that day, knowing that you are losing your grip, and that there's nothing you can do about it.

"I am a turtle who has left my body, the very body that you yourself smeared all over the road with your truck. To be fair, we planned this assault on your kind. Our situation is exceedingly desperate, and we need your help. I'm afraid you will have to help us whether you want to or not. No more passivity for the likes of you."

You see that your family is concerned. When they come to check on you, you can show them only your empty shell. In order not to reveal that you have been possessed by that which you don't think they'll understand, you show only your emptiness. You don't speak in their presence. You see them hover over you and you clam up some more, a Plexiglas wall of estrangement has come between you and all other humans.

They bring doctors. You speak to them only enough to confuse them, to protect yourself from them carting you off some place. When they ask how you are, you say "Fine, thank you," and smile wanly. "Just a little under the weather." They check you for mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr. They give you Rohrschachs, but you know the right answers, you see in the inkblots flowers, futuristic automobiles, genitalia, normal stuff like that, and you don't tell them about the raging flames or the delicious-looking planaria. The collective decision from the assembled experts and family members is to leave you alone and see what happens.

The voice of Slrp tells you to go for a morning row in your father's rowboat. He tells you to take off your clothes, jump in the lake, and swim naked in the reedy waters of Turtle Bay. The water is icy cold, but your body seems to be just as cold itself, so you don't feel it. You don't seem to mind the mucky bottom, the slithery clumps of algae, or the lily pads scratching your underside.

Even though you grew up on this lake and in the summer went swimming every day, you were a lousy swimmer. You were afraid of drowning. When you were four, the neighbor's maid's toddler stepped off the pier and into the drink. He drowned. You remember watching with a gathering of neighbors as the mother bawled her heart out.

But now swimming came as second nature to you.

Slrp introduces you to the others. "This is Barney," he tells them from his perch inside your skull in some kind of silent language that you seem to understand. You notice that Slrp has penetrated deeper into your mind. "He will be saving us," Slrp tells the others. "We haven't much time."

You meet the oldest turtles first. Sis, the matriarch, gazes at you with the wisdom of her hundred winters, or "sleeps," as they're called. She sits on a rock and cocks her head from side to side as she checks you out. She has a leathery face with yellow speckles on it, a perpetual frown, just like your father, and yellow spots all over her carapace, quite a few more than her male counterparts. You are stretched out in the shallow water next to her, with just your head sticking up. The sadness she expresses to you weighs you down like the shell on your back. She communicates not in words, but in something your mind calls "quanta of feeling states," without thinking about it, little units of odd feeling that enter your ear and fill up the cavity that Slrp seems to be digging in your mind, as if looking for a place to bury his eggs.

Slrp tells you a long-winded story which explains how what is happening to you, is in fact happening to you, even though it is, of course, impossible.

"Once upon a time, this lake was named Turtle Lake, and turtles reigned supreme. We thought we had invented a perfect world. Our ancestors, who looked like flat, rounded lizards, decided to grow these shells on our backs so that we would always be safe. We became one of the most invulnerable people on earth, by using our brains to alter our own biochemical evolution. Our ancestors got together and imagined these shells we wear. We learned to live a long time. But we hadn't figured on humans coming along and mucking up the works. We know as well as you do that, unless we take drastic action, our days as a people are numbered.

"You are a part of our desperate effort to save ourselves," he says.

You meet the others of the turtle clan who swim around you in curiosity. There's Sri, a young renegade, perhaps your own age of 30 (you can tell their age by counting the rims around the scales that make up their shells), who glares at you and regards this whole scheme of his elders to be harebrained. "Not all of us want you here," he images to you. He has a frightening yellow streak across his beak. "Some of us want to migrate to calmer waters, to another lake that legend tells us is not far away."

"It's called Mud Lake," you tell him, and then you realize your mistake. "That is, humans call it Mud Lake. It's small. There are a lot of turtles there."

"Not a lot. We know better. There are not a lot of turtles anywhere anymore," Sri groans. You see that there are many depressed spirits among the turtle-people, as you are coming to think of them.

But even so, you find yourself arguing, "Sooner or later the humans will unleash their poisons on Mud Lake too. You can't keep moving forever. Sometimes you have to take a stand."

"That's easy for you to say," Sri hisses.

You haven't convinced him, but you think you have impressed him enough to gain his grudging tolerance, if not acceptance.

And then you wonder what you are arguing for, and you realize that Slrp is taking over more and more of your synapses. More and more, you are seeing things from his point of view. That night in your bed, you fight him.

"What right do you have to come in here and invade my mind?" you demand of him.

"You weren't using it," Slrp answers wryly.

"Anyway, I know this isn't really happening. It's just a rather vivid dream. I've lost my way, that's all."

"Who's to say, Barney," he answers you. "You think of humans as being an anomalous species, accomplishing wondrous things that no other species in the known universe has even imagined itself capable of doing. Walking erect, making tools, harnessing fire, developing a symbolic system of language, both spoken and written. Music. Art. Self-awareness. To say nothing of cars, submarines, television, atomic bombs, and tortoise shell spectacles. Doesn't it strike your limited imagination that other species might all this time be achieving things equally anomalous, but in an entirely different direction, a spiritual direction, for which there just wouldn't be all that material flotsam to give us away?"

"Wait a minute, lizard-brain," you argue. Desperation creeps into your voice as you feel your resources gradually diminishing, as Slrp expands his territory with something less than the speed of a rabbit, but with all the determination of that proverbial testudinate. "How can you possibly know all this stuff about atom bombs and shit, huh? You 're going to tell me you read the New York Times?"

"No, but I can read it all in your mind right now. You underestimate us. You must understand that our consciousness has been evolving in a continuous fashion since the time of the dinosaurs. Inside our shells, over the millennia, we have learned techniques of meditation that have connected us to the primary forces of the universe. It's a, how would you say, a "fringe benefit" of courting extinction. We watched what happened to our dinosaur cousins. We developed a life for ourselves of uncommon safety, from which it has been possible to imagine almost anything, as you can see."

You go to sleep with his voice, his cinematic clip of images, a mobius strip of thought, cycling through your brain.



The next morning, you pull the covers all the way over your carapace so no one can see what has become of you. You peek your head out and stare at the knots on the ceiling. They look like delicious insects. You see a real fly in the air and follow it with your eyes. You feel sluggish but at the same time restless from the heat. You're incredibly thirsty. By the whisper of light creeping in the big picture window, you judge that it is still early enough, the humans will still be sleeping.

You crawl lumberingly to the edge of the bed. You dart your head out quickly and judge the distance to the floor. It's about half the length of your shell. Oh-oh, you think. It's too far, but your craving for water overrules your inveterate caution. You close your eyes and crawl all the way over the edge of the bed until your center of gravity sends you crashing to the floor - very unfortunately, on your back. By stretching your long, greenish brown neck out as far as it can go and pushing with all your might against the floor with your webbed feet, you're are able to turn yourself onto your orangish hypoplastron with another resounding crash, except this time you are hardly hear a thing, deaf as a turtle.

You retract everything deep inside your shell and wait. When you detect no vibrations, or for that matter, psychic impulses, you begin to gradually crawl down the stairs and out of this unnatural outer shell of a house you find yourself in and amble laboriously - though it actually feels quick to you - down the hill to the lake.

At the water's edge, you balk at the notion of slipping in and swimming all the way to Turtle Bay, and instead decide, despite the awkwardness, to row most of the way over there. After a quick dip off the rocks at the shore to quench the dehydration, you crawl into the rowboat and sit upright on the center seat, with your large shell hanging over the edge of the plank. Once you reach the bay, you beach the boat in the cattails and slip back into the water, feeling yourself again.

The water strokes you delectably. You flip and flop and frolic under the water for what seems like hours at a time. The other turtles greet you, swim around you in an erotic dance.

There's one called Drusilla who swims around your tail and wags her head at you from below. Drusilla? Come on. A human name?

"I took it for you, Barney," she tells me. "Don't you have a human name?"

"Yes, but..."

"You forget. We know everything you know."

"And I know everything you know?"

"Of course."

Your carapace is beginning to ache. This is truly confusing.

"Will you stay with us now?" Drusilla asks. Now you notice the dazzling galaxies of yellow light from the spots on her shell, a mirror to the night sky.

"Of course," you say with assurance. You can't imagine ever leaving the water again. Or her for that matter. You've found your home.

She brings you a juicy dragonfly in her beak. You snap into its abdomen with your powerful jaws. Your mouth fills with the sweetness a bee must feel eating its own honey. She chomps on the dragonfly's head, and your jaws meet in the center of its thorax. You bump olfactory orifices.

Suddenly, the water vibrates and splashes you in the face. Drusilla and you both retract into your shells and then dive. Underwater, you can hear a faint groan that seems to be gradually growing louder. You look at Drusilla questioningly. "It's the voice of doom," she says sadly. "The end of the world."

"I want to see it. Can you take me there?"

She beckons you follow her with her tail. You swim after her, easily keeping up with her plodding stroke. When you come to the edge of the reeds, you poke your heads out of the water. A giant, brown, rectangular monster with humans riding on its back is gobbling up the bottom of the marsh with its rolling, endless tongue.

You spend the afternoon gamboling in the muck with Drusilla. You watch the other turtles fucking. She shows you where she's hidden her eggs, and you stroke her neck consolingly when she breaks down at the thought of their future. You glimpse the beauty of this bay with a manic intensity that comes from the imminence of doom. You feel you can stay here forever, and that that's not a very long time at all.

But Slrp has other plans for you. As the light fades toward evening, you find yourself feeling a chill. "Whoa, Turtleman," Slrp images. "Let's not get carried away. You are useful to us as a human, less so as a turtle. The others don't understand this. They want you to be one of them, and they have their mental prowess, as you have seen. But I'm going to reconnect some of your synapses here, at least so you don't die of exposure."

Drained to your emptiest shell, you slither back into the rowboat. You see the silhouette of the dredge against the fading light of day. You row toward it, now abandoned at anchor. You see that it has a long conveyer belt with scoops fastened onto it so that it spoons the muck from the lake bottom and dumps it in a pile in the center of the barge. It occurs to you that they probably dump this muck in the deep parts of the lake. A big engine with a large external gas tank drives the mechanism.

With your stubby limbs, you awkwardly row back to the nest of humans. They greet you with alarm, but you are relieved that they can't seem to see the great carapace covering your body or the yellow tear drops spotting your face "Where have you been?" the female human says. You forgot to wash the muck out of your hair.

"Fishing. Swimming, " you answer. Suddenly embarrassed by your nakedness, you discover that you absently picked up a towel at the boathouse, and you have covered yourself in the frontal abdominal region, your most vulnerable spot.

You manage to dress yourself and pretend to be human for an hour or so. You sit with them at dinner, though you are full from eating earlier and you find their cow meat unappetizing. You carry on a conversation of sorts.

"It's taking me awhile to get over my break-up," you manage to mumble in human language. "It feels like an explosion!" You say this last word too loud and you spit when you say it. But it gives you an idea. You clam up. They ignore you, just as they always have. You are uncommonly grateful.

After dinner, while the others watch Jacques Cousteau on television, you slither down into your old laboratory to see what you can scavenge. You find practically full pound bottles of sodium nitrate and sulfur, covered with spider webs. You remember what to do. Laboriously, awkwardly with your stubby webbed limbs, you burn up a full box of wooden matches, ten at a time, and then you grind the resulting charcoal in the spiderwebbed mortar and pestle.

You keep forgetting what you are doing. You keep wanting to just crawl into your shell, but Slrp encourages you. "You know what you have to do, son," he says, as if he were your real father. You find a loose piece of PVC drain pipe, three inches long, two inches in diameter, next to the water pump in the basement. You mix your gunpowder.

In the kitchen you cook with an obsessive frenzy that you know must be frightening your parents, but you can't help it. Someone asks what you are doing. "Baking cookies," you snap.

"Isn't that a lot of salt?"

"I know what I'm doing," you shrill. What you are really doing is making baker's dough, half flour, half salt, to plug the ends of the pipe. When you are finished with the dough, you take it into the dank basement again and pack the gunpowder into the pipe, sealing the ends with the baker's dough. You leave a small hole in one end. You realize that the baker's dough won't have a chance to dry, so you top it off with some quick-drying silicone sealant that you find in a caulking gun in the playroom. You have no fuse, but you do have a can of sodium peroxide. You remember how this stuff flares into yellow flame when it comes in contact with water.

You pack your stuff in a paper bag and leave the house by the tunnel that leads out of your laboratory to the middle of the woods by the shore of the lake. At the end of the tunnel is a door hinged at the top like the storm cellar door on Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz. It's a quiet night. The water is calm and reflects the three-quarter moon, as well as the mansion lights from the shore. You row quietly and determinedly to Turtle Bay.

"Don't be afraid, Turtleman," Slrp comforts you. "We will protect you. You are our friend." Turtleman. That's you all right.

When you come up alongside the dredge, you see three dark heads poking out of the water. You recognize Sis, the matriarch.

"We have come to give you moral support," she images to you.

You see Sri. "I'm surprised to see you," you tell him.

"I admire your courage," he says. "Your plan might work."

"How do you know what I'm up to," you whine, somewhat peevishly, as if your privacy has been invaded again.

"We know what you know," intones the soft musical image of Drusilla.

"Hello, Drusilla," you say. Your chest constricts inside your shell. "You guys watch out now. This could make a big mess."

You slip the rowboat around to the gas tank of the dredge. You open the cap on the tank. You shake a line of gunpowder out of your pipe like salt from a saltshaker along the edge of the barge. You put the pipe filled with gunpowder next to the spout of the gas tank, with the gunpowder trail leading into the hole in the baker's dough seal. At the other end of this trail, you make a mountain of sodium peroxide.

Suddenly a wave from a passing motorboat rocks the barge and splashes water on the sodium peroxide, which ignites with a brilliant yellow glow. The barge pitches enough to spill some of the gas from the full tank. Oh-oh, you think. The gas catches fire and lights the pipe bomb prematurely which explodes with a blinding flash in your face. It ignites your beard and hair and knocks you out of the boat and into the water. You hit your head on a cattail root.

Stunned, you paddle to the shore. You see your friends Sis, Sri, and Drusilla, all belly up dead in the muck. Your chest constricts again. The whole lake is on fire. You are dead, too.



You find yourself wandering along the edge of the superhighway, an empty shell of a man. You see that a crowd has gathered to watch the fire and the efforts of the fire fighters to put it out with long hoses from a truck on the shore. You immediately cause some stir in the crowd, perhaps because you are naked, perhaps because your hair and beard have burnt to a ghostly ash and your eyes are alight with mischief. The crowd opens a swath for you which leads you directly into the hands of the Village police, Captain Lutz. "Well, Barney Blatz. Fancy meeting you here," he jokes as he snaps the handcuffs roughly on your wrists behind your back.

He throws a blanket on you and takes you to the basement of a red brick Victorian hospital in Waukesha. They put you in two-point restraints, a bench with leather straps buckled on one arm and one ankle. You sleep for a long time.

When you wake up, you feel your flesh tingle. You smile to welcome your body back. You haven't felt this warm in years. You check your back: no shell. You check the mirror when they finally let you use the bathroom. No yellow blotches on your skin, which is now pinko-gray, not green.

You know how to handle the doctors. But you are in no hurry. You tell no one anything. You clam up. You sleep. You enjoy the emptiness. You wallow in it like the muck. You are grateful for the rest. You also figure things will die down in time. There's no point in tempting the legal establishment by showing anything remotely resembling presence of mind.

They move you to a place you're familiar with from other friends who have lost their marbles at times, Oconomowoc Memorial, a rich people's nut house, not a lobotomy factory. You make friends with a young girl who carries an old bible around wrapped in a towel and a guy who stabbed his brother with a barbecue fork in a fit of rage.

At group one day, you start to say, "A few weeks ago, I was a turtle..." but the doctor sighs with a look of exasperation on her face, so you figure this is not the way to get released.

The next day, you try, "I 've been having trouble with my feelings lately, after breaking up with my wife. For a while, I was suffering delusions, but I think I was running away from the reality of the pain caused by the break-up. I can feel the pain now. It's hard, but I'm doing it, and I'm doing much better."

Was that true? Not really. You didn't feel the pain until, about a week later, you got back "home," in your parent's house that wasn't home. On your first afternoon back in that house on the hill overlooking the lake, you retreat to your room. No one bothers you. You know they are afraid of you, but that's okay.

You lie on your human belly on the bed and sob your guts out. For the turtles, for the planet, for yourself, for your ex, for your children, for your bizarre family, for the fucking tragedy of the human/animal condition.

You bawl your ass off for at least three days, with breaks for sustenance, quick sandwiches, washed down with gulps of water.

They treat you just as though nothing has happened, as though you have just arrived from California, and you decide to act the same. They don't mention it, but you learn through the papers that the explosion caused a big oil slick that almost wiped out the turtle population of Turtle Bay, but that all dredging has stopped, and Melieren has agreed to provide a sanctuary for the turtles in his greatly scaled-down plans for a public access with a small campground on his land.

In another week, you leave your camper shell behind and board a plane to California, only a month behind schedule, to resume your life, such as it is.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant story! Very well written!

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  2. A wide-ranging, strange story in which the fantastical flushes out emotional and environmental truths. many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  3. Very immersive, even though the story is very much out of left-field.

    ReplyDelete