My father takes a long time to climb the two steps. He hooks the handle of his cane on his pocket, gropes for the door frame with his right hand and, hunched over and panting, enters the kitchen. He cautiously sits in his chair and with a sigh proclaims that we have a turtle.
My mother raises her eyes, reddened from her chopping onions, and they sharply scold him through a film of tears.
I recognize what’s happening: he has mentioned nuns in brown habits with bluish-violet halos around their heads; the monastery for whose construction my grandfather collected a thousand gold coins; the water that gurgles just under the bedroom; unknown people with bloated faces who stand in the garden and stare at our windows when the moon is full; the pictures one can enter (even more easily than mirrors!) just by stepping high into the frame; travels that require only the bluish cold darkness behind closed eyelids…
But my father’s fabrications have never included a reference to animals.
Yes, there were winged horses for the angels in his visions of healing… And, yes! Once, returning from the street (with a thick sweater over his striped pajamas) he said that exactly ten donkeys were waiting for their tailor. But this was all (still) at the beginning of his illness, and we took it as a very successful joke at the expense of Uncle Risto – the saddler.
So now I ask:
“Very pink,” he says and calmly inhales the smoke of the freshly lit cigarette.
Without a word, in resignation my mother wipes her tears with the wrist of her right arm, and I steal a glance at my father’s wrinkled, bewildered face, whose expression prompts my second question:
“Where did you see it?”
“In the yard,” he says with that uncertain tone in his voice that so often has hinted at the nesting places for the wonders similar to the ones found in the books I like. I often draw the wrong conclusions, but at once the thought occurs to me that my father is just getting warmed up. I return to my book, thinking the appearance of a turtle in our yard, unusual as it might be, is not a miracle great enough for me to put up with all of my father’s asides and repetitive digressions. He will not miss the chance of mentioning the old monastery, and then my mother will raise her voice:
“You and your monasteries! And in our yard!” and the magic will evaporate, turning into an ordinary family quarrel.
My father, oblivious to all outside influences, sinks into himself. He strokes his powerless stiff arm with the other in measured, slow movements, the only remedy for the pain, strokes that stretch the only thin and transparent thread that connects him to the ordinary world. When he opens his mouth to say something he frightens us because we expect him to start moaning. The ritual of stroking his arm is always accompanied by moaning and his “nonsense” that a big worm is drilling holes in his elbow.
My mother has yelled at him many times, annoyed with this “stupidity”:
“What kind of worm? What kind of worm?”
And he stares at her wide pupils and answers dispassionately:
But this time the scene is not repeated. And my father whispers the reason:
“It’s not so bad off. There is a lot of greenery…”
After a few days we adapted to my father’s new fabrication. Everybody knew there was a turtle in our yard. Some mockingly asked questions about it. (What does it eat, where does it go, how does it sleep, where did it come from?) Some, when my father started telling his story, just nodded their heads without much concern, uninterested, calm, somewhat bored, but also undoubtedly with a pang of anxiety for the “poor, fragile, and gentle creature under the shell. And the shell, it might get crushed if you happen to step on it.”
For a long time my mother would heave a sigh and lift her eyes, but this also passed, and she started cracking jokes. The “your turtle” from her shouted diatribes turned into “our turtle,” spoken in coy feminine tones of mockery to prod her husband as if he were impotent, especially in the rare moments when a thin smile would rearrange the network of wrinkles on his dark face. But he remained stubborn, even in the new mood, and stood by his claim: We do have a turtle in the yard!
Our yard is truly marvelous. All who enter for the first time crook their necks to take in the Big Tree. And they wonder aloud at the female loyalty of the ivy clinging along the entire length of the tree. They admiringly sniff the air when they are struck by the fragrance of the flowers, and they smack their lips prosaically when their eyes eagerly nibble at the image of the future salad within the frame of flowers – tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
And the greatest miracles, my father says, are in our yard upside down. As if in a mirror, the top of the monastery bell tower, that is, the Big Tree, is as deep as it is high. The roots of the flowers are the same as these, but even prettier from the other side. Under the marble basin of the former Turkish bath (where my mother planted petunias) there is a gurgling spring that can be heard at night in the deep silence of the bedroom. No, there are no tomatoes and peppers like these. That’s right. None. Oh, the guests know how to admire the underground image of our yard. But because of many of them, my father breaks off his story, leaving them to the munching of a salad that gives them goose pimples, a certain sign that only we, the privileged few, know the difference between what is important and what is not.
Our guests inhale the fragrant air with nostrils spread wide. My father, shoulders hunched, sits in the chair that more than anything seems to hinder movements to and from the kitchen. From there, where the succulence of our yard has relocated, my mother carries dishes.
My father stares into the distance. His glance glides along the concrete pathway and, like a magnet, pulls the dark spot from the denseness of the parsley. Tap-tap. He lowers his gaze for a thread of light, fearfully staring, following the clumsy movements of the turtle along the pathway. The guests have their backs turned. I stare at it with my mouth open, and my mother, stepping from the kitchen and faced with the miracle on the trail, drops the platter. (Inevitably of salad.)
I keep watching the turtle, but out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of the frozen figure of my father, whose gaze protectively steers it into the safety of the thick shade of okra and eggplant. In the kitchen, my mother is fuming over the freshly sliced vegetables and whispers sharply:
“It’s not pink, you see! And I’m sure, positive, that it’s the small turtle we brought from Vodno when you went there for a summer holiday. With the children from the kindergarten. I’m sure. S-u-r-e! It has just grown up. Nothing strange after all.”
The turtle incident inspired me to listen with new attention to my father, who tells the old stories with a new vitality. My mother observes our bond suspiciously and from time to time mumbles:
“Pink turtles only exist in cartoons!”
Many days after my encounter with the turtle, my father woke me up one morning by touching me with his cold but healthy hand. Disheveled, his pajamas unbuttoned, he barely leaned against the bed. His eyes sparkling with his plea, he stammered that I had to save it… She had thrown it in the garbage. I had to get up. He was sorry, but the garbage men would be coming.
Shivering, I passed through the fog that had rolled into the yard. But, in fact, my mother had thrown the turtle into the garbage and it helplessly tried, using the five openings in its shell to turn over, to swing itself using the roundness of its back… I looked it at closely – it had a whitish, smooth underside, but with dry, scaly legs with sharp claws, with an awful head from which dark little eyes glittered, pleading for help. But… I couldn’t touch it because five little snakes slithered in and out of the shell’s openings…
Panting heavily, I returned through the yard, yelling to my mother that she had to get it out IMMEDIATELY. Yawning, barefoot, she sauntered down the pathway and then returned slowly, afterwards slurping her coffee restlessly. After a brief question, my father limped to the shed as if under a great burden. He peered for a long time through the crack in the old door and then struggled down the path again to us, even more slowly. Stammering, he whispered that it was awful. I should never leave him alone. He would break himself in two trying to help the poor pink creature. Yes. In the beginning it looks like a snake, but that should be overlooked. You have to reach in your hand and turn it over, not be disgusted by its shell, or afraid of its claws… Then it becomes pink.
My father died one night as I, whether because of a long night reading, or because of some predetermined fate of a person to be alone – slept deeply.
The next day I looked in shock at his body in the casket. The crossed arms were now symmetrical, both immobile, with large, uncut, curved fingernails. The fine capillaries on his forehead and cheeks created a bluish shadow over his hazy visage…
The sleeve of the palsied arm had a big hole at the elbow.
My mother, noticing my gaze, whispered:
“Moths ate our clothes.”
But I knew the big white worm had left through that hole. Now that pain was completely out of the question.
The night after the burial I dreamt of a huge turtle on the pathway of our yard. Turned on its back. With huge claws poking through the openings for its legs. It displayed its bent head. Just like a snake’s head. Revolting. But it looked at me with those familiar sad eyes, pleading for help. I was sweating as I turned it over. I struggled as if I were lifting a paralyzed man. But after I had turned it, pink, like a mobile bush, it disappeared into the garden.
I was awakened by my own weeping, and the cold air flowed towards me through the open window, rhythmically banging the shutters. With my back broken, leaning over the tear-stained dark yard, I yelled to the top of the Tree/Bell Tower:
“Fraanz! My father has turned into a turtle.”
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska