How Water Makes Mud of Dirt
My dad transformed into a turtle. I found him on top of the kitchen table at breakfast. I walked in, grabbed milk from the fridge, stepped over to the pantry for cereal, turned to sit at the table, and there he was in a shell. I could see a disappointed look in his dark eyes and knew it was my father.
I took him to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and plugged the drain to let the water fill to about an inch in height. When he hit the basin, the screech of his claws made me cringe.
“Dad,” I said, “don’t you know me?” He refused to speak. I pulled the shower curtain closed and sat on the toilet to think a minute.
So back at the breakfast table, Mom seemed to know. “Hell’s your dad?” she said in her blue gown as she chewed her cornflakes. Her morning hair hung in tangled strands around her shoulders. “Didn’t you find him out on the table? I left him there for you to see before he leaves.”
“How should I know where he is?” I asked.
She went straight for the bath and pointed.
“There he is right there,” she said. “He can’t stay here like that. If he’s going to be a turtle, he’s got to do it somewhere else.”
She took him from the tub and put him in a shoebox.
“Where are you taking him?” I asked her.
“I’m taking him down to the river. The Georgian will take care of him. He’s a man knows how to take care of things.”
“No,” I said. I had heard scary stories about the Georgian. “Not the Georgian. Let me take care of him. He won’t be trouble; I’ll keep him out of sight.”
But she drove away with my dad riding shotgun in the shoebox. She didn’t even put on any decent clothing, just walked out in her tattered blue gown and slippered feet.
I called Henry first thing. He’s my best friend and only other person I told at first. Henry agreed to meet me at the river, said his dad had already agreed to drop him off with the tandem kayak at the river and to meet him there. I had to walk; it’s about a mile from our house. Henry was wearing shorts and boat shoes without any socks and looked like he’d just had his blond hair cut. His round face smiled slant. Henry is chubby and taller than I am. He looked down at me.
Henry said, “My dad told me how to find the Georgian, knew right where he’d be, and I know exactly where he’s talking about. He used to take me fishing down there. Don’t have time for that now with the bank and all.”
I said, “Something smells rank.”
Henry said, “No doubt. Move quick. Something died over there by the bridge.”
We walked down to the river with the boat and our feet got stuck in the black mud. We sunk down knee deep and dropped the boat on a pointy cypress knee that poked a hole in the bottom of the boat. The mud felt cold and squishy between my toes. I sank up to my shins. The kayak filled with water. I thought about how water makes mud of dirt. I knew I was made of dirt, and the heat made me sweat and believe I could melt into mud.
Henry said, “I’ve got my phone. Who do we know with a kayak?”
“Lily has two,” I said.
Henry called Lily, and I had to tell her about my dad on the phone. She was real nice about it and said it wasn’t like I could help it. I was still all right with her, and that meant a lot because I wanted her to like me. Lily was there twelve minutes later on her four wheeler with her little brother Ed holding onto her waist. Her silhouette was pretty with her ponytail flapping behind her in the wind. They were pulling the kayaks on a blue trailer. We put the boats in a little further down this time, and Ed sat on the four wheeler watching us paddle away a minute before he spun up mud behind him and drove away from the boat landing.
We hadn’t paddled long before we realized we were in for a struggle. The river was nearly too low for paddling. I could see the heat wavering up through a haze that made my eyes seem like they weren’t working right. I thought it looked sort of like hell would look if there was such a place, made the world seem like a dream that wasn’t working out well. I was in the back of the boat trying to steer while Henry sat up front and acted as a guide. After we paddled maybe two minutes, we reached a place where the river was so low that we hit a sandy bar. I felt the bottom on my butt and sat there wishing I didn’t have to get out of the boat. We carried our boats a few yards before the water was deep enough to paddle. I didn’t want to have to work like this to find my dad, seemed like it should be easier to discover him.
Five fallen sycamore trees blocked our passage so that we had to beach the boats, get out, man each end of the boat to lift it, and then maneuver it up and over each trunk before reaching the other side of the trees. I went back and grabbed the opposite end of Lily’s boat to help her get through. Henry started to do it, but I insisted he let me because I wanted to help her. Then further down we came upon a felled cypress tree in our way. Normally, we could have paddled right over the debris, but the drought had exposed the obstacle. I was getting grouchy by that point and was glad when we found a place to paddle under the tree because I knew we would need all day to find The Georgian if we must get in and out of the boats every few minutes.
Lily carried bottled water and food in the boat with her in the empty seat, and Henry and I were in the other kayak paddling together. We all were so hot that when we came upon the first riverside shelter, we stopped to take a drink. The shelter was sitting up on a hill in the shadows of the pines and scrub oaks and cypress trees of the swamp all around the river. Even in the shade under the shelter the heat was miserable and made me think of summer school math and how Dad said he was sick of being embarrassed around his family and friends. I hoped I could make him happy by showing him I loved him enough to carry a boat through the swamp just to find him.
There was a mossy old picnic table under the shelter on the bank, and we were surprised to find a note that said, “Be careful. Come quick.”
I said, “I don’t recognize the writing.”
Henry said, “Maybe someone left it for the Georgian.”
Lily said, “Or maybe the Georgian left it for us.”
“But how would the Georgian know we’re coming?” I asked.
“Your mom probably warned him to lookout for you, Oliver,” said Lily.
We sat a moment under the shelter drinking water. After a little while, I felt a wave of warmth flow through my arms and legs and whole body. I liked the feeling.
Even though I was sitting behind him, Henry kept trying to paddle as fast as he could and steer the boat. He kept talking about setting the pace because we had a long way to go before we would get to the Georgian. He said we weren’t even half way there yet, and I started to realize just how long this could take when Henry cried out in pain and held his lower back.
“Stung me!” he yelled. “My allergies.”
“Ow,” Lily cried and grabbed her shoulder. “Bees!”
I could feel our kayak jerk back and forth and next thing I knew we were toppled over and under water. I thought Henry must have done it on purpose to escape the bees. When I came up for air I saw Lily roll her kayak, too.
Then I could see they weren’t bees stinging. I spotted movement in my peripheral vision, somebody’s dingy white t-shirt flashing among the hazy gray and mossy green. There were some kids wearing turtle shell helmets, creeping down the low grade hills on either side of the river, crouching through the shadows between the cypress trees with their b. b. guns firing away at us. There must have been six or more on each side of the river raising hell. They seemed like floating ghosts more than kids who crept, and I got goose bumps all up and down my arms as I watched them. They looked wild and pissed off about something. Maybe their dads had transformed, too.
I pulled the kayak close and hid underneath it, moving down river. We could hear the pellets bouncing off the bottom of the kayak. The sound stopped, and I looked by ducking down in the water and coming up on the outside of the boat where I could see that the swamp kids had disappeared into the haze as mysteriously as they had appeared.
“They’re gone,” I said to Henry and Lily, and they both popped up from below.
“The hell was that?” Lily asked.
“The Georgian’s kids?” Henry asked.
“Let’s get these boats turned over and get out of here,” I said.
“Agreed,” said Lily. “Hold your horses, Henry! I’m not ready.”
Henry and I helped Lily first, and then she helped us, and we righted our boats before paddling away down river. It was even hotter by then. There was an actual wasp flying around Henry’s head. I started thinking maybe I wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Henry swatted at it as I tried to tell him no, don’t anger it, it’s not a bee, it’s a wasp, but Henry’s hand grazed the wasp and knocked it out of the air and onto his back where I could see it stick him with the dark stinger.
“Don’t panic,” I told him, “it’s only a wasp, not a bee.”
“I’m allergic to wasps, too, Oliver. Help me.”
“Lily, what do I do?”
“Paddle him over to the bank over there past that sandbar.”
I said okay and paddled right over to the bank and pushed the kayak up onto the sand there. I got out of the boat and helped Henry up the hill where he lay under a scrub oak. His throat and face were puffing up fast, and he was already having trouble breathing. He told me he had some medicine in the boat, so I ran down to the water and grabbed his army green messenger bag out of the kayak. Lily was pulling her boat up onto the bank. She climbed out and followed me. When we ran back up the hill to the tree, he was gone, disappeared. Lily walked up behind me and said, “Where is he?”
I said, “I don’t know. He was right here.” I turned circles and felt a sickness in my stomach.
We searched all around but couldn’t find him. Now I was scared. Something terrible seemed to be happening, and I couldn’t stop it. I was being pulled into something I didn’t want to face.
“See if you can find foot prints,” Lily instructed me, “signs that he might’ve gotten up and walked away, or maybe some of those kids took him.”
“Nah, don’t think they’ve been following us do you?”
She didn’t answer me. I had to convince her to keep on going with me, that we’d find him on the way back, that he’d be all right and so would we, but I wasn’t sure. Henry was the one who knew where to find the Georgian. How could we leave him?
“I don’t know how we’ll find the Georgian now,” I said to Lily as we paddled side by side. She said she had a pretty good idea where he was and not to worry about it, so I didn’t because I trusted Lily. We had to get out of the boat and climb over more trees. I kept sweating and Lily told me the drinking water was lost when we had to turn the boats over. I was parched, but we still hadn’t even gotten into the hottest part of the day yet, and I felt queasy. Lily told me whatever I do, don’t drink the river water.
Then I was stuck in the debris, and it was harder to paddle without Henry. Spanish-moss-hung limbs, soggy and spongy, seemed everywhere in the way. I would work up to a spot where there was a pile and a convoluted way through and the boat would stick sideways. I was red-faced mad and paddled forward and back trying to turn the boat, but it wouldn’t cooperate. I held my head back and banshee screamed. I began to think my birth had been an accident; it would’ve been better if I hadn’t been born. I finally threw up into the river and felt a lot better afterward, sort of relieved. We didn’t get far before the boat hit bottom, and we had to get out and drag it to deeper water where it would actually float. When we had to get out a second time to lift the kayak over a tree, I threw up again and as we paddled away, I continued to heave to the point I couldn’t paddle anymore. My hands cramped and my fingers closed up involuntarily. I thought I was dying and tried to think of words for Lily to pass to Mom, but I couldn’t think of any and panicked. The swamp seemed to fade from a light green to gray. Holding my paddle became impossible, and I lay it across the boat, kind of like it was in my lap.
“I can’t paddle,” I managed to tell Lily.
“Come on, Oliver,” she said, “Don’t give up.”
I could only dry heave in reply and kept heaving until I couldn’t breathe and heaved some more until I thought I would choke or suffocate. I wanted to drink from the river, but Lily said it would make me sicker. My whole body cramped, and my hands went numb. I’d heard doctors say it was a symptom, so I took it to mean I was having a heart attack and said so. Every muscle in my body curled until I was in a fetal position with my knees pressing against the top of the kayak. I was trying again to think of something I could tell Lily to tell my mother but drew another blank and knew I had nothing to say, no last words. It was the most terrible moment of my life, and I wanted to cry but had no tears. I felt paralyzed. I was too weak to move and lifting a kayak up and over a downed tree wasn’t happening, so I told Lily I had to take a break. As the river turned hard to the right, we approached a tiny hill with a shelter tucked back in shadows under the moss cloaked canopy. Here a creek branched off and wound its way in back of the shelter, trailing off into the dark. We saw a landing and a thatched-roof hut in a small clearing at the edge of the darkening woods. Lily pulled the boat off to the side and tried to hit the landing but missed it because she was in front and couldn’t steer as well as she could have in my seat. She grabbed a fistful of tree roots growing out of the shoulder of the river bank and held the boat against the river current. She pulled the boat up river and back to the landing where she managed to get out and drag it safely ashore. She turned me over in the boat, and I spilled out into the wet sand. Lily helped me to my feet, and we walked several feet before I collapsed and rested there in a crumpled hump until I could breathe again.
An old man stood at the top of the landing, withered, crinkled, and hunched. He wore rags. Lily asked him if he knew the Georgian. He pointed up the hill where I could see a path wind its way into the swamp and disappear. We left the old man standing there, but I couldn’t shake a suspicion about him. Mosquitoes bit my ankles and shins. I swatted them away a few times, but it was futile to do so. My legs were a speckled red, inflamed and itching. Soon I thought I heard thunder.
“Hear that?” I asked Lily.
She said, “Yes. Sounds like drums.”
I listened again. She was right. The music grew louder as we walked. I could hear the strange rhythm, syncopated, hypnotic. The ground of the path was damp and to our right and left, all around, the water of the swamp, ankle deep mostly, surrounded us. This seemed like a deer path maybe, on what might be called a ridge, but it looked mostly flat and couldn’t have been more than inches higher than the surrounding area. My dad might have called it a hummock. The woods were full of loblolly and long-leaf pine trees, live oak trees, sour gum trees, and cypress trees. I looked up into them and saw through the limbs a faint blue. My clothes were soaked. My head dripped with sweat. The drums beat and beat and beat. We were ambushed.
Two men appeared with guns pointed at us. The old man of the landing had sent us into an ambush. They wore turtle shells tied around their necks and little else. They each wore ragged khaki cut off shorts tied at the waist with rope. They looked like bald twins. They motioned for us to move up the path. We walked with the gunmen at our backs and approached a hut with thatched roof.
There was a wooden sign nailed to one of the cypress trees near the hut that said, “The Georgian Welcomes Turtles and Kids. All Others Enter at Your Own Risk.” I thought his capitalization of letters was strange for such a modest sign, carved clean and in straight lines.
The Georgian was standing in the door of the thatched roof hut. He brought down water in a leather pouch he had strapped around his shoulders. He gave me the water without a word, and I turned up the leather bottle, took in a large drink and felt better right away. My fingers uncurled, and my muscles loosened. With a nod, the Georgian dispatched the twins. They disappeared into the gray swamp.
As I rested, I took a good look at the man. I’d never seen anything like The Georgian. He was wearing turtle shells on his shoulders, like football pads, and he had a turtle shell helmet on his head like the kids that shot at us. Around his neck, wrists, and ankles, he wore strings of turtle claws that rattled when he moved. He was gross because he didn’t have anything else on, except a turtle shell covering his privates. His skin was leathery and had brown spots kind of like birthmarks. He didn’t wear shoes on his crusty feet and his toenails looked like brown blades. He wasn’t tall but broad-shouldered and barrel-chested with thick legs and feet.
When I surveyed the area around his hut, I was disturbed to see several dead turtles mounted on stakes. The stakes were jammed up their butts; I asked about it.
He said with a voice like gravel, “Some turtles choose death, people reject them. I give them a death, if they want.”
When he spoke, he sounded Russian, which surprised me because I thought Georgia was a Southern state of America, but he said it was on the Black Sea somewhere far away. I never saw a black sea before and wondered what was in it that would be black, but I didn’t know. I pictured a sea of oil. He asked what we were doing there, and I told him, “I’m Oliver James; we’re looking for my dad.” He said that my dad was with other turtles like him and could live here in the swamp where turtles live without judgment.
The Georgian took me by the shoulder and whispered into my ear. He was way too close, and I could feel his prickly gray beard and his breath against my skin as he told me that Lily had planned the b. b. gun attack. I told him that was crazy and wondered how he knew, but he said it was true. I didn’t know what to think. He said that she wanted me to think the turtle had done it, but I said that hadn’t even crossed my mind. He said that didn’t matter, and I said I just wanted to see my dad. He said I’d have to follow him.
“Where have you taken him,” I asked.
He made no answer as he climbed into a canoe that looked carved from a pine tree trunk and paddled off down the river and deeper into the gray swamp. He rattled as he paddled.
“We’d better not let him get too far out of sight if we’re going to keep up with him,” said Lily as she walked past me and down to the riverside. “Let’s paddle together and leave the other boat here. We can pick it up later.”
We climbed in the boat and paddled off after the Georgian whose shadow we could see just up ahead. The Georgian paddled down a side creek, and the banks closed in on us. Trees towered over us looking like old men with gnarly heads and curly gray hair. They shaded us, which gave no relief from the awful heat that made my skin boil, and I couldn’t get dry at all. Every time I breathed it felt like I might suffocate. My arms burned and felt like heavy metal as I struggled to continue to paddle. I tried to focus on my dad and how he looked when he used to play the piano. He played Bach’s “Inventions.” I could hear each note in my mind’s ear.
Finally, the Georgian stopped, climbed out of his canoe, and high-stepped through the muddy swamp to a small clearing where several logs were covered with turtles. I had never seen so many turtles together in one spot before. The Georgian crept carefully and stood with the turtles lined up on rotting logs. He seemed to be inspecting them, for markings I guess, so he could tell them apart is what I thought. I couldn’t believe the turtles didn’t jump off the logs and disappear into the swamp water, but the Georgian put hands on them and mumbled as he searched for my dad.
Lily said in my ear, “Cooter whisperer.”
I cringed at her use of that word.
The Georgian lifted one of the turtles from a log and brought him over to us. I could see the eyes and knew right away it was him. He still couldn’t get over the fact I had to go to summer school for math, and I wondered if he was still embarrassed of me like he said last time I saw him before the change. I tried not to think that I should be the one embarrassed but kind of couldn’t help it. The Georgian handed him over, and I tried to reason with the turtle as Lily and the Georgian faded.
“Come on, Dad,” I said. “Speak.” I looked at Dad’s turtle shell and marveled at the orange and brown patterns. Some looked like shapes we studied in math, pentagons and hexagons and such. The turtle withdrew his head into his shell and kept it there.
“That’s a hexagon there,” I pointed. “See what I’ve learned in math?”
His shell was beautiful, and I knew he’d hidden for protection. I didn’t blame him.
Still, when he wouldn’t come out, it made me angry. So I threw the damned turtle up against a tree and remembered reading in the encyclopedia that the domed shell was an adaptation that kept predators from being able to hold turtles in their mouths and crush them. It was also very difficult to crush them otherwise, I found, but I tried. I even jumped up and down on him without any damage done. I was angry I couldn’t change the way things were turning out, angry because I knew Dad had to leave home. I watched as he came out, waddled off into the creek, and disappeared into its murky water.
I walked back up the creek a bit and found the Georgian inspecting turtle shells. He looked up at me and smiled.
He said, “Can stay if you wish.”
“Where’s Lily,” I asked.
“Who is Lily?” he asked.
I wondered why the Georgian would say that and stared into his dark eyes. He had a disappointed look in them. I thought maybe he’d failed at something, too, like me. I was disappointed. But he took me into his hut, much larger inside than I thought. Deep in the back was a bunker with boxes along the side. The boxes were stacked two high, three long, with one on top, all of them open. I could see four gallon-jugs of water in each box except the one on top, which had only three. I took one, looked up and saw gun racks on the back wall. The Georgian handed me a rifle. Under the racks was a rough wooden table. Small boxes stood in stacks on top of the table, and he handed me one of those, too. It rattled.
“Used one of these before?”
“Know how to load it? Here in the barrel?”
I loaded the end of the barrel full of b. b. pellets, and the Georgian was gone when I turned. I grabbed a helmet from the table and walked out, no sign of the Georgian. I waited.
I figured it must be three or four, hottest part of the day. I was glad to be still a while.
I felt a few cool drops of rain on my arm and face as a drizzle picked up and cooled the air. I walked over to the hut where there were three rocking chairs and a long table. I sat in one of the rocking chairs. The rain poured heavier and cooled down the air several degrees. I stood up and walked down to the water and dunked my head in and then waded in fully and sat on the shallow bottom. I hung my head but did not pray because I couldn’t believe in a god at that moment.
The Georgian walked up and told me to follow him. He led the way further down the foot path into the swamp. The gnats bit at my ears and buzzed in and out of them. I felt much stronger after my rest, but I was scared now. My dad had not responded. My mother was home. I was lost in the swamp. My friends had disappeared, and the Georgian was my only hope. He must help me find my way back home.
“Can you call my mom? Got a cell phone? Probably can’t get reception out here.”
“Your mom cannot be reached from here. Saw her today. She brought me your father.”
“But I don’t know how to get out of here.”
He pointed ahead, and I saw a live oak with thick, low hanging branches, on top of which was a tree house.
“Sleep there tonight,” he said.
I climbed into this tree, and now I cling to the weapons the Georgian gave me. This tree house has no walls, but there are three rails that enclose the wooden floor that surrounds the fat oak. Night is spreading through the swamp and stars appear here and there through the thick canopy. I try to hum in time with the beat of the drums and the swamp. Along with drums, which still beat unseen, bugs beat a swamp rhythm as I stare into the darkness. I hear other swamp sounds, screams that might be bobcats, calls that might be owls. I listen to the rhythm and devise a plan to return home in the morning. I try to sleep and cannot. So I lie on my back and look again at the sky, dark outlines of branches, a patchwork of shadows, limbs and sky, a collage. I try to remember who I am. I am Oliver. Oliver. My name sounds meaningless here.