Holland - Fiction Judge for Word Smitten's
2003 TenTen Award
From her collection of stories titled
The Spectacle of the Body (Knopf)
At night, we kept watch for turtles. We made our beds one bed
to lie across together, our pillows pushed up in the window we
had popped the screen from. There was a broken place in our yard,
and in our yard, our garden. We could lean up onto our pillows
at night and watch out over the garden.
This was in the yellow house; it was swallowed up by trees. Vines
grew into the kitchen.
This was the summer our father left. Our mother lay at the back
of the house.
There were trains at night, and whippoorwills, and the sounds
our mother made at night went out across our yard. We moved Mother's
bed to the window—so she could see the sun and moon, so
she could see the garden.
We let the animals harvest the garden—the mule deer and
the whistle pigs, the rabbits nosed through our broken place—the
things you have to kill to catch. It was easy, catching turtles.
We leaned into the light from our window. My brother whistled
a marching call to tease the turtles two-by-two: Sugar and Vernon,
Oscar and Doll. That was what Orbit had named them. Every turtle
we caught, we caught again. We carved their names with a crooked
nail in the soft shells of their bellies. Our own names, we carved
in the trees.
We named our bird dog Bingo then. Our father had named her Jane.
We let her come sleep in our room with us, in our beds, underneath
our bedsheets, her head on Orbit's pillow. We kept Bingo's tail
in our pockets. Our turtles, we kept in a wooden box, or we let
them loose in our mother's room before we carried them back out
into our woods so we could catch them over again. We kept their
box beneath our beds so we could hear them if they moved at night.
We heard Mother sing at night—Mother Goose and birdcalls.
Whenever she was singing, when we could not help but hear her
singing, Orbit flung the bedsheet back and went out through the
window. I went to Mother with saltines, Popsicles, to feed her.
She pulled the bedsheet up across her mouth, held it below her
eyes, and danced, veiled—her arm dipping above the sheet,
her hand fluttering out at the end of it. I heard her hips twist.
I heard the field mice, shredding her clothes, in the dresser.
When Orbit came back with his bike form the lake, I sneaked to
our bed and pretended to sleep—so he could wake me, so we
could hunt for turtles. Some nights he did not wake me. He curled
under his sheet at the foot of his bed, and I would feel our beds
rock; I would hear the box springs start to shudder and creak
and our bird dog—curled up at the edge of the bed—moaning,
her head underneath Orbit's pillow. I pulled the sheet over my
head to listen—to his hand pumping his tiny prick, to him
Orbit brought jars of tadpoles from the lake, scooped from the
weedy shallows, and frogs, gigged and bleeding, he tried in the
coming days to heal. He sewed up the frogs with needle and thread,
patched their lesser wounds with gauze, practiced amputations.
Without Mother, we broke rules.
We ate with our fingers, if we ate at all. We said, Fingers
were made before forks.
We put tadpoles underneath our beds with the World Books, the
box of turtles.
We popped the screen from our window—so we could lean out
over our windowsill so we could watch for turtles. When our wonder
beans swung, there were turtles. Orbit was feet-first, shouting
Geronimo!, dropping past the windowsill before his bedsheets
settled. He kicked away from the side of the house, lunging backward,
gaining yard to the garden.
This is what was; this is what can have been.
We were Queen Mother and Orbit, we said, the summer she lay at
the back of the house, the autumn, the spring. Our father was
other places. Our father had sat with his hat at his feet, useless
in the kitchen. When he stood up, he stood up walking, moving
to the door.
We did not try to stop him.
We do not try to stop him.
We are Queen Mother and Orbit of the night birds and the terrapin,
of the tubers and of the leaving trees.
We are a ruckus of arms in the head-high weeds, bent-kneed, dropping
to stalk on our fingertips between rows of corn. In the squash,
we drop to our hands and knees and then to our bellies—elbowing,
dragging our legs, too loud in our own moving sounds to hear past
ourselves for prey. We watch down the rows for the beans to swing;
we keep an eye on Bingo, who is standing on the windowsill, watching
over us from our room. We have her broken-off tail in our pockets,
and rabbit's foot in our pockets, and the crooked nail we name
them with—our Sugar, our Vernon, our Doll. Oh, we are so
lucky! So grown, how blessed, such seers!
We stop in the dirt to listen.
We know Mother watches for us. We are sure she is listening for
us. There are strays, after all, wilding fields, and fire—and
we have seen houses splintered by wind life like leaves from their
We listen for the closing up, the hinged, hydraulic sound of
the keeping shells of the turtles. Orbit howls and I, Mother and
I, watch him—cat-backed, my brother, a boneless pounce of
boy into a sprawling thicket. He thrashes through the vines and
leaves; we see a flash of scrawny arm, a ratty patch of hair.
A sorrowful moan leaves Bingo, her havocked, swallowed trill.
We see my brother's legs jerk straight, Mother and Bingo and I—then
nothing; then he lies with his feet poked out of the beans as
though he has been grown over.
"It's Sugar," he explains to me, and hands off the
A green moon is the best moon, Orbit claims, for turtles.
Our mother claims in a green moon, as rare by far as a blue moon,
our father comes home and carries her out and, hand over hand,
runs her up the flagpole in our yard.
We hear her pleading with the Pope at night, blind-gigging geese