Sunday Star Short Story Contest: First Place 2001
Turtle Heaven
by Melinda Burns

DORRIE LAID OUT her clothes for the day on her bed -- red tartan skirt, heavy brown tights, cotton undershirt and underpants, her bright yellow sweater and red hat. She laid them out in their right places to form a person, hat above sweater, then skirt, then tights, with the underwear tucked underneath although she would need that first. She put her heavy black shoes on the floor where the feet of the tights extended down.

Dorrie glimpsed her own saggy body in the mirror on the closet door, her birdlike, wrinkled face looking back at her, then quickly tugged out the underwear and sat on the side of the bed to put it on. Undershirt so much easier than bra, pulling it over her thin brown hair, brown tights bunching at her ankles, reaching up her short legs. Then red, yellow, red. Like the leaves outside. She would walk through the leaves in her red skirt and yellow sweater and red hat, her brown legs and black shoes like trunk and earth. She would be a walking tree today.

Inside her head, her mother's voice rang: "Dorrie, you can't wear those clothes. They clash. You can't wear yellow and red together." Dorrie covered her ears and shook her head. "I can," she whispered, and gave the bows in her shoelaces a final tug before going to feed Bill. In the kitchen, Bill, the black and white cat, trotted over expectantly, put his paw on her leg as he did every morning as if to say "Bless you." Dorrie patted both sides of his wide body. She spooned food into his dish while Bill bumped around her ankles. Dorrie watched him eat a moment then went back into her room to collect the sandwich she had made herself the night before. Just before going out, she picked up from the night table beside her bed a small green soapstone turtle and slipped it into her pocket.

It was a brilliant blue-sky day and Dorrie took a big breath of the crisp air. As she walked, she fingered the smooth sides of the turtle in her pocket, the pointed tail, the lines carved in the shell, the indentations for the toes on each foot. She hummed a little song she was making up as she crunched through the corn flake leaves. It had no words and was more like a bird's song, running up and down notes. Dorrie was more like a bird herself, picking her way through the fallen leaves lying like bits of bright paper, shapes of stained glass, at her feet. When she came to her favourite bench she sat down, smoothed her plaid skirt over her knees and pulled out her sandwich. Dorrie bent over the unwrapped square of bread so the ketchup wouldn't run out on her sweater. "Dorrie! Don't make a mess!" she heard her mother say. "Eat that in the kitchen!" Dorrie shook her head and took a bite.

When Dorrie was small, she had overheard her mother say in a teary whisper to a neighbour that Dorrie would never be a "normal girl" but Dorrie had heard it as a "Norma girl" and wondered why her mother hadn't just named her Norma instead of Dorrie if that's what she wanted. Dorrie knew she wasn't a Norma girl by the way her mother sighed when she wasn't yelling at her to sit up straight, look people in the eye, wipe her nose; by the plaintive look in her mother's eyes when people said how well Dorrie did, "considering ... " Considering what, Dorrie wondered when their voices trailed off and they smiled sadly at her. Maybe considering that she had no father. Her mother had told her that her father had left them "high and dry" which seemed to Dorrie a very considering thing to do, though her mother banged her cup on the table when she said it.

The day 43 years ago when her mother had fallen back on the bed upstairs clutching her chest, Dorrie had been sitting at the table finishing her soup. She sat waiting for her mother to come back so she could ask to be excused. When no one came and the light in the late winter sky started to dim, Dorrie tiptoed up the carpeted stairs to her mother's room. She looked a long time, not wanting to wake her and be scolded, and only when it grew dark and she didn't know whether to take the chicken or the fish out of the freezer and was afraid her mother would yell more at her for not doing either, did she creep down the stairs and over to the next-door neighbour's for help.

Her mother's house had gone to pay for debts. The special school she attended had found her employment in a sheltered workshop. Now she was too old to work there and she lived with the Williams who gave her meals and a room in exchange for light housekeeping and looking after their cat, Bill, when they travelled.

A young girl sped by on her bicycle leaning over the handlebars, a large green backpack strapped to her shoulders. "Flying turtle," Dorrie thought, putting her hand in her pocket again to pat her friend. "Myrtle" was her friend's name and Dorrie didn't know why people laughed when she told them. Myrtle the turtle. Dorrie the dope. That's what they called her in her first school. Dope, lope, hope, rope. Dorrie liked to rhyme. It changed the words to sounds running past her ears and took the hurt away.

A teacher at the workshop had given Dorrie the turtle carving when she was leaving. She said Dorrie reminded her of a turtle. Dorrie had turned the present over in her hands picturing herself as a creature inside a shell. But the teacher said, "Because of how you stick your neck out. Like when you told that George who talks so loud to be quiet so that Eddie could speak, and of course he did, because no one ever expected you to say anything." Through the years, when the voice got too loud for her, too insistent, Dorrie would trace the intricate lines on the turtle's shell, let her mind roam along their pathways until the voice faded back and away.

A truck lumbered by, sighing over its load. Dorrie finished her ketchup sandwich and stood up. She stood with her toes pointed out and her knitted red hat on her head like a bowl. People walked quickly by, hardly seeing her, their heels tap tapping on the sidewalk. Cars skimmed past like salmon surging for the spawning grounds. Dorrie watched a gray squirrel chase a black one around a tree then climb in one instant to the high branches and along the telephone wires like messages from earth to sky. Dorrie waited. The world moved around her.

She put her hand in her sweater pocket once more, and touched the turtle. Dorrie looked across the road to the owls perched on the roof of the library. They never moved, stationed all day to scare the crows. No home for a turtle. She knew the river where turtles might live, the damp banks and mossy rocks. Too far for her old legs to take her there and back before Bill's dinnertime. She closed her eyes and closed her hand around Myrtle's whole body, like an egg. "I'll take you," she said. "I know where to go. I'll take you."

Dorrie walked to the corner, turned right on to the main street, past windows of shoes, windows of books, tables with pink cloths and people leaning toward each other, letters on glass. Three doors from the end of the block she stopped in front of a window and looked in. She remembered Christmas displays from when she was little, the elves with moving arms, Santa's swivelling head. Dorrie was glad no one moved in this small window. The bits of forest stayed held in square wood, the colours caught in woven patches rested easily. And there in the centre, with her green and rust shell a large turtle stood still, one foot lifted as if she might walk away but so slowly no one would notice. A mirror below showed her creamy underbelly. "There," said Dorrie, stroking her own smooth friend. "There is your mother. You can go home."

Dorrie heard her own mother's voice. "Don't tell her stories, she lives too much in fantasy already. Dorrie, you know that turtle's not real. Stop pretending." Dorrie shook her head, patted the turtle's back in her pocket, and pushed hard on the door to enter. A little bell above the door signalled and the woman behind the counter looked up and smiled. "Hi, Dorrie. How are you? How's Bill? How's Myrtle?" Dorrie held up the soapstone turtle and nodded it up and down. The woman, Marcia, laughed and turned back to the box she was unloading. "I can't visit much today, Dorrie. A whole new shipment just came in. I put out half of it this morning. Do you see?" Dorrie turned all the way around in the shop. She saw the cloud-streaked sky and the hawk flying forever in its shining square on the wall. And the hanging bits of silver that sang when someone stirred them. And the drum with the wolf howling on it, leaning against the wall.

Marcia's store was called "In the Presents" because it was a gift shop but Dorrie had felt since the first time she entered it that she was in the presence of something. She went back often, but not too often, and looked at every single thing there. "Look with your eyes, not with your hands," Dorrie's mother had said whenever they went to a store or someone's house, and Dorrie kept her arms squarely at her sides. In Marcia's store, she looked not with her hands but with her whole body, breathing in the hawk's free flight and breathing out the wolf's heartfelt howl, feeling the song inside her stirring like silver in the breeze. When she entered the store, she wasn't just a flat person like the clothes she laid out on her bed every morning, but something more full and real, someone of substance.

The sound of water running over rocks caught Dorrie's ear. Maybe that is Myrtle's home, she thought, stepping nearer the fountain. Then she saw the new bowl next to it and stopped, transfixed. The colour of the bowl, like blue-green water steeped in sunlight, pulled Dorrie in, with a feeling deep in her stomach as if she could eat and it would fill her completely. At the bottom of the bowl, there was a spiral that Dorrie followed deep into its centre like entering a pool of blue-green stillness. Without her even knowing, her hands reached out and picked up the rounded square that fit just so in her two old hands. Marcia looked up from her unpacking. "Careful, Dorrie," she said, reflexively, the way she would speak to her own small children. Dorrie had brought the bowl up to her face as if to drink from it, peering in. It covered the whole of her face so that all you could see was the red hat and her eyebrows raised, her little chin below. When she had breathed in several times, Dorrie lowered the bowl gently, carefully setting it back in its place by the fountain, next to the folded white card for its price and maker.

Marcia looked back to the pile of Styrofoam and bubble wrap at her feet and so she heard the crash rather than seeing it. What she saw when she looked up was Dorrie standing, frozen, looking down at her feet. When Dorrie had turned toward the water in the fountain, her sweater sleeve had caught just the edge of the bowl. She saw it tip and tumble, like a waterfall spilling irresistibly to the rocks below. Then the explosion of sound, shards of blue-green frozen colour shattering the air. Dorrie stood still, eyes squeezed shut, the hawk screeching as it flew away, the silver clanging, the drums beating hard in her head. Smash, bash, crash, dash, spiralling down.

"Dorrie! What have you done! What's the matter with you! Have you broken your breakfast bowl? Your glass? Your cup? My heart? Again, and again, and again ... " Dorrie heard her mother through all the years, shouting, crying, her angry, exhausted, disappointed, heartbroken voice. "Dorrie! What will I do with you?"

But when she opened her eyes, there was silence. Marcia was beside her, hand on her shoulder. "Dorrie. It's OK. I saw how carefully you put it down. It was an accident. It's OK. Let's pick it up," and she bent to pick out the large sharp pieces. Dorrie knelt beside her and felt her breath loosen, move through her like water washing the rocks of her bones.

Then, as she knelt and swept the pieces into the dustpan, the dark clouds gathered like a storm resuming after a temporary lull. "Dorrie! Go home now! I told you! Go home before you break another thing!" Dorrie struggled to her feet with the dustpan, reaching for the turtle in her pocket. She stood for a moment, one weight in each hand, the voice clamouring around her. Then, with a hard shake of her head, she took the dustpan and dumped the pieces into the wastebasket.

Dorrie stood before Marcia at the counter. "I can work for it." Marcia looked up, as startled as if the turtle in the window had spoken. Dorrie was holding the card with the price of the bowl on it. "I can work for it," she said again. "I know how to sweep, and wash windows, and dust fountains. I can come every day." The silver wind chimes stirred delicately, the hawk landed on the overhanging branch. The drums beat a steady rhythm in her chest. Marcia smiled.

Dorrie worked all afternoon, humming as she dusted and carried, swept and polished. The water trickling over the rocks accompanied her and the little bell over the door added its intermittent voice. When it was almost time to close up, Marcia said, "The bowl is paid for, Dorrie. Thank you. You're a good worker." The phone rang in the back office and Marcia went to answer.

Dorrie stepped out into the flow of people heading home. The sky was turning blue-gray, the trees etching themselves against it like ink drawings.

In her pocket Dorrie felt the place where Myrtle had been, curled her hand around the empty space. She hummed her song and pictured her friend sitting now on the counter next to Marcia's glasses, the white card beside her with Dorrie's printing: "This is for you. She wants to live here."



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