The Turtle Catcher
20th Annual Tamarack Award
A humped creature lopes the shore and shallows of Wood Lake. During the day, it burrows into black mud,
soothes its body—hot from the Minnesota sun—and sleeps light in reptilian slumber. The neighbors say Lester Piotter morphed into a turtle man, his lungs broadened to hold volumes of air, his skin dried to leather, his back hardened to plates. The jaws of his hairless head snap at man and child alike. He pulls the fresh-caught meat below the surface and waits in the slow, patient way of a turtle.
Editor’s Note: This is a story for adult readers.
In the time between the two big wars, when banks weren’t to be trusted, and when snapper turtle stew, a cheap meal for the big families common in those days, bubbled on stove tops in farm kitchens, the five Berkner brothers led Lester Piotter to the edge of Wood Lake and watched him drown between the sights of their rifles. They drove him in with the barrels of their guns and stood guard among the cattails while the rocks they’d stuffed into Lester’s pockets pulled him into the heavy embrace of the lake weeds. The water filled his boots, soaked his overalls, and the stones in his pockets sank him. The Berkner boys leaned the rifles against their legs and waited for Lester to stop breaking the surface and gasping for air. None of them bothered about the company of cicadas that’d gathered in the sky and hovered like vapor.
When, finally, Wood Lake stopped frothing and the insect rumpus quieted, Benjamin Berkner, the oldest, whittled a turtle toy out of a stick of cottonwood tree for his littlest brother, Ned, just twelve years old. Benjamin concentrated on next Sunday’s church picnic, where he’d wrap his arm around the thin shoulders of Betty Mathiowetz. Little Ned sat on the bank, rifle across his knees, and picked slivers from the toy’s shell and thought about the words his sister, Anna, taught him to spell: winter, summer, autumn, spring, Minnesota, Comfrey, field, neighbor, weight, wield. Anna gave Ned ten new words every week and tested him Sunday nights. Ned wondered how Anna knew everything when she’d never so much as stepped off the farm place.
The other Berkner brothers lingered near the lake, too. Stanley napped under the shade of an ash tree and dreamed of joining the Brake family, bootleggers from Wilmont in the next county over, who shuttled moonshine to Chicago for Al Capone and sped back with a new Tin Lizzie after nearly every run. Stanley had heard that the Brakes stood full bottles of beer in farm driveways along the way from southern Minnesota to Chicago. Stanley liked to imagine waking up one morning to find a row of brown bottles lining the driveway and knowing that, in some small way, he’d been party to the Brakes’ business. Lawrence Berkner cleaned his fingernails with a pocketknife and thought of bread and stew and beer and rhubarb pie and Ty Cobb, and Robert Berkner paced the shore looking wide and near for signs that the brothers’ deed was being witnessed. Once, he thought someone moved among the cattails, but it was only the sun playing tricks with the reflecting water, making roving eyes where there were none. Robert had been jumpy since he returned from the war against the Kaiser with one arm missing, shrapnel in his shin, and ghosts of all the German boys he’d shot or bayoneted in his mind. Robert and his brothers and sister were only two generations removed from the German homeland. The guilt of killing his own kind haunted him. His Papa, a Wilson protestor who’d said, Robert, don’t bother coming home unless you come home wearing a German uniform, had died of influenza while he fought in Europe. His death left the six Berkner children parentless, as their mother had died years before.
The Berkner boys waited together until the sun cupped Wood Lake in her palms and whispered quiet and patient things to the water and reeds and fish and fowl while the man at the bottom, below the weeds and black bullheads, breathed water and sludge into his chest and opened his eyes wide to a shard of sunlight breaking through the murky water. Lester Piotter leaned back, listened to the light, and let his lungs fill.
To Lester, the sunlight seemed clean as the chalk Miss Halvorson, the schoolteacher, had given him many years ago, when she’d come to the farm and walked right up to the pigsty to ask his pa why he didn’t send the children to school. Before Lester’s pa looked up to answer, he held steady a sow between his powerful thighs and cut the curling tail from the pig’s behind. He said for Miss Halvorson to mind her own business and mind her place among men. When the sow quit screaming, he added, Children of mine earn their keep.
A full school is a benefit to the entire township, Mr. Piotter, she’d said. Surely you could spare this little one a few hours a day for reading and writing at the Comfrey Country School. You want your son to know how to read, don’t you?
She’d pointed to Lester, who stood in the shadow of his pa. Lester remembered that Miss Halvorson hadn’t looked surprised at his hands, full of the sow tails his pa had sliced and tossed into the manure. Lester used them for bullhead bait.
Seems you don’t know too much for being an educated woman, Lester’s pa said. That one’s not right in the head.
Lester’s pa tapped Lester’s head with the trimming knife.
He’s best left diggin’ in the shit and catchin’ fish. That’s thinkin’ enough for his kind.
Lester’s pa put the knife in his overall pocket. He loosened his grip on the sow, slapped its thigh.
Now git, he said to Miss Halvorson.
Lester wiped a loose spittle of drool from the corner of his mouth with the back of his tail-stuffed hand.
The schoolteacher had thanked his pa for his time, nodded her head, and turned to leave. But before she did, she pulled a stick of chalk from her apron pocket and held it out toward Lester. Lester wouldn’t drop the pig tails.
Here then, she said. Open up.
Miss Halvorson slipped the stick of chalk into Lester’s mouth.
This isn’t for eating, dear, she said. It’s for writing.
She walked away.
Lester scratched the chalk with his teeth and tasted how easily it flaked away. He dropped the tails into his pocket and handled the stick of chalk. He never used it again, but he kept the chalk all his life under a hollowed-out turtle shell in the corner of the granary where he slept in the warm Minnesota months.
The Berkner brothers lingered on the edge of Wood Lake until the ducks stepped back into the water, some with ducklings trailing behind. Then the boys were satisfied that what needed to get done had been finished completely. And on the walk back to their farm, Benjamin Berkner handed Stanley a dime. Stan’d said it wouldn’t take even one bullet to get that crazy bastard into the water and keep him there. He was right, and each of his four brothers lost a coin that afternoon. Benjamin put in for Ned, who was too young to earn cash money. When little Ned stopped and turned to look back on Wood Lake, his older brothers told him, Come on.
Well, Ned said. I guess we took care a him.
This here is nothing to talk about ever again, Benjamin said. You understand me?
I was just sayin’, replied Ned.
No, said Ben. Not ever again. You walk away from here and forget about this. We did what needed to be done. That’s it. Papa would’ve done the same and Mother would’ve said to keep quiet. So not another word from any of you. Not to Anna especially.
Stanley, Lawrence, Robert, and Ned shook their heads yes.
Now let’s get home and see what Anna’s got ready for supper, said Ben.
Two miles away, seventeen-year-old Anna took a paring knife from the counter, left the stew simmering on the stove, and walked to the place behind the barn where Lester Piotter had butchered the snappers she bought from him every month, to the place where she brought him lemonade or fresh bread, to the place where she listened to his rambling and practiced flirting. She sometimes palmed him up and down until he shuddered and then wept in her skirts, ashamed and confused and apologizing for the mess he’d left in Anna’s hand. She carried the paring knife to the place where she had romanced a retarded man known county-wide for his simple mind and his skill at trapping snappers.
Anna knelt in the long grass, tossed aside a turtle head, cleanly severed by Lester, its eyes gone to the birds, and pulled her skirt to her waist and pushed the rest of her wrappings sideways. She aimed the knife at where a long organ protruded, like those that hung large and menacing from between the bull’s legs, from between her brothers’ legs. Anna never understood why it grew there. In every other way, she was a woman. Mother, long ago, had tied a wool string around the organ to deaden the thing and make it fall away, but the string had only yielded to the persistence of the growth and eventually disintegrated altogether. Mother had been too ashamed to bring Dr. Mathiowetz to remove the organ from Anna. Dr. Mathiowetz was husband to the haughtiest woman and father to the prettiest girl in Comfrey, and Mother didn’t want his wife to have the satisfaction of knowing the Berkners’ troubles. Mrs. Mathiowetz came from Chicago and had a proud way about her that rubbed Mother wrong.
Mother figured her daughter’s affliction was God’s punishment for her husband’s wickedness. While the crop prices dropped, the Berkner family had bought up the neighbors’ land, one parcel at a time, with money borrowed from the Comfrey bank before the bank stopped extending credit. Most of the money the Berkners borrowed belonged to the neighbors, probably, and Papa was buying up the neighbors’ land with the neighbors’ own money. Mother mentioned it to Papa once, and he’d slapped her mouth, taken her to the bed, and planted the last of Anna’s brothers there. Before long, Mother’s life returned to its usual rhythm, and she thought of Anna’s problem only once or twice a day after Anna turned five and could wash and toilet herself. The bursting baby took over Mother’s body, sucked all color, fat, and blood from her. Even at five years old, Anna knew the baby would devour her mother completely and leave Anna the only girl in a house full of men.
Behind the barn, Anna settled her mind about the removal of the evil thing that had caused her so much grief. She pointed her knife to the skin and vein that Mother had kept hidden from Papa, from her brothers, from the family, from everyone in Comfrey and in the world. Nobody but Anna and Mother and God knew what mutated between Anna’s thin waist and thick thighs. And this secret kept Anna from any friend, any school, any life outside the Berkner farm. Anna crept into her mind and stayed there among the letters and words and poems she’d compose in her head. She tended to her books when her brothers went to socials, she prayed at home when her brothers went to church, she hid in the house when neighbors came calling. She had only one acquaintance outside her brothers, and that was Lester Piotter, the turtle catcher, whose childish intelligence couldn’t guess at what Anna hid beneath her skirts. And after Anna’s bloody months started and her breasts tendered to the slightest touch, she looked longingly at Lester. She made rose water and touched it behind her ears. She left buttons of her dress undone. She smeared candle wax across her lips. Behind the barn, Anna stroked Lester in the way she thought grown women did with grown men. Lester yielded to Anna’s hands. Once, Anna opened her blouse and brought his mouth to her nipple, and he sucked and kneaded. But that was the end. Until the day Anna sealed Lester Piotter’s death with her secret.
Betty Mathiowetz had started coming around the Berkner farm earlier that year, in May. Betty waltzed up to the door, put her face against the screen, and said, Hey there. Is Benny here?
Anna set down the potato she’d been peeling. Who are you? she said.
Well, hi to you, too. I’m Betty, silly. Betty Mathiowetz. I’m here to see Benny.
Hi, said Anna.
Betty opened the screen door, stepped up into the kitchen.
Come in, said Anna.
I’m in, dear. You are a silly goose, must be Anna. Benny told me you’re the one who manages all these boys. I’ll be here to help you soon enough. When Benny and me get married, we’ll be like sisters.
Betty set a bundle of bread loaves on Anna’s kitchen table.
I manage fine, Anna said. I don’t need any help.
Well, help is what you’re gonna get, said Betty. It’s ridiculous the way they’ve got you cooped up here every day. How you ever supposed to meet a fella of your own?
Anna picked up another potato and began peeling again.
I don’t mind, Anna said. This life is good enough for me.
Don’t be silly, Betty said. A girl’s got to have a fella. You can’t expect to live here all your life. Time’s marchin’, Anna. Benny and I are gonna raise a family in this house. Didn’t he tell you?
Once, after a late supper, Anna went to toss the potato peelings into the pig trough. She saw the black figures of Benjamin and Betty near the well. Anna knelt into the shadow of the barn and was quiet. She watched as Benjamin rubbed Betty’s arms, slid her blouse down and exposed her breasts. Betty kissed Benjamin’s neck and massaged his groin. Benjamin lifted Betty’s skirt.
Benny, she said, I’m not ready yet. Slow down. Kiss me a little. Go slowly.
You gettin’ shy on me? he said.
You know better than that, Betty said. You want it to feel nice for me, too, don’t ya, Benny?
All right, babes, he said. I know what you like.
Betty lay back on the well platform, and Benjamin lowered himself over her body. He buried his face in her chest, then moved down her waist to between her legs. Betty lifted her knees and put her hands in Benjamin’s hair.
Later that week, Lester Piotter walked down the driveway with a burlap sack swinging at his side. Anna set down the washing and walked to greet him.
Whatcha bring for me today, Lester?
Uh, said Lester. Just one. A big one though. He pritneer ate my thumb off.
Mind if I watch ya butcher him?
Ain’t no mind to me.
You been readin’ those books I gave you?
How do you spell turtle? Anna asked.
Lester coughed and quickened his pace.
Come on, now, Lester, said Anna. Let me hear ya.
I don’t know. I don’t know.
Anna looped her arm through Lester’s.
Okay, she said. It’s all right. It doesn’t matter.
The flies buzzed and moved when Lester and Anna spread the long grass with their steps where the turtles were butchered. Sometimes a stray dog would come along and pick up a turtle head for a chew toy, but mostly the heads just collected on the ground and eventually dried out and turned to ash under the summer sun. Anna kicked an old head aside and leaned against the barn.
Come here, Lester, said Anna. Come over here.
But I’m supposed to butcher this here snapper for ya, Anna.
Put that down now and come here. Did you get shy on me?
Lester twisted the top of the bag and set it softly in the grass. He took short steps to Anna.
Kiss me a little, Lester.
Lester put his mouth on Anna’s neck and licked and pecked. Anna put her hands on each side of Lester’s face and slowed him.
Yes, she said. That’s better. Go slowly.
Lester pumped his body against Anna’s. She pushed hers back and opened her blouse. She held the weight of one breast with her hand and pulled Lester’s mouth to her. Lester moaned into the full flesh and untied his pants. They fell around his bare feet. Anna took him in her hand and pulsed it back and forth. She dropped her hand just before Lester let himself go. To Anna, everything in that moment felt just right.
Doesn’t this feel nice, Lester? she asked. You want it to feel nice for me, too. Don’t you, Lester?
In the shadows of the barn, the world was cool. Only the sky shivered with mating cicadas, electrified to be alive after a seventeen-year incubation under the black soil. Lester’s breath came hard and heated against Anna’s neck. She imagined them together in a small house behind the barn, a house her brothers could slap together in a week. She’d cook and clean and tutor the Comfrey children when time allowed. And Ned could live with Lester and her, like their son. She and Betty could be sisters. Lester could farm with her brothers. He could butcher chickens and slop hogs as well as anyone. He could show Ned how to catch turtles. The hard work of the farm and the sense of her brothers would lift Lester’s wits.
Anna pulled her skirt high for Lester. She pulled him close again and tried to keep his attention with her eyes. She guided his hand to the moistness between her legs. She covered her ugly organ, the one that wasn’t supposed to be there, the one Anna hoped she could will away, with her other hand. Lester slid his fingers into Anna. Anna pushed herself against his hand, and she’d never, ever felt so full. Anna lost herself with love for Lester. And she thought to uncover herself completely. And she thought he won’t know, he doesn’t know, and he loves me. She thought this moment is so sweet. And Anna did remove her hand and let the organ fall limp against Lester’s hand.
The time of all the world seemed to pass.
Lester looked down. He pulled his fingers from Anna and stepped out of the barn’s shadow into the light of the setting sun. He pointed. Even the cicadas seemed quiet.
Oh, don’t, said Anna. Please don’t.
Lester pointed to the organ that no one had ever mentioned since twelve years before, on the day baby Ned was born, when Mother’d called Anna into the birth room and whispered, Another boy. Five sons and you, and handed newly born Ned to her and then said, Bury me with my cameo. I’ve got no pretty girl to wear it.
I’ll be your pretty girl, Mother, Anna had said. But Mother only stopped blinking her eyes and slipped away to death. Anna peeled away the blanket from the baby and looked up and down. She looked at her mother’s dead face and was frightened. She pulled the pillow out from under Mother’s head and set it on top of her face. It seemed the only thing to do. And while her brothers had readied the coffin and dug the grave under the maple grove, Anna cleaned Mother’s body. She pulled the cord and placenta from Mother’s unresisting core, washed her clean of blood, and saw what a woman was supposed to be.
Lester averted his eyes. He giggled and rocked in the way scared and confused loose-minded folks do. He pointed to her protrusion. A turtle tail, he mumbled to the ground.
You lunatic, you goddamn lunatic, Anna screamed. She lunged at him, put one hand behind his neck and, with the other, gripped his groin. He let go a howl that brought her brothers running from five corners of the farm. She dropped her hands, let down her skirts, and ran away in a panic, tattling lies to her brothers. The turtle catcher scuttled down the driveway in a sideways trot, holding his pants up with one hand and his burlap bag with the other. To Benjamin, the turtle catcher looked like a thieving dog chased away from the henhouse.
Anna’s brothers ate their suppers in silence. Ned’s gaze bounced back and forth between Benjamin and Anna. Anna obeyed when her brothers said to go on outside while they discussed the business of what was to be done. She watched and said nothing when her brothers loaded their rifles the next morning and left along the same driveway the turtle catcher had walked up and back down the day before.
All these things saturated Anna where she knelt behind the barn. A snapper head hummed with activity, beetles crawled in and out of its eyes, maggots vibrated in its jaws, and the sun soaked all moisture from its leathery skin. For a long while after the turtle catcher had severed the heads from the snappers, their jaws continued to crack and bite. Even now, deep through the sockets, the creature’s brain was alive with movement. Anna focused past the empty portholes and into the well of the turtle’s mind. Anna pulled taut the growth from between her hips and cut the thing from her body once and for all. She tossed it aside and fell back into the weeds, watched a cicada break from the soil and take flight, then opened her eyes to the high, sighing sun.