Wooden Turtles

This is a work of fiction, written specifically as an assignment for a creative writing class. It required about four pages, and as well as being written in the second person.

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You know that if you drive as far as you can, before you reach the upper peninsula of Michigan, that you’ll find yourself near the Mackinac Bridge. You did just that on a particularly beautiful fall morning in the wee hours, feeling a bit like a criminal sneaking away under the cloak of darkness. The leaves are rich brown, red, orange and gold and light up your windshield as your coffee guides the way.

Your radio is set to a Canadian station as you leave the bustle of Detroit and head for a more quiet, subdued weekend alone. Your grandfather, Jack, has just lost his battle with cancer and your heart is broken.  You are in need of the healing comfort of northern country, solitude, reflection and more than likely a good bottle of Shiraz. Uno, your faithful border collie, is happily curled up in the passenger seat, just happy to be along for the ride.

Even though it’s been more than six months, it feels like yesterday. Yes, you understand at age 92 it was bound to happen. You had a special bond with Jack, a special connection.  He “got” you, if that makes sense. You weren’t his only grandchild, there are 15 of us actually, but for some reason the two of you saw eye to eye on nearly everything. He made you laugh, and you made him laugh, too. You shared stories, he told you about his life, his childhood and you listened to him with the anticipation of a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve.

He seemed equally enamored with your stories, although in retrospect it’s not completely clear if he was just humoring you. Either way it was a lovely relationship, and you knew he would not be with you forever simply because time has a way of taking people from us.

The sun begins peaking up over the horizon and the glow is simply magnificent. You crack your windows to let the autumn air in. Your boss says he understands, and the work will be there when you get back. For that, you are grateful. You’ve already taken time off for the funeral, all the “immediate family” benefits of your job had been utilized.  This added and extended weekend will provide closure for you.

The cabin you rented is refurbished with overstuffed chairs, antiques and a fieldstone fireplace. The view from the couch reveals Lake Michigan, as well as a couple of people kayaking near a small bay by the shore. The walls are knotty pine, the furniture is rustic and the kitchen is simple. Jack would have loved it here. You often visited remote areas of the state with him because he so loved the adventure. He loved to whittle pieces of wood and would find it everywhere up here. The small turtle he had carved you once had become like a worry stone in your pocket; something you always felt for whenever you were stressed out. You carry it everywhere and smooth your fingers over it now.

After eating a peanut butter sandwich and sharing the crusts with Uno, you set off on foot to explore the area. Twigs snap under your feet and squirrels are scurrying up and down trees to bury their nuts for winter. A male cardinal catches your eye, and it’s not long before his mate joins him. Uno leads the way, happily wagging his tail and stopping every fifteen feet or so to look back and make sure you’re still coming.

You notice a birch tree with something scratched in it. It stands out because it’s clearly been there a long time. The weather and elements have darkened the letters and numbers and upon closer inspection, you realize that none other than your own grandfather could have carved this. The letters JRS + MLT and 1944 are etched carefully into the tree where some bark has been stripped away. Jack. Margaret. You rest your forehead on the tree and the tears come. Jack had been here 73 years ago in this very same spot. You weren’t alive yet and he was a young man dating your grandmother. “Courting her,” he would have said.

You realize this is obviously the spot. You sit down on a log and carefully reach into the backpack you brought with you. Uno sees this as an opportunity to put his snoot in between your arm and armpit, to make you lift your hand to pet him. You oblige with a smile that confuses your poor dog because he sees you smiling, suppressing a laugh and crying at the same time. You pull yourself together and take out the box with Jack’s ashes in it. It’s surprisingly heavy. You haven’t looked inside because that seems morbid and weird to you. You’re curious, but not so disrespectful that you’ll do it.

You say a prayer. Your grandfather was a Christian, although he never regularly attended church after Grandma died. You know he would appreciate the sentiment. You open the box and thankfully have to do nothing, as a gentle breeze magically takes his ashes with it. You watch as your grandfather becomes part of the woods he once walked with your grandmother. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that you have done exactly as he would have wished.

Uno guides you back to the cabin where you put kindling, shaped in a pyramid like Jack showed you, in the fireplace and light it. The dry sticks go up quickly and before long a respectable fire is going. You open that bottle of Shiraz you’ve brought just for the occasion and set a bowl of food and water down next to the rug near the fire for Uno. He looks at you for a long time, as if to make sure you are okay, before he wags his tail and settles in for his dinner. You raise your glass.

“To you, Jack. A man with a great mind and a heart to match. I love you.”

There is a sense of peace, of closure. You remember happy times. You remember when both your grandparents were still alive. You remember old hands holding your small ones and walking you through the woods. You remember warm baked cookies, sharing stories and books and so much laughter it makes you smile. Jack knew you would take his passing hard, and had really tried to mentally prepare you for it. He told you that no matter what, you would be okay because crazy people like us were always okay.

You put on some classical music, Brahm’s Symphony 2, Jack’s favorite that he had taught you to appreciate as a child. You watch the fire intently, its dancing flames hypnotizing you. You sip the Shiraz and wonder dreamily what’s next.  The passage of time has felt like it is in slow motion up to now. You reach into your pocket and feel the smooth underbelly of the turtle. You pull it out and rub the belly with your thumb. You turn and glance out the window at the beach and see the waves lapping the shoreline and the sun settling down over the horizon. And you know for certain that everything will indeed be okay.

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