Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (2 page)

“Can I have a ride, Joss? Can I?” Tootie asked.

“I'll have to see,” she said.

Joss and I share the long, narrow bed
room at the back of our house. Someday, if we ever move, we might each have our own room, but right now we share.

Sometimes I wish I had my own room. If only we had a garret, I would like a room there, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or the Bronte sisters. I believe if one writes poetry in a garret, it frequently turns out better. However, until we buy a house that has one, I'll settle for bunking in with Joss.

Sometimes she shouts out loud in her sleep and wakes me. Other times she talks. Mostly about horses.

“Do you think it would be a good idea for me to buy a martingale for my horse?” she'll say. Or, “When I get my horse, I'll have to be very careful it doesn't eat snow. A horse can get colic from eating snow.”

“Since you're getting it in June, I don't think there's too much chance there'll be snow on the ground,” I told her. As for a martingale, I don't know what it is, so I reserve judgment.

Joss is my chief sounding board for trying out my poetry. If she has a fault, it's that she's too uncritical. She almost always says, when I'm finished, “That's lovely, Kate,” in a sleepy voice. “I think you're a very good poet. I think when you're grown up, you'll be famous and people will read your poetry all over the world.”

Only rarely does she say, “I don't get it. What's it mean?” That's usually when the poem is so deep I'm not sure I understand it myself. That's one of the primary dangers of a poet—being too profound. Some people like profound poems, but mostly, I think, they want to understand what they read.

I try to write middle-of-the-road poems, poems a child can understand but which are really very deep. It isn't always easy.

Last night Joss shouted out in her sleep so loud she woke me up. So I shook her until
she
woke up.

“Cut it out,” I said. “You're making too much noise.”

“I didn't make any noise,” she mumbled, sitting up. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

This morning she didn't even remember. “You're crazy,” she said when I asked her what she had dreamed about. “I don't dream. Only once in a while I dream I'm racing in the Kentucky Derby. Then when my horse comes in first and they hang that big horseshoe of flowers around his neck, he bucks me off and I go flying up into the stands. Then I usually wake up.”

One of the really nice things about Joss is her eyes. They are very large and have enormous pupils. Around the edges of the pupils, they are blue or green or gray—whatever she wants them to be. They reflect her moods. I have heard that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul. Joss's soul stares out at the world every day of the week. Why shouldn't it? She has nothing to hide.

“Kate, do you ever think about dying?” Joss asked me. She was polishing the riding boots my mother had bought for her at the Salvation Army store. They are only a little too big and in very good condition. Joss stuffed tissue paper in the toes, and they fit her fine. She polishes them every day before school with special soap to restore the leather.

“No,” I said.

That wasn't strictly true.

“Sometimes,” I told her. “Why?”

“You know what they said in church last Sunday,” Joss said. She bent over her polishing job, and her hair hid her face. “They said everyone was born and everyone dies.”

I waited.

“That seems fairly obvious,” I said when she didn't go on.

“Well, I've been thinking, and I don't believe that I'm going to die. Or you either, for that matter,” she said.

“How about Mom and Dad?” I said.

“Oh, they're going to die years and years from now,” she said. She was very serious. “When they are terribly old and don't care any more. After you and I are grown up, then Mom and Dad will die and it won't matter.”

“How come we're not going to die?” I asked her. “What will happen to us? We'll go on living and stay young. All our friends will get old, and pretty soon we'll be younger than anyone on earth. We'll be playing hopscotch when we're ninety-five, for Pete's sake.”

I tried to make her smile. She wouldn't.

“You remember when they said last Sunday that dying was just a beginning?” Joss's pupils were so huge they made her eyes look black. “A beginning of what, I'd like to know.”

“Girls, you'll be late,” my mother called.

“Joss, listen,” I said, “it's one of those things that's practically impossible to explain. How do I know?”

Joss put her boots back in the closet tenderly, as if she were putting a baby to bed.

“I don't want to talk about it any more,” she said.

“Who brought it up?” Just because Joss and I were sisters and friends didn't mean I couldn't get sore at her. “Just who the heck brought up the subject anyway?”

“Girls,” my mother called again, “Tootie's here to walk to school with Joss. Get a move on.”

Joss beat me down the stairs.

“Hey, Toot, what's up?” she said, getting her books from the hall table. She was reading
Misty of Chincoteague
for the eighteenth time. She brought it to school with her every day just in case she had some spare time to read. She could recite chapters from it the same way my father can recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“I read the best book last night,” Tootie told us. “It was so easy.” He rolled his eyes. “You wouldn't believe how easy it was.” Tootie was a slow reader. He came from a family of kids who devoured books the same way they ate potato chips—with great ease and appetite.

“Good for you,” Joss said.

“It was so easy,” Tootie went on, “that even my little brother couldn't read it.”

I thought about what Tootie had said all the way to school on the bus, but I still couldn't figure it out.

The only person who might possibly object
when Joss rents her horse is Miss Pemberthy. She lives across the street from us in a big white house. I know it's none of my business, but that house is entirely too big for one person. I think Miss Pemberthy should take in foster children or something.

I mentioned this to my mother.

“Fat chance,” she said.

Miss Pemberthy accused Tootie of pulling up her prize dahlia bulbs. Tootie, of all people. He wouldn't harm a dandelion, much less a prize dahlia. Miss Pemberthy called Tootie's mother and said if he didn't stay off her property, she wouldn't be responsible if he slipped off her stone wall and broke a bone or two. Tootie's mother said she got the distinct impression that Miss Pemberthy was thinking of greasing the stone wall to make it good and slippery for Tootie's benefit.

Miss Pemberthy was in the army in World War II. She was a sergeant, I think. Sergeants, I understand, are very domineering people. They wouldn't get to be sergeants if they weren't.

The sign in her driveway says: “NO TURNING IN THE DRIVEWAY.”

Not “Please” or anything. Just “NO TURNING.”

Miss Pemberthy likes to maintain the standard of excellence achieved in our neighborhood by constant vigilance. That's what she told my mother when our dog Hazel got into her garbage and spread it around a little. Hazel smelled the lamb bone way down at the bottom of the garbage pail. Hazel likes lamb better than anything. If Miss Pemberthy had just given Hazel the bone straight out, she could've avoided all that mess. My father made Joss and me go over and pick up all the junk from Miss Pemberthy's lawn.

All of which makes me think Miss Pemberthy might object about the horse.

“Miss Pemberthy isn't going to like it when you rent your horse,” I told Joss.

“Tough beans,” Joss said. She was adding up how much it would cost to buy a bottle of horse shampoo, containing lanolin and deodorizer, plus some veterinary liniment to aid in the relief of temporary muscle soreness due to overwork or exertion.

“It all adds up to a terrible lot,” she said, sighing.

“Maybe you better forget the whole thing,” I told her.

Joss made a fist which she shook at me. “You make me so angry,” she said. “This is the dream of my life, to have my own horse. I would do it if I had to work like a slave for a whole year to get the money. It's my life's ambition.”

“How do you know when a horse's muscles are sore?” I asked her, to change the subject. Usually Joss is calm, cool, and collected. Only once in a while does she go berserk—when I tease her about the horse and when she plays cards and does something stupid that causes her to lose. Then she clutches her forehead and staggers around the room, shrieking vengeance. When she does this, my father says she reminds him of Eleonora Duse, who was a famous Italian actress at the turn of the century. Before his time. He's heard plenty about her emoting, though, from his father.

“He limps, same as you and me,” Joss said. She was explaining about the sore muscles. “You have to treat it with hot and cold compresses. Same as a human. They're a lot like humans, you know.”

“I heard they were the dumbest animals going,” I said. “They're so dumb they don't know enough to come in out of the rain.”

Joss shrugged. “They like the rain,” she said. “They like nature. If more people liked nature, this would be a better world.”

I went to the telephone to call up Sam and ask him for the math assignment. Once Joss got started on nature and how people didn't appreciate it, she was a nonstop talker. I figure if conservation is still a big thing when Joss reaches maturity, she might major in it at college.

“Sam's not home now, Kate,” his mother said. “He went to the library to do some research. I'll tell him you called.”

“It's not really important,” I said. Sam and I are a week apart in age. I'm older. When Sam gets feeling like a really big wheel, I remind him of the fact. It doesn't do much good. Sam is actually the smartest boy I know. Which is good because he's not much to look at. Sam is homely. He has about eight cowlicks that make his hair grow all funny, and he has to wear thick glasses. If you see Sam and his father and older brother together, it's comical, they look so much alike. I'm afraid there's not too much hope that Sam will get better-looking. On the other hand, with him I don't think it's going to make a whole lot of difference.

“Tell him I might call back,” I said.

“Not between seven and eight, please,” Sam's mother said firmly. Sam's father comes all over queer if his kids get phone calls during dinner, Sam says. Most times he's very even-tempered, but this is one thing that irritates him.

“O.K.,” I said and hung up.

The next day was Saturday. After breakfast
we rode our bikes over to Essig's.

Mrs. Essig was on the front porch, shaking a rug over the railing. It was fascinating to watch. When she shook the rug, all the rest of her shook. Arms, chest, cheeks, and chin. I supposed her rear end was shaking too, but her jeans were so tight they held her in like a tourniquet.

“What's up, kids?” she called.

“We just want to look at the horses,” Joss said. She had about decided on Prince. Prince whinnied when Joss called him. He also came when she called. Maybe the fact that she always brought him a treat—a carrot or apple or lump of sugar—had something to do with Prince's coming.

Mr. Essig came out of the old shed that served as a barn. “You kids make up your mind yet? Don't forget. One half when you decide, one half on delivery. I'm kinda short now. I could use the half if you made up your mind.”

“I don't have the money yet,” Joss said. She held out a gnarled carrot, and Prince came to the fence and ate it. “My birthday's not until next month. I'm getting the money then.”

“Prince is everybody's favorite. Gentle as a lamb. Some horses kick, bite, like that. Not old Prince.” Mr. Essig smiled. That was quite a sight. He had about ten teeth in his head. They were broken and dark brown.

“I'll give you half as soon as I get it,” Joss said.

Mr. Essig made a sweeping gesture with his right hand. “That's O.K., babe, I'll put a ‘Reserved' sign on Prince so's nobody else'll get him. Don't you worry none. Bert Essig's as good as his word. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Come on in and have a cuppa coffee,” Mrs. Essig called to us. “I got a fresh pot on the stove, you want some.”

Our mother has a thing about kids drinking coffee. She thinks it's bad for us, all that caffeine. We're not allowed to drink it at home. Actually, I don't even like coffee very much. But I could feel Joss tugging at my sweater.

“Let's,” she whispered. “I want to. Please.”

We went. Mrs. Essig swabbed down the kitchen table with a sponge. Their bathroom was right off the kitchen. I could hear the toilet flushing. A lady almost as fat as Mrs. Essig came out. She had on a lot of eye make-up and the most fantastically long eyelashes I'd ever seen. Her hair was black, as black as a raven's wing. Had I read that somewhere? If it was original, I might use it in my next poem.

“My girl friend Sheila. Sheila, this is Joss and Kate. Pull up a chair and make yourselves homely.” Mrs. Essig poured the coffee into mugs. “Milk?” she asked.

We said yes, please, and she put the carton on the table and shoved the sugar bowl toward us.

“That'll put hair on your chest,” Mrs. Essig said. “When I make a pot of coffee, I don't fool around.”

Sheila couldn't take her eyes off us. Especially Joss. We'd been taught that staring was rude. I discovered if the stared-at stares at the starer long and hard, the starer gives up. Not Sheila. She made me nervous.

Mrs. Essig asked me questions about where we lived, if we were the only two kids in our family. “You date yet?” she asked me.

“I go to parties,” I said.

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