Authors: Constance C. Greene
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Beat the Turtle Drum
Constance C. Greene
In memory of my mother and my father
O dance along the silver sand
And beat the turtle drum
That youth may last for ever
And sorrow never come.
My sister Joss is saving up to rent a
horse. A man named Mr. Essig over in West Norwalk rents them by the week for thirty dollars. Joss has seventeen saved. Her birthday is next month. She tells everyone she doesn't want any presents. Just money.
Joss is going to fix up the garage for the horse to live in. Mr. Essig, though not a person to warm the cockles of my or anyone else's heart, will throw in some hay for free. He'll also van the horse to and from our house.
Mr. Essig looks like a member of the Mafia, only he's poor. He also looks like a gypsy. He has thick black hair all over him. That is, the parts you can see. He also has a gold tooth and a big scar running from his eyebrow to his mouth. He wears tall black boots and a scarf around his head. My mother says he's playing to the balcony in that outfit.
Joss thinks Mr. Essig is the neatest man. She rides her bike over to his house every Saturday to check out the horses. He has five, in various stages of decay. They are the most beat-up-looking animals I've ever seen. When you're downwind of Mr. Essig's house, you can smell the horses mixed in with quite a lot of other smells. Mr. Essig's front yard is full of cars that don't run. He's got an old convertible with no wheels and a Volkswagen bus with no windshield. He's going to fix up the cars and sell them, he says.
Mrs. Essig is blowsy. I was delighted the first time she came to the door when Joss and I rang to ask if we could look at the horses. Mrs. Essig talks with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. She has such big breasts she can't button her blouse across them. Her hair is blond at the ends and dark at the roots. She has a heart of gold, I think. I'd never seen a truly blowsy person before I met Mrs. Essig.
Joss can wind people, especially my mother and father, around her finger. She has been working on renting a horse for more than three years. Naturally, she would rather buy one, but she's about given up on that.
My father agreed to the rental bit finally when Joss wore him down. He says where we live isn't zoned for horses, but for a week no one can possibly object.
Joss will be eleven next month. I'm almost thirteen. Oddly enough, we're very good friends. Not too many people I know can say that. It's a rare thing to be friends with your sister, especially when she's your parents' favorite.
My father and mother are totally unaware that Joss is their favorite. They'd probably get really mad if anyone suggested it. They treat us equally well. Or unwell, as the case may be. When my mother's prize Spode teapot was broken while Mrs. Hadley was sitting with us, we both got yelled at. Actually, it was my fault. I was warming it with hot water before we made tea, as the English do. It slipped and fell into the kitchen sink. Mrs. Hadley had told me about this quaint custom. You might almost say it was her fault the teapot got broken.
I'm perceptive about human relationships, which is a good thing. I plan on being a poet and a playwright when I'm twenty-one. Sooner, if I can manage it. Perception is essential for poets and playwrights. That's why I know if my parents had to make a choice between us, if one of us had to be sent through enemy lines to get help, I would be the one. Just as, if we were all in a boat and the boat capsized, and we had only one life jacket, they would put it on Joss. They wouldn't plan it that way. That's the way it would be.
Which is why it's even more unusual that Joss and I are friends.
I realize that what I've just said puts my mother and father in an unflattering light. I don't mean to do that. I love them. They are good people, reasonably compassionate and not too rigid in their ideas.
My mother worries about us too much. If we sneeze or cough even once, she puts us to bed and calls the doctor. If we're not home from school in fifteen minutes, she imagines us lying in the gutter, mowed down by a hit-and-run driver. Or dragged into a light blue car with Connecticut plates by a man with slick dark hair and peculiar eyes.
My father is too impatient. He flies off the handle much too easily, and he doesn't let me finish my explanations of things. I've noticed he gets mad when someone interrupts
Outside of these failings, they're all right. To expect people to be perfect just because they're adults and/or parents is unrealistic, I think.
Last Sunday Joss decided to build a proper barn for her horse.
“What horse wants to live in a garage?” she asked indignantly. Probably this was due to the fact that we'd seen a television program about ranching in Wyoming, where no self-respecting horse would've been caught dead sleeping in a garage.
“We could tear down that old shed in back of the Smiths',” Joss said. “It can't be that hard to build a barn. A small one, that is.”
Joss called up everybody she knew. “If you help, you can have a ride,” she promised. A girl in Joss's class said she wasn't allowed to do manual labor on the Sabbath.
“All right for you,” Joss said darkly.
The Collins twins, Ellen Spicer, my friend Sam Brown, and Tootie Simms showed up. Tootie is eight. He lives two houses down from us. He's big for his age and not the brightest kid on the block. When Joss had a strep throat last year, he sent her a handmade get-well card that said: “To Joss. The Best Person I Know. I Love You. Tootie.” Joss still keeps that card in her top drawer. She didn't show it to anyone. Only me.
Everyone arrived wearing their old clothes and an expectant air. The twins each carried a rusty hammer. Tootie had filched a bag of new nails from his father, and Sam had a set of blueprints he said might come in handy.
“They were originally for a bomb shelter my grandmother was going to build about twenty years ago,” Sam explained. “Then she moved to a condominium in Florida instead.”
Joss told me later that she thought the horse might freak out if it knew it was living in a bomb shelter, but she thanked Sam. “They're very handsome,” she said.
We all trooped to the woods in back of Smiths' and tore down the old shack. It was on its last legs anyway and didn't require much effort. Tootie got a splinter in his hand as big as a toothpick. It was so big, in fact, it was easy to pull out. Tootie was very brave. He closed his eyes and hung on to me while Sam pulled.
“I didn't cry once,” he kept saying for the rest of the day. I painted a big slash of Mercurochrome over the wound so he'd have something to show for it.
We lugged the boards back to our yard and started in. Tim Collins kept getting in everybody's way. He also kept hammering his fingers instead of the nails. “I'm leaving,” he finally said in disgust.
“You always quit when the going gets rough,” his brother George said. George had been born five minutes after Tim. He was more patient and tried harder.
After a while Ellen said she had to go wash her hair. She washes her hair frequently. Everyone started to snarl at everyone else. The sun was hot, and a bunch of wasps were giving us a hard time. I went up to the house for a bucket of water to drink. Sam tied a handkerchief around his forehead to keep the perspiration from getting in his eyes.
“I thought it was going to be easy,” Tootie said. “You said it would be easy,” he said accusingly to Joss.
“Listen, if you want something bad enough you have to work for it,” she told him sternly. “How do you think our forefathers felt when they went into the wilderness and had to build log cabins and all that stuff? You think that was easy? Some forefather you'd make.”
That shut Tootie up for a few minutes. Then he said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Joss was hammering up a storm. “You can use ours,” she said.
“My mother doesn't like me to use other people's bathrooms,” Tootie said, backing off.
“Oh, yeah? You've used ours plenty of times,” Joss said. Tootie didn't bother to answer. He broke into a run and disappeared from view.
“If that kid thinks he's going to ride my horse, he's nuts,” Joss said crossly. By this time it was me and Joss and Sam and George Collins and a bunch of boards that looked like a falling-down shack, which is what they'd looked like in the first place. Except that now it was in our back yard instead of the Smiths'.
“Wait'll Dad gets a load of this,” I said.
“Maybe he'll be late getting home and it'll be dark,” Joss said hopefully.
Luck was on our side. The wind rose and lightning flashed. We went inside and watched while the rain started.
“Looks like a northeaster to me,” Sam said. Whatever it was, when the sun came out, our barn was mostly lying on the ground in a sad little heap.
“We could try again tomorrow,” George said.
After a small silence Joss said, “I don't think the horse will mind sleeping in our garage.”
Sam took off his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. “Yeah,” he said, “we can make a sign that says âbarn' and tack it up over the door. He'll never know the difference.”
Tootie came across the lawn. “I'm back,” he said.
Joss put her hands on her hips and frowned. “You are what is known as a fair-weather friend, I'm sorry to say,” she told him.