Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (10 page)


I had a letter from Mrs. Mahoney, my and
Joss's teacher in third grade. She wrote: “I know that right now it seems as if there were no happiness or joy in the world and no chance of any. But, believe me, Kate, in years to come you'll remember Joss and the things you did together and you'll get pleasure from your memories. You'll tell your own children about your sister and about how much you loved her. You might even name one of your daughters Joss. And every time you say the name you'll think of her. I'll remember you in my prayers. Bertha Mahoney.”

I threw the letter in the wastebasket. What good would prayers do? Then I took it out and put it with my other correspondence.

I had one letter from Joss. Last year she went to riding camp for two weeks. It was the only time we had ever been apart. Joss's letter said: “Dear Kate, Except for riding, I hate it here. I miss you. The chow stinks. We have a neat counselor. Her name is Barbie. Love, Joss.”

When Sam went to the Statue of Liberty, he sent me a postcard. “This is some big broad,” he wrote. “A lot of walking to get to the top. And when you do, they won't let you in her arm—only her head. Big deal.”

My collection included a couple of letters from my grandparents and a postcard from Ellen Spicer from Fort Ticonderoga. I have read of people who have collections of letters from all sorts of fascinating peple. Somehow mine misses.

At first people sent over casseroles and cakes and salads. Mrs. Spicer sent over a casserole with chicken in it, and I think it was broccoli at the bottom. It was quite good.

My mother moved like a tired old person. Joss's clothes hang in our closet. Her riding boots just stand there. I think I'll put them in a box until I decide what to do with them. My father comes home from the office and pours himself a drink. By the time dinner's ready, he's usually had too many.

I don't know what's to become of us. We can't sit here like this forever. I wake at night and for a minute I forget that Joss is dead. I imagine I can hear her breathing in the next bed. Her breath is like a little pulse in the room. I can almost hear her calling, “Jean-Pierre, oh, Jean-Pierre!” It's all in my mind. I know that, but I can't stop myself from turning on the light to make sure.

There is Joss's bed, flat and empty. The sheets are pulled tight and they are very neat. My father was going to move the bed out, maybe give it away, but I said no. I want it there. It'd be worse without it. Always before, if one of us had a friend sleep over, the other one had to go down and pull out the couch bed in the living room. It was a pain. I wish I had to do it now. Oh, how I wish I had to sleep on the pull-out couch, which is lumpy and uncomfortable and very hard to make.

I weep inside my head. I refuse to weep outside it. I would give anything if I could help my mother and father with their pain. But I can't. There is nothing I can do. My mother takes sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Before, she scorned people who did these things. My father takes Scotch or bourbon.

I hear them pacing in the night. The light is on under their door. At least when I hear their voices droning on for hours, it's better than when I can't hear anything but dry crying. There's a difference between wet and dry tears. Wet ones are cried by babies and little kids who've skinned their knees. Dry ones are done by people who have so much misery inside them it's like a desert. No oasis.

About a week after Joss died, Miss Pemberthy came to call. My mother made her a cup of tea, which I guess is what would happen even if the last day of the world was upon us.

“It was God's will,” Miss Pemberthy said. Her lips were so thin they seemed to disappear inside her mouth. “God in his wisdom took the little one home.”

My mother sat lacing her fingers in and out, waiting. For something. Just waiting.

“Tough beans on God!” I shouted. I got up and went toward Miss Pemberthy. I wanted to shove a pillow in her face to make her stop talking. I wanted to smash her face in.

“Who does He think He is, anyway? What right has He got to decide to make Joss die? There are plenty of other people he could've decided to have die. Old people who aren't of any use to anyone. Criminals. Murderers.” I stopped.

Miss Pemberthy's skin was gray and dry and cracked-looking. She put her cup down carefully.

“I must go now,” she said. She could hardly stand up. “Perhaps I will come back some other time.”

“You were kind to come,” my mother said. “Thank you.”

We watched Miss Pemberthy totter across the street.

“You mustn't, Kate,” my mother said. “She didn't mean any harm. It's the kind of thing people say.”

“Well, then, they damn well should stop saying it,” I said.

“Be gentle, Kate. Don't let losing Joss make you cold and hard,” my mother said.

“Why not?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“I'm going up to lie down,” she said.

I don't care if your mother did die when you were thirteen, Miss Pemberthy. That's no excuse. No excuse at all.


Summer is almost over. School starts in a
couple of weeks. I dread going back. People act strange, as if I were a different person from when school closed in June. I am the same. No, that's not true. I'm not. I can never be the same.

My mother says we have to learn to bear it. I guess she's right. We've got to get on with life without Joss. People say such dumb things when people die. They don't realize how dumb they are. They say, “It was God's will,” like Miss Pemberthy. That's enough to turn anyone against God. I myself don't know if I'll ever feel the same about Him. Maybe He had a very good reason for making Joss die, but I doubt it. I read a poem which says, “Death loves a shining mark,” and I think Joss was the shining mark.

God could just as easily have made Miss Pemberthy die and let Joss alone. Who would miss her? He could even have made me die instead. But I think making Miss Pemberthy die would have made more sense.

Every morning when I go out Tootie is there, sitting somewhere in the yard, waiting for me. We've had a lot of long conversations. If I've done anything positive, I think maybe I've helped Tootie.

“I dreamed about Joss last night,” he says often. “We were riding along a big, long beach. I was sitting behind her. She took Prince into the water, then we came out on the sand and I found the rock.” Tootie carried the heart-shaped rock everywhere. I had given it back to him. “You're sure you don't want to keep it?” he had asked anxiously. I told him it was a memento of Joss, to keep it always and think of her.

“Do you think she knows we miss her?” he asked. “Do you think she's having a good time where she is?”

I have to turn away and pretend I'm tying my shoe or something. I don't want him to see how much he upsets me. Then, “Yes,” I tell him when I can speak in a normal voice. “I think she knows, and I think things are all right with her.”

That seems to make him feel better.

Life goes on, which is another dumb thing people say. If you coat a person with love, as my mother and father did Joss, it should have made her invulnerable. Love should act as a protection. My mother thought if she worried enough, if she covered every base, she could protect us from harm. From automobile accidents, drowning, fire, everything. She had never thought of falling out of a tree because a rotten branch snapped. Maybe one of us might break a leg or an arm skiing. But death. Never.

When school closed in June I told everyone I was going to do some writing over the summer. The only thing I've written is a poem. I haven't shown it to anyone.

This is it:

When it is night

I dream that my sister is

Asleep in the other bed.

I wake up smiling

Until I see the bed

is empty, quite flat,

with no other there.

I cry out but

softly, softly

So they won't hear me

over their tears.

I've read Mrs. Mahoney's letter a thousand times. Now I'm glad I didn't throw it away. It's been a comfort to me. Especially the part where she says I'll tell my own children about Joss and how much I loved her. If I ever have a daughter, I'll name her Joss. Mrs. Mahoney was right when she said that right now it must seem as if there were no joy in the world. Maybe she's right that later on I'll get pleasure from my memories.

It's the right now that hurts.

About the Author

Constance C. Greene is the author of over twenty highly successful young adult novels, including the ALA Notable Book
A Girl Called Al
Al(exandra) the Great, Getting Nowhere
, and
Beat the Turtle Drum
, which is an ALA Notable Book, an IRA-CBC Children's Choice, and the basis for the Emmy Award–winning after-school special
Very Good Friends
. Greene lives in Milford, Connecticut.





All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this ebook or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1976 by Constance C. Greene

Cover design by Connie Gabbert

ISBN: 978-1-5040-0089-5

This edition published in 2015 by Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.

345 Hudson Street

New York, NY 10014



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