Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (8 page)

“Hey, turd collector!” Ellen called. “There's one over here you missed.”

Joss brought the shovel right up to Ellen's face and threatened to wipe it on her hair. Ellen got panicky and fell on her back, kicking her heels in the air.

“Stay away from me, you witch. Since you got to be eleven, you've turned into a viper.”

Joss made a few more swipes with her shovel, then went to inspect Prince's teeth and brush him a few hundred more times.

“That kid will be a basket case when Prince has to go,” Ellen said. “What'll she do?”

“Probably live over at Essig's,” I. said. “Maybe she'll pay them if they let her be stable girl.”

We stayed up way past our usual bedtime every night that week. It was hot for June, and we could hear my mother's and father's voices from the screened porch where they sat in the dark, looking out at the fireflies. Once or twice they'd call, “About time for bed,” and we'd say, firmly, “Not quite.” They didn't argue. We were all caught up in a net of summer contentment. The sky turned pale green, then lavender, the first stars came out. The night birds sang as if they didn't have a thing on their minds except providing music for us. The mosquitoes attacked, even though we'd sprayed ourselves with

Sitting under the apple tree, Joss hugged her knees.

“It's so cozy having him here,” she said dreamily. “It's like having a best friend come to stay. Outside of you, Kate, Prince is my best friend.”

I was touched. “Don't forget Jean-Pierre,” I said, so she wouldn't know. “Think of how Jean-Pierre would've liked riding his own horse.”

“Yes,” she said, “he missed all the best parts.”

“The best parts of what?” I asked.

“You know. He didn't get to go to the ocean with us that time. He didn't get to go to the strawberry festival and ride on the Ferris wheel. He also missed the horse show at Major Self's. Lots of things. It seems to me,” Joss said seriously, “Jean-Pierre missed a whole lot.”

“Well,” I said, curious, “why didn't you bring him back then?”

“I couldn't. He was gone. That's all there was to it. He was just gone. There was nothing I could do. Once I closed my eyes tight,” Joss said, “and wished him to come back. But it was no good.” She put her hands out, palms upward. “He didn't even say good-bye.”

We sat looking at Prince. The night seemed to become very still. The next time my mother called, “Time for bed,” we went.

During the night it rained. The thunder and
lightning woke me up. I turned on the light. Joss lay on her back, her arms at her sides. She was smiling in her sleep. I could hear Hazel whimpering outside our door. I let her in and even let her sleep on my bed, which was forbidden. Hazel was terrified of storms.

In the morning the rain seemed to have made things hotter. The thermometer on our back porch said 84 when we went down to breakfast. It was Prince's next-to-last day. When Joss wasn't brushing him or feeding or riding him, she was kissing him. Not too many people find horses kissable. Joss did.

“Kiss him, Kate.” She offered me a turn. “It's lovely, all soft and warm.” I didn't particularly want to kiss Prince, but I did anyway. She was right. It was much nicer than I would've thought.

“Wouldn't it be neat if there were no cars at all, only horses, like the olden times?” Joss asked. “We could ride to school and downtown, and at Christmas we'd have a big sleigh with bells, and we'd tuck in with lots of blankets and go over the fields to Grandmother's house for dinner.”

Joss was reading
The Little House on the Prairie
for the third time. It was against her principles to read anything but a horse book, but I talked her into it.

“I wish I'd lived in those times,” she said after she read it for the first time. “Life was much nicer then. For instance. Think of Paul Revere riding to warn the Americans that the British were coming. Imagine how that would've been if he'd hopped into his car to sound the alarm.” Joss put her hands on her hips. “You've got to admit that would make a very different kind of story, right?”

Paul Revere and the little house on the prairie were about one hundred years apart, but I knew what she meant.

“Let's walk Prince on the road and turn him into Pemberthy's yard,” Joss suggested. “Maybe I can get him to look in her window and scare the daylights out of her.”

I talked her out of that. We decided instead to pack a lunch to take up in the apple tree. Joss, Jean-Pierre, and I used to build a fort up there way back when we were small and the tree was in bloom. We'd take some old blankets to make soft sitting and hide behind the flowers to spy on people. I'll always remember the way Joss used to select the best and biggest hard-boiled egg, peel it carefully, put salt on it, and say, “Here, Jean-Pierre.” In the flick of an eye, she'd eat it herself.

“Jean-Pierre,” Joss would say, picking olives out of her sandwich and tossing them down to the birds, “you really must learn to clean your plate. Give him another helping, Kate.” I'd give Jean-Pierre another helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. We'd eat daintily, chewing with our lips tightly closed, little mincy ladies at the tea table. Once Joss wore a pair of white gloves up into the apple tree. She drank tea with her gloves on. We thought that was a most elegant thing to do.

“Say ‘excuse me,' Jean-Pierre,” Joss said after somebody, presumably Jean-Pierre, burped. Jean-Pierre didn't have very good manners.

We went to the refrigerator to see what there was to eat. Not much. It was my mother's day to food-shop. We made some cucumber sandwiches, took a bag of pretzels and two cans of soda. Joss tied Prince to a tree not far from where we were going to picnic.

“So he can't run away,” she said. I figured the chances of Prince's running away were about one in five hundred thousand. Joss liked to pretend he was much more wicked and unmanageable than he was.

She tied two huge knots in the rope. Prince was as happy grazing there as he'd been before. As long as he had grass to eat, he was content.

“Now you stay there,” she commanded. She threw her arms around his neck.

“You are so beautiful,” she crooned, “so beautiful.” She kissed him on his nose and we climbed into the branches.

After we'd eaten our lunch, Joss said, “That was a very tasteful repast.” She sounded like my father. He's very appreciative of good food.

The scent of apple blossoms was rich and strong. The bees hummed a noisy tune.

“I love it up here,” Joss said. “It's so private. Do you remember, Kate, how we used to make Jean-Pierre eat everything? What a little fink I was then.”

“Keep your voice down,” I warned. “We don't want the enemy to know our hiding place.”

Joss leaned down to check on Prince.

“I can't see him,” she said. “You don't suppose he got loose, do you?” Before I could answer, she started to climb up and out to a branch that offered a better view.

“Be careful,” I said. “That's a long way to the ground.”

She kept on going. I heard a loud, sharp crack. I saw the branch split and fall. Joss went with it. She didn't make a sound.

“Joss!” I called down to her. “Are you all right?”

She looked very little lying there. My tongue felt thick in my mouth.

“Answer me or I'll let you have it,” I shouted. She didn't move.

“If you're teasing me, I'll let you have it!”

The air was heavy. It pushed against me as I tried to climb down to Joss. My arms and legs were stiff and old. The backs of my hands prickled the way they had once when we almost had an accident on the parkway. A long time later I dropped to the ground. I ran to Joss and put my hand on her shoulder. She lay there.

“I'll call Mom—she'll know what to do,” I said. I started to run toward the house. I looked back. She was still there.

“Mom,” I shouted, “come quick! Joss fell out of the tree. I think she's hurt!”

“Dear sweet Jesus,” my mother said, pulling the iron cord out of the socket. She was ironing a pair of shorts. They were blue. The iron fell on the floor. We ran back to where Joss lay.

“My God, my God!” my mother said over and over. She touched Joss very gently. “Baby,” she said. “Baby?”

We knelt by Joss's side. “Stay with her,” my mother screamed as she raced toward the house.

When she came back, her hands were shaking.

“I called the ambulance,” she said. We sat by Joss. My mother put her hand on Joss's head. Her eyelashes didn't flutter. In the distance we could hear the siren. They got there very fast. A police car came up behind the ambulance. The men slid Joss onto the stretcher as if she weighed only a couple of pounds.

My mother held my hand very tight. “Stay with me,” she said. “Please stay with me.” I wasn't going anywhere.

They put a blanket over Joss. We rode, all three of us and some men, together to the hospital. My mother kept saying, “There, there, it's going to be all right, Jossie, it's going to be all right,” the way she used to when we were little.

“There, there, it's going to be all right.”

Nothing will ever be all right again. Joss
is dead. They told us she had died instantly. Her neck was broken. There was nothing anyone could have done. Nothing.

I don't know how we got home, my mother and I. One minute we were in the emergency room at the hospital, the next we were standing in our living room. There were people there. I remember seeing Mrs. Spicer and Mrs. Furness, who lived down the street, and Dr. Willis. He went upstairs with my mother. He had his little bag with him. When he came down, he said, “I gave her something to make her sleep for a while. Has her husband been notified?”

I sat on a chair in the dining room. I looked at them. Mrs. Spicer had rollers in her hair. She kissed me. Her eyes were full of tears. A couple of my mother's friends came in. They were crying. I didn't cry.

“I have to wait for my father,” I said to someone who said I should come over to their house for a while. “My father is coming right away. He'll expect me to be here when he gets here.”

Mrs. Spicer made me a cup of tea. It didn't taste as good as Mrs. Essig's coffee.

The telephone rang and rang. Someone must have answered it, because it never rang more than once or twice. Everyone talked in very low voices. I waited for my father. I didn't know what I would say to him when he got here.

After a long time a police car pulled up outside our house. My father got out along with two policemen. They must've brought him home from the station.

He stood for a minute, his head down. Then he came inside.

“Kate,” he said. “My darling Kate. What are we going to do?”

I had no answer. He kissed me and held me against him.

“I must go to see her,” he said. I didn't know who he meant for a minute. He went upstairs, and I could hear their bedroom door open and close. He meant my mother. The doctor had said he gave her something to make her sleep. Let her sleep, Dad, I pleaded in my head. Don't wake her up.

I don't know whether he did or not. He stayed up there for what seemed a long time. People came and went. Once I saw a movie in which all the characters moved in slow motion. Their arms and legs looked as if they were swimming. That's the way the people in my house that day looked to me. Slow motion.

My father finally came downstairs. He looked flattened, as if a big truck had gone over him. He mixed himself a drink and drank it without taking the glass from his lips. There were some men in the living room, men I didn't know. I guess they were friends of my father's.

“I must go to see her,” my father said again.

“Let me drive you,” two or three voices said. They went outside, and I could hear engines starting up. I knew who he meant. He meant Joss. I felt as if I weren't there. I wasn't anywhere.

I went to the telephone and dialed Sam's number.

His mother answered.

“Oh, Kate,” she said in a normal tone, “I'm sorry. Sam's at dinner. Is it anything special?”

My mouth began to tremble so that I couldn't speak. I hung up.

And then the strangest thought came to me. I thought: How can I ever tell Tootie? Poor Tootie. How can I ever tell him?

I didn't have to. When I went out a little
past six next morning, Tootie was huddled on our back steps. He knew. I knew by looking at him that he knew.

“Kate,” he said.

“Tootie,” I answered. His eyes looked like the eyes of a dog I'd seen lying in the road after he'd been hit by a car.

“My mother told me,” he said.

I put my hand on his shoulder and we walked around for a while without saying anything. Prince was tied to the tree where Joss had left him when we climbed into the apple tree. The space around him was eaten bare of grass. My father would be mad. There were a lot of plops around him too. They left yellow spots on the lawn if they weren't scooped up right away. I must find the shovel Joss used to get rid of them.

“Mr. Essig will be here today to pick up Prince,” I said.

“What time's he coming?” Tootie said. We were having a perfectly natural conversation, as if this were an ordinary day.

“I don't know. He didn't say.”

Tootie said, “I told her I loved her, at least.”

I couldn't speak. We went on walking.

“I made her a get-well card last year when she was sick,” Tootie said, matching his steps to mine. “It said ‘I Love You' on it. Harry saw it and he made fun of me.” Tootie's brown eyes were running over at the edges. No eyes, no matter how big, are big enough to hold that many tears. They ran in rivers down his cheeks.

“Harry said, ‘Tootie's got a girl friend and he's only a baby,' that's what Harry said. My mother heard him and she made him stop. Once in a while Harry whispers it to me so my mother can't hear. He says, ‘Tootie's got a girl friend and he's only a baby.'”

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