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Do Turtles Ever Cry

Nightmares plagued me. Crazy, scary images that vanished in a fog as soon as I was fully conscious. A rapid heartbeat, agitated breathing and an overpowering sense of fear—telltale signs of how bad my brain was messed up.

Again tonight, a nightmare awakened me. Friends had suggested it was the ‘night crusher’ who visited me. That monster reputed to steal into bedrooms terrifying innocent people sleeping in their beds. Only that most people remembered the horrors of that evil spirit assaulting them. I could not recall a single detail.

So disturbing was the aftermath of my nightmares that I researched the topic. Science explains the night crusher phenomena as a dream-like sleep paralysis state occurring between wakefulness and slumber where the victim cannot move or scream. The reason for the complete paralysis is to keep the sleeper from acting out the actions occurring in the dreams. I experienced the symptoms, the unfathomable fear, the trembling and sweating, yet without traces of images or particulars that my waking mind could hang onto or analyze.

My husband, before he left me for a rich, older woman had little patience for my nightmares.

“Your problem was growing up in Mexico with those scary wife’s tales of La Llorona stealing children from their beds and drowning them in the river in the middle of the night, or those stories about Aztec priests cutting hearts out of pubescent girls to appease the gods or even the goddess Coatlicue herself, the mother of gods, the one with the skirt of serpents. Your suffering comes from the culture you grew up in,” he often said.

Maybe he had a point. Maybe it was stories I’d heard as a child. As I worked to regain tranquility after the nightmare that had awakened me tonight, I looked across the room. A large mirror hanging over my teak hardwood dresser reflected the dim moonlight filtering through large louvered shutters on the window behind my bed. The mirror’s smoky veneer strangely accentuated my feelings of anxiety.

I got up from bed and wrapped myself in a rebozo. I wrapped it around me like a sarong. Even though I now lived in Houston, the hot and humid climate made it easy to cling to childhood habits, like using a rebozo instead of a robe.

I walked to the dresser, a piece of furniture I’d brought with me from the Yucatan peninsula when I relocated here ten years ago and married a football player I’d met in college. The mirror I’d purchased when I moved to this house. I approached the mirror with hesitancy, almost as if the night crusher might lunge out from the smoky mirror. Without peering into it, I edged tentatively closer to the mirror. My eyes scanned several objects sitting on top of the dresser. A carved granite turtle, contrasting with the hardwood, decorated the top. The granite, reflecting moonlight softly bouncing off the mirror’s surface, appeared slightly yellow.

I picked the turtle up, surprised by its coldness in the humid heat of summer. Turning it over, I examined the carving and traced its outline with my fingers to feel the crisp, carved incisions of the head, the stubby legs and a short, thin tail protruding from its body. I never looked at myself in the mirror. Instead I touched the stone terrapin to my face, enjoying the clean, unblemished surface of the slightly rounded granite shell.

Memories rushed through my mind like runoff from a thunderstorm. I was ten years old, living in the Yucatan. A tomboy collecting turtles, tadpoles and frogs. The turtles were my favorites. They could hide in their shells. Like I tried to hide from my father. My protective shell was my mother.

I talked to my turtles as if they were playmates. Living ten miles away from the nearest town, I didn’t have other children to play with. I felt a connection to these reptiles with flipper-like legs they could use for swimming. A friend of the family worked with me to train them, training all thirteen of them. They were safely enclosed in the perimeters of my back yard. In the evenings, I would stand at the kitchen door and whistle. Usually eight or nine would answer my call with their slow, deliberate walk. They knew if they responded, a treat of ground meat awaited them. During the muggy wet season, if they obeyed my call, they found watermelon rinds, which they snapped off in succulent chunks with their hook-shaped beaks, acting like the jaws of miniature earth-moving backhoes, while pink juice pooled in small sticky spots on the concrete walkway. If I did not hose the sappy liquid away, hordes of sugar ants would dance around the puddles to carry the beneficial droplets to their underground colonies, leaving the stickiness on the sidewalk.

One sultry Sunday afternoon my father drove his Ford pickup truck into the backyard. In the process of parking it under the shade of a large Ceiba tree, he ran over one of my turtles. The shattered shell, like potsherd left behind by an ancient Mayan civilization, was scattered in a loose pile on the grass. The surrounding blades of grass, heavy with the crushed gooey innards, bent low to the sandy soil. Then I saw the turtle head. It had been severed from the body. I started crying.

“Don’t be such a sissy,” my father said. “You still have a bunch.”

“That leaves me twelve,” I cried.

“Twelve like the apostles?” he asked. “That’s plenty.”

“But you ran over my Christ,” I cried. “The thirteenth one was the Turtle Christ.”

“For god’s sake, what stupidity are you talking?” my father asked. His voice sounded rough and impatient.

Instinctively I wanted to run to my mother.

“She’s not here. You can’t run to her,” he said. His intuition picked up my immediate thoughts. His voice sounded full of hatred. “She spends more time with the idiotic priest at that god-damned church than taking care of us.”

“She prays there,” I said. “She’s told me she talks to miraculous saints at the church. Prays that life will get better.”

“That’s nonsense,” he said. He slammed the door to the truck, banging it as if to solder it to the cabin.

“I will never, ever cry again.” My voice frothed with venom. Yet as I said it, I wondered if my turtles ever cried. “Never. Ever. Cry. Again.”

“Now that’s more like it,” he said. “I don’t like children who cry.”

ᴥ 2 ᴥ

Unable to sleep after the nightmare awakened me, I walked outdoors. In the hot, dry Texas drought, the Koi pond in my yard became the watering hole for skunks, snakes, possums, raccoons and other nocturnal creatures in need of water.

In the faint moonlight, I saw a slow-moving hump amble across the grass toward the pond. I whistled. My call was ignored. The turtle, untrained to expect food in exchange for answering a verbal signal, continued undisturbed on its path. I walked over and picked it up. It was a small one. It retracted into its protective shield. Taking my index finger, I traced the perimeter of its shell, feeling its natural smoothness interrupted by bumps and blemishes. I touched the back of it to my face, like I’d done earlier tonight with the granite turtle in my bedroom. Like the stone one, I found tonight’s visitor surprisingly cool in the Texas heat.

I walked to the edge of the pond and dropped him in, the splash scaring a couple of frogs resting on lily pads. They jumped in the water for protection. A bull frog, hiding in the cattails and dwarf rushes, made a deep croaking sound to warn others of impending danger.

I sat on a chair on the patio to relax. I vowed to forget the nightmare and enjoy the silence of the night. For an hour or so only the screeches, hoots and shrieks of night owls intermittently interrupted my relaxation.

Voices in the distance, barely audible, broke the stillness. The voices became louder. They were angry voices. Anxiety stirred deep inside me. Anxiety and fear. I wanted to dash inside my house, but thought they might see me. Instead, I crouched down under the iron patio table, waiting for them to pass.

Two silhouettes outside my fence line were fast approaching.

“Don’t tell me you’re not unfaithful. You think I’m stupid when I answer the phone and someone hangs up?” A man vociferated. He was big, probably over six feet and over two hundred pounds.

“You’re just a jealous nut,” a woman’s voice replied. “You’re insanely jealous….”

“I’m not going to put up with your damned screwing around,” he said.

“You’re demented. You need to see a shrink,” she said.

“I don’t need no shrink,” he yelled.

The man lunged at her, throwing the woman to the ground. He hurled his huge frame on top of her, striking her face with his fists. They struggled. She kicked him away. Before she could get up, he was on top of her again. He grabbed her neck with both hands. Her legs thrashed about to dislodge him. She kept fighting. Suddenly her body was still.

The man’s shoulders loosened and straightened up like a football player leaving a huddle. He looked around. He squatted down again over her, maybe checking the pulse in her neck. He stood up. He took three or four steps to stand next to her feet. He looked around again before positioning his body to pull the woman by her legs. He toiled until he dragged her body off the path. A dry creek bed ran along the other side of the path. He pushed her body into the creek. Like a rabid dog, he turned and ran in the direction from which they had come.

I was shaking uncontrollably, which made the metal table jingle. To stop the noise, I inched away from the table and crawled on the flagstone floor to my kitchen door. I reached up and turned the knob. After crossing the threshold on all fours, I closed the door behind me, my fingers shaking yet grasping the deadbolt to lock it. Still on the floor, without turning any lights on, I took the phone from the counter and sat on the floor to dial 911.

Tears welled in my eyes and spilled over. I tried to stand up but instead went down on my knees again, not intentionally but out of desperation. Soon I found myself crying so deeply I was choking. I had promised myself years ago, a vow I’d made to myself with my father, as witness, that I would not cry. Not a tear had been shed, not a single tear until tonight. Like a watershed in my life, anguish burst forth. And sorrow. And a lot of other emotions, too. My whole body was shaking.

A voice on the phone was asking me for the second time if I was ok.

“Yes, I’m ok,” I sobbed. “But I just saw a man choke a woman to death.” I hoped that she could understand me through my tears and my Spanish accent.

“Where did you see it?” the operator’s voice asked. She spoke in a very composed manner, which calmed me.

“Outside my property line.”

“Do you know the assailant?” the voice asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. I was confused by the images I saw, but I could not remember anyone who looked like that.

“Do you know the victim,” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Where is the assailant now?” she asked.

“He ran back down the path he had come from.”

“Where are you?” she asked.

“Inside my house.”

“Are you secure in your house?” she asked. Her voice sounded comforting.

“I think so.” I wiped my nose with the back of my hand.

The operator confirmed my address.

“Officers have been dispatched. Also an ambulance.”

“Ok.” I said.

“Can you tell me if the woman is alive?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” I said. I was sobbing again, yet hoping the operator could understand me. “He shoved her body into the creek.”

“You’ll be safe,” the voice on the phone said. “The police are on their way. Do you want to stay on line with me until they arrive?”

“No, I’ll be ok,” I said.

“Call again if you need help before the police arrive.”

I was not crying out of fear, I realized. It felt like something else, something deeper, something personal. I remembered my mother’s suffering, the torment she led at my father’s side, her troubled life with a cruel man. My mother’s refuge had been her church, and like a turtle shell, the church provided shelter. The scene I’d witnessed outside my fence triggered childhood memories of my parents.

As I brought my tears under control, images flashed through my mind, images from my nightmares—turtles being beheaded. I got off my knees and stood up. The thought of severed turtle heads haunted me. Then I realized my nightmares contained more details. A quick flash of my father strangling my mother ricocheted in my brain cells. How could I have forgotten what he had done that Sunday night so long ago?

It had been an abominable act. My mother’s screams. His accusations of her infidelity. The worst part of it was he almost carried it out to its unspeakable horror had I not interrupted him by bursting unexpectedly into their bedroom that night. My mother’s neck bore bruises for weeks. She never attended church again.

A loud siren announced the approach of an ambulance. The whining police sirens played chorus to the ambulance. Walking to the living room, I looked out. At least five or six patrol cars stopped at various distances from my house.

I watched policemen get out of their vehicles. My mind was still racing away on images from my childhood. That’s when I realized the near strangling of my mother had occurred the same day my father ran over the turtle, the thirteenth turtle, severing its head in the process.

Two police officers stepped up to the front stoop. I opened the door.

“Ma’am, did you call about a possible murder?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. My Spanish accent evident as I spoke. “On the path in back by the creek. A man strangled a woman. Sounded like she was his wife or girlfriend. He accused her of infidelity. He pushed her body into the dry creek bed.”

“Can we get back there from here?”

“Yes, please find your way through the yard.” I turned the outside lights on.

From my kitchen window at the rear of the house, I watched the police comb the area behind my property. They had portable strove lights which lit up the area like a football field. After more than hour, the same two officers knocked on my kitchen door. I opened it and stepped outside.

“Can you tell us again what you saw?” one of the officers asked.

I repeated the whole incident one more time.

“Well, ma’am, we’ve searched the area pretty thoroughly. We don’t see evidence of what you describe. We’re calling the search off.”

“Calling it off? You can’t do that. A man strangled his wife,” I said. My voice was forceful. I could not believe what he’d informed me.

“There’s no dead body,” the other officer said.

“But I know what I saw….” I said.

“No evidence of a struggle, either,” the first policeman said. “If you see anything else, give us a call. I suggest you get some sleep, ma’am.”

They both looked at me like I was crazy.

I stood on the patio watching the uniformed men get back into their vehicles. I continued to stand there until the engines of the ambulance and patrol cars were no longer audible. I stepped back inside my kitchen, not believing what they had said. No dead body. Looking out the kitchen window, I pondered the possibilities of what had happened. If only I’d had my cell phone with me, I could have taken pictures from under the patio table.

Faint light was beginning to appear over the horizon. I returned to the patio, to watch the sunrise. Waiting for the sun to pop up, I thought about my nightmares. They were not a product of my cultural background, as my husband had often voiced. No, they were a product of my childhood. My midnight monster was not the night crusher. My monster was far worse than that. My father was the monster.

A slight rustling sound sent chills down my back. My first thought was the murderer had returned. For me this time. I couldn’t move. My nerves were on the fringe.

The rustle of leaves again. My eyes followed the sound. It was the little turtle who had managed to climb out of the pond and was walking through the papyrus grass, moving the dry blades out of its path.

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