several feet above a river – Jack Joseph
June 7, 2020
The summer I was 12 years old, I gave up their language. I lay in the grass outside and when they called for me I let the sound combine with everything else—the bugs, the lawnmowers, the wind. It was the summer I stopped barking. I left food in my bowl untouched. A feeling had crept its way inside and sucked all the air from my universe and when I peed, I peed without even sniffing the dirt.
Some dogs love water. They paddle out and come back with huge branches, shaking themselves dry in enormous, wet clouds. To me, water is as unbreathable and unwelcoming as space. We must be different breeds. All the same, when their incessant calling for me gets to a certain point, there is a path from the backyard that leads to a river and my only chance at silence.
That’s where I found the turtle.
At first, I thought it was sunning itself near the water. I’ve seen turtles resting on the rocks near the shore, but it was unusual to see one situated in the dark. There was a highway bridge that passed above and cast everything below in an inky shade. As I got closer, small particles of soot and dirt drifted down from the vibrations of the cars above.
Then, I realized something was wrong. Two small and shriveled arms protruded from the shell like the frayed ends of a sweatshirt drawstring. It was no longer alive. The thing that happened must have happened some time ago, and it must have only just washed up on the shore. I stared at it and wondered what kind of life a turtle lives, then nudged it into the water with my nose. It swished back and forth as it faded into the river.
Opposites are tricky things. Death is not the opposite of life and sadness is not the opposite of happiness. But, there is a game that I sometimes play where I look up at the sky, focus on its color, and try to imagine another time of day with the same color. It was almost sunset, and the sky was a gradient of bright orange and a dark, blackish blue. The opposite of right now, I figured, would probably be around sunrise; maybe half an hour after the sun broke on the horizon. I tried to imagine what morning would feel like.
A boat went by, and my concentration evaporated. The boat had already disappeared, but its wake brought stronger waves to the shore. I began to move back a few rocks but noticed something in the water.
I thought that it was some kind of trash, maybe some plastic thing that had washed up from the other side. It took me a moment to realize that the thing was also rising, and as it passed above the water’s surface, its shape became clear. It was a flat, white outline of a turtle. It looked almost like a drawing or a cartoon. It bobbed slightly as it rose, as if pulled by some invisible string, and continued to gently ascend. When it reached the bottom of the bridge above, it passed through the concrete, and then it was gone.
There’s something funny about seeing something like that. There is a feeling you should be feeling something—something strange and new—and you search every part of yourself for what that feeling should be. What you find, or at least what I found, is something like what was already there. Suddenly, I realized I was very hungry.