Published in the OPEN PEN ANTHOLOGY in January 2016
My dreams were drenched pea green, as if saturated with the blood of some mythical creature. The snapping turtles exploded from the poisonous mud beneath Newton Creek and went for the tender white soles of my feet with their razor teeth, again.
In days gone by there were oysters here, two hand-spans wide. Elk came down from the forest at dusk to dip their heads and drink from the clear tributary streams. Water washed in and out – in and out the cleansing salt came. Time and tide flowed up and down, gushed and gurgled, never pausing, never waiting. Why didn’t you wait for me?
The bridge was up over the English Kills, and a boat from the paint factory was sliding through the chalky green channel below. Through the railings, the water looked dead and inert. There was the merping siren and the throb of impatient engines as the road began to hum and stiffly reform. Then, in the water, something poked out! A gnarled branch, or a big pruney shit. A small yellow eye flicked open on its side – a snout split into two, and the thing gasped like an old man!
I stared at it as it bobbed forward in the water, but it submerged again, leaving a dimpled wake and a bubbly scum on the viscous surface of the water. The trucks in the road began to rumble and smut as the guard rail jerked up – I sprinted away before them down the avenue.
I had read that snapping turtles did not make good eating. They looked strange as well, oily green and evil. They had neither the blissful, moronic grin of their cousins, nor the rat-a-tat lute shell. Instead, they had a snaky neck and a slit and rows of sharp, bitey teeth. They looked like nasty bastards, and they were, and they probably tasted like shit. But they were the only edible thing lurking in the sewage and petrochemical murk of the English Kills, and I wanted to kill one, and eat it.
I lived on Paumanok – the Island of Tribute. The tribes once speared the deer that came down to drink here – they shredded their flesh, and strung it out on wicker frames to be dried by the salt wind that blew in from the great Eastern Ocean. They are all now locally extinct, of course – their flesh shriveled up in the sun, chewed and digested, transmuted into new muscle and sinew – into brawny arms that propelled spears and spells high into the sky, fluttering hands that made sacraments of blood and dirt.
Once, I could have walked into the ocean and strode out along the banks of cod. I could have walked across the river to Manahatoh – the Place of the Bow and Arrow – upon the backs of salmon. I could have built skyscrapers from the silvery chalk shells of oysters, lined avenues with sheets of glistening fish scale…
But the fish have all been vacuumed from the sea now, and the spiny oysters have abandoned their poisonous pearls to the estuarine current. The English Kills once sparkled fresh and clear into the East River – now it finds its headwaters in a gushing sewage pipe. Its banks are slick with oil, its toxic waters lurid with chemical run-off and metal contaminate. It is a tarred and stagnant bronchiole within the crippled lungs of the city.
But life still lurks here somehow, unfathomable and unpleasant. The Kills is colonised by floating scavengers that feed upon sewage, spawn, and baby ducks – soft beaks and all. I intended to aggress them, with carnivorous distemper. I would hunt here again – I would pay tribute to the ancestors! I would wade waist high into the muddy estuary and writhe with water snakes – I would plunge deep into the cold sound and grapple with hags. I would spear and bleed the snapping turtles that flapped and paddled in the low tide at English Kills – I would trap them and scuttle them, I would spear one and penetrate its leathery olive armour, and then I would bear it home, blooded and triumphant, and there I would feast upon its flesh.
An appendage is attached to their tongue, it resembles a worm. It extends, and wriggles in sham. The small aquatic fry floating nearby approach – entranced. Then – it furiously flurries and devours them! Just as you devoured me.
Murder police have been known to tie strings to their tails and fling them into the dark water, then follow the bubbly beads down the canals. Pulling at their leashes, the creatures swim straight for any corpse that might be decomposing down there in the ooze: they strain for it, jaws akimbo, frantic with the smell of puffy flesh. Just so, the living devour the dead. Otherwise, sewerage will do.
I decided to hunt from the bridge, with a razor blade tied with twine. Safety blades they call them, though they would prove treacherous to the creature that might try its luck on their intermetallic strips. No other bait was needed, I thought – confronted with any intruder, such an aggressive species would berserk, unable to restrain itself, even at the cost of its own life.
I ran up through the toxic carnage of Flushing Avenue, leaping over the blasted bricks and corroding rails; I streaked past the cold stores of meat-hooks and carcasses, the barricaded shanties abrim with scrap metal, until, at last, I reached the lonely bridge.
Orange light waggled on the gluey murk of the English Kills. Faraway on the island, the lights still glimmered from the skyscrapers. I unwound the blade and checked the knot. Then I weighted the twine a yard up from the blade with a key, and flung the contraption over the railing – it plopped into the water, and I waited.
Nothing, that night – and nothing the next night neither, though I waited until the vapor of dawn, shivering in my shorts.
On the third night, I taped the lungs and lights of a chicken to the blade. Within minutes of casting it away, fat bubbles rippled up in the water! I jerked at the string, making it pull through the water – and the submariner went into frenzy! The string scripped out through my fingers, tearing off a thread of skin; then the line went taut, and I had to struggle to hold on as it veerd from side to side; I spindled the twine around my arm as I pulled – it was tight and thrumming and horse hairy as I drew him home…
Ggggnnnhhh – heave! Splash! There he was! Flapping and grimacing, the twine suspended in the rictus of its gaping mouth. I made a pulley of the rail, and used it to hoist him up; then his flippers were stubby wings flapping clumsily at nothing as he slid upward through the air. I heaved for one last time, and he suddenly clattered over the railing and onto the sidewalk, and I toppled over backwards.
It lay there, inert, faintly rotating on its shell. Its body was dun and slimy, the swallowed bait an angular lump in its curving neck. It was making an odd hissing sound, and a foul smell rose up towards me – sewagey and unpleasant like a chemical toilet. It was clearly disturbed – I would have to make sure that it did not try to harm me.
I walked over to it gingerly – and quickly tipped it over. I straddled its glistening shell, and gripped its thick lizardy neck between my fingers, slowly pulling the hairy twine from its mouth. The blade emerged, along with a fair degree of gunk. I flung the string and bobs away from me, over the railing into the Kills.
Had it already expired? Its yellow eye was open and unmoving. Its mouth was still open, and I could see the rows of sharp, shiny little teeth in there…
Then it rattled and I leapt up! It jiggled about madly, spraying out a foul smelling liquid that got all over my trousers; I wiped at it, but the globbets were slippery, and I felt suddenly nauseous, and promptly vomited on the creature, as if in revenge.
I caught my breath, and then carefully positioned my open rucksack in front of the animal. I tried to chivvy it inside with my foot, but it didn’t move, so I swiftly seized it by its twitching tail, stuffed it in, and laced the bag up tight. Then I hoisted it on my back, and bounded away down the avenue toward Boswjick as a full, silver plate moon rose over the distant, glimmering towers of Manhattan.
Boswjick – the little town in the woods. The woods are all gone now, of course – the trees axed down and their roots dragged out of the earth, first by carthorses, then by tractors. Vast megaliths of coal grey stone have been erected in their place, studded with squares of yellow light. As I ran home with my prey on my back, they shook with the sound of electronic drumming, and the sky filled with the spotlights of rotorcraft and the shriek and howl of electronic defenses.
I couldn’t kill the thing straight away. It had to be purged. I had read that it would have to be kept submerged for several days, the cloudy water changed over and over, sluicing away the waste and filth of its innards, until, at last, the water stayed clear. Then I would know that it had been purified, and that it was safe to eat.
When I got home, I heaved it out of my rucksack into the bathtub. It flopped and flibbered on the porcelain, and weakly let out another burst of effluent, so I ran the shower over it. I realised, stupidly, that I would now be unable to bathe in the tub myself, so I stripped, climbed on the toilet seat, and traversed out onto the rim of the tub, keeping a careful eye on the beast below for any fast movements. I turned the tap with my foot, and as the water sprayed out, I sluiced off most of the smelly deitrus from my body. Then I hopped onto the floor, pulled the lever for taps and splashed the bath up a quarter full.
It waited, suspended, in the middle of the tub. Thin threads of blood wavered in the water around its snout, and its yellow eye slowly opened, and closed.
I hit the light switch and ran out of the room, making sure to shut the door firmly.
The next morning, the water was cloudy and noxious again. The creature was moving. It flapped up to the end of the tub, and tried to mount the porcelain slope. It gained a little purchase with its flippers and ascended an inch or so – then it encountered the point of gravitational resistance; it clung there for a moment, before, in slow motion, it pirouetted around and splashed back down into the water. It paddled over to the other end and tried again beneath the taps, but to no avail.
Finally, it gave up, and became indolent again. Carefully, I drained the bath. The grains of silt and the gaseous smell slowly dispersed. I refilled the tub with clean, fresh water.
Its shell was clean and vivid now. Fine yellow and brown lines made concentric shapes on bottle green. I sat down on the toilet seat and observed it as it floated there, unmoving…
Was it sleeping?
I slowly reached over and gently touched the shell with my finger. It was hard and soft all at once, like a bird’s beak.
Suddenly, its eye flicked open, its neck telescoped around and it snappered me! I whisked my hand back, but its miniature razors sliced away a tiny chunk of fingertip! It flurried feverishly in the churning water.
It bit me! My flesh tasted just like chicken. I held my finger under the running tap as it rotated triumphantly in the bath tub. Then I clumped up my wound with toilet paper and left it alone in darkness.
After a week, the water stayed clear. All I had to do now was slaughter it, and drain the blood from its body. That morning, I went into the bathroom, and, plunging my hand into the water, seized it by the tail. Its flippers flapped vaguely at the air as I lifted it up. It seemed to have given up the ghost.
In the kitchen, I pulled the thick tail as far out of its shell as it went, and positioned a nail at its nub. It gave a faint, half-hearted snap, and then I drove the nail clear through the tail and into the wall. A thin, lubricant-like liquid oozed out around the metal. Then I held onto the rim of the shell, and with one swing, I chopped at its neck -
The cloven head dropped into the tray on the floor, and the thick neck welled fluid, twitching about like the root of a torn out tongue.
The head scraped about madly in the tray, snapping at the air. I stared at it in horror for a moment as its fluids drained away, then rushed to the bathroom and retched into the toilet, over and over again.
It took all afternoon to pick away the flesh and the fat from the shell with pincers; all the while, the meat seemed to softly shiver and pulsate.
The fat was waxy and yellowish, as if nicotine stained. I laid strips of it in a pan and heated it slowly until they rendered, then poured out the clear liquid blubber into a jam jar. I dipped a piece of twine in there, holding it steady until the wax became opaque. Then I placed the makeshift lamp on the table, and lit the tip with my lady lighter; it sputtered, and began to burn with a tall, swaying flame, like a willowy dancer turning slowly on a darkened stage.
I fried onions, and garlic. Then I put in the chunks of turtle meat, and they began to spatter.
It was a quiet meal. The flesh was firm, not fishy in the least. But there was an unpleasant aftertaste, a burr at the back of my throat. It grew stronger as I ate; finally, it made me feel sick, and I laid down my fork, unable to finish.
The next morning, I ran along the Kills to Newton Creek and on to the bridge where it all oozes out into the East River. The scrapyard before me was piled high with waste, and behind it was the glum river and the grey skyscrapers on the other side. I took the shell from my back-pack, leaned over the railings, and hurled it out as far as I could – it spun through the air for a moment, then splashed thickly down into the murk of the creek. As it started to sink, I thought for a moment that I could divine some kind of symbol appearing upon it, just as the Chinese Emperors had once been reputed to do, but then it submerged and disappeared from sight. I stood there for a while, but nothing was happening, so I put on my backpack, and ran back home in the rain.
I live on Paumanok – the Island of Tribute. Grizzly bears once lumbered in the forests here – they stood in the streams, batting at salmon and biting off their heads; they stood in the shallows and scowled at the eels in the sound.
They are all dead now, to a bear – their skins have been peeled off and cured, stitched into thick, cozy blankets that keep men warm in the deep mid-winter nights, when the island creaks and groans as if it will crack off from its moorings, drift away the sea bed, float off and become lost amongst the icebergs.
Out in the night, out in the English Kills, the snappers float, inert and silent in the dark water. They wait for their blithe prey to pass. Then their tongues extend and flicker.