A house on a hill cannot be hid, but it can be remodeled. Stuccoed and columned, the ancient split level made a credible temple — until we lost the God.
Petitioners basked in the light of the Turtle’s eyes — it had the fiercest eyes I ever saw, yellow and black, and then the jaws between, eager to snap at whatever came.
While the Turtle lived, lines of petitioners wound down the hill. Brother Jude and I kept the God. Dressed in our habits — mossy green hooded jackets, tee-shirts emblazoned with the Chelonian rampant, baggy pants and flip-flops — we sold feeder fish at the door and kept petitioners moving.
They petitioners loved it — the Turtle still as a graven image, except for her seductive, waving, worm-tongue, then snap! — the offering engulfed.
But one morning the Turtle floated to the surface. The God was dead. The abbot called us into his chambers, the ancient master-bedroom-with-bath. Brother Jude and I exchanged glances. We knew our hearts to be pure and our rituals without blemish, but we had cut back on our duties. The Sacred Chelonian had remained serene, and truly, clear water is not natural to turtles.
If petitioners were disappointed in the view, well, they had already purchased the fish. Also, in the time we saved, we had begun a small effort, an effort that might be misconstrued.
The Abbot settled his fleece over his button-down shirt and rubbed his hands together, saying heartily, “Come in, come in, Brother Jude, Brother Dashiell.” A bad sign: he was not a hearty man. His hair was thin and his shoulders stooped. Broken blue capillaries stained the end of his sagging nose.
We bowed our heads and awaited his words. “It’s not about the Turtle; it was never about the Turtle. I don’t blame you for the Turtle. Nothing you do could affect it. The God has left us for a higher purpose.”
I was so relieved I forgot to be annoyed by his declaration of our uselessness.
“But I’ve heard what you’ve been up to,” he said. “Why don’t you sit down?”
We squatted on the floor. He settled into a molded plastic chair. “It will all be forgotten when you bring us a reincarnation.”
“We’re doing good,” said Brother Jude.
The Abbot templed his fingers, and said, “We need to do well before you can do good. Don’t be stupid. The sexless disturb the petitioners.”
“They need help,” said Jude.
“They aren’t supposed to exist,” said the Abbot. Jude gave him a pained look.
“My job is to keep the Temple running,” said the Abbot. “Tithing only covers 40% of expenses. We need more petitioners, not fewer. But fortunately, it’s no longer an issue, because you two now have a higher calling.”
Jude and I retreated to our cells. I squatted on my pallet and said “Find a new one. Just like that. And it’s got to be as good as the old one. It took a hundred years to grow that Turtle.”
Jude paced. “How can I leave the sexless support group? We’d just got beyond praise-singing.”
“Where does the Abbot expect us to look?” I said.
“They were just getting the knack of it,” said Jude. ”Standard speech, I mean.”
“Oh,” I said. “And just where would you go to find a Chelonian God? Naturally. Fill-in-the-blank: the Gary Lagoons. Just the spot for monsters. Should I pack a Hard-shell-flow water filter? A Hazmat suit?”
“Normal voices. They could assimilate,” said Jude. “I can’t leave them now.”
How about a Blunt Trauma Protective Garment with High Impact Attenuation,” I said. “I wonder if I can wear both at once?”
It was all turtleshit. Our actual poverty, as well as our vows, meant that all we had was our habits and the contents of our begging bags. I borrowed a kitchen knife from the cook. We were packed in minutes.
The Gary Lagoons had died for our sins: a stew of endocrine disrupters, heavy metals, and PCBs, surrounded by slagheaps and rubbish. I took the auguries. Three crows flew from east to west. One cawed, one clutched a straw.
We walked downhill on buckling asphalt flanked by yawning basement holes. Bright blue chicory and yellow dandelion bloomed. The ground glittered with broken glass.
Jude paced ahead, in a hurry to get done and get back. He was a big slab of a man, hardened from moving the 100-kilo Turtle off the drain. His hands were always moving, running over his bushy hair, playing with objects in his pockets. Walking calmed him and made him easier to look at.
I stretched my stride to keep up. I was short. I liked to hold still and watch. It’d been my idea to change the ritual, but it’d been Jude who had started the support group. He’d been selling feeder fish. A petitioner in a hoodie came up and handed over the gelt, head down, whispering. Then another, and another. Not all together, but frequent.
I said, “Who needs to hide their face and voice?” It was obvious. Jude, who might have become a monk even without the inducement of regular meals, agreed. Then he decided they needed our help. I didn’t argue, maybe because of all the woes that came out of the great poisoning, the sexless seemed to me the most beautiful.
We followed the old train tracks south. Jude took two ties at once and strode like a hero, while I took one-and-a-half and bobbed like a clown. At intervals, I jogged to catch up.
“How long do you think this will take?” said Jude.
“How should I know?” I said.
“You’re the augur. I can’t be away from the group long.”
“The abbot told us to quit the group.”
“He can’t mean it. He knows how they’re abused.”
“Yeah, well, he has to keep the Brotherhood going. It’s not that he minds doing good, it’s just not a priority,” I said.
We overtook two travelers linked by a rope. The taller sported a broad felt hat, pegged pants, and a hand-sewn smock. A skinny, long-legged figure trailed behind, bare-headed, barefoot, dressed in shorts and a baggy tee-shirt, honey hair rippling.
We removed our hands from our pockets. Jude cleared his throat and said, “Well-met.”
The tall one turned. The skinny one, just a kid, shuffled behind him, holding his tied hands before his chest.
“Well-met?” said the man in the felt hat. “And who be you?” He looked us up and down with eyes too big for their sockets; eyes that made you want to step away. His face was as hard and angular as a shovel, the hair round it thick, grey, and pointy, like a wet dog’s. A rope led from the wrists of the kid into his fist.
“Chelonian Brothers,” said Jude.
The man spit to one side.
“False gods,” he said. “But I heard yours died.”
The morning light fell on the kid’s high cheekbones, burnishing the wavy hair.
“We’re headed to the Gary Lagoons,” offered Jude. “You?”
“You’d best keep away. Crookedness comes out of there. A trapper told me he’d seen a thing, crawling, dragging behind it another thing, and another, all linked up like, by their flesh, and the first one come round to the last and started to eat”….he moved his hands like jaws, then grinned at us, jerked the rope and said “The likes of this come from the Lagoon.”
Jude ran his hand over his hair, and said mildly, “The likes of him?”
The kid was at that gorgeous age, trembling on the brink of adulthood, except that this kid was actually trembling on the brink of nothing. Cheekbones, broad brow, dewy eyes, rosy lips, jaw that was neither curved nor square, delicate neck with no hint of Adam’s apple: I didn’t need to hear ver voice.
The shovel-faced man said “Yeah, It’s one of them — sex defectives. I won’t say no more.”
“Why are ver hands tied?” said Jude. His voice had got softer.
“It consorted with the sons and daughters of the elect, after it was warned.”
“Which elect would that be?”
“I’m proud to be a deacon of the Hard-shelled Hyper-Calvinist congregation of Calumet.”
I looked down. Jude’s hand ran over his hair again. The Hard-shelled Hyper-Calvinists were nasty, believing as they did that if you weren’t them, you were damned. Jude looked straight at the man, a male look, a get-out-of-my-way or I’ll-get-you-out-of-my-way look.
The man jutted his chin. “It’s an unnatural thing, born of corruption.”
“What’s your name?” Jude asked the kid. The kid looked from the Hard-shell to Jude, grave, almost polite, and turned away.
“You’ve got no right to interfere with me,” said the man.
“Not a right . . . a duty,” said Jude.
“You can’t tell me what to do. I guess you’re hoping to dredge some monster out of the lagoon to replace that dead god of yours, supposing no one will know the difference. Stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours.”
“But will you stay out of vers?” said Jude, gesturing toward the kid.
“It’s not a ver. It’s an it,” said the man. He pushed on the kid.
“Go,” said Jude, “Leave him.” He put a hand on the kid’s shoulder.
“That’s mine,” the man said. “I hear you Chelonians get up to things with the sexless, but this one’s mine.”
Jude’s fist connected to the man’s jaw with a crack that was a relief to hear. The man fell and scrambled up, looking up at Jude and cocking his arm back.
Then the kid looked at the Hard-shell and spoke with that tremulous voice, the one that can turn sure and pure, and ring out.
“Go. Go away.”
The funny thing that sometimes it takes effort not to do what the sexless say when they raise their voices. They don’t often get that riled, but it’s another mark against them.
Hearing the kid’s voice and seeing Jude’s glare, and maybe also taking into account the way I was standing, arms swinging, the man went.
I shook my head at Jude. The kid hung back, but didn’t run. Jude motioned and the kid shuffled closer. Jude held out his hand to me. He knew I had the cook’s knife.
I handed it to him. “What do they call you?” asked Jude, cutting the kid loose.
“Urushiol,” said the kid. I gaped. “Who called you that?” I asked. “Did he name you that?”
“What’s he to you?”
“Nothing,” said Urushiol.
The day wore on: the prairies rose into dunes.
We topped a rise and saw water glinting behind a sagging chain link fence verdant with poison ivy. I could feel the blisters form, just looking at it.
Through the gaps I spotted turtles sunning; not our kind of Turtle, of course: our kind lurked, mossy, at the bottom of things. A light wind carried a homelike smell, reminiscent of the Temple pool.
I waited for an augury. A massasauga slipped through the water, light brown with black blotches down its back. Sinuous, pretty, chancy, the way snakes are. It swam on and disappeared. A snake bearing poison away: a good sign.
Urushiol crouched down and slid under the chain links. Being broader, I had to scrabble and pull myself with my elbows. Jude stared at the hole sorrowfully, then grabbed the chain links and swung himself over. The fence bent under his weight.
There, green with duckweed, shaded by cottonwoods, punctured by tanks and tires and old cars, the lagoons spread before us.
Jude and I stood on the brink, watching the surface tremble, looking for God sign — thin trails of air bubbles. Jude stripped down. It was difficult enough to wade into the Temple pool and grab the shell while the Turtle whipped its neck and hissed, looking for its chance. Here the bottom was dark and soft, and the Turtle would be dug in.
The breeze faded and mosquitoes massed. Jude crouched, screamed, and dove onto a stream of bubbles. He rose up covered in muck, yanking at a turtle. It snapped wildly, waving its long neck, striking Jude’s arm. Urushiol and I grabbed its plated tail, pulling it off Jude before it could latch on. Jude sank back into the water, rinsed off the muck, and emerged picking off algae and leeches.
It was not very big, but it had a fierce eye.
A line of blood coursed down Jude’s arm. It kept dripping. Urushiol stood back, eyes huge. I looked for a sign. Nothing moved except the mosquitoes. Even the turtle waited, jaws spread, but still.
A crow flew, west to east.
I shook my head. “It’s not the right one,” I said. “It’s not even the same kind.”
“You can’t read the auguries here,” protested Jude.
“It’s not the God,” I repeated. Jude knew I was right. Too small, and smooth-shelled instead of plated. The petitioners wouldn’t be impressed. We threw it back.
We crouched on the bank, still as three carved monkeys. Our weight squeezed the soil and a rainbow slick spread on the water. Mosquitoes bit. Bubbles surfaced. Jude picked up little sticks and threw them in, and they spun. More bubbles. I batted at bugs, and Jude glared at me. He muttered. I strained to hear. He was creating the God and arranging it. “She’d be in a deep place, in the current, but off to the side, where the little fish go, and the tadpoles. In the shade, but her head in the light, and the tongue glowing in the sun.”
I thought about the God, so big and hungry that she would empty a slough this small. We needed a bigger pool with a current whispering through it. Herons at the edges, but no ducks in the middle — the God would pull them down.
I looked at the sky. Three crows, tumbling.
“Do you think the Hard-shell will be looking for you?” I asked Urushiol.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Urushiol.
“I never said you did.”
Jude interrupted. “You can stay with us. We have a support group.”
“Oh,” said the kid. “What does it support?”
“We, that is, Dashiell and I, help the sexless fit in. People such as yourself.”
“Fit in? Why would I want to fit in?”
I interrupted. “We don’t have a support group. We had a support group. Now we’re looking for the God. I think we should stay at the Lagoons awhile,” I said. “Let the Hard-shell get bored.”
We slogged across a marsh. Red-winged blackbirds trilled and flies buzzed. We panted. The soles of our flip-flops mired. We yanked them out. There was no lack of stepping stones — mattress springs, car bodies, appliances, snags of plastic. Urushiol, barefoot, danced ahead. Jude and I lumbered, pants rolled up, jackets knotted round our shoulders like bandoliers.
At last we made the shade of a thicket. Urushiol looked at it and giggled. Jude steadied himself on a shrub and raised his hands to his face. “No,” I shouted. Quietly, because it was too late, I said “Don’t touch anything.” Urushiol pranced on. “Poison sumac,” I said, pointing at the bushes. The sky darkened and rain pattered, dripping off the leaves onto us, every drop washing down urushiol, the blistering oil.
It takes from four hours to two days for weeping, itching blisters to form. Though we might not be affected at all… poison sumac is chancy. But it was time to get the God and get home.
Six crows flew, east to west. We paused at a sandy patch at the edge of a deep pond. I stripped and dived. My skin tingled as it shed mud and sweat, and, I hoped, urushiol (the oil, not the kid). Jude and Urushiol-the-kid splashed behind me.
Soft and cool, this water, cupped by moss, stained the color of tea. Before I surfaced, I saw it, a furious eye.
“The God’s down there,” I said, hauling myself out.
The rain stopped. We lay naked in a row. “So,” I said to Urushiol, “Tell me about your name.”
“I dared him to baptize me the worse thing he could think of. And then I laughed at him, because he gave me a name he can’t stand up to.” The kid spit, taking it slow, winding up, and lobbing with a phtt.
“He baptized you?”
“He was mocking me. But I took the name. I wanted to make him itch.” The kid giggled again. Somehow, the kid’s high cartoony voice made the words more forceful.
Bubbles. I dove; saw nothing but tea-colored water and briefly, the feet of a heron. Then I felt it, a hard spike against my belly. The Turtle’s head whipped and hissed. Her beak caught my forearm and slashed it. I treasure the scar.
Together we yanked and lifted, and heaved her up the bank. Dodging the jaws, we wrapped her up in damp tee-shirts and moved her to a comfortable spot in the shade.
Jude started in on Urushiol. “You’ll be coming to the temple with us.”
“We have a group,” Jude went on.
“No we don’t,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Urushiol. “I’m not coming. I’ll help you get away, since you borrowed my trouble, then I’ll go my way.”
We suspended the God in a tee-shirt sling under sapling poles. Urushiol cut poison sumac. “The Hard-shell’s dead scared of sumac, “Urushiol said. “Got blistered lungs breathing the smoke. But I’m immune.”
All was quiet as we passed the God over the fence. It was wearisome walking with the God’s weight on us. I let down my guard, and Jude never had his up. Urushiol skipped on ahead.
Five of them came over a crest. Jude and I dropped the poles and backed up against the God. A crow flew, east to west, and I smiled.
It was my last smile for a while. In the middle of the gouging, kneeing, hair pulling and biting, “Suuuumac, Poison Suuumac,” rang out. The kid’s pitch was excruciating. Urushiol jumped in, waving the sumac, taunting the Hard-shells, “Want some blisters? Want the itch?” They backed away.
I felt around in my begging bag for the knife.
Just as I got hold of it, a Hard-shell gave me a kick. I writhed in the sand. He pulled on the ends of the tee-shirts, skidding the God. Tee-shirts tore. I rose, knife in hand. A Hard-shell pulled my elbows back, and another twisted my wrist, and I dropped the knife. The Hard-shell-who-named Urushiol grabbed it and held it at the God’s neck.
“Give me Urushiol,” he said, “And you can have the turtle.”
The God clawed at the shirts. Jude rolled on the sand with two Hard-shells. They bumped the Hard-shell-who-named-Urushiol, who fell onto the God. The God struck.
They say that Turtle has the second-strongest jaws in the world. I don’t know what creature has the first. The Hard-shell bellowed. God had him by the hand. “Get it off,” he hollered. Jude, from inside the ball of Hard-shells, said “Get your friends off.”
Everyone backed away. Jude stood up and prayed “Oh Great Chelonian, Guardian of Waters, hear me. Release this man as he has released others.” Urushiol brandished sumac.
Sweat poured off the Hard-shell and dripped onto the Chelonian. “Stop that damned-fool praying and get him off me,” he said, in a voice pitched higher than was normal.
“Get your friends to stand back,” said Jude.
“Give me back my knife,” I said “I need it to pry the God off.”
“Don’t pull,” said the Hard-shell, his voice even higher.
“I won’t,” I said. “Drop the knife; I can’t help you without it.”
He dropped it. His friends tensed, but stayed back. The God held on. I wrapped the knife-blade in a tee-shirt scrap, so as not to damage the Chelonian, stuck it into a corner of her mouth and pried at the roof. I was familiar with the maneuver, having performed it for petitioners who got too close to God.
The Hard-shell reclaimed his hand, blood dripping. Urushiol, Jude and I backed away. I brandished the shirt-wrapped knife.
Then, as one, the Hard-shells surged toward us, death in their eyes. As one, we ran.
“The God,” Jude panted, after we’d put some dunes between ourselves and the Hard-shells.
“Forget the God,” I panted back. “The God can take care of herself.”
When I next looked back I saw the God five dunes away, plowing along toward water. Three dunes away, I saw Hard-shells nursing wounds. People sometimes don’t appreciate that the Turtle, for all its heavy look, can move its neck and jaws as fast as a massasauga.
The Hard-shells were making agitated gestures in our direction. No crows in the sky: just a few swallows skimming the surface of the water before the God, south to north.
“The God doesn’t need us,” I said.
“It’s been fun, but I’ll be going,” said Urushiol.
“No you won’t,” I said, and I pointed to the kid’s hand, where blisters like pearls gently bubbled up.
We took to the woods. Darkness covered us soon enough. Urushiol started to twitch. “Don’t scratch,” I said. “It only makes it worse.”
By the time we arrived at the temple, Urushiol’s face was a mass of boils.
The Abbot had cleaned out the old God’s shell and set it up at the end of the pool, cross-shaped plastron forward. He was charging petitioners to float candles before it. Left-over feeder-fish glittered beneath. Jude and I took up new rituals; the dusting with the brush, the trimming of the wicks, and the scraping off of the wax.
Two days later I pushed into a basement hole drifted with dead leaves. Jude had insisted on reconvening the support group. A ping-pong ball crunched underfoot. Jude, Urushiol, and half-a-dozen others hunkered. Jude said “If your rib cage and diaphragm can’t move, your voice will be too high. Keep your head loose on your neck, rise up…”
“Rise up,” said Urushiol, “Yes! Don’t whisper, sing!” Naturally, only too naturally, the kid poured out a wordless hosanna. It was like an infection: the others took it up and ethereal harmony overflowed. Jude made useless lowering motions with his arms. I shook my head and looked toward the sky, where a flock of crows skidded eastward toward home.
The hosanna fell away. Silence. Then rustling weeds, the slap of flip-flops on the stairs, and the Abbot’s voice.
“Very nice, very nice,” he said, stepping inside the box. “Praise-singing at its finest.”
The Abbot made a lowering motion with his arms. He paced back and forth, flip-flops slapping. Jude and I exchanged glances. The Abbot was as chancy as a snake. The coming homily would define our fate.
“All Chelonians have shells,” began the Abbot. “The shell has persisted for 220 million years in this most ancient lineage. But it’s not a suit of armor. It’s their chest. How do they breathe with fused ribs?”
He templed his fingers. “They found another way. There are over two hundred kinds of turtles. The message of the Chelonian is “There is always another way.”
I let out my breath. He was going to work with us.
So the Abbot calls it the Earthly Choir. “‘The inchoate longing of sexual voices combined with the ethereal purity of the sexless’ creates a searing, yet paradisiacal sound, a space between Hell and Heaven,” says the Abbot. Anyway, it draws crowds. We are remodeling.
Vicki grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and now lives on Bainbridge Island, in Washington State, where there are also herons, and a superfund site. She graduated from the six-week Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2009, and has another piece forthcoming in Stupefying Stories. She says:
Turtle gods are everywhere, but mine emerged from the fertile, long-suffering muck of the Great Lakes region. The god’s eye belonged first to a huge alligator snapping turtle, yanked from the White river and possessed, but not owned, by the Indianapolis Zoo. Mound-builders’ effigies, Minn of the Mississippi, split-level houses, and the indiscriminant dumping of endocrine disrupters all prefigure the Chelonian Brothers. A one-day workshop with Eileen Gunn a few days after the death of a sacred turtle in an Asian temple gave me the house on the hill. The monks first got moving through something like the wastelands around the Gary, Indiana steel mills during the six-week Clarion West Writers workshop. When I was small my family now and then drove by the mills at sunset while chimneys flared and herons lifted off reflecting sloughs and ponds. It seemed to me like the wilderness of fairy tales. I owe the title to a classmate’s critique (Thank you, Randy).
Illustration by William H. Majoros (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.