She was tired. She leaned back and smoked, her memories sparking like the small flames flickering around her. She basked in the glow of these treasured moments, settled into her bed, and waited for her death.
“Lee, have you looked for any storm damage? That was some wicked wind last night.”
A young man with jet black hair looked up from his breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. “No, I haven’t been out yet,” he replied. “As soon as I finish eating, I will go see to the morning chores.” He added a little more ketchup to his plate, and stirred it into his eggs.
“Girls,” his wife called, “Come down and eat.” THUMP THUMP THUMP “And pick up your feet on those stairs!”
“Daddy, did you see the willow tree?” Lynn came running in. “It broked last night! I can see it from my window! A big branch almost hit the chicken coop!”
Lee sighed. “I guess we will have to go out and clean that up as soon as you girls have had something to eat.”
Amid the choruses of “but we don’t want to work” and “we want to watch Saturday cartoons,” the young man stood, put his dishes in the sink, and went out to check on the animals.
Liz screamed, “SNAKE!”
Michelle and Lynn just laughed. “Daddy, look! Liz is afraid of a little snake. Tell her it isn’t scary.”
Lee tried not to smile. His daughters each had their own personalities, their own attitudes towards the world. “Liz, it is ok to be afraid, but there are no poisonous snakes in Maine.”
“What are we gonna do with it, Daddy? Can we keep it as a pet?” Michelle asked.
“No, honey.” Lee walked over to the pile of brush and broke off a long, thick branch. “Can you still see it?”
“I can, Daddy,” Lynn said.
“Here, Liz,” he said, as he handed her the piece of wood. “You hold this far out in front of you.” Lee walked over and picked up the short green garter snake. “You want to know who will love this? The chickens.” He draped the snake over the end of the stick in Liz’s hands while she danced in fear. He helped her carry it over to the chicken coop.
The sisters screamed with laughter when Liz threw stick and snake up, and over, the wire mesh protecting the fowl birds from the foxes that occasionally came in from the nearby woods. The willow branch got caught in the screen, but the snake was not so lucky.
After a couple of hard yanks, Liz was able to pull the heavy branch back down, leaving some of its smaller twigs and bark behind. She carried it proudly. The three sisters took off for the field again, hoping to find another treat for the chickens.
“DADDY! Gracie escaped!”
Lee looked out the window to see the pig slowly picking its way across the crust of ice. “Damn storm,” he muttered, ignoring the glare from his wife. “Come on!”
Everyone grabbed their coats and boots. The sunshine was brilliant, the sky was a perfect clear blue without clouds, and the thick coating of ice on everything was beautifully painful to look at. At the pig sty, snow from the night before had drifted up against one edge of the enclosure. When it had changed over to ice, the slope had been gentle enough that Gracie, the family breeding pig, just walked out.
Lee and his wife were too heavy to walk on top of the crust. With each step, they punched through and were mired in the fifteen inches of powder underneath. Their daughters easily slid around on top, much like the pig. Lee handed each of his girls a large stick. Working together, they coerced the 300 pound Gracie back to her pen. Once she had climbed back down the slope and she was safe, Lee broke her escape route with a few well-placed hard stomps. The girls put their sticks in the snow, adding to the fence.
“Whew! Good thing you spotted her, Michelle.”
“Good thing we still had these sticks, Daddy.”
“Girls. Girls! What are you looking at?” Lee stood up from the row of potatoes he was hoeing and stretched.
“It’s a turtle, Daddy. It’s a BIG turtle. Come see!” Lynne’s voice was filled with awe.
Lee set his hoe down, and walked over to the lettuce. “Step back!” he barked at them. The three girls jumped back about three feet.
“What is it?”
“Michelle, go and get me the thickest branch you can find.” Lee never took his eyes off the large turtle, clearly afraid of the slow-moving beast. The shell was more than eighteen inches across, and its head was fully extended. Michelle came back with a piece of wood.
“Hey! That is my snake-stick!” Liz’s indignant voice called out.
“Enough. It is perfect.” Lee reached behind him and Michelle put the thick stick in his hand.
“What kind of turtle is it, Lee?” His wife had made her way over, the corners of her apron pulled up to cradle the peas she had picked.
“It is a snapping turtle. I don’t know what it is doing here, but..” Lee took the thickest part of the branch and put it down by the turtle’s mouth.
“…I am going to put it down in the marsh and let it go,” he finished, lifting the stick in two hands, with the turtle firmly held in the middle by its mouth.
The family formed a parade, marching the snapping turtle from the garden, across the green hayfield, down through the wild roses and cattails to the waters of marsh. Lee carefully put the large turtle on the ground. It released the stick as soon as it could feel the mud beneath its feet and slipped into the cool waters.
“Look, girls. Look what the turtle did to this branch.” Lee stepped back up onto the field and held out the wood for his daughters to see. Along with the old scars from the tree fall, the chicken coop, and the pig escape, new deep ridges had been cut into the branch where the snapping turtle had held on. The little girls thought about how close they had come to losing a finger… and wondered if the turtle would ever be back.
Lee hung the branch in the barn. He was sentimental.
“Tory, step back. You are too close to the fire.”
“But, Grampy. I wanted to put this one on.” The little girl handed the old man a worn and scarred piece of wood. “I found it by the garage when Daddy was digging the foundation.”
Lee fingered the faded scratches, ridges, and gouges on the last bit of branch. “Sure, Tory. Toss it up there. Carefully, I do not want you to get burned. Say, did I ever tell you the story about your mother, your aunts, and Gracie the pig?”
The little girl gently tossed the last bits of the broken branch to the very top of the bonfire, where it quickly burst into flame, and finally died.