This story is by D.T. Reiss and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Big Hefty basked below the green in the grime. In one of those deep, dark holes and John swore he’d seen the bastard roosting down there before. If his words were to be believed—and Esther’s Papa was always true—a week’s worth of meat lay in the dark shallows where the bank’s curvature overhung the river, casting spiked shadows of tallgrass and trees across the slow, rolling water. Big Hefty and his catfish buddies, they loved the shadowy shallows.
The dry heat of summer swallowed them as they ambled down to the river, their bare feet kicking up clouds of dust along the beaten path. Low was the water, a skeleton of itself before the Great Drought. The dirty, naked portions of the eroded riverbank scorched to a pale brown, scarred with jagged cracks from which flies and bees buzzed.
In the warmth of the blue afternoon, the silver cats skulked into their dark bank hollows. That was the time to snag them and yank them from their caves. John and Esther carried no poles with which to fish, only their hands and arms and a rusted bucket brimming with chicken guts and gizzards from the farm— “Stinkbait,” John called it.
They stood along the bank watching the current trickle by. A mossy, gray stick floated down the heart of river before it beached on a rocky island.
John shook his head.
“That island didn’t used to be there,” he said to Esther. “I guess that’s just a sign of the times. We’s all parched these days.”
“Can I go first Papa?” Esther asked, and the big man smiled, forever proud of his daughter’s fiery spirit.
“Sorry Baby Girl. You best let me scout out them holes first, make sure there ain’t nothing hiding down there ain’t friendly.”
“But I wanna scout the holes.”
“Next time Baby Girl. Next time.” Esther scowled. He always said that: “Next time…”
John rolled up the pantlegs of his overalls, the brim of his straw hat shading his eyes, his lower lip plump from the horseshoe of tobacco. It was strange to Esther, how the cuffed denim pants and straw sunhat were an embodiment of her father when she looked at him; how they almost became a part of him.
John slid his beastly frame into the water without a ripple. His daughter followed, mimicking his movements, the bucket of stinkbait in her hands. Esther loved the water. She wished she could be a fish and swim away from the things that bothered her—swim away from here, from Tennessee, to some far and exotic place. Like Ohio.
Yes, yes, Ohio. She’d heard it was pleasant there, a place where rain still fell and plenty of factory jobs were available. She was twelve now, almost old enough to work in a textile mill, and the thought enthralled her.
John grabbed a fistful of bait from the bucket; it oozed and jiggled in his hardened hands. It smelled of the dark pit in the family outhouse, the one John dubbed, “the Shitshack.”
Before diving under, he gazed at his daughter; saw the displeasure in her electric green eyes, the desire. She’s a big girl now—he told himself—she’s ready.
“Esther Baby. Tell you what, why don’t you go first. Think you can handle that?”
“YES!” Her excitement shook waves through the water.
“You promise to be careful, not to hold your breath for too long or go a-sticking your head in them holes?”
“I mean it Esther—just your arm, not your head.”
“I ain’t no fool, Papa.”
He grinned at his daughter: “I know Baby Girl. I know.”
The bait felt good in her hands, unbothered was she by the stink or the slime. Stink and slime: everyday life to a farmgirl like Esther. Down she went into the cool green water, shallow enough that John could see the calloused soles of her feet kicking up like submarine telescopes.
She stayed under for 132 seconds, John counted.
Esther rose from the water, her red bun dripping. Always in a tight bun, her Irish Setter hair, the hair she’d shave off if it was socially acceptable. The bait gone from her hand.
“He took it,” she squealed, grabbing for more bait. “Big Hefty! He’s down there, I could feel him, that thievin sunuvabitch.” And then, she dove again, Father never feeling more akin to Daughter than in that moment.
John started counting as he tracked her movements along the riverbank. She really is a fish, he thought.
He’d counted to eighty-one when he realized something was wrong. He could see it in her feet, the way they kicked frantically. He reached out and grabbed her ankle, pulled, grabbed her waist, pulled, saw the gore, heard her shriek; it would haunt him forever, the expression on her face—the look of helpless fear; eighty-one.
Two fingers on her right-hand had been severed, not mangled, but completely sawed off, blood spewing in fountains. A snapping turtle, John could tell the cut was inflicted by a sharp beak, as if sliced by shears. He carried Esther onto the bank and bound her hand in his handkerchief. Watched it drench red.
“We need to get you home, get Doc Snyder out here. Damnit! I knew I shouldn’ta let you scout out them holes.”
“I’m so sorry Papa. I’m so sorry!” She sobbed, as he scooped her up like a tiny cub.
“It ain’t your fault Baby Girl. It ain’t nobody’s fault. Just the way God had it planned, I reckon. Am I hurting you the way I’m carrying you?”
“No Papa. Y’aint hurting me none.”
It was two-miles back to the farmhouse, and after ten-minutes, Esther grew silent, her tears dried.
“Put me down Papa. I can walk.”
“You sure Baby Girl?”
“Yea. I’m okay now.”
But she wasn’t okay. As Esther looked down at her stumped, savaged hand, she was anything but okay. Sad at first. Then mad. Then furious, boiling, her mind a grand finale of hot, white fireworks.
He stole them from her. Now, she wanted them back.
John walked a few paces in front of her, rambling about how she’d have to learn to plow the cornfield with a new grip, and when he turned around, Esther was gone.
Gone. Back down to the river, sliding in without a ripple. Numb to the acidic burning emanating from her wound. Under, down into the green, her feet kicked in the air, little telescopes. She remembered where the hole was. She’d remember that hole for the rest of her life.
Something suckered on her hand—Big Hefty. Esther pushed him away, she had bigger fish to fry. Her hand—the good one—pushed back until it struck the muddy rear wall of the roost and slowly started inching forward. A sneak attack. The world moved fast around her, and then, yes, there it was: that snappy bastard’s tail. She yanked and felt him surge, spin—a fighter this one. Esther didn’t mind, she was a fighter too. Up into the sunlight Esther dragged the turtle, onto the bank where she gripped him tightly by the scaly tail, his cranky old man’s face snapping away. Eyes yellow and empty.
“I know just what I’m gonna do with you,” she said.
Esther learned something important that day: it takes six solid swings into the trunk of an ancient oak to smash a snapping turtle’s shell. Another three to completely shred the thing open and spray its innards like raw hamburger across the ground.
When John found his daughter, sitting peacefully, cross-legged under the shade of a mighty oak, she held aloft two severed fingers and a turtle’s scalped head, a smile on her face.
Doc Snyder had a kind, compassionate and bespectacled face. Combed, chestnut hair and a carefully manicured beard. If Esther ever learned to love boys—which she was convinced she wouldn’t—then she would love a boy like Doc Snyder, she decided.
“Esther, Sweetie,” he cooed like she was a baby. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to reattach your fingers. Too much time’s gone by and that damn thing’s stomach did a number on ‘em.”
“That’s okay Mister Snyder—”
“Doctor Snyder. I don’t mind. That bastard stole them from me, and I just wanted them back. But I was wondering, Doctor, can I ask you a favor?”
When she asked him, he laughed. Laughed and said, “I’ll have it here by tomorrow.”
The next night as Esther lay in bed, rope mattress sagging nearly to the dusty floorboards and her hand heavily bandaged, she rolled onto her side so she could look out the window at the full moon. Look at her new decoration. Doc Snyder dropped off the Mason jar of formaldehyde earlier in the evening. Now it sat perched on the window sill, moonlit, and inside it, bobbing gently, three shapes moved softly: two fingers and a turtle’s head.
Esther smiled as she fell asleep.