“Turtle Territory” by Lori McNamara, oil on archival board, 2011.
(See also “My Time Under Water” by Roy Bentley.)
I join the community patrol to prove my brothers wrong, my brothers who say I am too moony to find the nests, too scared of hueveros to walk the beach at night. The patrol sends us out in pairs. We walk the black sand beach, we bring grease pens and plastic shopping bags, we search for leatherback turtles come ashore to lay eggs. My brothers are older, taller, with muscles that they flex and eyes like cacao seeds. My cousin is older than my brothers, he has long crinkly hair, he plays marimba, and it’s better if I am paired with him. With oldest brother, I walk the kilometers of moonless beach. Middle brother and I try to hear a leatherback rasp and snort, over the noise of the waves, panting as she scoops out the pit-nest where she lays her clutch of eggs. Cousin and I look for flipper tracks, the ever-so-slightly darker sand where a leatherback may have dragged herself. My brothers act like they see me with new eyes, forget to call me girl-lips and niñita. I know it will not last. I am the youngest, the clumsy one, the weak swimmer. My brothers love to joke and tease and change the rules. Two weeks after I join, oldest brother pins me down and fills my shorts with wet sand.
Unless we get there first, hueveros slip out from the tall grass, steal the eggs and sell them as black market aphrodisiacs to disco owners, to sad men hoping to get a charge from a glass of slime. My brothers despise the slime drinkers, say that a real man does not drink eggs, that hueveros are cowards, that I may need to try the eggs, or else I will always be a baby rat, pale and hairless and shrill when I speak. Cousin says that hueveros do the work of their fathers and grandfathers, some are not scoundrels, he knows one with too many children to feed.
I repeat the novena of Our Lord, I ask for eyes to find and ears to catch. At first, all I wanted was to impress my cousin and brothers, but now I want to help the turtles too. I make prayers to Virgen del Carmen, I inspect the sand, the water and sky, everything dark, even the surf-foam and the clouds, dark as burnt wood, dark as Virgen’s beads and wig. And then I spy a pale-spotted carapace, and I drop to my knees. Middle brother congratulates me, says that I am good at tracking, claps me on the back, then he pushes me down, holds my face in the nest so that the eggs drop from the mother, slide down my cheek. Middle brother says, stick your hand in there. While her hind-flippers plow the sand back in, I remove from the pit-nest what feels like seventy jellied ping pong balls and place them inside the bag that my brother holds open. Seventy times, I hold a turtle egg in my hand, each of them fragile and squishy and warm.
In pairs, we carry eggs to the manmade nests of the town criadera. We bury them there, we keep watch, night and day. Oldest brother dribbles a fútbol, asks me to help him with his drills, gives up when he sees how awkward I am. Middle brother strikes matches, smokes cigarillos. He asks me if I want to smoke; I refuse; he rolls his eyes. Cousin carves a mallet, teaches me card tricks. Again and again, I dig a hole in the sand, I put my hand in the hole and cover it, then I wiggle my fingers and spring my hand free. It might be like this, I tell myself. My hand like a baby turtle, newly hatched and digging out. We chase away crabs and stray dogs, we watch for hueveros eager to come creeping with wire-cutters and spades. We pinch ourselves awake and eat Pringle chips and flatten the cans.
The hatchlings break through their shells with carunkle-teeth and tunnel up through sand. We carry them to the lip of the tide, we are quiet and careful as altar boys. Craning their tiny necks, the tortugitos search for light, gaps in the clouds, any glimmer or beam. I lift my head too. I seek the newest pieces of sky, then I watch the tortugitos clamber toward the low waves that ease them from the sand.
I keep watch in the criadera again, this time with middle brother. Cousin has gone to Siquirres to woo the daughter of a pineapple farmer; older brother drank too much chicha and is sick at home. I squat, scoop out a hole, cover my hand, but then I can’t get free. Middle brother stands over my hand, grinds with his heel, and I feel grains of sand cutting into me. The real test isn’t getting out of the sand, he says. It’s the ocean. You know that sharks finish off most of them. And they eat plastic trash, it kills them but they love plastic. I can throw you in the water since you like to pretend. While he pins my hand with his foot, I feel the cold water he would banish me to, patches of light and dark in the sky that I don’t know how to read, and then the lash of waves that would take me down, the burn of salt in my nose, and the spray that chills my skin.
William Woolfitt teaches at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He is the author of two books of poetry, Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). He is also the author of a fiction chapbook, The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014). His poems and stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Threepenny Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere. He also edits Speaking of Marvels, a gathering of interviews with chapbook and novella authors.