A delightfully offbeat story that features an opinionated tortoise and an IQ-challenged narrator who find themselves in the middle of a life-changing mystery.
Audrey (a.k.a. Oddly) Flowers is living quietly in Oregon with Winnifred, her tortoise, when she finds out her dear father has been knocked into a coma back in Newfoundland. Despite her fear of flying, she goes to him, but not before she reluctantly dumps Winnifred with her unreliable friends. Poor Winnifred.
When Audrey disarms an Air Marshal en route to St. John’s we begin to realize there’s something, well, odd about her. And we soon know that Audrey’s quest to discover who her father really was – and reunite with Winnifred – will be an adventure like no other.
Winnifred is old. She might be three hundred. She came with the apartment. The previous tenant, a rock climber named Cliff, was embarking on a rock-climbing adventure that would not have been much fun for Winnifred. Back then her name was Iris. Cliff had inherited Iris from the previous tenant. Nobody knew how old Iris was or where she had come from originally. Now Cliff was moving out. He said, Would you like a tortoise.
I would not say no to a tortoise, I said.
I was alone in Portland and the trees were giant. I picked her up and she blinked at me with her upside-down eyelids. I felt instantly calm. Her eyes were soft brown. Her skin felt like an old elbow. I will build you a castle, I whispered. With a pool. And I was true to my word.
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Jessica Grant is a member of Newfoundland’s Burning Rock Collective (members include Michael Winter and Lisa Moore). Her first collection of short stories, Making Light of Tragedy, includes a story that won both the Western Magazine Award for Fiction and the Journey Prize.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The plane is a row of gold circles and a cockpit. One of those circles will carry my head halfway home. I count back fourteen. That circle. In the cockpit the pilots are having a good time. Boy are they. Coffee cups have to be put down. They are really laughing. One puts a hand on the other’s shoulder. Then the one with the hand leans over and kisses the other’s cheek. A quick impulsive happy peck.
A fellow passenger joins me at the terminal window. Hey, I tell her. Our pilots just kissed.
I’m thinking that kiss bodes well for our safety.
She pretends she has a cup to throw away.
That is my plane. With the word nap resolving on its tail. How do I feel about that acronym. Not great.
My phone rings and it’s Linda.
Winnifred isn’t moving.
Never assume a tortoise is dead. Rule Number One of Tortoise Ownership. What’s the temperature in your apartment. Remember it’s winter. It’s still dark. She ’s not nocturnal. These and other environmental factors have likely caused her to withdraw into her shell. Her heart beats maybe once an hour. Be patient. Wait an hour.
Still, I crouch down next to the window. Feel the heat coming up from the vent. Is my tortoise dead. Should I go back.
My own heart is all apatter. This is being alive. Can you feel the body worry before every beat. I can. Will this be the last. No. Will this be the last. No.
Should I go back.
I look up at the pilots who are possibly in love and I don’t want to catch any other plane but this one. This is my plane.
Yesterday I peered down into her castle and she was beside the pool making the same journey I’d seen her start two days ago. I knocked on her shell. Excuse me, Winnifred.
No legs emerged. No little ancient head.
I picked her up and held her under my armpit. This usually worked. I did have a heat lamp, but paper castles tend to be flammable.
Finally she woke up.
There, I said. I put her in the pool.
I knelt down beside the castle with windows that look out onto my kitchen. Many times I have seen Winnifred poke her head wistfully through one of those windows. Many times I have seen her drop a piece of lettuce like a note.
She climbed out of the pool and creaked over to the window.
I have to go home for a while, I said.
Winnifred is old. She might be three hundred. She came with the apartment. The previous tenant, a rock climber named Cliff, was about to embark on a rock climbing adventure that would not have been much fun for Winnifred. Back then her name was Iris. Cliff had inherited Iris from the tenant before him. Nobody knew how old Iris was or where she had come from originally. Now Cliff was moving out. He said, Would you like a tortoise.
I would not say no to a tortoise, I said.
I was alone in Portland and the trees were giant. I picked her up and she blinked at me with her upside- down eyelids. I felt instantly calm. Her eyes were soft brown. Her skin felt like an old elbow. I will build you a castle, I whispered. With a pool. And I was true to my word.
Hold her under your armpit, I tell Linda.
And I hang up.
That was rude, but I am not myself. I am unslept. I am on automatic pilot. This image brought to mind by the pilots who clearly aren’t. What does automatic pilot mean. I picture an inflatable pilot, but that is from a movie. Automatic pilot is just a computer. It is what flies the plane when the pilots take a nap or make out. It is what kicks in metaphorically when your dad is in a comma, sorry coma, and you are summoned home and you must make arrangements for your tortoise.
Last night I stepped outside carrying Winnifred in her castle and the sky was busy with stars.
Look, Win, I said. The past. Because the past is what you are looking at when you look at the stars.
Winnifred looked up.
That’s where I’m going tomorrow, I said.
We drove out to Oregon City where the streets are all named after presidents in the order they were elected, so you can’t get lost if you are American and know your presidents. Linda and Chuck live on Taft. When I pulled up, Chuck was outside smoking with his actor friends.
As I climbed the steps, one of the actor friends said, Am I hallucinating or is she carrying a castle.
Yes, a castle.
Four people at my gate are knitting. Knitting needles are allowed on planes again. At security there was a new and definitive list of Objects You Cannot Take in Your Carrion Carry- on Luggage. All the usual weapons from the game of Clue were there, minus knitting needles, and with the addition of snow globes.
I patted my pockets and said, Where’s that snow globe.
The security woman in blue pinched the bridge of her nose like I was causing her pain right there.
Move on, please.
In the little kiosk inside security there were knitting needles and wool for sale. Christmas colours. So knitting is enjoying a revival.
I limped on to my gate.
Earlier, in the apartment, I had tripped over my carry- on bag in the dark. I had lain in the dark and thought, I won’t go, I’ve been hurt. I lay there and looked up at the sloped ceiling, still bumpy with Cliff ’s climbing holds. Cliff liked to refer to the ceiling as an overhang.
I had sent him an email saying, My dad is in a comma and waiting for me to open his eyes. Must depart. Apartment available for your use. Tortoise with Linda and Chuck.
I sent him a second email: I meant coma.
I lay on the floor. My cab with its little Napoleon hat was puffing in the street.
Get up. Go.
When the right person arrives at the bedside of the comatose person, the comatose person opens his eyes. Everyone knows this. This is Rule Number One of Comatoseness.
Yesterday Uncle Thoby called and said, Oddly. There’s been an accident.
Which word made me sit down on the kitchen floor. Accident, I said.
Your dad received a severe blow to the medulla oblongata as he was walking home. From, this is unbelievable, a Christmas tree. Hanging sideways out of a pickup truck.
Uncle Thoby’s voice was okay until he got to pickup truck. Then it broke down. I didn’t understand. Hit by a Christmas tree. Or walking home from a Christmas tree. Or what.
Hit by. On his way home.
I thought about this. Finally I said, I have a question. Are you ready.
Here it is. I’ve got it. What is a medulla oblongata.
A brain stem.
Oh. Right. So a Christmas tree stem had collided with my dad’s brain stem. And now he was in a coma. I put my hand on the back of my neck. I had forgotten that the brain has geography. The human brain is 1,400 cubic centimetres of geography. Our heads fit inside airplane windows for Chrissakes. We are small and we can be pitched out of our geography.
I’ll come home, I said.
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