A Protest of Tortoise
When I tucked my shoulder into Ashley’s burrow, the earth bowed open to help me join my girls. I held in my breath and fell or floated down, listening to them laughing and crooning into an abyss where they’d escalated their protest underground. They’d refused all my arguments for rehoming Ashley—their mother could no longer be a desert tortoise’s steward, I couldn’t because I was already their mother’s—but if they went to bed soon, they might still wake early enough to tell their mother good morning in the reel of lucid sunrise hours and feel they were heard.
I landed gentle in a bouquet of coral globemallow leaves in a room with walls gracefully raked into recalling waves, my younger daughter next to me, her lips quivering at the weight of a secret she held but didn’t yet have the words to confess, one fist grinding at her red-tired eyes, the other spread wide, chocolate chips having melted into rosettes into her palm.
“I made a mess,” she said.
“We all have,” I said, pulling her into my arms, where she wiped her soiled hand on my jacket.
My older tottered above an even deeper darkness, her flashlight larger than before I threw it down Ashley’s burrow. “You absolutely. Can not. Give Ashley away. Or sell the house. Or leave us like Mom did.”
I tied the rope around the waist of my younger, my older, myself. We descended together, shining our lights into rooms Ashley had carved into the caliche. A room of pictures from the days before the girls were born, evidence of days before their mother was mom or their mother or wife or patient, days I was not caretaker or healthcare attorney-in-fact or dad or even husband, parts of us both that had been erased. A room of her jewelry, which I thought she’d lost, ring by bangle by brooch, each getting a delicate gasp from the girls. A room for the drawings our daughters had made and their mother had saved. A room of wilted desert willow blossoms like a bed or a grave for a guest who had not yet shown. Rooms like the two of them had been planning.
At the end of the rope, Ashley’s burrow was a flat tunnel we walked, our flashlights shining the way toward our oblivion. At the far, far end we found the cold sleeping nose of Ashley, who had burrowed so deep in the years since the girls’ mother named herself their steward and then forgot what that meant. Forgot to feed them for a whole summer. To call them he or she until the girls claimed Ashley preferred they anyway. To pick the girls up from school. To say her own name or give the girls the fragile gift of still knowing theirs.
“I won’t,” I said, finally answering my older daughter’s demands.
She looked at me, her cheeks marred by her ride along the burrow’s walls, and didn’t hug me, but let her face fall into the softness above my hip. Her hair sparkled with his land’s unforgiving soil.
I didn’t know what else we expected to find but Ashley in peaceful repose. Unaware of our presence but somehow still watching. We all wanted to wake them, but couldn’t bear to—not until spring, shifting sun and the smell of citrus blossoms on the wind, when Ashley would unwind themselves from brumation and stretch out their claws and crawl toward the light, having decided whether we were still worthy of being called a family, of bearing the titles and deeds of each other’s lifelong stewards.
was once called a saguaro cactus in disguise. My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Story, West Branch, No Tokens, Puerto del Sol, Booth
, and others. I edit Astrolabe
, a literary journal in the form of a dynamic universe, and hold an MFA from the University of Arizona. I live in Tucson, Arizona with my family, and can be found on Twitter @joelhans
or at joelhans.com