Talking about Maybe

by Emily LAWTON
 

After the storm, Junichiro started coming by the house twice a day to look for his escaped turtle. He’d had it living in a deep frying pan in his backyard, but somehow it got out during the second day of high winds and rains. He brought along a Polaroid of the pan, seemingly untouched, a small piece of wilted lettuce still sitting inside.

He had some conviction that the turtle would have come to our small koi pond, though our yard was almost a mile from his. Between there were several large groves of trees and a sizable gully, and the turtle was only four inches long or so… still he came to our place, because he said “turtles like ponds.”

At first he would ring the bell and wait for permission to pass behind the house. He generally brought some kind of cookies or bread from his wife, who apparently baked incessantly, and handed them over absent-mindedly while saying like “couldn’t I have just one more look…?” After the fourth day or so, though, I looked out the window to see him kneeling in front of the pond, having arrived unannounced some time earlier.

Actually no one in our family had paid the koi pond much attention recently, so I was happy to have someone looking at it, even if his scrutiny didn’t really fall into the category of “enjoyment.” In fact, when I left a little skimmer next to the pond, he promptly took the hint and cleaned the surface thoroughly. He gave the koi their medicine daily, something I could never quite remember to do, which last year caused them to develop a nasty mouth disease of some sort.

Our daughter Jenny was less than thrilled, however. She said it was creepy, like having a troll living in the garden. Her imagination was full of such things, trolls and ogres and elves. Her room faced the rear of the house, and from her window she had a view of the koi pond. I can imagine her daydreaming, doing pencil-drawings of Junichiro as a hairy wolf-man, or warlock… who knows what she might think up?

Her drawings were a little violent at times, and I wondered if she didn’t leave them lying around in order to get a reaction from me. But I could never think of any appropriate reaction so I just looked at them and then left them. Perhaps she found it difficult having a mother who was so hard to provoke.

Then one day, maybe two weeks after the storm, Junichiro’s wife turned up at the house. Again she brought cookies, something maple-flavored, and I gently chided her for fattening my family. She giggled a little and then looked away, towards the back of the house. She hadn’t said what she wanted, but I could guess. I barely knew them, we’d only met a few times, but she must have wondered why her husband was suddenly spending several hours a day at our house. I lead her into the kitchen, ostensibly to put the cookies away, and allowed her a view out the back windows to the koi pond.

I busied myself with the cookies, and purposely didn’t look out the window myself. She let out a small sigh when she saw him, maybe relief, but I couldn’t be sure. I wondered if she would go out and take him home, if this would be the end of our daily visits, but she simply stood there, watching. Actually she was very still, and I found myself moving slowly and quietly so as not to disturb her. Finally I asked if she wouldn’t like something to drink, and she said no. She looked me in the eye and asked, “so he really comes here every day?”

“For several hours.”

“I see.”

Then she said nothing else. She rubbed her hands together briskly and thanked me, then headed back toward the front door. I realized I had no idea if they had children or not, or what kind of work or lives they had. Still I felt that, on some level, I could understand these people all too well.

After she left, I went back to the kitchen and looked out at Junichiro’s back. He was sitting on a rough-hewn oak bench. I had a local carpenter make it for us last year, so I we’d theoretically have a place to sit and watch the fish. The koi pond, I suddenly realized, was quite beautiful in its way. Weeds had grown up behind it, further evidence of our negligence, but they formed a curtain of green that moved with breeze. The stones around the outside had grown fuzzy moss coatings and in the darkening evening the perspective shifted so they looked a bit magical, like something out of one of Jenny’s storybooks.

I took the plate of cookies and walked out to the bench. I sat next to him and peeled back the plastic wrap. He took one and chewed it without looking at me. Finally he said, “Maybe I won’t find the turtle.”

“I guess not.”

“He would eat a raisin right off my finger. He was a very pleasant turtle. Not shy.”

“That’s rare.”

“It is.”

We sat in silence for a while longer, and he ate another cookie. I felt that Jenny was probably watching us from the upstairs window, but I didn’t dare turn around to meet her eyes. In her imagination, we were probably plotting some unspeakably evil acts. Maybe I’d turn up in a drawing tomorrow, a mother-monster, or some kind of crumpled witch bearing poison cookies.

“I won’t come anymore,” he said.

“It’s up to you.”

“Maybe it’s not proper.”

Somehow I knew he was referring to Jenny. I looked up to her room but the light was off. No way to tell if she was watching or not.

“It’s up to you,” I said again, uselessly.

“Then I won’t.” He stood up and stared at the sky, now almost dark. Then he turned back to me; I was still holding the plate of cookies in my lap. “It was a very big storm,” he said.

“I know.”

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