Thursday, December 31, 2009

William's Too Heavy Back-Pack

by Gladys Li
I helped my Mom with the first draft of this story in 1981. I didn't like how it came out. She never gave up on the story. She kept sending me new editions of the story until about 2005.  Really, she wanted me to contribute some effort to a draft. She kept calling it "our" story.
This is my first direct revision of the story in 28 years.

"What's the difference between a turtle, a tortoise, and a terrapin?" William demanded as he came charging into the backyard.

I smiled. "You're asking a good question."

He threw down his back-pack and sat himself down on the porch steps. I thought about Aesop's Fables and asked "Do you know that Grandpa used to tell me a story about the race between the tortoise and the hare..."

"YES! Heard it, like, a gazillion times already." interrupted William.

"And?" I prompted.

William continued, "The turtle is so slow that the rabbit thinks he has time for a little nap."

"That's right. The tortoise wins and puts the hare to shame."

"No. Wrong." William flatly contradicted me. "You see this back-pack?"


"No, I mean, really check it out. It weighs a ton."

"Maybe I'd better move it before someone trips over it," I said,followed by an exaggerated groan and a "Heave Ho!"

William tried to supress a giggle by frowning. "Now you understand why it takes me so long to go anywhere when I'm lugging that thing around. Tortoise, turtle; turtle, tortoise. A rabbit is faster. Much faster" he said authoritatively, pointing his finger for emphasis. "Grandpa didn't tell you that story to teach you about animals, he wanted to teach you a lesson."

"Oh yes? What sort of lesson?"

"Don't be a lazy rabbit, or else you'll be a loser at life!"

"In that case, I proclaim it only just for the rabbit to lose and the turtle to win!"

William snorted, "Justice has nothing to do with it. Anyhow, it's a dumb ending to the story because everyone knows that a rabbit can run circles around turtles. At least if its a story, justice could come with a twist. Where's the twist? A story needs to have a twist, Mom. And, by the way, you still haven't said anything about the difference between a tortoise, a turtle, and a terrapin."

"Well, at least you seem to know the lesson of the tortoise and the hare." I said. William looked pleased by the compliment, then confused when I challenged him, "How about frogs and terrapins?"

"What's that now?"

"Oh, so you don't know the story about Miss Betty, a terrapin who lived in Old Quarry?"

William straighten his back a bit, and dropped his shoulders. He rested two relaxed foreams on his knees, and a smile crept across his face, like he knew a good joke but was keeping it a secret. Although he liked to talk, this was his posture when he was ready to listen. So I began...

*   *   *   *   *

Saturday turned out to be beautiful after all.

Everyone would go to the Beaver dam party at the left bank shallows.  Miss Betty Emydidae made her way through the stand of trees near the ox bow. She was wearing her favorite straw hat. It was held on by a ribbon.  The ribbon was in a diamondback pattern that matched her black and orange shell.

Miss Betty spied her friend Samantha up in the leaves and branches of the tall white oak.  Samanatha was lost in thought, acorn in her hands, mouth open, although her bushy Auburn tail twitched ever so slightly. More of a pulse, really.  Miss Betty guessed that Samantha got distracted during breakfast.

"Good morning, Sam," Miss Betty called up to her. "You are up early."

"You know me, Betty." Samantha replied, " I love the morning. So full of... possibility."

"I hope it is possible that I will see you at the Beavers' party?" asked Miss Betty gently.

Samantha startled, "Is that today? Thank you for reminding me!  I nearly forgot."

"You have plenty of time, don't worry."

"Oh... but which way shall I go to cross the creek? What's the water level? Can I take the stones? Maybe the branch bridge, if its not to windy. Is it too windy, Betty?"

"No idea, but here's how you can find out.  Just wait for the Cardinal Brothers to pass overhead.  If they are beating their wings, its calm.  If they are soaring, it means they are riding a wind.  Then you can make an informed choice." explained Betty.

"You sure know a lot about flying.  Are you sure you are not a flying Terrapin?"

"I'm sure," laughed Miss Betty. "But I appreciate the compliment."

Miss Betty entered the gap between the crocuses and soon was in the thorny underbrush.  She could no longer see Samantha but heard her cry out, "Oh look, there they go! Soaring. Thanks again, Betty. I'm avoiding high winds and taking the low route, in case anyone is looking for me!"

By the time Miss Betty emerged from the thorns to reach the large roots of the white oak, Samantha had set off on her journey. Miss Betty looked forward to seeing her friend at the party.

Clear out of the blue came Charles Grenouille. He was practicing his long-high leaps and jumps.  Miss Betty admired his debonaire moves, and the charming way that his eyes could non-chalantly move independant of one another. But Charles could be careless.  Today, he landed a bit too close to Miss Betty, who began to retreat into her shell for fear that she might get hit.

"Comment ca va?" asked Charles, with eyes wandering rakishly.

Although he was technically an invasive species to Old Quarry, Charles was not actually born in France.  His father, Gilles Grenouille had actually escaped from an expensive restraurant that served retro Indo-China delicacies, married Teresita LaRana, and to everyone's surprise had a son who was his fly-catching image. The point being: the accent was an affectation.  Some of the inhabitants of Old Quarry gently teased Charles about the way he spoke, but Miss Betty knew that Charles did not like this.

Miss Betty carefully answered, "Bon matin, Monsieur Grenouille. Je suis en pleine forme! Et vous, bonhomme vert?"

"Tres bien, Mademoiselle Betty. I see you have been practicing. It makes you even more... how do you say? Irresistable."

Miss Betty felt herself starting to blush, so she changed the topic. "Oh Charles, I wish you would be careful when you jump so high.  Do you know that you almost didn't clear the big root?"

Charles' eyes suddenly stopped wandering and focused instead on Miss Betty. Charles lashed out, "You think Charles is a silly French, too? Do not put at stake that I can not clear this or any obstacle. I am jumper par excellance!"

"No, no.. please do not be upset with me." protested Miss Betty,  "I only want you to be safe because...:"

"Forgive me, Mademoiselle.  They say frogs are cold-blooded. Mais, I feel such passion from time of the time." said Charles. There was an awkward pause as Miss Betty slowly trudged under the big root, so Charles spoke again. "Are you to go to Chez Beavers?"

"Oh yes. It will be such a grand event.  Everyone will be there. Why, just this morning, I saw Samantha Sciurini, who is going. And the Cardinals have flown by.  I am fairly certain that they are on their way to the party too."

This last bit of information made Charles think about how marvelous the Cardinal Brothers would look, with their brilliant red wings shining in the sunshine.  Like always, they would get all the attention and no one would notice his impressive leaps. He upset himself so much with these jealous thoughts that he jumped off without even bidding Miss Betty, "Adieu."

Miss Betty sighed.

"No matter." She told herself as she made her way around the white oak.  Her heavy shell, the pastron on top and the carapice on the bottom, protected her from falling debris. Finally, past the pine stumps, she spotted the brackish water of the ox bow portion of the creek. Here, the current slowed as the waters meandered around the largest part of a mineral outcropping covered in overgrowth. This was also where the diamondback terrapin (unlike her cousin, the freshwater turtle) was most comfortable. Although it took her a long way to make it from her nest to the water, she was used it. Many members of the Emydidae family did this.  Anyhow, she was confident that she had planned enough time to make it to the water where her webbed feet would propel her with great strength through the secondary flow, and then across the main current, to the banks on the left bank shallows.

By late afternoon, she was passing the pine stumps near the water's edge when she saw Charles asleep on a log.  The scene reminded her of a story about how another cousin, a fully terrestrial, thicker-shelled tortoise, had beaten a rabbit in a long-distance race.  Getting closer, however, Miss Betty realized that Charles was not asleep at all. Instead, he was passed out with a rather large bump on his head. Charles' breathing was weak and he looked a little less green.

Miss Betty's mind worked furiously as she walked along. By the time she got to the water's edge, she had her plan.  She untied the ribon on her hat, and took it off so she could use it as a little pail.  She scooped up some water.  Going over to the unconscious frog, she called him by his full name, "Charles Pablo Nguyen Grenouille!" She splashed him with some water from her hat.

"Ouch. My head. Mom is that you?" He moaned in his actual Middle-Atlantic voice.

"It's getting late, my friend," warned Miss Betty. "Can you get up?"

"My head is spinning," Charles croaked. "I guess I won't be able to go to the Beavers' party today." But Miss Betty had already had figured everything out.

"Of course you will," she consoled Charles in a soothing voice. "We are right by the water.  I'll give you a little push in, and then you can take a ride on my shell."

"That is so kind of you, Miss Betty.  But everyone will laugh at me, just like they always do." Charles complained.

Betty pushed Charles into the water.  The amphibian was clearly refreshed by the change. "Tell you what: Why don't I just swim along side you, for safety?  We can get to the left bank shallows together. And if anyone asks you about the bump on your head, just look at me and say 'Cherchez la femme.'"

And of course, that is exactly what they did.  Miss Betty smiled as Charles swam along-side her. Occasionally Charles would rest a webbed digit on her shell, in order to right his course, or to get a bit of a tow.

The Cardinal Brothers did arrive first. And once again, they were the life of the party; garnering the most attention and adulation for their fabulous plumage.  Nevertheless, Charles and Betty made it safely.

And everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.

* * * * *

"Charles was very lucky that Miss Betty came along when she did" was William's first comment.

"The lesson is supposed to be that friends help each other." And for good meaure, I emphasized "Two heads are better than one."

William saw it differently, "Charles' head was of very little use to him, and none to Betty.  I can't imagine why Betty would even want to befriend someone with such disgusting vanity."

"Miss Betty is brave enough to be kind, William. It is very easy to be mean to Charles, and many in the Old Quarry are. But Miss Betty appreciates that Charles has chosen to face the world in his own style. And she appreciates being appreciated."

William said nothing for a while. A distant neighbor's wind-chimes softly sounded a weird melody. The shadows from the afternoon light through the latticework on the porch grew progressively longer. I savored the moment. Finally, William stood and picked up his back pack. He was ready to move on.

"Thanks, Mom. I'll think about what you said."

"I know you will, my sweet. You're welcome."
"Too late or still too soon too soon to make lots of bad love and there's no time for sorrow. Run around, run around with a hole in your head 'til tomorrow."
-----They Might Be Giants