For Part 1, click here
“My research grants ran out, so I have to actually write something now.” Dirk said with his mouth full. He set a half-eaten apple on the desk and picked up a small framed picture. “Who’s the pretty redhead? She looks familiar.”
“My wife. You would not know her.”
“You never know. I meet plenty of dissatisfied housewives at the café. I do my best to, well, cheer them up, but what can I do, really?” The telephone clattered to the floor as Dirk assumed the lotus position on Chris’s desk. “Attachment brings suffering.”
“You’re taking your Buddhist studies a little too seriously, Dirk.”
“I’m thinking of converting, actually. But not yet.” Dirk slid back to the floor and took another long look at Margie’s photo. “I intend to experience the world thoroughly before I renounce it.”
Dirk sauntered away, leaving Chris fuming. Chris hurled the apple into a trash can across the room, as if it were as poisonous as Dirk’s insinuations. He picked up the telephone. Margie would never . . . would she? He decided to give her a call.
The phone rang and rang. No answer.
Then Chris noticed he was late for class, and rushed away. He could not focus on the discussion, though. What a waste of time. Where is she? After class, he called again, sure he would hear Margie’s melodious voice. But she still did not answer his call.
Worried, he returned to the library to pick up the book of folk tales.
“Chris! Here’s your little book! One of my finest jobs, if I may say so myself.” Becca displayed the slim volume with a flourish.
He barely looked at it. “It’s all right.”
“My masterpiece is ‘all right’? What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s Margie. She’s not answering the phone. I think – I don’t know what to think.”
Becca smiled. “She’s probably getting a surprise ready for your big day.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely. By the way, I took the liberty of reading a couple of these stories. I like the one about the boy who popped out of the peach. I wish it were that easy to have a baby,” Becca said, rubbing her rotund belly. “I feel like a giant peach myself, about ready to split.”
Chris did not know how to reply, but she went on, saving him the effort.
“The story about the crane was so sad, though. Why didn’t the man just leave her alone, like she asked?”
“Probably not,” Becca laughed. “Have a happy anniversary!”
That afternoon, Chris waited for Margie in the garden. He could not bask in the sun like she did, though. He fidgeted and paced. Where could she be? What was she hiding from him?
Finally she appeared, looking rather flushed. “Chris! You’re early!”
“Where have you been?”
“I was searching for your anniversary gift. And I found it,” she teased, “but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
He was not amused. “Is that all?”
“Well, I ran into some old friends, and we had lunch.”
“You wouldn’t remember them. What’s the matter, Chris?”
He sighed. “I tried to call you, and you didn’t answer, and I was worried – ”
“Worried about me?” She put her arms around him. “I’m fine, honey.”
They sank together onto the garden bench, but Margie started up again. “What is this?” She picked up the green book from her seat, and settled down again.
“Oh, that is my gift to you. You can read it now, if you like. I’ll get dinner started.”
When she came in for dinner, Margie gave Chris a curious smile, but said only, “Yes, I found the perfect gift for you.”
Margie did not mention the lipstick that night. After spending the day worrying, Chris forgot the shiny tube he had tucked into his sock drawer. On their anniversary morning, he awoke to her humming, and thought about the book he had given her. Why was he drawn to those tales? What did her enigmatic comment mean?
They are just silly stories. Nothing like that has ever really happened. And if it did, it was long ago, in a far-off land. Besides, I have never rescued a crane from a trap, or sheltered a fox. No, my wife is just a beautiful, private woman.
His mind drifted back to the day they first met. He had been walking along the river after class one autumn day, shuffling in the leaves and listening to the slow gurgle of the water. He arrived at his favorite spot on the bank only to find it occupied. There was a pimply kid from the high school that Chris had tutored a few times.
“What are you doing with that turtle?”
The boy was holding the squirming creature by its hind legs, staring intently at its tail. “I’m studying marine biology.”
“‘Marine’ has to do with the sea. Don’t you mean ‘riparian’?”
“Whatever. Do you think this is a boy or a girl?” The boy started poking the soft parts.
“Hey, that’s rude,” Chris pointed out. As the boy looked incredulously at his tutor, the turtle wriggled out of his hand and swam for deep water. “Go find another science project.”
The kid slouched off, muttering under his breath. Chris sat down on a stump, reviewing material from his poetry class. He had nearly finished going through his notes when he heard the rustle of leaves again.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” A tall, pretty girl with red hair and serious brown eyes indicated a nearby stone.
“Not at all.” Usually so shy, Chris had no trouble introducing himself, and fell into a comfortable conversation with Margie. He no longer remembered what they had discussed that day. That discussion blurred in his memory with so many others they shared later. They had wed at the end of the summer, and were living happily ever after, more or less.
Happily ever after. Just like a story. Wait. I did rescue that turtle! What if Margie is a...
“Chris, have you seen my lipstick?” Margie called from the bathroom.
“Um, isn’t it in your case?” He reached for his glasses, but the night stand was empty.
“Can you use another one?”
“No, that is the only one I have.”
Really? Chris thought as she came into their room. She seemed to be wearing a fuzzy robe, with a fuzzy towel wrapped around her head. Of course, everything looked fuzzy without his glasses. He located her brown eyes, and between them...was that a beak? Yikes! He scrambled to sit up.
“Margie – I’m sorry – sock drawer – what. . .”
She rummaged through his drawer, and disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned, she handed him some clothes and his glasses. She looked as beautiful and serious as ever. “Let’s go for a walk, Chris.”
They walked to the river, stepping silently through the early morning, and sat down in their favorite clearing.
“Margie – I – you . . .”
“You’ve discovered my true identity, Chris. I am actually a painted turtle.”
“Oh, no,” He knew how these stories turned out. “Please stay! I didn’t mean – ”
She ignored his pleas. “Furthermore, I think you are a turtle, too.”
He was shocked. “No, I’m not.”
“What do you remember from the time you fell in the river?”
“Um, not much, really. My parents just told me we were visiting, and we were going to buy some ice cream . . .”
“And you remember what they told you. I remember it differently.”
“Yes. A group of us were swimming across the river when that couple came walking up. You were so curious that you crawled onto the bank to take a good look at them. When you took off your wet glasses, you transformed into a little boy. The woman started to cry. They had wanted a child for so long, she said, you were a wish come true. So they adopted you and raised you as a human. Your father happened to knock your glasses back into the water. I hid them in a safe place.”
Chris shook his head. How could it be? A child from the water? Transforming animals? He must have been spending too much time on his translations.
She handed him a small package. Opening it, he found a child-sized pair of tortoiseshell spectacles. They looked just like the ones he had lost. “Try them on,” she urged.
Why not? They will never fit. But they did. Margie took his hand and stepped into the shallows. With her other hand, she dipped a washcloth in the water and used it to wipe away her makeup. Chris stepped into the river, too.
The water was cold, but in a comfortable way. He could feel his fingers lengthening, webbing themselves together. The odd hourglass shape of his chest hair smoothed into a distinctive pattern on his plastron. Scutes spread over his back with a satisfying click. The trees seemed far taller now, the river broader and more inviting.
And there was his Margie. He reached out to stroke the brilliant red streaks of her cheeks. She patted his claws with her own. “I knew it was you,” she said, and led him through the water. Memories swirled around him like the dawn light sparkling on the river, and he knew it, too.