TRACKING THE NEST
by Erin La Rosa
The lights in the house were off and the only glow came from Leigh’s white tank top as she sat out on the porch with a guitar propped on her knee. Jack liked how the instrument pushed her shorts up tight around her thighs. Married three years and he still wanted her—he thought that was pretty rare. He grabbed a flashlight out of a drawer in the kitchen, and as he came out onto the porch the screen door squealed shut behind him.
“Turn that thing off.” Leigh waved her hand urgently at him.
“It’s pitch black out here,” he murmured, pointing the flashlight down, but not switching it off.
“Please, just put it away,” she said and tucked a strand of curled hair behind her ear, something she only did when she was nervous.
Issue #51 soundtrack: We Are The Wilderness "Leading From Emptiness"
He flipped the flashlight off and sighed; he knew the rules. Outside lights confuse hatchlings; they use the moon and stars’ reflection from the ocean to guide them home. Even the slightest shimmer from a lamp could mislead them, disorient them, and kill them. But lately Jack couldn’t help it; he was too anxious to be bothered by anything outside his own fears.
“That’s much better, isn’t it?” she said.
The self-satisfaction in her voice annoyed him.
Leigh worked for the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida as a beach patroller, and it was nesting season. After following the tracks of a mother sea turtle, she had discovered a nest that butted right up against their house. The tracks mapped out how the turtle dragged her massive body up the beach, dug a hole, laid her eggs, and covered them up before heaving herself back into the waves. Every night since finding them she had taken to sitting on the porch and playing music for the potential hatchlings, believing that the chords would will more turtles to nest.
As he sat next to her on the porch swing, the rusted chains groaned slightly under Jack’s weight. He stared out and could only see the stars sprinkled like lily pads; any discernible outlines of the beach, ocean, and sky were smudged into one muddy swamp of dark night. It unsettled him to not know what was out there waiting for him, but Leigh found that kind of void idyllic.
“It’s already eleven, and I haven’t been able to finish one damn song,” she complained. “And you know that turtles only come out to play if there’s live music.”
He knew she was lying. He had Googled it. But anything he said these days was promptly refuted.
“What song were you playing?” he asked.
“Do you remember the first time you played that for me?”
“I’ve never played that for you,” Leigh eyed him.
“Yes, you have,” he laughed slightly. “It was our third date.”
She paused, then said, “Huh, you must be thinking of someone else.”
“No, it was you, on our third date.” His jaw tensed. Did she honestly not remember, or was she trying to provoke him? He couldn’t tell.
“All this rain is going to make it hard to find nests tomorrow.”
Her voice trailed off towards the end, making it hard for him to discern if she was actually worried about the turtles. Her gray eyes flickered to other thoughts, perhaps to the more pressing ones that occupied his mind. He knew a part of her dreaded how the water would smother the signs of tracks in the sand, but he was sick of hearing about turtles and nests and tracks. He wanted to talk about what they were going to do with their marriage.
He toyed with his wedding ring, but it wouldn’t budge. He had gained a few pounds since they moved to the beach, and it all went to his gut and hands. He was starting to look like one of the cops who sat behind a desk and taught recruits the fundamentals of pepper spraying a suspect.
Leigh slid a hand out from under the guitar and ran her fingernails along the inside of his arm, searching for the scar from the bullet. As of late it was the one habit of hers that he looked forward to.
Jack was a cop, and when they first started dating he had been involved in a shootout. Back then he worried that Leigh might not want to be with someone whose job description included getting shot at, but she told him it turned her on, knowing that she was dating a man who’d survived a gunshot. He liked to think it still turned her on.
He pushed against the floor with the ball of his foot and felt the swing rock back. He dropped his chin in towards his chest. “Maybe you should take off some time from work.” He paused to gauge if he could press the matter.
Leigh shifted her hand out from under his arm, propped the guitar against the wood siding of the house, and drew her knees up to her neck, wrapping her arms around her shins. She yawned, the chip in her canine tooth just barely visible under the curl in her lip.
He had seen her up late at night because she was unable to sleep. She told him it was stress from work, but Jack didn’t know how pacing in front of their windows would alleviate that.
“I’m worried,” he said.
He felt like he was trying to coax a cat into a carrying crate. He didn’t want to have to shove her in.
“Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t start causing trouble.”
“I’m not. I’m trying to talk to you.”
“Well, I don’t feel like talking,” she huffed. “I want to be left alone.”
“Why are you pushing me away?”
“I had a miscarriage. I can do whatever I want.”
He interrupted her. “But I’m your husband.”
“No one’s forcing you to stay here,” she said, and yanked another piece of hair behind her ear.
The miscarriage had made her this way, he knew, so certain that everyone was against her. She had become immature and impossible.
A breeze came off of the ocean and poured through the screened-in porch. The damp heat of it coiled around Jack like a heavy coat, and the space suddenly seemed too warm and too small. The air smelled of wet pennies and seaweed, the way an approaching hurricane season always did. It made him edgy, thinking of those waters heating up for a big storm. The wooden planks of the swing jammed against him and burned hot against his back and thighs. He looked up and saw that the stuffiness had even encumbered the blades of the ceiling fan. It was quiet except for that hushed loop of the fan and the rasp of the swing.
He tried remembering what she was before. She used to be funny. They used to have sex. It wasn’t all bad. “I can make you happy again.”
He picked up her hand. It felt cool, despite the boiling air, and then he felt it trembling, just a little.
The miscarriage happened six months ago. Six months. A long time. And he understood that focusing on the turtles helped her ignore what was wrong with them and what had happened.
They had been trying for over two years to get pregnant because his goal was to have a baby by the time he was thirty, an age he had just now passed. It hadn’t been easy, but he thought they had both wanted this. Jack hadn’t known how thrilled he would be, and how natural it felt, until the test came back positive. But then it was taken away with the miscarriage. If Jack knew what would happen he never would have urged her to get pregnant— hell, they could adopt— he didn’t care.
He looked at her and tried to picture his life without her in it. He ached to have her and for them to be the way they used to be, and he wanted to yell that. But instead he reached an arm around her shoulders and pulled her in.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” she said.
“Just tell me what you need, tell me what the answer is,” he said. “Even traffic lights can pick a color.”
“Then maybe you should go ask one of those.” Leigh shot him a steely look and jerked herself out from his grasp.
The first time they met, Leigh had been going ninety-three in a fifty-five, nothing romantic about it. When he walked up to the side of her car, she had looked at him just like that. A look that made him go numb.
Back then she attended community college and majored in hospitality. Her goal had been to work at a resort in Hawaii. But she’d gotten swept up by the turtle thing, as she called it. She had started off as a volunteer on the beach, driving a truck up and down the sand searching for the tracks of sea turtles. The mothers never came back, just dumped off their eggs and waddled back to the ocean. But that didn’t bother Leigh; she wouldn’t have it any other way. Jack had always thought that this showed a maternal instinct on her part.
For their first date, he had taken Leigh out for dinner at a crab shack on the beach that faced the water and a patio packed with tables and checkered linens. She wore a coral sundress and a seashell that hung around her neck on a thin braided rope. She told him that she was married before, but they had no children. Her husband had hit her, she said, so she left, and was no longer afraid of leaving anyone or anywhere.
He thought of a grown man hitting someone as small as she was, he imagined how easily her slight body would fall, how quickly the bruises would form, and it made him simmer with anger. He told her he had never hit any woman, even the intoxicated ones that took swings at him when he had to bring them into the drunk tank. He told her that he thought she was strong, too, for what she was able to do. She had been through some bad things, and he admired that about her. He could tell by her brutal honesty and the way she smiled that she wasn’t pretending with him, like some of the other girls he had dated. Marriage was something Jack always longed for, and that night he already knew Leigh would be his wife.
Jack waited until she finished playing the guitar and fell asleep before he snuck out of the house. He tiptoed towards the front door in long, exaggerated stretches like some animated version of himself, grabbed twenty dollars from his wallet, turned the car on, put it in neutral, and rolled it out of the driveway with barely a peep.
He passed the roundabout that directed tourists to the north and south ends of the beach boardwalk. Oversized bare bulbs were strung between lampposts, like the ocean waves, while rusted hand-me-down cars cruised beneath them with their windows down and the music up. A group of kids, teenagers really, squatted in front of the welcome sign. They watched a lanky guy with a pierced lip and the scratchy beginnings of a beard try to jump his skateboard onto the top of the sign. Each time he lifted off the ground he’d close in on the sign, but at the last minute tilt too far back and land with a thud in the sand. Normally, Jack would flash his lights to make them scatter, but this time he wasn’t on duty and kept driving.
He bought a six-pack at the store and, though he had never done this before, decided that one beer on his way home wouldn’t hurt. He popped open one long neck with the end of his house key, then another. When he got back home and parked, he waited to see if any lights might turn on. Thankfully, she was still asleep. He slinked around the side of the house, pausing to glare at the turtle nest. He stayed long enough to knock back another beer, and then decided to sit out on the sand, drinking in the pitch black.
Jack had found out about the miscarriage while on duty. Leigh called as he was driving on a long stretch of interstate. Live oaks lined the side of the road, one after the other, their crooked branches dripping with Spanish moss. An overfed rain cloud threatened to pour in an otherwise blue horizon. He was halfway through his shift and had already pulled over six cars for speeding— it was a good day.
“I need you to pull over,” she said. Then she told him, her voice palpitating like the fastest heartbeat he had ever heard.
The highway was unusually empty for the afternoon. The sun smoldered against the concrete, creating little mirages of wavy heat. It was as if the world had entered into a different key; he could hear the low buzz of crickets off in the woods next to the highway, their legs burning furiously together, ready to blaze a trail down the line of dense oak trees.
The beach felt more abandoned than it actually was. Jack imagined being on a desert island would have this same kind of stillness; nothing but the endless waves releasing low howls as the foam of the water bubbled towards the shore. Condensation from the beer bottle dribbled down his hands and onto his pants while a breeze rolled hot air across his face and down his neck, making his shirt balloon out in the back.
As he drank, he thought about the miscarriage, and how it was like a parasite on them, like mosquitoes around a body of water. How was it that she couldn’t see that it was beyond his control? That was exactly it— that was what he couldn’t understand. How she could just go on day after day and shove all the blame onto him, when really she was the one who couldn’t seem to move on. He thought she was being a selfish bitch.
Jack fingered the groove in his arm where the bullet had gutted his flesh, remembering the pop of the gunshots. He had never felt the bullet; he just gawked at the blood as it ran down his arm like colored water, staining his fingertips a berry red. Now the scar was numb where the nerves had been severed. He tried to feel his fingertips pressing into it, but he couldn’t.
When they lost the baby, they’d gone over to Leigh’s mother’s house to tell her. Then there was his mother-in-law’s question, “How did this happen?” She was talking to Leigh but looked at Jack when she said this. He wasn’t a damn doctor, and he almost answered as much. How the hell would he know why the baby up and quit?
He realized what she was thinking, though; that she blamed him for the miscarriage, for not taking proper care of his wife, and for putting her under so much pressure to conceive. Maybe she even thought he was hitting her like the first one, and that made her lose the baby. What kind of a man, what kind of a husband, could let something like this happen?
But maybe it was his fault all along. Maybe if he had never pulled her over, never asked her out in exchange for negating a ticket, never married her— her life would be different. She’d be working at a five-star place in Hawaii instead of stuck roaming Clearwater Beach and saddled with him for a husband.
He finished the last of the beer and pawed at the sand. It rushed out between his fingers, the crushed seashells scraping against his skin. As he stood, his legs wobbled beneath him, from the weight of the liquor and the tow of the uneven beach. He threw a beer bottle into the surf, and heard a dull splash, like a vague cough. Jack stood quietly, and listened to the ocean empty onto the shore and rush back out. His shoulder was sore from the throw, and his belly swam with too much beer. He felt suddenly drunk and lazy. Cursing, he rolled the remaining bottles toward the water.
What was he supposed to do? He was the only one worried, the only one thinking, the only one feeling anything for the both of them. He had found and loved Leigh and wanted her for the rest of his life. He didn’t want to have to convince her of that, but it was his duty.
Jack fell to his knees and began crawling across the beach, half dragging his legs behind him, feeling the sand gnaw across his skin until his flesh was a raw red. He didn’t care. He came up to the back of their house and found the turtle nest in their yard. There were four flimsy wooden stakes tied together with a string of orange plastic ribbon, and a neon yellow sign on one post that read, “Do Not Disturb.”
Leigh had put it there. She had counted 103 ping-pong sized turtle eggs buried in the sand. It would be another month before they’d hatch and all the while they’d be serenaded every night. She was going to have another month of fussing over the nest, another month where she could dodge talking about the marriage, another month to stew.
He swayed in front of the nest. His eyes had adjusted to the night, and he detected clumps of sand clinging to his forearms and legs. He unbent his back, pressed his shoulder blades together, and puffed out his chest. He was sweating, maybe from the weather, and when he rubbed his hands against his damp thighs he felt grains of sand mixing in with his coarse hair.
Jack tried but couldn’t recall the last time she had played a song just for him. He wasn’t the problem; it was her stubbornness and refusal to go back to the way things were. His heart had stopped and hers had kept right on beating.
Reaching out, he grabbed one of the stakes; he felt the jagged wood scrape his palm and glanced up towards the house. Leigh was so close to him now, their bedroom window not far from the nest. She hadn’t even heard him come in, and if she had, didn’t bother to get up. His hand shaking, Jack ripped the marker from the ground and flung it flat onto the sand, the rough wood splintering his palm. The lights in the house were still out. He was the only person on the beach. He pulled out the remaining three stakes, the discarded wood and ribbon clumping into a pile like firewood.
He knelt in the sand over the slightly raised earth. He sensed all of Leigh’s liveliness, all of her heart, beating up from that mound like a heaving chest. He hadn’t felt that from her in so long. It had all gone here, all her concern. He crushed his palms against the top of the mound, plowing his fingers into it.
He pieced together images of what he remembered from when she was out here, tending to the nest, and what she’d been doing suddenly felt like cheating. He needed a secret, too, a little hole where he could store all of his feelings like treasures and bury them for safekeeping. He plunged his fingers deeper into the mound, forcing them down until the sand swallowed his wrists. Then he brought his hands back up, carrying fistfuls of sand with them. He repeated the shoveling motion, slowly at first, emptying the sand from the nest onto the beach behind him, inching closer to the hatchlings. As his arms began to tire, he felt an urgency in his excavation. Furiously, he dove into the nest with both hands, gathering up careless heaps of sand and cast them behind his back as if it were salt warding off bad luck. He squinted up towards the porch, waiting and almost wanting a sign of life. Jack dug until his entire forearm fit down into the hole, until he finally found the eggs piled one on top of the other.
Clutching one in his palm, he felt the warmth of the sand and the nest and the egg’s leathery skin. He thought it resembled a weathered plum, rough casing thickened with wrinkles. Closing his fingers snugly around the egg, he squeezed with all of his might, expecting it to explode in his palm. He looked at it again and saw the cream of the shell glowing back at him like a moist eye. The sheen of his wedding ring caught the champagne moonlight, and he cracked the egg against it. He heard the shell split in half, felt the ooze of the yolk and membranes trickle between his fingers. Then there was the hatchling’s form, a mutated body with half-formed legs and the beginnings of eyes; he could feel the mushy sockets between his fingers. He chucked it onto the sand near his feet. Relief pulsed through him as strong as electricity. He thought of Leigh, and how her body had rejected his baby— and the idea of it made him return to the mound.
With the yolk still on his hands, he yanked off the orange ribbon, grabbed a stake from the sand and, with it, stabbed at the nest. He grunted with each thrust into the eggs, making sure to remain muffled enough so as not to be heard over the chirr of the ocean waves. A smell began to rise from the mound, oddly sweet, like vinegar mixed with honey.
When he stopped and looked into the nest, into the deep hole, he was able to make out the shape of what he’d done. He didn’t want to get caught. If she came out onto the porch, she’d see him. If she rolled over in their bed and he wasn’t there, she might come looking for him. He’d learned the essentials of stealth in basic training; all those years ago had prepared him for a day like this.
He rapidly began to fill the opening back up with the sand he had removed until it was once again that mound of slightly raised earth. He drove each stake back into the ground, forming a square perimeter around the nest. The orange ribbon retied, the yellow warning sign straightened— Leigh wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. If she did, drunk teenagers— hell, drunk grown men— often destroyed nests.
When he had finished he remained there, made no move. He swallowed and felt warmth seeping out of his hands, just as it had risen from the pulsing mound he destroyed. His palms were covered in splinters, and he remembered puncturing the eggs with the sharp end of the wooden stake, feeling them give underneath him.
Erin La Rosa is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. She contributes to E! Online, Funny or Die and Mad Atoms, and her work has appeared in such publications as Continental Magazine, Ecorazzi, and Minx Society. She earned her BA in Writing from Emerson College and her MA in Writing from the University of Southern California. She has performed in such storytelling series as MORTIFIED, "Funny but True" at the LA Times Book Festival, and Sunday Night Sex Talks. Visit her site larosaknows.com and follow her on Twitter.
Desert Raven Photography is a collaborative partnership between Ashley Garvy and Audrey Helow. Garvy, a dancer moved to New York, found a new creative outlet in photography after a hip injury prevented her from continuing dance as a profession. She attended PhotoManhattan, where she acquired the skills necessary to bring her original visions to life. Helow, an actor/musician who achieved her BA in Music Management at Baruch College, similarly found that her photography "hobby" was more than just a habitual skill. View more of their work online at desertravenphotography.com.
We Are The Wilderness is a Brooklyn-based Indietronica duo comprised of Shanda Woods and Ryan Manchester. Classically derived and indie-pop driven, with influences ranging from Philip Glass to SBTRKT, We Are The Wilderness supersedes traditional boundaries. After self-releasing their EP, Elevation, in March 2012, WATW is currently in the studio recording their debut LP due out Fall 2012. Visit the band online at wearethewilderness.com or on Facebook.