The Great Snapping Turtle of the Yahara River – Michaela Rae Luckey
My Papa wore red calfskin cowboy boots. His shoes were creased and leathery like his farm-worn hands. It was because he wore those boots that my grandfather was named Papa Boots.
We were each other’s favorites. Everyone knew it and when Papa, drunk and happy one Fourth of July, finally said it aloud nobody’s feelings were hurt. The only person he doted on more than me was my father, his only living son. When Papa, Dad and I fished, I belonged to them and they belonged to me, a trinity forged in fishing lines, hooks, and the Yahara River’s water.
One afternoon, myself a small potbellied second grader, my fishing line snagged. I reeled and reeled, but couldn’t free the hook to the surface.
“Probably got caught on a rock,” Dad said.
Papa grabbed my rod, lifted, and a great shell broke the water.
“Oh hell,” Papa said. “You caught a snapping turtle. Look at him! He’s so big he could rip the door off a damn Buick.”
The turtle was ancient, massive, and I was sure it had lived in those waters since glaciers cut the river’s path deep in the earth so very long ago.
“Let me get the camera,” my mother shouted from the back deck, her heeled flip flops snapping against her feet like gunfire as she ran.
“By god,” said Papa, “just look at him.”
But Papa was looking at me, and I was watching the shell roil biblical waves that baptized our bare feet.
“Lift,” Dad said.
Papa raised the rod. The turtle’s clawed foot yanked free, breaking the line, and taking my hook with it. Papa and Dad laughed, each of their hands claiming one of my tiny shoulders. I remember the rickety wood dock was hot, sunbaked, and the chittering of cicadas played across the stone’s-skip-small channel. Weeping Willows bowed overhead as they reached their branched fingers towards the water’s edge; in the midsummer sunlight, it looked as if they were praying.
“Proud of my girl,” Papa said.
Last Christmas, Papa lay dying. We went to California to say goodbye.
Years, miles, politics, and memory had separated us. After Papa told me he was leaving for the West all those many years ago, I cried so violently my mother snapped a picture of me so I’d remember how much I loved him.
I’d forgotten all the same.
Bedridden, Papa’s awareness pooled in pockets like schools of springtime catfish in the Yahara. I sat at his bedside and put my head on his body. His chest used to belong to a man who carried two milk tanks in each hand and corralled unbroken horses with just a rope; now it was crystalline and delicate like a child’s. As I cried, presentness bled through that pain-worn face, his eyes finding me through the years, and suddenly we were the only pair left alive.
He stroked my hair, his hand moving in the rhythm of a great snapping turtle’s flipper paddling against a river’s flow.
“My girl,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Michaela Rae Luckey is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she studied English and Creative Writing. She’s relocated back to her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and is working as an Editorial Associate at the University of Chicago Press.