There Daniel stood, up to his shins in muddy water, observing a strange continuity: the coolness of the water on his legs, and the tears now drying on his cheeks. There was not much breeze, but when it did blow onto his face, moving his bangs like feathers and tickling his wet skin, he felt somehow profound; it was something he could not understand but a feeling he was nonetheless accustomed to.
He looked down at his shirt, his favorite shirt, splattered with filthy water, and perhaps his tears. There was a small hole that exposed his pale skin right where his ribs poked out. His father had bought the shirt for him at the Goodwill. It reminded him of something his friends at school might wear, a neon gecko sprawled across the back against a pattern of tribal shapes. But what he liked best about it was a feeling perhaps too complicated for a boy his age to understand: it symbolized, in some way, some tiny morsel of evidence that his father was a good father.
The consciousness of a boy Daniel’s age, lest we forget, is acutely self-aware, self-conscious, and intuitive. The adult conversations Daniel has overheard have been mostly comprehended: the words were too big, but the tone was there, and it said enough. To be a child is to be a language learner who has not yet fully mastered the art of listening to a native speaker. Both experience an indescribable feeling of frustration at words they cannot separate. Like language learners, children are able to pick out certain words while the rest sounds like painfully familiar but indistinct sounds.
And thus was Daniel: full of a child’s apprehension, but remarkably perceptive and permeable, to the extent that adults would find him a bright child. But Daniel was no smarter than any other child. All that set him apart was his solitude, which simply made his moments of deep thought more apparent.
And so there Daniel stood, and, realizing his tears were drying, he decided to make some more. His father stood across from him, though not in the water. Daniel watched him. His father’s hands sat firmly and decidedly upon his hips as he looked down into the water, into some void place.
The vacant turtle shell sat beside the pond Daniel and his father had dug for the creature when it had been alive. He knew he had no one to blame but a hungry stray cat. Daniel had never felt anything so unfair in all his life, to have lost his friend, his Henry, and to have no one to blame. No one would ever be punished for it, so Daniel punished his father.
He stared at his father, taking a breath to speak, then hesitating, then starting again.
“You promise we can get another one?”
“We’ll go first thing tomorrow morning.”
But Daniel still felt some aching need to make this final, to make it impossible to change and irreversible, because he already knew his father would never buy him another turtle.
“Dad.” He said this sadly, but with a hint of defiance. Finally, his father’s eyes met his. He said nothing and looked at his father, as if to say to him, “look at me, I’m crying.” He thought he caught a glimpse of recognition or understanding in his father’s eyes. But he could have been wrong.
His father was looking away again, lost in thought, his hands still on his hips. He seemed to be figuring things out in his head the way many adults did, their eyes squinted and surveying, but their mouths wordless. Daniel always wondered why adults could not think out loud.
“Wait here.” His father picked up the shell.
And so Daniel waited, still in the muddy water, and watched his father as he headed across the yard towards the shed. A cloud moved in front of the sun, and without its bright reflection in the pond, the water suddenly felt colder and dirtier. The sticks and old leaves poked against his legs. He looked down and saw that his blond hairs were standing. He grabbed onto his elbows to hug himself.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
His father was lost somewhere inside the shed. He heard his father’s voice, but could not understand his reply.
Finally, his father emerged from the shed, holding the empty turtle shell and a can of spray paint Daniel’s older brother had been caught with once. Daniel watched, but said nothing. The sun came out again, and Daniel relaxed.
His father placed the turtle shell on the grass. He stood awkwardly above it, his body tilted forward towards the shell, his hand on his thigh to steady himself. Daniel got out from the dirty pond, not bothering to dry his legs, and watched the can of paint as it shook back and forth in his father’s hand, imagining the marble inside as it clinked from side to side. His father aimed the can of paint, and out came a puff of blue, a bright, fake blue that reminded Daniel of the news his parents watched on TV.
The shell became bluer and bluer, the grass around it a circle of opaque blue as well.
His father stopped, and they both stood silently, Daniel’s hands now on his hips like his father’s.
“Well, let it sit there and dry for a while, but when it’s done you’ll have something to remember him by.”
Daniel looked back at his father, who was now heading inside. He looked once more at the turtle shell, still devoid of its owner, the high sun reflecting brightly off the brilliant blue.