Why Do You Kill Anything?


by Brian Ted Jones

I found a brown turtle on the road beside my mother's house, struggling along the rocky way. I picked it up by the sides and studied it. The tiny elephant legs and dinosaur head. The mouth opening and closing, like a man speaking lines in a movie with the sound turned off. I ran it back to the house, holding it aside so the trail of turtlepee wouldn't trickle on my feet. Grandfather was sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette. His eyes were nearly shut under the brim of his white stetson. His eyelashes were like curled, black caterpillars in his rough, red eyelids. It was July, and the heat made him sleepy.

"I caught a turtle," I told him, out of breath.

He came awake and looked. "Yep."

I nodded. "I'm gonna keep him."

His eyebrows lifted.

"You want to eat him?"

My mouth dropped open. "You can't eat turtles!"

He chuckled. "Why of course you can."

I thought about this.

"How?" I asked.

He grinned and set his Marlboro snipe down inside an ashtray shaped like a sheriff star. He grunted. "You'll need a rock, a knife, and a hanger."

I started to run into the house but remembered the turtle. I looked at Grandfather. I opened my mouth to speak.

"Don't worry," he said, before I could get a word out. "I'll watch him for you so he don't get away."

I nodded. "They're slow," I said.

"Well. That ought to make it easy," he said.

I ran into the house. I grabbed a hanger from my closet and a butterknife from the drawer in the kitchen. My mother was taking a nap, thank god. She would never have approved of something so coarse as turtlekilling.

I ran back outside and handed the butterknife and the hanger to the old man. I looked for the turtle and began to freak out when I didn't see it. The old man pointed down. The turtle was beneath his scuffed brown boot, pushing its stumpy legs and feet against the porch like it were swimming in place. Its dull, jeweled nails clicked on the concrete. I laughed.

"Okay," Grandfather said, taking inventory. He held up the hanger. "This is good. You want to put the end down near its mouth. Just widen it out a little so he can get ahold of it."

I took the hanger and did as he said. He watched me and said "Good." Then he held up the butterknife. "This won't work."

"Why not?" I asked.

"It aint sharp enough. It's okay, though. I've got one."

He reached into his pocket and took out a lockback knife, the kind with nickel bolsters and a deer-antler grip. The blade was worn from age to the color of a wet tree. He worked the slipjoint and the blade snapped out. I jumped. He smiled.

"Now you need a rock," he said. "A good one. You go get that and I'll meet you in the driveway."

I ran off and he called me back and made me leave the hanger behind, so I wouldn't slip and impale myself on the god damned thing.

I ran around the garage —growing cautious near the black, oak stump where I'd once seen a tarantula —and sped up again by the hydrangeas. I made for the driveway and skidded to a halt there, before deciding that gravel rocks would be too small for the job. So I headed for the ditch, near the mailbox. I looked around and saw a smooth, tan stone the size of a little league baseball mitt. I picked it up and confirmed the weight. I nodded to no one and dashed back to the driveway. Grandfather was already there, kneeling among the hot, white rocks. He held the turtle to the ground. The turtle continued to attempt escape.

Grandfather eyed the stone and nodded. He said "Good." I nodded too, set the stone down, and backed away. Grandfather reached behind him and pulled the hanger from his waistband. He looked at me. He grinned.

"Well. You got to hold him," he said.

"Okay," I said, fast. I knelt. My bare knees scraped the gravel. I put my hand on the back of the turtle's shell. I didn't pull away at the weird, dusty touch. I wanted to and I didn't.

Grandfather squatted, working the hanger with his big palms and knotty fingers. He squeezed the lopsided curve I had made until it became smoother, rounder. He looked at me with a big, blue, sunburnt eye while he did this. I nodded. He nodded. He settled further into his squat and held the hanger down near the turtle's mouth.

Its square leather head receded. Its slow eyes blinked.

The head moved forward a little, came back.

Snapped out.

The turtle gripped the hanger in its lipless mouth and held on fast. I flinched. Grandfather chuckled and reached into his pocket.

"Keep holding him," he told me. I nodded, feeling squeamish at the touch of the dust and the grime of the turtle's shell.

Grandfather settled the hanger into his right hand, flexed his grip, and reached into his pocket. He took out the knife and flipped out the blade with the bloodscarred tip of his thumbnail. He tugged on the hanger. I watched the turtle's neck stretch like a piece of taffy. The head reminded me of an oldtimey football helmet. I felt a gust of love for the creature. Grandfather took the knife and held the blade down over the neck. I imagined a man having his thumb amputated. Grandfather applied pressure with a soft exhalation of breath. He sliced into the dark flesh, like I'd seen him cut through jalapeno peppers. I didn't have time to prepare. In the moment of the killing, I didn't even relate Grandfather's action to the turtle's death.

Grandfather raised the hanger. I looked for half a second at the coarse neck. It hung from the wire and made me think of a Christmas ornament. I looked at the stump in the shell, at the arms and legs clawing. I looked back at the neck and back at the stump. Blood the color of ink and thick as oil poured onto the driveway and stained the gravel. Grandfather stood, wiped both sides of the blade against his jeans, then he pushed it against his thigh and back into the groove.

He pointed at the shell.

"Pick that up and carry it to the ditch."

I did as he said. I turned the bleeding stump toward the house as I went, so the turtle's blood wouldn't splash me on the legs. I reached the ditch and set the corpse down among a bedding of green leaves, pine needles, and jagged blue rocks. Blood still poured from the wound, soaking through the understory and coating the hard, black earth beneath.

A shadow appeared over everything. I turned and saw Grandfather figured in the sun. The hanger was in his hand. The turtlehead was gone. In his other hand he held the big, tan rock.

"We can do this two ways," Grandfather said. "We can crack the shell with this," he held up the rock, "and take the meat out and boil it, then clean the turtle when it's boiled. Or we can just boil it with the shell still on, get the shell soft and peel it away. I'd like to take the shell off first, but you don't need to. Mama just made us do that. She thought a turtle shell was dirty and wouldn't let one be in the house."

He smiled. I did too. He looked at the turtle's body and so did I. The blood had slowed down, but a pool of it stood by the corpse like a blot of melted tar. I looked back up at Grandfather.

"Let's crack the shell."

He nodded and raised the rock. I scampered out of the way. He drew back as if to throw, but stopped and turned to me.

"Do you want to?" he asked. His voice hung in the air.

"No," I said quickly. "You do it. I'll watch." I thought he might argue with me or make me do it anyway. He looked like he was thinking about it, too. But he just nodded, raised the stone, and half-dropped, half-chucked it at the shell.

I watched the stone shoot through the air and land with a flat, muffled crack on the olive shell. My eyes closed at the sound but popped open again right away.

The shell had split horizontally, leaving a white seam among the plates that reminded me of lightning. I reached down and grabbed one side of the shell, near the right leg. The leg moved. I screamed and backed away. Grandfather laughed.

I looked at him. He was knelt over, hands on his knees. The laughter built up until he was shaking and wheezing. I got mad at him. I wanted to push him over. I might have, too, if he hadn't looked up at me. "Oooooo," he wheezed, smiling. "Hm," I said, my mouth set meanly. I smiled.

We turned back to the turtle. Grandfather removed the twin halves of the top shell. There was a stretch of green flab beneath. Grandfather knelt, he grabbed the back leg, he lifted it. The body came away with a soft, tearing sound, like when a stickynote is pulled off a pad.

"Good," he said, looking at me. "We cracked the top shell and separated the body from the bottom shell. You know what the bottom shell is called?"

I shook my head.

"The plastron," he said.

I nodded and repeated the word. He smiled.

"Run into the house and grab a big bowl. We'll boil him, then we can clean him."

I did as he asked, and when I came back outside, he was still in the driveway. I ran the bowl out to him. He smiled at me, took the bowl, and knelt. The plastron fell away and Grandfather tossed the headless body into the bowl with a fat, wet plop.

He told me to go inside and set a pot of water on to boil and I did, and when I came back outside he was sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette.

"You didn't wake up your momma, did you?" he asked.

"Nope," I said. I looked for the turtle. It was sitting in the bowl on the bench beside Grandfather. He raised his elbow at it.

"Go take this inside so't the flies won't spoil it."

I nodded, picked up the bowl, and set it inside the house. When I came back I sat down across the porch from Grandfather on the antique settee mom had bought at a garage sale. I looked at him. He was looking at me.

"Well," he said.

"Yeah?" I said.

He took his fingers and plucked a bite of spit from between his teeth. "What do you think about it?" he asked.

I thought for a minute.

"Well," I said. "I just wonder why."

Grandfather frowned. "Why what?"

I blinked. "Why kill the turtle."

He nodded. "Ah," he said. The question seemed to make sense to him, and he reflected on it.

"Well," he said, after a while. "Why do you kill anything?"

I shook my head. "I don't know."

He smiled at that.

"I don't know either. Seems to me, though, if you are gonna kill something, you might as well kill something that's good to eat."

My head cocked. "Turtles are good to eat?"

He nodded and smiled. "Oh yes son. Yes they are."

That didn't sound right to me, but Grandfather knew more.

"Huh," I said.

I thought about it.

"Still —" I said.

I felt a good point come up in my head.

"Still. A dog might be good to eat —"

"It aint," Grandfather said.

"Still," I said. "A dog might be good to eat. But we wouldn't eat it."

"Why's that?"

I shrugged. "Because we like dogs."

Grandfather thought this over.

"Well," he said, "why do you think we kept dogs around long enough to find out we liked them in the first place?"

I thought about that. I didn't understand the question. "Huh?"

Grandfather flicked gray ash onto the porch.

"Cavemen. If they saw something alive, they'd eat it. Right?"

"Right."

"Because they were hungry all the time, right?"

"Right."

"So. Why didn't they eat dogs?"

I mussed my lips together and creased my brow.

"I don't know. Maybe they did?"

He smiled and pursed his lips in good faith consideration of my question. "Maybe they did, you're right, but . . . it's like . . . " He thought for a second and said, "You ever eat a black jelly bean?"

I grimaced. "Yeah."

He nodded. "They aint good, are they?"

"No, they're terrible."

He smiled. "So when you get a thing of jelly beans, you have all the black ones left over at the end, right?"

I scratched my arm and nodded. Grandfather went on.

"Okay, well, dogs were kind of like that. We tried eating them and found out they weren't any good to eat, so when we ate everything else we had all the dogs left. But, we kept them around long enough to find out they were good for other things. Like hunting, or hell, just companionship."

"Okay," I said. "But a black jelly bean aint a dog. It's a black jelly bean."

He nodded, smiling. "Correct."

"And we actually just throw out the black jelly beans when we're done with the good ones."

Grandfather thought about that.

"Huh, well, yeah," he said.

I went on, excited at winning the argument. "And if red jelly beans ended up being nice to play with or to talk to, we wouldn't eat them, no matter how good they were, right?"

"Well," Grandfather said, flicking ash off his cigarette and grinning. "We might if we were hungry enough. But I see your point."

We sat in silence. Both of us. Thinking.

"Turtles are nice," I said.

"I agree," Grandfather said.

I looked at him.

"We aren't starving."

Grandfather shook his head, grinned, and patted his belly.

"No," he said. "We certainly aren't."

I looked at him.

"So why did we just kill that turtle?"

Grandfather blinked. He didn't say anything, and neither did I. We sat on the porch until he finished his cigarette, and then we went inside the house. We boiled the turtle. We ate it. We were very quiet.


BIO: Brian Ted Jones was born in 1984 and raised in Oklahoma. He is a graduate of St. John's College and the author of Everything's Fearful Dead, a novel about religion. He lives with his wife, Jenne, and their sons Oscar and GuyJack.