The Biter


wood burn image by Mara Lloyd

MARA LLOYD, staff writer

The sun had announced itself, unapologetic over my head as I used my hands to shield my eyes from it’s light. Sitting in a familiar patch of shade, I brought them back down to the earth. Staring absently at my lap, I turned over my 73-year-old palms. The v-shaped scar on my right thumb sparked a memory I haven’t recounted since before the turn of the century. The temperate fog of today’s early-April morning transitioned to a clear July afternoon, almost 65 years ago. I closed my eyes and let my mind take me in the direction it’d been pining for since my sister’s passing.

Many people confuse my hometown with Virginia’s bustling capital. Richmond County, located in the same state as the city it’s often mixed up with, couldn’t be more different. Small, remote, and as rural as it gets, Richmond County’s highlight in 1957 was its public pool. Andy Weirnacks had said it was Olympic-sized. His brother was a lifeguard there. The high dive attracted whatever souls were brave enough to make the leap, which was exclusively my sister at the time. Jane was twelve that summer. I knew she wasn’t going off the high dive because she wanted to. Some boys from school had made fun of her for staying in the shallow end. She didn’t respond to their remarks with words; my sister fastened her swim cap, climbed the ladder with a straight back, and made the 10 meter dive. She didn’t shriek going down or after surfacing like I would’ve. It was one of these days that Jane and I were splashing around the shallow end (“somebody’s got to keep an eye on Dorothy,” she’d tell anyone who asked her why she hung out there) when she discovered something in the drain. 

We’d been trying handstands. Jane’s limbs were strong and tall, an indication of the high school track career she’d have in a few years. She even ran on the College of William & Mary team, until she dropped out after sophomore year. Anyway, in comparison to my clumsy attempts, her underwater handstands may as well have been those of an Olympic gymnast. I stood in the chest-high pool, watching patiently as Jane performed a perfect handstand for myself and a toddler sitting cross-legged on the steps. Suddenly she was upright again, with something in her closed hand. 

“Look Dorothy,” Jane said. I waded over and she opened her hand. We thought it was a rock at first; it was small and hard and certainly not alive upon first examination. Right as Jane handed it to me, however, a head poked out. I jumped.

“That’s a turtle,” I exclaimed, watching its four flippers ease their ways out of the hard shell. Using the hand I was holding it in, I gently stroked the turtle’s head with my thumb. It snapped at me, closing its jaw around my thumb. I jumped again, dropping the small creature.

“Dorothy!” gasped Jane, who then plunged underwater to retrieve it. I held my bleeding finger in my mouth. When she emerged, her hands were positioned around the turtle’s shell so that its mouth couldn’t reach her fingers. “What should we call him?” She asked. I pondered this for a moment.


She shook her head. “We’ll figure it out when we get home. Mind holding him while I dry off?” I blinked. She was crawling out of the pool.

“We can’t take him home.” I brandished my wounded thumb.

“Don’t touch his head,” Jane began trying to towel off with one hand, “and he won’t hurt you. Here,” she took my hands in her own and arranged them on the turtle’s shell for me, so that one was underneath and the other was on top. He didn’t snap again, but he wouldn’t have been able to bite me if he’d wanted to.

To her credit, my sister was right. That was the last time Bitey, who we couldn’t invent a better name for, would ever bite either of us. He stayed in his shell for most of the walk home.

In retrospect, we should’ve predicted our father’s reaction to Bitey’s arrival. He was disinterested at first.

“Get that thing out of my house,” was all he said. Jane and I glanced at each other. My criminally indifferent mother looked at him for just a second as though she might defend us. It was fleeting, then she went back to her patchwork. I had been born too late to know if she’d always treated him like that. He’d watched his lifelong friends die in Okinawa, and if it hadn’t been for his constant reminders of the battle, maybe my mother would’ve been harder on him.
“Papa,” Jane said calmly, “he’s only a baby. He needs our ocean to grow up in.” The ‘ocean’ was what she and I called the small pond in our backyard. Papa looked up. 

“It smells like shit. If I have to repeat myself, so help me God, I will lose my goddamn mind.” He was speaking in a monotone, but his face was starting to look increasingly pink. 

“Maybe just for a few weeks, until he’s strong enough–”

“DID I NOT MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?” Papa stood up, slamming his nearly empty whiskey bottle on the coffee table. My mother stirred.

“Charles,” she murmured, “sit, dear. Please? We can talk about this later.” Papa picked up the bottle and threw it against the wall. Shards of glass sprayed over the furniture. I stuck my pointer finger in my mouth. 

“I WILL NOT BE GIVEN ORDERS BY MY WIFE AND CHILDREN!” His face was scarlet. He panted for a moment, looking at each of our faces. Mother shrunk into her chair, intently focused on her needle and thread. Jane nodded once and walked out of the room. After a few seconds, I followed her.

“Jane!” I closed the glass door behind us as we walked outside. It was an unusual 80-something degrees. After a heat wave of the triple degree category for the past week, the clear, dry weather was refreshing. My sister slipped into the shed we kept only a few yards from our house. I followed her. “I want to tell Bitey goodbye. Let me hold him for a minute.”

“You don’t need to say goodbye,” Jane said calmly. “Bitey isn’t going anywhere. Here you go,” she put him in my hands. 

“But Jane, Papa said no! Do you want him to get mad again?”

“He wont find out.” She fished a large orange bucket out of a pile of junk. She must have seen my eyes widen. “We’ll be careful. He never comes into our bedroom, so we can keep Bitey in there.” At this point, I was following my sister as she trekked around to our backyard. “We can feed him plants from the ocean. He just needs us to change his water every day. So he can be clean.” She lowered the bucket into the murky pond water, only letting it get a couple inches high at the bottom. I anxiously glanced at the house. “Would you go talk to Mama and Papa while I bring him to our room? To distract them?”

These were the days when I worshiped the ground my sister walked on. I couldn’t have predicted then the distance that would grow between us, then shrink, then grow again, only to shrink once more. I couldn’t have guessed at the complexity our relationship would develop. At the time, my affinity for Jane was the only association I had with her. So I said, “Alright. But what should I say?” Her face twisted into a thoughtful expression. I loved when it did that.

“Say you aren’t feeling well,” she suggested, “that way Mama will go to the kitchen to get the thermometer. She won’t see me go the other way.” 

“Okay,” I put Bitey in the bucket. His head popped out and slowly evaluated the orange wall that surrounded him.

Something else about Jane in those days was her sleep humming. It was like sleep talking, except I’ve never known anyone else who does it. Sometimes it was tunes, sometimes they were made up. Sometimes it was just one note for what felt like hours. This was before Jane got into music, really got into it, although we both took piano lessons from my grandmother every Sunday. Still, she’d hum and hum and hum as soon as she hit REM sleep. I can’t remember now when she grew out of it, but it had to have been some time after we stopped sharing a bed. I never told her about it. It was my secret— the one thing I knew about my quiet and reserved sister that she didn’t know about herself. That night she was particularly noisy. Normally I only noticed her humming if I was having trouble falling asleep; but the first night we spent with Bitey in our room, I couldn’t fall asleep because of how intensely she was humming. That next morning was the only time I’d ever considered telling her about it. I never ended up saying anything.

Taking care of the turtle proved to be easier than I’d imagined. Jane or I would change his water as soon as we got the chance every day, and we fed him bits from the pond or garden. We agreed that we’d release him as soon as he got big enough to be on his own. I don’t believe either of us were sure of how big that was, but we had our own ideas of what it would look like in our heads. The longer Bitey stayed in that bucket in our room, the smaller my fear of Papa finding out became. He really never did go in our bedroom, and if there was a smell, the circulation caused by having every window in the house open mellowed it out. Years later, I would realize that my mother almost certainly had seen the bucket in our room while it was there, and that she hadn’t told my father. If she can be forgiven for any of the silences she kept in her life, it’s that one. 

Jane never had children. As far as I can recall, she never even had any other pets. If one can reach the peak of their maternal instinct at the age of twelve, my sister did. Changing Bitey’s water wasn’t a chore for her, it was a gift. She’d save the most tender piece of chicken on her plate for him, sometimes claiming she was too full to finish. I don’t think even she could’ve named the reason she felt it was her personal responsibility to raise that turtle, other than she had been the one to find him in the pool that day and maybe she didn’t want it to be for nothing.

I can’t remember anymore how long Bitey stayed with us. It was longer than I would’ve anticipated, of that I’m certain. There’s no first day of Autumn in Richmond County; just an ordinary day when you realize you’ve been reaching for your sweater earlier each evening as of late. Summer had peaked in the time Bitey was here, and was on it’s sturdy decline the day he left. Time has blurred every detail of that turtle’s story in my mind now, besides the ending.

It had been another day at the pool. School was starting soon, and I had been discussing with my sister how we’d care for Bitey while spending seven hours away from home each day. He still wasn’t even a quarter the size of the bucket he lived in. We walked into the house like we normally would, careful not to let the door slam. Papa hated that. There he was, sitting at the kitchen table with his legs crossed and a cigarette between his lips. The paper was in his lap, I think it was the New York Times. We nodded briskly at him as we passed, neither of us keeping eye contact for more than a moment or two.

“If you’re going to check on that shitbucket, don’t bother.” His voice was cruelly mundane, like he could’ve been telling us good morning. We stopped in our tracks, my thumb in my mouth before I could turn around. I looked at Jane, whose lips were slightly parted. She was looking for words. She never did that. 

“Papa, what sh—”

“Don’t swear at me girl, I’m your father.”

“What happened?” was all she said.

“I dropped that tortoise of yours at the town landfill and I expect the vultures are fighting for its liver as we speak, that’s what.”

Jane didn’t move. She looked down and swallowed. “I hate you,” she said suddenly, then “I hate him,” to me, because I must have shot her a look of bewilderment. Her voice sounded so indifferent at first that it could’ve belonged to our mother. My father didn’t look up, but his eyes stopped moving across the paper. I could tell. The three of us were frozen like that for what felt like a lifetime. I looked at my sister’s eyes which had been barren during every fight and insult they’d witnessed. I watched with wonder as they filled with tears. My father went back to reading the paper. “I said I hate you,” she repeated in a broken voice. “Look at me!” She walked over and went to snatch the paper out of his hands. He didn’t let go, and it ripped clean in half. “I wish it had been you instead of your friends!” Those were the last words I can remember from that conversation, before my memory goes cloudy. Maybe my father hit her. He must’ve. Maybe he’d been too stunned. And where had my mother been? Sleeping, maybe. Listening from the other room over, her eyes tracing the pattern of the wallpaper.

Propped up against Jane’s gravestone, sitting here felt peculiar. Maybe even eerie. Today would have been my sister’s favorite kind of day, I realized as I came back to the present. She loved the Spring. Not because of the weather, but because of the cleaning. If she was still around, her white Ford Taurus would be pulling into the hardware store parking lot around this time. She’d come home with bags of disinfectant and microfiber towels. I’d visit her at her condo and help her dust the cobwebs off her silver, because she has a lot. We’d take a break to get lunch at the deli, then start decluttering her closet when we got back. We’d be home, and we’d be safe, and we’d both be okay.