There were rumors that someone had buried a baby in the woods around Mud Lake. That you wouldn’t have to dig far to find it. We took to the trees and kicked up dead leaves hoping to be the first to uncover the body. There was me, Mikey, Jason, my sister Sarah, and the other, older Sarah we all called Big Sarah. The kids of Granada Avenue in Oakdale Minnesota. Who knows what they imagined the dead baby to look like, we never went as far as to describe it to one another, but I imagined a sunken, shriveled thing, skin the color of a dried pig’s ear, with no eyes wearing a yellow bonnet and frilled sundress, like the parents had gotten the baby dressed for Easter Mass and decided instead to bury it alive.
The woods were not a sprawling expanse of timber but a cluster of trees that hugged the edge of the lake, large enough for a child to get lost in but small enough to know. An adult could make a lap around the lake in an hour, but adults never went into the woods. They were busy clipping coupons for Folgers Coffee and chicken pot pies, ceremoniously folding them, gently placing them in an empty pickle jar on the kitchen counter. Adults never asked us about the woods. They knew we spent most of our time there, but the understanding seemed to be that whatever happened in the woods was a private kid thing. We appreciated this courtesy. No one needs to know precisely what someone else does with their time. If we wanted to disclose that Jason spotted a garter snake, or Mikey sliced up a worm with his Swiss Army Knife, we could, but we never did.
The woods were a graveyard of forgotten things: Snails, crawdad exoskeletons, old cutlery that escaped someone’s Fourth of July barbecue and mysteriously wound up in the mud by the shore. As far as we were concerned, anything we found there belonged to us. We placed our findings in pencil boxes in our bedroom. Those boxes were full of stray buttons, unused erasers, birthday cards, pencils with our names on them, rocks shaped like organs. Things for which we had no earthly use, yet we kept them as tokens of our having been alive.
One afternoon I found a dead turtle in the woods. Not realizing it was dead, I took it home and placed it in a white bucket of hose water. I set the bucket on top a cinder block retaining wall and sat down next to it. We waited in the sun together, the turtle and I. My dad mowed the lawn. I felt the retaining wall scrape the back of my hairless legs. Dad wore a red trucker cap embroidered with the word Cozumel. He and my mom had gone scuba diving there one Christmas while my sister and I stayed at our great uncle’s house eating frozen pizzas and doing the same ALF puzzle over and over again. My father had a thick mustache and dark sunglasses. His stomach hung over the waistband of his maroon Minnesota Gopher shorts. He was a welder and accustomed to the heat, his body leaking liquids without his realizing it. He had the shape of a man who every day after work drank a couple bottles of Michelob Genuine Draft and ate half a bag of corn chips, which he did.
I loved that Dad’s lawnmower was a Snapper and bore a picture of a turtle on it. He mowed the lawn with more focus than he ever showed toward anything, making multiple diagonal sweeps of the front and side yard, so that when he was done the grass angled in such a way that our yard became a green wave. It was clear he had a distinct, guiding philosophy about the right way to mow the lawn but he never told anyone about it. This too was a private thing.
He cut the engine. “What’s in the bucket?”
“Baby turtle,” I said.
He wiped the sweat from his head with a thick, hairy forearm. “Got a name?”
He nodded in approval and kicked the engine back on. I felt validated. Jeremy sank to the bottom of the bucket. I waited in the sun for anything to happen. Dad cut the grass. When I got hot and bored, I decided to play guns. I gathered pistols and uzis with orange tips into a black duffle bag and crawled into the back of our pickup truck and closed the topper. I listened to the muffled hum of the lawnmower and rested my head on the metal wheel well.
Every car that drove past I filled with bullet holes. The cars would swerve across our neighbor’s lawn—the neighbor my father disliked for playing music too loud—and smash through the garage door. Some exploded there, setting the house aflame. Others would plow all the way through the garage and into the backyard, barreling up and down small hills toward the creek, where the car would eventually slam into a tree trunk and leak gas and oil into the water until it, too, would explode.
Satisfied, I went inside for a Pepsi and drank it over ice at the kitchen table. My father was there too, slathering saltines with cream cheese.
I checked on Jeremy again.
“Anything happening?” my father said, dumping grass clippings into a large, hazy pile beside the garage.
Jeremy was still at the bottom of the bucket hiding in his shell.
My father would get frustrated with us kids in the summertime for coming and going from the house too much, tracking mud on the carpet and letting out all the air conditioning. Without any notice or discussion he started locking us out of the house. I pounded on the back door and screamed into the door jamb as if Jason Voorhees had risen slowly from the lake, tromped through the woods and our backyard in deliberate approach—so certain was my slaughter I couldn’t help but imagine the creative methods he might use to mangle my small body. The door stayed closed.
We had no idea where in the woods to look for the baby’s body, so we looked everywhere. We were young—five, six, seven. We had no strategy. We wanted the dead baby to find us as much as we wanted to find the dead baby. But we stuck to the woods and watched the ground for signs. I even found signs in my bedroom. On my dark oak dresser, my mom one day propped up a couple porcelain dolls with long black eyelashes. One wore a sailor cap and navy blue shorts. A thin, pink grin painted on its face suggested detached bemusement. The other doll wore a similar expression but was fashioned after a French clown, white face paint and white pantaloons. I’m not sure why she installed these dolls in my room or where they came from or whether they held any history or meaning for her. I never asked her about them. It wasn’t my place to question my mother’s choices. Most nights I woke to them staring down at me, their faces lit by the orange glow of my night light. It was too much. I would yank them from the dresser and throw them beside the bathroom trash can.
Each afternoon, my mother returned them to their post without saying a word to me about it.
One January night we came home late from swim lessons at the YMCA and found our house had been robbed. We opened the door and heard something drop. We went into the kitchen and found my mother’s jewelry box scattered across the yellow linoleum. The paper blinds to our sliding back door were shaking. The wind came in through the opening and chilled the air. We clung to each other and looked into the backyard for an explanation. At first, we couldn’t make out anything—the world was pitch black. Someone flipped a switch and flooded it with light. The sudden flash blinded us for a time, and then it revealed heavy boot prints in the snow. They faded into the tall trees of the woods.
That same winter the mother of the kidnapped boy, Jacob Wetterling, came and cried for us in the gymnasium of my elementary school. It had been months since her son disappeared during his bikeride home from the video store. (He had rented Naked Gun). The entire student body sat cross-legged on the gym floor in awe of her grief. She didn’t want us to be taken from our lives the way Jacob had been taken from his. She didn’t want our mothers and fathers to spend sleepless nights driving through small Minnesota towns looking for a bike, a red sweatshirt, a mud-covered shoe. She didn’t want us to float through a black unknown for eternity shouting our parents’ names. She wanted us to know that we were young and that at any moment we could be ripped from everything we knew. The man doing it would be a teacher, a dentist, a factory worker.
We believed her, but we also believed someday Jacob would return to his life. He’d be found in the basement of an old house on the other side of the state, shaken up and skinnier but still more or less the same Jacob. All of Minnesota clung to that hope for 27 years.
The woods promised so much but never gave us exactly what we wanted. Our interest in the dead baby faded when one of us heard from someone who’d heard from someone else’s dad, there was a snapping turtle on the south end of the lake with a shell the size of a manhole cover. Bolstered by recent news stories about mutated frogs being discovered near the 3M plant in Cottage Grove, we willed the massive snapper into existence. We wanted to catch it and train it to protect us from a world we barely understood.
I imagined standing on its spiky shell and riding the beast like a Variflex skateboard across the asphalt streets of Oakdale. It would shred the half-dozen psycho sexual perverts that populated the three-block walk to school and who were waiting for their moment to snatch me by my backpack and pull me into a burgundy sedan and drive me to a nearby field, frantically trample down the tall stalks of corn or wheat and make me undress at gunpoint. No longer. When the turtle finished with the man with the cleft palate or the 50 year old bachelor who works third shift and wears plastic double-bar glasses with blue smoked lenses, he will look like pulled pork in a rich K.C. barbecue sauce.
I regularly stood on the shore waving my butterfly net through the water in hopes of snagging the turtle and pulling it to land and enlisting its divine powers of protection, my own gentilic gollum. The net returned one day with a large tear in it. I reasoned the turtle had snapped swiftly through the cheap netting and swam deeper down into the lake, indifferent to my fear. I was alone on the edge of the woods. The tall tops of the birch trees soon extinguished any remaining sunlight. I hurried to gather my things from the wet ground at my feet. Sudden and decisive, night descended.
Tim Greenup released his first poetry collection,Without Warning, with Scablands Books in 2016. His poems have been featured in LEVELER, Pontoon Poetry, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. He also composes synthesizer music and lives with his family in Spokane, Washington.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.