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words, words, words

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A scrap of paper lands in my dish, the second one today. I keep right on crunching a piece of iceberg lettuce. Out of the corner of my eye I see the paper is wrong side down. What a shame. But oh. Wait. The same hand that dropped the paper reaches in, and now it is right side up. When the hand is gone, not to mention when I have finished eating, I go over and have a look. Oh good grief. Is this a vocabulary lesson. Written on the scrap of paper is a word I knew a good two centuries before this strumpet was even born. Or is this what they call a conversation starter. Is she really going to warm to a considered list of things I am fervent about. I am thinking probably not.

Audrey feeds me lettuce, instead of lettuce and words and the word lettuce. Which word is not as tasty as you might think, unless you are partial to chemicals and dead wood. I nudge fervency over to the haphazard pile of words already in my dish, which includes such gems as parabola, keep, limn, and addendum.

I look out the window. I watch a trio of cardinals peck at some scattered birdseed, light brown and tomato red against a crust of old grey snow. I wait for Audrey to come home.

***

Audrey buys tickets, two of them, for France. Oh, good, I say. I have always dreamed of climbing the Eiffel Tower. Check out those angles. Just hook my claws in the iron lattice and up, up, and away!

But no. Audrey can't believe that Judd has never been to Paris. Judd points out that Audrey has never been to Paris either. Audrey reminds him that her french submersion had been only partial. As well as confined mostly to one continent. As well as conducted in no small part by a talking pineapple. Well actually, yes, in small part. You are the one who is inventing Christmas tree lights, she says to Judd. Paris is the City of Light. He agrees this makes sense. He doesn't ask where is the third ticket.

I am a world traveller, I announce. I have been to the United States AND Canada. Flying is old hat. My ancestral home was Papier Mâché. You tell me I am not the next thing to a native French speaker.

Audrey tells Judd that she saved the money for the tickets by driving taxis and building porches and decks and dollhouses. Yes, it is the busiest time of year for sales, but she has arranged to have Judd covered.

France! Probably overpriced, I say. You know who else has Cities of Light. Australia, the Netherlands, the USA, just for starters. Who knows what kind of deals are out there, waiting to be found!

No one takes my ideas. Certainly no one runs with them.

Well. Did it get colder in here, or is it just me.

***

What about Winnifred, Judd says. Finally.

Oh, Audrey says. Winnifred is covered too.

Covered. I see how it is. Cut me down and throw some burlap over me and forget about me until spring. Nice.

Uncle Thoby will be here, Audrey says.

Actually. Technicality.

Flight information is produced: he won't be returning until the day before Audrey and Judd do. Perhaps when he comes home he will pick me up in his exceptional hand. To be in the air with all four limbs on board is always welcome. I will drop a piece of lettuce from an incredible height. This only happens when Audrey is out of the room. I can pick you up at the airport, I tell Thoby.

For Audrey, round trip tickets are like seatbelts and car brakes and smoke detectors. She flings her arms around Thoby. She says if he doesn't come back, she will come and get him, and not for the first time. I would not say no to the Chunnel, she says. France to England, no flying. Unless, of course, you are a bird.

***

It turns out everyone but everyone is going to be out of town at the same time. Is this a problem or an opportunity. Ask me again in the summer when I can get out of town on my own steam.

Thoby and Verlaine and the man across the street whose driveway looks like half a doughnut are either visiting home, or are leaving home to visit people who have left home, or are otherwise going out around the bay. Even our politician is going away, though there is some doubt that this is the season for him to be in Ottawa.

You know, this is my chance to see the world, I say. I have only been to the United States and Canada. Did I mention the part about seeing the world.

Where is the phone book, Audrey says.

While she is calling, I think of Shakespeare. As one does. Actually I have just caught sight of the mouse's ear, tagged with its exponent. If Shakespeare's people walked out on him, would he throw his symmetrical arms in the air and go down to his local and drown his sorrows in some pints. I think he might. I think the Bard has been Lowered that far. But I have Audrey, and Audrey is made of sterner stuff. She advertises for a Companion. By which word she means someone to regulate the temperature of my environment and keep me in lettuce. And kelp, for emergencies.

***

Audrey spends a lot of time in the basement, in the cockpit. It is too cold down there for a tortoise in the winter in Canada, but from the top of the stairs I can hear nothing but determination.

She shows me her flight information, return destination: Winnifred. Judd promises to write.

Audrey doesn’t drive to the airport. Her face is pressed against the back window of one of Clint's Cabs as it rolls away. My face is pressed to the window in the living room. Cold air rushes into my shell, but I stay where I am. We watch each other get smaller and smaller until both of us are out of sight.

***

Someone is looking into my dish through the side, her face level with mine. I see big eyes behind bigger glasses, a flash of bright metal at her nose, what might be a smile. It is hard to tell through the distortion caused by two layers of glass between us, but I think she looks worried. When she reaches out a tentative hand, eyes still on mine, I unshell myself. She picks me up. Her hand is small and cool, but it feels steady against my plastron. Then she opens her mouth.

For the Win, she cries. I can hear the exclamation point. I mean really. Then she introduces herself for the second time, using a different name than Audrey did, before she and Judd left for the airport. They will be in the air now, over the ocean. Up, up, and away.

It is the slow season for my heart, but I am sure it sinks when she says her name is Tree. I can see it now. She will take root, dominating her surroundings like those obnoxious trees in back in Oregon. Also, the Win? No. Flattering, but no. I am called Winnifred, I inform her. I have not seen the mouse in a while, she says. She sets me down and starts looking in corners. With a small t, she says over her shoulder. tree.

The part where I grab a pen and make a note. That part is not going to be happening.

***

tree is a conscientious Companion. I would go so far as to say too conscientious. Besides keeping me in food, she stays inside and doesn't answer the door, and every time I look over my shoulder she is here in the living room writing something down. Some words get a piece of paper to themselves, and these she drops in my dish. Today's word: carapace. Yours or mine. Sometimes she turns on her laptop and writes on a screen that looks like a blank piece of paper, but most of her words end up on the mountains of lined paper that are taking over the living room. Audrey will come back to the Yelps in her own house.

On the third evening of our enforced Companionship, I have a chance to check out the pile of papers tree leaves lying on the table that Audrey made, the one that lives in the living room. She built it for coffee, but it is mostly used by Thoby and his cups of tea. Not to mention for the mouse to roll under. Did it take me three days to get to the table. Possibly. In the winter I take my time.

No one in Canada uses me as a bookmark, which is fine by me, but Audrey is not much of a reader, and neither is Thoby. It's hard to work up some narrative momentum when you're dealing in lone words. When I woke up this morning: poesis. Maybe with a couple thousand more words. Maybe with some adverbs, some punctuation.

On top of the pile of papers, I find more flight information. There is a return ticket in tree's other name, destination: her igloo in Australia. She is to be at the airport in St. John's on December 22nd. I didn't know I had been worried about tree's presence causing Audrey to become a previous tenant until right now. What else don't I know. When she is finished with her toast I will let her know that Clint and his Cab Company take bookings in advance, in case she is worried about missing her flight.

I was not aware there are any igloos in Australia, but Cliff was wrong about there being igloos in Newfoundland and Labrador when he put me on the plane to Canada. I haven't seen a single one. Who knew igloos were such a hard thing to place in this day and age.

The mouse wakes up for the night, and tree feeds it toast crumbs and lets it crawl up her arm and across the back of her neck. We eye each other through the holes in tree's ears. I rest in preparation for my next step.

***

It turns out tree is writing a story. Correction. tree is trying to write a story. She looks out the living room window and says she is not used to working under these conditions. Does she mean whilst being a Companion to a tortoise. No, she means whilst there is six feet of sparkling snow right outside. Later, when the snow has dulled and the grey sky is spitting out snowflakes, she unlocks the door. She skirts the frozen pond with no bottom. Now she is on the other side. I suppose she is looking at the rows and rows of lights Audrey and Judd and Thoby put up before they left, but maybe she is looking at the light in my dish because now she is waving both mittened hands. I look behind me, but I don't see the mouse. After a minute, I wave a claw. Just one.

***

Are you with me, says tree the next day. She is wrapping a scarf around her neck and looking straight at me. Let me put it this way, I say. I am not without you. Clint is outside running the engine, and we pile in. We pile out at Future Shop. About which, if this is time travel, then I am not only Shakespeare's tortoise, but Shakespeare himself. tree holds me under her winter coat when we go in, and when we come out suddenly, with a broadband router and a resolution never to return, and call for a cab, we get Clint. Because he is still in the neighbourhood. Also the coffee on the dashboard between me and the bowl of mints is still going strong at 150 degrees. Excuse me, 65 degrees. Also it is the same double cup with the same teeth marks at the top. I guess it is not the season to roll up the rim. Clint says it sure is going to get busier on the roads when people get off work and start shopping. I say in that case we had better get back to Audrey's house, emphasis on Audrey's.

When we return to the living room, tree turns the heat way up and takes off my cosy. At least her hair is short and kept and stays out of my way. She turns on her laptop before she even takes off her coat. She connects to the internet. Finally, she says. There is a forest of trees in the mirror across the room, and all the trees are smiling.

I read over tree's shoulder. Where were you, her friends in her computer ask. We missed you.

***

Sometimes I take my words out and look at them, one by one. When I do not care for a word the right way around, I hold it up to the mirror to see if it looks any better backward. In this way I come up with: nosiro, koma, xilorp, ogariv. All very satisfactory, though I would not care to have Audrey come home and see koma. I shuffle amok to the bottom of the pile, just in case.

I only play with words when tree is not in the room. The last thing I need is for her to start on palindromes.

***

tree is locked in a battle of wills with the person for whom she is writing. tree does not know the Recipient, and the Recipient does not know tree, but this, it seems, is expected. The battle is fierce and one-sided. The mouse is fast on wheels and avoids the living room. I am not moving very fast this season. Apparently I am to be her Confidante. She can't write. She could never write. There is no way she can make the Recipient happy. Should she Default so the Recipient has a chance in hell of getting a good story.

No. She should not.

She crumples the papers with the writing into balls and then smooths them out and places them in the Blue Bin. She drops more and more words in my dish. I sort unawares to the top of my pile. If this keeps up I will prune the OED and spit out the WEED, extraneous E care of yours truly. Winnifred's English Dictionary, coming in for a landing.

I am sure all the fuss this paper arranging creates has caused my heart to miss at least one beat. They are few and far between to begin with at this time of year.

***

Sometimes when she has no words, tree goes outside and clears a number of driveways on the street. Which number is smaller than what Audrey would do. I am guessing writing does not require strong arms. She shovels around the van in Audrey's driveway that she never borrows, even though the key is on a hook by the door, and Audrey and Judd said it was okay. She clears a long stretch of sidewalk. When she comes back she stamps the snow off her boots and takes a long nap. I mean forever.

When she wakes up she joins me at the window, and up and down the street are the outlines of flowers from Audrey's shovel.

All of a sudden I am feeling the need to be doing something else. I come across one of tree's words and drop it in my water dish. My head is underwater and my eyes are open and I am basking in the exponential distortion. I look at carotid to the power of many. tree comes over to see what I am up to. Can't you see I am busy, tree.

***

Audrey calls, but tree is asleep in the middle of the day because she was up all night not writing. I listen to Audrey's voice leaving a message on her answering machine. All her words are French except I can make out Judd and Paris, accent on the E, and oh. Winnifred. When will tree wake up and know what is the meaning of tu me manque.

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that it must be harder to send for a tortoise across an ocean than across the longest undefended border in the world. It occurs to me that I wasn't sent for, I was sent to. It occurs to me that when it gets dark early and light late, and you are far away from the people you love, your thoughts snowball.

Was I wanted in Canada in the first place. If Audrey never comes back will she send for me. She is supposed to switch planes in Montreal. What if she is so frenchly submersed that instead of continuing home she keeps on sinking.

I try to rally. Tortoises cannot significantly raise or lower our body temperatures independent of our surrounding temperatures. If there is one question we are always asking ourselves, it is how effective is the environment. I compare Newfoundland to Oregon, to California and Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. I conclude that St. John's is very effective on Audrey. Is it effective because it is home. And is home Judd and Thoby and me. Or is it this Rock, this city, this house where she lived with her father. This place, with its other English, where she knows and is known in return. Is it all of these things.

Is the fact that Audrey belongs here enough.

I don't know.

***

She says, What do you think I should do, Win. No exclamation point.

I have one piece of advice, and it is major. No Antonios, I tell her, in case she has not read Lowering the Bard. In case Chuck Stanch is not actually on the internet. No one cares to act the bit parts. It only leads to bad feelings, to fighting in the park.

Is this really helpful. Far better, surely, to come up with something to do than something not to do. A positive Timbit compared to the negative space in the middle of a doughnut.

I drop a piece of lettuce.

Shall we go out, tree says. She helps me dress. Correction. She does all the work. Judd remains oblivious to Audrey's notion that I have no body heat to trap, or else he just plain likes to knit outerwear for tortoises. I am wearing the second cosy he created, black yarn for the body, red yarn for the seatbelt set diagonally across my plastron. He put the pattern up on unravelme. Have we started a trend. I have met very few Canadian tortoises so who knows.

tree asks Clint to stay in the parking lot and keep the car warm while we duck into the grocery store. tree's breath freezes when it hits the air and she hurries us inside. She buys two loaves of bread and one head of every kind of lettuce that is on display. We keep a low profile. No one looks at me and says what is that thing, and what is it doing in my grocery store. We skip the frozen food section all together.

When we get back to the parking lot, the sky is almost completely dark. Vega is high and bright, and I point it out, along with Lyre, the constellation to which it belongs. I am not sure tree can see it, even with her glasses, but on the way home, warm as toast in the cab, she holds me up to the window and shows me Vega.

***

Other times when tree is not writing, she watches TV on her laptop. I sit on the arm of the sofa and follow along. I add Scully and Mulder to the list of people who do not get to go to Paris. In fact they are so in the dark they operate mainly by flashlight. Sometimes there are trees that loom like the ones in Oregon, but we don't mind.

When the episode is over, tree turns off the computer. I am reeling. I make a mental note: wrangling pigs is not something I will be doing anytime soon. tree finishes a piece of toast and sighs. Slowly she gets a piece of paper and a pen. Slowly she begins to write.

***

tree calls around the world. Her voice is going one hemisphere over and down. She is talking to the man with the name like the O Judd's mouth made when he first saw what Audrey did with his lights on her house. They are making each other laugh. She is coming home soon, she says. She tells him about her story. She talks for a long time. While she is on the phone I have a thought. I transport some of my words so she will see them when she picks up her pen. How would she like to have confluence and crumb back. Really I am not using subaqueous.

Here. You have them.

***

One day when I wake up, tree is in a frenzy. I mean for tree. She is writing on pieces of paper torn from notebooks, on paper towels and take out menus and her hand. She is writing anywhere and everywhere. She is so intent on writing that she forgets to slide me words. This is all right, because yesterday there was a flood. Antediluvian alone could keep me occupied for days.

About which words. I realized when tree was calling home that they aren't codes or messages or suggestions. They aren't even the words she is not using. I have seen vexed in a sentence more than once.

Fastened to the side of my dish where I can see them every day are three photographs. tree taped them there after listening to Audrey's message. One is of Audrey and me on a boat in the Bay of Fun Days. One is of me and Audrey at rest during our walking tour of Prince Edward's Island. One is of Audrey and Thoby and Judd and me at the airport in St. John's, a few minutes after I heard Thoby say Oddly for the first time. Five people and three tortoises look at me like they are having the time of their lives.

When I realize that tree loves words so much that she shares them with everyone, even tortoises, even me, my heart whooshes like it did the first day I saw Audrey in my dish. I am making up for lost heart beats.

***

The laptop is between me and tree, so today of all days I am not reading over her shoulder. The occasion is that tree has finished her story! Exclamation points abound. She reads it out loud. Some of it I have heard because sometimes tree writes a sentence and changes it depending on how it sounds when it hits the air. Some of it I have read by way of our usual relative positioning. So there is one thing I know going in: it is possible to make things that shine and will last and are heart big without coloured lights, hammers, and a factory in Penzance. But there is one thing I discover coming out: It is possible for Antonio to be Hamlet. It is possible to take the guy in the background that no one cares about and make him a star.

Just when I was caught up, my heart skips a beat. I think. I won't know for sure for a couple of days.

The mouse is up and zooming around and around in sympathetic vibration, but it is me tree is looking at. I am not unprepared. I drop the scrap of paper I have been holding in my mouth. We look down and see that it says peevish. It was the closest word, not the best one. What can I say.

But tree seems pleased anyway.

-end-