Turtle, Under Cover

On other islands, particularly in the French West Indies, tenderizing the conch is called “beating the lambi.” And Truly is surely beating it. That mallet is going up and down and it looks to me as though all the frustrations of Truly’s life are rushing from her head to her heart, down her arm and into that fist grasped around the mallet handle. I watch.

She doesn’t offer me any conch. It was just a lesson, not a meal. I thank her and go home. Later that night, after the bar is closed, I sit eating B-Boy and Sunny’s cracked conch—fried conch in local parlance—and with every tough but delicious chew, I think of Truly and her mallet.

In town by the docks, there is an old, rusted pick-up truck with two fishermen in back. I know they are fishermen as their hair matches the rust on the truck. It happens when one spends a life on the water, especially for conch divers. Hold the breath, dive down deep, and grab as many conch shells as possible from the ocean floor before surfacing. Even the fishermen who stay in their little boats have rusty hair. The saltwater gets to it. Black turns to red. 

I look. The fishermen are grinning. Two very large and, I suspect, very old turtles are upside down in the truck bed. On their backs, the turtles can’t escape. I have never seen any this large outside of an aquarium. The men talk to me about the turtles, how many people crave turtle meat; they tell me these old dinosaurs are headed to local hotels. I don’t crave it, but I eat it. There’s the chewy part that reminds me of minute steak. There’s the tender meat that I liken to veal stew, but there is also the gelatinous part under the carapace that the islanders think is the best and most desired part of the turtle. I have tasted it and found it unappealing; the texture is difficult to love.

I once watched Truly cut up a small turtle. I admit that I had feelings for that turtle. As she dissected it, I imagined she was a forensic pathologist performing an autopsy, and I kept waiting for her to tell me something significant about its life. After all, I knew how it died. Truly murdered it with great gusto.

When I was a very little girl, I was given a book of Japanese fairytales that I loved. One of the stories featured a magical sea turtle that visited the beach and took special people on the back of its shell down to an enchanted kingdom under the sea. I knew the story wasn’t real, but I wanted it to be. I wanted to meet that turtle one day and go deep down to that place.

I told Truly about the fairytale turtle, and while hacking away at the creature’s innards, she said, “You American women, always dreaming. You can never be a West . . .”  Yeah, Truly, I get it. I really do.