A Tortoise Can Live Forever by Mairead Robinson

I find Henry on a soaking day beside the dumpster. He’s on his back in a gathering puddle, his leather legs paddling the fat rain. He has an inch-long crack in his shell from the fall. ‘Too cruel,’ my mother agrees as I set up the vivarium and settle him on curls of pine scented shavings, ‘but he could live to be a hundred, you know?’ I flick on the heat lamp. ‘So could you,’ I say.

My mother’s eighty-six but sprightly, sharp. Her hands are talons but she can still grip a pen to finish a crossword in frail, arthritic lettering. I moved back after Dad died, after me and Rick split. I reasoned that she needed someone, though we both know it was me we were talking about.

Henry’s no trouble and the cracked shell doesn’t bother him. Mum likes him. She says, ‘Hey handsome,’ as he folds nasturtiums into his maw from her claw fingers. In Summer, we set him down on the lawn and he’s wide-eyed with slow freedom, blinking at the sun, hopelessly seeking a mate on what must feel like some vast, primeval plain. When I scoop him up to put him inside he’s a warm stone, as though there’s some yellow flicker within, and he looks at me with knowing eyes, like he’s considering something illicit between us.

Mum slips on slick leaves outside the church, breaking a brittle femur and smashing her hip in two. After that she gives up and decides it’s her time to go, she’s lived long enough. I get the call from the hospital right after I get home from visiting. She’d seemed drowsy from the morphine, her eyes mollusced behind closed lids, but she’d lifted one to say, ‘Hi to Henry from me,’ as I kissed her goodbye.

I sit beside the vivarium. Henry’s sleeping beneath his driftwood branch, everything tucked in, and I want to dig my thumbnails into the creviced shell and wrench it apart, hear the sharp snap as I split him in half, watch him chasm open to spill all of his protected softness over the curl shavings, and I also feel small enough to crawl inside that dark fissure, enfold my limbs around his to feel the soft thud of his heart, and sleep forever beneath the warm lamp, among the wilting nasturtium blooms, still flickering orange and gold, like embers.

Biography: Mairead Robinson writes and teaches in the UK. She is the author of ‘The Judas Spoon’ and is currently working on her second novel. She can be found on Twitter @Judasspoon

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