“The Death of the Box Turtle” by Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley


I’m pretty sure that when she was dying
and sang “Amazing Grace” to him, she wasn’t
recalling running after him down the long hill 
of Comanche Drive, spitting up burst bubbles
of blood from some dark place deep inside her. 
He was her grandson. Old Devil, she called him. 
The before-and-after photograph of a kid falling 

from the top of the playground slide or executing 
a dive off a refrigerator-top, educating the knees
of the umpteenth pair of Levi blue jeans
with kneeling in tar and brake fluid blotted 
from the carport floor. Once, as a sort of joke, 
he tied her apron strings to the slats of her rocker
as she dozed before Search for Tomorrow.

When Bobby—that was his name—was 8 or 9, 
he would go out and come in, come in and go out, 
slamming doors until there was no escaping him.
And he announced his boredom one afternoon
by jimmying a steel crossbar from a swing set
at the edge of the orchard behind our house
and bludgeoning a turtle to death with it—

where the steel had gone in, a shell fracture
revealed bloody interior curves. Bobby and I
recalled the death of the box turtle years later, 
after the other wreckage of childhood 
had retracted. We were driving back
from my having read poetry for a good fee
at a university in the Midwest. I was buzzing,

full of Merlot and poached salmon. Nothing 
could’ve been further from my mind than
his handiwork come back in the phrase
Granny always liked you best. We were men.
Such things should have been put away long ago,
left to drift like the odor of rotting windfall apples
in orchards at the end of autumn. They hadn’t been.
I want to say the turtle expired easily, bled out,

the beneficiary of some unexpected grace loosed 
like manna from the sky over Kettering, Ohio.
Truth is, it’s going took forever—someone else 
had filled in the turtle’s wound with clods of earth,
some plump child perhaps trying to reconstruct something 
in his or her image. Maybe some future veterinarian.

I want to say Bobby healed and all that pain fell away, 
sloughed like shell a reptile head telescopes in and out of 
to touch smell hear see bright Nothing, if nothing else.
But healing is part forgetting, a search for tomorrows.
He didn’t heal. He might have, had the song gone on 
and Granny Potter, weak of heart, diabetic, come back
from the country of memory, some “holler”—

up from the deathbed of her terribly important one life.
Which, come to think of it, was what she did, 
choosing Bobby to sing to before she died:
her piercing a Capella dirge of “Amazing Grace”
sounding in a hospital room by a creek where turtles
drank (had forever) and trudged off, small,
liminal, pitifully slow in the light.

from Rattle #72, Summer 2021
Tribute to Appalachian Poets


Roy Bentley: “Bob Ramsdail’s mother and my mother and father were from Letcher County in the eastern part of Kentucky on the border with Virginia. A little town called Neon. So we’re hillfolk, first generation out of the hills. Hopefully, a poem strips away the ‘shell’ of practice to touch a place of strip-mined hillsides and cruelty for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—part of who we are.”

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