3rd Annual Terrain.org Nonfiction Contest Finalist
Even a day-old turtle knows its way in the world.
Home is the heart of the real.
– Mircea Eliade
West Texas: by midday, the fierce heat of early June has climbed to 103. About four o’clock the wind picks up, and the sky turns that smudgy blur of brownish-pink that suggests a coming rain, though the woman has lived here long enough to know that such a sign can prove to be a tease. With the car in the shop and her husband out of town, and she in her third, tentative week of a long-awaited pregnancy, the woman has been told to rest; but what choice is there today than braving the grit and bike the eight blocks to her daughter’s preschool?
Just as she is about to climb onto her bike and ride over to fetch her daughter from preschool, the neighbor’s boy, Isaac, peers over the adjacent fence, fixes his coffee-dark eyes on her. Are you going to get Sophie? he asks.
Yes, she says, wondering where his father is, his mother. All too often, the lonely child leaves his sprawl of toys and wanders over to her house without being missed. A sad situation, she has come to think of the life next door, though the boy, only four, is too young to realize it.
At the preschool, the woman finds her daughter on the playground despite the bite of wind and the headachey pressure building. Surely, the woman thinks, fatigued by this weather that feels like being trapped in an airless box, there will be a storm.
Mama, the woman’s daughter says, hurling herself against her legs. I saw lightning. It’s going to rain.
Yes, she says, alerted to another girl, younger than her daughter, sobbing in a corner.
She misses her mama, the woman’s daughter says.
If Sophie cried like that when I was away, I’d lose my mind, the woman thinks, taking her daughter’s hand, leading her away from the playground.
An hour passes, then two; thunder grumbles, lightening zigzags across the sky, the brownish-pink turns to a gray blue-brown. Within her leaf bed beneath the scrubby Japanese boxwood, the box turtle stirs, the vibrations and the green fragrance penetrating her sleep. The rain begins, a drizzle at first, then a downpour, crystalline pearls that skim the hornlike skin that covers her shell. Soon, she knows, without questioning “why” or “wherefore,” she will begin to move. It is part of her species’ memory.
Inside the house, the aging corgi hides under the bed, shaking with the storm. The little girl turns the faucets in the bathroom on full blast. The woman follows the sound, stares at the sodden rug, the soaked tile floor. I wanted to make rain, Mama, her daughter says. I just wanted to make rain.
The woman moves the child-sized table to the sheltered front porch where, seated side by side, she and her daughter eat dinner. The porch looks out onto the large flowerbed the woman has established within the partial shade of the live oak’s canopy, the 50-year-old tree’s longest branches extending some 30 feet. Tonight the yellow snapdragons glow in the wet light, reminding the woman, oddly enough, of the fireflies of her Midwestern childhood, and especially of her own mother, who lingered in the night-time garden, watching their little lanterns glow in and out. Is it possible that was 30-some years ago now? How, when the image of her mother, straight-backed and tall, remains so vivid?
Perched on the small chairs, mother and daughter eat watermelon and corn and grilled cheese and listen to the rain’s music that has turned the otherwise lively neighborhood silent. It is a delicious, inviting sound, one the woman has waited for a long time. Abandoning her meal, the child rushes down the porch steps, then stands, spinning in the rain, dancing and laughing. Come on, Mama, she calls, smacking her bare feet against the wet pavement, this is fun!
The turtle’s amber eyes are open now, and she lifts her head, nuzzles the ground with her sharp beak. Her front legs forage in the sandy soil for some grub, eventually unearthing a worm and a coffee-colored beetle. She doesn’t think about how long she has been in this leaf-nest, doesn’t know though the musky heat of the nearby sage stirs something within her. Some memory perhaps of another storm, or an image of that first time she opened her eyes onto this world, starting out with her brothers and sisters from the eggs their mother laid some two months before they emerged, tiny hatchlings then with soft, fragile shells. As soon as they were out, each made its slow but steady way to the shelter of deep grass, drying leaves, protection.
She does not know what became of the others, though she carries within herself the knowledge and the power to mate, secure her eggs in a deep hole, continue the cycle begun by those first turtles who emerged from the sea some 140 million years ago, though of course she is a land-dweller, in truth a tortoise, for her feet end in sharp nails meant for digging, foraging, and climbing. Drop her in the water, and she would drown. And yet, it is the rain that wakes her, the rain that stirs her into movement, into life.
Morning, and the woman and the little girl open their eyes onto a landscape cleansed of dust and pollen. Robins and red-capped house finches chirrup their songs in the garden amid an abundance of worms and shimmering moths; the grass still bears the sheen of rain; today there is no need for the birds to visit the birdbath nestled among the foxglove and primroses. The woman tells the girl to put on her shoes before going into the back yard to inspect the four, large vegetable beds that she has helped her mother to establish. Carry me, Mama, she says, stretching out her arms as she has done throughout her five years of life. Carry me.
Aware that her daughter is grasping at the babyhood she is quickly outgrowing, the woman kneels and lets the child climb onto her back, and they go out into the back yard where four raised vegetable beds await, each one built from railroad ties and filled with a foot of soil. This year they started the garden early—in April—and six weeks later, the leaves of the squash plants are the size of a grown man’s hand. The orange-yellow blossoms, a bit like lilies but more crinkly, more fundamental, are filled with bees at this hour. Drawing near, mother and daughter can hear the hum of so many insect bodies at work.
Look, Mama, the girl says, holding a cherry tomato aloft.
The first ripe one of the year, and she pops it into her mouth, grins. If all goes well, the woman thinks, there will be a bumper crop of cherry and plum tomatoes before the month is out. Is this a sign, then, that the pregnancy will hang on this time? When the tomatoes last flourished, the woman was expecting her daughter, now five. In her second trimester of pregnancy, she harvested tomatoes, thinking, Next summer, I will carry you into the garden. I will hold the fruit to your face; I will teach you tomatoes.
While the child walks the length of each railroad tie, jumping between beds, and occasionally stopping to pick a lemony sorrel leaf or to search for rollie-pollies beneath the debris, the woman checks the progress of the bean plants she established some four weeks earlier; the chartreuse of their leaves now create a glowing tapestry, and she anticipates the day she will come outside with her daughter and pick the green beans for dinner. As a child, she often snipped the ends off the beans with her fingers while her mother cooked a late summer meal, humming a little as she worked—Que sera, sera…. How the woman would love for her mother to see this garden, to feel the earth between her fingers, breathe in the peppery freshening of thyme.
In the bed opposite the beans, the Swiss chard makes slow progress, the green tips of its leaves still young, the scarlet stalks threadlike. The arugula, despite the hot temperatures, is thriving, though the leaves are punctured with tiny holes, proof that the carpet moths, with their silvery wings etched with black, consider this spicy green a delicacy, too.
Look, a ladybug, the woman says, tipping the lavender, daisy-like petals of an eggplant blossom towards the sun. The child lays her fingertip on the flower’s center, and for a fraction of a second the ladybug hovers there, before spreading her tiny wings and flying away.
The woman makes her living teaching literature and reads voraciously. Despite her daily dose of exercise, she describes herself as a person who lives a little too much in her head. And like Virginia Woolf, she believes herself—at times at least—to be tenuously tethered to this life. Too aware of the old man who tells the woman behind him at the library, Go ahead. I’m not in any hurry. I have all the time in the world.
But he doesn’t, the woman knows. If his bowed back and stiff limbs are signs, his hourglass will soon run out.
This child, her daughter, conceived one April evening, this child with the woman’s own aquamarine eyes, her grandfather’s eyes, has made all the difference.
Mama, for Halloween, I’m going to be a bell, and then I’m going to ring myself.
But so has this garden which changes a little bit each day, the minute progress of an okra pod or the burgeoning of a knobby, golden crookneck squash, a bit of terrestrial magic given rich soil and time. A few of the mustard plants have returned from last season, even a slender cap of lettuce. Snapping off the spicy, green-white heads of basil so that the plants will continue to flourish, the woman breathes in the scent, feels more connected somehow. Making a garden, which requires a daily, intuitive care, is not unlike raising a child, she has discovered. From the time she carried her daughter in her womb, she anticipated the day when the two would tend the garden together. At last that day is here.
So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself. The words were written by Virginia Woolf, but they belong to the woman, too, now.
Lacking ears, turtles sense vibrations, sounds. It is their eyesight and especially their sense of touch that guide them. The turtle—this turtle making her way across the gravel path edging the park—feels the world with her feet, her tail, and her entire shell which is her largest sense organ, the site of countless nerves.
4:30 the following day, and the air is clean, light, the wind less a pressure than a caress. Having left her leaf-nest beneath the Japanese boxwood—at what hour? Was it the badgering quarrels of the squirrels that propelled her away from the wooded lot? The turtle now finds herself looking out at an immense expanse of green. Why, then, given the rainy lushness, does her body feel only the shard-sharpness of these eye-sized rocks? She has been moving for a while now, the scent of the sage now part of her past. How long will it take her to reach the cool, high grass?
In the decades before this box turtle was born, her kind was more common here in this playa landscape. Before the chemicals saturated the lawns the people plant and tend with an almost religious constancy; before concrete roads and highways crisscrossed the high plains; before the red ants came in with timber and foreign plants, the red ants that find and devour a box turtle’s nest of eggs, a small, efficient army.
It is worse for turtles elsewhere where they are hunted for their meat, shells, and skin, though this turtle, born in the sandy soil of arid west Texas, knows nothing of their plight, nor of the devastation caused by the clearing of the sargassum—great billowing “berries” of algae that float and travel with the wind and water currents, offering food and protection to young sea turtles who live within their green shelters during their first years of life.
At last the small box turtle reaches the sweet-smelling grass and, sensing the shade of a young cottonwood tree close by, she quickens her pace, her thick forefeet striding through the neck-high stalks. There in the near distance lurk some half a dozen great beasts. They are four-legged with thick coats, and they bound in and out of the pools that have formed overnight, having scared away the water birds—the black ibises and the pair of ducks—hours ago. The great beasts, the turtle knows, mean danger, despite the shelter of her shell. No human can know the fear of the box turtle enclosed within her shell as a wet nose nudges her body. Nerve endings fire. The creature licks the shell, nuzzles it, and in play jostles the turtle onto her back, leaving her exposed, the soft shell of the plastron nothing like the bony carapace.
Look, the woman cries, as she and her daughter round the curve of the park on their way home, a turtle.
The girl places her hands on the edges of the stroller, leans out. Where?
There, the woman points. There in the grass.
The child jumps out of the stroller.
Careful. Don’t startle it.
The turtle’s muscular neck is fully extended, and she is surveying the landscape, aware of the leaping beasts in the distance, but also of another creature—of two two-legged creatures—drawing nearer.
She pulls herself into her shell, snaps it shut, as something soft encases her, and voices vibrate in the surrounding air. She feels herself set down in that furred strangeness; and then she is jostled into motion, bumped along the gravel path, the high voices of the woman and child compelling her, by the time the bumping stops, to look, cautiously out.
I want to put her in my room, Mama. She can live with me.
No, the woman says. She is a wild creature. She needs to live outside. We’ll place her in the vegetable beds. She can have the run of the whole back yard.
To herself, the woman thinks: How do we know the turtle is a “she”? I know nothing about turtles. Her daughter, of course, for whom the most important beings in this life (excepting her father and the boy, Isaac, next door) are female, at this point in time anyway, has no doubt the turtle is a girl.
I want to call her Sally, Mama, the child says, as they squat beside the bed containing the shelter of the tallest tomato plants, now some three and a half feet high. Very cautiously, the turtle lifts her head up and out of her shell, the skin of her neck gray and sinewy, despite the moss green of her skin.
Sally is a very nice name, the woman says, as the turtle pushes the earth down and outward in a series of motions, as if she were doing the breaststroke. The woman watches entranced as the turtle submerges herself within the wet, black soil.
What’s she doing, Mama?
Hiding, the woman says. Remember, this is all new to her. I imagine she must be afraid.
Let’s put her in my room. She can sleep with the dollies next to my bed.
No, the woman says. That would be like putting you or me in a metal box—we wouldn’t like that, would we?
No, says the child, reaching out to touch the green-black plates of the exposed shell.
Head and body deep within the earth, the turtle opens her beak, lets a bit of the black soil enter her mouth, linger on her tongue. The earth—this place—tastes foreign. But good. Nourishing. There will be earthworms here, insects, and plenty of vegetation. A white moth flits through the green leaves, and the turtle pokes her head up and out of the soil as the woman and child continue to peer at her. They open their mouths, and what emerges has something of the lilting rhythms of birdsong. The turtle eyes them, sniffs the green vitality of the plants surrounding her, the fuzzy stalks weighted down by globes of green fruit as large as a box turtle’s eggs. Other stalks bear star-shaped yellow blossoms. There is something familiar about them; she has eaten such fruit once, in another garden, when another pair of hands scooped her up off her twilight course.
While the child sits and watches, entranced, as the turtle lingers, half-submerged in the soil, the woman goes inside the house to prepare dinner. We will eat early tonight, she thinks, reminded of the way her daughter startled at the lightning the night before, not falling asleep until well after 11. We will eat early tonight and read stories and go to bed.
Her daughter is screaming now, and the woman runs to the back door, then out into the garden. What? she says. What is it?
Isaac is out in the alley, she cries, near tears, and he’s alone.
The fear in her daughter’s voice brings the woman to the back gate. She unlocks it, peers out. The four-year-old boy is there, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, but he is not alone; his mother is there, too, a woman with ink-dark hair and eyes like dark almonds who once told the little girl that there were cobras in her garden in Thailand; a woman who now sleeps through much of the hot west Texas afternoons.
We have a turtle, the girl cries.
The boy runs into the backyard, his mother drowsily following.
The early dinner is delayed, and while the children chatter about the turtle, and the woman listens to Min talk about her illness through half-closed lids, the woman forgets the rice on the stove, and it burns.
How could I have turned her away? She will ask herself later, once her daughter is finally asleep, long past the hour when she should be; long after Min and her son have gone, long after she has learned that the constant nausea and fatigue that have plagued Min for more than a year now are not just the result of endometriosis—That’s taken care of now. It is Min’s gall bladder that is poisoning her. They want to take it out. Next week.
Min’s husband, a sandy-haired American with gold-rimmed glasses is again out of town. When he is at home, he usually works late in the bright light of the garage, building some metal sculpture or tinkering with his aging car; at his side, the mechanic-friend who smokes unfiltered cigarettes and tosses the butts into the woman’s garden.
Has unhappiness sickened Min’s gall bladder? The woman wonders. For the Elizabethans, the gall bladder was one of the four humours; its dominating characteristic was melancholy, and its element, earth.
The doctors say I am depressed, Min says, after explaining to the woman that she has not had the energy to work on her garden this year; Min, who coaxed half a dozen varieties of tomato into being and once built trellises for cucumbers and the curling lengths of some exotic beans.
Pockets of rain linger in the black earth of the vegetable beds. The turtle dips her beak into the water, drinks. The first true turtles, the ones that emerged after the dinosaurs were gone, were marsh dwellers. When the marshes dried out, the turtles adapted and lived out their long lives in forests, ponds, rivers, prairies, and deserts. Some returned to the seas, coming ashore only to lay their eggs.
Diverse as the contemporary incarnations of these beings are, what they share in common, what distinguishes them from any other species is their shell, protecting them from the elements and from predators, and offering support to muscles and organs.
Will Sally ever come out of her shell? The little girl asks before falling asleep, her own half-closed eyes like pale moons.
She cannot, says the woman. Her shell is part of her body. Running her hand along the length of her daughter’s spine, the woman says, Sally’s spine is attached to the shell. It’s her neck and tail and feet that can move.
It must be nice to have a shell, the child says. It must make her feel safe to carry her home with her wherever she goes.
Yes, says the woman, reminded of the years—nearly two decades ago now—when her own life’s treasures could actually fit in a trunk, you’re right.
The moon that night is full; the sky is a silvery gray. Threads of cloud pass before the moon, vanish. In a distant yard, a lonely dog barks. Meanwhile the feral onyx cat that makes his home between two alleys walks the fenceline, his eyes two yellow moons. He is hungry and on the prowl. Safe in her new shelter, the turtle has nothing to fear from a cat. The dogs here, too, pose little threat, though instinct tells her to choose her resting places carefully, to keep out of sight. The place she has chosen for this night is a gap beneath the aluminum shed in the corner of the yard. The gap is just the right size for a box turtle, and she has secured it with leaves and other decaying plants.
Four houses away, a clutch of box turtles have been sequestered in a bricked-in, raised garden plot so as to ensure that they do not escape and possibly, the woman who lives there says, get crushed by a car. Their meals are brought to them, meals of apples, earthworms, and lettuce. The turtle beneath the shed knows nothing of their existence. Even if she knew of them, she would not ask if they are content; if they are happy.
Happiness belongs to the domain of the human beings who brought the turtle here to this lush garden in an arid landscape where the biggest thing about the place is the sky—and the wind.
Happiness, the woman lying beside her daughter knows, contains within it the Old English word “hap” meaning “chance” or “fortune”. In Welsh, “happy” means, not favored by good fortune, but “wise”.
Like the turtle? the woman asks herself now. The turtle that brings her house with her wherever she goes?
The woman thinks of Min in the dark house next door with the tile floors she keeps so neatly polished, Min who is so far from the coastal village in Thailand where she was born with its violently lush gardens secreting cobras. But she thinks also of her own mother, asleep in her room overlooking a garden of roses and vegetables that she’s been cultivating these 40 years.
Every spring in the bricked-in garden plot four houses away, one of the box turtles in that neighbor’s garden four houses away lays eggs. When the eggs hatch, the woman who tends them brings the hatchlings into an incubator within the house, safe from the harm of a hawk or grackle. She tries to care for them, but every spring, despite the constancy of her efforts, the hatchlings die.
Is there a lesson here? the woman asks, listening to her daughter breathe. Is there wisdom? Or is it only my perception coloring reality?
She does not answer the question, for sleep overtakes her body, more tired now because of the pregnancy, still new, but present. Her limbs loosen, her own breathing deepens, and she sleeps.
Jacqueline Kolosov’s third collection of poetry is Memory of Blue (Salmon Poetry, March 2013). She has new work in Cimarron Review and Literature & Belief, and in several anthologies. She lives with her family in west Texas among three dogs, two guinea pigs, and a very quiet turtle.
Header photo by Simmons B. Buntin.