Terrapene ornata

Terrapene_ornata_ornata“Why did this turtle cross the road, Mom?”

I surprised her while she was chopping bell peppers, and her finger nearly slipped under the blade.

“I don’t know,” she sighed, “Why did the turtle cross the road?”

“Not the turtle, Mom. This turtle.”

I held the little mangled creature up for her to see. Its shell was cracked and there was blood running over my fingers. She gave a small shriek and dropped her knife onto the counter. She asked where I had found the thing, and I pointed to the dirt road in front of our house. A car had driven over its back as it crossed from the muddy irrigation ditch to the cool shade of our front yard. Its eyes blinked slowly and its legs were limp, but its head still had life, stretching and retracting to snap at my fingers as I held it.

My mother rinsed her hands in the sink and retrieved a garbage bag. As she shook out the bag, my eyes widened in horror and I moved to shield the turtle from her reach.

“No!” I screamed, “We have to help him.”

“He’s hurt pretty badly, sweetie, there isn’t much we can do.”

“But we have to try, don’t we? You’d try if I were hurt, wouldn’t you?”

I knew the question wasn’t fair, but it bought me what I needed:  gauze, a roll of athletic tape, and half a head of lettuce. She helped me clean the blood from his shell and plug the crack with gauze, and we wrapped him round and round with the tape. Feebly, he bit at our hands as we worked. I half flooded the bathtub with warm water and set him gently by the water’s edge with the lettuce. His wrappings were so thick he looked like a football, and his small legs barely reached the ground. I named him Paul.

The next morning, I piled out of bed and ran to the bathroom. His bandages were soaked through with burgundy, but he had moved around the tub and there were shreds of lettuce in the water. After we redressed the bandages, my mother needed the shower, so she found me a box to carry Paul. The plain brown moving box was practical, but less than inspiring. While she showered and got ready for work, I took to it with markers and construction paper, decorating it with stars, rocket ships and his name. I tried making a turtle on one side, but it turned out poorly. I tacked a brown rectangle vertically underneath it, and it became a tree. Sometime while I worked, Paul left his place in the middle of the living room and wedged himself under the couch. I found two legs kicking furiously at the carpet; his bandages were too thick to slide underneath.

Paul’s wounds healed slowly, but he became more active every day. I took him to my grandparents’ house when my mother had to work nights and played around him in the yard. When it rained, I set him in puddles expecting him to wallow in the mud or otherwise enjoy the moisture. But mostly he just blinked indifferently and snapped at me when prodded at him.

Fall came, and with it my first year of second grade. The morning of the first day of classes was beautiful, with a warm breeze and crystal clear skies. I was sitting on the porch with Paul, waiting for the school bus to appear on the highway. The crack on his shell had faded to a ghostly scar of new growth, and he was angry as usual. My mother was shoving my lunchbox into my back pack and making sure I knew to get off the bus at my grandparents’.

“Make sure you leave room for Paul, Mom.”

She looked at me sadly, “I’m sorry, kiddo. You can’t take Paul to school. You’ll have to leave him here.”

“But why?” I whined, “Everybody would like him.”

“I know that, but it’s against the rules.  He can stay out here on the porch in his box, it’s a nice day. Paul will like that.”

I was devastated, but agreed that maybe the turtle would prefer the porch to the classroom. She went back inside to fetch some school supplies she had forgotten to pack, leaving the two of us alone on the porch. Inside, she dropped something to the floor. I heard her cuss, thinking she was out of ear shot. In the distance, the tiny yellow dot of the school bus had barely popped into view. With a sudden determination, I reached into the box and picked up Paul like a sandwich, with his head facing me. As we crossed the road, I spoke to him of adventure and friendship. On the banks of the canal we said our goodbyes – mine teary, his indifferent.

“Goodluck then, Paul. I love you.”

He snapped his jaws at me and scurried into a patch of tall grass.



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