Previously: "[Dr. Sinclair] began putting on his soaked T-shirt. Pulling it over his head, he stopped inside the shirt as if somehow separated from the outside world...."
“Come on out, Daddy. You look like a turtle,” Kenzie laughed. “Come on out.”
Her father’s head pressed through the neck hole.
“Here are your glasses. I cleaned ‘em on my towel.”
Putting them on, he smiled down at her, but she was looking at the new landscaping behind him.
“Awesome! So that’s what you were doing with all those heavy rocks.”
“I tried to describe it to you when I brought the rock home from Kansas last week.”
“I know, but I couldn’t picture it.”
“I was going for a sort of stone-age look.”
“It looks like Bedrock—you know, where the Flintstones live. Do you think the turtles will like it?”
“Like it? They’ll love it. They’ve been watching me work all morning. I just put that huge slab over the main cave. That was the hardest part.”
“What happened to the bark hut you made last summer?”
“It didn’t survive the winter,” he said holding up what was left of it.
Dr. Sinclair moved a small boulder from the passage that led from the old part of the habitat into the larger, newly landscaped area. Two pairs of box turtles entered the stage on cue and began nosing their way around the new terrain as the towering father-daughter shadows looked down in silence.
He was thankful for his daughter’s increasing interest in this peculiar pastime. His wife Clair and six-teen-year-old daughter, Anna, found the whole turtle thing a bit eccentric but humored him and tried to hide their smiles whenever they asked, “How are the turtles?” He didn’t mind. He saw the humor himself at many levels. As a word-smith, he knew that the sound of the word turtle was smirkable—but when spoken in the context of a 56-year-old man “tending his turtles” it was downright laughable. It might have been different if he were a herpetologist
in the science department, but he was an English professor, and his interest was not in reptiles per se
—only box turtles.
The hobby had started innocently enough.
Driving home from a writer's convention in Colorado three years before, Dr. Sinclair was in a daze as he drove the long stretch of I-35 through western Kansas. The sight of a box turtle in his lane startled him as if from sleep. He winced at the thought of feeling the slight bump under his tire, but there was no bumb, and he stopped to rescue the thing from becoming road-kill.
Picking up the tightly sealed shell in his hand brought to mind the box turtle John Steinbeck described in Chapter 3
of The Grapes of Wrath
. Dr. Sinclair often used that chapter in his lectures on imagery or foreshadowing and had read it so often aloud to his classes through the years that he could nearly recite it as he paced the front of his small lecture hall, peering into the faces of students. Each year fewer seemed to listen. They sat blankly behind laptops, pretending to take notes, but their eyes were not engaged. They knew little of box turtles and completely missed Steinbeck’s’ use of a regional creature to depict the grit in the face of obstacles; they seemed to know little of seeds intent on being spread (and what that detail had to do with the story); they missed the implications of good and evil as shown by the car that swerved to miss the turtle and the one that swerved to hit it.
Occasionally, however, while looking up from his copy of Grapes
, his eyes would meet those of a few students in the crowd equally engrossed in Steinbeck’s craft, and he couldn’t help but smile a little and think to himself even while reading: “Thank you, Lord. Two or three in this school of fish who listen and understand. That’s all I ask each semester.”
There was no end to what could be taught from Chapter Three of Grapes, and now seventy years after Steinbeck penned the words about the turtle crossing the highway, the professor had swerved to miss one and stopped to get it off the road. He had never seen one up close and marveled at how perfectly the hinged shell worked. It felt like hardened shoe leather, closed up tight. There was no coaxing the thing out for a peek. Perhaps he should have gently tossed it in the weeds far from the pavement. "But what if he's going the other way? He'll simply cross the road again. Next time he'll be a goner," he winced. "Kenzie might like it," he thought, and began walking back to his car.
He curled the plastic floor mats of his car into a pen on the passenger-side floor and kept an eye on him the rest of the way home to Michigan. From their on the floor, the turtle looked up at him with cautious, trusting eyes. The two shared this strange and quiet company for twenty hours.
Over time, through the convenience of E-bay, Dr. Sinclair’s turtle population grew to include several other specimens, most of them Eastern Ornates that looked as if a Native American child had painted countless yellow sun bursts on their shells. They were basically maintenance free. Fruits and vegetables and bits of chicken supplemented the bugs and worms they found on their own. At the first signs of frost and snow, went deep in their caves and burrowed even further in the soft loam. In Michigan, about half of a box turtle’s year is spent deep underground, emerging well after the robins return. These were just some of the things Dr. Sinclair and his daughter had learned together since the first turtle arrived.
Kenzie was without guile and genuinely shared his fascination with the seemingly prehistoric creatures and the world he had created for them.
Presently, father and daughter stood with their shadows like clouds above the place watching the four creatures study the new terrain.
“Oh, I almost forgot," Kenzie said, "Mom told me to tell you we’re leaving for Big Rapids in a half hour.”
“I know, I know,” her father moaned. “I’m right on schedule. I just need to fill the pond to see if the waterfall works.”
“Waterfall? What waterfall.”
“This shallow pond is a place for the turtles to hydrate, but under those rocks at the deep end is a pump that pushes the water to the top of that wall and then it falls down the rocks to the pond.”
“Cool,” Kenzie said, “Can I see it work?”
“There’s a remote control switch over on the patio table. Go get it and I’ll tell you when to turn it on.”
Kenzie’s feet flip-flopped across the lawn and picked up the small device. To the left of the patio, was the outside central air unit, which turned on with a loud click and a whirl from the hidden fan within. From the wall above the AC unit came the gritty sound of aluminum sliding against aluminum as a window of the master bedroom opened, and the silhouette of Mrs. Sinclair spoke from within.
“James, you need to clean up so we can go. I sent Kenzie out to get you, not to start playing with the turtles.”
“I thought we were leaving in a half hour…”
“We are, but it’ll take you that long to get cleaned up.”
“Alright,” he muttered, knowing he often underestimated the true time it took to finish one thing and begin another. “We just want to see the waterfall work, and then we’re done.”
“It wouldn’t hurt if we left a few minutes early,” said his wife.
“This will only take a minute. Okay, turn it on, Kenzie.”
The faint hum of a pump was heard until it was drowned out by the sound of water bubbling in a puddle behind some hostas, babbling along tiny rivulets, trickling down layers of rock and splashing back into the small pond. Even the turtles took note of the sound and lumbered toward it to drop over the stony edge and soak in the cool water.
“It looks great,” said Mrs. Sinclair from behind the screen.
“The turtles like it, too, Mom,” said Kenzie.
“You two and those turtles. Now come clean up, James. Everyone’s ready to go but you.”
The screen slid shut with a thud.
“Can I hold one before we go?”
“Sure, watch what they do. Their first thought will be to try to get away, out of reach. When that doesn’t work they simply box up. He reached under the net, and it was as he said. He handed her the neatly sealed capsule a little bigger and flatter than a croquet ball. Using her fingernail, she counted the growth rings on one of the scales of the shell and continued reviewing what she knew out loud.
“Cornice is the top shell. The scales are scutes. This one is 12 years old. She looked at the bottom. This is the plastron. It’s concave—curved in—so it’s probably a male.”
“Very good, Kenzie. It is a male. If he opens up you’ll see the orange scales on his front legs and the big curved claws on his hind feet. See how the design of his hinged plastron fits perfectly against the cornice? The shell is impervious.”
“What’s imper…vi.. What does that mean?” she asked.
“Good question. It means: difficult to penetrate—hard to get into.”
”Like when you were trying to open that little locket Grandma gave me to put a picture in, and you had to use the little screw driver for your glasses. Was that impervulous?”
“Impervious,” he tutored. “And yes, that locket was impervious until I got that screwdriver. Sort of like a pistachio nut without a crack for your thumbnails.”
The turtle opened its shell and studied Kenzie’s face.
“This one’s name is Rip because of that little rip in his shell?” she said.
“Remember: they are yard guest not pets” he explained for the umpteenth time. “Pets require affection and attention and these turtles have need of neither.”
Kenzie disagreed but didn’t say so at the time. She enjoyed studying the turtles’ patient ways; she liked most that when she studied them, they seemed to study her back.
“Why are they watching us, Daddy? Are they afraid?”
“I don’t think so. Not anymore, but they’ll always be wary. They’re carnivores. I’ve seen them hunt down toads and eat them alive.”
“Gross, Daddy. You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m not. They usually eat bugs and worms and berries--in that sense they're omnivorous--but I’ve seen them eat good-sized toads. That doesn’t make them bad, it makes them wary, because carnivores always suspect of others what they themselves might do given the chance. Knowing who to trust has been essential to survival since Paradise was Lost.”
The literary allusion was lost on the eight-year-old, but by then he was merely thinking out loud.
“Let’s put him back and get going before your mother starts hollerin’ for us again. Help me with the netting and then we’ll go. Wait a minute,” he added. "Wait just one minute. How did I miss that?"
He reached to far side of the space at weed that had sprung up through two large stones and gave it a yank.
"Ouch!" he said, putting his finger to his mouth.
"What happened, Daddy?"
"Oh, nothing, there were little thorns on the stem."
"Is it bleeding?"
"Not bad. Just smarts. I didn't see the thorns when I grabbed it. I hate when that happens." He smiled studying his finger for fragments.
They pulled a fine black net, from the high back wall of the landscaped habitat to the low wall that encircled the front and kept the turtles safe inside. With their arms full of yard tools, Dr. Sinclair and his daughter trudged to the shed. From ten feet away, the fine netting disappeared, and the lower vegetation hid the turtles.
Kenzie called that corner of the yard their “turtle garden.” It was a garden of sorts—and it had grown considerably each summer to accommodate the small pond with lily pads and cattails. All around it were wild flowers, hollow logs, bridges, and hibernation boroughs. As of that morning, there was now a half-ton of Kansas limestone slabs laid out in prehistoric hills and holes complete with a waterfall. Around the perimeter were variegated hostas. It was, indeed, a garden. Making it so was essential to his wife’s tolerance of its increasing size and cost. Dr. Sinclair never forgot, however, that the real purpose of the world he’d created was containment: keeping the turtles in and predators out. “To Preserve and Protect” as he’d often read on the side of the police cars in their small town.
What he failed to see was that, in many ways, his life had become as cloistered as the world he had created. Privacy fences were not allowed in their wooded development, but their half-acre backyard was hedged in with tall tangles of ancient lilac across the rear, towering yew trees, evergreens to the north, and to the south a row of Rose of Sharon and an overgrown grape arbor whose broad leaves were as valued as the few grapes it produced. All of which served as natural barriers to the world beyond. It's not that he didn't like people. His days were full of people--students and peers and strangers--and that suited him fine, but it was the incessant conversational nature of his days that prompted him to cultivate the natural walls that surrounded his yard, his sanctuary.
This family outing, tubing down a river with his wife and two daughters, was a pleasure that ranked higher on his calendar than any of the social functions expected of him during the school year. Little did he know the events of this day would change him forever.
To be continued...