by Michael C. Keith
The Creature has a purpose
and his eyes are bright with it.
— John Keats
Turtles communicate mostly by grunting, and what they have to say is amazing. I know because one has spoken to me since I was nine.
At first I didn’t understand it, but as the fire incinerated its prehistoric flesh and turned it to ash, what it was conveying became perfectly clear, and even though the giant Chelydra serpentina (its technical name) has been dead for nearly twenty years, it only stopped talking to me recently.
It all began when I was tossing around a football with my best friend, Dennis, and some older kids emerged from behind the cluster of trees concealing a tiny stream in back of the elementary school we attended.
They were carrying a large object to a barrel used by the school’s janitor, Mr. Johnson, to burn trash. When they reached it, they lowered it into the rusty metal container letting it drop the last couple of feet with a loud thud.
“What do you think they’re doing?” I asked Dennis, who suggested we go see.
Another boy approached carrying a small tin can.
“Here’s the kerosene,” he announced and poured it into the barrel.
Dennis braved the question about what they were up to and was told they were going to set fire to a turtle.
“Why?” I inquired incredulously, and the boy with the fuel can answered that they were burning it as an experiment.
“We want to see what it does. See if its shell keeps it from melting. Besides, it’s just a nasty old snapper. No good for nothing.” he added, tossing the empty container to the ground a few feet from where we stood.
“Okay, here goes,” announced another kid, striking a wooden match and dropping it into the barrel.
Flames leapt up instantly, and everyone took a few steps back in awe. In the whoosh of the flames I heard a squealing sound, but Dennis claimed he didn’t. When the flames settled down after a few minutes, everyone closed in on the barrel except me.
“Come on, let’s look,” said Dennis excitedly.
“That’s wrong!” I replied, but he ignored my protest and joined the boys peering into the barrel.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I shouted but no one paid attention to me.
Again, I heard a squeal emanate from the barrel, but this time it was followed by a series of sharp grunts that mixed with the crackling and snapping of the flames that spewed embers into the air.
“It’s suffering,” I protested, and was told to shut up by the oldest of the boys, who was probing the depths of the barrel with a stick.
“It’s still moving,” he announced ecstatically, and everyone, including Dennis, eagerly took a turn poking at the baking terrapin.
“I’m going to tell,” I warned, and the big kid, who obviously was the leader of the group, said if I did I’d be sorry.
“Well, I am getting the police,” I threatened, and he waved his clenched fist at me menacingly.
That was when the turtle first spoke to me.
“They know not what they do, so leave them to their senseless deed,” it said.
More than a little startled I probed the expressions of the other boys to see if they, too, had heard the words of the dying reptile. It was clear they had not, because they continued to behave with gleeful abandon as they stared into the barrel.
“I think it’s dead,” claimed one of the boys.
“No, it’s still moving,” responded another.
“It’s roasted,” observed yet another. “No way it can be alive.”
But it was alive, because it kept speaking.
“Nothing ever really perishes,” it declared, adding, “Things become something else, but they continue to exist. So don’t fret, young man. You are good to care for me and see the wrong in what they do, but there is nothing more you can do. You have done what any decent and noble living thing should. You have opposed cruelty, and I commend you for doing so.”
Still, I wanted to beat up the boys for killing the turtle, and I was mad at Dennis for going along with them and not joining me in trying to prevent their malicious act.
After about a half hour, the oldest boy pronounced the turtle officially dead and the others, including Dennis, agreed, each carefully examining the barrel’s depths.
By that time, I had retreated to the edge of the field, and when Dennis waved at me, I turned and ran for home.
“It’s dead! It’s dead!” they sang out and began marching around the smoldering tomb as if engaged in some primitive ritual.
I told no one about the turtle talking to me that day, and although it has spoken to me ever since, I have not dared to reveal this fearing I would be thought crazy, even by those closest to me.
“Kids can be so cruel,” commented my mother when I told my parents what happened.
“Well, it was only a turtle,” replied my father, folding the day’s newspaper in half and placing it on the coffee table.
“Still, that’s not a very kind thing to do,” said my mother shaking her head in disapproval.
“People make soup of those things, you know,” added my father. “It’s not like they’re human.”
“But burning it to death. That’s just wrong,” I chimed in.
“It is wrong,” agreed my mother. “The poor thing. It deserved better.”
“You two are just like each other,” snapped my father, and I nodded in happy agreement as he lifted the paper from the coffee table and began reading it again.
After the grim episode of that day, I stopped hanging out with Dennis, and a year later my family moved to another part of town.
A decade passed before I saw him again. We bumped into each other in a bookstore. We were both attending college, and he was there looking for a title he needed in a course, and I was there scanning the mythology section, a subject that came to interest me greatly.
Despite my continuing dialogue with the turtle, which remained very secretive about itself, I began to study up on reptiles and the myths that different cultures ascribe to them.
The one I liked best claimed that turtles possessed the wisdom of the world. That was certainly true of the one that had befriended me and imbued my thoughts with its sage insights and perspectives on the meaning and purpose of existence.
At first my conversation with Dennis was a bit awkward, but then we both seemed to relax a little over a cup of coffee. He was majoring in business and already was engaged to someone he had dated throughout high school. He was impressed when I told him I was in pre-med with plans to attend veterinary school.
“You always were kind of a brain,” he replied, “and a little weird, too, but in a good way,” he added with a slight chuckle.
It took some gumption for me to ask if he remembered the burning turtle incident, but it was something I felt compelled to do. I had never reconciled how my best friend could go along with such a heinous act.
“What?” Say that again,” he replied in a perplexed tone.
“You know, when those older boys put a turtle in a barrel and burned it to death,” I pressed.
“Man, I don’t remember that at all,” he answered looking like he’d just caught a whiff of something rancid.
“Come on, ” I protested, “You couldn’t have forgotten that.”
“Well, if it happened, I sure don’t remember it. Kids do a lot of weird things. You can’t remember all of them. What’s the big deal anyway? It was just a turtle. Not like someone was killed.”
I could feel the blood rush into my cheeks and my body tense up. How could he forget such a horrible thing, I wondered? Was he just pretending not to recall what was one of the most disturbing and altering experiences of my life? It was then that I lost it.
“You creep! It was a helpless creature you helped kill, and it was so much more than that . . . more than you could ever know!”
With those words I stormed out of the bookstore’s cafe before giving in to the urge to clobber him. In the years since, thanks to the wisdom of the burning turtle, I have come to better understand people like Dennis and those who act with such utter disregard for life. From it I also learned forgiveness. It was the hardest lesson of all but the one that rewarded me most.
“Let go resentment for it sours the soul and blocks the path to true fulfillment. Do good to those who hate you. It will disarm them swifter than any other act. Remember, you alone are responsible for what you feel and who you become, so choose wisely,” it advised, and I did.
The turtle had enhanced every aspect of my life and I felt blessed that it had chosen to guide me through the challenges and travails that confronted me as I made my way through the years. My relations with all living things transcended the commonplace because of its devoted tutelage.
It was not long after my son entered the world that the voice of the turtle went silent, and I knew with complete certainty that it had migrated into my newborn. No parent could have been happier or wish for anything more for their child. At his christening the minister chose to read a verse from the Bible that meant more to me than he could ever imagine.
Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away
For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the
singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is
heard in our land.
Michael C. Keith (mckradio AT comcast.net) is the author of several books, including a critically acclaimed memoir published by Algonquin Books in 2003. He teaches Communication at Boston College.