Monday, January 5, 2009

The lost tortoise

This is a copy of the original story by Kevin H., a friend of mine.

Around dinner time on September 17th some years ago, I returned from work and as is my habit walked down the path lined with blooming Hibiscus and various Heliconias to check on my redfoot tortoise, Pickles, a ten year old female I've had for 8 years. My heart sank to discover that my neighbor's new lumbering Great Dane puppy had knocked over a side to the enclosure (I found out later) and that Pickles was nowhere to be found. I searched anxiously through the fenced yard and down the path to the gate which, I was informed, had been left open that day for the landscapers monthly slash and trash and their easy access in and out of the yard. Outside the gate lay the heavily settled, sparsley lush environs of Miami's upper east side. And somewhere amidst the sound of traffic, the lacework grid of interconnected yards, the setting sun, and balmy breeze coming off Biscayne Bay, was my Pickles, lost. A quiet panic set in but I barely told a soul, thinking that the question "any news on your tortoise?" would somehow increase the chances that she would never be found.

The next day I got off work early to meet up with the little search party I'd organized. We spent 4 hours knocking on doors, putting up flyers, and poking through hedges and grassy rafts with our hands and bamboo sticks, all to no avail. I kept telling myself "she must be somewhere" but my mind wandered to awful thoughts, the worst of which entailed a hapless motorist passing through the neighborhood and, seeing Pickles, a novelty, scooping her up to live out a short miserable life in a dark box in a shed (cue soundtrack to Silence of the Lambs). In the weeks that followed I spent less and less of my free time searching for Pickles as the panic intensified then turned into a kind of hopelessness. I realized then how much of my daily life she'd become as everything reminded me of her. Collards, watercress, papya, and opuntia disappered from my refrigerator; the water saucer ran dry and thumbergia began to grow over her hide box. The thrice daily trips to check on the tortoise ended and the garden had a sad stillness to it that, at times, I could barely stand.

Rain and wind tattered the flyers so I would periodicly put new ones up but with less hope that anything would come of it. Through all this I was surprised by the interest my neighbors took in Pickle's plight and have formed some new relationships and fortified others from the support and concern I received. After 6 weeks passed, something inside me gave way and I felt it was time to take the pen down and let her go, mentally, spiritually. While I never gave up hope, I gave up trying with anything that looked like effort.

Then a phone call changed everything. I returned from work on the evening of November 4th to a cryptic message from an unidentified female caller: "I saw your flyer and I think I found your turtle.I brought him somewhere and I'll check to see if he's still there. If I find him, I'll call you back" . No number, no name, no location, no nothing. Well, something! I star 69ed and got a phone number in my area code . I called the number as if the voice on the other end was going to tell me I'd won the lottery. But no, the recorded message stated indifferently, "I'm sorry, this caller cannot be reached, please try your call later". This went on for 2 agonizing days wherein I developed a short term case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, often calling 20 times an hour. On the morning of November 6th the genteel birdlike voice of my unidentified caller answered, "this is Rose". I gulped then explained how I've been searching desperately for my "turtle" since September 17th. She explained that 6 days earlier she found Pickles traversing the streeet that runs parallell to my own, that she called Greynolds Park - a large wooded park many miles from here - to see if they would take the "turtle" but was told they wouldn't since the "turtle" didn't have webbed feet. Instead, she brought Pickles to Morningside Park, some 3 miles from me, a well manicured recreation park on Biscayne Bay of 15 or so acres. It rained heavily that Thursday with spot flooding but Rose agreed to meet up with me at 3 that afternoon and show me exactly where she released Pickles. I felt giddy.

Rose, it turns out, was a visiting professor in Latin studies who had just moved to the neighborhood and lived 6 doors from my own. Why Rose, an attractive 30-something woman, would agree to get in a car with a nice but somewhat giddy man and drive in the pouring rain to a park to look for a treasured lost object is beyond me, but she did. "Over there, behind the pools". I parked the car and wading through puddles that ran over the ankle we approached a long fenced structure that ran a length of about 500 feet but was only 15 feet from the water. My heart sank to notice that high tide tossed debris right to the edge of the fence, leaving me to think that Pickles may have drowned. To enter the fenced enclosure it was necessary to walk out onto the bay on very precariously placed iron rails then circle around inside. Once inside, we began tossing back grasses and brush, turning over the coconuts that were plentiful enough to fill a football field - and looked so much like a carapace when covered by a thin layer of grass -, and manuevering through the twisted branches of sea grape, but without any luck. An hour and a half later and soaking wet, and looking at my new friend, Rose, over my shoulder, dripping wet but still brimming with enthusiasm, I called the search off. We went for coffee and I plotted to return early the next day. November 7th, 51 days since Pickles wandered off, was a glorious day, the kind us Floridians gloat over and which make tolerable the summer heat and humidity, of brilliant sunshine, 85 degree temperature, and low humidity.

I passed two old men sitting on the bay and drinking beer, and wondered what they might think of me as I broke into the fenced area. I hoped they were too drunk to call the police. The coconuts under grass seemed to have multiplied over night but I methodically began making my way a few inches at a time, hoping that if Pickles were there, the light and warmth would rouse her and that would be the end of it. I developed a technique for tapping the coconuts with my right foot and could discern a light coconut from other hard round objects, like rocks. This went on for about twenty minutes when my foot touched upon a round grass-covered object that was noticeably heavier than a coconut and lighter than a rock. I bent down and parted the dry grasses and for the first time in 51 days looked upon the geometric, yellow and brown scutes of my lost girl. My emotions ran over. I gently lifted her from the little palate she'd made and raising her up exclaimed like a fool, "PICKLES! IT'S DADDY! I clasped her to my chest with both arms and carefully manuevered my way out. I can't remember if I was crying, but I don't think I've ever felt such intense feelings of joy and relief.

I got the girl home and into a nice bath. On inspection, she was no worse for wear though her first drink of water must have lasted a full minute. She felt heavy and had actually grown a bit. Oddly, she smelled like cheap perfume and I'm not sure what to make of that.

I phoned Rose immediately and we made plans for a celebratory dinner which, I'm certain, became the springboard for an enduring friendship. Now that Pickles is safe and sound (it would take hired construction workers to dismantle her new enclosure), I can reflect easily on the whole matter and share it with others. I have been surprised by how uplifted people are by this ordeal. Whatever moral there is to this story, beyond the obvious, escapes me, though I have been touched by the kind aspects of strangers and my love affair with my shelled friend has retuned to the honeymoon stage as I could drop to my knees with gratitude everytime I turn the corner to see her trundling quietly amidst the grasses and ferns.


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