Snapping Turtle

 

There’s something in the middle of the road.

A heap of something off the back of a truck,

Mud, muck or tar, or something more than foul.

What I steer to avoid I glimpse in passing,

Then I brake and pull my car off the road.

Well, of course—should’ve guessed: it’s a monster.

Summer’s first big stranded snapping turtle.

 

The first not crushed and goring the asphalt

As very fast food for vultures and crows.

There’s a net in my trunk for these rescues;

The traffic clears and I head back on foot

To the spot where that obstinate dinosaur

Is fouling the air like a sewage spill.

All the saws that were broken, half-building it!

Forty million years and still in the rough.

The long dragon tail, and so much gooseflesh

Stuffed into a shell two sizes too small

But still big around as an auto wheel;

On the shell a leech-ridden moss garden;

The forelegs protrude in medieval armor,

And the head’s a bludgeon, beak fixed in menace,

With tiny sorrowing elephant’s eyes—

The sole feature human about it.

And the whole charred black, as though this relict

Were burnt out of every refuge from Time.

Its serious predators are in the fossil record;

The traffic is new, in the last million years.

And a million more may see it prevail,

But today the road is pure science fiction.

And there it’s stalled, crosswise on the yellow stripe,

With a chaotic sprawl of housing ahead

And a mirror of development behind,

And every few moments a car blowing by.

 

Hey! Look at this! A big friggin’ snapper!

Snapper.  The name we knew them by, and fetched

A stick to make them earn, when I was a boy

In my private dimension of deep time. 

Where the hardball came to rest, where the mongrel

Danced yelping, as we tramped home with our rods

Or rifles through fields near a swamp or marsh—

Hey! Holy shit! Come here and look at this!

This Viking keel dragged out of a tar pit;

This landmine; this dragon-ridden Celtic ruin.

And then with a measure of male respect

We’d stop to measure its ferocity:

How big of a stick it could snap in two;

How viscously it clung to one it couldn’t.

Girls in earshot we liked to call over.

Here—look: this is why we’re the way we are.

This is what Earth is really all about.

And weren’t we pleased with their cringing disgust?

So gross. So sickNo!  Don’t kill it. Don’t shoot!

As if they knew they were saving a sister.

The hissing troll was likely a female

On her overland journey to bury her clutch.

 

The head turns slightly, the near eye glistens.

I’m expected to pass as nearly all do.

But I linger, so the forelegs bear down

And it swivels in place to fight me head on,

With dark glitter in its hard little stare,

And old-man’s throat pulsing with malevolence

As though curses are to be spat at me.

It’s never retreat for this compact Norseman:

The overfilled shell is not a castle

But a Homeric shield to battle around.

I maneuver the net, the jaws snap open,

A hiss escapes from the cottony maw;

Its expression is one of malicious joy

In welcoming a foolish combatant.

And then the startling whole-body lunges

And viscous adder-like strikes with the head

That can sever a finger on all but the tail.

But I’ve learned to manage this risk of mayhem:

To one side I lower the long-handled net,

From the other I toe the whole turtle over,

Then its seething bulk I raise from the road.

 

I escape the house and my father’s rancor

And my mother sewing with moistened eyes

And my siblings’ sprawl where the TV blares—

All that suffocating togetherness

With its barely breathable broth of air—

Banging the screen door open and running,

Running though dusk as the door bangs behind—

 Away! Away! Over the yard, past the woodpile,

Through the tall weeds trembling with crickets,

And by the fireflies’ flickering lanterns

Into the precocious dark of the woods.

I stride down paths I know like a deer

In the lingering glow of the paper birch

(And interstate traffic’s breathless roar;

I can’t pretend these woods unfold forever),

And I pass the gully in late silver light

With its cattail phalanx in shadow,

 When there—an enormous snapping turtle,

The great coal cliff of its rough-hewn head,

Slowly, silently, extends from a pool.

I freeze on the path.  I gaze on amazed

In a punishing nimbus of mosquitoes.

That crag risen out from the mud and murk—

Such a solemn underworld epiphany!

So mysterious! And somehow majestic,

Like the head of a Dark Age warrior-king,

Thick and cruel, cast on the creek’s silver.

Only in gloom can it bear to ascend

And gaze on the realm it was banished from.

And maybe it blinks, that inscrutable profile,

When slowly, slowly, like the melting tip

Of an iceberg of loneliness, with regret

Or resignation as heavy as sleep,

Slowly it withdraws from the upper world,

And nothing remains but the silent pool.

Then awe turns to pity, the mystery

To melancholy, and that lonely Pluto

Will always lurk in the lake of my heart.

 I turn and the paths take me out of the woods;

And the far-off windows of home, in lemon

And amber and fragile as candlelight,

They shine with all the warmth in the world.

 

The sexing of snappers I leave to snappers,

And why this creature was crossing the road—

A misadventure in male wanderlust

Or a female’s circuit to bury her eggs—

I couldn’t say; but some lingering marsh

Between the houses seemed the destination,

And that’s where I haul my reeking captive,

Inverted in the net and wearing its plastron

Like a sideshow ogress in a tutu.

And there, turned out, wrestling free of the mesh

And righting on shore to open water,

It sulks without fear or ferocity,

Watchful, immobile, the haven before it

An illusion not to be tempted by,

With maddening Prospero crouched alongside.

Trust did not see it through all its eras

Of evolutionary stasis.

I night-adapt to the primordial dark

Suffusing the turtle’s stony indifference

And loathsome, reptilian respirations.

In the sequin of the sepia eye

Asterisked by the bright-dark pupil

I seek likeness, engagement: is a tear

Lost in the labyrinth of this Minotaur;

Is something incarcerated, suffering,

Not-quite-inhuman: but nothing escapes

Its dim slimed caverns of coldbloodedness.

There’s a brief scan my way, nothing is seen.

I was the mirage; the oasis beckons.

And now on the stilts of its too-long legs

It lifts its shell with its bloodbank of leeches

And like some living contraption dreamt by Bosch

It anciently plods for the open pool.

The senile wobble of the outstretched head

And the tail dropped like a dog’s in shame:

How pitiful now, our pitiless troll!

Though the embarrassment is solely mine.

It wades to where it can swim in the marsh,

Awkwardly buoyant till the swim bladder fills;

With fine, almost dainty strokes of its claws

It slowly dissolves in the murk and is gone.

 

The swamp in its noonday feverish slumber.

My oars labor in the summertime muck

Of so much life. Dogfighting dragonflies.

Bullfrog tadpoles stealing gulps of air

From the ruling kingfisher.  Basking painters.

Pluck of a green frog.  A friendly blue civet

Touches down on my sunburned shoulder.

On the weedmat foamy with yellow alga:

A sunspot.  A barehanded snatch—it’s mine:

The Gothic treasure of a new-hatched snapper

Lay in my palm like a carbonized walnut.

Limbs pulled in, tail lashed to the shell rim,

Both eyes shut tight against my existence.

The heartbreaking miniaturist perfection!

The perfectly endearing malevolence!

Everything—everything is already here,

All the secret symmetries in ebony,

Like an exquisite carving from treebark;

Even the reek and a tiny bloodsucker!

If I were its size and the hatchling mine

I would be devoured in one eyeblink.

And I wonder: is this how evil appears

In the open left hand of the Maker?

 

I fetch my net and prepare to depart

This fleeting Jurassic sanctuary,

A bit of a cross-phyla Samaritan,

In the glow of gilding the golden rule

But chilled by what I’ve been charitable to—

When its beak breaks the mantle of duckweed,

Revolves, and distinctly gazes my way,

And we trade last looks over ten or so feet

And a gulf rivaling those between stars.

(Or the chasm between man and his gods—

I nearly wept at that revelation.)

A blink; a swallow; the head submerges.

What passed through that quantum of consciousness?

Curiosity?  Mystification?

Some first intimation of gratitude?

Or maybe this: a forecast of forgiveness.

That it persists.  That it ever existed,

This cold-blooded indictment of Being.

Its cameo in a cosmic horror-flick

Is merely more obvious than our own.

What creatures could be more forsaken

Than we who are born on this bitter Earth?

There is no hate in this monster at all:

There is no love in the universe to betray.