Spiny Softshell Turtle
I was eight years-old, and the one turtle I hadn’t caught was the one turtle I couldn’t catch. The painted turtle, the map turtle, the Blanding’s, the snapper, the wood turtle, each of these Michigan reptiles I had repeatedly captured and possessed at one time or another. (The musk turtle, a foul-smelling but otherwise insipid creature, being neither handsome nor horrible, held no fascination for me, and enjoyed the unique privilege of basking undisturbed in our local waters.) Absurdly one summer, like a monomaniacal Noah, I had well over a hundred turtles distributed among wading pools in our backyard, where I was a full-time child laborer striving to keep the hoard fed and hygienically quartered, between unconscionable forays with my net to bring back even more turtles. I can remember the morning when my parents, finally overwhelmed by this turtle ghetto, ordered me to choose my twelve favorites—excluding the ten-pound snapper—and to return the rest to the wild. And beneath my tearful protestations, was I not a little relieved to be freed of my exhausting responsibilities? My favored always included the smallest and largest of each species. Maybe surprisingly, I bestowed no personal names on even my favorite turtles, nor on any of the other wild animals I would hold captive until they no longer fascinated me. Or, they were all secretly named Lao-tzu. Even as young and acquisitive as I was, I never wished to tame my wild animals into pets, nor in any way to close the mysterious and beautifying distances between us.
The softshell turtle was the sea turtle of our inland Michigan lake. You never saw its likes sunning above the water, or crawling across a road in springtime wanderlust. This large reptile ranged the whole of our long deep lake, but preferred to gather at the untamed beaches, basking by the half-dozen on the warm sands just before the water’s edge, and surely preying on the crayfish lurking among the driftwood, and the circulating schools of shiners. From a distance you could see their heads, like those of miniature alligators, floating in the shorewaters, but these were the wariest of turtles, and bolted for the depths at the remotest human approach. Without a trap or a baitline they are virtually never caught, but tell that to an eight year-old fanatic animal-collector, who has netted every turtle but the softshell turtle.
Summer afternoons in our rowboat, wearing only swimtrunks and equipped with my long-handled landing net—to which my father had added a bamboo extension to double its range—I plied for their shores with a stealth that, even twenty-five yards away, never escaped the their vigilance. The moment they sighted me (and over the summer they seemed to grow to anticipate my advances) their far-off protruding heads vanished nearly as one, whereupon I rowed furiously for the shallows, until I could leap overboard with my net, and commence my intercepting pursuit on foot, an utterly fore-defeated slog through knee-high and progressively higher waters, as my quarry absconded for the lake depths. And what swift and effortless swimmers they were, the strong-limbed and streamlined softshells! Through the glittering waves I could often glimpse them soaring like flung Frisbees over the sand bottom, before they were lost to the depths; then, standing wet-headed in waist-deep water, clutching the sorry pennant of my net like some lost son of Don Quixote, I was resigned to await their eventual resurfacing well beyond the dropoff. Soon a half-dozen dispersed heads were levelly considering their peculiar and tireless pursuer, obviously psychopathological even for his mystifying kind. Incorrigibly, I returned to the boat and pulled for another favored shore, and warily the turtles re-converged on the shallows, and in time resumed their watchful bask in the sun.
On occasional rows across the lake, I would all at once encounter a softshell, ascending near the boat from the dark depths, to breathe, and as if to more carefully consider me, pityingly, from the deeps’ safe vantage. And what a comical chimera met my eyes—the softshell was surely the bizarrest of our turtles. It was a snorkeling green Martian! A midget Sea World clown in training! A serving platter, designed by Hieronymus Bosch, to go on tormenting Saint Anthony in the wilderness! The olive snaky head with its long porcine snout and minute petulant eyes; the broad, webbed foreclaws, reminiscent of oversized clown gloves; and the arrestingly round leatherback shell, up to two feet in diameter: an olive tortilla in forest-green polka dots, and trimmed in gold. Dramatically set off by the deep water, the softshell slowly paddled in place, its snout and considering gaze just above the surface, so near and so unattainable, for if I even thought of reaching for my net, with a few, fine, athletic sweeps of its claws, it would ease down into the murk and disappear. And how I envied the beautiful freedom of that swimmer, how enchanted I was by its mystery, how exhausted by its perfect elusiveness.
I’m rowing for a favored shore; at the water’s edge the visible hippo heads of the softshells are disappearing. In the blond shallows I jump off board, and net in hand commence my one-boy storm of the beach. I glimpse a few unreachable turtles racing for the dropoff like underwater UFOs. But strange: one head is still at the shore, peering landward. Or maybe it’s a piece of driftwood? But then I am only strides away, and imponderably, just under the shorewater, a lone large turtle is basking on the sand. My throat tightens, and my shadow is almost upon it when the turtle spins in place and streaks for the depths—but too late: I extend my net so that it swims into the mesh, and what I raise into the air is a streaming, clawing, viciously snapping softshell turtle, just under the diameter of a large pizza. I cannot believe my good fortune!—but already the unexpected reek of musk is almost overwhelming me. And then I consider the turtle's head, extending through the netholes in attempts to strike me, and I experience a sorrowing disappointment that nearly a half-century has yet to diminish: the turtle is missing an eye. As if from a birth defect, one of its orbits is simply not there. Obviously, I had approached the turtle from its blind side. Of course, in no other way could I have captured it.
I would prefer to write that I set free this fatefully heartbreaking turtle, and never pursued its species again. The latter is partly true; I don’t recall again giving chase to adult softshells. That said, not long after, in a weedy cove dressed in lily pads, I incidentally discovered one of their breeding sites, and acquired a satisfying hoard of inchling softshells: fascinating, flawless miniatures of the adults, the hostility and stench not excepted. But my enormous captive I carried home; in the backyard I transferred it from the net to a large metal half-barrel that my father had scavenged for me from his workplace. Filled with water, it housed my largest aquatic acquisitions. But the sight of that great swimmer confined to the barrel, tirelessly clawing and butting the metal sides, immediately depressed me. Its musk reek and unabating viscousness weighed on my spirits too. When it rose for air, that imperfection, the missing eye, was impossible to ignore, and lowered me further. I knew I would shortly return it to the lake. But what I next recall is my visit to the barrel the following morning. The turtle was not there. Its presumed fate was not uncommon among my captives, and one that I had regrettably grown rather hardened to. There were unmistakable signs that the backwoods raccoons had subdued my one and only adult softshell turtle, and dragged it away into the night.