Stations of the Terrapin Cross

Stations of the Terrapin Cross

Nancy Graham




Every part of this turtle had evolved to be forbidding, from the spiky shell to the armored legs. It was like a miniature war machine from a reptilian universe. Carl fumbled on his glasses and tipped his head back so he could read the sign next to the tank.

“Come on, Carl. Don’t be so pokey.” Marilyn had been pushing him through zoos, museums, and galleries for years. She was always anxious to get to the next thing, which would provide her with new reasons to complain.

Alligator snapping turtle. Carl wished he could say it out loud, but speech had been one of the first things to go. Jaws can amputate fingers. Carl closed his eyes and imagined Marilyn waving the fresh stump of a digit, painting a fan of bright blood against a beige wall.

“Carl, we said we’d meet the Steinbergs for lunch in twenty minutes.”

Opportunistic carnivore. Can remain submerged for three hours. This time the image was of Marilyn undressing for the bath, rolling flesh-colored stockings down into coils and easing them off her toes. She wouldn’t notice the turtle waiting in the bathtub, hidden by billows of bubbles.

Can fast for two weeks. Marilyn opening the pantry upon arrival at their beach house. The scrabble of claws on linoleum, the lunge from the shadows, the snap of jaws around a delicate ankle.

The turtle opened its mouth and Carl saw the tongue, which had a pink, wormlike extension waving in the slight movement of the water. Appendage lures fish.

Carl felt a slight push from behind. “Come on, honey, let’s get a move on.” Marilyn let him maneuver in flat spaces himself, but his arms tired easily. And he did have a sudden craving for a fried fish sandwich with lots of drippy tartar sauce. Carl raised a spotted hand in farewell to the turtle as Marilyn threw her small frame against the wheelchair and turned him toward the exit.



When it was time to return to the States, the youngest daughter owned a turtle. Winter in northern Europe sent the turtle into a long slumber; it was easy to ignore. There was so much to do: good-bye parties, cartons to pack, a last trip to their favorite patisserie.

Perhaps the mother had intended to donate the turtle to one of the classrooms at the American school. She might have assumed the next renters assigned by the embassy would welcome a new pet. These were thoughts she might have had. A thousand times a day she walked past the terrarium, her arms loaded with linens, rubber boots, and books.

On the morning when the movers would arrive, she rose at dawn to an empty apartment. The children had flown back with their father the day before. The kitchen was already boxed up; she had to content herself with bitter tea in a chipped mug, carrying it on a last check under the beds and inside the cupboards.

Beneath the normal dawn crash of trucks in the alley and the tip-tap of high heels in the apartment above, she noticed a small, insistent sound. It was like someone setting a china teacup in a saucer, or the snick of a wedding ring dropped on a dresser, or the snap of the clasp of a coin purse.


The turtle was launching itself against the wall of the terrarium, then rearing back for another go. The small sound was shell against glass. The mother set down the mug and hoisted the turtle to eye level. The ancient lids furled and black eyes met hers. The turtle’s webbed feet waved slowly in the air, half-heartedly seeking purchase.

The telephone rang with that odd European purr. Three rings, then silence, and then three more rings: it was her lover’s special signal.

She carried the turtle to the suitcase splayed on the bed and took out her robe. She inserted the turtle in the pocket and wrapped the skirt around it. After running the zippers around, she dragged the suitcase to the edge of the bed and let it fall with a thump to the floor. The doorbell rang; the movers had arrived. The suitcase trailed obediently behind her as she went to unlatch the apartment door for the last time.



Charlene leaned over William to peer out into the tropical night. She wore dreadlocks, but when a strand brushed his cheek, it gave off a clean, citrus scent. Clearly upper class Bohemian. There were other signs: her flip-flops were faded and flat, but her toenails were professionally painted. She had no visible tattoos and only her nose was pierced.

A scholarship kid, William was sensitive to these nuances. The turtle rescue trip was possible for him only because the department awarded one charity slot each year. William may not have had money, but he knew how to write a heartrending essay.

Their assignment was to wake in the middle of the night and assemble on the beach to shoo newborn turtles into the sea. The lights of the resorts across the road confused the hatchlings. Too many of them headed in the wrong direction and were crushed under the wheels of taxis shuttling tourists to and fro.

Charlene and William and the rest of the students stumbled out of the minibus and onto the sand, squinting to see the tiny tufts kicked up by the emerging turtles. William, who had read the briefing materials thoroughly, knew it took the babies as many as seven days to claw their way to the surface. Soon the dark beach was covered with small disks struggling off in every direction. He knelt down and began to turn them methodically toward the sea. When the group within reach was off to a proper start, William sidestepped to his right, knelt, and began again.

William had covered nearly ten feet in this manner when Charlene began to sob and shake her hands from the wrists. “There are too many of them.”


Continuing to turn turtles, William instructed Charlene in his method using a calm voice. “Just do this.”

Charlene turned toward William and stomped her foot. It made no sound on the damp sand. “Oh, what’s the point? Do you know how many of them survive? It’s too sad.” She stalked back up the beach toward the minibus.

She was right. Sea creatures and birds would gobble up nearly all of the baby turtles that made it to the water. Furthermore, Charlene wanted him to follow her, to comfort her. It would be an opportunity to wrap his arms around her bare shoulders.

Instead, William continued to rotate tiny shells. He would save as many as he could. After that, well, it wasn’t up to him, was it?



Adapted from, “A friendly place to talk about turtles.”

Turtman: How do you tell if a turtle is too fat?
Shell Game: If the turtle can’t pull all of itself into its shell or if it floats.
RepVet: Turtles who can’t pull into their shells are VERY FAT. A fat turtle will also look PUFFY.
Tuffy123: My turtle is fat. All parts can go in but one. Maybe I should just chop it off? 
Lizzzard: Whoa there dude, don’t go chopping off turtle parts.
BieberBabe: I think maybe you can also tell if a turtle is fat if you weigh it, and then look at charts for it? Like weight/height charts people use?
Yertle: Take some responsibility! You should take a hard look at what you feed him. I mean, he isn’t running to the refrigerator every time he sees you look away.
TrueTortoiseLover: Look for other changes though. ‘Puffy’ could also mean kidney failure. I found out the hard way.
Shell Game: I thought my turtles were fat. Then I looked at them a couple of days later and it was gone. Anyone ever noticed this?
Tuffy123: Turtle flatulence?
TrueTortoiseLover: If they are females, could be water retention.
Lizzzard: My turtle looks MUCH FATTER before he poops.
Reptiliana: Exercise is important to all creatures. Fill a five-gallon bucket with clean water and put the turtle in it. He will try to get out and burn up some of the excess fat.
TrueTortoiseLover: Turtles are worse than dogs when it comes to begging for food. You don’t want to starve your turtle to death but you also don’t want to feed it to death either. Clean water, proper diet and exercise plus annual checkups should mean a long and happy life for your turtle.



The nickname was apt. There was not much distance between her ears and her shoulders—she had to fold her turtlenecks over twice—and Turtle always took her time. She preferred to think of her movement as languid, not slow. Whatever you called it, Turtle’s pace drove her family nuts and that was just fine with her.


One day in early October her oldest and prettiest sister looked at her Girl Scout watch and declared she wouldn’t be late to school again because of you, Turtle. She grabbed the hand of the second oldest sister and took off at a brisk pace. They had already turned the corner when a car pulled to the curb. It was one of those new station wagons with the wooden sides. Turtle’s father often remarked that the wooden panels were not practical; they would be damaged by salt on the roads and faded by the summer sun.

A man cranked down the window on the passenger side and hailed her. Turtle shifted her satchel to her other shoulder and studied him. He was neither old nor young, neither handsome nor ugly. He asked her how to get to the courthouse. Turtle thought about the best way to answer. She had been taught to be helpful to strangers.

The man turned to the driver and they exchanged a few words. By the time her man turned back around, Turtle had formed a proper answer. She gave the directions slowly and clearly and smiled. He cupped a hand behind one ear and beckoned her closer. Turtle stepped across the damp tree lawn gingerly, trying not to soak the hand-me-down saddle shoes that were only a little too large.

At the window, close enough to smell the man’s aftershave, she repeated the directions. The passenger smiled and suggested Turtle get in the car and drive with them as far as her school to set them on the right path. Turtle inclined her head graciously and reached for the back door handle.

At just that moment, Mrs. Johnson opened her front door and came out in robe and slippers to pick up her newspaper. The engine revved and the car sped up. Turtle stood there, hand outstretched, and watched the station wagon tear down the block and turn in the wrong direction.



When Felicia arrived at her home-stay, the mother who spoke French wasn’t there. The maid listened carefully to the grammatically correct introduction Felicia had rehearsed on the long hike up from the city, and then smiled apologetically. Several teeth were missing.

Installed on a hard couch with a sweating Fanta on the table in front of her, Felicia studied the backyard through a slatted window. There were a few chickens scratching in the dirt; a hutch of rabbits sat next to a bent wire fence. Felicia caught movement out of the corner of her eye and sat very still. A small boy sidled into the room; an NBA jersey hung to his knees. Felicia smiled. He scowled, darted close enough to swipe the bottle of Fanta, and ran away laughing with triumph. Felicia hadn’t wanted the soda anyway: too many artificial colors—and so much sugar!

That evening, after she had stowed her backpack under the bed she would share with the maid, Felicia took the seat left for her at the dinner table. The father nodded in greeting and then stuck his head back into a newspaper. The mother asked Felicia brisk questions in French about her studies at the university. The three small children stared at Felicia’s mouth as she struggled to reply.

Turtle rescue, Felicia explained. She was there to protect the endangered turtles. To help the natives understand they must let them multiply, not use them as a food supply. The Fanta thief rattled off something in the dialect that was not French or English. The mother answered in sharp tones and the father chuckled behind his newspaper, causing the headlines to quake.

The maid set a tureen of soup on the table. Felicia had not eaten since breakfast, and her stomach growled. The mother ladled bowls of creamy soup and distributed them to the table. After a prayer spoken by the father, Felicia raised her spoon. The Fanta thief grinned; the margins of his teeth were still stained orange from the stolen soda. “Tortue. Very delicious for you, no?”




Twenty-seven box turtles came to live with Myrtle when they put in the new housing development down the road. It wasn’t too many turtles; she still had an acre of scrubby Texas land and grasshoppers aplenty.

When it was a cool morning, Myrtle sat out on the back stoop with a coffee and watched the turtles. A family of four lived beneath the lilac bush; a group with scuffed carapaces stayed over by the empty chicken coop. One family claimed the shadows under the tractor that still stood right where her husband had parked it before he went into the barn and had himself a coronary.


On her eightieth birthday, Myrtle’s children and grandchildren took her to the local steak house. At the end of the meal her oldest son handed her a small, wrapped box. Myrtle hoped it wasn’t a piece of jewelry; she had nowhere to wear such things. People came to church in dungarees these days and didn’t even seem embarrassed. An old woman who dressed up and screwed on earrings was the one who was out of place.

Inside the box was a garage door opener. Myrtle stared at it, then looked at the eldest son with raised eyebrows. He grinned at her. “We bought you a nice little ranch house in that new subdivision.”

Myrtle was concerned that the turtles be transported and transplanted in their proper groups. So the night before the moving van arrived, she went out with a brush and a can of white paint left over from some project. It was a full moon; she could see the shells clearly. She daubed an “A” on the ones by the chicken coop, a “B” on the family under the tractor, and so forth until all twenty-seven of them were marked.

The next morning, her second-oldest son arrived first; he had always been an early riser. Myrtle poured him a cup of coffee and they sipped while regarding the back yard. A turtle carrying an “E” on its shell nuzzled one of the strawberries growing in the bed next to the lilac bush.

She was about to explain the painted letter when the rain started, a deluge that made the lilac branches bow down to its power. Speech was impossible while water pelted the galvanized sheet covering the cellar hatch. The rain didn’t last long; the lilac was only dripping when the moving van sounded its horn. Her son hurried out to meet the driver. Myrtle took one last look out the window and saw that the turtle’s shell had been washed clean.



In AD 590, Pope Gregory took a red plume to the list of deadly sins that had been in use for centuries. He combined sorrow and despair, added extravagance and envy, and removed fornication. Turtles have existed their current form for more than two hundred million years and are even more ancient than the snake that sold the apple.



All rights reserved to Nancy Graham.

Interview: Roxane Gay