Before I turn into a painted box turtle and release myself into the wilderness, I kneel in wet leaves to peek inside your shell. Your hunter-orange eyes peer back, either waiting for me to speak or advising that I do not.
I begin: “I’m sorry. I know you by the yellow calligraphy across your back and the red lightning stripes of your neck. I need your help.” I bow, pulp the moss under palm and knee, destroy unimaginably delicate life with my apology because this is the way of our species.
“You must remember me. I moved you ten years ago onto a hot concrete porch to show my child. There he is now, toting a bb gun to make himself feel safe in your woods.”
The boy is still small enough to want to make a trip to our family home, to color eggs with my lonely mother, to wear a pair of pants with an elasticized waistband, one thumb tucked through the front two loops. But he is yet big enough to shoot hedge apples, to mushroom hunt, to everywhere stomp with his gun. To feign disinterest in the box turtle we watched march helplessly at the air. So much of suffering is capricious, imposed – I learned this from you. I am embarrassed, but even now I recognize that is not the same as feeling ashamed. Embarrassment is inadequate. That is why we all, in time, suffer for ourselves. Perhaps that is the secret turtles know better than human beings.
“We are selfish creatures who grow far larger than we deserve,” I say, shift my weight, mash the living carpet of your forest floor, try a compliment. “Your long-suffering face looks the same, dear friend, and I’m so happy to see it. Do you remember my boy? He claims to have forgotten you. Fret not. He lies because this is the way of our species.”
I lower my voice, old woman to old woman. “We two are alike, but you fare better.” You nip doubtfully at your wild strawberry leaves. “You are out here still, and I’m already ten years gone with no one to show me the way back. How do you survive? Have you colored eggs? Do you mushroom hunt?” I see my son mount a log, lunge, faraway in his gunplay because that is the way of our species. I envy your ability to hold yourself watertight, to be impervious the forgetfulness of boys who grow.
“Soon I’ll be a turtle like you,” I whisper, “if I can grow a shell hard enough, become hard enough in time. Please teach me how to survive life unseen.” But if you have secrets, you instead occupy your tongue with foraging. “Please,” I say, but you know a plea is only a toothless command. I have not yet marched at the sky.
Edie Meade is a writer, artist, and mother of four in Huntington, West Virginia. She is passionate about literacy and collects books like they’re going out of style. Say hi on Twitter @ediemeade or https://ediemeade.com/.