This was a year ago, when things were very different.
Suffice to say that one sunny September afternoon, after a friend knew that the Biology department needed someone, the professor led me down to the basement and the turtle room.
A lab, rows and rows of vials, whirring machines, refrigerators, the scratches of mice at glass.
The cold white walls opening up, the linoleum floor, the drains that led to nowhere, the microscopes that peered into somewhere, the unknowable suddenly revealing itself for the first time.
Open a small door. A humble closet, bakers shelves lined with clear tubberware. A sink. A mop. A drain in the floor. A few buckets. Too humid, condensation dripping from the rough plastered ceiling.
And the turtles softly swimming.
At least a hundred, more if you include the littlest ones.
Take them out, handle them by the back of the shell or grip them by the tail. Soft hands. Deposit them in a bucket, scrub their shell a little bit. Clean out the tubberware. No soap, it irritates their skin. Fill up the tubberware, the water a little warm, but not too warm. A sprinkle of dry food, small brown pellets. Back on the shelf. Simple. Once a week. Eleven dollars an hour, make sure you sign the time sheet.
On my own, the first night in the basement, a cool September night and a skirt, flats that quickly get soaked. Strip down, sweat. The turtles don’t know me yet, snap at my fingers when I brush their shell, the floor is soaked with algae and shit. Bare feet.
Stumble outside the humid room, lie down on the floor of the hallway, eleven and no homework done tonight, arms weak and heavy. Still more turtles to care for.
I could not care for myself, but these little ones needed me. Their small and slippery shells, little mouths opened wide and hissing what must have been vile slurs at me. Peeling myself off the floor to come back to them.
The rhythm of it. How I learned to pour water with only a small splash, my skirt dry these days. A small sprinkle of food. Little movements in a small space.
The smooth swimming that surrounded me.
Their snaps at my fingers. I could not be good enough for them, no matter how gentle, how smooth. How I started talking to them, cursing them fondly, vile words said with love.
They needed me, as much as they hated me.
Late night, strip down, talk to the turtles. Let them hurl their rage and despair at you, their small turtle hearts bitter and broken; you would be too if you lived in tubberware. Sing to them. Cry on the small stool in the corner. Let your despair echo off the walls. Laugh at how they crane their necks, their webbed feet stretching and the unexpected sharpness of their claws.
A bleak Minnesota winter. Paint the walls with your tears. A small turtle lays his head in your hand.
His webbed feet rest on your palm, contract and expand, gentle pinpricks on your skin from wicked claws. The coolness of his skin. His neck twists around. Snake eyes, flat and white, brown irises. He looks as you, and his belly expands, breathes. He sighs.
Sit down. Let him crawl into your lap, gently wipe the algae off his shell, wonder at how he wriggles in pure pleasure as he gets clean. No nips here, no desperate lunge to tip over a bucket, no hiss. He starts to slowly crawl down to your knees.
His neck extends to explore, and for the first time, you realize how freakishly long it is, the proportions of a swan or a snake. He knows what you are thinking, twists around to sigh at you. Your hands keep him from falling.
He seems to be nearsighted.
You name him Ferdinand.
He wriggles in happiness whenever you walk into the humid little room. You start to weep less. When you do, you hold him, and he crawls up your shoulder. He starts to nuzzle your neck, crawls up to inspect your ears. He likes to look at the other turtles. They snap at him, and every time, his neck contracts backwards, shock and hurt. You start to clean his cage last, let him look about the room, grip your knees and shoulders and nestle in the hollow of your chest before you have to leave. He kisses your chin, outstretched neck, every time.
He loved me. I loved him. I still do. I left him.
To be more accurate, I left college, came back home, started over. That’s a ballad unto itself.
But I left the humid little turtle room behind. And I left Ferdinand.
For that, I grieve.
For that, I wear turtlenecks.
For that, I remember how a strange little turtle, different from the rest, sighed in my hand and helped me be whole again.
For that, it is around this time of year, when all seems lost, despite the joy of the season, that I remember a turtle named Ferdinand still found his little world a miracle, a place to explore, a place worth finding joy in, enough to make him open his little eyes wide.
I try to open my eyes wide. For Ferdinand.
AND THUS ENDS THE BALLAD OF THE GOOD TURTLE FERDINAND.
© 2017 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.