I’ve always had this thing for turtles,
mostly as curmudgeonly metaphor.
Sure, there were the occasional ones
picked up from woodland walks
or saved from highways as a kid
and kept until I felt sorry for them
and liberated them
close to their place of abduction
so they could find worried friends and family.
Ashamed, I quit picking them up at all.
My sister had some for a long time
“for the kids,” kept in luxurious fake aquariums
that too often went uncleaned until
the climate threatened incipient salmonella.
So I kept my distance
as when watching sea turtles
swim to shore at dusk
to lay hopeful eggs
I’ve never seen newly hatched
scrambling toward their rightful baptism.
My mother, too, in her old age
came across a turtle in the park
behind our house and thought
it was too cold to be out all alone
so late in the year,
so she secreted it in our compost pile
beneath the new-fallen leaves,
burying it among the scraps of
celery and carrot tops
until sanity relented and returned it.
Steinbeck described turtles best
in the Grapes of Wrath,
comparing them to the Joads’
precarious persistence for dignity
in pernicious poverty,
plodding, plodding, plodding,
toward vague promise.
I’ve always rooted for the turtle
despite the fact that it isn’t pretty and fluffy,
and it lacks bunnies’ binkies with sudden joy.
Sometimes, there are accidents
that roll them over onto their shells.
With soft underbelly exposed and
little limbs flailing helplessly about,
inciting deep compassion from biblical bowels,
they compel curious uprightness.
Turtles with the toughest shells
must make the best soup
with meat tenderized by trauma
that produces keratinized protection
to cradle precious vulnerability,
as it’s the gruff curmudgeons
who seem rough as tortoise shells
on the outside who often hold
the most fragile nacred wisdom
for all of us trying to make the arduous
journey out of the sea
across the road
to secret leaves of hope
for Compassion’s future scramble.
Would we but soften our hearts to see
beneath hard-edged camouflage
of barbed armor, we, too, could
discern a secret longing buried deep,
feeding until liberated,
a longing for lost tribe
or a better, warmer one
that didn’t abandon or forget
about the one once here
who suddenly vanished.
Wise chefs, full of compassion,
pick curmudgeon turtles up gingerly,
removing their shells with care,
to reserve them for service.
They cry over strong beautiful meat,
tender, bloody, raw,
yet salvific verum sarx,
remembering that upside down,
the shell holds buried story
that can still be righted.
© January 2018, Tess Lockhart. All rights reserved.