The Temporary Turtle That Refused to Be Boxed In

He wandered into our lives in Glendale, Calif., on a sunny Saturday morning. "Mama! Look what we found!" My brother and I staggered into the kitchen, carrying a huge knobby turtle.

Astonished, our mother plopped her dishcloth back into the soapy water in the sink. "Oh my goodness! Where in the world...?"

"He just dug under the fence and came into our yard," Eddie said.

"Of his own free will," I added, lest she believe that we had somehow coerced the reptile's arrival.

"He's ours now, Mama, isn't he?" I pleaded.

"Finders keepers," Eddie added.

"Now you know there's no 'finders keepers' ever," Mama said, "until we make a real effort to locate the owner." She put her hand tentatively on the bony carapace. "My, he is a big one, isn't he? He must be very old."

"Older than I am, Mama?" Eddie was 7. I was two years older.

"I'd say he's older than both of you, together." She ran her finger around the slightly up-turned edge. "And look here. There's a hole punched in his shell, near his neck." Our eyes followed her sudsy finger. "This turtle was tied up somewhere; and he must have broken his rope."

"Serves whoever it was right for tying him up," muttered Eddie.

"Nevertheless," continued Mama "we must search thoroughly for his real home. I'll phone the Murpheys and the Nelsons." They were our nearest neighbors. "And you two will go from house to house until you find out where he belongs." She dried her hands on her apron.

"Oh, Mama, can't we just play with him a little bit first?" Eddie had wrested our prize from my hands and was now attempting to "walk" him across the floor. The turtle drew in his leathery legs and head and closed his upper shell until he looked like a giant walnut half.

"Now see what you've done, Eddie!" I rushed to the animal's side. "You've scared him."

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did."

"Children! No quarreling! You may play with him quietly and gently, until I've finished phoning."

But our inquiries and searches were in vain. Gradually, the turtle became a member of our family. We named him "Boxie," after Daddy informed us that ours was a box turtle.

Boxie joined the rest of the family menagerie, which included Mac, our battle-scarred tomcat; Skipper, our feisty wire-haired terrier; and Mama's canary, Sweetie. Sweetie, alone, seemed unaffected by the new member.

Skipper reacted with shrill, outraged barking the first time he saw Boxie ambling across his yard. To us, his barks said: "Hear! Hear! What is this thing walking on our grass? He rushed the enemy, whereupon Boxie withdrew into his stony fastness. Now Skipper was truly beside himself. He nipped at the edge of the shell.

"Skipper, stop that!" Eddie and I flew to the turtle's rescue. "This is Boxie. He's our friend," I exclaimed, throwing my arms around the dog and holding him back.

"See, Skipper, nice Boxie." Eddie petted the turtle. "Nice Boxie." He stroked the reptile again. Boxie stuck his head out and looked around. Skipper yelped and lunged. Boxie withdrew.

"Just for that, Skipper," I scolded, catching hold of the dog's collar, "you have to go in the house until you learn how to behave yourself!" I dragged the stiff-legged dog into the kitchen.

Mac treated the newcomer with regal disdain. He strolled over and put a dainty paw on the turtle's back. Boxie shut down tightly. Mac quietly observed this, then turned and stalked off. His high-held head and flicking tail said,"This is only a rock, which occasionally walks."

Boxie settled in. We all grew used to him. We filled in the hole under the fence and put chicken wire along the bottom edge of the fence to discourage straying. My brother and I hand-fed him lettuce, cabbage, carrot sticks, and other vegetables. For desert he grazed on Mama's nasturtiums.

We learned all we could about turtles, discovering terrapins, snapping turtles, leatherbacks, and Galapagos giants. We did reports in class. One day I even brought Boxie to school for a visit.

At home, Eddie and I found a cardboard carton, cut a doorway in it, and put Boxie into it each night. We set his new "house" on the patio. When we had a winter cold snap we brought him into the warm kitchen. He spent most of that winter hibernating there.

One fine summer morning, when Boxie had been with us a year, Eddie and I went out into the yard with his usual breakfast of lettuce. We searched in vain for our pet.

"Where do you suppose he is, Bets?"

"I don't know. But look," I pointed to a flat trail going through the nasturtiums.

"A hole! Right under the chicken wire. Ah, Boxie!" Eddie lamented. We raced out of the yard and into the vacant lot next door. No turtle, anywhere. We searched all that week. We inquired of the neighbors. We cried. Finally, Mama sat us down on either side of her on the living-room couch.

"You know, children, turtles are wandering creatures. You can't keep them forever. He has gone on to a new home."

"But he belongs to us," Eddie cried.

"No, Eddie, turtles belong only to themselves." She hesitated. "You two learned a lot from having him here."

I tried one last plea. "But Mama, we loved him."

"I know, honey, but a turtle senses when it's time for him to move on. And you must learn when to let him go."

We dried our eyes, sighed, and snuggled against her, accepting our loss, at last.

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