One turtle, two rescues, and strangers no more

I was driving along a winding road bordering an old canal, enjoying the serenity of sunlight sparkling between green leaves, when I rounded a bend and saw a large turtle immobile on the shoulder. It was the size of a wash basin and the color of sweat-soaked leather. Its head projected stiffly toward the road, inches from passing cars. One foot was raised over the asphalt, frozen in position, as if awaiting the signal to cross.

I slowed down. Surely it wouldn't try to cross. Should I move it off the road? If I stopped, I'd be late for work.

I drove past, still arguing with myself, and looked in my rearview mirror. Cars behind me swerved to give the turtle room. Its foot was still poised majestically in midair.

I braked sharply and pulled onto the shoulder, then reversed until I was within 10 feet of the turtle. He didn't turn to look at me as I walked toward him, high heels crunching in the sandy dirt. His down-turned mouth and bald head gave him the sour look of a degenerate old aristocrat. I bent over, arms outstretched, to grasp the sides of his shell when he suddenly launched himself upward, his neck twisting round and his mouth open. I felt the edge of his jaws brush the skin on the inside of my arm and heard the cracking sound of a trap snapping shut. I leapt back, arms flailing like a tightrope walker losing her balance. My heart was pounding. I'd expected to be the rescuer, not the victim.

For a moment I considered abandoning my attempt at heroism, but the turtle's assault had landed it even closer to the traffic.

I looked around for a stick. In the high, papery grass under branches bowed with kudzu, I saw one. Bending low to keep my hair from tangling in the creepers, I stepped into the undergrowth. My patent-leather shoe sank deep into squelching mud. At the same moment, a twig snagged my other leg, and I felt the nylon rip. As I stood up to extricate my shoe, a branch speared my hair.

Uncharitably, I swore at the mud, the turtle, and the Japanese for importing kudzu. I swore at the inventor of high heels, at myself for stopping.

Finally free, I grabbed the branch and emerged from the undergrowth looking a little less poised than I had when I entered it. I stomped toward the turtle. Come what may, I was going to rescue the blasted thing.

Standing well back, I slid the stick alongside the turtle, hoping to nudge him off the road. He was heavy; I would have to apply more pressure. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, as suddenly as before, the turtle shot up, twisted around, and grabbed the branch in its mouth. With a jerk he pulled it from my grasp. But this time, when he landed, he was turned toward the kudzu.

That gave me an idea: I could goad him toward the grass with the stick. If he bit the stick, I could drag him.

I held on to the stick on my next attempt, but the turtle did not. The next leap left him facing the road again. I gave him another poke, and he made another flying arabesque.

I had a sudden picture of myself: a painted lady in a gray-silk suit waltzing with a turtle by the side of the road. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw cars slow down and caught a glimpse of bemused smiles.

SUDDENLY, a red car rounded the bend on the shoulder and raced toward me. A dark-skinned man in heavy-rimmed glasses flung open the door and jumped out.

"Elijah Gabriel, professor of zoology!" he announced as he ran toward me with his hand outstretched. "I saw you trying to move this creature, so I did a U-turn and came to help you."

His greeting left me speechless for a moment. My next instinct was to hug him. Instead, I took his hand in both of mine, pumping it up and down.

"Thank you! Thank you so much!" I babbled. "I didn't know what to do. He's so big! I tried to lift him and...."

I told my story of almost being bitten and my surprise at the attack.

"That's why they call them snapping turtles!" he said cheerfully and ran back to his car. Of course! When I reached him, he was rummaging in the trunk of his car. He emerged with a long-handled ice scraper.

"This should do it!" he announced.

With a few swift strokes, he rolled my dance partner away from the road. The professor was slightly built and a few inches shorter than I. He wielded the ice scraper with the grace of an orchestra conductor.

"He probably crossed the road during the night to get to the water and was trying to get back to the woods on the other side," he explained. "But he's safer at the bottom of the hill."

As he flipped the turtle over and over in the gravel until it looked like a breaded drumstick, the zoologist and I talked. There was a companionable sense of common purpose that dissolved the barriers that would normally have separated two strangers. He told me that he taught at Howard University and was from Ethiopia. He guessed from my accent that I'd lived in England and told me he'd studied there, too. We compared notes on our English public-school experiences.

Once we were in the undergrowth, heaving the turtle over and over became more difficult. He stopped more often. He listened intently to my story, sometimes looking straight at me to assure me that he was paying attention. I didn't find his questions intrusive or strange and asked him just as many. Our mission had thrown us together, creating a separate reality and suspending social conventions. We were like passengers on an airplane, telling our seatmates our life stories. I almost forgot why we were there.

We reached the edge of the slope.

"This is it, old man!" said the professor, addressing the turtle. One final shove sent the reptile - snapping angrily - bouncing down the hill. We stood silently for a moment, and I realized that I didn't know what to say. Without the turtle to bind us, the spell was broken. We were strangers again.

What was the protocol for marking the end of a rescue mission? "Well, thank you again," I mumbled.

"No problem!' he said. He darted out of the woods and back to his car. Before I'd even started mine, he had done a U-turn and was driving off in the opposite direction from which he had come.

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