A Turtle. At My Door?

by Karen Van Fossan

If you live in Bismarck, North Dakota, or if you’ve ever been here, you’ve probably noticed the difference between East Rosser Avenue and the Missouri River. They are thoroughfares, both of them, but after that, the comparison gets pretty thin – especially if you happen to be a turtle.

Which is why our dear friends from Fargo appeared at our door.

When I saw Ella’s face through the screen, with her arms in the air to announce a special delivery – I couldn’t have been happier. In her hands, she had, well, I figured it was something she had canned, peach puree maybe, or even peach-almond jam. But as I approached the front door, I couldn’t help but notice that the jam was kind of…squirmy.

I squeezed through the screen door, leaving my equally squirmy dogs in the living room behind me. “What happened?” I proclaimed, as I looked in the face of a wild, North Dakota turtle.

turtle (Photo courtesy of Aunt Owwee.)

In between hugging Ella and Carlie, and watching the parched turtle try to swim out of Ella’s hands, I pieced together the story. They’d found the turtle crossing Rosser Avenue, in and among the traffic, at the pace a turtle does whatever a turtle will do. But they’d realized, even though they’re from Fargo and not Bismarck, that neither side of Rosser is the river. The turtle, through chance or malice, had turned up more than a mile away from the best home around.

Which is why our dear friends from Fargo appeared at our door.

They figured we’d know a good spot for a turtle. And they were running late to Ella’s aunt’s house. So there I stood on the front stoop, holding a swimming turtle, who wasn’t swimming anywhere. My partner was in the shower, of all places.

Have I mentioned that there are somewhere between nine and nine million curious children within spitting distance of our house? And just a little bit ago, didn’t I refer to my three or so million squirmy dogs? These varied and wonderful creatures made being outside – or inside – pretty precarious for this turtle out of water.

(Photo courtesy of GobberGo.)

So, with every bit of nonchalance that I could muster, I moseyed – with a very non-nonchalant turtle – toward the bathroom window, which is often cracked open, even during shower time, thanks to this summer’s preponderance of moisture.

Kris!!!” I said nonchalantly. “I need you to come outside!!!”

A soapy face emerged between the curtains. She was so lathered, in fact, that we could have shot a commercial for our favorite shampoo, if only we’d had the time. But what we didn’t have, as you know, was time. It could have been hours, even days, since this very dry turtle had touched the water. And the stress of my two loving hands wasn’t helping her (or him) to feel any more at home.

OMG!” Kris said, or maybe something a little less last-year. “I’ll be right out.”

In the space between that moment and the actual “right out,” which wasn’t long at all, I wandered, nonchalantly, toward the side of the house that doesn’t border children. I thought about all the things that I could do wrong at that moment. Put the turtle in a box and watch her exhaust herself trying to climb away. Put a lid on the box and cut off all her oxygen. Run a little water from the hose and shock her system.

So instead of doing the things I was pretty sure were the wrong things (though they might have been just fine), I continued to do the most amazing thing that I could do.

I held her.

I noticed that she had toes, of sorts, with five precise claws on each black and yellow foot. I counted the large trapezoids making up her shell. Thirteen shapes, like people say, one for every moon of the year. I looked in her face, saw the sheath of skin that wraps around her neck, for giving her head protection when she draws in. I listened to her deep and abiding quiet.

Turtle in Trempealeau Bay
(Photo courtesy of crossn81.)

Ready?” said Kris, less lathered now, dashing toward the car, with keys in hand.

Ready,” I said, with a bit of the turtle’s quiet.

As Kris sped to the river, with the turtle and me riding shotgun, we got snagged by a couple of stop lights – though thankfully no police. At one particular stoplight, just in front of the hospital, I heard a voice from the neighboring car: “They have a turtle.” Then the high-pitched voice went even higher: “They have a TURTLE!”

Kris looked toward the neighboring car (while I kept my eyes on the creature). “Oh, hi,” she said.

Soon, we chose our spot along the river. Requirements for the spot: Lots of mud (for a good source of meals). Low-lying water (for easy entry). Few people (since some people don’t know the difference between the river and Rosser Avenue).

Kris stayed by the roadway, acting nonchalant, to deflect and confuse said people. I went slopping through the mud, turtle in my hands, a fair bit of stink up my nose. I set the turtle down, with her face toward the river, one turtle-length from the edge. Without hesitation (no more than a turtle might normally have), she crawled toward the water. Swimming. She was swimming! Her four feet were swimming in a place where feet can swim.

And then she stopped. After a moment of swimming, she stopped, right there in the water.

I waited. Was she alive? Was she alive??

I don’t know why, but her body started turning in my direction. Maybe it was the flow of the water, but the turtle turned to face me. I looked in the turtle’s face. She lifted her head just a little – very alive. I smiled with every muscle in body. The turtle continued to face me, as I made my path away. 

turtle pond turtle
(Photo courtesy of Haaley.)

I couldn’t wait to tell this story to Kris, to my best friend down the block, to Ella, to Carlie, to you.

This was why our dear friends from Fargo appeared at our door.