Look for Death Everywhere
“Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere,” or so said essayist Michele du Montaigne—who had a fairly jovial, frank perspective on The Great Matter.
In fact, it did seem the dying baby turtle was there, waiting for me.
In fact, the turtle was waiting for anyone. But it was only waiting because it couldn’t move very much…
I don’t know much about turtles. Only that in my childhood, by the beach in the summers, we used to come across a lame turtle, missing front claws on one leg, who occupied himself by crossing the road. He was the embodiment of the tired chicken joke, and we named him Tommy.
We brought him home to Brooklyn at the end of one summer, thinking we’d rescued him from certainty of being squashed. We put him in a tank in our backyard and fed him wet dog food, as instructed by the local pet store. Being smarter than that fate, he escaped, and dug his way into the neighbor’s garden, where he lived pleasantly for a few years, just ahead of the self-subsistence, urban ecology movement.
I do know some other things: if you’re really small and really cute, then you can’t have been on this earth too long. And if you have one eye oozing what can only be blood—poetically fuscia blood—you haven’t got much of a chance. There aren’t turtle band-aids, nor turtle prosthetic eyes—not in the park.
Here’s how it unfolded:
I’m in Prospect Park on a path that hugs the lake, which shimmers under a green gloss and under the blue throes of sky. The foliage canopies over the path; the spring is as fat as it can be; the flowers have pulled back so the leaves can explode. They call this “the setting.”
There is legitimate thicket between the paved path and the shoreline. People are fishing—and fish are latching, too easily duped. The shore is buffered by woodchips, where the caught fish are laid out. They don’t even flail. It’s their oh shit moment. They take it lying down, so to speak. They call this “the obstacle” or “the membrane” or “the margins.”
A couple is walking toward me. The woman has a tiny baby tied to her front. The man has that dazed, admiring look of the one who is not carrying the baby, and so can marvel at it. You know they’re not sleeping much—the baby could almost fit back into the uterus, so small is it. The colors of her skirt and ruffled nursing shirt echo the trees. His clothes look like they could have been pulled out of the dirty laundry pile. Suddenly, he stoops, takes something up in his hand from the path; the couple’s attention is pulled from the baby, and from inadvertently checking on its aliveness, to this little thing. It takes a lot to divert from the baby. The baby sleeps cooperatively. Maybe it knows it has met its fragile match, and defers.
When I get close enough, I can see it’s a turtle he’s got in his hand. Almost the size of a half-dollar, its legs the size of a teenage fly. I’m on the phone with R, my teacher, who’s telling me about the uncompromising morality of his best friend C, who just died. He now wears a thick plastic purple memorial bracelet that asks, “What would C say?” That question makes him pause, recollect his own off-beat heart and frantic kidneys. It encourages him to be direct and let (a love? Or is it always love?) go. This is called “not filling in the blank.”
“It’s injured,” the man says, looking at the turtle clinically, dispassionately. His voice sounds new to diagnosis, the way we hear parents speaking around their newborns, assertions that sound like questions and vice-versa (“He’s hungry?”). The man is trying out being definitive about the status of a creature that can’t supply its own words for what’s going on. But in this case the turtle seems to agree.
R’s friend C got so sick that she went off like a mist from the lake. That’s what a poet could say. In reality, her death was a window slamming shut. And as my 17 year-old student said about the death of his mom from an aneurism: the glass broke into a million pieces, waited in tact for a moment that gave you dumb hope, and then fell.
Blood is coming out of the turtle’s left eye in a perfect bead, the exact size of its other eye. The drop isn’t even going to drip—how much blood could its body possibly contain, anyway? A thimbleful of circulation? The turtle doesn’t move its legs at all, but stays perfectly still, as if cooperating with death, or knowing not to waste an iota of effort on pointless movement.
But I feel, when the man hands the creature to me, without really asking if I want it—the way a mechanic hands a wrench to his assistant—that I have the whole universe pinched there, between forefinger and thumb. The task, whatever it is, feels as huge as the turtle is tiny. Like the whole park is backing me up, being the bigger Hand in which we both are held. Putting me in charge. What the hell am I supposed to do?
I don’t know how this turtle got itself in this condition from the shoreline to the path. In a blind daze? Lear in the storm? Or perhaps the couple found it still in pathetic motion, mid-stride to the other side. The turtle’s crossing echoes the will-to-change of our Tommy, though this little one is far less well-equipped for survival on either side of any road.
“Are you going towards the Audobon center,” the man asks. It isn’t a question, and doesn’t deserve a question mark: it is an instruction. The man has a brown bag in his hand, a bit of grease gathering on the bottom. He wants to eat his bagel and hang out with the baby, I think. He wants to celebrate life and normalcy, not be pulled into this most mini of tragedies. He gestures at the baby, not even on purpose. As if to say: We have other responsibilities. Jr. will inevitably have to breastfeed. As if to say: We’re in the business of life. Can’t you see that, childless pedestrian?
“Can you take it.” Again, an instruction.
“I don’t know where the Center is,” I say, apologetically.
And both of them immediately point—this they know. They become a Greek chorus of two, choreographing the procession of the tragedy: “That way. The direction you are walking. Unmissable. By the boat house.”
I nod agreeably.
The turtle turns the other cheek
They go off down the path, the other way from death. Turns out the Audobon is only a stone’s throw away from where we found the turtle. But now the turtle is my problem and death’s problem.
And of course the Audobon is gated, locked up for the weekend. R is very patient, still on the phone, ministering to the turtle with me, while I make half-sentences, half talking to him, half talking to the turtle. He’s used to the interruptions.
Some things that might be true about death: Death tires you and lightens you in a very particular way. Death is like sea turtle sitting on your lungs but trying to teach you how to swim in new waters. Death is like the sky over the lake. Death isn’t like anything.
The turtle is saying, let’s get on with it.
The turtle is saying: I’ve just been through this. I just got born. My body will remember the way out.
No, the turtle isn’t saying anything. I feel panicked. It’s supposed to help me out here. Like I have a chance I can’t understand to do something I don’t know how to do. At the same time I feel peaceful, like there are no decision to be made, and we are getting on the mortal slide together, and throwing our hands up, and descending to a groundless place.
I live here, but I don’t know where a vet is nearby. R says I could take the creature home and get my J to tend, but J won’t be home til nearly midnight. I don’t think the turtle has that long. I ask myself if it has resources here, in its natural milieu. The shore of the lake by the Audobon center is steep and clearly man-made. A drop-off that resembles the ledge of a swimming pool more than a proper liminal descent.
The turtle is punctured; nature does to all of us eventually. I fret that I’m stressing it out, carrying it around indecisively like this in its injured state. It was finding its own way through death, and then we swooped in with our personal, somewhat heroic notions of salvation.
The path around the lake is newly renovated, and meant to increase human enjoyment and animal presence on the cleaned-up access to shoreline. Still, it takes me some stumbling around to find a proper patch of mud an animal might recognize. Might die or nurse itself back to health in.
It wouldn’t seem mud would be hard to find here. But that’s how it is. I imagine the couple with the baby, now happily perched on the grass proper, a mile away, the turtle no more on their mind as they watch their baby do the idiosyncratic cute things babies do—open and close its mouth, wince at the light, root for the nipple. While they chew their buttery bagels, glad to be sitting and eating and parenting, somehow. By instinct.
“Have a good death or a good life”, I say to the turtle. “Whichever comes first.” And R does his mantra, mumbling, the kind of mumble that is proper to reverence, where you honor someone’s clear path out by contrast, by speaking with blurry edges.
And I put the turtle down and turn and go. What happens next is truly not my business. And R reminds me, gently, as the living must do, “Wash your hands sometime soon.”
“Of course,” R adds later, “there are some things you can’t wash your hands of—ever.”
All the while I had pinched it between two fingers, not cupped it in my palm. Its energetic imprint remains there. I’m resisting the urge to go back and keep vigil—I don’t think animals need our vigil. They have their own ways of dying that anthropomorphizing can only disrupt, not honor.
Still I wonder how its eye had come to be gone—as if someone had committed a violent crime of passion—an eye for an eye. Just this.
The lake and the big sea
All around the path, the animals come and go, bustling with not being dead. An egret, slender as a number two pencil. A red wing blackbird. More of those fish, banked—they’ll get thrown back and start again. A plastic bag or two in the algae. You can feel the quiet tolerance of nature for the dumb and unnatural things we do.
But everything looks a little tilted. A man practicing headstands in the grass. A couple, doe-eyed at one another, their hard-ons and soft-ons barely hidden by their pants. Children on their popsicles, a mature form of latching, the popsicles already blending into the t-shirt fabric. I imagine I can feel the strain of my uncle dying states away. All death connected to all other death in a secret pact made on our behalf before we have a say in the matter.
There are birdcalls, and leaf-blooms, and funny human screeches from the fountains in the converted ice-skating rink. Small ones running between the jets. Boys on skateboards, looking for an audience for their tricks. A bum fumbling with his pants button unsuccessfully on the newly paved promenade.
And what could the baby turtle hear? And did it care to be saved? Was it already confused enough by having just been born—was it returning, with accepting familiarity, to the place it had newly come from? I prodded it a little when I put it down, as if to awaken its own internal drive to go towards the water, and either drown or live on. It didn’t seem to take any particular cue.
Most endings are constructs, or tentative, like this one. We crawl down the bank. We submerge in the greater thing. We are tossed beyond our semantic system. We turtle towards the Universal Objective.
And then we enter the sea—the big sea, where all semantics dissolve, where all sense of name and form is subsumed by nameless and formless—as Montaigne says: “Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had just before entered it.” Surely, in turtle-time, we’ve all just entered it.
We’re still baffled, looking everywhere to know what this place really is, where we are, and how we might crawl on. And the answer is everywhere, everywhere.