Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Chloë and Hector

 basking in the sun

One summer’s day about three years ago I was prospecting for a few nicely squared field stones in a remote country place where I gather such things when I came upon a turtle.  The turtle, morosely planted in the shade of a clump of stringy grass, cast upon me what I considered the plaintive look of a lonely creature seeking companionship.  So I picked it up, placed it in the effective holding pen of the bed of my pickup, and after completing my business drove home.  If you are already offended by my blatant turtlenapping, I shudder at your reaction to what comes next.

For what happened next, and what happens altogether too frequently in my life these days, was oblivion.  Preoccupied with other matters, I did not immediately unload the stones, and only when I went to do so two and a half days later did the turtle reappear in my consciousness.  Removing a turtle from a landfill dump is one thing.  Starving it is another.  What most alarmed me was the fear of a possibly lethal dehydration.  My original thought had been simply to move the turtle to a better zip code.  But now I decided to put it in our atrium, one feature of which is a small pool frequently refreshed by rain and generous infusions of tap water, frequently recirculated by an electrical pump through the mouth of a concrete dolphin mounted by a cement rodeo-riding putto.  The pump is controlled by a switch in the kitchen, reachable by even the smallest ambulatory grandchild when sufficiently motivated; so the dolphin keeps pretty busy.

The atrium is about twenty feet square and has many other attractive features.  When I consulted written authority concerning the housing of pet turtles, I discovered that our atrium was the equivalent of the King Ranch and the Taj Mahal conjoined.   It could comfortably accommodate a half dozen carapaces.  The place is replete with vegetable delicacies and literally crawling with scrumptious insects.  Like Onan our frequently shaken bird-feeder regularly spills its seed upon the ground.  It turned out later that the root cavities left by long gone birch trees would prove perfect for hibernation.

Other inhabitants of the house, or frequent visitors to it, soon noticed that there was a turtle crawling around the atrium paths and swimming in its pool.  I tried, successfully for a time, to be as dumfounded as anyone else.  Perhaps it was spontaneous animal generation, as in Aristotle?  But eventually I had to come clean.  My spouse named the turtle, obviously a female, Chloë.  To the delight of the grandchildren, she became a part of the family.

Fast-forward now several turns of the seasons, and through two successful atrium hibernations.  Now I am working at the bottom of my garden in the warmth of an early summer morning when I see headed straight for me through the field grass, like a bee toward the hive, a really large turtle, obviously a male with sex on its mind.  I hesitated not for an instant.  I knew what this turtle needed and where it might be found.  I scooped it up, carried it to the outside atrium door, introduced it into its artificial paradise, and returned to my tomatoes.   Testudo Twain provided me a second opportunity to keep mum until others made the discovery, but that didn’t take too long.  Once again Joan was ready with the perfect name: Hector.

emerging from hibernation

We kept alert for significant tortoise social interaction but saw only indifference and occasional bickering.  Both turtles disappeared by around Thanksgiving.  Hector, covered in mud, reappeared briefly on a bizarrely hot day in February, then like the Punxsutawney groundhog wisely retreated for six more weeks, when within a few hours of each other both Chloë and Hector reappeared.  Since then they have been having public sex on a shockingly frequent basis.  And we have had to make a slight adjustment.

You are probably aware that a number of my colleagues in literary study have demonstrated that “men” and “women” are passé—the categories I mean.  It turns out that what we call “sex” is neither a natural category nor a fixed one, but a fluid condition constructed by society.  The failure to recognize this truth causes enormous problems, and perhaps even accounts for the election of Donald Trump.  During all my years as a professor, to my enduring shame, I resisted this scientific discovery, confidently espousing reactionary opinions born in the interstices of a premodern mind.  When they go at it our turtles do not make “the beast with two backs,” as Iago calls it.  Their amorous sport would better be described as “the shell game”.  But it turns out that I totally constructed—or rather misconstructed—their so-called sexual identities.  That is, we have been forced to conclude on the basis of empirical evidence that the large and aggressive Hector is actually Chloë.  The demure and tidy Chloë is actually Hector.  Somewhere among the woodruff there must be a cache of well fertilized eggs.  Perhaps I will be able to offer an update to this post in eight or ten weeks.