We share our four acres with a menagerie of creatures. There are the usual suspects: three dogs, three alpacas and four chooks, but a piece of land in the country means that we always have unexpected visitors, many of them just passing through, some that take up residence. Sometimes they interrupt a day.
The dogs usually let me know a long-necked turtle is on the move: it’s that particular high-pitched barking that is a cross between excitement and fear. Not quite sure of the creature, they make a lot of noise, just in case.
I was proof-reading the manuscript of my novel, and the interruption was welcome, releasing me from yet another debate over punctuation: a semi-colon or a fullstop; a comma or a colon? I taught this for years and it was all very clear to me then, but in my own writing, after the multiple revisions and then the copy-editing, every sentence, and then every word, has been considered and maybe changed. Now, the punctuation, hopefully invisible to the reader because it simply helps the words to work as they should … now the punctuation for me leaps out as if typed in red. On that proof-reading day, if the text had a voice, the sentences would have spoken in a normal voice, but each comma, colon and semi-colon would have been shouting at me. Shouting, and not offering a solution. You know how it is when you look at a word long enough, it seems to be a ridiculous combination of letters? Punctuation for me had become a set of strange, alien squiggles. What would the uni tutor-me say? I had no idea.
So, it was a relief to run outside to the dogs who were yelping, tails wagging, noses in the long grass by a fence. They were pleased, and a little ashamed, to see me, wanting to show me what they’d found, but knowing I would tell them to leave the poor thing alone. Fortunately, the turtle just tucks in its head and legs and becomes a rock-like shell. It’s safe, but it still smells strong enough for the dogs to track down. If it were a baby blue tongue, sadly, they would be tossing it around, puncturing its soft skin. That’s when I get cross and they get into real trouble, but by that time it’s too late for the lizard. I understand it’s a doggie thing to do, but it upsets me so much.
The long-necked turtle: this one was young and small, its shell a fawn colour and not easy to see in the long dry grass. I went to get a gardening glove and a bucket. I’d learnt the hard way, a few years ago, that their way of keeping away predators is to emit a black smelly liquid, a smell that seems to stick to human skin. By the time I came back the dogs had moved along the fence. A second turtle, this one a bit bigger. I settled them both carefully in the bottom of the bucket and set off for the dam, wondering again where they were heading. This is the time of year when they’re on the move. Last year we rescued one that was walking along the road; it might pull into its shell when a car comes, but that won’t save it from being flattened. Whenever the dogs find them, they’re moving slowly along a fenceline, trying to get through. To where? I’m not really sure.
I put each one in the reeds at the edge of the dam and thought, I hope this is where you want to be, fella. I hope you’re not looking out and saying, Bugger! It took me all this time to get away from here, and somehow I’m back again. All that slow hard walk for nothing!
But I figure it’s better than dehydrating out in a paddock somewhere.
An hour later and the barking began again. I’d moved on from the last punctuation debate to another one, but they seemed horribly similar. So again I ran out, released for a few minutes. Another turtle. For a moment, I thought it was one of the two I’d moved earlier, but no, this one was bigger again. Bucket and gardening glove — I’d leave them by the front door now, just in case — and the trek down to the dam again. As I stood back and waited for the turtle to poke out its little grey scaly head on its snake-like neck, I thought about all three and their three sizes, a bit like the three bears. Whether this was where the daddy one wanted to be, it slid into the water and swam away.
Later that evening, sitting by the dam with a drink, we kept a lookout for the little heads that poke above the water for a minute or so, then duck away again (unnervingly like commas to an obsessed brain). That night, we couldn’t tell who was who, but we knew there were three more.