When The Boy and I were young, we were quite poor. There was a time, when I was 26 and he was four that we could no longer afford meat. We grew our own vegetables that summer, and we ate a lot of oatmeal. The Boy became very good at picking green beans, tomatoes and onions; and I often had my oatmeal without milk so that he could have mine.
It was at this time that I grew to understand the origin of the term “salad days”.
I had finished school and picked him up from daycare one summer day when I saw something very large in the road. It was a four-lane paved road in Wisconsin – two lanes in each direction – and I was shocked to see the largest snapping turtle I’d ever seen – to this day! – in the middle of it. That turtle's shell must’ve been two and-a-half, maybe three feet across.
I pull over and turn to Dylan, who is belted in next to me.
“You stay here. That turtle’s got three lanes to cross and I’m going to help him.”
I slam the driver's door.
I run out to the turtle. There is a lull in the rural traffic, and I stand next to him.
“Hey, Turtle. What’s up?”
The turtle turns, his oddly bird-like face looks up at me. It is then that I remember that a good-sized turtle like this can take a finger off.
“You stay here.”
I run off to the side of the road. I’ll find a large stick, push it toward him, he’ll chomp down, and I’ll pull him off the road with it. Voila! Turtle is moved off the road safely, Boy learns how it’s done, I can safely dream of migrating turtles.
That is the plan.
I find a good thick stick, a perfect turtle-baiting stick. I turn to see cars coming.
The first one goes by. The second one sees the turtle and swerves – unnecessarily. The third car, freaked out by the second one’s swerving, swerves, too; and the fourth car?
The fourth car strikes the turtle.
There is a loud, exploding CRACK followed by loud, explosive screaming.
The crack was the turtle’s shell.
The screaming is me.
I run into the road, tears running down my face.
“Oh, God. Oh, Turtle. Bite this. Bite this!!!” I push the stick at the turtle, who snaps once, weakly, at it – and lays his head on the tarmac.
Another cry escapes me as I throw the stick in the ditch, grab the turtle by its shell and drag him off the road and into the cool grass of the ditch. He must’ve weighed 30, maybe 35 pounds…
He doesn't open his eyes.
When I straighten up, I can see that Dylan has removed his seat belt and is standing on the front seat, watching me. I stand across the road from him, waiting for the traffic to go by, sobbing. I see his lips move: Mommy.
“I’m a coward,” I weep, climbing into the car. Dylan puts his arms around me, pushes his little face into my neck, and I cry harder. “I went out to save him and I didn’t do it fast enough and now he’s dead.”
Dylan rubs my back and makes “shhh shhh shhh” noises in my ear. I have stopped crying and am hiccupping softly by the time I put his seat belt back on him and we pull the car back onto the road.
It is quiet.
“You sure he’s dead?”
He is quiet, and I can see him weighing his words.
"Maybe we can go back later," he says.
I turn to look at him.
“Maybe we can eat him, huh? Can you eat turtle?”
The thought of cracking open that enormous shell was too much for me, but to this day, I admire The Boy’s practicality.