A turtle wandered into our garden one day.
That was early in summer, 1987 -- 17 June to be exact. Huddled under a bush, it looked like a rock. Tokiko, my companion, thought it was a rock and picked it up, and it wiggled; and she kept it in a carton to show it to me when I came home.
I was ecstatic. I ran to a pet shop and found a little turtle book, and learned that it was a Common Eastern Box Turtle. It has a high dome, and I decided it was a she. Only later I verified from reading that it is probably female because its eyes are brown rather than red, its tail is short, and there is no visible depression in the lower shell. But who knows? And who cares?
I thought the turtle's arrival was auspicious. First of all, cranes live one thousand years, turtles ten thousand -- so goes the saying in Japan, and they are celebrated for their longevity. Secondly, it was the felicitous return of my childhood turtle. When I was about six, the family went on a stroll after dinner one summer evening when a fair was out and Father bought me a turtle. I was overjoyed. I loved the way it wriggled when it was picked up. Father drilled a tiny hole in the shell, passed a cord through it and tied it to the persimmon tree in the garden. The next morning it was gone. It pulled the cord and broke it and crawled away. The garden was walled but it was nowhere to be found. I was sad for days. But it came back decades later with a taller back.
I named her Bikuchan after the Japanese expression "bikubiku" which describes a timid person who is always nervous and easily startled.
Bikuchan is gloriously slow -- like tea ceremony. I love watching her eat, reaching for food ever so cautiously, pausing once and pausing again, then taking a long pause after picking it up, interminably slow in every step of the action. I find it more ceremonial than lethargic. But I also like her her primitive look, her lizzard eyes and dinosaur feet, vestige from another age. I take her out on a walk in the backyard now and then. In the garden, contrary to the legend, she trots off very quickly once she starts going and can easily vanish from sight. Then, it is very difficult to find her. Curiously, whichever way I put her down in the garden she invariably heads off northward. This is all the more curious because my surname says "tail end northward."
My friend, Nick, brought up in New York, still keeps a turtle from his childhood who kept him company through college.
Bikuchan measured 5-5/8" (14.3 cm) up and down the length of its domed shell when she arrived. Now, eleven years later, she measures 6-1/4" (15.8 cm). Slow good.
T. Kaori Kitao, 06.20.98
my cat Mif