Archive for August, 2013

The Crying Turtle

We woke in the early hours of the morning, having never really gone to sleep.   For months and months it seemed, Mom and Dad promised to take us to Edisto at the next low tide for turtle egg hunting and flounder gigging.

It was 1962.  We took our boats at low tide through the marsh to islands next to us; islands called Hilton Head, Edisto Island and Kiawah.  These islands, rough and unpopulated, had deer and wild goat running along the beach.  Inaccessible by land back then, they could be reached from Rockland Plantation’s docks within ten minutes by our outboards and small dinghies.

I hated flounder gigging.  Flounders populate on the floor of the riverbeds at low tide.  They are flat fish, and the low tides keep the waters still, so the flounders lay completely still themselves, perfect prey for spearing.  So we would spear the unfortunate bastards, and the floor of the boat would be stinky and filled with these enormous, flat fish, their hapless eyes staring up at me, it seemed, accusing me of their sad demise.  I compensated for my unhappiness by cutting their eyes out at home and putting these eyes under my sister’s pillow to torture her:  nothing says “sleep tight” like a fish eyeball staring at you from under your pillow as you settle down for a nice night….

But the treat of the all-nighter, besides being with Mom and Dad in this most special of events, was going to Edisto to hunt turtle eggs.  The sea turtles were laying their eggs in the warm and fragrant sand at low tide, at the full moon, and for some reason, the eggs were highly desirable for what was called “Turtle Egg Soup.”  This was long before the sea turtle was an endangered species.  This was long before the Manatee was endangered, and was also the time when there were so many of these sea cows that during mating season you could not get your motorboat in the waterway to start the motor for fear of bumping into these huge and cumbersome creatures.

I heard Mom whooping with pleasure at the first “find.”  She and Dad showed us the huge hole in the sand where the turtle had buried her eggs, and we watched as Mom dug them up.  We also watched in fascinated horror as Mom poked a hole in the soft egg, which looked exactly like a ping pong ball, and sucked the embryonic turtle right out and down her gullet.  I have never been one for eggs in my life, and this memory keeps me away from them – eggs of all kinds – to this day.

But what was kindled in my 12 year old heart that night, the night of the full moon on Edisto Island, was hearing someone’s voice, over and over again, telling me:  “Get on her, Kathy!  Ride her, Kathy!  Get on her!”  –  And I simply could not do it.  I could not get on the back of the Mama turtle and ride her back down to the sea.  This was what we were “supposed “to do.  This is why the kids had come, after all.  Our parents were raping the young, but we were supposed to defile the old.  But I couldn’t do it. 

She was crying.  The Mama turtle was crying.  Apparently there is a discharge from the eyes of the female turtle after giving birth, and as this sweet, sweet animal lumbered back down to the ocean, post-partum discharge in full sight, I could not look at her, but turned away, weeping myself.  I was so ashamed of myself.  I was being mocked and shamed, as if I was afraid to get on the back of the turtle, but I was simply identified with this magnificent creature that we were hurting so much.  We were eating her young.  And she was crying.  At least that is what I saw.  And to this day my heart hurts like it did then.  It hurts like it did when I was failed in my biology class at Salem College because I would not pith a live frog.

I made amends years later to the sea turtles while swimming in Hawaii.  I went out to them and they swam all around me.  I wanted them to bump me, maybe even hurt me a bit, but they didn’t.  It was the strangest thing so many years later.   I was told in Oahu:  “Don’t, whatever you do, go swimming in Turtle Bay.  The Sea turtles are out en masse and they will kill you!  There are so many of them.  They were once endangered, and now there are plenty of them, but don’t swim in this bay.”

So I swam in that bay.  I swam out in that bay.  I swam and prayed for forgiveness.  I swear on everything that is holy they encircled me and forgave me.  At least that is my story.  So years later, when I was almost 50 years old, these turtles have eased my heart from the pain it carried over a 12 year olds’ pain on Edisto Island for being so unconscious. 

I don’t remember if my sister or brother rode the mother turtle down to the Sea on Edisto Island on that full moon night in 1962.  I do know I saw a Mama sea turtle cry after she left her babies in the warm sand.  I know my own body grieved twice when its’ babies left my womb after nesting in, once for only 12 weeks, and the other for a full nine months gestation.

When I was 8 or 9 we chased a possum with a crab net and killed it by bludgeoning it to death.  I shot a small “tweetie”bird with my Dad’s hunting rifle, pretending I could skin it and picked up the blown up body and put it in his hunting jacket.  I killed an armadillo and skinned it and put the bones in Daddy’s hunting jacket.  I remember Mama’s face when she walked in the garage when Rennie and me were  4 years old and we were standing up on the tall bureau dropping kittens onto the cement floor seeing “if they would break.”

I am not sure when awareness creeps in, or when a conscience is developed.  I know we studied this in psychology school, but I have absolutely no memory of what I learned. 

I do know that something shifts in people, or should shift in people, as it certainly and clearly did with me.  To what degree this is developed is fascinating.  To what degree this is developed between males and females is equally intriguing.  I just know I was a kid who hurt animals, and suddenly I was one who didn’t and couldn’t.

How can we be held accountable for something of which we are not aware? How could my sweet Mama be held accountable for sucking up an egg when she was so delighted to find these delicacies – the purpose of the special trip to Edisto Island, after all?  She was just so happy to return home and make Turtle Egg Soup for my Dad.

We are all always innocent, says Byron Katie.  We are all always doing the absolute best we can.

Maybe this is why the turtles held me in their healing circle in Oahu ten years ago.  Maybe this is what I was supposed to learn.  Maybe this is part of the teachings of the islands; these island which continue to teach me, as I dream of them.  When I “journey” now – a sort of Shaman’s dreaming in front of nature as I walk the hills around me or sit in silence among the trees in my back wilderness – I still glimpse past images of Wadmalaw Island or Kiawah or Edisto.  And the stirrings of a heart filled with forgiveness and understanding are what the island memories bring me now.  I taste the plough mud, the salt, and remnants of oyster shells brought by the moist, wild wind that once settled on my tongue and in my eyes and ears and do so, once again, in memory.


( From the Rockland Series)     







Read Full Post »