Try as we might to avoid it, winter has become a time for The Observer to den up and hibernate, huddled in front of the fire at The Observatory while wrapped in a buffalo skin, like a particularly surly “Game of Thrones” character destined to be spectacularly killed off. Our exercise routine, such as it is, doesn’t really gear back up until the pollen flies. With the cars rapidly disappearing under drifts of poison yellow dust in the driveway, we knew it was time to dig our run-over sneakers out of the closet.
Our preferred field of combat against the battle of the bulge is, like a lot of Little Rockians, the Big Dam Bridge, that soaring, river-spanning memory-maker with views that never fail to knock our socks off, each trip across as unique and intricate as a fingerprint. God bless you for that, former Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines. You’re a tough act to follow. Your move, current County Judge Barry Hyde, and it had better be good.
The Observer and Spouse got there just as the horizon behind Pinnacle Mountain was starting to go orange, our favorite time to hit the bridge. Full water bottles hoisted, we crossed from the parking area to the long row of triangular concrete monoliths that line the approach to the bridge and started our trudge. We hadn’t even made it to the sloped ramp when we saw it in the gloaming: a turtle.
This wasn’t any regular turtle, we soon saw, but a baby alligator snapping turtle. The broad tail, thick legs and knobby shell were unmistakable, even though this example was the size of a teacup saucer instead of one of the mossy, washtub-sized monarchs we sometimes see along the riverside, sunning themselves.
The Observer first saw an alligator snapping turtle in the wild when we were about 5 — a massive old sumbitch one of our distant kinfolks had transferred from the Arkansas River to a 6-acre stock pond up near Quitman as a kind of joke a few years before John Kennedy was felled in Dallas. There it stayed, to live out eternity as a god in that muddy little hole of water.
Our grandmother, Evangeline, was a fishin’ fool, and loved to quest that pond in the spring for bluegills: shimmering, flopping beauties on their way to a meeting with a knife and hot fat. She and the great turtle there had a kind of horrid pact, like something out of a particularly dark Flannery O’Connor story. Every once in awhile, when she reeled in a fish too little for the skillet, instead of throwing it back to grow into a record breaker, she’d get it off the hook, drop it on the ground, step on it, then toss the stunned fish down to the muddy bank to flop. She was old school like that, having grown up dirt poor in the 1930s on a farm near Quitman. Death didn’t bother her, not even at the end.
No more than a minute after she tossed down the little fish, the vast turtle would materialize from the murky bottom of the pond, big as a Honda Civic to a small boy. We can see it now in our memory: a sea monster, creeping through the algae and stones, the knobby shell breaking the surface glistening and black. At last, the turtle’s nose touched the little fish. And then: SNAP! Sated, the turtle would recede, melting back down to the cool bottom, its shape growing more and more indistinct until it was lost again to the mud and murk. Needless to say, The Observer has had an abject terror of them ever since, always remembering Granny’s warning not to get too close, lest the Honda-sized turtle latch on to finger, limb or toe, with no hope of release until the beast heard a clap of thunder.
The Observer recalled all this as we approached the little snapping turtle, which had been crossing the concrete path from a water-filled ditch on one side to the other, maybe even headed for the river beyond. Given its size, we likely would have picked it up and helped it across, but there’s the whole clap of thunder business, so we decided against it. Seeing us, the little turtle sort of reared up on its legs, lifting its shell off the concrete. If a turtle can be said to fluff itself, this one did. “I’m big!” Spouse translated. “Fear me!”
Turtles can live long and longer, and for the first time in 35 years or more, we considered whether that reptilian god Granny had fed fish like a pagan sacrifice was still up there near Quitman, haunting the depths of that pond. Soon, the little turtle settled down and resumed his relentless try for the river, and The Observer and our Lovely Bride did the same, up the ramp to climb toward the sunset.
The Observer was halfway across the bridge, creaky old joints howling, when we realized that the Turtle of Evangeline has become synonymous in our mind with our own mortality: slow, terrible, inevitable, something imprinted on us as child, death and the turtle becoming one, and then: SNAP! We thought about that as we walked side by side with the love of this life, blood pumping, heart thrumming for the billionth time, a little fish flopping at the edge of eternity, trying our best to fend off his approach just a little bit longer. And in spite of our bum knees, we walked just a little bit faster.