The woman did not look like the herpetologists of my imagination. That’s probably because she wasn’t one. I imagine grizzly, sinuous, graying men who have hiked the Appalachian Trail and canoed the Okefenokee. Unfair, I know. I was probably underestimated, myself, during my career in herpetology.
But admittedly the woman did not at first inspire confidence with her approach to the turtle trying to cross the road. She reached out toward it with open arms, only to pull back quickly. I thought: “Oh, God, here’s a half-hearted do-gooder,” which, of course, is the worst kind; they can sometimes do more harm than good. The woman extended her arms again and took several steps forward, but she pulled back just as quickly and the turtle continued marching indifferently toward its goal.
Perhaps due to a befuddling day spent in air conditioning, it took me several moments of sitting in the turn lane—waiting for the light and watching—to realize that it wasn’t the turtle’s bite that she feared but the oncoming cars that whizzed past her and even closer to the turtle. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see the oncoming traffic until it had already narrowly missed the odd pair.
The woman looked down at the turtle and up at the traffic. The cars kept whizzing past, but the turtle was advancing, either oblivious to or in spite of the traffic. Deciding that she had had enough, the woman pointed exaggeratedly at the turtle and motioned for the drivers to stop. The traffic slowed to a halt. I glanced up to see if the light had turned red.
Snatching her chance, the woman doubled over and scrambled to pick up the turtle, but it marched faster, just out of reach. She stood up and looked hesitantly at the quivering walls of the parted Red Sea. They were steady, so she ran and doubled over again. The turtle narrowly evaded her grasp. It was an easier beast to herd than to pick up, so she followed on its heels, flapping her arms toward the grass on the side of the road. One moment of the turtle’s hesitation as it decided which way to go was all that the woman needed.
She picked it up. I waited for it to bite her, braced for the sickening thud of living shell dropped on concrete. The turtle’s head rocketed out and its mouth snapped at the air. But the woman was unfazed. Traffic was life threatening, but a turtle’s bite could be forgiven.
The Red Sea held until she reached the grassy roadside with the turtle still in hand. It held until after she had crossed back to her car, which was blocking traffic in the opposite turn lane. Then, slowly, the miracle faded. The woman jumped in her car with a smile and a wave to the other drivers, who smiled and waved back at her.