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Turtle Dance

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The park naturalist sips on his diet coke and sinks his rather prominent teeth into a jelly doughnut. A strawberry glob falls out of the tail end of the pastry and plops onto his belly that, like overly leavened bread, spills over his belt.

Another day, another uniform to clean.

He wipes the glob off with a napkin, then pats the smudge left behind.

It'll be dark soon, and nobody'll notice anyway.

He is perched on the hood of his government issue Olds, waiting for the turtle fans. Twice a week during the summer, he marches them onto the beach and down to the turtle hatchery to check on the eggs and hopefully see some hatch.

They don't like it when the turtles don't show or even when they're slow about it. They mill around and push against the fence and ask questions like "Where are they?" and "When will we see them?"

It is his tenth turtle season. The tenth time he follows, early in the morning, the tank-like tracks from the sea to the beach. The tenth time he robs the nests. The tenth time he carefully places the leathery eggs into volunteer-made holes. The tenth time he imprisons the eggs in chain link.

There's always someone who asks me how long it takes for them to reach the open sea. There's always one who asks how many eggs they'll be. There's always one who wants to touch. There's always one who wants to help. They always push against the fence.

He watches with hooded eyes as his assistant Mark, a kid from Columbia, pulls his sleek red mustang into a spot marked: Park Employees Only. When he gets out of the car, Mark extends a hand. "Hello, there, George. Hope I'm not late."

George slides off the hood, wipes his hands on his pants and grips the young man's firmly. "Oh, no. You're never late, Mark. Always right on time."

"Good. Good." Mark turns toward the crowd beginning to form in front of the park store. "Looks like we're gonna have another big crowd tonight."

"Yeah, looks like it."

I wonder how much money your parents really have.

He bends over and looks through the Mustang's window.

It's tinted, can't see a thing, but the seats are probably leather, probably covered with sheepskin to protect the leather, probably.

"Hey, man," George says, picking at Mark's sleeve. "I'm glad you're here. I thought you could do the thing tonight."

"The thing?"

"You, know, the spiel, the speech, the ladeeda." He wipes his mouth, feeling some jelly there.

"Oh, Turtles 101."

"Uh, huh."

"All right. I don't mind. If you're sure I'll do all right."

You have golden hair, golden lips, golden life. How could you miss?

"You'll do fine."

"Well, okay then."

He's just the kind of kid who'll embarrass me now.

"George?"

I knew it. Here it comes.

"Thanks for giving me the chance. I appreciate it."

Jesus.

"You're welcome, Mark." George reaches out, gives Mark a pat on the shoulder and smiles.

Jesus.

George moves towards the crowd, noticing that over half of them carry flashlights, despite the literature park officials shove into every tourist's hands, despite the posters plastered on every building: PLEASE DO NOT USE FLASHLIGHTS ON THE BEACH!

They just think it's another rule, a mindless bureaucratic declaration. If they even read the posters, that is.

Among the throng of turtle seekers are a few people he saw at programs earlier in the week: an older couple, retired, living in Florida; a middle-aged single mother, with two bratty teenagers she is forcing to do the camping thing; and a young couple, their baby girl perched on the man's back in a pack.

George noticed the little girl before. Maybe it is the skin protected with long-sleeved shirts, cotton pants and a floppy, green hat.

Her skin is so white.

Or perhaps it is her pale blue eyes.

She's staring at me, staring.

Whatever it is, she makes him glad he never had children.

He clears his throat. "If I could have your attention please." The quiet conversations cease, and all eyes turn to him.

I hate this. They all look at me like…I don't know what. I hate this.

"My assistant Mark here will tell you about the turtles when we get to the hatchery and answer any questions you have. If you'll just follow me." He turns away from them and ambles towards the beach.

The crowd follows close behind him. He stops abruptly and turns back around. Most of the flashlights are on. "Could you please turn off your flashlights?" All but one of the lights goes out.

One of the bratty teenagers, I'll bet.

"You too, sir." The light goes out. He turns and starts walking again.

I guess I should've told them how the turtle hatchlings are confused by the light, about how their instinct drives them toward any kind of light. Usually, that's the sea. But when the moon's bright or some moron with a flashlight goes walking along the beach, he turtles go to the brightest light. The flashlights are so much brighter than the sea. But I've told people before. They don't listen.

They pass through the campground. George sneers at the campfires blazing. He hears the baby girl, the white-faced girl say, "Wights! Pwetty wights!" He looks behind him and sees her pointing at the strings of party lights, hot pink, lime green and neon blue, bobbing up and down in the ocean breeze. He sees tourists in nylon sweats hang propane lanterns next to the fires.

Overkill. They're so afraid of the dark.

George walks on, hearing the voices behind him become more and more muffled as he moves down to the sea and feels the cool winds bathe his face and hears the soft movement of the evening waves. He turns left, toward the hatchery, and shuffles through the sand, slipping every now and then in his brown uniform shoes.

Soon George sees the silver of the hatchery's wire fence. He turns and nods to Mark who has been following closely, too closely, behind him. Mark nods back and turns to the crowd. George notices that the crowd has grown.

This always happens. Folks that come here every year know when we're going to see the turtles hatch. They'll hang around for a while. If there's no action soon, they'll leave.

"Okay, folks," Mark begins. "If you'll just gather around the fence. Be careful not to go too far up the sides or get in the back. Some of the nests are outside the fence."

George watches as the crowd surges forward.

"What's that?"

"Is that a turtle's nest?"

"What's so great about this?"

"Can we go now, Mom?"

"Can you see, Baby?"

"Excuse me, but could you move a little?"

George sighs and opens the top of the fence.

Here goes. Somebody'll ask why we have a fence over the top.

"Why do you have that fencing over the top?" asks one of the retirees, a dignified woman with gray hair.

Mark answers, "To keep the predators from raiding the nests, ma'am."

What kind of predators?

"What kind of predators?"

"Raccoons, gulls, weasels, domestic dogs and cats."

"Oh really? How interesting.

The crowd pushes against the wire.

George throws one leg over the fence and gingerly raises his bulk over and into the hatchery, landing on tiptoes. Three rows of sand mounds marked with black planks stand like little graves within the fenced area. George kneels down beside one of the marked mounds and begins digging while Mark talks.

"I'm just going to tell you a little about what Ranger Matthews is doing while he's well...doing it." The crowd chuckles and Mark gives a lopsided grin.

George plunges his hand into the white sand. The thin dry layer quickly gives way to a cool, wet one, loose from the recent hatching. Mark is speaking.

"What Ranger Matthews is doing now is checking the number of eggshell remains in this recently hatched nest. We want to know how many viable eggs there were."

George digs furiously.

They won't understand. They'll ask more questions.

The mother with the bratty teenagers says, "What does 'viable' mean?"

Mark doesn't seem to mind the question.

A born teacher. Figures.

"A viable egg is one that will hatch a live turtle."

"Why do you need to know that?" someone asks.

The kid's got lots to learn. He doesn't know how to head off these questions at the pass.

"We like to keep a record of how many turtles actually hatched. We can then estimate how many will safely make it to the open sea."

George reaches the eggs. As he touches the leathery pieces, held together by pieces of membrane, he has that same feeling of relief that always comes over him at the touch of the turtle shells.

They are out there. They are swimming towards the current that will take them to the sea. If they don't all get eaten or caught in nets or trapped in oil slicks, then we'll still have some turtles around for a while longer.

George pulls the shell remnants from the hole and counts as he piles them up.

The crowd murmurs.

They want to see little turtles. 21. They're not interested in these shells. 22. They don't understand their significance. 23. I hope some hatch tonight. 24. To appease them. 25.

Mark bends over the fence and whispers, "Okay if I pass around one of the shells?" George nods and continues to count. Mark carefully takes a ragged shell from the pile and holds it aloft like a holy man lifts a relic. The crowd looks up. The murmuring stops. "This is what's left of a turtle shell. Before the turtle hatched, it was almost perfectly round, not like a bird's egg at all. And as you'll see when I pass the shell around, it's not rigid like a bird's. It's pliable and soft, like leather."

Mark passes the shell. As it quickly moves from person to person, he keeps talking. He talks of how the turtle develops and grows in the shell, of the tiny protrusion on his head that helps it break through the hard covering when somehow the creature knows it's time to be born. He explains with waving hands how the turtle subsists on the yolk not only in the shell, but also after birth, on the long trek to the ocean currents and for the first month of its life in the sea.

George's counting stops. Kneeling still, he rests his sandy hands on his legs and listens to the story he has told again and again.

I don't know if I ever told it with such passion or flare as this golden boy. Perhaps I did and have forgotten. It is music.

Mark stops. The crowd, having seen all they wanted of the shell, begins murmuring again. George stands, brushing the sand from the worn knees of his pants. He stares at the mounds and wills the eggs to hatch.

When he looks up, the sea oats rustling behind him, he sees the girl. The parents took off her hat and her red hair, thin and wispy, blows about her fair face. She is looking at him and smiling. George looks at the mounds again.

Oh God, where are the turtles?

After several minutes of standing, staring at the mounds, asking inane questions, people began to move away. Mark blurts out. "There's no guarantee that we'll see them tonight. We don't know when they'll hatch."

Never mind, Mark. Some people expect all of Nature to be like Old Faithful. Sit down on these benches. Next show at 11:00. It seems un-American that the turtles should hatch in their own good time.

Twenty minutes later, about 15 people still stand around the fence. George looks from mound to mound.

C'mon, you guys. Make an appearance. We need this show. They won't save you without the show. We've got Flipper and Willy. We need Timmy the Turtle. Cute and entertaining's the secret to survival, kids. Let's go!

Timmy, from below, hears him.

"Look, I see one," says one of the bratty teenagers, jumping up from his spot on the dunes. "Isn't that one?"

George turns, ready to contradict the boy. A dark spot moves in the center of one of the mounds, a flipper. It moves back and forth, swimming in the sand. A second flipper emerges and then a head. George moves closer to the mound. Without thinking, he looks up at the crowd, scanning for the girl. She is out of the backpack now, playing with some shells. "After this one comes out," he shouts in her direction, "the turtles should flow out like lava from a volcano. It's amazing." The girl giggles and holds up a seashell to her mother.

She didn't hear me.

But no more turtles emerge. The familiar gush of dark, tiny forms simply doesn't happen.

There has to be more than one.

George drops to his knees. "Mark," he calls, carefully moving the top layer of sand away with the brush of his big hand. "I'm going to need that bucket you brought." Mark moves to get it. George looks up to the crowd. "Anybody got a flashlight?" Five flashlights flick on. "Good. Could you shine one into the hole?" All five converge to the hole and illuminate it. "Thanks."

Mark comes back with the bucket. "We'll have to put the turtles in the bucket and then release them all together." He is talking to the crowd now. "Sometimes we have to help them along a little. We don't like doing that. We like them to do as much as they can on their own." Mark kneels and puts the one struggling, flapping turtle into the bucket.

George digs carefully into the impacted sand.

No wonder the poor little guys couldn't get out.

The sand gathers under his nails. He pulls handful after handful out of the hole. He begins to sweat. Finally, he feels a fluttering of movement against his fingertips, the fin of a turtle. He digs around the tiny body, then lifts it out of the sand with his thumb and forefinger. He lifts it up to Mark, and Mark lifts it up to the people. Smiling, Mark brushes off the sand and gently places the hatchling into the yellow bucket.

After that, it is easier. Turtle after turtle is lifted into the bucket. Ten, twenty, thirty turtles and George keeps digging and lifting, his knees and back aching. Panting, he says without looking up, "You can shine one of the lights into the bucket."

He hears several gasps.

What in the world? What do they see?

He glances up. A lone flashlight shines into the bucket. The light casts shadows against its yellow sides. The turtles look three times their size. Even in the confines of the bucket, they flap and wave their flippers, still struggling, still moving to the sea.

The pale girl stands by the fence, staring. "The turtles dancin', Mama! The turtles dancin'!” She smiles up at George. The turtles dance.

Finally, seventy-seven turtles are in the bucket, climbing over each other, wanting release. George leans on Mark as he gets up, his legs and back stiff. He smiles at the people. "Now, when I release the turtles, you might want to help them out by picking them up and taking them to the sea, but you won't be helping them at all. They need to struggle to get to the sea. It's their first test and it makes them strong." The people gaze at him. "If you'll all turn off your flashlights, that will help, because the turtles go towards the brightest light. If it's the sea, they'll move to the sea. If it's the moon, unfortunately, they'll move to that. If it's your flashlight, well, you get the picture." The people nod. The flashlights go dark.

"Next, I want you to form two lines parallel to the surf." They begin to move into formation. "As the turtles fan out, I want you to move back too and let them make their own way to the sea, okay?"

"Okay," echoes one of the teenagers.

George, with Mark beside him, lowers the bucket onto the wet sand. Then, slowly George turns the bucket over, and the turtles pour out, like lava out of a volcano. They crawl toward the sea. As the turtles fan out, the people fall back, laughing with delight.

One by one the turtles find the ocean. The people clap. The two teenage boys give each other high fives. George chuckles.

When most of the turtles have safely arrived, he searches again for the girl. She and her mother are following one lone turtle that has veered toward the bright moon. The child does not reach for the turtle. Bent low, she follows it, with slow, mincing steps, until it meets the sea.

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