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  • Too Slow Is How That Tortoise GoA Carapace in 37 Parts
  • Lawrence Lenhart (bio)

[1] If when you slept on your chest, your spine became a roof: a tortoise. I count the carapace’s scutes as my finger runs across each ridge like a roadway. The slow scrape of fingernail on tortoiseshell, the keratin-on-keratin caress, is like tires made of asphalt, or a road of rubber. How lightly I would travel on a highway that could sense me upon it. [2] “Scute” comes from the Latin plural scuta, meaning shields. There are three types of scutes: marginal, costal, and vertebral. They are like shingles covered in nerve endings and pores. I imagine the nuchal bone above his neck as cornerstone. (Note: A mason uses three types of stone to construct snecked rubble: risers, levelers, and snecks. Snecks are smaller stones used to fill in the gaps created by the uneven placement of the larger stones.) [3] In The Golden Bough, James Frazer writes that a modern Greek builder sometimes [End Page 89] “entices a man to the [cornerstone], secretly measures his body...or his shadow, and buries the measure under the foundation-stone; or he lays the foundation-stone upon the man’s shadow.” Within a year, that man is expected to die. [4] While in Cambodia for 30 days—the longest I had ever left my tortoise in someone else’s care, the floor of the guesthouse utterly without his roving shell, the heat-seeking swivel of the familiar turtleneck—I cultivated an obsession for reducing my anxiety. Walking past the fish vendors of Psar Chaa, I inhaled the brine as I watched the prawn swimmerets wriggle in midair. Black eels corkscrewed into one another, forming intricate helixes. Carp flopped from chopping block to concrete. At one intersection, I stopped at a red bucket of turtles. One climbed on the back of his docile peers and did a brave chin-up to the plastic rim. With a long knife, the vendor flipped the turtle onto its back. [5] From my knees, I zoom, focus, and shoot each scute. The nuchal bone is the most difficult to photograph, as it is only entirely visible when he retreats inside himself. Inches away, I must kneel, lean, and torque for a full glimpse. The shadow of my forearm darkens the frame, prolongs the exposure, and inevitably blurs the shot. Just as any place I’ve ever lived—those structures—will likely outlast me, so too will my Greek tortoise. I try not to see it this way. [6] The first tortoise I ever saw belonged to my neighbor Yuichi. His tortoise, Koopa, was always shinier than mine. Named after the turtle soldiers of the Mario series, Koopa was regularly polished with Turtle Wax Express Shine, a car detailer that Yuichi found in the garage. When Yuichi moved away, I wrote to him. How’s Koopa? I asked. (Call your local poison control center.) [7] It may be for certain that “carapace” comes from the Greek cappa (“cape”). [End Page 90] In her book of essays The Deep Zoo, Rikki Ducornet explains, “a creature with a shell is a mixed creature; it reveals and conceals itself simultaneously.” [8] I was five the first time I counted to 100; I immediately started over and did it again—sometimes just to fall asleep in these finite carnations until I lost consciousness. After 100, I regressed to counting on my fingers for 101, 102, and so forth. The unsurety of another digit. I pinched down on the keratin of my index nail, middle nail, and so on. [9] In his article “Scutes and Age Determination of Desert Tortoises Revisited,” David Germano notes that for tortoises up to seven years old, each scute has “the exact number of [rings] as age.” By age 20, though, the number of rings is one less than the tortoise’s age. Caveat: as if protein can only count so high, no scute has more than 25 rings. [10] In a grove in Muir Woods, the rings of a 1,200-year-old redwood, its bark circumtread by banana slugs (see dendrochronology vs. scuta-chronology). [11] In 1918, Victor...


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pp. 89-97
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