- Rebecca Makkai
In the summer of 2011, on a muggy day toward the end of the Writers' Conference, an enormous snapping turtle crawled out of a pond somewhere on the Sewanee campus and positioned itself in the middle of a small access road. The thing was, in my memory, as big around as a car tire. Entire ecosystems of algae clung to its carapace. Its tail lent it an eerily prehistoric and fierce aura. I'm not sure how many different expressions turtles are capable of, but this one looked weary, pissed off. It was, more than anything, old. [End Page 729]
We took pictures of it, we shrieked, we asked each other how long snapping turtles could live. Someone Googled it. Fifty years, max. Okay, it wasn't as old as our initial guess, which was three hundred. He was older than the Writers' Conference, though, someone pointed out. I got in a brief fight about why we always assume animals to be male. She had been here, I said, when many of our instructors that summer, like the wonderful Alice McDermott, had been nervous participants. Hell, this turtle had been here when Tennessee Williams was still alive. She had been on campus with Allen Tate and Walker Percy and Shelby Foote and Robert Lowell. She'd been here when Wyatt Prunty was growing up across Tennessee, more interested in climbing trees than leading workshops.
The algified back of that turtle and the moss-thick graves of Allen Tate and his less-famous cemetery-mates became mixed in my senses that summer, and since then in my memory. I would walk through the cemetery in the mornings and push my fingers into the pillows of green. Everything that summer seemed covered in lushness, in history, in age.
I don't believe our Google search. I believe that turtle is still in the pond, at least fifty-eight years old now, still putting up with the interlopers, rising from her murk once a year to remind us all of our place. I'd like to believe that once a summer, the new crop of promising young writers sees her staring them down and understands: We're all fleetingly here, fleetingly young, and next year another crew of aspirants will replace us. And that when she's still at it, a hundred years from now, we—and our books and our graves and our obscurity and our lives and our ten days of joy—will be part of the past those new writers think back on with wonder. [End Page 730]
Rebecca Makkai's most recent novel, The Great Believers, won the LA Times Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.