31: Turtle, Swan
by Mark Doty
Because the road to our house
is a back road, meadowlands punctuated
by gravel quarry and lumberyard,
there are unexpected travelers
some nights on our way home from work.
Once, on the lawn of the Tool
and Die Company, a swan;
the word doesn’t convey the shock
of the thing, white architecture
rippling like a pond’s rain-pocked skin,
beak lifting to hiss at my approach.
Magisterial, set down in elegant authority,
he let us know exactly how close we might come.
After a week of long rains
that filled the marsh until it poured
across the road to make in low woods
a new heaven for toads,
a snapping turtle lumbered down the center
of the asphalt like an ambulatory helmet.
His long tail dragged, blunt head jutting out
of the lapidary prehistoric sleep of shell.
We’d have lifted him from the road
but thought he might bend his long neck back
to snap. I tried herding him; he rushed,
though we didn’t think those blocky legs
could hurry— then ambled back
to the center of the road, a target
for kids who’d delight in the crush
of something slow with the look
of primeval invulnerability. He turned
the blunt spear point of his jaws,
puffing his undermouth like a bullfrog,
and snapped at your shoe,
vising a beakful of— thank God—
leather. You had to shake him loose. We left him
to his own devices, talked on the way home
of what must lead him to new marsh
or old home ground. The next day you saw,
one town over, remains of shell
in front of the little liquor store. I argued
it was too far from where we’d seen him,
too small to be his… though who could tell
what the day’s heat might have taken
from his body. For days he became a stain,
a blotch that could have been merely
oil. I did not want to believe that
was what we saw alive in the firm center
of his authority and right
to walk the center of the road,
head up like a missionary moving certainly
into the country of his hopes.
In the movies in this small town
I stopped for popcorn while you went ahead
to claim seats. When I entered the cool dark
I saw straight couples everywhere,
no single silhouette who might be you.
I walked those two aisles too small
to lose anyone and thought of a book
I read in seventh grade, "Stranger Than Science,"
in which a man simply walked away,
at a picnic, and was,
in the act of striding forward
to examine a flower, gone.
By the time the previews ended
I was nearly in tears— then realized
the head of one-half the couple in the first row
was only your leather jacket propped in the seat
that would be mine. I don’t think I remember
anything of the first half of the movie.
I don’t know what happened to the swan. I read
every week of some man’s lover showing
the first symptoms, the night sweat
or casual flu, and then the wasting begins
and the disappearance a day at a time.
I don’t know what happened to the swan;
I don’t know if the stain on the street
was our turtle or some other. I don’t know
where these things we meet and know briefly,
as well as we can or they will let us,
go. I only know that I do not want you
—you with your white and muscular wings
that rise and ripple beneath or above me,
your magnificent neck, eyes the deep mottled autumnal colors
of polished tortoise— I do not want you ever to die.
“Turtle, Swan", from PARAGON PARK by Mark Doty. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Doty. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher.