Kathleen Glassburn


Anna Morgan never recognized Clover’s importance until she didn’t come home one late-August evening.

Earlier that day Anna and her husband, Miles, had left the SeaTac airport parking lot in their Toyota Tundra and rushed to pick up the three dogs from a boarding kennel. After putting those canines in the backyard for a romp, she took an inspection tour. The outdoor feral cat, who was in charge of rodent control, hadn’t lost any weight. The soil in numerous planters full of red and pink and yellow wave petunias felt moist to the touch. Newspapers had been tossed into the garage’s recycle bin. But no Clover.

Anna went upstairs, a frown marring her still-pretty, tanned face.

Miles stood in the kitchen, sorting mail.

“Clover’s not here,” she said.

“Barry’ll bring her back soon,” he said.

Anna went in their bedroom, started unpacking, and quit puzzling over her turtle’s whereabouts.

It had been a relaxing week at their cabin in the mountains—no telephone, no television, no Internet. The only thing to ruffle Anna’s tranquility was a six-foot-long king snake slithering back and forth over a log close to the storage shed.

“Beautiful the way it moves,” Miles remarked as he walked close to the reptile.

“I feel like passing out.” Anna tripped on a step racing into the cabin.

Once the snake left the vicinity, their visit proved to be as pleasant as ever.

Then they returned home.

* * *

            Twenty-five years ago Anna had shifted on a smallish chair in the front row of Kimberly’s fourth grade classroom. The teacher, Miss Clemons, a stylish woman of about thirty with shiny dark-brown, chin-length hair, sat erect as a hollyhock at her desk and praised Kimmie’s performance.

The last conference of the school year was coming to an end, but before Anna left Miss Clemons said, “Would you consider adopting our classroom pet?” She touched a terrarium atop a bookcase with a pink-nailed finger. “Your daughter gives her more attention than anyone else.”

Clover blinked at Anna.

“You’d be doing me a big favor,” Miss Clemons continued. “We inherited her from a girl who moved away. We have to find someone to take care of Clover every break because I travel a lot.”

“Of course.” Anna ran fingers tipped by scraggly, unpolished nails across her own scraggly mop. What was one more animal added to their menagerie? Plus, a while back, she had decided the turtle could be her totem.

Some mysterious ailment had been sapping Anna’s energy. It was difficult to keep up with family, animal, and household responsibilities as well as working at a local pet shop. Trips of any sort brought on a week of convalescence. She’d taken to buying model turtles as souvenirs. They represented what Anna wanted most—to be comfortably situated back home.

Now she had a real live turtle. Considering her snake phobia and Clover’s head that looked like a snake’s, why wasn’t she disturbed? Anna realized it was the turtle’s protective shell, her four legs, and her plodding movement. She’d never startle anyone.

* * *

            To be exact, Clover was a box turtle of the Mexican variety. She lived in a dry terrarium—eighteen inches by twelve inches by fourteen inches high. Every other day she got a bath for exercise and to soak up fluid. Afterward she freely thunked around the bathroom behind a closed door. She ate soft cat food and sometimes bits of melon or mango. She had a hinged shell on her underside. These two parts could close so that her head and legs were completely hidden and protected, making her resemble a big, brown rock. About the circumference of a softball, she was in her mid-twenties when Anna took Clover home, which made her about fifty at the time of the absence.

For the most part Clover’s decades with the Morgans had been uneventful. Other than soaks in the sink and trundles across the bathroom floor, she usually stayed in her terrarium. When they had guests she knocked on the glass, excited by the chatter and laughter. Quite the conversation piece, she’d often been taken out so that interested friends could see her up close, maybe even hold her. After introductions, with Clover poking her head out and waving her legs, they’d put her down on the rug. Invariably she ambled over to a corner, retreated into her shell, and stayed there until someone put her back in the terrarium. Enough socializing! In all the time they had her, Clover never was sick. A twenty-five-watt light bulb kept her environment at the proper temperature. Occasionally Miles changed her dirt, replacing the old with fresh soil from his garden. When this happened, Clover dug herself a hidey hole and stayed there for at least a day—relishing the newness. Miles was also the person who took care of Clover’s baths and feedings.

One weekend the Morgans had overnight guests for their village arts festival. The television was on and news people were covering OJ Simpson’s getaway scene in his white Bronco. Anna took Clover out for these friends to meet. Because of the distracting drama, she got dropped. They all anxiously examined her to ascertain that her shell was intact and that she seemed to be all right.

Once Clover was safely back in her terrarium, Miles commented, “Curious situation. OJ’s running away from presumably murdering his wife and her friend, and we’re panic-stricken over the wellbeing of a turtle.”

Another time, in the midst of remodeling their house, heat duct covers had been removed in several rooms. Clover was free in the bathroom, where a missing cover had been forgotten. Instead of crawling to the corner and closing up, she tumbled into the heat duct.

Miles said, “She’ll die and we’ll have to figure out how to get rid of the smell.”

Kimberly and her mother knelt by the opening with a candle burning and prayed for Clover’s safe return.

After an hour or two, Miles came to the doorway and said, “Rather than praying, why not blow out the candle and get some food?”

A scoop was placed on Clover’s little dish and set in the heat duct, and they all went to bed. Next morning the food remained untouched, and Kimmie went to school with her head hanging low.

Several hours later Anna was playing a sad Chopin piece on the piano when she heard a scratch–scratch–scratch. She dashed into the bathroom, and there was Clover, gobbling away. Elated, Anna tucked her in the terrarium and hustled off to Kimberly’s sixth grade class with the happy report.

She dubbed this event: Clover’s Big Adventure.

About this time Anna’s health issues were diagnosed and resolved. With normal energy restored, trips became a delight again, and she quit buying model turtles.

* * *

            When the Morgans began adding animals to their family, she found Barry, the petsitter, through a newspaper ad. During her interview he seemed like a nice enough guy, so she chose to ignore the snake tattoos on his hands. Barry stayed in the house only once. The Morgans’ first dog was a German shepherd with digestive issues. After sleeping in too late one morning, the petsitter awoke to a real mess. On subsequent trips their dog or dogs were boarded, and Barry took care of the outdoor cat or cats, as well as the turtle, from the garage.

At some point he said, “Would it be okay if I took Clover to my apartment? She’ll get more attention that way.” He stood jingling change and keys in the pockets of his khaki jacket.

“That should be fine,” Anna told him.

Before the next trip Anna insisted that she and Miles bring Clover to the petsitter’s basement apartment in a split level. “That way we can make sure it’s okay.”

Miles nodded with a “Hmmmpf.”

This trial arrangement proved to be satisfactory, and after that he would place Clover and her terrarium in the garage when leaving, along with Barry’s pay. The petsitter picked up his charge, and she’d be waiting in the garage when the Morgans returned. This happened more times than Anna could possibly remember.

Over the years Barry told her how fond he was of Clover. One time, he said, “I have my own turtle now. When your turtle comes to visit, they play together.” More than once he said, “I’d be thrilled to take Clover if you ever want to find a new home for her.”

Miles was all for this.

Since Kimberly had moved to the East Coast, Anna sent an email telling of Barry’s offer.

Kimmie wrote back, Clover is part of our family!

When Barry again broached the subject, Anna said, “No. She means too much to us.”

* * *

While loading dirty clothes from the cabin trip into the washing machine, Anna got a phone call.

“I hate to tell you this…Clover is missing,” Barry said.

“Missing?” How can you lose a turtle? “What happened?”

Through numerous conversations Anna pieced together that Barry had let her turtle go outside with his turtle and Clover had wandered off.

Seemingly it would have taken several minutes for her to trudge away and out of sight, but he said, “I just stepped over to the picnic table.”

On one of Anna’s calls, he said, “Clover was in a wire enclosure, but I guess she slipped through an opening because she’s smaller than Chauncey.”

During another of Anna’s calls, Barry told her, “I lost my own turtle a while back. He showed up eighteen days later.”

If you lost one turtle, why did you put him, as well as Clover, in your yard again?

“I never gave you permission to take her outside,” Anna said with a catch in her voice. “I thought you let her play with Chauncey in a closed room.”

Barry hemmed and hawed and repeated, “I really feel bad about this.”

You feel bad! How about me?

“It was careless and negligent.” A betrayal of trust.

Barry agreed that his behavior had been reprehensible. “I’ve posted notifications around the neighborhood, and I’ve put messages on five websites, and I’ve called Animal Control, and I’ve told my turtle group.”

            Turtle group?

“The whole neighborhood is looking for her. A friend with hunting dogs came over. They sniffed Clover’s dish and searched the yard—with no luck.”

“Have you put out her food?”

“Oh, that’s a good idea.”

“She likes melon and mango,” Anna added. “You could try them.”

After a few days Miles said, “She’s a goner—can’t last outside during these cold nights.”

The petsitter kept saying, “I’m sure she’ll turn up. I’ve lit a candle for her.”

Anna lit her own candle, hoping that a raccoon or coyote hadn’t chomped down on poor Clover. She also kept thinking about Barry’s claims of affection. Did he keep Clover? Was this an elaborate ruse with the expectation that Anna would give up and forget about her? Was Barry willing to lose a good client?

At the end of the first week, the petsitter brought the terrarium back to Anna. He seemed genuinely upset, his pink skin turning bright red.

Anna fought back tears. “Maybe she’ll come out one day to bask in the Indian summer sunshine.” Her lips pursed. “What does ‘Licensed, Bonded, and Insured’ on your business card mean?”

“That’s for dogs.”

“I don’t expect money but has anything like this ever happened before?”

Barry sadly shook his head.

“What’s your address?” It had been a long time.

He hesitated, making that jingling noise with the change and keys in his pockets, before giving the information to Anna.

Feeling like a detective, she wrote the location on a yellow notepad. “What do you think I should do? Who should I tell?”

Ignoring the implied threat, Barry reiterated all that had supposedly been done to find Clover.

“It would have been easier if she’d died on your watch.” Anna sniffed.

Barry jerked his head back, stunned by this idea.

Soon after, he departed—leaving Anna with her empty terrarium.

* * *

            Eventually she was forced to call Kimberly.

“He kept her. You said how much he liked her. I’m sure of it,” she responded after a couple of minutes to absorb this shock.

“I don’t want to believe that of Barry.” Anna’s shoulders slumped. “I’ll keep checking.”

One early morning she parked her truck a block away and crept to the petsitter’s basement apartment. With barely a glance she snuck by artwork on the side of the house. No one was around so she roamed the yard, searching under overgrown vines and bushes that might provide burrowing opportunities. She traipsed along nearby streets but never discovered any postings on utility poles—“Lost Turtle”—or that sort of thing. She drove into the village and stopped by the police department.

“How do I get a search warrant?” she asked the officer on duty.

“What do you need it for?”

“I think my petsitter may have abducted my turtle.”

“Your turtle?”

“She’s our beloved pet.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am.” He shook his head. “Never heard of such a thing.”

“I’d like to look through his premises.”

“Why don’t you just keep talking to him. Let him know how important this is to you. Maybe he’ll bring your turtle back.”

Anna sighed deeply and headed for the door.

She missed the officer’s bemused expression and raised eyebrows directed toward the receptionist.

When she told Miles about her failed attempts at retrieval, he advised, “You should let the whole thing go.”

Anna did begin to wonder: If the petsitter had turtlenapped Clover, would she be better off with him, albeit accomplished through a hurtful, unethical act? Or, she considered: Maybe, at fifty years old, it was better for Clover to have a last shot at freedom.

Still she continued to call Barry every day, only to receive consistent negative responses.

“I drove by your apartment,” Anna told him. “I didn’t see any posters in the neighborhood.”

“Gee…um…I put them in mailboxes.”

Several times a day Anna stared at the empty shelf in their family room, and her eyes burned like a flickering candle, her chest expanded as if full of molten wax.

* * *

            A month after Clover’s disappearance, Barry called Anna. “I can barely contain myself. She’s been found.”

Anna gave a silent thank you. “Where? How?”

“She was soaking up sunshine on the cement patio.”

“That’s incredible. I’ll come right over to get her.”

Meanwhile Miles prepared the cleaned-out terrarium and said, “I’ll bet you anything he’s had her all the time.”

“You think?”

* * *

            Clover was in a topless, plastic storage container. Barry included a laminated poster with the turtle’s picture and information about her. There was a minuscule staple on top. However, the prongs were tightly closed.

Anna put Clover and the plastic container next to her on the truck’s floor. Needless to say, she didn’t hang around for any chitchat. This time she took notice of five art festival wooden plaques on the house’s outside wall, near the entrance to Barry’s basement apartment: Live, Learn, Laugh, Love, Life.

Halfway home she heard Clover trying to crawl out of the plastic container. Anna stopped the truck and put it onto the seat and held her hand over the turtle for the rest of their trip.

On a phone call to Kimberly with the revelation of Clover’s safe return, Kimberly said, “I think he kept her hostage for breeding purposes. His turtle needed a mate.”

“She’s fifty years old!”

“You’ve said it yourself—they live forever.”

* * *

            At first Clover repeatedly bumped against the glass wall of her terrarium and attempted to scale the sides.

Anna questioned: Would she be happier in our backyard? Should I set her loose? How could she possibly survive?

Deciding that she must give Clover more attention, Anna took over giving baths. For a while Clover tried to clamber out of the sink, but she resumed her lumbering walks behind the closed bathroom door, and she ate the food that Anna put in her terrarium. One time Anna put her on their deck for a supervised stroll amongst the potted gold and orange and rust chrysanthemums but was surprised when Clover took off at a run and had to be chased. She could have fallen under the railing and into the rockery below.

It took a couple of weeks but Clover’s animation did calm. Resignedly she dug holes in her soil and covered up.

When this happened, Anna felt certain she was dreaming: Clover’s Grand Escapade. Upon her reappearance there was a wistful smile lifting the mouth of her little snake face.



© Kathleen Glassburn