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I was gone for more than a week before they found me. A rustling in the bean-field, heavy steps nearby. A shoutthe boy's voicemore shouts. Thomas catches me up in his hands with sickening haste. I weigh six pounds thirteen ounces. He lifts me as though I weigh nothing at all.
Ground breaks away. May wind shivers in my ears. My legs churn the sky on their own. I look down on bean-tops. Down on the blunt ends of sheep-bitten grasses. Over one field, into the next, into the hop-garden beyond. Past thatch and tiles, past maypole, past gilded cock on the church tower. All in my eye, all at once. So far to see.
Goody Hammond and Daniel Wheeler's boy totter forward beside Thomas. Great warm two-legged beasts. Stilt-gaited like the rest of their kind. The boy prances backward, eyeing me closely. Bland watery orbs, fringed with pale hair. Cavernous mouth. Halloos as though I were the king's stag being drawn through the village in a deer-cart.
My week gone in two-score of their strides. Through the meadow. Past the alcove and down the brick-walk. Wicket-gate clicks shut behind us. Thomas sets me down beside the asparagus. Edge of my umbrageous forest. All feet square on the ground again. Into the rubbery trunks. Young asparagus thrusting out of the earth like turtles' heads. Ferns just joining in a canopy above. Print of Thomas's warm fingers on my tiled belly, smell of tar and damp mould.
The voices separate and blow away. The boy's cries ring down the street with cries of other boys. A silence behind them, a hollow in the day. Earthworms breach and tunnel, tunnel and breach. Old Hercules in the Great Mead gestures as always, unmoving. Wooden features sadly weathered even since I first knew him. Goody Hammond sweeps white-apple blossoms from the grass-plot. Sings a scrap of song over and over as she works. Wheezing like the blacksmith's bellows across the way.
"O Christ! My very Heart doth bleed with Sorrow for thy Sake . . ."
Greenfinch rattles in the beds nearby, heedless of danger. Mayfly vanishes in the blur of a swallow's wings over the gravel walk. Swallow-bill closes, a smart snap, shutting of a watch-case.
The fuss the humans made when they found me. Escape of the Old Sussex Tortoise! Eight Days' Pursuit! Captured in Hampshire Bean-field! Authentic Deeds of Old Gardener, Weeding Woman, Shocking Boy!
Thomas regarded me sternly before setting me down. Cocked his hat. Took breath to speak, then didn't. Watched till I was deep in the asparagus, safely out of sight.
"Out!" Daniel Wheeler's boy shouted when they found me, stumbling over his heels. "Timothy got out!"
The boy is mistaken. There is no Out! Humans believe the asparagus forest is In! Fruit wall, laurel hedge. Melon-ground. They prey upon the distinction. But I am always Out. Among the anemones. On the grass-plot. In the shade of the Dutch-currant trees. In the sainfoin just short of the Pound Field. Under young beans a week away. Under the rasp and green-rust smell of their leaves.
And I was In there, too, as always. In, under unhedged stars, dark of the moon. Among chiding of field-crickets, stirring of long grasses, gleaming wind. Groaning of beech trees on the Hanger. Clap of thunder and din of hail. The honeyed smell of maples and sycamores in bloom. Clouds pulling apart to show their crimson. Beyond sight of humans. Within my beloved shell.
Great soft tottering beasts. They are out. Houses never by when they need them. Even the humblest villagers live in ill-fitting houses. The greater the personage the worse the fit. Crescent of pale shell at the ends of their fingers. Drab furrows of person-scented cloth hang about them. Dimity, corduroy, buckram, fustian, holland, shalloon, cambric, stuff, wool. False head of hair or kerchief or hat.
Contrivance of hide or wood on the feet, or none at all. Crust of polished dirt, sore-cracked soles, broken nails. Nothing as elegant as a horse's clean hoof, the arc of its wall. My own cruel claws. That mass of body and brainpan to heat and cool with their internal fires. No tegument, no pelt to help them. Only what they fashion for themselves. What they scab together from the world. Fleece, hide, feathers, scales, and shell all denied them. Faint, thin leather of their own growing, proof against nothing. Uneconomic creatures.
Humans of Selborne wake all winter. Above ground, eating and eating, breathing and shitting, talking and talking. Huddled close to their fires. Fanning the ashes. Guarding the spark. Never a lasting silence for them. Never more than a one-night rest. When they go down in the ground, they go down in boxes, for good, and only with the help of others standing round. Peering into the darkness of the cold earth they fear. The neat, rectangular hole.
Men haul peat from the forest, laboring over ruts and horse-tracks and onto the village cart-way. They measure out bushels of coal. Cut cord-wood. Stack beech-billet, cleft-wood, and faggots. Go to law over lop and top. Smoke beats down over the village. Tumbles from chimneys, thick over the fields. Beech-smoke, coal-smoke, peat-smoke. London smoke, a sulfurous haze from the northeast.
Cold wind settles against the glass. Rain under the tiles, through the wind-torn thatch. Only the oak-shingled roof of St. Mary's keeps tight above the village. Flights of snow. Epidemic freeze. Winter comes like the clamoring of the stone-curlew. A noise in the air of something passing quick over their heads after it becomes dark.
To humans, in and out are matters of life and death. Not to me. Warm earth waits just beneath me, the planet's viscous, scalding core. It takes a cool blood to feel that warmth, here at its circumference. The humans' own heat keeps them from sensing it. I drift for monthsyear's great nightfloating on the outer edge of Earth's corona. The only calendar my blood, how it drugs me.
When autumn pinches, I dig. November darkens, fasting long since begun. Day after day. Steady, steady. Stroke on one side. Stroke on the other. Slow as the hour-hand and just as relentless. Swimming in place, burrowing my body's length and depth. Ease in, out, adjust the fit. Another day or two. No rush. No rush. Ease in again. A last fitting. Air hole open. Stow legs. Retreat under roof of self. Under vault of ribs and spine.
Loose earth covers my back. Laurel leaves, walnut leaves, chalk soil, Dorton mould. I wait, then cease to wait. Earth rolls repeatedly through day and night. Layer of rime. The frost binds. Then snow, that friendly meteor. Kindly mantle of infant vegetation. Insulating all of us who cling to the soil. Who have not got too upright, too far from the native horizontal. Earth beneath me throbs with warmth. Cold black sky presses down. Current of memory tugs at me. A long, long descent into perfect absence. I remember only where I'm going.
Meanwhile, the village stirs. Boys slide on ice. Girls chap hands. Straddle-bob Orion tips downward over the brew-house, over the Hanger. Barnyard turnip-piles freeze hard as stone. Men shovel the track to Newton. Hollow lanesdeep as a cottage, narrow as a walkfill with snow. Pack-horses go belly-deep in open country.
Rugged Siberian weather. Laplandian-scene. The village cut off for weeks, hidden in the folds of England. Poultry confounded. Bantams fly over their house. Forty-one sheep buried in snow. Redbreasts, wrens, and beggars in barns and cow-houses. Worries about prices of mutton, hay, barley seed. Haws freeze on hedges. Pheasant stands on dung-pile. Hares cross the garden snowpack and crop the pinks. Gardeners take aim from the windows.
Mr. Gilbert White watches through the parlor window. Tries to remember just where he saw me digging last fall. All his garden buried in drifts. Returns to his letter. Stitch in his side from writing. To niece Molly in London, asking her to send breakfast green tea and best tea. Great beast of a town. Cold as Petersburg. Londoners on the frozen Thames. Snow like bay-salt. Carriages quiet on the cobbles for once, cushioned by snow. Sound of a deserted city. Many weeks until mackerels are cried in the streets. Until green geese move along them in droves, driven by a boy just their speed.
Mr. Gilbert White writes. Mad dog from Newton great farm bites dogs in the Selborne street. Farmer Berriman's cow, he reports, "got into the barn's floor in the night, and gorged herself so at an heap of thrashed wheat, that she dyed what they call sprung, being blown up to a vast size." Seventeen residents of Newton farm, and a horse, have gone in a cart to be dipped in the sea. Mrs. John White knits beside Mr. Gilbert White. One row for her old life, one for the new.
Parlor-cat turns electric in dry nights of frost. Parlor-fire rages. Close-stools freeze beneath beds. Horses breathe their stable-fog. Lambs drop from the womb and freeze to the ground. Venus shadows. Walls stream with water. Thatch reeks in the sun. Fields pour torrents into the lanes that worm their way toward Selborne. Waking dreams of the human winter.
My blood creeps along a dark endless track. On quiet feet. Circles round and round as though it had lost its way but always finding its way again. No counting the circuits it makes under the compass-rose of my carapace.
One day corpuscles prick as they pass. Agitation in the capillaries. New trails through the underwood of flesh. Fresh tide washes over the rocks. Rushing millstream spills through the heart. I rouse before I know I'm rousing. Hatched from the great egg of Earth. Spring-wrecked on the surface, my living to make. Pipped again.
I blink and blink. Look into my crater, the nest that bears me over and over and over and over. Surprised to come up always just where I went down. To be the only hatchling. Surprised to find myself in the parish of Selborne, county of Southampton, garden of Mr. Gilbert White.
I remember Ringmer. Mrs. Rebecca Snooke. A post-chaise. A servant's basket. A ship. The empty city of my origins, far away. Warm salt sea spreading at its feet. Cyprus in the distance. Nike and Hermes in mosaics underfoot. As weathered as old Hercules but far more ancient. A country swollen with emptiness and heat. I once had other expectations.
I heave up the mould. Unbury myself. In this place, I am considered a sign of spring, like the budding of beeches on the Hanger or the return of the first birds of passage. But I am a sign of spring the way flooding in Gracious Street is a sign of high water. Over the goose-hatch. The thing itself. The season advances directly through me.
Year after year Mr. Gilbert White notes the occasion. He has been up for months. Stands over me while rising still blinds me, before hunger returns. Long winter lingering in mouth and bowel. Mr. Gilbert White records the date, the weather. Conjunction, at my arrival, of a bat, a redstart, a daffodil, a troop of shell-snails.
"Timothy the tortoise begins to stir," he writes; "he heaves up the mould that lies over his back."
"Timothy the tortoise heaves up the sod under which he is buried."
"Timothy the tortoise heaves-up the earth."
"Timothy the tortoise roused himself from his winter-slumbers and came forth."
No other news in Selborne? No mad dog a-biting? No cow a-springing on a barn floor? What makes my rising momentous to anyone but me?
I have seen these humans in their disarray. Far more common than any finery. Hair wrung into knots. Stockings fallen. Skirts clotted with mud and manure. Eyes, noses red from fist-rubbings, coarsening wind. Eruptions on rough hands from hop-picking. Itching tumors from harvest-bugs. Jaws tied up with the tooth-ache, the head-ache. Faces choked with drink, sweat, sleep, stupidity, confusions of the rut. Such a bulk of being to regulate. Disorder stalks them day and night. They stalk it back.
But I. Consider that I have no hair, no fur, no raiment to disarrange. No silver-trimmed livery-hat to hang on a peg, like Thomas. No grizzle wig to keep free of lice. No hog'd breeches or cambric shirt-bosom to be worked by Mrs. Roill. No shoes to keep soled and blacked. No buckles to polish or under-garments to fetter the nose.
My shell never slips askew. Pupil never dims. Beak never dulls. Leather never pales. Dew glistens on my legs and head, my under-tile. Yes, the mould sometimes clings to my back as I rise in April. Yes, I carry the dishabille of earth for a time.
Mr. Gilbert White writes to nephew Samuel Barker.
"When a man first rouses himself from a deep sleep, he does not look very wise; but nothing can be more squalid and stupid than our friend, when he first comes crawling out of his hibernacula."
Who watches the curate wake? How wise does he look at bed-break? Who judges him so dispassionately?
Late on summer nights he comes into the garden. To see if the bat still flies. To observe by candle-light what moths and earwigs do in the dark. He appears without false hair. Candle held to one side. Pale natural skull like a half moon under his stubble. He clasps together the waist of a coat thrown over his open shirt. Hiding the animal within. Bare calves beneath, spindles of flesh. He does not look very wise, tossing stones into the hedge to make the sedge-bird sing its night song.
Mr. Gilbert White quotes the poet's lines at my advent every spring. Timotheus he calls me then. Timotheus, he says,
Has rais'd up his head,
As awak'd from the dead;
And amaz'd he stares around.
Amaz'd, yes, I do stare around. Awaked from nearer the dead than Mr. Gilbert White imagines.
Light pours in. Soft mist. Walnut tree as bare as it was when I began digging. Sky as rude. Wind still chafes, and for several nights I return to my winter's nest. But earthworms already writhe in endless venery. Heat of the loam comes on apace. A growing weather. Everything connected to earth by root or foot feels it coming. Has felt it coming for many weeks. Beeches break bud. Apricot blossoms. Dog's-toothed violets blow.
I am late for the first flush of the season. Honeybee warming itself on a clod. Mr. Gilbert White tunning his strong-beer, new green in the wheat. But spring folds open as I wake, returned from my slow submersion. Winter has fled northward on icy legs, carrying off the dead. Sweet reviving breeze calls all the living away from grief. Soft red evenings, day after day. Crimson sun pulsing at the far end of the Hanger. A swarming heat in the air. Good for the husbandman. Warmth runs far ahead of the light, exhausting all of creation. Pitiless ambition of the expanding season.
Gander leads the sow by the ear away from the sitting goose. Birdsong before first light until well into the night. Voice of the cuckoo in the Hanger.