Turtle, Swan

by Mark Doty

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 spearpoint 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

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
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

Last updated December 21, 2022