I first saw Annabelle when Sabian and Evan brought her to my door.
“Look, we got a turtle!”, shouted my four and six-year-old neighbors, handing me an open shoe box.
“She eats apples and bugs.”
“She might be old; look at her shell.”
I gently traced her calloused and colorful back with my finger.
“If you put her on the ground, she can run very fast,” Sabian said.
But before they could demonstrate, their mom called them home.
Two mornings later I was sitting on my back porch, when the cat and I noticed a plant bobbing up and down in the garden. It was Annabelle chewing leaves off a tomato plant. I finished my coffee and watched her lumber through my garden, then placed her in a clay saucer and carried her home.
For days that was our routine. Annabelle explored every inch of my yard and garden. I brought her strawberries and lettuce from the kitchen. I loved watching her wade through the grass and the surprised look on the boys’ faces when I returned her. Then one day my neighbor showed up alone, holding the shoebox with Annabelle.
“I have a confession,” she said. “This turtle is not escaping. I have been trying to set her free.”
She was worried for Annabelle’s safety in a house with four kids and a baby. The boys barely paid any attention to her anymore and she was afraid someone was going to step on her.
“She comes to your yard every time I let her go,” she said. “Would you like to keep her?”
It was that or the pet store, so we agreed to let the boys choose. A few hours later, they returned with the box containing Annabelle and some things they said were her toys. We released her into the garden and I told them they could visit anytime. They played with the cat a few minutes and left.
For two or three days, they came back to visit. After that it was just Annabelle and me.
Every morning, I lured Annabelle to the porch with food trails. She ate blueberries, grapes, Artemesia and blooms from the hibiscus that fell to the ground. But her passion was cantaloupe. The mere scent brought her running (yep). By summer’s end Annabelle was eating out of my hand. When I sat on the ground she would climb into my lap. I loved our time together, despite the teasing I got.
In September, as the plants in the garden started to droop, I worried about Annabelle’s winter.
Box turtles like her stayed six feet below the frost line from October to April. That was a lot of digging for a turtle who had spent so much time in captivity. Would she remember what to do?
But day after day, I watched her devour entire bean plants and tomato leaves. I knew being in the house for winter was not what she had in mind. I reached out to a gardener in Dallas who raised turtles to make sure Annabelle was getting everything she needed. My husband and I marked spots in the yard where Annabelle spent afternoons, hoping they would provide clues to her whereabouts in the spring.
The week before Halloween, Annabelle stopped taking naps under the hibiscus. Two days later, we could not find her.
We scoured the yard for any trace, but found nothing. I called the gardener in Dallas. Her turtles disappeared the week before. Every time I looked at the bleak garden that winter. I wondered if Annabelle was safe.
Spring came and night temperatures rose. We shopped for tomato plants and I told everyone I saw the story of my tunnel-bound pet. Since I wasn’t sure where she’d burrowed in, I had no idea where she would tunnel out. I hoped it would be in my yard, but there were no guarantees. In April, as my garden began to flourish, my hope for Annabelle faded. Despite the help of the entire neighborhood, no one found the turtle.
Then one afternoon, a young boy rang my doorbell.
“Ma’am,” he asked with a serious face. “Are you the turtle lady?”
“I am so sorry…” he began and looked at the ground.
My heart sped up as I imagined Annabelle struck by a car or worse.
“I didn’t know anything about your turtle until today,” he continued, slowly.
“But I wanted to tell you that a couple of weeks ago, on my way home from school, I saw a box turtle running toward the creek.”
I was so choked up I could hardly speak.
“Thanks,” I told him. “How sweet of you to come by.” He started to walk away, then turned and looked at me again,
“If it helps,” he said, “she seemed really excited.”
I closed the door and shed some tears. But the truth was, I could not have been happier. After years of captivity, Annabelle roamed free. Against all odds, she returned from the darkness.
I hope she’s doing it still.