My friend Jake has black and orange scales down his arms, like miniaturized saucers, that grow more distinct toward his claws before tapering off into ordinary reptilian skin. Jake, I might mention, is my son’s pet—an ornate box turtle with a long speckled neck and curiously intelligent eyes. Jake is now my friend because we spend a lot of time together these days. It all developed a few months ago when I noticed a dark spongy build-up near his claws, like he’d stepped in blueberries and then dirt. Which he’s been known to do. Only this time it didn’t wash off. Then he began to limp. Off to the vet we went.
“Ah,” said the veterinarian, turning an indignant Jake this way and that, whose response was to pee on him. “This fungus covering his claws? We don’t want that.”
“Ah,” I said helpfully, then proceeded to answer his questions about diet, care, housing, heating, in an increasingly apologetic tone, trying to remember who it was who’d told me box turtles were nearly indestructible.
The vet set Jake down. “He’ll need fourteen days of antibiotics, a nightly bath in Betadyne, some extra care for a while. After I show you how to give him an antibiotic injection—you don’t have a problem with needles, do you?—we’ll discuss husbandry."
Husbandry: not the “honey, I’m home” type, either. More like the “find an extra thirty minutes in your day to bathe, inject and exercise this turtle and let’s face it, neither your husband nor your eight year old are going to volunteer for the task” type. Fine, then. I can multi-task most of it. But the part where he ambles around outside for twenty minutes and you can’t lose sight of him?
Scales. Of course.
This, then, is our new routine. And weirdly, I like it. I’ve always started off my daily violin practice with twenty minutes of scales, so why not outside? The air is mild, the trees provide shade. My family and I live on three acres in a mountain community and from our front lawn I observe the beauty around me—the hills, shaggy redwoods, blue sky and smoky hues of more distant ridges. There I am with my fiddle, working my way through C and G major, F and B flat major, while Jake bobbles along, limp and fungus now gone thanks to my excellent husbandry skills.
I play differently with my eyes trained on a turtle shuffling through grass that occasionally obscures him. With my visual attention thus distracted but my ears 100 percent free to listen, I hear my notes differently. I see them, not with my eyes on the fingerboard, but in my head. I process the resonating tones in a more satisfying way. It’s as if my brain has slowed down to Jake’s pace.
Twenty minutes pass, just like that. Jake gives me enough time to finish a cycle—a two octave scale, one long and two short bows, then one note per bow using the fourth finger on the way down—before he has reached the end of the lawn and the driveway. Grab turtle, return him to grass. Then an arpeggio before I run through my Bytovetsky scale for that key. Grab turtle, return him to grass. A fiddle tune or short memorized piece, then on to the next key and listening, really listening for the right note, the reassuring response from the violin when I get it right.
The violin likes when I get it right. It just sings for me when I’m warmed up and conscious of intonation. The turtle likes it too. I don’t know if it’s the timing—the way he moves quicker through my G and C major scales, and starts to mellow out by the time I’m working through the F and B flat major—but we all seem to hit some stride after twenty minutes, the violin, turtle and I. I’ll stroll over, turning the final Bytovetski into a ballad of sorts and I’ll join Jake. Upon hearing my approach, he stops, cocks his head and regards me with those oddly knowing eyes. He likes F major, I’m sure of it. He never runs from me by F major time. Or maybe it’s the tune I play in F major. He’ll listen, I’ll play, we’re both in the shade by that time, on the far side of the yard. He’s inches from dense shrubbery, which was his goal, but he doesn’t dart in, even though my presence signifies that I’m about to reach over, pick him up and deposit him once again on the lawn, far from burrow-worthy material. But he doesn’t go. So neither do I. We all just hang out, there in the dappled shade, listening to my violin sing out scales.
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