By Dave Kavanaugh
The tortoise enjoyed a quiet life in the junkyard. The sun would rise and he would poke his head out from his protective home and into the light. He wandered on his typical paths through the maze of rusted car parts, broken furniture, tattered cloth. He climbed and slid and tumbled over mounds of yellowed paper, scattered bones, broken appliances.
He did not care for the broken things, though occasionally they provided shade or a hiding place from circling vultures. What he really was after was found beneath the surface of the trash. With a flick of his beak and a stretch of his wrinkled neck, he could overturn a hubcap or a bit of newspaper and reveal a writhing feast: Wriggling grubs, fat purple worms, carpets of wrestling beetles, centipedes, pill bugs. He snatched them up greedily, chewing and swallowing while the bugs still squirmed so that his belly felt robust and alive. He especially liked biting earthworms in two and watching rich brown soil ooze from the severed halves.
There were other kinds of food in the junkyard, too. Tiny forests of mushrooms, fermented berries, sweet husks of melons and gourds, sugary black banana peels, minty grass that grew along the rocky edges of the roads that ran like veins through the trashscape. He searched for these first thing in the morning, before raccoons and the other scavengers arrived. He would snack on wounded moths if he could find them, lazy spiders, lost crickets, even a baby mouse if he were really lucky.
It was a good life for a tortoise, though the junkyard was not without danger. The talons of a dozen different birds had decorated his shell over the years. The tiny claws of raccoons and foxes had chipped away at the seam where his shell met his breastplate, but none had ever been able to pry them apart. He was a survivor.
The worst predator had no claws. Instead of footprints, it left in its wake twin lines of trampled dust. This predator roared like a wounded dog, rumbled like thunder, groaned like bending bone. Every morning and every afternoon, it prowled the junkyard. Its eyes were dirty glass. Its shell was almost like a turtle’s, heavy and protective, but this shell could tip backward and spill out a load of trash.
He quickly learned to avoid the dump truck. He knew its schedule and could elude most passings, but sometimes the truck would appear unexpectedly and he was forced to crawl to the edge of the road and curl up tightly in his shell. After the cloud of the dust and the storm of sound passed, he would wait for several minutes before cautiously moving on.
He walked, he ate, he hid. He spent the nights burrowed beneath the cool sand. And the decades ticked by as the trash rose, rotted, rose again.
The older he got, the less time he spent searching for mates. Once, he tried mating with a broken stereo, but the experience left him feeling empty and isolated, and he had not repeated it.
One hot day with a sultry sun and a parched blue sky, he was in a corner of the junkyard he rarely visited. The truck had come there the night before and the scent of mildew and rotten meat had woken him early. He made his way vigilantly to the source of the smell and spied a bunch of grapes on a heap of cardboard. Bloated, black, sparkling like treasure. Most were dusted with white mold, but a few were glistening and perfect, their skin stretched to bursting. Seeing no competitors around, he hurried forward toward the lane that separated him from the fruit.
The tortoise felt young again as he advanced across the gravel in the certain assurance of a succulent meal. Perhaps that was why he did not feel the immediate onset of fear when the sound of the truck came to his ears from down the alley.
He did not take his gaze from the grapes, but the noise grew louder and soon the rising cloud of the dust could no longer be ignored. He panicked, unsure of whether to turn back or scurry forward.
He continued forward, feet racing over the gravel. The clamor of the truck was deafening. He stopped halfway across the road, heart racing, breath hissing, then turned and slipped as he crawled back the way he had come.
The truck swerved into view and barreled toward him. He strained every muscle as he charged. Pebbles scraped along his breastplate. The wheels were nearing. The groans of the engine howled in his ears.
At the last second, his body stopped obeying the urging of his mind, and even as his neck craned forward and his front legs tore at the gravel, his shell tightened, squeezing on his limbs and pinching his tail.
The wheel passed over his shell with a little pop, but that was lost in the crunching of the gravel. The truck passed on down the lane.
He did not die right away. The back half of his body was crushed, but he found that he could move his head from side to side. This he did for the rest of the afternoon. Back and forth, eyes unfocused. He could no longer smell the grapes.
When the sun went down, his head drooped to the road and he stopped moving altogether.
Next morning, his corpse was crawling with little worms and ants. For lunch, a bird took his eyes. For an afternoon snack, a raccoon pried apart what remained of his shell and slurped down each morsel of meat before licking clean the jagged scraps.
By the time the dump truck rumbled past that evening, he was just another scrap of garbage in the road.