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The morning of her seventieth birthday, Mary found a hard lump had formed on her lumbar vertebrae. She woke up feeling cheerier than usual, it being her birthday, and arose without having to linger in bed to snooze. Her husband stayed asleep as she climbed out of the sheets, snoring away in a familiar rhythm of phlegmy inhales and exhales.
Mary checked her voicemails and her texts hoping for a birthday message from her daughter, Hannah, who had long since left home. She was an adult now, living her own life with her own children an hour and a half away. There were no texts or voicemails from Hannah. Mary checked her emails on her clunky desktop computer. There was only a single birthday email from Starbucks, alerting Mary to her free beverage of choice. I ought to use that today, she thought.
When Mary started her shower and undressed, she caught a glimpse of the hard lump on her back in the mirror. She felt it with her brittle hands, stiff from a lifetime of sewing and gardening and preparing meals, and a parallel lifetime of administrative work in an elementary school. The pads of her fingertips kissed the peak of the lump. It was unyielding, but it didn’t hurt. She shrugged it off and chalked it up to their stiff mattress. She wasn’t partial to a firm bed, but her husband was. She showered slowly, making sure to pumice the heels of her feet.
Hannah finally called around five in the evening, when Mary and her husband were on their way out for a nice birthday dinner. She said she’d been working all day, and was driving home, calling from the car.
“How are the children?” Mary asked.
“They’re great, Mom. We’ll have to come visit soon,” said Hannah, sounding distracted. Hannah hung up because she was getting another call. Mary and her husband made the twelve minute drive to Marzano’s and ordered the famous gnocchi and peas in vodka sauce. They shared a Caesar salad that was prepared tableside. Mary watched the server grate fresh parmesan onto her romaine in glee. She had a glass of Merlot, and the waitress brought out a single serving of tiramisu with a yellow candle set aflame among the lady fingers. She blew out the candle and her husband clapped briefly.
Full and buzzed, Mary looked out the passenger window on the drive home from dinner and suddenly felt desperately lost, like there was something she had forgotten and she couldn’t think of what it was. She glanced at her husband who was thumping his palms on the steering wheel to a song that Mary didn’t recognize. She thought about the gnocchi and wondered if it was missing something this time around. Her husband would know.
“What did you think of the gnocchi?” she asked her husband. “I thought it was good. Very good,” he replied. Her uneasiness disappeared as swiftly as it had emerged and she sighed a great sigh of relief.
The next day, the lump was no longer a lump, but a series of rigid plates, shingle-like. They appeared to have emerged from beneath her skin, like newly swept gravestones. Still, they were not tender to the touch, but the fact of their spreading was concerning to Mary. She made an appointment to see her general practitioner the next day.
When she awoke the following morning, it appeared that the shingles had not only spread, but were beginning to dome. Her neck felt stiff, and her skin felt tight, but still, none of it caused much pain. She thought of telling her husband about the appointment, but decided to wait until after she heard what the doctor had to say. She didn’t want to worry him if it wasn’t worth the trouble. She said she was going to the library.
She arrived ten minutes early to her doctor’s appointment so she would have ample time to fill out the proper forms. The waiting room was full of sick people; an elderly man with a Band Aid on his temple, a teenager asleep on his mother’s shoulder, a cross-legged woman with a magazine and a briefcase at her feet. They could be ill with nearly anything, Mary thought, and we’re all in this tiny room together, acting like we’re all ok.
Mary’s appointment started eight minutes late, but for a doctor’s appointment this was very reasonable, Mary thought. The nurse took Mary’s temperature (colder than usual), her weight (heavier than usual), and her height (shorter than usual) and asked her the reason for her visit.
“Well, I seem to have some sort of growth on my back.”
“Is it red? Itchy? Swelling?”
“On a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you experiencing?”
The nurse didn’t look at Mary as she asked about her alcohol consumption, tobacco use, menopause status. She kept her head down and her eyes glued to the form as she jotted.
“I do drink, on occasion. I don’t smoke, and yes. I just turned seventy years three days ago.”
“Happy Birthday,” the nurse said without ceremony. “Any medications? Allergies?”
“I’m allergic to avocado.” The nurse finally looked up from her paperwork.
“I love avocado,” she said sympathetically. “Ok, the doctor will be in shortly.” And Dr. Toro was in shortly, about six minutes later.
“Good morning, Mary. How’re we feeling?” he asked. Why do doctors always use the royal ‘we’, Mary thought.
“Good, just trying to figure out what’s going on with my back.”
“Let’s take a look. I’m going to ask you to lift your top, Mary, if that’s ok with you.” Mary lifted the hem of her embroidered Mexican blouse to reveal the series of growths that now sprawled from her tailbone to her shoulders. She heard Dr. Toro inhale sharply, trying to stifle his alarm. She felt the pressure of his hands, but couldn’t feel their texture.
“Are you in pain, Mary?”
“Not at all.” The doctor’s hands moved across Mary’s back like he was working an abacus.
“This is very strange indeed, Mary. I’m going to run some tests.”
They ran soft cotton swabs over Mary’s back and took copious blood tests. An MRI, a urinalysis, stool tests and an allergy panel. Nurses took photos that required Mary to pose in awkward positions without a bra. She did not enjoy it one bit. It seemed that the entire office was in a frenzy over Mary’s condition. She saw some of the nurses gathered around her photos when she was walking to the restroom.
The test results came back in a matter of days. Everything came back normal, much to Mary’s relief, but the doctor was still concerned.
“Mary, I need you to come back to my office for a follow up. There’s someone I’d like you to speak with.”
Mary visited the office the next day, as requested, and didn’t have to wait even two minutes before seeing Dr. Toro. She entered her designated room, her pocketbook hanging off her shoulder, and was surprised to find two doctors waiting for her.
“Mary! How are you?” said Dr. Toro. He reached out his hand but only after hesitating a moment.
“This is Dr. Bradley, a zoologist we’ve flown in from Florida. We think he might have some ideas about what’s going on.” That ‘we’ again, Mary thought. Dr. Bradley examined Mary and again, she felt no pain, no sensation. Just the feeling of a hand’s pressure.
Dr. Bradley smothered the same quick inhale that Dr. Toro had attempted to hide, only Dr. Bradley’s was imbued with an undeniable excitement. His hands moved rapidly about Mary’s back and she could hear the clicking of a camera. She was beginning to feel self-conscious.
Dr. Toro offered Mary some tea as he led her into his office, a well lit corner room with an entire wall of dusty books. Dr. Bradley followed behind Mary and took a seat beside her. Dr. Toro sat behind his desk and fidgeted with an eraser shaped like a kidney.
“Do you know what a carapace is, Mary?” Dr. Toro began. Mary shook her head.
“Well, a carapace is...well, it’s basically. It’s anatomical terminology for a turtle shell.”
“A turtle shell,” Mary repeated.
“We have reason to believe that you’re growing a turtle shell–well, a tortoise shell, rather–on your back,” Dr. Bradley summed up.
“A tortoise shell?” Mary said. She squinted her eyes.
“Your...growth has the identical make up of a standard carapace. We can’t say why this is happening, but it seems that you’re growing a shell.”
Mary thought silently for a moment. The doctors looked at one another.
“Now, removal is...” Whatever Dr. Toro was saying was humming around the room like a vapor, but Mary wasn’t listening because she was trying with much effort to suppress uncontrollable giggles. Her giggling spilled into raucous laughter. She wiped tears from her eyes.
“Isn’t that something,” she said, finally composing herself. She took a deep sigh. “Removal will not be necessary,” she said. The doctors walked her out.
Mary relayed the news to her husband and to Hannah. Her husband was in disbelief at first. Concern came second, upon seeing the carapace. He then wondered what this meant for his own life. When she reassured him that she was given a clean bill of health, that the shell didn’t interfere with pretty much anything at all, and that removal would be simply too costly, he thought the whole affair was sort of funny.
“Mom, we have to get you on the news! This is wild!” Hannah said. Mary was not interested in being on the news, but she was happy to have something to do with Hannah. Hannah had called the local news station and convinced them to run a story on Mary and her amazing shell. Hannah drove the entire hour and a half just to escort Mary to the interview. The studio was fluorescent and brown all at once. The woman who interviewed Mary had a perfect blonde bob and a magenta blazer with sleeves that looked an inch too short. She wore a lot of makeup and smelled of basil.
“How does it feel? To be this...miracle?” The interviewer asked Mary, looking right past her.
“I’m just who I’ve always been,” said Mary.
Mary became somewhat of a celebrity. She was asked for pictures when she went to the grocery store, and received fan mail from schoolchildren with an affinity for reptiles. A fair amount of perverts had found her address and solicited her for specific sexual requests. Those letters made her blush and she did not share their content with her husband before she threw them into the fireplace. She was asked if she was interested in writing a book, and she couldn’t help but wonder what on earth she would write about.
Mary’s shell seemed to be growing by the day. Her scutes (she learned that the correct term for her platelets was scutes) were a marvelous tortoise shell pattern–uneven splotches of black and tan. It still didn’t hurt, but as the shell grew harder, sleeping became a game of bearings and weight arrangement. It was like she was pregnant again. Even the newfound attention mimicked the experience of her pregnancy. Her husband sometimes rubbed her shell the way he used to rub her growing belly.
One year later, on Mary’s seventy first birthday, she noticed a new scute developing on her stomach, just right of her wrinkly belly button. She sat down at her desktop and typed “tortoise body” and scrolled through the drawings of tortoise anatomy. She was growing what was called a plastron, the flat underbelly of a tortoise’s hard exoskeleton. She didn’t consult Dr. Toro or Dr. Bradley. She knew what it was and she knew what it meant.
Unlike last year, Hannah and the grandchildren drove the hour and a half to attend Mary’s birthday dinner. The whole family went to Marzano’s and ordered the tableside Caesar and watched the flakes of cheese fall from the grater like prom confetti. They sang happy birthday loudly and patrons from all around the restaurant joined in when they realized it was the tortoise lady who was celebrating. The servers brought out an entire platter of tiramisu this time, and lined the perimeter of the cake with long, white shimmering candles. Mary clutched her chest in gratitude and surprise. The whole of Marzano’s clapped and hollered. Mary ran her finger over her new scute under her blouse.
Mary spent the next day doing all the things she loved to do. She read a magazine, she took a bath, she drove to the ice cream shop and got one scoop of butter pecan and one scoop of mint chip and she did not mind at all when the two flavors started to meld inside the paper cup. She thought it tasted just fine. She called Hannah and asked to speak with the kids and she made her husband a roast chicken with an arugula salad on the side. When day turned to night, Mary told her husband she wanted to drink herbal tea on the deck and watch the stars burn. She sat in her deck chair and sipped her chamomile and stared for a long time at the gleaming, incandescent moon.
There was a brief period of time when the town declared Mary a missing person. Her husband looked and looked for her, panicky and fearful. For once, his day began with thoughts of her. He visited the hair salon, the grocery store, the library, and the ice cream shop. He called Hannah and even Dr. Toro every day. He placed ads in the paper. It took two weeks for Mary’s husband to notice that all the plants in the backyard were nibbled down to nubs. Mary had always taken care of the garden. He thought it must be rabbits or squirrels, some kind of vermin. But a month later, out from behind a bush a dazzling tortoise propped up on its bowed legs, with a wrinkly neck and a majestic beak, emerged. Its shell bored patterns of black and tan and it was so brilliant in the sunshine. It crawled across the lawn and looked at Mary’s husband, and then straight into the sky. It closed its eyes, and he knew.
Hannah and her children visit every week now. The kids feed the tortoise bundles of iceberg lettuce, juicy yellow peppers, and fibrous cauliflower. They read the tortoise stories and sometimes they carry it around the backyard with both hands.
About the Author
Tahnee Freda is a writer and instructor living in Los Angeles. Recent work can be found at Motherwell Mag. Sign up for infrequent missives from Tahnee here.