DRIVING PAST LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA

Tilted tree’s suffer dusk
as I cruise along the winding
central Florida road, recalling

how my dad would pull over
whenever he spotted a turtle
crossing from grassland to asphalt—

perhaps mistaking the cars
for larger versions of themselves—
and return them to the waterside.

As a kid, I learned how to hold them
between thumb and forefinger,
or with two hands like a sandwich

with the bigger ones to avoid
their kicking, clawed feet, and how
to recognize the different species:

alligator snappers with their giant
beartrap jaws andhuge heads,
too big to withdraw into their shells;

map turtles whose namesake comes
from markings along their bodies
that resemble contour lines;

red-ear sliders, named for the wound-
like markings on their faces,
streaks of feverish evening light.

Sometimes we would bring them home
and keep them in the kiddie pool
for a few days, though they always “escaped”

while I was at school, too young
to realize my dad had simply
taken them back to the lakeside.

This was so many years ago,
before the divorce, before my family
entered the new millennium in splinters.

These thoughts always seem to rise
on the drive from Miami
to Orlando to visit my dad,

who still lives in the same house
we left.  I remember the first time
I went down to Miami—

it was in a U Haul
down a highway that splits
the sea of sawgrass.

There’s a buddhist ritual
that involves buying turtles
at food markets, turtles destined

for soup, and setting them free—
an unselfish act meant
to accrue good karma,

the turtles chosen over
chickens or lobsters
because they can outlive humans.

I never picked up my dad’s habit,
though he still brings home
the occasional rescue.

I don’t think he knows
about the ritual.  I don’t know
that he thinks much about karma,

I don’t know if he knows
the name of the lake just south
of his home is Tohopekaliga,

which is a word in a language
older than any turtle he’s ever found
and returned safely to that shore,

a word that translates
to something like a promise:
we will gather here            together.

 

Ariel Francisco is a Dominican-Guatemalan-American poet born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Florida. He is currently completing his MFA at Florida International University where he is also the assistant editor of Gulf Stream Literary Magazine. His poems have appeared in The Boiler Journal, Portland Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Washington Square, and elsewhere.