Ruby Clement is almost sure she spends entirely too much time on her Carolina box turtles but you have to spend time on something and you do relatively little damage to the world, it seems to me, if you open a can of Kal Kan and wait for Red Devil to show up.
"Where are you, dear?" she pleaded on a recent morning as she poked hopefully through the ivy at her old house in Georgetown.
Like humans, turtles are expert at vanishing when you want them, and although the yellow star bursts on their dark shells are positively gaudy, a box turtle blends admirably (from his point of view) with ivy, bricks, rakes, mops and the usual impedimenta of a town garden.
"Red Devil is not a devil at all, but one of the sweetest turtles imaginable," she told me. "He was here when I moved in 30 years ago and he was full-sized then. I have no idea how old he is, since the rings [on the individual plates of his shell, which indicate age] are worn off beyond a certain point.
"John Hoke [a parks official who has known turtles intimately for decades and has written a book or two about them] thinks the turtles were here before the Georgetown streets were paved and before the garden wall was built, ages ago, and that they've been here ever since. There's no way for them to get in or out of the garden, and every few years I see a new turtle.
"Look at Wilhelmina. Isn't she ugly. I really think she should be liberated near the canal."
I remonstrated at this harshness. Wilhelmina's colors are admittedly pale and sober, but not everybody has to run about with diamonds and klieg lights. Ruby said well, yes, but a certain gaud is desirable in box turtles, and I said yes, but at least Wilhelmina could be found, which is more than could be said for the others.
"There you are," cried Ruby Clement, who by the way would prefer to be called Zinnia since she never really cared much for Ruby, finally spotting Red Devil. To me he seemed just another pretty face, though his shell is brilliant and his eyes gorgeous, with stunning red rims. Of course if you live with an animal 30 years or so you see beauty of character not evident at first meeting, and there was no doubting that Red Devil is the favorite.
"He was so late emerging from hibernation this spring that I was sure something had happened to him. But out he came, a bit late, good as new."
Word of Red Devil's failure to emerge was spread quickly in turtle circles of the capital -- Hoke phoned me the alarming news, for example, months ago -- and considerable relief was felt at the last.
"You know I lost Old Varsol," she said. Old Varsol was so named because he was discovered in a metal tray in which a paint roller was being cleaned in a powerful chemical solution. It was the devil's own job cleaning him up (this was years ago) but Ruby Clement managed it. Son of Varsol is similar, but not so brilliantly colored, and Ruby suspects Wilhelmina.
But then it could have been Antisocial. Maybe she was the mother.
"You can name a turtle too hastily," Ruby said. "We called this sweety Antisocial because she was so standoffish. But in time she got fairly friendly and we started calling her Tante Social. We think she has mothered some of Red Devil's offspring. I want you to see Zinnia, isn't she bright and pretty. Now this one looks like a product of Old Varsol and, let me see, maybe Mrs. Red or -- oh, I don't know. It is all very puzzling who is related to whom and just how. Now I cannot believe this one was hatched out and grew to full size -- a matter of years -- before I ever saw him in this small garden, but he must have. He has all the marks of Varsol, who has been dead for years, but I promise you I never saw this one until he was full grown.
"Of course you almost never see baby box turtles, do you? Even so, in a garden this small you can't believe he was around, quietly growing up, all those years and I never saw him.
"Look at Red Devil. See, he lets Wilhelmina barge right in and take food away. He's not very aggressive that way. Now this one is very macho, just look at him . . ."
Altogether there seem to be only about six turtles, but they wander back and forth and I personally suspect Ruby Clement calls them different names, so that Son of Varsol may also be Zinnia. It was very like "Last Year at Marienbad" and those other art films in which you never get the cast straight and then it hardly seems necessary to do so.
"I'm glad you like the house," she said as we had a little tour indoors. "The side entrance with the huge fanlight is not original, you used to enter from the street, but those three rooms were thrown into one and now the entrance hall is on the side. That was all done by the daughter of a Hollywood producer before I bought the place. She put in the big cove molding. I imagine she had red and green neon lighting, but on the whole she did a good job, don't you think. The wallpaper in the hall is French, all those balloons. I want to take the kitchen ceiling down and expose the beams but everybody tells me all I'll find is a lot of wires up there. This screen door to the outside is interesting. I had a cat that liked to go out and was very put out when the door was shut. The cat did that [referring to a large opening in the screen] and then it could come and go as it pleased. I wonder I never thought of it myself.
"That is an Austrian helmet," she said of one designed to hold a crest of more plumes than any six ostriches, "and there used to be a portrait of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather there. It was ripped off, if you can believe it. Over there was a large painting of sheep grazing. I sold it for a few thousand dollars, not near its value, but at least I got something for it."
The house is less formal than some in Georgetown, with a great many mementos and papers sitting about, partly because the place is not alive with servants (there are none) and chiefly because that is the way Ruby Clement likes it, on the general theory life is more interesting than dust.
She was born in Georgetown and used to live in a house across from the library, and one of her grandmothers lived in a great house a few blocks away.
"The rest of the family lived on Capitol Hill, which of course is where everybody did live in those days, and they used to say how sad it was that grandmother had to live in Georgetown.
"And now if you'd be so kind as to drop me off at the bank. Just a second while I go change into something more conventional." She had been wearing slacks and a blouse, a uniform practical for rummaging after turtles, and emerged in a sun-struck yellow outfit with various subsidiary colors and a hat of broad cone shape that cheered the soul and suggested Rangoon, rather.
In the past, Hoke has assisted her in thinning out her turtle crop, liberating them in appropriate natural surroundings, and she is seeking his advice now, not wanting the turtles to feel crowded. She checked with a neighbor who had had a rabbit and a cat but is now petless, but the neighbor, after an initial confusion that either Hoke or myself was proposing to move permanently into her house, a thing she was not really up to, declined the offer. There comes a time in life in which you just do not want to take on anything else. Then another neighbor was ruled out when it developed turtles come and go through an opening in his garden wall. Ruby would certainly not want that -- what with Georgetown traffic roaring along.
"I simply am going to have to stop spending so much of my day on these turtles," she proclaimed as she left the car and swept into the bank. But of course she never meant it.