Friday, September 23, 2005


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When I was a child, I used to have a tortoise called Elisabeth. It was before people knew how endangered these animals are and you were still able to just buy them in a pet shop. I was given Elisabeth for my birthday and she was called Elisabeth because my father then had an obsession for all things British and suggested that we name her after the queen. I'm not even sure Elisabeth was female, but I'm sure she/he didn't mind her royal name.

Elisabeth lived in a box in my room and I loved her dearly. In the summer I took her outside, where we had an enclosure made of planks of wood, which we placed on the lawn. Elisabeth liked this and used to graze for hours. In the winter she slept in a box filled with hay in the cool, dark cellar. She was tame and often stretched her wrinkly neck out so I could stroke it. She ate slowly, deliberately, and had a preference for salad, and she loved baths and used to get quite cross when I tried to remove her from the shallow luke-warm water baths that we sometimes provided for her.

Elisabeth was with us for several years, until, one day when she was in the garden, she made her bid for escape. She did so with the deliberation and strength and with the always surprising speed of turtles by hoisting one of her front legs over the wooden enclosure and pulling herself up. I know this, not because I saw her escape, but because I had seen it several times before. Usually, when she had toppeled over the enclosure, she would land on her back and I had to turn her over again, but not this time. This time she disappeared.

We looked for her for days, but she seemed gone. Eventually we gave up. It was only years later that I would hear from Elisabeth again. I was a teenager then and I still remember the day. I was coming back from school, when I met our old neighbour in the street, a nasty old woman who had loved to scare us as children. To my surprise she stopped me in the street and started talking about Elisabeth.

Elisabeth, she told me, had apparently, after her escape, fallen into her garden, which was on a lower level than ours and had lived there for a number of years, grazing in the summer, hybernating in winter. Quite amazing, when you consider how cold the winters in Germany can get, but Elisabeth had always been a very determined animal. Nasty neighbour, it transpired, had been very aware of Elisabeth's presence in her garden for years, and insisted she had told me - something she evidently hadn't done. The day before, though, while she was mowing her lawn, she had hadn't seen and killed Elisabeth. She thought I ought to know.

I think part of me still hasn't forgiven my neighbour.

I don't mind that Elisabeth lived in her garden for years. In fact, I bow to Elisabeth's resilience and strength and I am sure she was happy there, which is all I could wish for. To some extent I don't even mind our neighbour keeping this from me so she could hold on to Elisabeth. But what still fills me with something akin to horror is the callousness and outright cruelty of having to tell me years later, AFTER Elisabeth had died, killed by a lawnmower no less.

In any case, I have not forgotten Elisabeth and since then i have had a weakness for turtles. I love and admire their strength and resilience, their stubbornness and determination. I feel touched by their independence, by the fact that they are like little islands, self-supporting, carrying their own home with them. I feel drawn to their seeming calm, unconcerned attitude which gives them an air of wisdom, of watching the world go by; rocks in the current of time. They are wonderful creatures.


  1. Anonymous9:58 am

    What an evil neighbour!! Poor Elisabeth.

  2. Anonymous8:04 pm

    I have loved reading this story. AT least Elisabeth had a good life of freedom in your neighbour's garden before her tragic end. What a cruel neighbour!

  3. i am really upset at your neighbour. but as franciose said at least elizabeth led a happy life until her untimely death.

  4. Anonymous10:50 pm

    What a NASTY little old lady - I bet she didn't knit! :)