This happened on the evening of our last rain storm, or what the old Cape Codders called a “tempest.” I’ve always liked that word, “tempest.” It goes back to Elizabethan times. Shakespeare used it as the title of his last play, in which the spirit Ariel says, “We are such things as dreams are made on.” Its root comes from tempus, the Latin word for time, and it connotes a great disturbance, one in which the doors between the present and the past might be suddenly flung open.
This tempest began with a light sprinkling of rain in the late afternoon and didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but then about 6:30 it began raining hard and turned into a downpour with great crashes and flashes of thunder and lightning that lasted three or four hours.
I was driving home from Orleans in the storm and stopped at Stop & Shop to pick up a few things for dinner. As I was struggling with my umbrella and trying to open the door into the wind, a strong gust ripped it open and slammed it into the body of a pickup truck parked next to me with a man sitting in it. I examined his door for damage and began to apologize, but he just kind of waved me off, as if acknowledging the storm and the difficulty of doing anything in it. Inside the large, brightly-lit store, the huge thunderclaps were muffled to a dim rumble, and the only sign of the storm outside were the soaked patrons. I tried to imagine being on a boat at sea in such weather, and failed.
On the road again, I passed the Wellfleet Cinemas. In the downpour I was unable to make out what films were showing on the marquee. In South Wellfleet, I turned off onto Old County Road, here the rain was coming down even harder. I saw on the road, in my lane, in the headlights, what looked like the body of a possum: long, pale white, and immobile. But a sudden flash of lightning illuminated what I now saw was a large snapping turtle making its way with ponderous shuffles toward the opposite shoulder of the road... What I had mistaken for a possum was the long, white flesh of the snapper’s tail. Its dark shell, or plastron must have been over a foot in diameter. I swerved and was pretty sure I had missed it, but I stopped the car, got out, and walked back just to be certain. The turtle had already made it to the far grassy shoulder. It was apparently unhurt, and it hunched in my flashlight beam for a minute, then moved off into the underbrush with its slow, heavy, ponderous, deliberate, dinosaurian, Jabba the Hut shuffle.
As far as I know, there is no pond, marsh, swamp, or other wetland on either side of the road here. Where had the snapper come from and where it was going? This ancient, armored creature seemed an apparition, set loose by the tempest itself, a Frankensteinian reptile animated into life by the electricity striking the earth, or perhaps one of its subterranean creatures forced to walk abroad on the soaked, saturated ground for the duration of the storm. Whatever it was, it was stranger, more alien, and more wondrous than anything illuminated on the Wellfleet movie screens a few miles back in the night. As Shakespeare’s Miranda might have said, “Oh brave new world that hath such creatures in it!”