The mystery in the ceiling...
For eight years I lived in western New York; Chautauqua County to be more specific. For a couple of those years I rented a storefront building in Lakewood that had a huge showroom up front and an apartment in the rear. I needed a large studio/workshop so this served better than a "normal" house.
There was also an upstairs apartment rented by a single guy - kind of a party-bachelor but rugged outdoorsy type - who came and went all hours of the day or night. So, when I was first awakened by the strange sounds coming from above, I just assumed it was "Dave" getting in late or stirring about. I didn't think much of it, and the sounds - kind of a bumping and scratching - were intermittent. I remember thinking he must be sitting on the edge of his bed swinging one foot so that it dragged on the floor every so often. And the bumping was explained by his eventually removing his shoes and letting them fall with a soft "ka-bump." For over a month, I heard almost the same sounds, seeming to move about, but not too much, explainable if he were sitting on different sides or the end of a bed. By this time it was more scratching and less bumping and the scratching had moved to a spot directly over my own bed.
You have to understand that up until this point, I only heard the sounds at night, when awakened briefly - perhaps by one loud bump. And this was an old building with one of those commercial dropped ceilings throughout; large square panels which muffled sound, suspended in a metal framework. I would drift right back to sleep...
I was home late one afternoon when I knew "Dave" was not at home. I walked through the bedroom doorway and distinctly heard the scratching noise. It stopped abruptly. I froze and listened;and it started up again - a very distinct: scratch, scratch, bump... scratch, scratch, bump... followed by a crunching sound. Rats! All this time I thought it was Dave, and it was rats! Or bats! Could it be bats? Or very large mice? Something in that ceiling was alive.
Now that I knew this, it drove me nuts. I would jump awake and listen to that sound. How could I have ever mistaken it for shuffling feet? I would listen and listen and try to discern just what it could be... But I was afraid to look... I mean, all I had to do was get a flashlight and a stepladder and push up one of the tiles and... at least I would know - or I might scare it off so I could get some peace.
It took two more weeks to talk myself into it. The scratching that night was right above my head and in a place where the ladder would fit. Steeling myself, I fetched my equipment, and - flashlight ready, I climbed the ladder and stood for a few mpments, gathering my courage while envisioning something large and furry jumping onto my face, or perhaps several bats fluttering out into my bedroom. But I had gotten this far and I had to know what it was. I slowly raised a ceiling tile adjacent to the noise then simultaneously switched on the flashlight and stuck my head up into the void. I saw two red eyes though the rest of the form didn't register at first. And then I realized Good Grief! It's a turtle! A turtle?
It was a box turtle; the kind I used to find in the woods years before when my father would take me mushroom hunting for morels. What was it doing in the ceiling? I reached in and grasped it by the shell anticipating its weight and my hand just floated up. It was as if I had picked up a ball of cardboard. The poor thing weighed almost nothing. Suddenly I was overcome with shame and remorse. Due to my mistaken assumptions, poor detection skills and unreasonable fear, this poor turtle had been crawling around in the barren ceiling, slowly dying of thirst and malnutrition, for at least six weeks. I carried it into the kitchen for closer inspection and to try and save it.
Turtles are pretty wrinkle-y critters when they are healthy, but this one was just about dried out. It was either unafraid, or more likely, just too weak to withdraw its emaciated limbs and neck and close it's shell. But the eyes were bright orange and very much alive. I set the turtle in the big porcelain sink and offered a jar lid of water. That turtle immediately craned its neck about, put beak to water, and began to take small swallows - about one every 3 or 4 seconds. This went on for over 5 minutes until the turtle finally pulled its head up a bit and looked at me as if to say "what now?" I remembered that turtles liked tomatoes so I offered it a slice along with some bread soaked in water and some lettuce. It began to eat the tomato. I was gratified to think it might survive its ordeal.
The local vet said what I had offered was a good start for its diet, and to add tuna as a protein source. At the library I found a book on turtles that told me this was a common box turtle; more specifically: a female carolina carolina terrapina - (female because of the orange eyes), found generally along the Atlantic coast and the Appalachians. New York was a bit far north for one of these, and I began to suspect that my upstairs neighbor might have lost him a turtle. He had recently been on a camping trip to North Carolina. Could he have brought her back with him? But how did she get into the ceiling?
I never found out because I never told 'ol Dave about finding the turtle. I was upset that he might have been responsible for its being lost in the first place, and that he might want her back if that was so. I had already planned her future. I would release her back into the wild in North Carolina on my way to Nag's Head in a few months.
It was November when I found her and by April she weighed over a pound, had many fewer wrinkles and was possibly even rather chubby for a tortoise. As I drove along a backroad in North Carolina looking for a good spot to release her, she munched happily on tuna and tomato. She had never seemed afraid of me and I had grown quite fond of her.
I found a great place, adjacent to a wetland, way, way out in the national forest. I worried a little that she might not re-adjust to the wild, but I felt this was the right thing to do. I put her out onto the mossy ground with the last of the food I had brought for her. She had not been on natural ground since I had found her, and she stretched her neck out to its' full length and looked about. She seemed quite excited. As I was baking away, taking a couple of photographs of her, I heard the strangest sound: a kind of croaking, squeaking sound like nothing I had ever heard before, and it was coming from my turtle! Was she calling to her own kind or to me? Amazed, I listened for several minutes as she repeated these sounds at short intervals. The last I saw of her, she was marching rather purposefully off into the woods; head high; quiet now.
I left her then, and, feeling quite happy and purposeful myself, drove on to my destination. I like to think she was thanking me out loud...