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Clade Song 13


The girl at Petsmart has a Ph.D. in zoology,
she tells me. She applied to all the zoos
and aquariums, all the zoological societies
and research institutes out there, but she ended up
“in here,” she says, rolling her eyes like a pair of
fish in the exotic fish tank looking for the way
out. We are standing in the space between
the reptiles and the rodents, gazing down at Josh
who wants a turtle. “It’s actually a tortoise,” she says.
“A Russian tortoise. The males are smaller
than the females. They’ll grow to eight or nine inches.
With proper care though, they could easily outlive
their owners.” Josh looks frantic. “But who would
take care of it if it outlived us?” he asks us both.
She helps him with the math: “How old are you?”
“Nine and a half,” he says, adding that I am fifty-
three as an afterthought. “In captivity,” she says,
“they tend to live fifty years. So you would be
sixty or so—ten years older than Dad here. And he
would be as old as this tortoise would grow if it lived
in the wild: over a hundred.” Josh’s eyes grow big.
He has hit the jackpot. “A hundred years old! Can we
keep him? Please?” The tortoise crashes its carapace
in slow motion against the glass wall of the terrarium,
then noses around disconsolately in the substrate
as the three of us look on. Suddenly it lifts its head
and sneezes. “Was that a sneeze?” I ask the doctor
of zoology. She lowers her voice: “The thing is,
they get sick, and can make you sick. They carry parasites
and bacteria like salmonella. They come from countries
where the people hate us: Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan,
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other former Soviet
territories. Hence the name.” I look down at Josh
who is gazing longingly, lovingly through the glass
at this ancient helmet, this germ warfare, this
armature of our enemies, his face the very picture
of glasnost. “Would you like to see the guinea pigs?”
she asks him, but with such diplomacy that I feel
​an urge to shake her hand as she gently coaxes him
away from the reptiles and over toward the rodents.
“The largest rodent in the world is the capybara.
It’s as big as a sheep. It lives in South America.”







Paul Hostovsky's newest book of poems is Pitching for the Apostates (forthcoming 2023, Kelsay Books). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and Best American Poetry. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. Website: