My memory is not what it once was. I am fortunate, at my age, that none of my senses are diminished. I still see perfectly in the dark. I still catch the slightest muttered complaints of my teenage sons. I am certain I could sense the approach of any opponent. Leonardo's birthday, however, snuck up with impressive stealth.
My son is nineteen. Perhaps not on this day in particular, but this year. I am immensely grateful. All four sons surviving to adulthood - there have been many times when the very idea was an improbable hope.
Birthday celebrations have been understated affairs in our family. When my turtles were children, it was special enough that they have a day to call their own, since they shared almost everything else. A present might be a small toy rescued from a dumpster, a food treat, a day without chores. Today Leonardo received an electronic device that apparently stores entire books, the television series "Lost" on DVD, a fine box of tea, and an oversized mug with the words "I'M THE BOSS. TO SAVE TIME LET'S JUST ASSUME I'M NEVER WRONG." I believe Raphael chose that last gift.
Afterwards, our dear friend Miss April O'Neil asked, "So, who's birthday is next?"
Donatello and Raphael looked at each other. Raphael shrugged and put his feet up on the table, although I have asked him not to on more occasions than I can count. "I haven't decided yet."
"Aw, c'mon," Michelangelo protested. "Don't make it like last year!"
"He didn't decide until September, and then gave us one week's notice," Donatello explained to our friend.
Raphael quite relishes being unpredictable. He sets a different date for his birthday every year, so the 'birth order' of my sons varies year to year. By tradition, Leonardo's birthday is always first.
April O'Neil, a woman possessed of much humor and grace, laughed and said, "I still think it's hilarious that you get to pick your own days."
Michelangelo grinned. "It's more fun this way."
"So maybe Splinter really does know the actual dates but is keeping them a secret." Miss O'Neil gave me a sly, conspiratorial smile.
I have what I believe is called a 'good poker face.' "Truly, I do not," I assured her. My memory these days, I may have mentioned, is more unpredictable than Raphael's whims. Several images flooded unbidden into my mind, surfacing with them tenderness and guilt. For what I told her is only partially true.
Four eggs. That was all they were when I first found them. Yellowish and slightly oblong, bathed in syrupy, unnaturally bright liquid. The first one hatched before my eyes. He was tiny, helpless, but I knew within moments that he was different. Changed, as I was. His arms and legs were long, the fingers and toes well defined, the head rounded, the eyes set forward. Those eyes. They locked onto mine with desperate need, small limbs pushing through the chemical pool to reach me.
He slept next to me that night. In the morning when I returned from foraging to find a curious stray cat batting him over the shell, I sent it flying.
To my surprise, he survived. I offered all the food I could scavenge, hoping he would find some of it edible. He tried to follow me when I left and was waiting when I returned. Ten days passed before two of the other eggs hatched overnight. The final one followed a week later. They were all like the first. Mutants. And I, now, their protector.
More than that. Their sensei.
I had lost my master and my clan. My new clan consisted of four infants. But if they grew, as I presumed they would, to be large, strong and intelligent, they would be ninjas of the Hamato line.
I named them. I knew Donatello was the last to hatch, but what I told April O'Neil is true insofar as, to this day, I do not know whether Leonardo or Michelangelo is older. The eldest, I named Raphael. I intended for his name to set him apart. For every clan, every family, needs katokusozoku - hierarchy and succession - and though mere days separated him from the others, he was my first son, my ichiro.
It did not take long for their distinct personalities to emerge. They delighted and exasperated me in innumerable and unique ways. When I began training them, I was pleased to see that Raphael was naturally gifted - fast, strong, fearless and instinctive. He backed away from no challenge, left no opinion unvoiced, and was so protective of his siblings that to punish one of them often meant including him for interfering.
He could also be a little demon. Michelangelo besting him in a game of marbles would incite an epic, ear-splitting tantrum. Correcting his pronunciation of a word might earn Donatello teeth marks. His response to discipline was raging defiance and sullen resentment.
One evening, I drilled the turtles again and again on proper stances. Perhaps I pushed him harder than the others, but finally Raphael flopped to the ground and refused to move. I hauled him to his feet by the shell and threw him in the bedroom he shared with his brothers. We would not, I explained, go on the promised outing until I saw a perfect kata.
Hours passed. When I peered through the crack in the doorway, Raphael was still sulking on his bed. Finally, Leonardo approached me, his two other brothers in tow. "Sensei, I have something to show you." While Raphael was brooding, he'd been practicing. The kata he performed for me was as crisp and flawless as anyone could expect of a five-year-old. "Now can we please go?" he entreated.
That spring, the storm drains flooded with heavy rainfall and melting snow. We were wakened in the middle of the night by the sound of water pouring through the tunnels outside our small lair. A quick glance out the entranceway told me that it would not be long before the torrents rose and washed into our home.
"All of you, quickly," I called to my sons. "Go to our practice area further up the tunnel, the one with the climbing wall. Do you remember how to get there?" Four green heads nodded. I grasped Raphael by the arm. "Keep your brothers together. Go straight there and stay there, do you understand?"
His eyes widened in alarm and protest. "What about you?"
"Do not worry about me. I will join you soon. Now hurry."
They scampered down the tunnel, glancing anxiously at the water rushing past a few inches below them. I watched them go. If they did as I said, they would have plenty of time to reach higher ground.
I worked quickly. I moved all our meager possessions off the floor, as far out of the water's reach as I could. My mind was racing. The water would come right past our entryway and rise into it. But there was a narrow fork in the tunnel just upstream and if I could barricade it enough to divert the flow...
Recalling that the playground three blocks away had a sandpit, I gathered every bag, sheet and pillowcase I could find and rushed there. I emerged into a clear, cool city night. There was a homeless man sleeping soundly on the bench next to the play structure, but the park was otherwise, thankfully, deserted.
I made half a dozen trips to and from the playground, filling bags of sand with my bare hands and carrying them back underground. Wading up to my calves in water, I stacked the bags across the tunnel floor, blocking off the path to our lair. By the time I ran out of anything with which to carry sand, the water flowing into the tunnel was a modest creek, and I was reasonably confident that the lair would be protected. I was very weary and had lost track of time. I went to find my sons.
I heard Michelangelo shout from the top of the makeshift climbing structure I had rigged for their training. "He's here, he's here!" He leaped into my arms, and Leonardo and Donatello scrambled down, clinging to my legs, ecstatic with relief. I swung my gaze around. "Where is Raphael?"
"He didn't come!" Leonardo gripped my hand with a surge of distress. "He turned around and went to get you!"
I went rigid with fear and fury. "Why would he-? When did this happen?"
"It's been a long time," Donatello said, then quieted, as if suspecting, quite unnecessarily, that he would get his brother in trouble.
"I told him not to go, because you said to come here!" Leonardo wailed.
"We've been playing cards in the fort, though," Michelangelo added. "Leo said you'd for sure come back after we played one hundred games, and we only reached..."
"Forty-one," Donatello supplied.
I swung all three of them back up onto the structure and said sternly, "You must stay here a little longer. I am going to find your brother."
A chorus of protest. "No, no, don't go!"
"Leonardo is correct. I will return after you have played a few more games."
"Fifty-nine more?" Donatello groaned.
"Hopefully fewer," I muttered. I said to Leonardo, "Raphael could be in danger. You must all wait for me here, is that clear?"
He nodded solemnly and released his arms from my neck.
I hunted for Raphael for twenty minutes, twenty terrible minutes, before I found him. In his haste, he'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a parallel, seemingly identical tunnel. When I found him, he was up to this small thighs in water, hiccupping his suppressed sobs as he plowed determinedly in the direction he must have thought the lair was in. I wanted to administer the worst beating of his young life, but seeing him like that, I scooped him up over my shoulder and carried him silently back to his siblings. I had no words for my relief and my anger. Nor, it seemed, did he.
I pried his fists from my fur and set him down on the ground, where he crouched into a cold, wet ball. His brothers hastened down excitedly but kept a slight distance, wary of my temper or his, I am not sure which. I motioned them to me.
"Donatello, Michelangelo, I am proud of how you've acted. It has been a difficult day," I said. "Leonardo. Thank you for being exceptionally responsible." He put his hand into mine and I thought: if only he were my ichiro.
So the decision came to me in an instant.
"Can we go home now?" Michelangelo asked.
"The waters should be at a safe level near the lair. The three of you may go ahead. Leonardo, if you run into any water that seems too high, turn around immediately and come back to me. Raphael and I will follow shortly."
Though only five years old, Raphael sensed the difference. He looked up at me with the most withering glare of betrayal.
Forgive me, my son, my eldest. It is for the best.
Raphael saw me looking at him and took his feet off the table. "Alright," he said, putting his hands behind his head and feigning serious consideration. "Hmmm...let's go with..." He glanced at April with a smile. "April... twenty...fourth."
Donatello rolled his eyes. His chosen birthday is always July 2nd. He likes the symmetry of it falling precisely in the middle of the year. Michelangelo punched him affectionately on the shoulder. "Third this year, eh?"
"Remind me again why is it that Leo always goes first?" April asked.
There were a few shrugs. "Can't really remember," Michelangelo said. "It's always been that way."
"As I recall," Leonardo offered, "when we were about six, we got the idea into our heads that we should get birthday parties. Master Splinter told us that since he didn't know our birthdates, we could choose our own days. And since I was the only one who wasn't screaming to be first, I got to go first for all eternity." He smiled smugly.
"Yeah, you've told that story before," Raphael snapped, but with affection. "Enjoy being older than me for the next two months, big brother."
"Is that story even true, sensei?" Donatello asked.
"My memory is not what it once was," I conceded. "But it certainly sounds plausible."
Alex Fisher - January 2012
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are owned by Nickelodeon