tortoise scale in child hands

As swift as a squirrel, Jay run up to the deck as soon as he heard the watchman's cry "Land! Land in view!" The light was so sudden and bright it hurt. The world looked ghostly and magical through the teary blur of the young eyes, wide open with wonder.

Jay had been waiting for that island since the very beginning of the journey. It was everything he expected it to be and more: a place of exotic plant and animal life, sweet fruit, and adventures. Everything seemed wonderful there, beautiful, alien, even the same sun and sea Jay had had enough of during his time on the ship.

The captain let his men go ashore and explore the island so they would return to the ship with fresh food and water. Little Jay wasn't allowed to follow the adult sailors into the jungle, but he was quite content with exploring the beach. He ate his share of exotic fruit while he was at it, taunted iguanas with a stick, and even tried to dig for treasure under a weirdly crooked palm tree. Meanwhile, the sailors had returned.

They found what they were looking for: water and meat, the meat being the huge, heavily armored tortoises that lived only on that island as the cook told Jay. The cook told many other things as well: mostly about how tasty their meat was and how long it could stay fresh. The ship's crew cheered up at the thought of eating proper food every day from now on. As to Jay, he couldn’t even crack a smile.

Silent and lonely, he looked at the overturned grey shells where the unbelievable creatures tried to hide, so huge yet so helpless in front of little humans. They didn’t even scream. Jay ran away, unable to control the emotions bubbling in his chest as hot as lava.

One by one the living preserves were loaded into the ship. Tortoises can stay alive for months keeping their meat always fresh, always good for cooking. What else could a sailor wish for? More rum, maybe…

Since the day Jay saw the tortoises, he couldn’t sleep. He heard the sounds he couldn't understand and they frightened him.

"What's making those sounds in the hold?" he asked the older boys. Some shrugged, some said that the tortoises were walking down there. But how could they walk if they were laid on their backs and stacked up like bricks so they wouldn't be able to move? It took Jay a while to realize that no one else could hear the things that he did.

He heard voices, singing, wailing, pleading. They spoke no language, they had no words, just pure emotions that tore mercilessly at Jay's heart.

One night the boy gave in. He lit a torch and descended into the hold. It was pitch black there. The air in the hold stank of rot, filth, and despair. Huge shadows moved there, born from the weak, flickering light of the torch.

Jay found the source of the voices soon: a stack of dark shells where the tortoises hid. One of the creatures raised its head, a small, beady eye blinked sharply in the torchlight. The voices fell silent in Jay’s mind, all but one that spoke to him in his own tongue.

“Do you realize, child, what your kind is going to kill? It’s the memory of countless ages, countless lives. You come into this world with empty minds, you have to learn everything from scratch and die long before you’ve learned anything properly.” The tortoise turned her other eye to the little human. “Since the dawn of time we’ve been learning things and passing our memories from one generation to another, each new generation expanding the knowledge, adding to it. Then your kind came to hunt us for food. You killed so many before they even had a chance to pass their knowledge to their children!”

A faint murmur ran through the stack of the dark shells. Five or six other voices rose from it, lamenting, cursing…

“Our fate is sealed,” another voice, powerful and beautiful, silenced them all in an instant. The Eternity itself could have had such a voice if it could speak human. The second head rose among the shadows on its long neck, the biggest one, the oldest. The others emerged from their shells following it.

“Galapago…” the boy whispered. He heard this word from a naturalist who worked as a physician on this ship and was the reason Jay used to look forward to reaching the wonderful island. The beautiful word suited the wise ancient creature like a name.

“You are not of our kind, little human,” said Galapago’s voice in Jay’s head. It sounded warm and undeservingly kind. “I can not bestow all the ages of my memory to you. But you are the only one who can hear us, so we will tell you what we can while we still have time. Maybe our knowledge will yet do some good to the Universe. Maybe it will help you understand your world a little bit… or to forgive it at least.”

Since that night Jay came to the hold as often as he could and listened, listened, listened, his little body sprawled on the dirty floor, his spirit soaring sky high with the wonderful voices. Their numbers dwindled one by one. Jay learned to say his goodbyes in silence, to hide his feelings under a mask of indifference. Tears betrayed him sometimes, though, dripping from his eyelashes. He blamed the bright sun if someone asked him what was wrong.

“Don’t refuse to eat the meat,” the survivors told him, “for if you fall ill and die that would mean we had died for nothing as well.”

So Jay ate the meat of the tortoises and when he did he thought of the priest in his town’s little church who always said that wine was the blood of Christ and bread was his body. One by one his teachers died, killed either by thirst, hunger, illness, or people. In the end, only Galapago remained.

“I am proud of you, my pupil,” she said. “You accomplished what I thought was impossible for a human. The stories that live in your mind now would be enough to fill several tortoise lives, and we live much longer than your kind! Yet I must say that you gave us much more than we gave you, child. We had never known before what it was like to teach someone. Nobody ever taught us, we were given our memories as they were and added to them. That was our way. What we did to you was different. The greatest thing we ever did, the greatest joy we’ve ever known. You, humans, know no other way to pass the knowledge, but to us it was all new. We treasured every moment. Thank you, child. Jay. If death is the price to pay for what I learned from you I will gladly pay it. I wish I could pass the memory about it to my children, but, alas, this wish can not come true. I’m going to die tomorrow. My final hour is near, I can feel it. Do not cry about me, do not refuse to eat my meat. Take one of my little scales as a keepsake… I’m not going to tell you stories today. Let’s just keep silent awhile together.”

When Jay arrived to the port his hair was grey, his blue eyes darkened with sorrow, an ancient sage’s eyes on a child’s face. People gazed at him with fear and wonder and stepped aside as he walked alone through the crowd, a little scale clutched in his hand.

He used to be a carefree boy as quick as a squirrel, he ate exotic fruit on a strange island and teased iguanas with a stick. Without the burden of knowledge his spirit soared above the world back then. Now it walked with a heavy step, carrying a load of memories, as heavy and poisonous as lead.

Change your world, Jay. Or at least try to forgive it.

(May 15, 2005)

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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.