The Tortoisiad

John Thieme
Mini-epic by John Thieme

For Cruz Bonilla who made it possible

A small society of tortoises,
A rescued family of tortoisekind.

In the beginning was the shell,
a pristine perfect carapace,
or so the story goes – such human lies.
Then one day it got cracked and mottled,
in those fallen fantasies of Adam’s kind.
They heard of tricksters tumbling down from heaven,
and wondered who these tales might be about.
They heard a fable linking them with Hare,
where slow and steady wins the race,
but, neither slow nor steady in their gait,
they did not recognise this might be them.
They stood stock still when placed beside a rabbit,
their only running was with one another,
when they moved faster than this crawling verse.

A ring-backed Ulysses watched TV flickers,
these silhouettes his world of ideal Forms.
Dormant through the day, he came alive at prime time,
his world determined by his owner’s soapy tastes.
Far from Troy’s embattled walls,
near the western reaches of that same sea,
where once his namesake travelled for a decade,
dallying with the sirens of the isles,
this Ulysses was shipwrecked in a box.
Then in the middle of the journey of his life,
emancipation came, with others of his kind,
his Ithaca a new-found seaside home.
Illumination now arose from other sources.
Venturing three metres to a balcony,
he’d keep an earnest evening vigil,
he’d gaze upon the lustre of the moon.

Sokrates once lived a nonchalant existence,
immune from social pride, beneath an Afric sun
that shone upon his perfect little pebbles,
filled in with dandelion, a bit of clover, cedar cones.
Spring came with its cruel flowing sap, 
raising the urge for prey in an obedient hound,
and following the hound, a master’s human hand!
His head was chewed, he dragged one foot behind him.
A crushed existence, ground down from then on, 
he always links the dog, the man, the stone.
Behind him now, forever lost, 
the foreign golden sands and turquoise sea
of what was once Saladin’s dream.
He crossed the strait where Hercules had been before him,
survived the damaged plastron of the fight.
He has the wisdom of his namesake,
but cloaks this truth in hibernating night.

He slowly settled in his new Iberian clime,
a patriarch, without a dynasty, without a mate.
So nut-sized, rescued orphan Pepepillo,
an inbred bully from a septic plastic hell,
was brought to satisfy his spry desire.
But Pepe was no Helen, just another mooning male!
Nurtured until now on fish and food waste,
he turned to eating everything in sight.
He cleaned up wood, small specks of dirt and dustballs,
until Athena’s guiding hand restored his health,
with spoonfed eggs and syringed yoghurt.
Emboldened by his newfound piglet strength,
alone, heroic, fearless, if misguided,
Pepe resolved to fight his own Homeric war.
Sokrates looked on amused, sagacious,
then deigned to grab the upstart by a leg
and threw the pixie warrior several metres.
Pepe’s dream was shattered in an instant.
He knew he must withdraw from this lost fight.
With Sokrates he knew he must be humble,
a Sancho acting out the better part of valour,
a histrionic mimic of the knight.
Yet martial lust can be a fierce addiction.
He yearned to browbeat others of his kind,
and skirmishes became a daily drill.
Such is the lore of small chelonian life.

The family has a sweet and gentle member,
who seeks out favours, while he shares his own.
Rufino was the sole survivor of eleven,
hatched a year before they met their doom,
when wanton hunters in a one-time forest,
now swallowed by the town’s insistent sprawl,
despoiled their nest, destroyed their only home.
Adrift, abandoned in a landlocked desert,
Rufino never fought in Trojan battles
but suffered all the aftermath of war.
Another foundling, much in need of refuge,
he, too, found safety in Athena’s care.
His playful nature hides beneath small strips of cloth,
invisible to those he then can’t see,
but once the world believes he’s truly vanished
he reappears, with shiny smiling eyes
that say, ‘it’s me. I’ve cheated you again.’
He’s ready now for food and loving touches,
his courage and his joy infect the house.

Now some would say it’s just tautology,
to speak of all these varied tortoise types:
‘A tortoise is a tortoise, have no doubt.’
But every dappled hero tells a different story,
a tale that can’t be spoken in this verse.
Each champion frustrates the snares of language
that tries to trap him in this slow Tortoisiad.