One day, while I was playing in the sand dune with my friends, I caught a little lizard. Carefully I put the creature inside a glass flask, and I tied a metal wire to the lid, as a handle. And I went back home happily, humming on my favourite tune.
When I got home, Jim was already there. He was a traveling merchant who occasionally visit our village in the Dune and he stayed in our house every time. I was liked him very much, as every time when he visited, he brought very strange toys and stories he heard in his travel.
Mum saw me with my new found pet. She smiled but said, “Let the poor creature go! It deserves to be in the nature.”
I went to the front door unwillingly, opened the lid, and the creature slipped away quickly. Then I walked back to the living room with a long face.
“Animals do not like to be held captive, John.” Mum said to me.
Jim came from behind and patted on my shoulder.
“Well, that might not be true. Let me tell you a story about a captured turtle.”
He took out that small hourglass out again and put it on the table. The sand began to flow.
“Not too long time ago, there was this kingdom named Akkad, in which there was a very intelligent and brave prince. He conquered many lands with his valour and wit. He built massive machineries that could breathe fire on his enemies, while he himself always rode at the front line, pushing his enemies backwards. Very soon, he was able to expand his kingdom towards the edge of the western land.
“When he was returning from his final victorious conquest in the western land, he stepped on something hard in the Dune. He moved away his boot and found this turtle shell. He picked up the shell and saw those tiny head and legs hiding under it. Turtle was a symbol of prosperity in the kingdom of Akkad, and he found this little creature so cute that he immediately declared this turtle as the royal pet.
“While back in the palace, he put the turtle in a glass tank facing his royal bed in his chamber. On the wall there hang a map of the kingdom. ‘Ah! I need to revise my territory again now.’ He smiled to himself.
“’A swallow flew by and caught sight of this new addition to the royal family. She landed at the window and asked, ‘Oh hello my friend! Tell me how you ended up here?’
“The turtle replied with an irritated tone, ‘I was sunbathing at the nicest spot of the dune, but then this human came and stepped on me. He took me here and put me in this tank. Do you know what I will become of?’
“’No worry my friend. I think the human wants to keep you as a pet.’
“’A pet?’ The turtle seemed puzzled.
“’Yes. Humans love to keep animals as pets. Some of the pets, like dogs, are trained to hunt or perform other services for the humans.’
“’What? What service can I provide for the humans?’ the turtle grumbled.
“’Do you know this box?’ The swallow pecked the glassy tank. ‘This is a display box. Humans put what they want to look at within this box.’
“’So I am just here to be looked at? What nonsense is that?’
“’Yes apparently, the humans love to collect different objects and animals to decorate their “nests”. You should be grateful they didn’t kill you and turn you into a specimen.’
“What the swallow said had clearly upset the turtle. The turtle was so frightened that he retreated and held his limbs and head back into his shell.
“’I am sorry!’ begged the swallow. ‘I was just joking. If they wanted you to be a specimen, you would be mounted on the wall by now.’ The swallow was pointing its beak to the wall with the map of the kingdom.
“’Please take me away! Oh you are too small to lift me up. Don’t you have some bigger friends, like eagle?’ The turtle was begging heartily.
“The swallow rolled its black pearly eyes angrily at the turtle, ‘do you think I could still come back, when I go and get you an eagle? I can only be the eagle’s food, not friend. Actually you should be glad, now you don’t need to go out to find food, nor do you need to hide from the predators. It is actually quite cosy here. Don’t you think?’
“What I want is freedom! I don’t need food or shelter! I don’t want to be observed behind this glassy box!’ the turtle started to yell grumpily.
“’Oh don’t be like that! You cannot accomplish anything by losing your temper.’
“’What should I do then?’ asked the turtle impatiently.
“’Just relax. You will leave this place one day. If you are too lonely, I can stay with you for these few days, but I have to leave for the south very soon. My husband is waiting there for me.’
“And the swallow stayed with the turtle for a few days. Time flew fast. It was time for the swallow to part, but the turtle begged her to stay.
“’I promise I will come back to you next year. If I cannot come back, I will ask my children to come to see you.’ So the swallow beat her wings and soared to the desert sun. The turtle was left alone again.
“Time flew fast again. Many sunrises, many sunsets, and twenty moon phases had passed. There was no sign of the swallow. The turtle could only gaze at the moonlit every night, hoping for his friend to come.
“One night while everyone was deeply asleep, there was a great explosion within the palace. Everyone was shocked. One big rock from the ceiling fell down. It crushed by the side of the glass tank, nearly hitting the turtle. Then there was this earth cracking noise from the corridor. A group of soldiers marched into the prince’s chamber. The one leading the army was the first general to the prince.
“The turtle saw the prince being taken away. It was treason. Later the first general became the King of Akkad, and the turtle was moved to the throne room.
“’Now we need a bigger tank for you. Don’t we?’ The new King patted the turtle on the shell. The turtle had grown in size. His scales got bigger and pointier. The new King placed a bigger glass tank behind his throne and moved the turtle there.
“It took three months for all the things to settle down. And finally the turtle could be free from all the noises from the renovations. Then the turtle noticed a bird busy flying around the palace. It seemed the bird was looking for something.
“’What are you looking for, little birdie? If you want some food, the kitchen is downstairs.”
“The bird approached the turtle. Now the turtle could see it clearer. It was the swallow! The turtle could not help suppress his excitements. He stomped the floor.
“’Mrs Swallow, I have been waiting for you so long!’ said the turtle sincerely.
“’I am sorry do I know you?’ The swallow’s words broke the turtle’s heart.
“’How could you forget me? You promised me you would be back!’
“’Oh you are Mr Turtle?’ the swallow snapped. ‘No, I am not the same swallow you saw two years ago. I am her daughter.’
“’What happened to Mrs Swallow?’ the turtle exclaimed.
“’She died. I am afraid, we swallows do not live as long as you turtles do,’ said the swallow drily, “I was told you were in the royal chamber.’
“’I was! I was!’ said the turtle nervously, ‘I nearly died in a fight!’ The turtle told the sparrow about the treason and how he was moved to the throne room.
“’Please help me! I need to be away from this violent place!’ the turtle begged hysterically.
“’I am so sorry but there is nothing I can help,’ the sparrow shook her head, ‘perhaps you should be more happy. You see you are at the throne room. The new King likes you. I think he will treat you well. Do you know how hard it is to find a shelter with warmth and food outside?’
“The turtle knew it was useless to argue with the sparrow. Like mother, like daughter. Instead he asked the sparrow to stay with him.
“’I am sorry but I have to be back to the south soon. My boyfriend is waiting for me,’ the sparrow larked, ‘You know he has the shiniest black feathers that shimmer under the sun. Oh and that wavy feather at the top of his head too!’ The sparrow was quite absorbed into her own imagination, but the turtle continued to beg. Finally the sparrow gave in, ‘Fine! I guess I can stay for a few days. This palace seems quite comfortable.’
“And the sparrow stayed with the turtle for a few days and said, “Sorry but I really need to leave now.” But she also added, “This is truly a nice place. Maybe I won’t need to escape to the south next year. I am sure these thick walls will keep my feathers warm in winter.’ And the turtle saw her flew away.
“Soon the temperature began to drop, with the days becoming shorter while the nights longer. Then after countless moonless winter nights, spring came. And when the turtle lost count of the sunsets, spring was replaced by summer, autumn and another winter.
“After many years, a little swallow came to the palace. His wings were still small and weak. He could not fly for a long time. He landed on the top of a giant rock in the garden.
“’Good day, little swallow,’ a deep voice sounded within the rock. The swallow was shocked and fell to the ground.
“’Oh I am sorry. Did I scare you?’ Gradually a grey shadow emerged from the cleft of the rock. The swallow blinked hard for a few times. He realized he landed on the shell of the turtle.
“’Are you the great turtle imprisoned in the palace?’ the little swallow asked.
“’Oh yes I am. Are you the grandchildren of Miss Swallow?”
“’No, that was my great-great-grandmother. She told us of a cosy palace with a giant turtle in a glass tank, where we could escape from the cold of the winter. My wings are too weak to fly to the south, so I want to stay here for this winter.’
“’Oh I am afraid you have chosen a wrong time to come,’ said the turtle in a long sad tone. ‘After your great-great-grandmother left, the Akkad kingdom was attacked by another kingdom, Urak. After countless years of fight, Urak conquered Akkad. I could still remember the day when the pillars of the palace fell. I hid myself under my hard shell. My glass tank was crushed. People hurried to and fro. I am not certain they were fighting or escaping. Anyway, the kingdom fell and a new king came. He found me too massive to be put anywhere inside the palace, so I was moved to the garden.’
“’I think the garden may be a better place than the inside. At least you get to see the sky,’ the little swallow commented.
“’To me it’s the same everywhere. I think you should leave now. Urak is at war with another kingdom, Hakeim now. Hakeim’s army is right at the doorsteps of the palace this moment. This kingdom will be gone soon again.’
“’Really?’ the swallow sounded worried, ‘maybe this time Urak will win?’
“’No, the king of Urak is too arrogant and stupid. This place will be another crumbling ruin again,’ the turtle sounded quite certain.
“’I see. Okay I will leave. Why don’t you come with me? You are out of the glass tank now. You can easily leave this garden.’
“’Ha!’ the turtle laughed in his old cracking voice, ‘no I am too old to be moving again, and I don’t want to leave anymore. When I was in the glass tank, I always thought I was imprisoned, being observed by the humans; but now I realize I actually observed the humans through the glass wall. I have seen how foolish they are, to be fighting among themselves, to be obsessed with power and glory. It is actually quite a show. I enjoy watching them, while they keep feeding me. It’s a bargain, don’t you think so?’”
Jim stopped talking and smiled to me. I did not say anything but put the glass flask on the table. And Jim started to gulp down his beer while slipping his hourglass back in his pocket.
©Paulus of Sinae 2013