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The Tortoise

Once upon a time, in an arroyo in the middle of a desert, lived a tortoise with a great imagination.

When he was young, a truck had come along, and one of the tires had cracked his shell and almost crushed him. When he repaired the shell, he made it extra-strong, and over the years he added bits of armor here and there, and periodically crawled out to weld on another piece.

This made his shell heavier than any of the other tortoises' shells, and made it a lot harder to do ordinary tortoise things like find food, and rear up on his hind legs to eat cactus pads. So he spent most of his time dreaming and telling stories to his many friends.

Everyone enjoyed the stories he told, though the other tortoises were really too dumb to appreciate their nuances, and the stories they told in turn tended to be pretty dull. But the stories told by some of the other creatures he befriended were fascinating. His friend the white-winged dove would recount by the hour the places she had flown, and the strange and wonderful creatures she had met. He loved to hear stories of the jungle on the edge of the desert.

"I sure wish I could go there," he often told her wistfully.

"It is a long way," she said, "and your shell is too heavy to let you climb over the hardest obstacles. It's too bad, because you would really like it there."

The tortoise sighed, and got the dove to tell him once again about the details of flight. He could never hear about it too much, or too often. He thought of flight, imagined flying, told stories about it, even dreamed of it at night. But of course, being a tortoise, he remained thoroughly earthbound.

Periodically a big herd of burros came walking through the arroyo. When that happened, the tortoise tucked in his head and limbs, and felt very glad to have such a strong shell as he got stepped on and kicked around. The other tortoises would complain about headaches and bruised ribs for days after, but he was okay.

One day the tortoise heard the distant pounding of hoofs, much faster than normal. He scurried for the edge of the arroyo, but because his shell was so heavy, he didn't make it very far before the herd of burros, trotting this time, reached him. Hooves thudded around him, whacked his shell. He pulled his head and limbs in, but he still got pounded and shaken up.

"Oh, my head!" he said afterward. "Oh, my ribs!"

He noticed that none of the other tortoises were complaining. They had all reached the edge of the arroyo, or sheltered in piles of rocks.

"Maybe this heavy shell isn't such a great idea," the tortoise said. "If I lighten my shell, I can reach the edge of the arroyo before the burros get here, and I won't get kicked around." So he sawed and filed off a bunch of the heaviest armor plate, and sure enough, the next time he heard pounding hooves, he got to the edge of the arroyo in plenty of time, and got to sit on a rock and watch the show.

It was pretty impressive. There were over two hundred burros, and they were galloping full speed. The ground shook. Huge clouds of dust rose into the air.

"Boy, I'm sure glad I wasn't out there!" the tortoise thought. "I would have gotten walloped!"

Once the dust died down, the lizards came out of the rocks, and they talked about the stampede. The tortoise noticed that none of them had gotten stepped on, even though they had no armor at all. Thinking back, he couldn't remember a single time one of them had gotten stepped on or kicked by a burro.

"How do you do it?" he asked, although he thought he knew the answer.

"We just run fast," they said. "There are plenty of rocks to hide in, and they are much stronger than even the strongest shell."

The tortoise had a good imagination. He imagined himself running like a lizard. He realized that if he had been farther out in the wide part of the arroyo, he wouldn't have reached the edge in time, but that all the lizards had done so with no trouble. "Can I learn this?" he wondered.

One of his friends was a lizard who ran especially fast. "Can you teach me to run like a lizard?" he asked him.

"Climb out of your shell here and let's take a look," the lizard said. He walked around the tortoise, poking and prodding and feeling his muscles. "Well, you're built a little funny. These two lines of scales down your back where your shell rests look really strange, and with that beak and those white eyes, you'll never pass for a lizard. I don't think I can teach you to run as fast as a real lizard, but I'm sure you can learn to run a lot faster than a tortoise!"

So the tortoise started getting running lessons from his lizard friend. Every day he would climb out of his shell, do warm-ups, and run back and forth, first on the flat desert, and then climbing among the rocks as the lizards did. Pretty soon he could run almost as fast as a lizard, and dash into the rocks at the slightest sign of danger. And it was fun! The rocks were a lot more interesting than the inside of his shell, and a lot roomier. He could pick his own place in them. He even decorated a few special areas, and spent a lot of his time there. One was big enough he could invite his friends in and tell them stories there, out of the wind and weather.

He really liked living like a lizard. In fact the only down side was that, without his armor to rub against, his scales grew and grew, especially on the backs of his legs and across his back, where the shell had rested. He had to take time nearly every day to file them down, but since he could do that while listening to or telling stories, it wasn't much of a problem.

Pretty soon he was spending almost all his time out of his shell. "I think you're growing," said his lizard friend, who had encouraged him all along. "That shell must have stunted you."

It was true. Every time he crawled into his shell it was tighter and tighter. One day he went into the arroyo to try it on, and he didn't fit in it any more.

"Now that I don't have that heavy shell to lug around, there is nothing to keep me from traveling," the tortoise realized.

His friend the white-winged dove thought this was a great idea. "You are fast and agile now, and you can climb. You could go all the way to the jungle at the edge of the desert. It is like nothing you have ever seen, green and lush and filled with fascinating creatures."

So the tortoise without a shell set out for the jungle. He discovered canyons and mountains, dry riverbeds and alkali flats, and got to talk with all kinds of fascinating creatures who told him wonderful stories -- burros and burrowing owls, scorpions and hummingbirds, even a fox and an eagle. (He was very careful to stay out of reach in the rocks while he talked with them!) His friend the white-winged dove flew in periodically to check his progress and keep him headed in the right direction. Every day he spent time trimming his scales, which were growing like crazy.

Eventually he reached the jungle. It was tall! It was green! It was filled with trees that went way, way up. The tortoise had never seen a tree before, and was fascinated. He climbed all the way to the tops of the trees, where he discovered plump fruit pigeons, and parrots with brilliant plumage who were very smart and told of amazing adventures. He climbed out onto the great trees' limbs, where he discovered gorgeous flowers, sweet fruits that tasted much better than cactus pads, huge jumping spiders, and a sloth that moved even slower than a tortoise and was almost as dumb. "That is definitely one way to live without armor," the tortoise thought, "but it is so boring it would drive me crazy."

He had forgotten how boring his shell had been. He had forgotten that to make up for how dull it was, he had spent most of his time imagining and telling stories, rather than climbing around making discoveries and having adventures.

The tortoise found the jungle endlessly engaging, and spent weeks and weeks clambering everywhere, talking with every creature he could find. He hung out with snakes and monkeys, butterflies and beetles, finches and fruit bats. He feasted on delicious nuts and fruits, even tasty flowers. He explored the hollows in the trees and discovered bat roosts and birds' nests, as well as huge numbers of spiders and grubs.

One day he poked his head in a round hole, and discovered four naked, beaky heads, with white eyes like his own. They were baby parrots. They invited him in, then spent endless hours swapping stories. Though the parrots were young, they were extremely smart (like most parrots are), and they had a vast store of tales they had gotten from their parents and their parents' flock mates. They listened to the tortoise's stories with rapt fascination, exclaimed delightedly over the nuances, and asked endless questions.

The tortoise liked the parrots and their parents a lot. For the first time in his life, his intelligence was appreciated by those who could understand and match it. For the first time, he could tell stories to an audience that could imagine everything his words pictured. For the first time, he was surrounded by friends who also dreamed of flight.

But this time it was real. This time, they were really going to do it.

The tortoise thought about this. He imagined growing feathers, and living as a parrot. It seemed like a wonderful life. And at first, it seemed impossible.

But then he thought back. Back when he had the heaviest shell in the arroyo, living with a light shell had seemed dangerous and unlikely -- but he had tried it, and it worked. Back when he lived with a light shell, living without any shell had seemed ridiculous and impossible -- but he learned to do it, and that had enabled him to cross the desert and reach the jungle where he found his new friends.

"It may be impossible for me to fly," he said to himself, "but I am going to try it. Maybe I can do it."

The next time he visited the young parrots, he said, "You are growing feathers so you can fly. I want to fly. Can you teach me to grow feathers too?"

The young parrots scratched their heads. "Let's climb out on the branch outside our hole, and take a look at you."

They walked around him in the sunlight, and studied him with their white eyes. One climbed to the branch above, and hung upside down to get a better look. (This looked like so much fun that the tortoise climbed up and hung upside down too. It gave him a whole new perspective.) They poked and prodded him, and felt his scales, which he still trimmed every day.

"We don't think we can teach you to grow feathers," the parrots said at last, and the tortoise sighed with disappointment. "But these two rows of scales along your back, and these big scales along the backs of your fore and hind limbs, and the scales on your chest, and your tail, look just like our pinfeathers. Why don't you stop trimming your scales, and see what happens?"

"If they grow too long, I won't be able to climb or run," the tortoise protested.

By this time the adult parrots had returned with some fruit, and were watching the proceedings with fascination. "We have never seen such a thing," they said. "But then, we have never seen a tortoise without a shell, even though we flew out in the desert to look."

"You did?" asked the youngsters, and jumped up and down with excitement until the adults told them the story.

"We are also curious," the adult parrots said. "Why don't you stay here in the nest, and we will bring you food, and see if your scales will grow into feathers."

So that is what they did. The tortoise spent his days in the nest or out on the branch, swapping stories with the young parrots. He learned to stand on just his hind limbs, and to climb using only his hind limbs and his bill. They made him practice flapping his arms to strengthen the muscles.

Day by day, his scales grew out -- on his legs, on his arms, on his back and tail, all over his head -- until he was just as pinfeathery as his parrot friends.

But then he began to itch. "Augh! I can't stand this!" he cried. "I am going to bite these scales off, they itch so much!"

"Don't do that!" the parrots laughed. "All pin feathers do that, when it's time to preen open the ends."

They took him out on the branch in the sunlight, and showed him how to preen open the ends of his scales. Sure enough, each had a feather growing inside -- a bright, beautiful feather. "Why, you are going to be brighter and more beautiful than us!" they exclaimed.

Day by day his feathers grew, and day by day he preened the ends open, until sure enough, he had enough feathers that they could see he really did have wings, and a tail. He practiced and practiced flapping, and as his feathers grew he got to the point where, just like the baby parrots, he had to hold onto the branch with his claws to keep from lifting off.

"Turn your outer and inner toes backward," they told him. "You can hold on better that way."

He tried it, and sure enough, he could. "I never thought to do that," he realized. "But then, why would I? No tortoise does it."

The more he thought about it, the odder it seemed. All he could remember was the desert, and his shell. But when he looked, his feet were different than tortoise feet, and had been all along. His front limbs were different than tortoise limbs, and only the calluses from walking on them had kept him from realizing how different the ends were from the feet of other tortoises. The other tortoises had brown or orange eyes; he was the only one he had ever heard of with white eyes.

His friend the white-winged dove visited. "There is no doubt about it: you are turning into a bird. Or maybe you always were a bird -- it is hard to tell."

Finally the big day came when it was time to actually leave the nest and fly. Even though he had been training and preparing for it, the tortoise was nervous. His friends were real birds, with real wings, and they were going to fly for sure. He wasn't so sure about himself.

But in the end, it worked. In fact, flying was so much fun -- even more fun than he had ever dreamed about -- that he completely forgot to be afraid. Even when he crashed into a tree, even when he landed on a branch wrong and ended dangling upside down, he just laughed and laughed with the sheer joy of being in the air. And around him his parrot friends laughed, and chased him and each other, and when they grew tired from flying, they perched on branches and laughed together and told each other stories about flying.

And so the former tortoise joined the parrots, and became in time one of their great flight leaders, and one of their most renowned story-tellers. (And while tortoises enjoy a good story, parrots revere stories, and lionize skillful tellers of tales.) He led many exploratory flights to places the parrots had never been. He made friends among all the different kinds of animals in the forest, and flew out into the desert to visit his old friends (all of whom except the white-winged dove had trouble believing it was really him), and made new friends in the desert who had never seen a parrot before. Sometimes a mixed flock of parrots and white-winged doves from the desert would meet to adventure together.

Among the parrots, he made lots of friends. The brightest, the boldest, the most adventuresome, were his comrades, his friends, and his equals.

And he told stories. Wonderful stories, that used his imagination to the fullest, and that enspelled his audiences and left them rapt in mystery.

But except for his original parrot friends, and the white-winged dove who had seen it happen, no one believed his stories of growing up in the desert as a tortoise, and transforming himself into a bird. It seemed impossible. It seemed like a dream. "What a good imagination you have," they would say, and he would simply smile to himself and nod his head. For it was true.

—W. Keppel
© 2004, some rights reserved
posted March 2004
Creative Commons License

W. Keppel is an NLP developer.


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