“Is it true that you once beat Hare in a foot race? It can’t be true. But is it true?”
He continued walking along as the little black bird flapped around him. She landed on a nearby branch.
“I’ve heard that you’ve seen the world from above as a bird does when she’s flying. Is that true? How did you do it? It can’t be true. But is it true?”
Tortoise sighed again. But he also smiled.
Starling was young and eager. But she was also persistent. And she was also perceptive. She noted the smile on Tortoise’s face. She understood what it meant. He had expected her to grow tired of asking him the same questions day after day. But she had done so for five days now. Perhaps he would deem her worthy enough to deserve some answers to her questions.
Sure enough, he did.
“Ducks,” he said.
Starling’s eyes widened. “Ducks?”
“The ducks agreed to carry me. I held on to a stick with my mouth and two ducks held onto each end of the stick. They flew up into the air and though I did not see well, I did see some of what you see when you fly up into the air.”
Starling grinned. “Thank you, Master Tortoise.”
“Now, are you satisfied? Will you leave me in peace?”
Starling hesitated. As Tortoise moved further away on his trudging walk toward the nearby lake, Starling hopped off the branch on which she’d been perched. She swooped toward him and past him. She landed on another branch just ahead of him.
“I am more than satisfied by your story. But…I wish to be your student. You are wise and accomplished. You have done and seen much. I have only learned from my fellow starlings. If I want to become truly wise, I should learn from other beasts as well.”
“That seems sensible. But there are many wise and accomplished beasts. Owl is so, and he is also a bird. Why choose me?”
“I love to hear stories—true ones and untrue ones alike—and to relay them. That’s how I learned about you. And how I decided to pursue you as a teacher.”
“But why choose me?”
“You are the most different from me than other beasts.”
“That may be true.”
“And you are so long-lived.”
“That is most certainly true.”
“You have secrets unknown to the birds. Knowledge unknown.”
“It’s knowledge you want, is it?” Tortoise chuckled. “Seek elsewhere, then, young starling. My greatest power lies in my heart.”
“What does that mean? Have you mastered love?”
“I have mastered nothing. Or rather, if I told you I had mastered anything, the only thing I would have truly mastered is foolishness.”
“That is a brilliant observation, Master Tortoise. You are truly remarkable.”
“I am like any other tortoise.”
Starling again had to fly ahead to another branch. She could probably walk along beside him. But she preferred to use her wings.
Tortoise did not ask her to leave him be. But nor did he admit to being anything more than an ordinary tortoise, despite his many and sundry adventures.
Starling stayed nearby, careful not to be so bothersome that even the patient tortoise would grow tired of her and ask her to leave. But she watched Tortoise, studied him. If he would not take her on as a student, then she might still learn from him by observing him.
This she did all day, following him back from the lake to the spot where she’d first found him. As he had insisted, his activities were quite ordinary that day. He stopped for a moment to rest, and Starling alighted on a branch, still watching.
And as she watched, Tortoise pulled his head into his shell. Then suddenly, his head, and limbs, vanished altogether, leaving only the shell.
Starling had not known that tortoises could retract their limbs as well as their heads, and that they could make their shells appear empty.
She flew down and hopped closer to the shell. She waited, but Tortoise did not reappear even when the sky began to darken. She suspected that maybe he was just trying to escape her attention. She dared to tap gently on the shell, and to speak into the hole from which Tortoise’s head normally protruded. She told him that she was leaving, and she was sorry for bothering him, but it was getting late, and he might want to move his shell to a safer location before turning in for the night.
Then she flew up into the tree above the still and silent shell, and she watched.
But Tortoise did not return, even after it grew full dark. Starling wondered if he could somehow tell that she was still watching.
Reluctantly, she left him.
When Starling returned home, she could not sleep through the night. In the morning, she told the story to any beasts who gathered to listen. No one believed that she had found the famed Tortoise himself, or that he had performed the extraordinary feat of vanishing from his shell. No one, that is, except a young hare named Leveret.
“I too believe in extraordinary things,” the young hare said. She had no relation to the famous (and infamous) Hare who lost the race against Tortoise. But she had always been curious about Tortoise. And she joined Starling on the task of returning to check on him.
They found his shell still lying where Starling last left it. It still appeared empty. A spider crawled out from one of the five openings. Starling swooped toward the shell and shooed the spider away. But as she and Leveret drew closer to the shell, she felt a change in the air, something that she had not felt before all those times she swooped closer.
Starling and Leveret stood beside the tortoise shell. They glanced around themselves, and saw a peculiar sight. In the time it took for Starling for take a single deep breath, that spider she’d shooed away took only a single deliberate step. Every thing and creature in the forest around them was moving slower, much, much slower. Either that, or Starling and Leveret were moving much faster.
“Is that how he won the race?” Starling wondered aloud. “Because he’s enchanted?”
Leveret shook her head. “No, he won because of his persistence and maybe Hare’s arrogance. There’s nothing wrong with confidence, so long as you keep it in check. And Hare did not. If she had, she would have handily won. But I have a feeling your good Tortoise would have carried on with the race anyway, just to finish what he started.”
“I wonder,” Starling said. “How long should we wait for him to emerge?”
Leveret lowered and cocked her head before the shell. “I don’t know the fellow. You’ve spoken with him. What do you judge?”
“I do not wish to intrude upon his privacy. But he has been gone a long time. I had thought he wanted to be left alone, but I no longer believe that he is simply trying to avoid me.”
“Why do you not believe so? What you and I consider a long time might just be a quick retreat for Tortoise.”
“It’s just…he vanished quite suddenly. Without a word.”
Tortoise had seemed unbothered by her the previous day, despite her persistent (some would say “pestering”) behavior. He had shown her only patience and kindness, even when discouraging her from believing in his extraordinariness. Even if he were leaving abruptly, she expected that he would have said a quick farewell. A “good day” or a “good luck,” before retreating into his home.
After some back-and-forth with Leveret, Starling decided to poke her head through the tortoise shell’s head opening to take a closer look. And in the hopes that her voice would carry into whatever chamber of his home Tortoise now occupied.
As soon as Starling popped her beak through the hole, she felt a strong irresistible force pulling her beak in. Before she could utter a word, she was surprised to find herself being sucked in through the hole.
Starling found herself standing in a cavernous chamber with a solid curved roof. It seemed as if it once might have been cozy, but now, it was covered in cobwebs and dust. There were dim torches burning along the curved walls. Five open doors were arrayed around the chamber.
The little black bird realized that she was inside Tortoise’s shell.
Specifically, she was in what looked to be his receiving hall for visitors.
In a few moments time, she was joined by Leveret, who shot through one of the doors and landed beside her.
Leveret got to her feet and looked around just as Starling had. “Enchanted indeed. But where is our bashful host?”
“And why does it appear as if no one has been here for many seasons?” Starling added.
Again, they waited, but not so long this time. They called out for Tortoise, but received no answer. Starling knew that the proper thing to do would be to leave through one of the five open doors, and to find assistance from other, perhaps more capable, beasts. And she did not like being under a solid vaulted ceiling unable to see the open sky. But she still had a feeling that something was amiss, and the feeling was urgent enough to overcome any other qualms she might have about investigating the tortoise shell.
She and Leveret walked around the surprisingly vast receiving hall. There did not seem to be any doors leading to the rest of Tortoise’s home. But Starling knew there must be more than what they saw. For she had heard stories of the many rooms and chambers in a tortoise’s home. It sounded quite elaborate. She would not have wanted to live in such a way. But she understood that it might be comfortable for earthbound beasts.
Soon, Leveret found a trap door on the floor of the receiving hall. Starling lifted the latch with her beak. Inside, they glimpsed the first few steps of what appeared to be a staircase, leading down into a dark unknown. Starling did not want to go down. If it was so dark, it was unlikely there were any windows. She feared that the only exit from the tortoise shell home was in the receiving hall.
“You need not come down,” Leveret said. “Wait here and keep watch. I will investigate.”
“No. We should stay together.”
“Courage, then, Starling. Climb on my back and crouch down. I will carry us quickly down the stairs. And even more quickly up them once we find Tortoise.”
Starling nodded. She climbed atop her friend’s back, and they descended the stairs.
They found many a dark and empty room. And all were quiet. They had not agreed to remain quiet themselves, and yet they did. Some instinct kept them silent as they searched. Or perhaps some ungrounded fear. After all, this was the home of a gentle tortoise. They should have had nothing to fear.
Finding no one in the topmost floor, they descended to the next, and the next. All the while, Starling grew more anxious. At last, they came to a floor that was almost as vast as the receiving hall. There was light in this chamber. They saw it from the stairs. And they heard movement.
They approached with caution.
When they peeked through the door, they glimpsed a startling sight, a sight both comforting and troubling.
Tortoise was there in the chamber, bare of his shell, of course. But he was lying on a table. And he appeared to be asleep. Beside him was another table. And upon it lay Hare.
Starling’s keen eyes saw beyond the tables as well. There were cages aligning the walls. In one cage was a serpent, a cobra lying in a lazy coil. In another was a creature that appeared to be a peacock, but drained of his colors and plumage. In still another cage was a raven with a stupefied look upon her face.
It was clear that the creatures—even Tortoise—were prisoners.
“We must free them,” Leveret whispered. “Find out who has done this to them.”
“I see no one else about,” Starling replied. “Quick, before their captor returns.” They nodded to each other and rushed into the room toward Tortoise and Hare.
Starling tried to shake Tortoise awake. She whispered to him fiercely. She even pecked at his upper limb with her beak. But he would not wake.
Leveret was having no luck with Hare either.
“You won’t be able to wake them like that,” a dry throaty voice said.
Leveret and Starling turned toward the creature who had spoken, the dazed raven.
“He has stolen their powers. All our powers,” Raven said.
“Who has? How? What powers?” Starling could not contain her curiosity.
“I don’t know,” Raven said. “I did know. I knew a great many things. Now I know few things. I must sleep now.”
“No!” Starling hopped toward the cage. “Don’t sleep. We will free you, and take you up into the fresh air. It will fortify you.”
But even as Starling’s gaze searched the cage for a latch to open, Raven lowered her head and folded her wings. She fell asleep.
Leveret hopped toward Starling. “What did she mean by ‘powers’?” the young hare asked. “And why are they all asleep?”
“They are asleep because it is tiring lending their powers to me.”
Starling gasped at the sound of a new and unfamiliar voice. And yet one that had some familiar quality within it. The voice came from behind them. They had not noticed another entering the chamber from the stairs.
Starling turned, and she glared at the intruder.
“It can’t be!” she said.
“Hello, sister,” the intruder answered, for he too was a starling.
As the intruder entered the chamber, the light hit his feathers, and Starling saw the colors of the peacock. His feathers gleamed with a liquid gloss, and glowed with colors that her own feathers did not possess, iridescent blue, green, and purple.
“I heard you ask Tortoise for his tutelage, cajole him even.” He moved further into the chamber. “You longed to learn the powers of this legendary creature. But you were not the first to ask.”
Starling could not look away from his mesmerizing red eyes. “What have you done?”
“He’s stolen their powers. That’s what he’s done,” Leveret answered.
Even from the edge of her sight, Starling could see the fur quiver on Leveret’s back. The young hare’s voice however, did not quiver. It was steady and cold.
“Borrowed, actually,” the intruder, the Robber-starling, said. “I do not know how to steal them. Though, that would be a wonder.”
“That would be a crime.” Leveret made a sound like a rumbling growl.
The Robber-starling raised his wings. “There is plenty here for all. I am not averse to sharing.”
Starling frowned. “Sharing?”
“Don’t you wish to be as beautiful as your name, sister Starling?” He turned to Leveret. “And you. Don’t you wish to be as lightning-quick as your greatest hero?”
“That would be a wonderful skill,” Leveret said, “if I had earned it, as she has.”
The Robber-starling shook his head. “She has no more earned that skill than I and your friend have earned our wings. We were born with them. We inherited them. I have simply found a way to…inherit powers and skills from those beyond my forebears.”
Leveret huffed out a humorless laugh. “First you say ‘borrow,’ then you say ‘inherit.’ I too have many words for the same foul deed you have committed. There is ‘stealing’ and ‘thieving’ and ‘robbing.’”
“It was not haphazard thievery. I had a strategy. A strategy whose cleverness could rival that of a magpie or…a raven.” The Robber-starling moved toward the cages.
Starling and Leveret kept themselves between the Robber and the tables where Tortoise and Hare lay sleeping.
“I took the cleverness of Raven first. And that cleverness helped me puzzle out how to get to the others. Raven may be clever, but she is also curious. I told her of a wondrous chamber with a mystery that I could not solve. A discovery that I had stumbled upon but could make no sense of. She followed me here. I did not know what this chamber could do until she told me.”
“Poor thing,” Starling said, sparing a quick glance for the drowsing raven. “You used it against her.”
“Before she could use it against me.”
“Why would she have done that? You seem to have no powers of your own worth stealing,” Leveret said.
The Robber ignored her. He moved closer to Starling.
“The cleverness I took from her was overwhelming at first, but once I learned to manage it, that cleverness helped me to build a door from this chamber that could lead to many different places. The door that at this moment, sits on the bottom floor of Tortoise’s home. But before I took Tortoise and Hare and Cobra, I took the beauty of Peacock. That was a test. To ensure that my first experience, with Raven’s cleverness, was not a fluke. Beauty was the least of the powers that interested me. I wanted Hare’s speed, and Tortoise’s steadfastness. But imagine my delight when I discovered that some of my guests had even greater powers.”
It was just as Starling suspected when she and Leveret witnessed the strange changes in time outside of Tortoise’s shell. She had heard stories of such powers. All slow-growing things had some powers to affect time. But they rarely if ever used that power. The Robber had stolen that power from Tortoise.
“You sped up time within the Tortoise’s home,” Starling guessed. “But why?”
“So I could gain all the powers, not just a few, but all, and emerge into the world as the greatest of the animals. King over lions. Ruler over eagles. Sovereign over all the beasts of earth, air, and water.” The Robber-starling again spread his glossy iridescent wings.
“And then what?” Starling asked.
“And then I shall rule. I shall enjoy all the pleasures I want, and the adoration of my subjects, whom I will care for better than any other ruler has, and I shall enjoy a long, long life.”
Suddenly, Leveret charged toward the Robber-starling. The young hare leapt and darted so quickly, even Starling’s keen eyes could barely track her.
Just as Leveret reached the Robber-starling, just as she almost collided with his chest, a collision that would have surely brought him down, the Robber slipped aside. His beak darted forth and struck Leveret.
Leveret cried out and thumped to the ground. The startled Robber stepped back, but then he seemed to recover himself, and he loomed over Leveret.
Starling rushed to her friend and held up a wing against the Robber.
“She only seeks to stop you from harming more creatures,” she said.
“I have not harmed them. They are merely sleeping. And I cannot allow you or your friend to stand in my way.”
Through her panic, Starling was struck with an idea.
“A compromise,” she said.
The Robber peered at her but said nothing.
He was greedy, greedy for powers. So perhaps she could appeal to his greed.
“I have gathered many stories in my time,” Starling said. “That is how I learned of Tortoise. There is one story I have heard that may interest you greatly, of an animal who possesses multiple powers. If you…” Starling pretended to hesitate, as if she were struggling with her conscience. “If you were to take this one creature’s powers, many others would be spared. You wouldn’t need them. I…I would rather sacrifice one to save those others.”
“There is no such creature.”
Starling gazed up at him. “If I were to go forth in the world and tell this tale, the tale of you, before you become king and all know of you, many would tell me that there is no such creature as you, and yet here you stand.”
The Robber took in a breath, his chest puffing. “Tell me of this creature.”
“They are one. They are many. Their name is Chimera.” Starling described the creature, which she had indeed learned of from the many stories she had heard.
As she spoke of the creature with the powers of lion and dragon and goat, she saw the hunger in the Robber’s eyes deepen. She felt Leveret stirring under her claw, and she held her friend down with all her strength.
At last, the Robber swept toward the stairs. He turned to them.
“You have until I return to decide whether you wish to join me or oppose me,” he said. “I recommend the former.”
He folded his wings and vanished into the darkness above the stairs. Starling was stunned that her ruse had worked, despite the Robber’s greed. He was not a fool. But perhaps…perhaps he had taken more than powers from the beasts in the chamber. Perhaps he had also taken on their other qualities, the peacock’s vanity and the raven’s curiosity.
Leveret was bleeding, but she rose to her feet.
“Why did I do that?” she asked herself aloud.
“Because you are brave,” Starling said, checking her friend’s wound. It did not seem as bad as she had feared.
“But also foolish. I knew he had stolen the quickness of Hare and Cobra. I hope he hasn’t stolen Cobra’s venom.” Leveret winced, but the wince broke into a smile. “You however, were anything but foolish. But what if he finds this Chimera?”
“He won’t. It doesn’t exist.”
“Are you certain?”
Leveret laughed, but then she winced again.
Starling frowned. “We must stop this thief, before he steals any more powers.”
“We must wake them,” Starling said, casting her gaze at the sleeping beasts in the chamber. “Perhaps if we do, then their powers will drain from him and return to them. But even if they don’t, if we wake Raven at least, she can tell us how the chamber works, and we can turn it against him when he returns.”
“All right. But how do we wake them?”
“We will do the same as he has done. We will ask a creature who is even smarter than a raven.”
But when they ascended to the receiving hall, they found themselves unable to leave the tortoise shell. Whenever they tried to walk through one of the five open doors, some force would pull them back into the room. Outside the doors, they saw that the robber-starling had moved the shell. They recognized the rock upon which the shell now sat. It was in the middle of the vast lake in their forest.
They saw that time was restored to a normal speed. Likely the Robber had restored it so that time would not move quickly in the chamber while he was out hunting the Chimera.
Leveret and Starling again tried shaking, and yelling, and nipping at the sleepers. Nothing worked.
“It’s an enchanted sleep. We need enchantment to wake them,” Starling said. “We’re in Tortoise’s shell, his home. Maybe he has some defense, something he was not able to use before the Robber overcame him.”
“Do we have time to search?” Leveret asked. “This home is much larger than it appears from without. And I don’t know what to look for. Do you?”
Starling felt a thought on the verge of her mind, something significant. She recalled her conversation with Tortoise. He had told her of his adventure with the ducks. Starling gazed at Tortoise as he lay sleeping on the table. He looked so helpless, as did Hare and the other creatures.
But he was not helpless. He had great powers. If only she could wake him. If only she had learned those powers herself.
“Love,” she said to herself.
Leveret twitched her whiskers. “What?”
“Perhaps he was trying to teach me something after all. About love. Or—“ Starling remembered Tortoise’s words to her.
“He told me, ‘My greatest power lies in my heart.’”
Leveret looked at the exposed Tortoise’s chest.
“No, think of where his heart would lie when he was occupying his shell. What room? Maybe whatever is there can overcome this spell if it we bring it to him.”
Starling’s own heart skipped a beat. Tortoise may just have been speaking of love. But perhaps, as she now hoped, he had chosen his words to test her, to judge if she might be a worthy student.
“This is all very strange and nonsensical,” Leveret said.
Starling gave a sudden chuckle that surprised both them. “As all riddles seem until they are solved. When we rescue Tortoise, perhaps he will reward us with an explanation.”
“That is unlikely.”
With no other clue to follow, the two ascended and found the room that would coincide with the location of Tortoise’s heart. It was a small and simple room, unlocked, and within it, they found a box with a latch.
Starling opened the box, and suddenly, she felt that irresistible force again, the one that had pulled her and Leveret into the tortoise shell. But this time, that force was driving her out of the tortoise shell.
She and Leveret were expelled from the shell, landing on the large rock in the middle of the vast lake. Starling gazed gratefully up at the bright blue sky. But she glanced down just in time to see Tortoise’s legs and head pop out of the holes, the five impassable doors.
Tortoise seemed asleep still, but with a groan, he began to wake. Dazed, he listened to Starling relate the story of what had happened. Before she finished her tale, Tortoise woke fully and he sped up time on the rock. He had regained his powers when he woke. He asked Starling and Leveret to wait while he drew himself back into his shell.
They waited until the sky began to darken. Then suddenly, the other beasts were expelled from the shell, just as they had been. Raven, Cobra, Peacock, and Hare appeared on the rock. Tortoise had waited until Raven woke on her own, for he surmised from Starling’s tale that Raven’s clever mind was strong enough to resist, to some extent, the drowse that befell them after their powers were stolen. That was why she was awake for a short time when Starling and Leveret first entered the chamber, awake long enough to warn them. Tortoise and Raven did not reveal how they managed to wake the others. The seven all worked together to reach the shore of the vast lake.
Just like Tortoise, the others found that they had regained their powers upon waking.
“It is not yet finished,” Starling said as they reached the shore. “I must find the Robber-starling. Now that he is depleted of his powers, I and my fellow starlings can bring him back. I can guess where he will go to find the creature I sent him after.”
“Let me help,” Leveret said. “I want justice for the wound he dealt me.”
Hare granted her powers of speed to Leveret and Starling. They were surprised to find that she did not fall unconscious when she did so. But the two friends saved their questions for a later time. And they set forth to find the Robber.
As Starling hoped, they had no trouble finding Robber and bringing him back to face the justice of the starlings.
“We know that you will want your justice from him too,” Starling said, as she gathered with those who had been the Robber’s victims the following morning.
“As we were rescued by a starling, we will trust the starlings’ judgement,” Cobra said. He drew up his hooded head, bowed, and slithered away.
Peacock and Raven said the same.
Raven helped Tortoise to seal the door that led to the enchanted chamber, so that none others would stumble upon it, and be corrupted by it.
When it came time for Starling and Leveret to surrender the powers of speed back to Hare, they realized how quickly they’d become accustomed to the power, and how they would have kept it if they could do so. They surrendered the power and vowed to themselves and each other that they must never again take what they had not earned.
“A wise resolve,” Tortoise said.
“Perhaps you can teach us how to earn such powers,” Starling said, for she had not yet given up hope of being his student.
“You are not long-lived enough to learn all that I would need to teach you, and to become wise enough to use those teachings well.”
“But surely there must be something you can teach us,” Leveret said.
“Perhaps I can teach you patience.”
Starling smiled. “Wonderful, when can we begin? Now perhaps? We are ready now.”
“How about tomorrow?” Tortoise said.
Starling and Leveret exchanged a glance.
“I suppose we can wait till then,” Starling said.
Tortoise nodded. “Better still, let’s make it three days hence.”
Starling hesitated. “I suppose. Yes, we can wait.”
“Then again, I must rest after my ordeal. Let us make it three weeks.”
Suddenly, Hare began to laugh.
Starling and Leveret looked at each other again, puzzled. Smiles broke upon their faces at almost the same time.
They nodded to each other, and Starling turned to Tortoise.
“Take as long as you like, Master Tortoise,” Starling said. “We can wait.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel