The tale begins with a turtle.
A turtle of great renown.
His name was Gaharalil.
He was thoughtful, yet impatient, and eager to impress the elders of his people.
Gaharalil won a contest, set by his elders. The prize was a gift left by those whom his people named the “absent ones.” It was believed the absent ones created the world, and then departed, leaving behind only one gift for each of the peoples of the world. Each people decided who among them would receive the gift. Some gifts were granted. Some were won.
And so, Gaharalil was awarded the gift given to the turtles.
Turtles did not have shells in those days. But that was soon to change.
All the turtles were eager to see the gift that the absent ones had left for them. Even the elders did not know what it was. When it was given, it was invisible to all. The elders believed that the receiver would be able to perceive it.
On receiving the gift, Gaharalil claimed he neither saw, nor smelled, nor heard, nor tasted anything.
But it was a great gift, he proclaimed, for it given by the absent ones. And it likely needed time to settle upon him.
The turtles feasted, and in their fashion, they danced their quick and agile dances. Loudly did they carouse, and recklessly. By morning, many were dead, for they did not heed the cold, and did not retire to their warm burrows.
Gaharalil had left the festivities early, dismayed that he still did not perceive the gift, and half-suspicious that the elders had not properly bestowed it to him after all.
The next morning, he went to the pond beside his burrow, to refresh his mind with a swim.
When Gaharalil slipped into the water, he was seized by a sensation. It rippled across the surface of his body, his skin. The spark of sensation bolted through his skin to his muscles, his belly, his heart. It flooded him with joy. It raised him up like a cresting wave. He floated in the sensation to the water’s surface and beyond, up into the heavens, where the stars dwelt and all was wonder.
And then he began to sink, to sink in the actual water.
Gaharalil swam to the surface and sputtered. He scrambled ashore and lay upon the earth gasping for breath. The sensation was fast receding.
With it came relief, but also regret.
Gaharalil looked down at himself. The water trickled down his forelimbs. An echo of the sensation he had just felt remained. His skin perceived the water as it never had before. Cool and soft.
A wide and gaping grin formed upon the face of the turtle of great renown.
Here was his gift, the gift of his creators.
Gaharalil did not quite understand the gift, but this too pleased him. It pleased him that the absent ones had judged the turtles worthy to receive such an arcane gift. And that the turtles had judged him worthiest of all.
He slipped back into the waters, this time bracing himself.
The sensation struck him again. It was so powerful that even though he was prepared, he almost drowned again. For he was so caught up that he forgot not to sink.
Again he pulled himself free and managed to make it ashore. This time, he was wise enough to leave off swimming until he could better understand the meaning of the gift.
When a turtle had a question they could not answer on their own, they would seek out their elders.
But Gaharalil already knew that the elders had no wisdom to give on the matter of his gift.
So he sought out his friends.
On his way to them, as he walked upon the road under the light of the high summer sun, he felt the sun upon his skin as he never had before. The sensation was pleasant at first, but soon became too intense. He found it difficult to breath. He longed for the waters and almost turned back to the pond. Instead Gaharalil moved into the dappled shadow made by the trees and found some relief there. So it seemed that his gift was tied to his skin.
He continued on toward his friends.
When he found the two rascals, they were jumping into piles of leaves. Already some leaves were turning red, brown, and crunchy, signaling the coming of the next season.
His friends welcomed him and bid him to take a turn, and take a leap.
This Gaharalil did.
And when he leapt into the pile of leaves and bits of twig, he was seized by a sensation. Like claws, it gripped his body, his skin. Like teeth, it punctured his skin, tearing muscle and cracking bone. It flooded him with fear. It knocked him down, pressed him down. He was cast by the sensation into a gray nothing. where life mattered not and all was despair.
A scream was caught in his throat, caught in a piercing hook.
His friends did not know why he lay so still in the pile. They laughed and teased for a moment before they saw the look upon his face. Troubled, they moved to pulled him up. The leaves and twigs scraped against his skin.
The thing in his throat came unhooked.
And Gaharalil screamed.
Surely it could not be.
And yet, it must be.
The absent ones had made a mistake.
Or perhaps the elders had.
Gaharalil went to seek their counsel after all.
Part of the gift was wrong, spoiled perhaps. He asked them to take that part back.
But the elders told him it could not be so with the gifts of the absent ones. Once given, they could not be returned, either in part or in whole.
He could pass the gift on to another. It was expected he would do so, once he had an heir.
Gaharalil in his desperation had a cruel thought then. For but a fleeting moment, he wondered if he could pass on one part of his gift and not the other.
But he reminded himself that he had sought the gift, desired it. Many others had done so too, and would gladly accept it from him. But even if he were to describe the sensations, none would truly understand what it was they were accepting. For none had ever experienced the sensations for themselves. Even the elders were puzzled by Gaharalil’s descriptions.
Both sensations seized him and overwhelmed him until he could do nothing but wait until the sensation passed. But in one case, the sensation was almost so unbearable that he came close to wishing for death. In the other case, the sensation was almost so wonderful that he lost himself in it.
If even the wisest of the turtles could not understand, then no one could.
Gaharalil could not pass on the ruined gift to one who did not perceive or understand such ruin.
When first Gaharalil separated himself from all others, climbing up to shelter in a cavern behind a rushing falls, he did so to think and to plan. He hoped to find some way to avoid the fearful sensation, the one he named “pain.” And he hoped to find some way to seek the wonderful sensation, the one he named “pleasure.”
If I cannot find a way, Gaharalil thought, perhaps it is best that the gift dies with me. For I will not pass on pleasure to another if I must also pass on pain.
He regretted not being able to share pleasure. It was a sensation that would bring great joy into the world. Perhaps pleasure would ease his pain, long enough for him to devise a way to separate them.
The gift of the absent ones grew stronger as each day passed.
Soon, no matter how carefully Gaharalil moved, he could not avoid feeling deep pain or pleasure at even the slightest brushing of his skin against anything in the world.
His body seemed to be trying on its own accord to help him. His skin, once soft, grew tough, massed with small scaly plates. And a strange thing happened. Upon his back, there grew an even harder skin, layer upon layer, hard and heavy.
Perhaps his skin was trying to cast out the burden of the gift. Perhaps that burden was manifesting as a great weight upon his back.
Gaharalil would have gladly borne that weight, if it meant he could be rid of the gift.
But it was not so. His pains and his pleasures did not lessen.
Both drained his body of its vitality.
And his mind was soon cast into misery.
One day, he could not bear to rise, even to eat or to drink. Gaharalil wanted to live, he longed to. But his will did not have the strength to face the overwhelming sensations of pleasure and pain.
Gaharalil spent day after day observing and investigating his own pains and pleasures. The separation between them was clear and plain. And yet, he could not find the seam that would split them apart in the fabric of his gift.
All he could think of to do to thwart his own despair was to keep his people from ever seeking or finding the gift.
At last, he composed a message to his fellow turtles. And with great pain, he made his way out of his cavern and onto a ledge.
He called out to a sparrow who happened to be perched in a tree above the falls.
He asked her the favor of conveying his message, and she agreed. She listened as he recited his message.
He told the elders that he was well, but that he must continue to abide alone, to study the gift of the absent ones. He told his friends and kin that he meant no offense in keeping apart from them, for what he knew of happiness, he had known in knowing them. He told his people that when the time was right, he would emerge and pass on his gift.
The sparrow repeated the message back to him. But she gave him a curious look, and asked him if he was as well as he claimed to be in his message. For in her eyes, she saw great sorrow upon his face. She assured him that she would not add to his burdens by speaking of it to any of his fellow turtles. But she hoped that when next she saw him, he would be in better health and even better spirits.
The sparrow delivered the message, but then returned to watch the turtle. She appreciated her own solitude, and was loathe to disturb the solitude of another. But she had been much surprised to hear of the turtle’s wishes. She had observed that turtles were quite gregarious. But perhaps there were some who desired to be solitary. It was the same among sparrows.
She greeted him sometimes, but most times, she would only fly by and observe him for a while when he was out on the ledge that protruded just behind the rushing waterfall.
One day, she did not see him on the ledge. So she flew away, but returned again later. Still the turtle was not there.
The sparrow ventured closer, perching on the ledge and peeking into the cavern. She would not have dared such an intrusion if she thought the turtle was well. But his absence pricked her concern. And when she saw him within the cavern, her concern deepened into dread.
The turtle had been growing thinner and smaller, or perhaps that strange great shell upon his back had grown bigger. He lay now in one place under the weight of his shell.
The sparrow called out to him and asked if she might enter his abode.
She was surprised at the strength in the voice that answered her.
“Yes, my friend sparrow, you are welcome to come in,” the turtle said. “For the favor you have done for me, you are welcome any time.”
He chuckled then ,and told her that she was welcome to take the cavern as her own once he was gone, and he did not think she had long to wait.
“You should know the name of your friends,” the sparrow said. “I am called Passerine.”
“And I am called Gaharalil. Or I was called so when I lived among others.”
“Then you should live among others now, my friend,” said the sparrow, “if these are indeed your last days.”
Gaharalil confessed to his new friend that he had not taken food or drink for some time. He did not wish to die, but he bore a burden that none other had ever borne, the gift of the absent ones.
When he was done telling the sparrow his story, the weight of the shell upon his back remained, but many of the burdens upon his mind were eased.
Passerine was sparse of speech—quite unlike many of the sparrows that Gaharalil had known in his life. But when she did speak, she spoke words that he both longed to hear and was loathe to hear.
She entreated him to let her fly a message to his dearest friends to come and help him, or at least to comfort him. When she hopped into his view, he could see that she was truly troubled. She told him so as well, for she told him that she decided she would find his friends, even without his permission.
“If you will go anyway, then I beg you to go only to my two dearest friends,” he said.
He composed a message, and he watched the bird hop up and dart away into the air, so enviably unburdened, that even the earth could not keep hold of her.
Gaharalil’s two dearest friends came to him quickly, arriving the same day as the sparrow. For they were not burdened by pain, or pleasure, or a hard and heavy shell.
They were even more disturbed by the sight of him than Passerine was. With the strange shell upon his back, covering all but his head and his limbs, they did not recognize him until they came close enough to kiss his face.
And they were greatly disturbed to learn that their friend suffered such a state because of the gift he received from the absent ones.
“How can a gift be such a terrible burden?” one of them asked.
“And yet, it is,” the other answered, gesturing to Gaharalil.
He confessed to them that his letters were a lie. He explained that he could not pass the burden of the gift on to another. For he would only be passing on his misery. The elders had no wisdom for him. He did not know what to do.
“Are you required to pass on the gift and the burden to only one other?” one of them asked.
“Or could you choose many?” added the other.
“Or better yet,” said the first, “is it the kind of gift that can be shared—the way you once shared a particularly sweet and juicy hoard of berries with us. Do you remember?”
Gaharalil would have gladly shared the sensation of pleasure with his friends. He lamented that while there were two distinct sensations, they could not be separated when given. If he shared pleasure with them, he would also be sharing pain. But his valiant friends, innocent of either sensation, and loyal to him, insisted that it was worth trying. If they were to be miserable, at least they could be miserable together.
Gaharalil was touched and humbled by his friends’ willingness, their offer –so casually given—to sacrifice their own lives to give his life a small measure of ease.
His friends also reminded him that the gift was given to their people. It was the elders who chose to grant it to only one, as had the elders of all the other peoples in the world.
But perhaps it was not meant to be so.
The sparrow perched at the entrance to the cavern, welcomed by the turtles but hesitant to intrude further. She had only wanted to make sure that Gaharalil was cared for. Now, she wondered if the gift of song that one canary had been granted, the gift that Passerine had envied, likewise came with some unenviable burden. She remembered hearing a rumor that the song was so transcendent that no mortal ears could bear hearing it, and any who did were struck dead even as the first note struck their ears.
And Passerine pondered.
It was soon agreed.
Gaharalil shared his gift with his two dearest friends.
All three turtles now knew pain and pleasure through touch. Soon, all three bore tough scaly skin and hard heavy shells. The two who had never before felt the sensations were so overwhelmed they could not care for themselves for a few days. Gaharalil looked after them.
But as they all become accustomed to the sensations, they began to observe that it was not one sensation or the other. There was much between pain and pleasure. There was relief, anticipation, dread. There was fading and building. Gaharalil observed that his pains and pleasures were somewhat lessened. Even just discussing among themselves made both sensations more bearable. They told each other of pleasures to try, and they warned each other of pains to avoid.
In time, they sent another message, this one going to their elders. They proposed sharing the burden of the gift among all their people—all who wished to share it. Both sensations would lessen, but that was as well for pleasure as it was for pain.
The elders sent back their response.
Some of the elders were more cautious than they were wise. Most agreed to consider Gaharalil’s proposal. But they also declared that before they offered the burden of the gift to their people, they must experience it for themselves—both the good and the bad. This they did, and they came to understand. And some feared even more than they did before.
But most agreed to grant Gaharalil his request.
So Gaharalil and his two friends offered the gift of the absent ones to their people.
So it came to be, the more turtles who shared the gift, the more bearable the sensations became. The pains and the pleasures could still be more than could be borne. But the more turtles who understood and experienced the sensations for themselves, the better for all. For there were turtles with clever minds who put their talents to the salving of pains and to the sweetening of pleasures.
Any turtle who accepted the sharing of the gift grew a shell, a burden they would carry for the rest of their lives. But also a protection. For accepting the gift of pain and pleasure slowed them, both their actions and their thoughts.
In time, the sharing of the gift was done not by will, but by nature. The gift had spread so far that like the rays of the sun, or drops of rain, or flakes of snow, it fell upon all. Outside of the turtles, some peoples received a greater or lesser share of pain or pleasure, and this the turtles could not influence, though they tried. Some peoples could not receive the gift at all.
For good or ill, for both, the deed was done.
One day, a year hence, Gaharalil trundled along toward the pond where he would swim and take his ease.
He heard a familiar voice from above.
“You look well, my friend.”
The turtle stopped, and looked up as far as his neck would stretch. But the one who had called to him had perched upon a fallen trunk that lay low to the ground. He did not have to stretch much.
“It gives me pleasure to see you my friend,” he said. “You look…different.”
Gone were the sparrow’s bright and colorful feathers. Passerine now bore all the colors of the tree trunk that she rested upon.
The sparrow answered. “There is no gift that does not come with a price, a burden to bear, whether upon one’s mind, or body, or both.”
“Are you an elder now?” the turtle teased. “That sounds like wisdom.”
The sparrow’s laugh was a charming chirp.
“My feathers and limbs know something of pain and pleasure now, thanks to you turtles,” she said. “But I also know something of song.”
Passerine piped and trilled. “It’s not beautiful. But it’s my song. I would share it with you, but not all gifts can be shared.”
“So the rumors are true. The other peoples of the world are sharing their gifts. And the burdens that come with them.”
“I am a solitary bird,” Passerine said. “But even I can see that sharing has its merits, for burdens can be eased and eases can be multiplied.”
“Does that mean you will join me for a swim?”
“No, no. I only came to say hello. Enjoy your swim, Gaharalil.”
The sparrow hopped up and flew off.
Gaharail watched her go.
“Enjoy your song, my friend,” he called.
He continued on his way and slipped into the pond, where the waters, cool and soft upon his skin, lifted his burdens.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel