A Very Small Turtle With a Very Large Shell


Have you ever heard a public pay phone ring?

I, dear reader, had never entertained this bizarre notion. The pay phone, to me, is a monstrous contraption: a symbol of capitalism, a villanous machine that preys on loneliness while it digests your hard-earned dimes into its hollow metallic belly. It seemed to me rather out of the question that anyone would willingly contact such a beast — and I gave the matter no further thought. I imagine you feel quite the same way.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when one hazy morning I found myself walking by a ringing pay phone. There I was, you see, an innocent pedestrian walking down Mason Way, when I was accosted by a shrill, metallic ring. The box had lit up, it was blinking, beckoning, perhaps even begging to be put out of its misery. For a brief moment, it was even possible to be sorry for the poor thing. Indeed, my heart at last won over my distaste for pay phones: I put my hand on the earpiece, and with a deft motion, lifted it to my face.

I regretted the decision instantly, for it soon became evident that this conversation was going to last a while, and that my destination — the coffee shop — would have to wait. And so, with curiosity in my mind and nothing in my stomach, I sat against the big box and began to listen.

What follows, dear reader, is a transcription of my conversation with the speaker at the other end of that connection. Much of it is from memory: I cannot say in all honesty that there are no inaccuracies in this account. I can only say that I have done my very best to reproduce the words faithfully, and that, should you choose to read on, I am grateful for your trust. It is not ill-placed.

There is another disclosure I must make before I begin this account: I have yet to ascertain the identity of my, err, conversation partner. The trouble with mysterious sources is that all too often, they are reluctant to reveal themselves — the romance of confidentiality is thus clouded over by the dim haze of reality.

"How," you might be asking, "am I to trust an unverified account given by an unknown source?" A fine question, indeed — the world needs such skepticism. Allow me to propose a little experiment: I shall describe to you, to the very best of my ability, my source. If, by the end of this description, you remain unconvinced of this source's existence, then you have my permission to put down this novel and free yourself from the shackles of this story. After all, who am I to foist another's tale upon you? That makes me worse than a pay phone.

If, on the other hand, you are intrigued by this little taste of the source's personality, then you undoubtedly must also believe in the existence of the source. All that remains, then, is for you to hear the rest of the story, and, perhaps just as importantly, for me to tell it to you.

I alluded to my source's "personality" in that last paragraph — I must now ask you to forgive me, for that was a bit of a lie. "Personality," you see, implies that the source in question was a person. Yet I have reason to believe that personhood was not a quality that my source possessed. Indeed, I am quite confident that my source was not a person at all, because he is a turtle.

"How," you now ask, "could a turtle possibly dial a pay phone? Do they not lack opposable thumbs?"

I empathize with your curiosity. I, too, was at first disturbed by this strange and contradictory state of affairs. To this and other questions, however, I must for now give an unsatisfactory answer: that all will be revealed shortly. You might think this is my inner salesman showing: that I am trying to hook you into this story. Nothing, dear reader, could be further from the truth. If anything, this is my inner teacher showing, for I am simply trying to present to you the facts in the most pedagogically sensible way possible.

I can, however, provide you with the answer to another very admirable question, namely the question, "how do you know your source is a turtle?" The answer to that is that my source told me that he was a turtle, and made a very convincing argument to defend his claim. The argument involved detailed descriptions of his chelonian lifestyle, as well as certain philosophical points that made me question whether I, too, might be a turtle. I will table those points for now, however, out of respect for your sanity.

Returning, however, to the matter at hand: a brief description of my source. As we have established, this gentleturtle is a philosophical genius. He is evidently trained in classical rhetoric, and he has a wise and solemn voice. If it weren't for the occasional pauses when he retracted his head into his shell, he would be quite the public speaker.

As it turns out, this turtle's personality — apologies! turtleality — was quite buoyant at first. This is not a surprise, for as any biologist will tell you, turtles are quite playful creatures. However, this brings me to an important point that must be clarified if we are to continue with the story.

Turtles are far more intelligent than you might imagine. Turtles are often mocked for being slow, and their low encephalization quotients are the butt of many a joke at biological conferences. But make no mistake: turtles have a wisdom and cunning that is far beyond their innocent appearance. Their apparent stupidity is almost certainly an act, and this fact alone should scare you quite a bit.

To impress this fact upon you, I would like to now conduct a small thought experiment. I would like you to imagine yourself when you were half the age you were now. I'd tell you to close your eyes, but then you would be unable to read on, and so I merely encourage you to do your best to picture yourself. Can you recall any conversations you might have had, any incidents that may have occurred? What is your overall impression of yourself?

Now, realize, dear reader, that your average turtle will live to be twice your age. A turtle sees you the same way you imagined yourself in the previous paragraph. The awkwardness, overconfidence, and poor comedic timing of youth that you saw in your mind's eye — that is how a turtle sees you all the time. In the university that we call life, turtles are the seniors and we are merely sophomores.

Look, I certainly do not mean to paint turtles as perfidious. Yes, turtles are wiser than they let on, and yes, this is suspicious behavior. But put yourself in the shoes of a turtle. (Or the shell of a turtle? It is difficult to translate our human idioms.) Humans are, in many ways, the turtles' worst enemies: we have hunted them, destroyed their habitats, kidnapped them, sold them in pet stores, converted them to soup, imprisoned them in zoos, studied them in labs, dissected them, and written scientific papers mocking their abnormally low encephalization quotients. Scientific papers! The chelonian community is still more than a little sore about that last one.

But I ask you, dear reader: would you, as a turtle, not be suspicious of humans? Would you not narrow your small reptilian eyes if a human was to come near you? And would you not lay low, keep your intelligence to yourself, and generally act in a way that might be construed as perfidious? Such are the questions that I want you to ponder as I narrate this story.

What follows, dear reader, is the tale of a turtle named Julius. I do hope you will join me.