Natural World Reflections Prose

Imagine you're visiting the Tortoise Exhibit at the London Zoo. Kneeling down to observe their lumbering movements, you mull over what thoughts they're capable of and how they might communicate. Careful though, or you might be magically whisked into their world, as this master wordsmith was. 


by Bryan Thurston 2014

Barnaby the Tortoise had been alive for longer than he could remember, which to him meant that he had been alive altogether too long. Still, as old as he was, he wasn’t the old coot of the Tortoise Exhibit in the London Zoo. That was Francis, a real old wheezer, who spent most of his time putzing about, eating cabbage, and lecturing the younger tortoises about the coming apocalypse, today being no different.

“It will start with lettuce!” Francis preached to gasps and gawking from the younger, more impressionable crowd. “The Great War approaches! And when the humans run low on their resources, they will start replacing our cabbage with lettuce!”

“Pish tosh,” Barnaby said, in return and piddled off to find a quieter place. He had already been through several Wars to End All Wars, and the thought of humans killing each other in droves did not in the slightest bit affect his happiness. In fact, during the last one, they had moved the animals all off to a nice farm in Yorkshire, where, yes, it had been a bit colder, but there had
actually been more cabbage than there had ever been in London.

“I quite hope there is another bloodbath,” Barnaby said, and then he harrumphed happily. “More’s the cabbage for me.”

“What’s that, Barnaby?” Ethel, his shell-cleaning bird asked. “Are you going on about Francis again?”

“No, no, my dear,” Barnaby chortled, trying to use merriment to cover up his grumpiness. “I was just trying to look on the bright side. Always a good tactic.”

“You, looking on the bright side?” Ethel squawked. “You miserable old git, you’ve been moping around ever since they sent Ursula to San Diego.”

“I have not!” he wheezed, and some of the sparrows that had come down to nip at his cabbage hopped off. Not because the noise had been particularly loud but because the fog of hot air felt uncomfortable on their backs. “I have not,” he said again quietly, “and even if I had been, I’d have every right to be upset. They sent my daughter to the Golden State, and they kept me here in dreary London. I thought for sure I had earned a vacation in the tropics.”

Ethel scratched at his shell. “Perhaps you have, my dear, but maybe you’re too old to be moved.”

“Too old to be moved,” he echoed. He tried to shake his head, but being a tortoise, it took him a long time to do anything, so instead he munched with purpose to show how indignant he felt. “Well, I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Oh yes, dear?” Ethel laughed. “Next time they’re looking to move someone, you should submit your candidacy. Assuming they could understand you, I think you have a good shot.”

“Confound it all, Ethel, you know I don’t speak human,” Barnaby grumbled. “Don’t you sass me now. I’ve been hosting your family on my back for six generations. The least you can do is offer me some respect.”

“That’s why I speak up, Barnaby. Someone has to tell you when you start sounding senile.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” One of his eyebrows rose. “Don’t want to sound like a raging loony, do I?” He wiggled his shell. “Not like Francis, right? That tortoise thinks the sun rises and sets with him, doesn’t he? What a loony!”

Ethel pecked at his back. “You know, it’s not at all kind to be calling someone names, Barnaby. You’d think in your old age you would understand that.”

“In my old age I’ve earned the right to be obstinate,” Barnaby said. “You know, the London Zoo bought me with funds they acquired from Darwin himself? I’m more than one hundred and fifty years old.”

“And looking quite nice.” There was a sound like the breeze, if the breeze had somehow caught pneumonia. Francis was laughing. “When I was one hundred and fifty, I had far more shell problems than you do.” He smiled and licked his chops at Ethel. “Perhaps that’s because my shell bird died back in the Victorian Era.”

“Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the story. Tragic. Last of her kind. Extinction of her shell-cleaning species,” Barnaby rattled off. Ethel tapped her foot against his shell impatiently. “I’ve always said you could borrow Ethel whenever you wanted, Francis.”

Francis shook his head very slowly. “No, no. Don’t trouble yourself for an old goat like me.” Then he smiled. “Did I say goat? I meant—.”

“Yes, yes, we all know what you meant, Francis. What can I do for you?” Barnaby asked, munching some more cabbage. “I thought you never came up to these parts.”

Francis leaned to one side, opened his mouth, closed it again and leaned to the other. “Oh, it’s been so long since I was here, and what with the end drawing near, I thought it might be a good idea to visit the old pool again.” He looked at the stagnant puddle just beyond the cabbage.

“'End drawing near',” Barnaby scoffed, but Francis didn’t seem to notice. “I’ll not even dignify that with a response.”

Ethel cleared her throat. “Francis, dear, would you like some cabbage?”

Barnaby grumbled but moved aside.

“Oh, yes,” Francis said, humming to himself. “Got to get it before they start replacing it, you know.”

Ethel pecked Barnaby’s shell before the old tortoise could even groan. “So I’ve heard,” she said, transitioning to Francis’s shell. “What a terrible thing to do. There’s no nutritional value in lettuce.”

“Can’t fault the humans,” Francis said, a piece of Barnaby’s cabbage dangling from his mouth. “It’s so hard to read the Mother Turtle’s energy. They live such short lives, they’ll never really understand their impact on the Earth or on their fellow humans.”

Before Barnaby could compose himself enough to start ranting, Francis had turned away. “Well, the end is nigh. Enjoy your very last cabbages, Barnaby.”

“Wait!” Barnaby shouted. “Wait just one frog-eaten minute, Francis. You can’t just say things like that and walk away. Defend yourself!”

Francis’s long neck stretched and swayed like a dancing snake. “Surely I can’t trouble you, my old friend. You’ve always called my theories rubbish.”

“And rubbish they are,” Barnaby argued, stomping his foot very slowly, slightly embarrassed that Francis knew what he had been saying behind the old tortoise’s back. “What evidence have you?”

“Evidence?” the elderly tortoise sang. “Evidence? Why, my old friend, you need not look any further than your breakfast. You cannot tell me the cabbage tastes as good or as fresh as it did in our youth…watery as if it were just…lettuce.”

“No, I cannot. Might as well be lettuce,” Barnaby admitted, “but that doesn’t mean the world will end soon. That just means the humans have gotten lazy.”

Francis’s eyes got very wide. “Does that not worry you?”

Barnaby’s face scrunched up, which was saying something for an old tortoise whose face was always scrunched. “As long as they pay to see the creatures at the zoo, what do we care what they do to their own habitat? It’s their own faults.”

“Silly Barnaby, you think what they do is independent from what we do?” Francis laughed, throwing back his head very slowly. “Why, look at my shell! Hasn’t been cleaned since before the great Prime Minister Churchill! Where have all my birds gone?”

“It’s called extinction, Francis. We tortoises survived the last one, didn’t we, what with all the dinosaurs going the way of the dodo.” Barnaby laughed. “And we survived the Ice Age and the Romans and the Inca and even the Germans when they started bombing London. What’s any different about this one?”

“Well, Barnaby, I believe you have put your foot right on it,” Francis said and sighed. “Laziness. Indifference. Ignorance.”

“Come now, Barnaby. Worse than bombs?” Ethel asked. “I think we should have a little faith in the recent peace. There hasn’t been a major European conflict in years. Don’t you think that’s a bit pessimistic?”

“Realistic, my dear,” Francis said. “The word is realistic. Don’t believe me? Ask the Moa.”

“The what?” Barnaby’s mouth hung open, and regrettably, his cabbage fell into the dirt.

“Precisely,” Francis gassed. “Huge bird, wiped out by human ignorance.”

“So what?” Barnaby had had enough. He marched over to Francis as fast as his tortoise feet could take him. “So a couple of birds died out. Maybe they had it coming, Francis. Maybe it was their own fault. Maybe humans are a new form of evolutionary pressure.” Barnaby paused to take a breath after unloading that phrase. “In the end, it always works out. I’m sure our ancestors were particularly incensed by the number of Tyrannosaurs, and look what happened. Nature finds a way to even things out. Human laziness will end in human destruction.”

Francis smiled. “Perhaps, but then, when they die off, who will bring you cabbage, Barnaby?” He wrinkled his nose happily. “It will start with lettuce. Goodbye, Ethel. Goodbye, Barnaby.”

Barnaby watched Francis go, stunned into silence for long enough that Francis got away, which is saying something, really. “I rather think lettuce would do him good, the fat, old buffoon. Maybe a little more lettuce would clear his head.”

“You don’t think he had a point?” Ethel asked, pecking at his shell nervously.

Barnaby munched a piece of cabbage thoughtfully. It was in fact a bit watery for his tastes. “Even if he did, what good is there worrying about it? I don’t even have thumbs, Ethel. I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”

Ethel leapt down and took the piece of cabbage Barnaby was about to eat. “Well, someone has to do something, Barnaby. I, for one, am going to cut you back on the cabbage. There’s a start.”