VI. The Testudinals

3 Dec

Tugau and Megaera decided that their honeymoon vacation would be to a place neither of them had been to before. The choice was Cape Ness, a sleepy promontory jutting into Tortue Bay. A public carroch carried them from Diadema to the southern coast of Provincia and this quiet location. Their hotel, the Thyone, was a pleasant, comfortable stucco building of long ago where the same families returned year after year. As soon as they arrived and settled in, the newly wed couple made an initial tour of the cape peninsula.

A small amusement park contained a roller coaster, a merry-go-round, shooting galleries, gaming arcades, and children’s rides of all sorts. Megaera proposed that they have a snack at the outdoor cafe overlooking the shore of sand. From a veranda with tables, the two looked out at a beach full of bathers in the coastal waters of the bay. Noises of carefree laughter floated up to them from there. The mood proved contagious. Both of them felt suddenly rhapsodic.

Megaera, after a study of the short menu, ordered a crevette fritter containing Cape Ness shrimp. Tugau decided to try the deviled peigne clam. He asked their waiter, a short young man in immaculate white uniform, whether most of the sea food served there came from the region they were in.

“Yes, sir,” answered the server. “We enjoy an abundance of marine food caught nearby. These waters are rich with an abundant variety of species.”

The honeymooners were soon consuming sea creatures with fresh, piquant tastes to them. Both were delighted with the unfamiliar tastes provided.

After finishing, the pair wandered the coastal walkway, beginning at the amusement center. As they went further away from the built-up areas, they began discussing their plans for the rest of the vacation.

“I think we should sail out beyond the bay,” opined Megaera. “It would be interesting to see how the fishermen called piscators hereabout catch the fish and water food that comes from here.”

“A good idea!” beamed her husband. “That sounds good to me, too. We would observe a lot of sights that are new and interesting.”

So it was that next morning the two looked for a tour boat for hire. It was on a public pier near the Thyone that they found a lanky boater with his small bachot tied to a berth. Tugau started a conversation with the man in charge. First, he learned that his name was Yote. Yes, he was willing to take them around the bay and even beyond it. His fee sounded reasonable and economical.

“Thirty sesterces, that is all,” pleaded the boater. “What can be cheaper than an excursion with Yote?” chuckled the tall, skinny youth.

The twosome agreed and jumped down into the sailboat. Soon the vessel was leaving the pier. A fresh, bracing breeze was blowing over the waters. Megaera, feeling its force and power, laughed and smiled. Tugau, following her example, did the same. This was going to be a day of pure fun and pleasure, they both understood.

Yote provided them a continuous narrative, describing the various sights and features of attraction as the boat moved parallel to the coastline. Soon they were beyond the outer cape, in the open sea itself. The breezes were light and soothing to them both.

But then the craft entered a tiny cove with white cottages along its curve of shore. There was something vaguely different about this isolated locality.

“This is where I live, on a fishing inlet. But my neighbors are much busier with what comes up on the beach by itself. Each dawning sees an army of creatures out there ready to be gathered. Our village goes by the name of Echinus. Would you like to tie up and spend an hour or so there?”

There was a bright spark in the boatman’s tawny eye.

Megaera replied for her husband and herself. “That sounds quite interesting. Let’s have a look at the little community on the coastline.”

=

Yote proved to be an individual of encyclopedic knowledge concerning the shore catches of the seafood hunters of Echinus. An orphan at an early age, he had been raised by his grandfather, an aged man who continued to trap and gather the crustaceans of the cove.

Their guide took them to the shanty of the oldster named Uint, where this relative was sorting out the morning’s catch for sale to local middlemen later in the day.

Thin and tall, the old man resembled his grandson in everything but age and whitened hair.

Old Uint, standing straight and proudly, was happy to fill in details of his relative’s extended exposition on the local fish and seafood industry.

“A few of us persist in going out into deeper water for the gobies, sagax, and arengula. But why make so much effort for those small, worthless fishies? No, we in Echinus prefer to carry on the business of our forefathers. Look at what crawls up out of the water on its own! All we have to do is go out each morning and empty our little traps. Then, the rest of the day is ours to do with as we please. What could be an easier, happier life than that?”

“I became tired of the routine and decided to branch out on my own,” confessed the young Yote. “But when I decide to marry and settle down, this will be what I do to make my living.”

“We have all we need in the cove,” expanded the grandfather. “This is the center for all varieties of crustaceans. We are the champion capturers of molluscs because of the countless generations of experience that we enjoy.” An idea struck the mind of Uint and he expressed it at once. “Let me join your little party and lead you to points where many different sea forms can be seen.”

Yote and the newly-weds instantly accepted this proposal, so that a group consisting of four now made its way along the arenaceous shore of Echinus.

The vacationers viewed pagurid clams, ostreans, homards, langostas, escargot, crevettes, asteroidals, squillas, bernicles, skate rays, squid, and whelks in traps where they had been caught. The wide variety of different species was astonishing.

“Who would have imagined so many kinds of catches in one place!” sighed Megaera.

Tugau thought of something. “Are there any chelonian about, like turtles or tortugas?”

A sudden silence fell over them. Neither Yote nor Uint was able to give an immediate reply.

Both honeymooners noted that something awkward had occurred, even when the boatman who had brought them there began to improvise an explanation of their reluctance to speak.

“It is extraordinary that you ask that, sir. That sort of creature has had an important role in the history of Echinus. Perhaps it will be clearer if my grandfather explains what happened long ago to the chelons of the cove. The story is a sad and tragic one, you will learn.”

All eyes turned on Uint, who waited a time before saying anything.

“This has been passed on through the ages as a true history of how this place came to be settled. No one can measure how far back in the past it may have been. At that time, our portion of the sea coast was deserted. Fishermen in small boats could come hereabouts to fish and capture what was available. Our particular cove was known for its abundance of giant tortoises and tortues. Delicious, exquisite tortugas and terrapins came from this locale. They were in demand all the way to Diaema, the capital of Provincia. A great trade in these species developed here.

“The hunt for them grew to such dimensions that the inevitable came about: the population of chelonians fell into steep decline. Down and down it went till absolutely none of them were left. Only a few surviving examples managed to crawl away to what is called the wild coast, a short distance to the south. Only after the disappearance of turtles was Echinus settled by coastlanders. But the memory of what had once been here has remained with our people. But no tortugas ever return this way, as if the remembrance of what once happened has never been lost.

“It is an unfortunate historical event, isn’t it?”

Megaera was the one who answered the old man.

“Yes, it certainly is. But if the chelonians still survive somewhere close by, why can’t we sail there and have a look at the great creatures? I, for one, would find it most interesting. I have never seen any giant tortoises. How large do they grow over the many years of their long lives?”

“Surprisingly enormous and heavy, ” replied Yote, looking at his grandfather. “It is a rare occurence for anyone to go into Calamary Bight. Would it be of value for the two of you to make a visit that far off the ordinary track?”

“Indeed, it would,” said Megaera, turning to her spouse for seconding and confirmation.

“I believe that seeing the place will be worthwhile,” he declared, looking at his mate with anticipation of the enjoyment and pleasure soon to come.

Yote gazed for a moment up into the sky.

“It is late to sail there today. How about tomorrow morning?”

“Fine,” nodded Tugau.

“I can hardly wait,” said his wife with a smile of satisfaction.

All at once, a proposal came from the mouth of Uint. “Would you let me go along as well?” he asked. “It will please me a great deal to have another look there.”

The matter thus decided, the tour of Echinus continued.

Uint showed the tourists his favorite calamondin tree, from which he picked two small orange-skinned citruses for them to try. Their taste turned out to be a new satisfaction for the two tourists.

The group walked inland a short distance. Along the path, Yote pointed out an ant bear, a tamandua, and an earth pig. “We call them the toothless ones,” he said with a laugh.

It was Megaera who spotted a marsupial thylacine with gray bands on its back.

“I know it from children’s books as the zebra wolf,” she gushed. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?” she smiled with spontaneous pleasure.

Again it was she who noticed a spiny, ant-eating echidna hiding behind a thick bush. This increased her joy all the more. By the time they returned to the sailboat she was in a trance-like state, barely able to wait for their return the following day.

After taking leave of Uint, the grandson transported the happy pair back to where their excursion had started that morning.

The couple had a late supper at the Thyone’s dining hall that evening. A clear sky presented a blanket of brightly blinking starlight. They sat by a large window looking out over Tortue Bay.

“Did you enjoy our little trip today?” inquired the grinning Tugau.

“Of course,” she answered. “I can hardly wait for tomorrow. What do you think we will see out there in the coastal bight?”

“That remains to be seen, my dear,” he told her in a dreamy mood. “What is to come must always be in a fog, whether thick or thin.”

At that point, a tuxedoed waiter appeared and handed them menus. He stood at attention with stylus and pad waiting for each to make a choice. Tugau ventured first.

“I am considering the selachian selections: hammerhead or dogfish. It is impossible for me to make a rational choice, so I think it best to try one of the exotic dishes. How about the one that is called devil fish? What precisely is it?”

The waiter told him with a knowing smile. “It is a great manta ray from the ocean deep. The creature measures up to twenty feet in length. I highly recommend it to those unfamiliar with the dish.”

All of a sudden, Megaera grew agitated and troubled. “What is the testudine casserole? Does it contain the flesh of a turtle? Is that what it means?”

“Yes, madam,” answered the waiter, no longer smiling. “It is made from both the calipash and the calipee of the turtle. The former is taken from next to  the upper shell and is a green gelatin. The latter borders the lower shell and has a yellow color to it. Each of these is a delicate jelly with a delicious flavor. Together, they are a heavenly gastronomic combination. I recommend it if you like new, adventurous foods. There is no question in my mind that you will like it. Everyone who tries it raves about its particular taste.”

Megaera continued to question the man.

“Where are such substances found and obtained? I thought that the tortugas have become rare and are now under the protection of the law.”

The face of their server reddened as he groped for a satisfactory answer to her.

“Yes, our system of protection makes all chelonians forbidden for private or public hunting. No question of that. But I believe that it remains legal to import giant turtles from elsewhere, beyond Provincia. Hunting for them may not be prohibited abroad, in other lands. I do not know for certain the origin or provenance of the tortuga on our menu, I am sorry to say. It would not be difficult to find out, though, should you be that interested in the matter. It is always possible that the law in Provincia will itself be changed or amended.

“Is it that item you wish to order, Madam?”

“No,” asserted Megaera with force. “It was only my personal curiosity. I think that I will try the devil fish, as my husband is probably going to do.”

Her wish now plain, the waiter turned and hurried away to fulfill it.

“You seem quite concerned about the tortugas, my dear,” he commented with a grin, looking at her with curiosity in his eyes.

“I do not believe they should all become extinct,” she said with a sigh.

“Neither do I,” whispered Tugau, almost to himself.

Yote arrived with his sailboat as the daystar rose a burning yellow into the eastern sky. His two  passengers, having come early, awaited him with anticipation. They were about to go to a place whose existence they had not suspected at all. What might they be lucky enough to see there?

The waters of the great bay were choppier than they had been the day before.

“There is some sort of storm out there on the sea,” said the guide. “Nothing that we should worry about, though. It will pass quickly, as it always does.”

Before long, the boat had rounded the cape and entered the cove of Echinus. Here they remained only long enough to pick up the grandfather, anxious to be on his way to the bight they were going to visit that day. The old man greeted each of the married couple with a hearty handshake and a beaming face.

“We are on our way to a place special to all persons who know it,” he said as they sailed out of the cove. “I believe there is something of an enchanted character to that bight.”

In a surprisingly short while, the small skiff arrived at the destination.

It was not a true cove, only a slightly bending inlet of the sea, an indenting in the straight coastline by a slight curving. There was nothing here to impress anyone.

“Let me ground the craft in the shallows,” proposed Yote. “Then, we can wade the short distance up to the beach.”

Tugau climbed out after the two locals, then helped his wife lift herself into the shallow water.

Hand in hand, the couple followed the other pair onto the fine-grained brown sand. Only small insects were scurrying about the smooth silicon surface. The scene seemed a thoroughly silent one.

It was Uint who led the others to a large stone shelf projecting out of the sand near the outer edge of the beach. The others followed his example when he sat down on the smooth sand.

From time to time, the members of the party of four exchanged glances. They were waiting for something, without the two vacationers knowing what it might turn out to be.

Minutes passed, but no one dared say a word. The right time had not come for that.

All of a sudden, Megaera spotted something dark emerging out of the water and pointed to it.

The three others turned and saw it, but no one said anything.

Megaera looked over for a time at her husband. He was watching the object slowly moving out of the water. As soon as she turned her eyes back on the mystery creature, Tugau was peering at her. They had missed an exchange of looks and visual connection by less than a second.

The realization that the great mass they were observing was moving ashore struck both husband and wife. These two understood somehow that the pair of coastal natives was not at all surprised at the phenomenon exiting out of the sea. It was what they had come there expecting. It was not something new for them. What was occurring had to be a clearly recognized pattern, one they were quite familiar with.

Neither spouse dared ask where the event was heading.

At last, though, the gigantic entity began to gain some identity.

It had to be a giant tortuga. What else was determinable?

A mighty carapace became visible, slowly making for the stone ledge the four sat on.

With no haste at all, the being was fulfilling its purpose of forward motion.

Before Megaera realized the fact, the black green testudo was six feet from the ledge. She had no doubt where the mass was headed. But as she turned her face to look at the old man, Uint, her eyes caught a sight that nearly made her melt.

The grandfather was not sitting on the hard stone surface. Not only had he gone down onto the granular sand, but he had turned into another being, another form and shape.

No longer human, the appearance of Uint had become testudine.

He was a turtle reaching out to combine with another of his own kind.

Suddenly, the unavoidable conclusion descended into her mind from somewhere. She knew that she was a biform diploid, born to be a sylphine like her parents, ancestors, and brother.

Tugau was a feline chatan in his second form, with bipolarity built into his nature. Both of them would be defined as shapeshifters in many areas of the galaxy.

And this old man of the coast was a diploid being with two phases of existence, the secondary one taking a chelonian, testudine form. Just as she and Tugau could experience instant transformations, so could Uint. But he became a large, ancient turtle. That was his secundus form, it appeared.

She turned to where Yote had been lying, but he too had moved onto the sandy beach. And he also had metamorphosed into a tortugan being, a second giant turtle.

Grandfather and grandson both slowly advanced toward the stranger from out of the water. They both were exhibiting the secundus natural to their diploid category.

As she observed this, Megaera began to shake with stress. How was this going to end? She turned her head toward Tugau. What she now saw was incredible and shocked her mind.

He had remade himself into his own secundus, the chatan cat she had seen only a few times before that moment. Now her husband had become a large wildcat.

What was his intention? What was he up to?

Suddenly she understood. How better to meet the great sea turtle than as another non-human form? Two types of biform beings would be present now. They would be facing each other.

But what should be my own course? Megaera asked both sides of herself. The answer and the transformation came simultaneously to her.

As the two testudine diploids reached and contacted the visitor from the deep, they were watched by the two friendly secundi of the newly weds, the chatan and the sylphine.

Tactile communication between the three great turtles was indecipherable for the audience of the two different diploids still on the stone ledge. Within a minute, this contact was broken off. The visitor from the sea turned about and began to creep back the way it had come. So did the other two, returning to where they had transformed themselves into turtle secundi.

The pair on the rock looked on in wonder, not daring to move. This was something neither of them could have foreseen.

As soon as one of the turtles reached the ledge, it instantly became Yote again.

The other one followed, in a moment becoming Grandfather Uint. Both were human beings once more.

Where was the unknown, unidentified one, though?  Back in the water from which it had emerged.

Tugau changed back, followed by Megaera. They exchanged long, steady looks.

There was a lot of explaining to do on all sides, by every one of the diploids.

Surprisingly, nothing was said by anyone while the four were still on the beach. Only after all had climbed aboard the sailboat and were on their way back to Echinus did Uint turn to the visitors from Diadema. He began with an apology.

“Forgive me for not telling you ahead of time what was going to happen today. My grandson and I both believed it was best for events to take their own course. Neither of us was certain whether there would be any emergence from the waters. It might have been all for nothing had we started with revelations and confessions on our part. It had to be this way, although there were risks involved in keeping the two of you in ignorance of what might occur.”

Tugau took the opportunity to make a declaration.

“We recognize what diploid transformation is, because both my wife and I are capable of experiencing it, though not in the way that we witnessed back there on the beach. You see, we two do not have the turtle as our secundi, but entirely different forms which I can explain to the two of you in time.

“Neither of us is astonished, disoriented, or scandalized by what we saw. This tesudine character was new and unfamiliar to us, but thoroughly acceptable. There are still some questions in my mind, and I believe in my wife’s as well. These can wait. But we both assure you that there is nothing to fear from us or our knowledge of what transpired.

“We are your true, sincere friends. You can completely trust us.”

The smiles he gave the old man, then the grandson, were frank and deeply felt.

“I shall allow Yote to do the explaining,” stated Uint. “He can say it much better than me.”

The young boatman took a step forward and told his story.

“As soon as you climbed aboard the craft yesterday, I noticed that both of you were different, not like the ordinary tourists who come to Cape Ness. At once the suspicion arose that both of you possessed double forms of some sort. I had to conclude that neither of you had tortugan twins inside. You mentioned that your home was in Diaema. There are none like us so far from here. The diploids that resemble us stay near the sea, in the coastal region. This is the zone where we are able to survive.

“So, I reasoned that your form was different from ours. That was the only logical conclusion.

“But that does not matter at all. All doubled people can be of great use to us.”

“In what way is that?” asked Megaera, her forehead furrowed a little.

Yote spoke with his face turned directly to her.

“We, the torugan doubles of this coast, have been the protectors of all chelonians, whether biform or not. There are people who wish to hunt and trap them without any legal limits. Generations ago we pushed for the laws that protect the lives of all great turtles in Provincia. Only imports from other lands are beyond the jurisdiction of our courts. But now a new danger has arisen, The national legislature of our country is considering proposals to abolish the age-old restrictions and prohibitions. The fishing industry and the restaurant businesses are agitating for making tortugas fair game for huntsmen. We need to stop that campaign. But how?”

Yote looked at his grandfather, who now took up the statement and argument on his own.

“Diploid people everywhere must be mobilized to fight this outrage. There are many of them, but how can they be reached in time? We, the testudines, are all here beside the coast. Greater numbers are needed to stop the harm and damage that would result from new laws.

“That is where the two of you come in, as well as many others. Your friends, relatives, and acquaintances can join and help. Not only diploids, but solidly human people need to be stirred up to oppose the lifting of the hunting ban. The law must remain the way it was written by our ancestors. Otherwise, a mass slaughter is going to happen. I can predict what the fate of doubles caught in tortugan form will be. Captured victims are doomed to being killed. That will become inevitable if the protections are lifted and abolished.”

The newly weds looked at each other. They agreed on their course without a word being said.

Megaera took the initiative of making a solemn pledge and promise at that dramatic moment.

“I come from a family of sylphines. Have you heard of us?”

“Yes,” said Yote. “You are fliers of the upper air.”

“We can spread your message in all directions. Wherever there are sylphines, they shall learn of the danger to the coastal biforms like you. Other varieties of diploids will also learn what is going on. No species of bifold will be ignored or omitted. All of them shall be informed at the peril that your species faces.”

When Uint climbed out of the boat on the cove of Echinus, he took leave of the couple by kissing each of them on the brow.

No one said anything, but all of them understood the meaning of the gesture.

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