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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic, longitude 7 56' south, latitude 14 22' west, one thousand kilometers from the coast of Brazil. Only covering 35 square miles, the island is volcanic, covered in basalt lava flows and cinder cones, covered in guano, and stands alone in an expanse of blue with no roads, no landmarks, no signs of any kind at all to point the way. Look closer: the island is surrounded by beaches, and on the beaches live crabs and sparrows, isolated from the rest of the earth. They are untouched, yet not unvisited: every year, following the great solar clock, the islands are waystations for travelers who use unusual senses to pick out this pinpoint in the midst of the great blue plain: petrels, noddies, frigate birds and turtles.
Closer still: on a single beach on the south coast of this ragged stone protruding from the Atlantic, green sea turtles, Chelonia mydas, are laying their clutches. This annual event is like a great carnival or a wedding. Empty for most of the year of anything larger than the occasional feral goat or human member of the Eastern Telegraph Company (this is 1962), in January the beach suddenly becomes as torn, trampled and tattered as a mussel bed after a pack of seals has moved through. Boobies and terns know that if they linger on the beach for two months, the beaches will provide a once-yearly feast of tender baby turtle meat, for each female lays a hundred ball-shaped eggs, then abandons her brood to fate.
A young female, pregnant for the first time at the tender age of 50 years, made landfall in the middle of a hot July night with two companions she had met on the final approach to the island, first-timers like herself. They had hatched off this same beach, had survived the gauntlet of predators to make it to the water while their brothers and sisters were picked off on all sides, had made it deep enough to reach a mound of floating sargasso, and had drifted in the weed until their shells and hides were leathery enough to withstand the open ocean. Since then they had drifted and fed, drifted and fed, carried by one or other of the great oceanic gyres that scroll through the seven seas, on an endless circular migration which obeyed the tiny wordless prods of a homing instinct they called world sense.
The magnetic fields of the earth, a sensitivity to wave propagation, seasonal swell patterns, and, finally, once Ascension Island loomed into view, a confirmation provided by the deeply right smell of the correct beach, saw these three pregnant females all the way across their fifty year circular trip to complete the turtle cycle.
"Strange," said one of the females, "Terns are much smaller than I remember them."
"Everything looks smaller when you go home," said the second. "I expect we've grown a bit."
"I was worried I might forget it," said the third, "but it's like I never left."
The three made their final approach watching for sharks which bit the flippers off turtles and let their limbless bodies sink to the sea floor, and began their struggle up the beach, reminded of another childhood sensation: gravity.
"I don't like this," grunted the turtle who had spoken first. "I might not come back next year."
They were not the first to the beach. All about them turtles were landing, digging, laying. A vast old female, perhaps two hundred kilograms and a meter and a half in length, blocked their path, though she did not seem to be laying, obliging the younger ones to make an arduous detour around her.
The third young turtle was having a difficult time and lagging behind. She was keen to rid herself of her baggage of eggs, and so was irritated when the old female asked her to wait.
"No time now," she said. "I've laying to do."
"There was a ship," said the old female.
"Let me by."
"Stay right there! "
Frozen by the commanding voice and the wet glitter of the ancient female's eyes, the young turtle did as she asked.
"Who knows why I chose to swim south instead of north?" began the old one. "I had been foraging off the coast of Brazil with some of my hatchmates, and they looked to me as one with experience. I told them that further south along the coast the seagrass meadows were richer, and so we rode the current down. Down, down, too far for it began to get cold. The others told me that if we went any further we would be caught in the great West Wind Drift that circles the earth, but I was headstrong and did not listen. I thought we would have plenty of time to cross to the coast of Africa and ride the Benguela current northwards again, but there was a storm.
"The storm lashed the surface of the ocean for week, and we were unable to prevent drifting further south, until we were indeed caught in the West Wind Drift. I was a young turtle then, perhaps only seventy years old, and strong, so I encouraged my hatchmates to keep swimming and feed off the jellyfish and squid and crabs the upwellings provided. My companions protested it was most unlucky to eat other animals, but truthfully we were starving and had little choice. When the sun at last came out to warm the chilly water, we surfaced near a ship.
"You have seen ships, but you have never seen a ship like this one. Instead of an iron hull and a tall billowing smokestack, this ship was made out of wood and was drawn by sails."
"Like a yacht?"
"Bigger than twenty yachts. My curiosity drew me onwards. It has always been a weakness of mine. I went right to the side of the ship though my companions warned me away. Alas, they were right a shout went up at our discovery, and the men on the great wooden ship lowered a smaller boat and proceeded to chase after us with nets, rowing faster than we could swim. Every last one of us was caught, some with great effort, for I alone weighed as much as one of the men, and I was not the heaviest of my companions. We were returned to the ship, and left free to scuttle about the deck, which was hard and smooth and most difficult to move on."
"Why didn't you get off the ship?"
"We could not climb the wooden rail that ran along the edge of the deck. No, we were captives, of an unknown fate.
"The men were a strange bunch, some whom watched us with curiosity and poured buckets of seawater on us to cool us, some of whom swore at us and thought nothing of using our carapaces as stepping stones to reach some rope or other.
"We gathered together in the open deck to discuss our plight. We had no idea why we were there. One of my companions said wretch, why did you make us eat other living animals? Surely this is a result of the bad luck you have brought on us!' and the others agreed. We were prisoners, and what was worse, our world sense told us that the ship was moving inexorably south.
"No turtle will head further south or north than she must, because the sea becomes too cold to bear. To our horror, we began to see the icebergs of turtle legend. They were small at first, the size of whales, but soon islands of ice were passing us. They made terrible noises, cracking and groaning, bumping against the wooden hull. The buckets of water certain seamen dumped on us to refresh us became colder and colder. As we grew weak from lack of food, we moved less and less, and it was then the terrible purpose of our imprisonment became clear.
"There were six of us on the deck of the ship, and then one morning there were five. The men of the ship, tired of short commons, slaughtered one of our number and feasted on the green meat. They hosed the blood off the deck and tossed the empty carapace overboard where it sank into the black Antarctic water. We had no doubt our own time would come and that the men were keeping us alive merely to have a supply of fresh meat.
"We had no idea why the men were sailing towards the pole, and wanted to warn them of their foolishness, but we had no way of doing so. And indeed, one morning shortly thereafter, the ship froze solid into the ice. It seemed to us to be a catastrophe, but the men had other ideas and were soon hard at work, running about on the ice and tying the ship down fast with anchors and cables. We then settled into a long period of drifting with the ice south, south, always further south. I will always remember that unnatural stillness, with neither a wave nor a current shaking the ship, while I shuffled miserably from one end of the deck to the other. A turtle must move all of her life.
"They killed and ate two more of our number. How hard that was to bear, knowing that it had been my foolishness that led us to our predicament! Some of the men seemed no happier than I and argued amongst themselves with marlinspikes in hand, no doubt regretting their foolishness at entering the Southern Ocean. On several occasions one man stayed another's hand just before a fatal blow was dealt to my exposed neck, and I realized the men were trying to ration their food. Their captain seemed to have miscalculated their stores, for as the weeks rolled by the men looked thinner and hungrier, until each and every eye on that ship resembled the thoughtless shark's.
"Not long after that the men experienced the first death of one of their own. He was a young man, scrawnier than the others, and the hunger had struck him particularly hard. In my torpor I was sorry, for he had been one of those who dowsed me with water and was always careful to walk about me when I obstructed his passage on deck. They buried his body in the ice. Afterwards they had a great argument, and both of my companions were killed and cooked, against the evident wishes of the captain.
"They threw their carapaces overboard, where they lay on the ice. Painful it was to see them each morning. The days passed and many of the men became sick and were seen less and less frequently on deck.
"I had not eaten in weeks and was certain my time was nigh. The men would not let me live if it meant they might die. There came a night when the voices were so crazed and bitter I knew they meant to eat me on the morn.
"The morn never came for that ship. Deep in the night the deck shuddered and a horrible noise split the air. The ice was closing about the ship and staving in the hull. The men set up a cry that reminded me of a feeding flock of gulls, tossing everything they could to ice and forgetting all about the dark corner where I lay. When the sun rose, low and sickly as Antarctic winter came on, the ship was mostly underwater. From the deck I saw them watching from the ice, a ragged band of men with more than half their number laying supine on the ice. I felt sorry for them. I never understood their purpose in sailing so far south, but clearly they had not attained it and regretted their efforts. I saw them no more, for with a final grinding of ice the ship sank, spilling me into the freezing water.
"We were near a rocky bottom, and I ate as much algae as I could before the water numbed me senseless. I then drifted, caught up in a current I did not know the name of, but a blessed current, for it carried me north.
"It was a warm, fast current, and it felt like I was in gentle hands. Soon I could eat again, though I was careful only to eat algae that crossed my path, and avoid the squid and jellies I saw. I had learned my lesson that the force that made all animals loves all animals, and those that love the animals are blessed.
"I've traveled, now, for over a hundred and fifty years, passing from land to land. I've neither mated nor laid since that trip to the Southern Ocean. I still wear the blood of my companions like an anguish, but I've been given the power to recognize those that need to hear my tale. I'll keep telling it, then, until that uncertain hour when I will forever be silent."
The young turtle rested motionless on the moonlit beach, her head filled with images of distance, of blood, of ice, of a band of men standing on a frozen shore while their ship sank out of sight. It was many hours before she realized the ancient turtle had abandoned her and returned to the sea.