Tortoise Who

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Exploring New Places, July 2018

“I’m a Time Tortoise from Galapagofrey. We’re both larger and smaller than we seem.”

By the concrete steps up to the footbridge over Dixon Creek, a tortoise shell phased in and out of existence, accompanied by a strangely cheerful wheezing sound.

Rosie the mouse was too busy running away from a cat to notice.  The cat, a gray tabby named Shreddy, was having too much fun to care.

Rosie scurried around the steps and under the bridge.  The babbling rush of Dixon Creek blocked her way.  Shreddy caught up and swatted Rosie with a clawful paw.  The air was knocked out of her lungs as the paw smashed into her, knocking her into the wet dirt beside the creek.

Shreddy drew back his paw to look at his handiwork, a satisfied smirk under his whiskers.

Rosie got her legs under her and took off toward the concrete steps.  She thought she’d cross the creek on the footbridge, but the mottled green dome of a tortoise shell — now solid — gave her a different idea.  Perhaps, she thought, she could hide inside it.  Rosie skittered around the edge of the dome until she came to a crack between the top and the bottom.  Before she could climb inside, an ancient face with wrinkled skin and two scaly legs emerged from the opening.

Rosie watched amazed as the ancient face, nearly as large as her whole body, rose above her on a gently curved neck.  Toothlessly, the tortoise smiled down.  “Hello,” he said.  “I’m The Tortoise.”

“The tortoise?” Rosie squeaked

In her surprise, Rosie forgot all about the cat that now crouched behind her, wiggling his haunches and preparing to pounce.

“Yes,” the tortoise said.  “Just The Tortoise.”  He turned his slow, steady gaze from Rosie to Shreddy and then back again.  “You look like you could use some help running away from this cat.”

Rosie nodded solemnly, her entire body shaking.

Shreddy flattened his ears and stopped wiggling.  He was a house cat and didn’t need to catch mice for food.  He’d only been hunting for fun.  And, suddenly, this eccentric tortoise seemed much more amusing than an ordinary, frightened mouse.

Shreddy flopped onto his side and made himself comfortable, stretched out on the sidewalk.  He began, nonchalantly, to wash his paws.  Meanwhile, the tortoise lifted one of his scaly feet and took a single step toward placing himself between the cat and the mouse.

Shreddy looked up from licking his paw and meowed, “How are you going to help a mouse run?  You’re the slowest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s true,” the tortoise said, lifting his other foot.  “I walk slowly.”

“If you think you can block my way,” Shreddy meowed, “you’re wrong.  I’ll go around you.”

“Of course,” the tortoise said.  “I’m much faster when I fly.”

Shreddy didn’t expect that response.  Neither did Rosie, but she liked it.  She squeaked happily and scrabbled at the side of the tortoise’s shell, trying to climb on top.  Shreddy’s heart jumped at the sudden rodential motion; he nearly decided to pounce.

The moment passed.  Shreddy was a lazy cat.  And he was more interested in seeing a tortoise fly than eating a mouse.  Mice were fun to chase, but they tasted icky.  He never knew quite what to do when he caught one.  Sometimes, he brought them as gifts to his human, but she didn’t properly appreciate them.

“Please, Madam Mouse,” the tortoise said.  “I’m not a flying carpet.  Kindly give me a moment to prepare.”

Rosie stopped scrabbling, but she scurried quickly behind the tortoise, placing the green dome of his shell between her and Shreddy.

“Thank you,” the tortoise said.  Then, he leaned back, placing his weight on his back feet and reared up, revealing the smooth, pale green of the belly of his shell.  Right in the center of his shell’s belly, a tiny blue door gleamed with a brightly polished tiny brass doorknob and knocker.

Rosie squeaked and jumped for the blue door, but it was out of her reach.

Shreddy blinked in surprise.

With a flourish, the tortoise put his scaly front feet to his belly, took hold of the door, and removed it — white-washed frame, brass hinges, and all — as easily as if it had been held on merely with static cling.  His belly underneath was as smooth and unblemished as if a door had never been there.

The tortoise moved the tiny door through the air, down to the side of one of the concrete steps that led up to the footbridge.  As the door moved, it seemed to change size, growing smaller and larger almost at the same time.  On the side of the concrete step, it coalesced into the perfect size for a mouse.

Rosie wasted no time scurrying to the blue door.  The brass doorknob turned in her paw, and she didn’t wait to look before disappearing inside.

Shreddy, who had been lying on his side, sat up suddenly.  “My mouse!” he yowled.  “Where did you hide her?”

The tortoise’s ancient face transformed into an enigmatic smile, but he did not answer.

The tortoise reached for the tiny door.  Shreddy sprang for it as well, but his paws struck empty concrete as the tortoise affixed the blue door once again to his belly.  Shreddy raised his paw to strike the tortoise’s wrinkled face, but his long green neck and legs withdrew into the shell.  The enigmatic smile receded into the darkness within.

Shreddy clawed at the hard dome of the tortoise’s shell, uselessly dulling his claws, until the shell itself phased out of existence with a cheerful wheeze, leaving an angry cat yowling at nothing.

* * *

Beyond the blue door, Rosie found herself in a long oval room, the perfect size for a mouse.  The cat would never fit in here, but his paw would fit through the blue door.  Rosie slammed the blue door and bolted it shut.  Then, safe from the cat and his long paws, she looked around.

In the center of the room, a beam of light shimmered like sunlight on a lake.  Rosie didn’t understand it.  All around the edges of the oval room, doors and windows in wildly varying architectural styles alternated with each other.  The windows framed all manner of different vistas.

A window with white shutters and lacy curtains looked out on rolling hills covered with golden grass under a deep blue sky.  It couldn’t be a painting, because the golden grasses rippled in the wind and the clouds drifted.

Another window, round and reinforced like a porthole on a ship, looked out on the blackness of a star-studded night.  Rosie saw no ground beneath the sky, but a ringed planet in partial eclipse, beautiful and impossible, outshone the stars like a diamond does sand.

Another window looked out on a forest, except the trees swayed their branches like they were dancing, and the color of their leaves shifted like the rainbows on an oily puddle.  These places couldn’t all be real.  They were nothing like the world Rosie knew, but she could see them with her own eyes, through these impossible windows.

Finally Rosie’s gaze came to a window wider and taller than the rest.  Its glass was a single, large, unbroken pane.  On the other side, she saw the world she’d just come from — the street she’d run down toward Dixon Creek and the cat she’d run away from.  Shreddy, even larger and more terrifying than he’d been before, stared at the window, his green eyes burning angrily in his gray-striped face.  He lifted a paw and reached, claws out, for the window.

Rosie cowered, clamping her paws over her head, flattening her ears to her skull and squeezing shut her eyes.  She shivered and whimpered until a gentle touch to her shoulder made her jump.

“Don’t fear, Madam Mouse,” said the voice of the tortoise.

Rosie looked up to see his wizened face, much smaller than before — nearly the size of her own face, in fact — staring down at her.  His scaly hand rested on her shoulder.  He was strangely thin, wearing a dark, floor-length robe embroidered with the spirals of tiny galaxies instead of his bulky shell.

“Where’s your shell?” Rosie asked.

“You’re inside it,” the tortoise said.

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m a Time Tortoise from Galapagofrey.  We’re both larger and smaller than we seem.”

Rosie looked out the largest window again.  Shreddy continued to claw at it, but his paw moved in a strange, slow motion.

“Why is the cat moving slowly?” Rosie asked.

The tortoise smiled, reshaping all the wrinkles on his face.  “We’re also faster and slower than we seem.  Come, you’re safe; no need to cower anymore.”  The tortoise helped Rosie to her hind feet.  When he moved, the tiny galaxies on his robe shimmered.  “Now, I believe I promised to help you run away, Madam Mouse.  Where would you like to run away to?”  He gestured around the room, at all the many windows, with his scaly hand.

“These are places we can go?”

“I’m a Time Tortoise.  We can go anywhere.”

“Somewhere without cats,” Rosie squeaked.  She turned around, looking at every window in the room.  There were too many to choose.

“Or maybe,” the tortoise said softly, “somewhere cats and mice get along?”

Rosie finished turning around the room and blinked at the tortoise in surprise.  “Is there such a place?”

The tortoise didn’t answer, but his smile grew enigmatic.  He walked toward the large window that looked out on Shreddy’s threatening paw.  Instead of a sill, under the window was a control panel covered in knobs, switches, flickering lights, and all manner of buttons.  The tortoise flipped a switch, pressed a button, pressed several more — his scaly hands moved with an uncanny speed.

The view of Shreddy’s paw distorted, disappeared, and was replaced by a swirling vortex of colors.  Rosie noticed the scenes change erratically in the other windows around the room.  Rolling fields were replaced by yawning blackness and stars only to be succeeded by crashing oceans, barren deserts, bustling metropolises, one after the other.  All the windows changed, rapidly.  It was dizzying, and Rosie crouched back down, four paws on the floor.

When Rosie looked up again, she saw a mouse-sized mansion through the window.  She knew it was mouse-sized because a group of mice dressed in three-piece suits and bouffant ruffled dresses stood on one of the balconies.  One of them, wearing a top hat and monocle, seemed to see the tortoise’s shell.  He pointed at the window in great excitement, but before anything else could happen the whole scene disappeared in a vortex of colors like before.

“Too early,” the tortoise muttered, still working the control panel with his scaly hands.

The vortex on the window didn’t last as long this time.  It gave way to a view of a gleaming silver structure built from hexagons and triangles.  Beside it stood several rocket ships, classically designed.  Rosie couldn’t be sure of the scale, but the silver building seemed larger than the mansion had been.

“Here we are!”  The tortoise clapped his hands, then looked at Rosie critically.  “We’ll need to find you something to wear.”  He went to a door she hadn’t noticed between two of the windows.  He opened it.  Inside hung a collection of clothes.

The tortoise looked through the clothes and selected a garment — a simple red vest and darker red pantaloons.  He held them out to Rosie.  She took them, tentatively.  She’d never worn clothes before.  The tortoise helped her dress.  Cloth felt strange against her fur, but Rosie liked the pearly buttons on her vest.

“Now wait a minute while I get the door ready,” the tortoise said.  He took off his robe and hung it on an otherwise empty coat tree near the middle of the room, right beside the shimmering beam of light like sunlight dancing on water.  Then he stepped into the beam and disappeared.  The large window that looked out on the gleaming silver building went dark.

A moment later, the view returned to the window, and the tortoise reappeared in the beam of light.  He took his robe from the coat tree and wrapped it around his wrinkled, green body.  Then, he led Rosie back to the blue door she’d entered his shell by.  They stepped through it together.

* * *

Outside, the light was strange and bright, almost blue although the sky was a washed out shade of white smeared with cotton-candy pink clouds.  Trees on the horizon sported autumn colors, but Rosie suspected they always looked that way here.  When she turned to look at the blue door, it was set in the trunk of one of the trees.  The tortoise’s empty shell loomed beside it — much too large for the skinny, be-robed creature standing beside her now.  Although, it seemed oddly smaller than she’d remembered it…

“You’re still the same size as me,” Rosie said.

“I’m the right size for the door,” the tortoise replied, gesturing at the handsome blue door with its brass hinges, still ajar.  Through it, they could still see the interior of his shell with all its windows, strangely displaced from the outside of the shell.  “When we walked through the door to my shell, our sizes relative to it were preserved.”

Rosie remembered how the tortoise had stretched the door to be the perfect size for her before she’d first entered it.  “So…  You can use that door to change to any size?”  She thought that must be useful for escaping cats.  She liked the idea of being larger than a cat.

“Any size I can stretch the door into, yes,” the tortoise said.  “So, when visiting the mice of Mouselandia, I choose to be the size of a mouse.  Like you.”  His eyes twinkled with a smile.  “Although, actually, you’re twice as tall as your usual self right now.”

Rosie could hardly believe the tortoise.  She didn’t feel any larger.  Though his shell had looked smaller.  She looked back uncertainly at the green dome abandoned under the tree.  Then she looked forward at the silver building made from triangles and hexagons.

“Mouselandia…  Is that where we are?” Rosie asked.  None of the mice she’d ever known lived in buildings like that, but, then, none of the mice she’d known wore vests and pantaloons — or top hats and monocles — or clothes at all.  Rosie felt the smooth, pearly buttons on her vest.  She decided that she liked this adventure.  “Let’s go meet these mice who get along with cats.”

Two mice dressed in clothes much like Rosie’s greeted them at the entrance of the silver building.  They were delighted to see the tortoise and seemed to have met him before or, at least, to have heard of him.  The Mouselandian mice agreed to give Rosie a tour of their facilities and invited her and the tortoise to a banquet that evening to celebrate a rocket launch scheduled for the morrow.

On the tour, Rosie was startled to see several mouse-sized cats — or very catlike mice — working side by side with the normal mice.  She asked her tour guides about them, and one of them explained that the Mouselandia Space Administration engaged in a cultural exchange program with New Catta.

“But…  They look like cats,” Rosie said.

“They are cats,” the tour guide mouse replied.

“But…  They’re so small.”

The tortoise leaned close to Rosie and whispered, “You’re forgetting, Madam Mouse:  you’re twice as tall as usual.”

Rosie thought about that.  “Even so, they’re very small for cats.”

“Demographic statistics show that mice have been getting larger and cats smaller for centuries,” the tour guide explained.  “In fact, the fossil record suggests that there were once cats even larger than this building!  Imagine that!”

Rosie didn’t have to imagine.  She remembered Shreddy’s clawful paw, swiping through the air, coming for her — waiting for her — back on her own world, in her own time.  She shuddered.  She couldn’t believe her good luck, being swept away by the tortoise from her horrible fate.

Mouselandia was a much more civilized world for mice than her own.  The banquet before the ball was held in a room with three long tables set with fine plates, silverware, and dishes — like the gigantic human dining tables that Rosie had glimpsed through windows back home.  She’d heard tales of mice brave enough to break into the warm human homes and steal from their richly laden pantries, but she’d also known mice who’d dared such endeavors and never returned.  Rosie had chosen to stay safely outside, stealing only from gardens and sleeping in her drafty hole under the wood pile.

Here, though, she dined on bread, preserves, and sweetened fruits.  The tiny cats had their own food — it smelled like fish.  She sat at the table and listened to mice — free from fear — discuss politics, technology, and religion.  Ideas she’d never dreamed of.

After dinner, a quartet of mice played music on stringed instruments, and everyone else danced.  Even the tortoise.  Rosie had never danced before, but the tortoise held her in his scaly arms and whirled her about the floor.  It was magic.  It was heavenly.  A mouse asked if he could cut in, and she danced with one mouse after another until…

A cat stepped in.

He wrapped his paws around her, his arms no larger than her own, but his eyes were green and his ears pointed.  She squeaked, and her heart raced.  But the twirling pattern of the dance and the brisk tempo of the music carried her along.

She stared into the cat’s green eyes.  His face was so close, his whiskers brushed against her own.  His paws were light and gentle against her back.  No claws.

Only moments later, she traded partners again, and suddenly the cat was gone, mixed in with all the other dancers on the floor.

That night, Rosie and the tortoise returned through the blue door with brass hinges into the tortoise’s shell.  Inside, he took her to a simple brown door between a window looking out at a spiral galaxy and one showing a stark skyline of snow-crested mountains.  Behind the brown door, there was a room with a bed, and a dresser filled with clothes just Rosie’s size.  She didn’t know how the room fit where it was, but she didn’t understand how the windows looked out on all those different vistas either.

“You can stay here tonight,” the tortoise said.

“Only tonight?” Rosie asked, barely daring to hope that the tortoise might keep her, might take her with him to see more of the universe he seemed to know so well but that she hadn’t known anything of before today.

The tortoise’s wrinkled face showed only mystery, but he said, “You’re inside a Time Tortoise’s shell.  Tonight can be as long as you like.”

“I think I’d like it to be very long,” Rosie said.

“Good.  Then you should get some rest, for I have a lot of things to show you.”

* * *

Shreddy stared at the empty place beside the footbridge over Dixon Creek where the tortoise’s shell had been.  He’d lost mice before.  Truth be told, he wasn’t much of a hunter.  But he’d never before lost a mouse in such a strange way.

Minutes passed.  He twisted his ears, listening to the running water, children playing in the distance, and a bird singing in a nearby maple tree.  He decided to go home, but, then, the cheerful wheezing sound began again.  The green dome of the tortoise’s shell faded in and out, and finally back in to existence in front of him.

Shreddy watched dumbfounded as the tortoise’s head emerged from his shell; the tortoise pulled the blue door off of his belly and placed it on one of the concrete steps to the footbridge.

A mouse dressed in clothes like a human’s doll stepped out of the door.  Shreddy snickered.

The mouse looked up at him, resignation and determination in her eyes, and said, “I’ve come back to face my fate.  I’ve traveled the universe, seen a world where camellia bushes are at war with rhododendrons, flown on spaceships developed by mice and cats working together, watched stars explode — and, through it all, your paw has hung over me.  So, I’ve come back to you.”

Shreddy sniffed the mouse in front of him.  “You’re not my mouse,” he said.  “You’re old.”

The tortoise spoke:  “Rosie has been my traveling companion, exploring the universe with me for years.”

Shreddy looked more closely at the mouse and sniffed her again.  Through the scent of age, he smelled other scents — subtle and expansive, foreign — but, beneath those, he recognized the smell of the mouse he’d been chasing only minutes ago.  “You are the same mouse,” Shreddy said with surprise.

Rosie stared at Shreddy with a confidence unknown to the young mouse who’d run from cats.  She’d fought in the war against the rhododendrons; she’d repaired a spaceship as it spiraled, lifelessly into the gravity well of a singularity; she’d shared tea and biscuits with a time-travelling bear; she would not run from a cat, no matter its size.

She stared him down.

Shreddy looked away.  He wasn’t used to mice standing up to him.  He didn’t want to eat her, and she wouldn’t run.  “I don’t want you anymore.  Go home to your hole.”

A weight lifted from Rosie’s shoulders.  Her dreams had been haunted by Shreddy’s raised paw for years as she lived inside the tortoise’s shell.  Now she was free.  She said goodbye to the tortoise and went home, a different mouse than she’d been when she left it.

“You owe me, Tortoise,” Shreddy said.  “You stole my mouse from me.”

The tortoise winked and said, “Maybe some day, I’ll come back and take you on adventures as well.”

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