The Turtle on the Lily-Pad

Inlaid amethyst sculpture of a turtle, Middle Kingdom, 1991-1802 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The lily-pad ripples on the surface of the lake, making the tiny amethyst turtle dance.

I. Na-apia

The peaty, heady scent of the swamp fills their nostrils; the cool black mud oozes between their toes. Their harpoons catch on the pliant stalks of papyrus, rustling the leafy umbels like a thousand strings of beads.

Two sisters pick their way towards a gathering of trees, a tangle of twisted brown limbs and thorns, smelling sickly-sweet of overripe fruit and echoing with the calls of monkeys and hoopoes fighting above them.

They have just reached it when Maia pinches Na-apia’s arm. 

“What?” Na-apia considers pinching her back.

Maia thrusts her chin towards the Lake.

The Lake, Na-apia thinks, is not a proper lake like in the stories, with land on all sides and happy villages along its banks. It was more of a neutral ground between the swamp and the wood, a place not yet choked by papyrus and reeds nor colonized by roots and fallen branches, a place where the water came up for air and found mostly lily-pads and floating islands of moss and wild rice.

At first Na-apia thinks Maia is pointing to a pair of fine mallards, fat and sleek, gobbling at some fish or salamander between two open waterlilies, but then one of the floating islands grows a leathery head with a tiny snout like a shrew’s and huge, yellow eyes that blink lazily in a patch of sunlight.

“Look at the size of him,” Maia whispers into her ear. “He’ll feed the whole village for a week.”

Na-apia looks and clicks her tongue. “We should leave him for Sun Day.”

Maia grabs her harpoon, tests its barbed tip of barren white bone. “He might be gone by then. No-one’s seen him before this.” She unbinds her red bark-cloth skirt and hangs it on an overhanging branch. “Anyway, he wouldn’t even fit in the basin.”

“Maybe he’s a god.” Na-apia picks up her own harpoon and winds its cord around her hand.

“Pffft. Whoever heard of a god taking the shape of the Enemy of the Sun?” Maia crouches low and crawls over the tangle of roots and moss along the bank. “I’ll try and catch him in the neck.”

“And how will we tow him on land?” But Na-apia takes off her skirt and follows Maia anyway. This might be their last hunt for a while. Na-apia watches the muscles ripple under Maia’s dark skin, the moisture beading on her shaved head, and her heart swells in her chest. Yesterday, Maia was nothing but a tangle of chubby limbs, running away giggling whenever she got into trouble. Tomorrow, Maia will cast off the wilting flower collars that bump against her chest and put the first bead to her first real necklace; tomorrow she would take her First Spouse.

Maia creeps to a spot on the far side of the immense turtle and slips soundlessly into the water, holding her harpoon aloft so it won’t splash. Na-apia does the same from his other side, shivering slightly as the cool waters of the lake embrace her, careful to make as little noise as possible as she untangles her legs from the stringy clutches of waterlily stems. She circles clumps of wild rice and rotting vegetation and sweet-smelling blossoms.

The turtle ignores them. This isn’t the first turtle Na-apia has seen with moss or weeds clinging to their shell. Some are as small around as her splay-fingered hand, others as big as a potter’s turn-tray. This one you could have stood four goats to graze on without them tangling their horns.

He paddles in place, sending ripples through the floating lily-pads, and sometimes Na-apia catches a glimpse of his huge, meaty flippers.

Maia is almost level with him. He briefly ducks his head under water and Na-apia fears for a moment he will dive, but he soon comes up again, a mass of uprooted waterlilies dangling out of his mouth, chomping languidly as his muddy tongue waves a single blossom back and forth.

Na-apia carefully angles herself to grab onto his shell and ram her harpoon into the meaty flesh of his legs, but Maia doesn’t wait. As he dips his head down into the murky water again, she strikes.

The harpoon sinks into his flesh just where his neck connects to the tangled island of his shell. The huge creature bucks, his head shoots out of the water and his snout waves in the air in distress. Maia cries out in triumph and uses the shaft of her harpoon to pull herself up, swinging one leg over his back until she is astride him. Then, with a triumphant howl, she draws her knife from her belt and rams it into the back of his neck.

Na-apia throws herself back to avoid a huge, clawed flipper thrashing the water. She tries to find a vulnerable spot and throws her own harpoon. It sticks fast; the line pulls tight against her palm as she tries to avoid being dragged too near the still-thrashing flippers.

Finally they still and Maia holds out a hand, grinning from ear to ear. “What a dish for my husband!”

“Pfffft. No luck to you. Manakhuria hates turtle.” Manakhuria had been her own First Husband, until she finished her first five necklaces. He would take good care of her sister.

She grabs Maia’s hand and pulls. The resulting splash is very satisfying.

Maia surfaces, spluttering. “What was that for?”

“Not waiting. We both have to be in the water to tow him, anyway.”

It gets easier once they can stand, their feet sinking into the cool, slimy silt as they strain to pull the enormous carcass toward the bank.

The underside of his shell, a pale yellow bright against the lush vegetation on his back, scrapes and grinds over the tree roots. Na-apia is trying to prevent his flippers from getting caught when she hears the rush of water and sees the wave. She immediately leaps back.

Maia screams. Na-apia sees her fall back, drawn into the water by a reptilian head. Na-apia yells and tries to pull her harpoon from the turtle. She tugs, it resists, stuck fast. She sees Maia’s head disappear under the water. Na-apia gives up on the harpoon and lunges.

She grabs Maia by the foot, pulling, pummeling the creature with her free hand and feet, screaming. The creature jerks back and she fumbles for her knife. As she draws it, it lets go.

Caught unawares, Na-apia falls hard in the shallow water, dropping her knife and pulling Maia along with her. Praise the Sun and River, Maia sits up, spluttering and gagging as she crawls up the bank. Na-apia pushes her along, scrabbling with her feet while frantically feeling for her knife in the silt. Her fingers encounter smooth rocks, slimy wood, tickling moss, but no knife.

The creature resurfaces and Na-apia sees that it is not a crocodile, but another turtle, even bigger than the first. Her shell is as big around as a hut, her eyes the size of winnowing baskets, rheumy and ancient.

“How dare you claim my prize?” Her voice sounds like gravel on a millstone.

Na-apia yelps and Maia, still heaving, snatches her hand and squeezes it, eyes wide.

Na-apia breathes hard. In the stories, the gods are made of gold and lapis-lazuli and speak with voices like an earthquake. They weren’t the black of new earth, covered in moss, with a young persea sapling swaying on their shell.

She takes a calming breath. “She is my sister.”

“And that was my mate she killed. She owes me a replacement.”

Maia grips Na-apia’s arm, squeezing so hard it hurts. She mouths a silent “no, no, no”.

Na-apia strokes Maia’s head. “My sister cannot breathe under water. She would not survive to be your mate.”

The turtle snorts, her trunk-like nose quivering. “Is that any business of mine? Did she ask if I wanted my husband dead before murdering him? She will survive to my home and there she will be my wife.”

“She will be Manakhuria’s wife to-morrow. So you see she cannot marry you.” 

“Have the wedding gifts been exchanged? Has the wedding feast been eaten? Take her home, then. I will drink the lake dry. I will suck the water out of the swamp. You will have no fish to grill over the fire, no lily roots to eat, no papyrus for your mats.”

Na-apia looks down at Maia, at the soggy, torn flowers of her collar, at the drops of water sparkling on the fuzz of her head like stars in a night sky. She thinks of their parents preparing the wedding feast. She thinks of her time in Manakhuria’s house and the meals they had prepared together, how safe she felt in his arms.

“Take me instead.”

A quick thrust of powerful flippers brings the turtle closer to Na-apia. She can smell the earth and water of her, feel the heat of her breath. “Does my husband’s blood stain your blade? Does his death throes still ache between your legs?”

“Blood for blood. My mother’s blood flows through both of us.”

“Pfffft. Flesh for flesh, life for life – and bride for groom.”

Na-apia shakes her head, thinking fast. “When Baboon first tries to bring back the Sun from the Far South, the Sun wanted the hearts of three young vultures. But he offered her his own because, like a sycamore, a heart grows better as it matures. A small sapling is not worth a fruit-bearing tree. Your mate was ancient; my sister is young and not yet a bride. My First Marriage is behind me and I am not yet promised to another. My heart is ready to bear fruit. Hers has only just produced its first flowers.”

They stare at each other for three eternities, the woman and the turtle. Eyes bright and fierce, eyes ancient and hard.

Finally, the turtle says: “Hold your breath.”

And she grabs Na-apia’s arm in her mouth and drags her under.

***

Na-apia’s lungs strain inside her chest. The cool water embraces her, squeezes her; the waterlily stalks snatch at her, catching her foot. But still she is dragged down, down, down, as the water grows heavy with silt, engulfing her. She gives a last, desperate prayer to the River and the Sun, and waits for her chest to burst.

But the water grows cool and caressing, and she can see the monstrous form of the turtle in a jeweled sunbeam and then the water releases her and there is air, real air and sunlight. She drinks it all in big gulps.

“Get on my back,” the turtle says.

She turns to clamber on and gasps. The moss, the ferns, the persea sapling are gone. The turtle’s shell is pure gold, gleaming so brightly it hurts Na-apia’s eyes. It is inlaid in dusk-blue lapis, in fresh green malachite, in blood-red jasper, in pink amethyst. More stones dot the turtle’s neck and head, others slide down her throat like a necklace, stark against the deep brown of her neck.

The turtle grunts impatiently. Na-apia swallows her questions and grabs onto the smooth shell, climbing on. As they swim to the shore, Na-apia surveys the world on the other side of the Lake.

It was a real lake, here, glinting under a bright golden sun, grasslands stretching out as far as the eye could see. No swamp, no little wood, but a scattering of trees and a village near the shore.

The village looks shockingly normal, round wooden frames hung with coloured mats, hunting equipment and shields hanging just outside the doors. The sound of children laughing echoes across the water along with the thump-thump-thump of mortars.

“Get off.”

Obediently, Na-apia slides off the turtle’s back into the shallow water near the shore. Pebbles massage the soles of her feet and small shrimp tickle her toes.

The turtle heaves herself out of the water. As it cascades over the stones of her shell, it leaves them gleaming in deep colours under the dazzling sun.

Children set up a cry, adults come running, all of them bedecked with gold and lapis and amethyst.

“Grandmother!” one of them calls, “where have you left Second Grandfather this time?”

“Second Grandfather is dead,” the old turtle answers in her rasping voice. “This one will be sharing my hut, instead.”

“My name is Na-apia,” she says, standing tall to face them, aware that her skirt was still hanging on the branch on the shores of the other Lake.

“Your name is Other Wife,” Grandmother snaps, “until I say otherwise. Now come.”

Grandmother leads her to the village, past tall posts carved and painted with turtles, like a fence missing its basketry. As she walks, her heart too full to think, Na-apia sees the men and women bedecked with jewels, pounding tubers and milling grain, mending sickles and baking bread, and everywhere there are turtles flopping about, carrying baskets on their shells and dragging mats behind them. As she passes the houses, Na-apia sees that what she had thought were shields hung next to the doors are actually jewelled turtle shells.

The turtle called Grandmother leads her to a hut right at the edge of the village, then stands up on her two hind legs.  She takes off her shell and as she hangs it on a  leather thong by the door-post, she shrinks, her limbs grow thinner and longer, her head rounder, her nose flatter, her lips fuller, until a woman stands before Na-apia in the fullness of years, her limbs muscled but loose, her face lined. The eyes are much the same, reddish and rheumy and hard. She wears a gold cap set with stones on her head, a broad collar of lapis and amethyst across her empty breasts.

She holds open the door-flap and gestures for Na-apia to come in. Inside, the hut was much like her own, filled with baskets and mats and pots hanging from the rafters. But instead of a sleeping-mat, Grandmother has a little platform on legs for her blanket and headrest.

Na-apia squats down. “I need a skirt.”

“You don’t,” says Grandmother as she grabs a piece of blue bark-cloth from a basket and ties it around her own waist.

Na-apia stares at her a moment, trying to judge her, then shrugs. “Pfffft. I don’t care. Let the village think you cheap, to let your wife run around without a skirt.”

Grandmother grunts but throws a red-and-green skirt in her direction. 

Na-apia puts it on. “What should I do?”

“You make my meals. You keep this,” she gestures at the inside of her home, “clean and tidy. What you do with yourself the rest of the day is not my concern.” And with that she stalks out of the hut, leaving Na-apia to stare at the undulating door-flap as tears run down her cheeks. It feels as though her heart is seeping out with her tears, leaving her chest hollow and empty.

***

Grandmother has not come back by the time the sun had set, so Na-apia picks a mat from a pile and uses her arm as a headrest. She sleeps an empty, hungry sleep and wakes up feeling like a sucked egg.

Grandmother is lying on the platform, snoring, so Na-apia made a meal by peeking into all the pots hanging from the rafters, rummaging through the baskets for tinder and rubbing-sticks and wandering around outside the hut until she finds the hearth. She makes rice-cakes and boils dried fish and sets them down inside. Grandmother is awake, but doesn’t move.

Na-apia picks up some gourds and goes to the lake to get water and wash. She isn’t the only one; men and women are chatting and greeting each other as tiny turtlets splash around in the shallows. 

Na-apia marvels at the clearness of the lake. She wants to cry. The tears are there, somewhere, but her hollow heart is not full enough to let them out. She washes and fills her gourds and sits down at the edge of the lake, letting the cool water lap over her feet. What now? The house is tidy enough. She had put everything back where she had found it after making the meal. Does Grandmother have a garden? If so, it wasn’t near the hut. Does she own a plot of land? Where was it? She had never liked working the land, though Manakhuria had shown her how. Did turtle-people hunt?

She turns to a man washing out his skirt. “What am I supposed to do?”

He chuckles. He has kind eyes. “Third Nephew and Day Cousin have been working Grandmother’s earth since anyone can remember. Second Grandfather was too old for that. He mostly told stories to the turtlets, kept them out of everyone’s way.” Such odd names. Was everyone here named after their relationship to someone else?

“I’m no good at stories.” She got along all right with children, but not for very long.

“What did you do in your village?”

The hunters are out but the old man tells her to stay in the village. There are things she needs to learn before she goes out.

“Rituals?” she asks.

He shrugs. And so she spends the day wandering the village, getting in everybody’s way. She tries to explore the grass plains, but a lump of yellow fur the same colour as the grass stirs and a beak the size of her head opens in a yawn. It stretches limbs like a lion’s, wings like a hawk’s. There is a wide gash along its flank where something has clawed at it.

Na-apia takes a step back, bumping a passing woman’s arm.

“It’s only a Guardian.” The woman clicks her tongue and keeps walking.

When Na-apia returns to the hut, Grandmother is still on her platform. Na-apia washes her empty bowl away and replaces it with a mess of rice and beans. Her polite questions get nothing but grunts.

As she tries to sleep, the wind howls and cackles and hoots. Footsteps pitter-patter and the ground shakes, as though giant feline paws are tramping a path around the village.

This time, the tears come. 

II. Other Wife

The tall grasses caress her shoulders, whispering in the wind. The high plateau of her world, a place of brush and lizards and jackals, here is filled with singing grass as far as the eye can see, while the far-away River, wider and sluggish and red with silt, feeds the Lake through a small rivulet filled with turtles and frogs and mudhoppers. It rains, here, though it is not raining now. Instead, a hot breeze rustles the grass, bringing tantalizing smells and odd dangers with it.

Na-apia feels a tap on her shoulder and turns around. A hunter called Little Uncle points to something beyond the cluster of boulders and brush where they have stopped to let Swift Cousin fill her gourds with milk. Na-apia carefully lifts her head over the grass and nods. The creature looks like one of the wild bulls from her world, but bigger, hunched like a boar and with a thick mane like a lion. 

The hunters hide their packs and shells in a hollow by the rocks and start after it.

Na-apia savors the tingling in her limbs as she waits, the surge of elation as she strikes, the fear as the creature bellows and bucks, the long trudge as they follow its bleeding trail. Then Little Uncle comes up with the nets and poles and the skinning tools and they start butchering it, while Little Uncle circles around them waving the carved and painted Hunting Wand, chanting softly.

Na-apia can feel the hot breath of the Stalking Clan as they gather around their kill, eager to infest the meat and be swallowed, held back only by the magic oozing from the wand. Smaller prey are sown shut and taken back to the village whole, but the heavy cow-like creatures were too big, so they were hastily butchered and wrapped up in parcels of their own hide. Before her first hunt, Little Uncle made her squat down before him like a child and memorize a rhyme.

Why do two-legs stay in town?

Because the Stalking Clan will hunt us down.

Why do hunters wrap their prey in hide?

Because the Stalking Clan will get inside.

Why do cooks use herbs dried or fresh?

Because the Stalking Clan will wear our flesh.

A low moan Na-api thought came from the smoke-like figures of the Stalking Clan turns into a gasp. She looks up to see Swift Cousin clutching a long gash on her arm.

“The bleeding won’t stop,” she says. Na-apia thinks she can feel the Stalking Clan focus, like hounds pricking their ears.

Little Uncle hurries over, trailing magic from his wand. “Cover it up. Quickly.”  

The thick magic of the wand solidifies around them, keeping the Stalking Clan at bay. Na-apia looks at the wound. The needles they use for the skins are too fat; she would only bleed more. Four Aunts, another of the hunters, tears a strip of bark-cloth from her skirt and wraps it around Swift Cousin’s arm. They soon have the meat bundled into the skins and the skin bags stuffed into nets slung onto the carrying poles. They set off for the boulders almost at a run, but they soon slow down, for Swift Cousin is stumbling, Little Uncle’s hand on her elbow. She collapses at the base of the boulders, hiccupping in pain.

“She should put on her shell.” It is Four Aunts again, the largest one of them, as she shrugs into her own. Her face elongates and grows a snout, her neck thins and her limbs shorten and thicken to great flippers. The back right one has a jagged scar to match the one on Four Aunt’s leg. The turtles are not very fast on dry land, but they can carry heavy loads and most of the dangerous beasts and spirits ignore them when they wear their shells.

“I don’t have it with me.”  If Swift Cousin becomes a turtle, Swift Cousin would stop producing milk, so she leaves her shell at the village.

Little Uncle grunts. “You can have mine. It won’t suit you well, but you should be turtle enough to be safe.”

“No!” Swift Cousin clutches her arm, where the blood is already seeping through the bark-cloth. “I won’t!”

“Silly girl! There are other women to nurse New Aunt. But none to be her mother!”

“Little Uncle,” one of the men loading the meat onto Four Aunt’s back points to Swift Cousin. “She won’t survive the transformation. Not with another person’s shell.”

Na-apia follows his finger to Swift Cousin’s arm, where a dense smoke is eating away at the bandages. Without thinking, she grabs the Hunting Wand from Little Uncle’s hands and jabs it at the smoke. The Stalking Clan retreats with a hiss.

“Tss!” Little Uncle squats down and probes the wound. The edges are blackened and a tendril of smoke rises from it. “Only a little of the Stalking Clan got in. If we keep the wand tied to her arm, she might make it to the village. Grandmother will know what to do.”

“But how?” asks the man from before.

Na-apia looks around, at the carrying nets and the heavy bags of skin and meat. “Four Aunts will have to change back,” she hears herself say. “She is the strongest. I will help, because I have no shell. The rest of you, sew the skins together two by two and sling them over your necks, then put on your shells. Four Aunts and I will carry Swift Cousin in the nets, opened and strung between the carrying poles.”

Four Aunts bobs her head, first right, then left, and turns back. She grasps one end of the carrying poles, Na-apia the other. Four Aunts is burlier, but they are about the same height. 

Na-apia’s legs are on fire and her chest feels as though she is being squeezed between the worlds again by the time they finally stumble past one of the village guardians, a mottled, pantherlike creature the size of a hut, with a long, snakelike neck that bends down to nuzzle Little Uncle as he passes. It bares its teeth and hisses when it catches sight of Swift Cousin, but Little Uncle barks a command and it shrinks into his open palm, nothing more than a carved jasper figure.

Na-apia stares but there isn’t time to wonder, there isn’t time to think. The Fence around the village tugs at Swift Cousin, holding her back, and Na-apia and Four Aunts stumble and pull until Little Uncle grabs the Hunting Wand from the wound and strikes the nearest fencepost with it. 

The hold on Swift Cousin is gone in a blink and they all tumble inside. There is a sense of speed and dark smoke roiling towards the gap, but Little Uncle speaks another word and the Guardian springs from his hand, snapping up the Stalking Clan as it lands and gobbling it down.

Na-apia is on her knees, her eyes streaming as she tries to catch her breath.

“Other Wife, go get Grandmother!”

It takes her a moment, as it always does, to remember her new name. No-one ever goes into Grandmother’s hut. But the Other Wife can.

She staggers to her feet and stumbles to the hut, pushing the curtain before her and leaning on the door post.

“Grandmother, come quick! Swift Cousin is hurt!”

Grandmother doesn’t turn around. “So sew her up.”

“The Stalking Clan got inside.”

At this, Grandmother does turn around. The loose skin around her eyes tightens, but she turns back to face the wall. “Pffffft. Then you are all doomed.”

Na-apia closes her eyes. They don’t have time for this. “Not much. Please, Little Uncle said you would know what to do.”

Silence stretches out, taut as a net full of fish. Na-apia opens her mouth to plead again when Grandmother mumbles, “Is the flesh black?”

“No. Just the lip of the wound. Grandmother, she has a baby.”

“Well, and what did she go do that for? Children are ungrateful, needy things. Want, want, want, all their lives, and you give, give, give, and for what?”

Na-apia crawls to Grandmother’s baskets and grabs the nearest one, pawing through it in the hopes of finding something, anything to help. Bark-cloth in patterns of red and blue, a small jar with malachite beads. She grabs the next one.

“What are you doing?”

“I am not sitting around while Swift Cousin is dying, or being taken over by the Stalking Clan, or whatever is happening to her.” She finds a basket full of odd and wondrous things, the magic clinging to them like resin. She gathers it up and struggles to her feet.

“Stop.” 

Na-apia stops, then decides that she is not a going to let a selfish old woman kill Swift Cousin. She takes another step.

She hears a sigh. “The red basket with the blue ties. You need a medicine and you need spells. How’s your memory, girl?”

***

When Na-apia reaches Swift Cousin, her breathing is shallow and irregular. The Hunting Wand is still on the wound, but the edges have started to crinkle and flake. The Stalking Clan is spreading its poison through her body, trying to take her over. Next to her, her husband Second Nephew holds a squirming, crying baby, trying to keep her on his lap as he squeezes his wife’s hand.

Na-apia falls on her knees. She grabs jars with herbs and pastes from the basket and starts mixing them in a cup. She doesn’t know what they are. Grandmother only said “the jar with the green lip”, “the bird-shaped jar”, “the red herb with the jagged leaves, no, the other one, you club-headed child.” Her hands are trembling and she smears them on the lip of the cup. By the time she is finished, two of the jars are empty.

She scoops the mixture up with a finger and carefully dabs some of it on Swift Cousin’s lips.  She opens them slightly and Na-apia shoves the goo into her mouth and tries to remember the words Grandmother recited to her (“Tell me, child, are you strong enough to let it go?”):

Stalking Clan, Stalking Clan, hear me say

You will not have my child today.

She feels something bubble inside her, deep in her belly. Her heart pounding, she goes on.

Stalking Clan, Stalking Clan, listen well,

I will not bid my child farewell.

The bubbling sensation rises to her stomach.

Stalking Clan, Stalking Clan, leave her be.

You will not take my child from me.

The magic rises into her throat like boiling, honey-sweet bile. It hurts. But as it starts to seep from her throat to her head, to her heart, to her shoulders, she feels its strength. The pounding in her head ceases, the soreness of her shoulders eases, she feels tall, she feels strong, she feels alive.

It fills her mouth with its viscous sweetness and for just a moment, she thinks: If I keep my mouth shut, if I don’t utter the words, it will all be mine.

But Swift Cousin’s baby mewls and twists in her father’s arms, her face contorted in helpless confusion, still too young for tears, and Na-apia opens her mouth.

The magic spews out, gushing like a broken retainer wall. It spreads out from her mouth, seeking, searching, a maggot out of the ground. She chokes on it. She forces her mouth around its pulsating bulk, pushes her tongue through the thickness, and screams:

Stalking Clan, Stalking Clan, hear my song.

You will leave my child and be gone!

The magic twists and wriggles in her mouth, taking shape, two eyeless larvae that latch their round mouth-holes onto Swift Cousin’s wound and start sucking, their almost-bodies rippling with the motion, the inky tendrils of the Stalking Clan filling their bodies with smoke. Na-apia can taste the foulness in her mouth; she gags and coughs as the two maggot-creatures keep sucking and pumping.  Na-apia struggles to see through the tears streaming out of her eyes as she chokes the last of the magic out.

When the maggot-things are as black as a cloudy night, black as the silt brought by the River inundation, Na-apia speaks one last word.

Go.

And the larva-creatures burst like ashes in a gust of wind, grey smoke riding the breeze. Na-apia puts her forehead down on the ground. It is dry, still warm from the day. Perfect. She closes her eyes and falls into the darkness.

***

“So you’re not completely useless,” Grandmother remarks.

Na-apia feels anger bubble in her chest. Who has been keeping her fed? Who has swept and cleaned while Grandmother lay in bed all day? “Some of your pastes and herbs are empty.”

Grandmother shrugs. “So fill them.”

“I don’t know what they are!” Na-apia yells at her. She takes a breath. There are more important things, now. “One of the fence-posts was damaged. And the Hunting Wand. And Little Uncle says the long-necked Guardian won’t last much more than a month.”

It wasn’t just the Stalking Clan. They were mostly out on the plains. But you could see the others near the village sometimes, the swift-footed plants with roots that poked through flesh, the Long Moans and the Severing Mouths.

“Pfffffft. Then Little Uncle shouldn’t have destroyed it. What, does he think I use the things as pestles?” Grandmother picks up the bowl and scoops some meat into her mouth.

“He had to, to bring Swift Cousin to safety.”

“And he endangered the whole village for that. Let him repair it.”

“But he doesn’t know how!”

“Then maybe he should have learned when he had the chance, instead of when it is convenient for him. It is not convenient for me now. Did I birth him, to pick up after his mistakes?” And with that she pops a rice cake into her mouth and goes back to her bed.

Na-apia breathes through her nose. Then she stomps over to Grandmother and pulls the bowl from her hand. “I am hungry,” she tells her. “Getting fat is for mothers with children and old grandfathers who tell stories and flint-knappers who make tools. Not for lazy old women who can’t be bothered to keep her village safe!”

Grandmother sits up. “How many years? How long have they all been whining and pawing at me? Grandmother, my baby has colic. Grandmother, my knees hurt. Grandmother, there’s a Drilling Mother growing out of my wrist. Phah!” She makes to grab the bowl but Na-apia dances back. “Ungrateful little bastards. Don’t you ever have children.” And with that she turns her back on Na-apia.

Na-apia feels bile gather in her throat. Evil, selfish, lazy, cruel… You don’t deserve to eat my gruel… Hard-hearted, greedy, laggard, petty … My rice cakes won’t be in your belly….

The lump rises. Grandmother should have left her in the other world. She would have seen her little sister married, would have laughed with Manakhuria about her first-bride foibles, would maybe have found somebody she likes as a Second Spouse. She would have added beads to her necklaces and, with them, memories. She would not be stuck here where no-one uses her actual name, where the children laugh because she doesn’t have a shell, where demon creatures plague the night and lay siege to the day.

She opens her mouth only to realize that it wasn’t phlegm, but magic that gathered in her throat and is now escaping in sharp, needle-like threads that lacerate the inside of her mouth. She snaps it shut, but not before one of the threads strikes Grandmother.

The old woman yelps and turns around, wide-eyed. With a few muttered words she snaps off the other strings. “Try to curse me, would you, child?”

Na-apia gags against her closed lips, trying to keep the magic from escaping. She claps her hands to her mouth, dropping the bowl. It shatters.

Her heart is racing but the magic subsides, drawing back from her mouth and slowly sliding down her throat, losing its sharp edges and settling like an oily puddle in her stomach.

She runs out, all the way to the lake, where she weeps and weeps as she tries to wash the blood from the open wounds in her cheeks and lips. Stupid old lady. Stupid magic.

She watches the turtlets paddling around, the gems on their shells twinkling in the fading sunlight, until a mother calls them in. Fishermen emerge from the Lake with their prey in their mouths, their strong flippers pushing the sand and pebbles behind them as they head toward the village. She looks at the depths of the Lake, remembering the unending darkness, the weight of the water all around her. She is stuck here, and it is not her fault. And the children and fishermen and the old man who comes down to wash out a basket are in danger, and that is a little bit her fault.

So she gets up and returns to the hut. Once more she ransacks the pile of baskets with Grandmother’s magica. The old lady sits up, but she merely glares at Na-apia, her mouth a thin line. This time, Na-apia looks for anything with the symbols she has seen on the warding poles.

She finds some carvings of turtles, and a wand with some lines like the pattern on the Hunting Wand. She grabs it all and goes looking for Little Uncle.

He is outside his hut, having food with his husband, a shy man about Little Uncle’s age. Na-apia shows them her treasures. “That’s a Gathering Wand,” he touches the short stick with the lines. “Mostly against Drilling Mother and her children, and the Long Moans. But maybe some of these…” He looks up at the shy man, who ducks his head.

“Weaver Father would know.”

“Pffffft. Then he shouldn’t have gotten himself eaten by a crocodile. Come on.”

They take the turtle statues to the damaged fencepost. With the help of Little Uncle’s husband, they right the pole and examine the carvings. One of them is damaged, chipped. Someone has tried to re-carve it and fill in the paint. Little Uncle shrugs, embarrassed. “It was worth a try. I can use the wand, and I can command the guardians, but that’s it.”

Na-apia fingers the broken turtle. It is blue, its flippers pointing upwards, rings of concentric red circles, like an eye in an eye in an eye, dotting its shell. She feels the faint pulse of magic, slick and fatty against her fingers. She picks up two of the blue turtle carvings. On one, the shell-markings are square, like the golden ornaments the villagers wear on their chests. The magic feels thinner, like plant oil. The other has the concentric circles, and the magic feels greasy beneath her fingers.

None of them know if it will help, but they bind the turtle charm to the fencepost. Na-apia imagines she can feel the magic reach out to the other posts, weaving a mat of protection around the village, but she can’t be sure.

That night, she sleeps with Little Uncle’s family, and plans.

III. Guarding Wife

Na-apia still hunts, sometimes, when her legs ache to run and her breast to breathe in the grasslands air and her throat hurts from the burning of magic. But mostly she spends her days in a spot just outside the Fence, surrounded by Grandmother’s magica, tasting their magic and trying to figure out how it all works. She finds out how to replicate two of the thick, oily pastes. She makes out what most of the amulets and wands do, though her attempts at making them fail. She manages a small amulet against mosquito bites, but she can’t find the right rhymes for the more powerful wands.

She starts helping people, hesitantly, her heart beating like drums whenever she tries something new. The villagers are patient with her, carefully hopeful. The first time a spell of hers works, she clutches her necklaces and almost cries. Swift Cousin’s recovery, this child’s suckerfish bite – in her village she would have taken a special bead for that tenday, one of the bright glazed ones the traders bring from Neqaia, to commemorate the occasion. But her necklaces remain static. There is no clay here to make tenday beads; Potter Mother makes long journeys to gather it from the edges of the River.

A few days later, Shy Husband comes by the hut and puts two carnelian beads into her hand.

She still can’t measure the time on her necklaces, but now she has a new one with beads of carnelian and jasper and obsidian and amethyst. She cooks for Grandmother once a day; she herself eats elsewhere, often with Shy Husband and Little Uncle, sometimes with Swift Cousin, New Aunt’s cheek soft on her shoulder, her limbs dangling.

She is trying to set a bone. Every hunter learns how to set limbs, but the fracture isn’t right, and Green Cousin howls in pain whenever he puts on his shell, though a well-set bone would heal with the transformation. She has found several pastes that join things together, but she isn’t sure of the combination. The blue one and the one from the foot-shaped jar seem almost right, but the magic boiling up from her belly feels like spilt, thin gruel, spreading formless in her mouth. She tries to push it into shape, opens her mouth —

And jumps when a bony hand lands on her shoulder. “You’ll only make it worse, like that.”

With a muttered rhyme, Grandmother pulls the magic from her mouth like a rope, twisting it and kneading it until it is like slick clay, settling it around Green Cousin’s legs and hardening it until it pushes his bones together with a crunch. Green Cousin howls, but Grandmother simply mixes some paste from a third bowl, one Na-apia never even considered, and lathers it onto his leg.

She turns back towards her hut, motioning Na-apia to follow. “They will all be at my door now, begging.”

At the hut, she sits Na-api down, takes a pot with a zigzag painted around its rim, and bangs it down between them. “This is softwort and tilapia scales and the red earth you find underneath the rocks that look like a wolf. Mix it in equal parts, and a tenth of rainwater. Against the Severing Mouths. You slather it on a wolf claw painted with a blue sun. The rhyme is this…”

***

Sometimes Grandmother teaches her all day, sunrise to sunset. Sometimes she gives her one lesson, then turns away, bored. Some days Grandmother spends in bed. Na-apia learns how to make small amulets and mix the pastes, which herbs to add at the beginning or the very end, how to shape words to call the magic.

***

Once, when Na-apia is trying to carve a frog from a bone, Grandmother says, “You can bring your blanket to the bed if you want. Second Grandfather liked to sleep near the wall.”

Another day, when Na-apia is throwing up the dregs of a spell gone sour, Grandmother remarks, “They call you Guarding Wife, now.”

“It’s still not my name,” Na-apia points out, gasping.

“Pfffft. Names change. Are you the same person who came out of your mother’s cervix? Now tell me why I am adding lilies.”

***

One day, Grandmother comes upon Na-apia trying to make beads from clay she has begged off of Potter Mother in exchange for a mosquito amulet. Na-apia doesn’t know if it is the New Year – in this world, the River’s inundation doesn’t reach the village. But she is tired of barely knowing how much time had passed. There are festivals here, of course – the Time of Rains, the Hatching – but they mean little to her. Between them, the days blur into each other.

Grandmother’s hand on her shoulder is dry as reeds. “You want jewelry, you have only to say. I have enough.” This is true. Three whole baskets full. Na-apia still doesn’t know where the stones come from. All Grandmother will say is, “Shells stretch and grow.”

“This is for my year-necklace. Every tenday a bead.”

“Pffffft. Days are not worth counting.” She squats next to Na-apia and fingers her necklaces. “What are these?” She rolls a bright blue bead in the shape of a hut between her hands.

“Wedding bead.” Na-apia fingers a few more, painted, glazed, rolled-up bark-cloth. “My cousin’s wedding. My first hunt. The first time I wore a skirt.”

“And these?” she taps little turtles painted red and yellow.

Na-apia shifts uncomfortably. “Sun Day.”

Grandmother takes her hand, clasping it in her wrinkled ones, an uncommonly tender gesture. “You were married? What happened?”

“Nothing. My First Marriage ended after five years, as it should. I was still looking for my Second Spouse.”

Grandmother grunts. She watches as Na-apia forms her beads. “Second Grandfather – I didn’t love him. But he was kind.”

Na-apia starts burying the beads in the smoldering coals of the cooking fire. “Nobody likes being alone.”

The sun grows heavy and golden as they watch the fire’s embers. It is a special silence they have found, together.

Grandmother stirs. “You would have had a special bead for your sister’s wedding?”

Na-apia nods. She had helped Maia make them, carefully painting on the round symbols for the huts, in the green of beginnings.

Grandmother gets up. “Well, come on. The Lake’s not getting any warmer.”

***

The slick mud feels good between Na-apia’s toes. There is just enough water left to seep into the footprints she leaves behind. Perspiration clings to her skin as she picks her way through the swamp, clutching the scale from Grandmother’s shell to her chest. She is still not quite sure why she is here, but it is real. The earthy smell of the swamp rises up in her nostrils, the papyrus rustles drily. The papyrus parts, and there is her own village on the plateau. There are no turtle flopping about, the shields next to the door don’t sparkle, but the voices are warmer, the sound of pestle and grindstone sweeter. No Fence, no lurking Stalking Clan, no Drilling Mothers in the grass.

Na-apia runs. She runs until she reaches Manakhuria’s hut, bursting through the door hanging, launching herself at the first figure she sees – Manakhuria himself, big and hearty and smelling of goose fat – and she is laughing, and she is crying, and he is calling for Maia and Maia is hugging her and there are her parents and everyone, everyone who matters is there.

They don’t believe a word of what she tells them, not about the grasslands nor the hunch-shouldered bulls nor the antelopes with the strange horns nor the rabbit with the long feet. Not about the Fence nor the Guardians nor the Blood-Sniffers nor the Long Moans. Not about the turtle shells nor the magic.

But it doesn’t matter. She hunts with Maia. She helps her father pound bark for weaving, and her mother harvest rice from the fields. And she laughs and laughs and laughs, one laugh for every tear she has shed in Turtle Village.

***

“Come on, big sister,” Maia throws a fish-spear at Na-apia with a wicked smile. “Time to go hunting.”

The swamp is almost desiccated, nothing but a few scattered ponds shared by desperate fish and hopeless shrimp. The Lake has shrunk, leaving tree roots naked and exposed, slimy under their feet. 

“What are we hunting?” Na-apia calls. She stares at the Lake and wonders if Grandmother will come to take her back today. She didn’t mention for how long Na-apia could stay, only thrusting her turtle-scale into Na-apia’s hands and saying, “Call for me if you want to come back sooner.”

How soon was sooner? Sooner than what? Na-apia didn’t miss Turtle Village, exactly. But sometimes she thought of New Aunt’s tiny flippers in her hand, or Shy Husband’s surprisingly loud laugh, and something tightened in her heart.

“What do you think we’re hunting?” Maia tosses her head. “Tomorrow is Sun Day.”

She has no concept of time anymore. Sun Day! Na-apia shivers, thinking of the last time they hunted a turtle. Grandmother probably won’t come back for her today.

Please the River, let Grandmother stay home today.

The waters of the lake are murky; silt swirls around their ankles at every step. Some of the other hunters see a snap turtle and Na-apia relaxes. Snappers have beaks, not the almost prehensile trunk of Grandmother’s family.

The snapper dives and disappears. Na-apia helps them look, the lily roots and lake grass tickling her fingers. Then someone points and exclaims: “That’s a big one!”

Na-apia’s heart leaps to her throat, but though it was big, big as a winnowing basket, it was not Grandmother. You could just about fit one goat on it, two if they didn’t fight.

Na-apia stands back as the others capture it, their forked fish-spears pinning its neck against one of the big tree roots. Maia dances back to her and jabs an elbow in her ribs. “Friend of yours?”

Na-apia smiles and sticks out her tongue. She has never heard of the others crossing over to this world.

But as they carry it back to the village, the turtle does not retreat into its shell. Instead it snakes its head out and looks Na-apia straight in the eye. Then it bobs its head, first right, then left. Na-apia’s eyes stray to the scar on its back flipper.

She claps her hand to her mouth in horror. “Four Aunts?”

***

No amount of pleading sways the others. Her mother shakes her head and leaves; her father brushes her cheek and says, “You are home, now.”

She is desperately trying to lift Four Aunts out of the deep, black basin of fired clay at the center of the Sun Hut, straining her back as Four Aunts’ fins scrabble to find purchase on the steep, slippery sides of the tub. When Manakhuria finds her, she is pleading with Four Aunts to take off her shell, but Four Aunts simply stares at her.

“Manakhuria! Come help me!”

But Manakhuria, her own Manakhuria, who taught her the soft spots of a man and how to make rice cakes without burning them, simply stands at the edge of the Sun Hut and crosses his arms. The Sun Hut has no walls. The oppressive sunshine of the dry season creeps in to the edges of the basin, haloing Manakhuria in light.

“Na-apia,” he says softly and for a moment she luxuriates in the sound of her own name. “Turtle is swallowing up the River. If there is no ceremony to-morrow, how will the Sun return once Baboon has placated her? Her ship will not be able to pass. We will have no water and we will die.”

“Help me get Four Aunts out and I’ll find a snapper.”

“Maia went back to the Lake. For you. There are no more turtles.”

“Manakhuria, please. She helped me carry Swift Cousin to safety. We’ve hunted together. Her son carried me on his shell. She’s family.”

Manakhuria hangs his head. “Then you cannot be mine.”

The next thing she knows, five other men grab her – men she has hunted and cooked with, men she has laughed with, men she has cried with – and she is carried to her parents’ hut like a naked child, kicking and screaming her tantrums to the sky.

They tie the mats down tightly and take away her knife, leaving her standing in the middle of her parents’ hut, her hands balled to fists and rage in her belly.

She waits until night-time, letting the rage roil and grow, and then she speaks:

Mats of my home, loose your ties – I need to plant my feet and rise.

Mats of my home, your knots unbind – I need to leave you all behind.

Mats of my home, I set you free – I need to save my family.

The magic blows out between her teeth like a breeze, tiny, nimble fingers tugging at the ties binding the mats to the poles, the poles to each other. She walks to the edge of the hut and sidesteps out as it collapses behind her – her mother’s patterned pots, the baskets in which she had kept her stones and the other flotsam of childhood, her father’s loom – all of it is buried beneath the tangle of poles and reed mats.

She runs, leaving noise and confusion behind her, slipping in the slick mud of the swamp, stumbling over the hard roots of the trees and throwing herself on her knees at the edge of the Lake, the scale grasped between her hands.

“Grandmother,” she whispers, but the magic in the scale merely twitches, like a dreaming kitten.

No. What had Grandmother said? That names change. And in that place, they do. Four Aunts was born Sweet Niece. Shy Husband was once Eighth Grandson. Other Wife is now Guarding Wife.  She is Grandmother because she is the only Grandmother in a village where everybody else has a two-part name, but the man Maia killed was Second Grandfather, and if there was a Second Grandfather then there was a First Grandfather before him, and he would have been married to First Grandmother, and before she could become First Grandmother then she must have been –

“First Mother,” Na-apia whispers, and the magic trickles out and disappears into the Lake.

***

She rises from the water like an enraged hippopotamus, waterfalls streaming from her shell, bending the persea sapling as she heaves herself on shore. “Bored already?”

“They have Four Aunts,” Na-apia tells her. “She will be cut and eaten to prepare the return of the River, to bring back the Sun from the south.”

Grandmother clicks her tongue. “What idiocy is this?”

“The Sun is caught in the South. They say a giant turtle is drinking up all the waters of the River, here on earth and up there in the sky. If a turtle is killed on Sun Day with the proper words, Turtle will release of the waters and the Sun will return.”

“Idiocy,” Grandmother repeats. 

But Na-apia looks up at her. “I know an old turtle who kept all the magic to herself. Maybe this one is your brother.”

Grandmother laughs. “So, what, you forget everything I taught you?”

Na-apia shakes her head. “There are too many. I had to make a new spell to get away.” She thinks with a pinch in her heart of the jumble of poles that was once her home.

“Pffffft.” Then Grandmother sighs. “You’re still mine. And Four Aunts is mine. And unless they want to supply me with an endless string of wives and nephews and cousins, we shall put a stop to this.”

***

The village is teeming like a kicked anthill. Grandmother ignores them, ignores the stares of the lost-looking children hovering like dragonflies at the edge of the chaos, the men emerging sleep-numbed from their huts, the women shushing babies.

She heads straight to the Sun Hut, as though she has always known where it is, her long flippers beating against the hard, stamped earth in the village, spilling mortars and hearthstones on either side.

Three hunters stand in her way, spears raised, but Na-apia grabs two spears from the nearest hut and holds them to their chest. Grandmother pushes on, knocking them over.

Grandmother is too large to fit between the poles holding up the roof. There is a commotion; men and women come running with spears and harpoons in their hands. Grandmother shakes her head.

“Let me get comfortable,” she says. Four Aunts may not be able to take off her shell in this world, but Grandmother can. As she hands her shell to Na-apia, the persea sapling swaying, she sees a glint of gold underneath the moss. The villagers gasp, step back. A moment, and Grandmother stands old and naked in front of them, gold on her limbs and around her throat and on her shaved head. 

She steps to the edge of the basin and peers in.

“You always did attract trouble,” she tells Four Aunts.

One of the huntsmen steps towards Grandmother, but it is one thing to grab Na-apia, whom he has known since she could first hold a spear, and another to grab a fragile-looking, naked old lady.

Na-apia puts down Grandmother’s shell and takes hold of Four Aunts. Grandmother grasps her other side and they heave.

“What do you think you are doing?” The voice comes from behind them. Na-apia recognizes it. It belongs to the chief.

Grandmother snorts. “What does it look like I am doing? I am taking my daughter’s son’s daughter’s daughter out of this prison you are keeping her in.”

“We cannot let you.”

Na-apia turns around and by the light of flickering lamps, she sees that they have surrounded the Sun Hut. They are all armed, even the weavers, even the flint-knappers, even the potters, with cudgels, with spears, with the poles from her mother’s house. Even Maia.

Grandmother turns to face them, her eyes narrowing. Na-apia feels the magic gathering in Grandmother’s belly and it is an ugly, roiling thing of black coils and fangs and anger. And Na-apia looks into the faces of those she grew up with, her very own First Mothers and Blue Cousins and Little Uncles, her parents, and Manakhuria, and Maia, little Maia, standing tall and defiant, her spear held straight.

And she finds herself saying, “The Guardians bleed.”

Grandmother frowns and snaps, “Of course they bleed. Once you say the words, they are alive.”

“Then you can sacrifice them?”

The magic within Grandmother stills, wary, curious. “What are you saying?”

“I am saying,” Na-apia turns to the others, “that maybe you don’t need Four Aunts. Maybe we can make you a Guardian, and you can sacrifice it instead.”

Unexpectedly, Grandmother laughs. The laughter bursts out of her like an overripe fig, and it doesn’t stop. She laughs and laughs and laughs until she is kneeling on the floor, wheezing. “You always surprise me, girl.”

And she unclasps a golden collar and levers out a stone, a pinkish amethyst the size of New Aunt’s closed fist. “Bring me some carving tools.”

No-one moves. They don’t understand. Even though Na-apia has told them story after story of Turtle Village; none of them had been listening.

“Never mind.” Grandmother levers out another amethyst and uses it to shape the first one, sharp blades of magic whistling out from her pursed lips.

While the air stills, then bursts with birdsong, while the pink tinge of dawn laps the mats and poles, Grandmother carves. While Four Aunts knocks impatiently against the basin, while the hunters shift and sit on their haunches, while babies cry and children tumble and cuddle up to their parents, Grandmother carves. While the chief and Manakhuria and the other First Spouses watch her with suspicion in their eyes, Grandmother carves.

The light has turned the soft gold of true morning when she hands them a little figure of a turtle, snout and flippers and all. “Listen well; I’m only saying this once. When you are ready, place it in the basin and say these words:

Spirit of the village, come and wake today,

Spirit of the village, come out of your shell today,

Spirit of the village, come and swim today,

Spirit of the village, come and die today.

Let it swim at least once around before you butcher it, or it will not understand being a turtle. And now, I am taking my daughter’s son’s daughter’s daughter, and I am taking my Guarding Wife, and if you kill another one of mine again there will be a reckoning.”

The villagers are unsure of what has happened. They shift, they look to the elders, but the elders have no answers. Finally, they shuffle aside to let her leave.

Grandmother looks sideways at Na-apia. “I kept First Grandfather’s shell, you know.”

Na-apia gasps at the enormity of what she is saying. She looks around at this village, so achingly hers. Her own village where no-one believed her, where no-one stepped up to help her friend. 

She looks Maia in the eyes, drinks in the sight of her.

“Yes,” says Guarding Wife.

***

Maia wades through the shallow lake until she sees it, tiny and pink against the emerald tones of the lily-pad. She reaches out and takes the turtle. Nearby, one of the many floating islands shifts, and another turtle meets her eyes before diving down, deep into the lake. Around its neck, rows of beads glint wetly in all the colors of missing years.

THE END

[Sonia Focke is a trilingual Egyptologist born in New York. Over the course of a fairly uneventful life, spent mostly in her own head, she has showered with a scorpion, moved house in a VW Polo, won the Turmhügelburg Bardenthron oral storytelling award, and has learnt all of The Mikado by heart. Her work has been featured in Overland Literary Magazine and the Arcana 2020 online exhibition. She is currently living in Germany with a blacksmith and two Padawans. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or visit her website: soniafocke.wordpress.com.]