I hopped to the high meadow near the top of our volcano with my daughter, Bakka riding on my shoulders. This afternoon was The Telling, when an old tortoise would recant the story of our partnered species, the Lagomorphs and the Giant Tortoises.
Though I had heard this story all my life, it still made my fur warm.
Bakka nuzzled in to nurse, before wiggling down to the soft ground. The meadow was full and chatter filled the air. I held my long ears upright to listen for my mate Sirrus, who was pregnant. I saw there were some other pregnant males in the meadow too. That morning Sirrus had been gathering kudzu vines for a baby hammock. His belly was so swelled that we knew the birth would be soon.
“MeeToo!” Sirrus called from a clump of long grass. He was sitting with Irma, a giant tortoise friend. Irma’s plate pattern glinted beautifully in the sunlight. I plopped Bakka onto her back as we settled in.
“Irrmma,” cooed Bakka in baby talk. She stroked the tortoise’s shell with her front paw. I noticed a drop of my milk floating on her brown face fur. Then, the old tortoise began The Telling. I snuggled against Sirrus and stroked his belly gently.
“Long ago before our volcano, there was only cold ocean, stars, and sky.” The old tortoise crooned in a thumping voice. He paused and rotated his head, languidly surveying the audience. His green eyes were as big as Lantana berries.
He continued, “The Great Tortoise lived there all by herself. One day she was swimming, when a lagomorph hopped out of the sky and landed on her back. He asked her to make a volcano for his people to hop on. The Great Tortoise said she would try, but that she would need to dive down under the cold ocean to bring up mud. She told the lagomorph that it would take a long time. The lagomorph hopped on a star to wait.
After many years, the Great Tortoise came up from the sea. Fiery mud spouted from her back and the volcano grew and grew. Sadly, the fiery mud buried her. But guava trees and long grass grew out of the mud, softening it.
There was one part of The Great Tortoise that didn’t get buried. It was the bottom ring of her shell. That part was burned from the firey mud and it broke into sharp rock. That is the rock that circles our volcano and protects our home.”
I pulled Bakka onto my lap and tickled her between the ears, making her giggle. The tortoise inhaled loudly in our direction and closed his eyes. He was still for so long that I wondered if he would ever finish.
Finally the old tortoise spoke, “And since that day the Lagomorphs and the Giant Tortoises have lived in harmony, peace and wonderment.”
Then the old tortoise pulled his legs and head into his shell. I knew he would sleep that way for a few days or longer. It was time to go home.
The next morning I hopped down the hillside to pick wild guavas for our breakfast. I reached up to pluck the fruit, when three humans surrounded me. This was the first time I had ever seen them. Before, I had only heard of the strange beasts in children’s stories and had assumed that they were imaginary creatures. But these humans were very real. They had flat breasts and were fur-less. Although they were my height, their bodies were sinewy and tight. Over their hips they wore skirts.
They must have been still as a sleeping tortoise, because I hadn’t heard their feet crushing the grass. Suddenly my nose filled with their smoky scent, and the smell of excrement. They spat out grunty words. The one with yellow chin hair grabbed me around the middle. Was he their leader? I struggled against him, but Yellow Chin-hair’s long fingers grabbed even tighter, pulling my fur painfully.
Then I screamed. But the black chin hair humans tied me up in thick rope, ignoring my distress. They bound my front and back feet to a shaved branch and carried me hanging between them. My breasts leaked milk and my ears brushed against the earth as they lugged me down the volcano, barking to each other the whole time. When we reached the sharp rock, I thought they would free me, as no one ever crossed its sharp cutting expanse. But their foot coverings were hard and they continued on like it was nothing.
Finally we reached the ocean. I had seen its sparkling mirror from way above, and had dreamed of swimming like The Great Tortoise. But now the water was dark and seething. It’s edges roared with white foam biting the shore. We passed next to it for some time, until we came to a large cave. Out on the water I saw a house rocking in the waves. Was that how they had come, I wondered?
We went inside the cave where there was a fire. A human with breasts like mine was roasting a tortoise on a spit. There were more two more humans there also with dark chin-hair. They rushed over to run their hands along my belly pelt. I was sick with fright. I vomited the grass I had eaten that morning. It poured into a sour pile on the cave floor.
They laid me on the ground and looped me in a leash before untying my limbs. The knot was so small and tight around my neck that my short paws could not undo it. Then Yellow Chin-hair fondled one of my breasts, pinching the nipple. He groaned as his gaze darted up and down my body. The human with breasts did not come close, but watched with wide eyes.
After that, they tied my leash to the cave wall behind the fire, and sat in a circle devouring the tortoise meat. The shell was overturned, so I did not have to imagine I might know her. Night fell outside and I cried quietly, missing Bakka and Sirrus desperately. Soon the humans fell quiet. They lay down on woven mats around the coals.
I saw Yellow Chin-hair’s eye gleam at me through the darkness. He crept over. I yelped in pain and pulled away as far as the leash would allow. But he followed. I remembered from the Tortoise stories that human females gave birth. I tried to tell Yellow Chin-hair that only Lagomorph males could mate and become pregnant, but he didn’t hear that I was speaking words. Instead, he exhaled loudly and licked his wet teeth.
I let out a high-pitched scream, which awakened the other Humans. I thought they might rescue me, but they turned away. This went on until all the humans had their time, except one. Finally they all slept contently.
I saw that the one with breasts was still awake. Her open eyes were glossy in the firelight. I backed away, worried that she might be coming for her turn. But she stretched out her hand.
She went behind me and untied my leash and showed it to me on her open palm. Putting a straight finger over her lips, she made the sound, “shush,” and pulled the leash gently. She led me out of the cave to a sandy path that went upward between the sharp rock. We climbed for some time, until the rock gave way to the bright grasses of the upland. I was in familiar territory.
I hopped in pleasure and relief. She untied the leash easily and uttered, “uarrfree,” in Human. Her voice was more musical than I expected. Once again she reached out her hand. This time I touched it with my front paw. Then she turned and went back down the path.
After a bit more climbing I was home and rushed to my nest. Bakka was snuggled into Sirrus’s pregnant lap. “MeeToo!” Sirrus shouted out as I hobbled over. “Are you ok? What happened?” he cried, seeing that my pelt was scabby and torn. The fur had been rubbed away between my back legs. “Oh MeeToo, MeeToo…” he repeated. Sirrus wrapped his arms around me with Bakka between us. Tears dripped from his eyes, “I’m so sorry, baby,” he whispered softly into my ear.
I told him about the human with yellow chin hair and all that had happened. He licked me gently. Soon I fell into an exhausted sleep.
When I awoke it was late in the day. Bakka was there playing with her friends, but Sirrus was missing. No one knew where he went. He had been gone all night.
The next morning Sirrus hopped back to our nest, with Yellow Chin-hair, on his shoulders. His belly had swelled even more and I was relieved that he wasn’t in labor yet. The human struggled against the kudzu vines Sirrus had wound around him. He dumped Yellow Chin-hair into a deep burrow without untying him. The human was trapped in the bottom of that hole all day while we discussed what to do with him. No one had ever killed another animal, yet we were afraid to free him. The tortoises said we would decide tomorrow. So Yellow Chin-hair stayed tied, down in the burrow hole until dark, when the Lagomorphs and Giant Tortoises all slept.
Images of the Human men haunted me, disturbing my rest. I remembered their bristly hair rubbing against my nipples and I shivered. Why did they mate me when they could see it was harming me? I wondered if the Humans harmed each other in this same way? Maybe even murdering each other as they did the tortoise.
Was it my fault that they had captured me? Was I cursed forever? The Humans dirtied our volcano and pushed their ugliness into me, I thought as I ground my teeth. For a time I stiffened and laid next to Sirrus like a corpse. I could eat poison flowers and then worry no more, I figured. But that wouldn’t save our home. It was too late for that.
I snuck out of bed quietly and went to the edge of the burrow. The Human was sleeping bound in the kudzu like a cocoon. I could hear his breath. I pulled out a clump of grass and descended into the hole, which awoke him. He stared at me, seeing me for the first time. And he spoke. I could not understand his words but knew he was pleading. And my heart spread, but I was still raw and cut where he had mated me. I reached down and pulled his skirt away. His penis was pink and flaccid like a worm.
He barked loud. I packed his mouth and nostrils with grass to squelch the noise. But I could still hear him, so I took mud from the burrow walls and packed that in too. He pointed his chin to sky and shook his head back and forth. I watched his eyes brim over wetting his cheeks. After a burping sound from his chest, the eyes shut. Finally he was quiet.
I went back to my nest, and lay next to Sirrus, slinging my paw over his belly. The baby kicked and I imagined a bright new face shinning at me. But that face was replaced with the face of Yellow Chin-hair grinning. It was the kind of grin that made me frightened. I felt like I was the one bound in Kudzu, not him. And the vines were so tight that I could barely breathe. I decided I would bury Yellow Chin-hair in the burrow, and never think of him again. But my plan didn’t unbind the tightness in my chest.
All night long, The Telling ricocheted inside my head, taking on new meaning. I wondered if The Great Tortoise was still alive when the fiery mud buried her?
Eliza Master is a fiction author and a member of Wordos Workshop. Several magazines have published her stories and Wayzgoose Press will publish her three novels; The Scarlet Cord, The Twisted Rope and The Shibari Knot in 2018.