Gaston knew he had to hurry. It was searingly hot already, and it was only early morning. A small snail like him could become a dried husk in no time if he couldn’t get to a place of coolness and damp, so he sprinted – well, as much as a snail can sprint – toward what seemed to be a wet haven in the Green.
When Gaston found the shady thicket of weeds, he sighed in relief. It was so tall that he could hide in it, away from the burning rays of the sun, and safe from the shiny, prying eyes of the ever-present robins. Gaston reveled in the coolness, knowing that he could only stay briefly, but soaking up every delicious second of it. He felt himself melting into the dampness, and the dampness permeated him. He could finally relax.
Well, until he heard something strange, anyway. Gaston snapped out of his reverie and stared into the greenery. There was some kind of sound, like sliding, or gliding, maybe. Was it danger? He held his breath as he heard the sound coming closer and closer. It was nearly upon him.
“You scared the living daylights out of me!” a voice boomed from the depths of the tall weeds. “And that doesn’t happen very often!” Gaston strained to see who the speaker was, but the shadows hid his or her form. He inched further into his shell and waited.
And then it appeared: a turtle! A jolly turtle with a living roof! Gaston tried not to stare, but he had never seen anything quite like it: a turtle, covered in a layer of mud, with a clump of soil – grass still growing in it – was coming closer. He mustered the courage to respond with “I didn’t mean to scare anyone, I was just looking for a place to cool off. If this is your place, I’ll leave now.” Gaston was prepared to sprint again, having recharged his batteries a bit.
“No need, my friend!” the turtle responded. “I’m just looking to do the same…one second I was trying to get across the Gray, and the next, I was being picked up by giant Hands and transported to the Green!” The turtle looked a bit cross with the recollection, but went back to smiling at Gaston. “Forgive my rudeness, my name is Chantal, and it’s truly a pleasure to meet you.”
Gaston realized he was gaping at Chantal, so he shut his mouth(parts) and responded with a “hello, my name is Gaston and I’m a traveler. It’s very nice to meet you, too!” Chantal settled near him, the clump of grass seemingly glued to her shell. Gaston wanted to ask about it, but worried that it might seem rude.
As they sat in the cool grass and talked, Chantal explained to Gaston that she was a snapping turtle, and she was making her yearly journey from the big pond to another pond to lay her eggs. It was a difficult journey, fraught with danger, and she had seen many before her who had attempted the trek fail to return. Had the Hands done something to the other turtles who had tried to go to the other pond? Chantal didn’t know, but she seemed spooked when she mentioned the Hands. She told Gaston that she had tried to bite so that she could get away, but found herself suspended in the air and unable to reach anything tangible that could be bitten. She had flown!
A flying turtle? Come on. Gaston found himself skeptical of Chantal’s story, chalking it up to a tall tale she had concocted to make her travels seem more exciting than they actually had been. She was definitely creative, he thought…and that explains the living roof.
Chantal only stayed for about an hour, needing to get to her pond post haste. She wished Gaston a safe journey and he watched her move deliberately through the grass, on a mission to get to that pond where she would lay her eggs. He frowned, thinking that it was sad that some creatures needed to make up stories to impress others. She was a nice turtle, and he liked her, regardless of whether she was a bit eccentric or simply enjoyed a bit of hyperbole. He would miss her, too.
Gaston was on the verge of napping when he heard the familiar sliding sound again. “Chantal”, he called out, “did you forget something?” He felt a bit embarrassed when an unfamiliar voice called back “I’m not Chantal, but I’m happy to make your acquaintance!” and another turtle appeared.
This turtle looked very different from Chantal: instead of being the color of dried pond mud, it was dark brown with beautiful yellow designs on its shell. Gaston, once again, found himself staring. He blushed when the turtle jokingly said “take a picture, it’ll last longer.” At least his mouth was closed!
Gaston soon discovered that this turtle’s name was Sylvie, and that she was an Eastern Box Turtle. She, too, was making her journey from her home pond to the one in which she was born, so that she could lay her eggs. Sylvie told Gaston about a close encounter she had had with something she’d never seen before, something that had both scared and intrigued her. There was something very familiar about her description…
Sylvie told Gaston that she had crossed the Gray, but that something had happened once she had almost reached the other side. Something unexplainable: she, too, had flown.
Gaston was taken aback – two stories from two different turtles about how they – wingless creatures – had flown? He wondered what was in the water these ladies had been drinking. And what was the Gray?
When Sylvie discovered that Gaston had never seen – or even heard of – the Gray, she shuddered. “You must stay away from the Gray,” she told him. “It’s a desolate place, with monsters, where many of our kind have died.” She proceeded to explain that the Gray was a stretch of scorched earth, hot and rough, that turtles often crossed in their breeding journeys – journeys from which many never returned. She had also seen the monsters, with their hot breath and their rumbling roars. They crushed turtles beneath their feet. She had passed a friend of hers, almost completely flattened, her head drawn into her shell in a desperate attempt to protect herself. She had never made it to the far pond, and would never lay her eggs.
As Sylvie told Gaston about what she’d seen, her eyes were the very depths of sadness. She knew turtles were not the fastest creatures, and the monsters were so fast that they were literally upon a turtle before she knew it. Gaston understood: snails were even slower than turtles. He would likely be killed by the monsters in the Gray, if he ever found himself there. He resolved to steer clear of the Gray…but he knew he might encounter it on his way to the Red. The dread swept through him.
Voice trembling, he asked Sylvie, “do you know where the Red is?” Sylvie thought for moment, frowning, and said, “I’m afraid I don’t.” Seeing the distress on his face, she added, “but I know you’ll find it, Gaston…and it will be everything that you hoped.” And with that, Sylvie smiled at Gaston (no goodbyes, she didn’t like them) and headed out toward the far pond. Gaston knew he’d probably never seen her again, but he wished with all his might that he reached the pond and that, someday, little Sylvies and Chantals would make their own journeys.
Though he wished he could stay in the damp coolness, Gaston needed to move on. He headed out, thinking about the turtles and the sacrifices they were willing to make, and he wondered if he would also fly someday.
Note: here in the southeastern U.S., turtles are making their way to their nesting grounds now. Help these creatures make their journey safely.