A few months ago, I was invited to contribute a short story to a collection that would revolve around the theme of utopia … as an antidote to the dystopian literature that seems so prevalent these days.
I actually came up with an idea and wrote a story that now appears in that collection, Utopia Pending. You can purchase the Kindle version of the collection here. Some day soon, there will also be a paperback version. Berthold Gambrel has performed a valuable service by reviewing the collection, with a short comment about each story.
Here is the first chapter of my short story, Two Turtles, to maybe entice you along for the ride — an eclectic collection of stories that dance around the theme of utopia.
The turtle’s largest organ is its liver.
An herbalist in a small Chinese village prescribed the ground powder of dried turtle livers to the villagers who complained of abdominal aches. The herbalist’s name was Ru Shen. He lived by himself in a hut on a hill above the village.
“Please, please,” villagers might plead for the cure to their distress after making their way to Ru Shen’s hut. “Please, the pain is too much.”
“Ah, but I have none in my stocks,” the herbalist would reply. It was true. He did not. In his supplies of dried plants, powders in clouded bottles, and ointments that smelled of rot, he had no turtle liver. Why? Because he refused to stock it. If his friends and neighbors were idiotic enough to consume and imbibe of things that unsettled their system, he would not help them. Other than to point them in the direction of a cure.
“You must obtain the turtle liver yourself,” the herbalist mumbled whenever challenged. “That is part of the magic. You must understand this. It is yours to obtain. Yours to use.”
“Yes, yes, I will do so,” each villager would scream, fleeing the herbalist’s hut in search of a turtle. And its liver. With the hope he could find one, dry it, and consume the powder as the old man advised before the discomfort became too much.
“Dry the liver,” the herbalist told each villager who came to him. “Grind it into a fine powder and stir it into your tea. Do this each day for a week and you will be cured.
More often than not the cure worked if the villager was able to locate a turtle and harvest its liver and dry the animal’s liver and follow the directions in time. For seven days, dropping a few pinches of the powder into their oolong tea. Blowing on the hot liquid, sipping at it, enjoying the turtle soup they consumed alongside.
Those who couldn’t, spent months and years in growing discomfort, eventually dying at an early age. Their bodies fatigued, their skin yellowed, their appetite diminished. The herbalist paid no mind to the deceased. His job was for the living.
There came a time when the villagers became so convinced of the herbalist’s wisdom and finally recognized that Ru Shen would never provide them with the cure that they kept their own supplies. Harvesting softshell turtles to extract their livers and leave them in a plate on a window sill until dried. The meat cut up for soup.
In that little village in China, digestive systems worked like oiled machines and the herbalist was able to spend his time on other matters. Headaches. Women desperate for pregnancy. Old men who began to see things that didn’t exist in this world. His own ambitions as well. Ru Shen would sit in the doorway of his hut and look to the sky, pondering the mysteries of the sun and of the dirt before him. He wished to solve the secret to life itself, but all he had was his cures on a shelf and questions that remained.
If the curative powers of the turtle liver had remained a secret known only by the villagers and their healer, we would not be talking about the impending extinction of an ancient species. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, one day a white man by the name of John Ingram came to the village. He took samples of the soil and snipped leaves from the trees. The man spoke to Ru Shen and asked him, “How do you treat insomnia?”
The herbalist replied, “With the root of radish, the flesh of hawthorn fruit, and the peel of an orange.”
“And body aches?”
At this question, the herbalist furrowed his brow. “Turtle liver,” he finally replied.
“Yes.” Ru Shen then looked at John Ingram and asked, “What do you believe is the source of life?”
“Why God, of course,” Ingram replied.
“Pffft.” Ru Shen spit in the dirt. “God? There is no such thing. There is only man and what he does to his fellow man and this round place we call Earth and which is our home.”
The westerner returned to the States and began to tinker. At one point, he asked his assistant to acquire 100 turtle livers and his assistant, being the good assistant that he was … did so. Ingram put the livers in a dehydrator, analyzed the powder that came out, and reached some conclusions.
Months later, the results of a blind test proved Ru Shen’s old cure and Ingram’s conclusions correct. There was something in the liver of turtles that provided remarkable restorative effect to those with cirrhosis of the liver, fatty liver, and well, pretty much any disorder of the liver. The scars healed themselves, the fatty deposits melted away, and yellowed skin returned to a healthy glow.
You might wish instead of turtles, we were dealing with the end of snakes. Or spiders. But, no, that is not where we have ended up. Snakes and spiders and iguanas and bats and all sorts of loathsome creatures continued on in blissful ignorance. If only somebody had bothered to check on the spleen of the iguana, the heart of the bat. Well, you get the idea. There are many mysteries that remain undiscovered.
Of the many turtles that have trundled along on land and swam in the planet’s oceans, only two remain because the mystery of the liver of the turtle was discovered.
Fascinating chapter, thanks for the ‘tease’!
Progress always has its price, doesn’t it.
“The heart of the bat.” Great opening and I want to read more. There’s a humour here, and a sadness, that is mixed effortlessly, but mostly I just want to know what happens to the two that remain. Great opening line too, by the way.
Thank you. If you read the rest, I hope it holds up.
I will read the rest for sure.