by Dan Tremaglio

The old man could no longer count the number of days he’d been adrift, the raft having bobbed far too southerly for that, lost amid a calm cool ocean over which the sun never set. In that austere light, the old man shivered beneath his plastic blanket and cried like the boy he’d been a hundred years before, about his dad, about his mom, about the ink-black fins darting regularly past his lifeboat. He spent more and more time asleep. Whenever he woke, he felt he had slept longer and that the inflatable raft was a little flatter beneath him, a little lower to the water.

Then came the moment he awoke as if to a shout. He awoke in shadow. For the first time in weeks the sun was gone, occluded by an ominous bank of clouds all along the horizon. The infinitely tall thunderheads were dark-green and strangely shaped, their bottom edge rounded like the bow of a ship or sphere. For the next day or so the old man’s raft floated closer and closer, until there could be no mistaking it: the clouds were actually an enormous planet or some kind of shell, arching down from the sky until it just barely touched the ocean and then arched away again. The surface was not smooth but rough and wrinkled with rows of irregular little ledges, so when the old man finally drew near enough, he could reach and grab hold of one of these and pull himself up.

The moment he did so, a new gravity claimed him. The old man no longer looked up from his raft at the giant shell but from the shell up at his raft. He cautiously stood, having to hunch beneath the curving ocean the way one would in an attic or crawl space, the waves inches above his blistered head. He began to back away in order to get a better look and to stand up straighter. Having not used his legs since a time he could remember, he fell repeatedly and was soon forced to face the way he went.

This new terrain was hard but not unforgiving, softer than stone if firmer than leather. He hobbled over little ledges that gradually grew to the size of speed bumps and then to speed humps and then to berms and then to bigger berms before they began to shrink again. He sensed a pattern, a series of nested pentagons or some such shape, the ridges always thinning toward the center and thickening toward the edge.

After walking awhile, he checked over his shoulder and saw that the ocean now appeared to be a sphere of its own, a deep blue glass ball resting on the horizon. There was still no sun and the farther the blue ball receded behind him, the greater the number of stars, more stars than he had ever imagined. He swore he could hear them hum. They were so breathtaking he could not keep his eyes on where he walked and this was why he nearly fell off the cliff.

Suddenly, there was no more ground to hold him.

He barely threw an arm back over the ledge as he fell.

Dangling there for a second, he pulled himself up and knelt with his heart hammering in his chest.

He was still shaken when he turned to look out the way he had nearly plunged.

Far, far beneath him, a range of low green mountains gradually rose toward a plateau shaped like the back of a turtle’s head. This range protruded from lower cliffs and, lower than these, there stood a gigantic pillar that looked a lot like a turtle’s leg.

The old man lay on his stomach, stuck his head farther out past the ledge. From there he could see not just one but two turtle legs standing on the back of yet another shell, all surrounded by stars.

The vision called up a memory of his father explaining to him in the forgotten long-ago that this was how the world worked.

“But if the whole world rests on the back of a turtle,” he remembered protesting, “what does the turtle rest on?”

To which his father had replied, “On the back of another turtle.”

Which had made him laugh and ask louder, “And what does that turtle rest on?”

To which his father smiled and said, “On the back of another turtle.”

Which then made him laugh even harder and shout, “And what does THAT turtle rest on?”

On and on they went in a sort of cosmological staring contest, until finally his father sighed and said in a lower voice, “You’re missing the point, my son,” though he never did explain exactly what that point was.

Now here he was himself, a much older man than the old man his father had been, and though he now saw with his own eyes, he too could not explain why, only how: how the whole world rests on the back of a turtle, who rests on the back of a turtle, who rests, who rests, who rests. . . .

Which is exactly what the old man wished to do now.

Kneeling at the edge of the highest shell, he watched the long mountain range of the turtle’s neck begin a grand slow sweep to the right, its world-sized head eclipsing entire galaxies as it turned, until at last one of its eyes dawned in profile, as bright and full as a midsummer moon, back-dropped by every star that’s ever shone, by every eye that’s ever closed.

The biggest accomplishment on Dan Tremaglio’s CV is that a lecture of his once inspired a student to get their first tattoo: a skull on top of another skull on top of a book with MEMENTO MORI written underneath.
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