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The Turtle and Juan Sanchez

by Henry F. Tonn

Based on a true story

He hit the water head first with a loud splash, the blow rendering him instantly unconscious. His body drifted downward slowly, accompanied by the monotonous drone of a propeller rotating in the background. Thirty seconds passed.

Suddenly, the lack of oxygen shot an alarm through his brain, and his eyes snapped open. Darkness enveloped him. He thrashed around, opening his mouth and swallowing water. He coughed and sputtered, then kicked violently, causing his body to move upward.

Finally his head broke the surface, and he sucked air deeply. He treaded water for a moment and looked around. In the distance, the freighter moved slowly away, its rear lights illuminating the darkness of the night.

He rose and hollered several times, waving his hand. His voice seemed to be swallowed up by the stillness of the night, and soon he sank back into the water. He realized that no one could possibly hear him and, furthermore, he would not be missed for many hours.

He continued to tread water for several minutes, contemplating. Finally, he reached down and untied his shoes and pulled them off. He considered removing the rest of his clothing but decided against it. They did not seem to be creating a drag.

He lay back and spread his arms in the water and found that floating was not difficult if he kicked his feet slightly and regulated his breath. He knew the least amount of movement was important now, since lasting through the night was paramount to survival. He had fallen off in the middle of a shipping lane, and another vessel might come along. Of course, the tides might take him out of the lane also...

He lay back and tried to relax.

Dawn arrived with agonizing slowness. The water was not cold but already he was beginning to feel the chill. At first light he searched the horizon carefully. Nothing. He looked around for driftwood, anything he could hold on to, but the sea was flat and calm. He flipped over and spread his arms and continued to float.

The sun rose higher and began to shine down with more intensity. The sky was cloudless and blue. He noted a peculiar numbness spreading through his body and realized that floating conserved energy but also made his limbs less responsive. On the other hand, treading water tired him out. He kept searching for driftwood...

He thought of his wife and children waiting for him in their small town outside of Santiago, Chile. He pictured each of their faces and wondered how they would survive without him. He had always been the breadwinner in the family and was quite proud of the money he made on the freighter, even though he was gone for weeks at a time.

He was angry at himself for not being more careful on the ship. One moment he had been walking along the rail, and the next moment the ship listed and he was pitched over: a rogue wave, no doubt. It was curious that it happened in such a calm sea.

Something large swam by him, thirty feet away, paused, and continued on its way. He remained motionless for a full minute before continuing his slight paddling motion. The water was clear, and the sun glittered off its surface. He wondered about sharks.

Lying on his back, he stared up at the blue sky and began to pray. “My name is Juan Sanchez,” he said. “I am a good man. I have been good to my family. I have not been with another woman since my marriage. I ask forgiveness for my sins.”

He repeated this same benediction three times and continued to look up at the blue sky. Three hours passed. A great fatigue slowly crept through his body, and his limbs began to lose all feeling. In a detached way he realized he would not be able to float much longer.

“My name is Juan Sanchez,” he whispered. “I am a good man. I love my family and my country and I do not want to die. I pray to God and the Virgin Mary to help me.”

In the distance something popped out of the water. He focused his eyes and realized it was a giant turtle. Floating effortlessly on the surface, it swiveled its dark head around and peered in every direction.

Without thinking, he began to paddle toward it, drawn inexorably to this one floating object in a sea of emptiness. He realized vaguely that it would probably dive as he drew near, but he did not care.

The turtle watched him without movement as he approached on its left side. The man kept his head low in the water and moved forward with a slow, gentle breast stroke. The turtle’s shell was a brownish-black with green algae flecking its sides.

With declining strength, he angled himself to the rear of the shell and grabbed it with both hands. He rested his head on the shell. The turtle did not dive.

Night came, and slowly the moon illuminated the cloudless sky. The turtle was paddling leisurely with its huge front fins, but otherwise all was still. The man’s arms and legs had now lost almost all feeling and, with a last effort, he pulled himself higher on the humped shell, draping his arms over the top.

The turtle swiveled its huge head and gazed at him with a glistening eye, which momentarily flashed brilliant red from the moon’s reflection. Even in his distracted state, he was taken aback by this eerie sight in the gloomy darkness. It seemed almost mystical to him, as though the turtle were embodied with some supernatural power.

He let out a long breath and again settled his head on the ancient shell. He began to sleep.

His wife came to him in a dream. She was young and dressed in white. Her long, dark hair flowed luxuriantly down her shoulders, glistening with the fullness of youth. She laughed coquettishly, displaying perfect white teeth, and shoved him playfully as she had done during their early days together, the courting period, when he was very shy. “You can talk to me,” she said. “I’m safe.”

“I don’t want to lose you,” he replied.

She tittered, her dark eyes lighting up. “You don’t have me yet.”

“I don’t want to die. I want to have children with you.”

She shook her head in that admonishing way she used when he was too serious or pessimistic. “You aren’t going to die. You haven’t lived yet. And we’ll have many children. Many children.”

“But...” He wanted to explain to her what was wrong, but the words would not come.

She faded.

He tried to speak again but realized he was alone. He spun around, three hundred and sixty degrees, and peered in every direction. He was surrounded by nothing but barren landscape. He looked up at the sky and found it dull gray, almost devoid of color. Then he noticed there was no difference between the land and the sky. They had merged. Everything was gray: no beginning, no end.

He wanted to cry out but nothing came forth. Sound had dissolved. All was silent. He felt neither dead nor alive. He felt nothing at all. Perhaps he was nothing. Did this mean he was dead? Well, then, what was the point of trying? Nothing mattered. It was all pointless.

Out of this nothingness a great fear erupted and washed over him.

He woke up abruptly and shuddered. He looked around in the darkness and felt relieved. The water was still calm. His arms were still draped over the turtle as it continued to paddle slowly with its huge front flippers, though for what purpose he did not know. But he was alive, for which he was grateful. He decided to live as long as he could, and when the turtle dived, he would die. It would be all right.

“Thank you,” he said aloud to the turtle. The sound made it turn its head briefly but did not interrupt the slow movement of its flippers.

He felt a raging thirst, but otherwise feeling in his body was largely gone.

He was glad his mind still worked, that he could think. As long as he could think, he knew he was alive.

Darkness swallowed him up.

The Virgin Mary appeared directly before his eyes. Her expression was calm and serene, comforting. He felt very relieved and reached out to touch her face, but encountered nothing. She was immaterial.

But of course she’s immaterial, he thought. She’s the Virgin Mary. A spirit. But is she really there or is she a figment of my imagination? Well, it doesn’t matter. As long as it is comforting to think she is there, it is good. On the other hand, if I believe things that are not real, doesn’t that mean I am going crazy? Being crazy means you believe in things that are not real, yes? And if I go crazy, can I ever become sane again?

He decided he would rather die than go crazy.

But how can I tell if I’m going crazy? he continued thinking. How can I tell what is real from not real? Should I believe in whatever makes me feel better, whatever is comforting to me at this moment?

He closed his eyes and opened them again. The turtle was gone.


His mouth opened and he wanted to cry out in alarm, but nothing emerged.

He shook his head violently. If the turtle is gone, he thought, why am I not drowning? How can I keep floating if there is nothing to float on? Or, am I floating at all? Perhaps I have already drowned and don’t know it, he pondered. How would I know?

He looked up at the Virgin Mary whose face had never altered before him. “Am I dead?” he asked aloud. “Tell me the truth. I don’t mind dying anymore.”

She reached out her arms and grasped him by the shoulders. “Easy does it,” she said, but in a man’s voice. A man’s voice! But, of course, she was the Virgin Mary, a saint, a spirit. She could talk in any voice she wished.

He laughed to himself. Any voice she wished!

“Just lift him in. That’s it.”

A strange voice. A strange voice, indeed.

He opened his eyes and saw blue sky.

He sank into darkness.

* * *

The Captain leaned over the railing and gazed out at the water. He turned his head slightly as the Executive Officer joined him.

“How’s the patient?”

“He’ll live. Doc says he’s dehydrated and with terrible sunburn, but he’ll make it.”

The Captain continued to look out to sea. “It’s still there,” he said finally, nodding.

The Exec followed the Captain’s eyes. “Yep.”

Fifty yards away, the turtle floated and watched them.

“I’ve got to enter this into the log, you know. Nobody will believe it.”

“I know. They might cart you off to the loony bin.” The Exec chuckled.

The Captain shook his head. “I’ll never know what kept it from diving.”

“It’s one of those cases where truth is stranger than fiction,” the Exec said.

“Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

The Exec shielded his eyes. “How long do you think he’ll stay out there?”

The Captain straightened up and stretched. “Most likely till we leave. It probably thinks it’s established proprietary rights over the patient.”

The Exec chuckled.

At that moment the turtle dived. It was not seen again.

Copyright © 2014 by Henry F. Tonn

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