Lao Song’s Turtles

By Nicole Stanton

Lao Song lived in a small cottage by the Yangtze River where the crickets sing all day and night. It was a tiny cottage big enough for the old woman, her three turtles, and an orange her cat which she kept only because to send the cat away would be the same as sending away her fortune.

Lao was a very superstitious woman. She always ate her fish from the head to tail. She never cut her toenails at night out of fear of falling over the next day. Once she woke her husband after a dream, saying, “Wang, I dreamed of salmon. We are going to have baby boy.” Nine months later Lao brought their only son into the world. But that was all long ago. Long before the war took the boy’s life, long before the woman moved to the river with her turtles. Because Lao believed her turtles kept away evil spirits she was sure to always consult with them before making any decisions.

One day the old woman was picking tomatoes in her garden when a hen came to her gate. “That’s strange,” Lao thought, watching the hen, “who could be coming to visit me?” But when Lao looked to the small dirt road a girl appeared from behind a bend. She was a too old to be a girl but too young to be a woman. The girl’s skinny legs and feet were bare and her head was covered by a big straw worn by the village farmers.

“Ni hao,” the girl waved as she approached the elderly woman’s gate. The hen went clucking past the girl back in the direction of the village.

The old woman was not accustomed to receiving visitors, especially ones announced by a hen. “Ni hao,” Lao answered. “What can I do for you?” the old woman asked.

“I am to be married soon and need the blessing from the wisest living soul,” the girl said in a rehearsed manner all the while staring down at her shoeless feet. “The oldest man in the village passed away last week which means you are now the wisest and must give the blessing,” she finished with a sigh indicating the message had been delivered.

“Oh dear, I will have to tell the wise one we are the next to go,” the old woman said and then pointed to the ground under the girl, “Doesn’t the ground hurt your feet?” she asked, pointing to the girls feet.

The girl gave a rich laugh that filled Lao with the memory of youth that was so distant for her. “No,” answered the girl, “my feet are used to the ground and the ground is used to my feet.”

“Let us come out of the sun child,” Lao turned towards her cottage, “better to talk over tea.” The girl opened the gate followed the woman toward the house stopping just before entering the house.

“What is that,” the girl asked, pointing to a silver “u” hanging from a red thread above the front door.

“It’s called a Horseshoe. Long ago, long before the big sky buildings, my husband went to the city and a white man gave it him. He said it would bring good luck to a home.”

“It looks like a necklace for a giant,” said the girl, “Why does it point up and not down?”

“Silly child, if it pointed down then all the good luck would run out” replied Lao and proceeded into her house.

When the girl entered the house she was very surprised. The cottage was filled with trinkets and do-dads of every shape and color. Crystals hung in front of the two windows where they caught the sun, casting small circle rainbows on the walls that were draped with herbs and exotic flowers which filled the air with a perfume of the earth. There was even a birdcage on wheels filled with books. The girl knew each curio had its own story; a fragment of a life with a unique tale, and she wanted to hear them all. But what caught the girl’s attention were the three temples built into the corners the living room. Each was of a different size, with a different color roof, and a hole where a door would have been if it were indeed a temple.

The tiniest temple had a red roof with a hole the size a grapefruit. The second temple was a little bigger, with a hole the size of a small watermelon, and an orange roof. The last and largest temple was very elaborate, with a yellow roof and gold trimmings. The girl thought about getting  down on her hands and knees and crawling inside the yellow-roofed temple but her thought dissipated into the musty air when the old woman handed her a cup of boiled water with green tea leaves.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Lao asked, following the girl’s gaze. “Come, let us sit at the table.” Nudged between Lao’s body and the crook of her arm was a small round rock with strange geometric markings which she transferred to her lap once she took her seat at the small circle table. The girl sat and listened to the rolling hum of a big orange cat that was stretched across the table. The animal’s furry belly was pushing up and down as it purred in the content state between sleep and rest that only cats can master.

“I’ve never seen so many strange things in all my life as I have in just one day here,” the girl said.

“Strange?” said the old woman, “Things only seem strange when you have yet to understand them.” The girl watched Lao speak and saw that the old woman’s fingers were tapping the rock on her lap as though it were a small piano.

“Why do you live alone by the river?” the girl asked.

“After my husband died I thought, ‘I will go live by the river so I will always have crickets to bring me good luck, if one cricket leaves then another will come. If there are always crickets, then I am never alone.”

The girl had never thought of animals as company. She selected her next question carefully just in case the old woman grew tired of curiosities. “Why do have three temples?” The girl asked.

“For my three turtles.”

“Turtles? But I don’t see any turtles.”

“That’s because they are in their houses,” The old woman replied.

“Why are the roofs different colors?”

“Each turtle has his purpose, same as you and me, same as every color,” Lao explained.

“So why does the tiny temple have roof red?” the girl asked. The girl’s two small white feet were playing with each other under the table, the excited toes rubbing each other, curling and bending, waiting for the old woman’s answer.

“Because red is the color of longevity, and since the tiniest turtle is the youngest, he will live the longest.”

“So what is his purpose,” the girl asked.

“He goes with me to the market and helps to make the easy decisions,” Lao answered.

“But turtles don’t talk,” the girl interrupted.

“He doesn’t need to talk. I tell him, ‘left for carrots, or right for potatoes,’ and whichever way he turns his head is the one I buy.”

“So if you let the little turtle decide what you will eat for dinner then what does the orange roof turtle decide?”

The old woman smiled. It made her happy to see tiny stars beginning to blink in the night of the girls black eyes. “You are such a curious girl. I can see you will live a full life. Orange is the color of change. Whenever I need to make a decision that is too big for the little turtle, I go to the middle turtle. But since that turtle is deaf I write the question on the floor with rice grains.”

“But how do you know the answer?” the girl asked, he feet still fidgeting.

“I write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ under the question and whichever word gets scattered then I know the answer must be the one that still remains.”

“That is so clever,” cried the girl. “Tell me, what about the yellow roof? That temple is so big I could fit inside. That could be the turtle that helped Pangu lift up the world.”

“My dear child you are right,” Lao answered. “That turtle is very old and very wise which is why his roof is the color of wisdom. He crawled into my bedroom when I was a little girl and I have kept him my whole life.” The old woman stopped tapping the small rock and the girls feet mimicked the old woman’s fingers, both becoming still. “Sabio took me to the owl the night my son died.”

The girl sense the tale, deep inside the old woman’s treasure chest of memories that seemed to reach further into the past than the her hundred years of her life.“Please tell me the story,” the girl asked.

The old woman closed her eyes and began to talk, “I remember the night my son left this world like it was yesterday. I knew it was going to be a bad year because my husband had killed a snake. He did not know it is bad fortune to kill a snake. The snake had been eating our chicken eggs, so one day my husband waited for the snake to come and when it slithered to the nest, he chopped the snake’s head off.  Worse, the snake had four babies so I knew when the ghost of the mother took its revenge that it would be four bad things would happen.”

“That is very unlucky. My mother told me four is the unlucky number of death.” said the girl. Her mother had also spoken before of ghosts seeking their revenge, but she had always thought that they were just stories. Now that the words were coming from the mouth of the oldest woman in the village, the girl was beginning to doubt her mother’s beliefs as old wives’ tales.

“First, all the chickens died,” the old woman continued. “Then, a man wearing a uniform with four pockets and seven buttons came to our house and told us that our son must go to war. For four months we heard nothing of our son. We forgot about the snake’s revenge. But then, one night in the tenth month, the month of ghosts, I heard the ‘whooo whoooo’ of the death bird. The cries were so loud that I knew my mind would not find sleep again. I went to the window and searched the night for death’s messenger bird, but it was too black. Then, the wise turtle crawled over my foot and I waited for him to show me where to look. He dawdled slowly through the hole in the door and into the yard.”

“Did you go into the night?” interrupted the girl in a decimal that woke the cat and stopped his supply of tiny purr reverberations. “My mother told me never open the door to the night because the spirits of the dark will think your were inviting them into the house.”

The old woman opened her eyes and stared at the girl. “This time was different,” she said. “The ghost of the snake was already in the house and taking her revenge.” Lao closed her eyes again before continuing, “It took a long time for Sabio to cross the yard to the big tree. The whole time the death bird kept letting out his ‘whooo whoooo’s’. When we finally reached the tree, wise turtle stopped and looked up. I looked up too. There, barely visible in the fog of the night, were two eyes glowing from a hole in the tree. With the message delivered he let out no more calls. The next day a different man wearing the same uniform came to my house and told me my son died the night before. The final revenge of the snake was I never gave him his burial rites.”

The girl felt sorry for the old woman. “Do you miss them?”


“Your family?”

“Of course. But my husband visits every night when I turn on the night light. He flies over my bed and keeps me company until I say good night and turn off the light.” The young girl and the woman sat in quiet harmony both thinking of the night moths that old woman believed to be her husband.

“How did you know he was the right man to marry?” the girl asked, her feet were dancing again.

“It was very easy,” Lao laughed,“I was very young. Younger than you.” Again she closed her milky eyes to let the memory fill her thoughts. “One day I was thinking about the man I would marry when a ladybug flew onto my hand. I looked down at it and sang an old village song,

‘Ladybug, ladybug, red and black,

Bring me back what lack,

Ladybug, ladybug, black and red,

Bring me back the man I’ll wed’

And then I said, ‘whichever direction you fly away will be the direction my husband comes’ and I blew on it softly. For three weeks I watched the road to the East until one day a young man came on a donkey. He rode straight up to my house, tied his donkey to our fence and told my father in his village dialect, ‘I marry your daughter. I have a donkey and strong arms. I will plow many rice fields to fatten her.’”

“But how did you know you would love him?” the girl laughed, knees and feet shaking in anticipation.

“My father let the young man speak with me once he understood the boy. We went to the garden. ‘I want you to be my wife,’ the young man said to me. I tried to see his face but the sun was behind his head so I heard only his voice. I thought, bad sign to see only black. But then a ladybug of the deepest scarlet red flew onto my hand and I knew then that it was good luck. The day we got married the cat was sneezing so much I asked ma if she put pepper under its nose. She just laughed and told me, ‘it was a going to be good match. Be happy for my fortune.”

Just as Lao finished her story a rooster crowed. A tiny head began to peep out from the small round rock in Lao’s lap.

“I thought that was a rock,” The girl said, heading bobbing up and down from the turtle to the old woman.

“Now why would I walk around with a rock?” asked the old woman, looking down at the turtle and then following its gaze to a large rooster perched on the gate. “When a cock crows while on a fence  in the afternoon it means rain.” At that exact moment the cat began to sneeze. “Oh Pangu help us all. It is going to be a big storm,” the old woman said, pointing to the cat. “Cats always sneeze when heavy rain are going to come. They allergic to the wet, you know. Just thinking about the wetness in the air tickles their nose.  You should go home now.”

“What about the wedding?” The girl asked, “What should I tell my family when I return home? They want me to marry a man I’ve never met before.”

Lao gently placed the tiny creature on the floor before rising from her hard wooden chair. The girl watched the woman cross the room to the corner that housed the yellow-roofed temple. She moved like someone carrying a bowl of hot soup ready to overflow: each step was slow and meticulously planned. She knocked three times on the temple’s roof using just her middle knuckles. The girl half expected a tiny person to come out of the entrance but after a few moments a cylindric head emerged. Where there should have been two eyes, there was only a thin and wrinkly layer of skin.

“Hello wise one,” The old woman greeted her old friend. “A girl from the village wants my blessing for her marriage. Neither she, nor I know the man.”

The girl was unaware that she was standing on her tippy-toes as she waited for the turtle’s answer but no words came. She waited for it to start walking, but it remained in its temple. She watched Lao for guidance but she did not move or give the turtle further instructions. The girl began to rock from her heals onto her toes until the turtle forced his head further out of it shell and began to stretch it backwards. Backwards the cylindric head went till it started to look like the silver “u” hanging above the door outside.

“The turtle is going to snap his head off if he keeps pushing it up and back like that,” cried the girl.

“Don’t be silly child. Us old creatures have stretched our lives so thin through the years our bodies are like rubber. Remember, things only seem strange when you have yet to understand them.” The woman squinted up into the corner of the roof. “Old turtle is always so wise. There is spider crawling down a web. That means you’ll go on an adventure.”

“But I still don’t know what to do,” said the girl. “How will I know?”

The old woman turned to the girl and smiled. “How does a blind turtle know where to look if he cannot see? The turtle can see what our eyes cannot because instead of looking at the things in this world he listens to all the sounds around him. Life is full of signs in the world, you just need to learn to follow them.”