Sometimes the best thing in fiction, especially in its shorter forms, is simplicity. In Reid Wegner’s (very) short story “Testudo,” the premise is just that: simple. There is a tortoise, living in captivity, who suffers. There’s much to admire about this piece, but what I first noticed was its refreshingly basic formula, of an animal who suffers by the hands of its oblivious human antagonists. This is also a familiar formula—in reading it, one can’t help but think of Black Beauty or Watership Down, and of countless other stories one often encounters in childhood. And yet while “Testudo” is certainly a story that’s been told before, like all fiction’s been told before—it simultaneously stands apart, like all fiction will do if it’s any good.
One of the most obvious differences in “Testudo” is its unusual characterization of the tortoise, Nikolai. The story is written from his perspective, and while animals in fiction are often merited more intelligence than they realistically possess, Nikolai has a believable level of intelligence for a tortoise. Unlike Sewell’s Black Beauty or Adams’s Hazel, Wegner has written Nikolai to have a level of thinking that is not on par with a human’s thoughts. Nikolai is dumb, and he gets dumber as the story advances because his continued captivity. I like that “Testudo” then works to subvert the fairy-tale conception that tortoises are these reverenced, sage creatures. Nikolai is not well-respected by his owner, who forgets to change the lighting in his habitat to simulate day and night, thus subjecting him to “a bewildering string of days beneath an insomniac sun, or…an endless Scandinavian night” . His owner’s forgetfulness, along with the fact that Nikolai is native to Afghanistan but was ousted to icy Russia, create a confusion in the tortoise that only worsens with his age. There is much longsuffering. He declines, scrabbling at the bottom of his plastic bin every day although it gets him nowhere; this makes for a dismal story.
Nikolai’s decline makes for another interesting dynamic in “Testudo.” While a tortoise’s shell is typically depicted as a helpful and unique asset, Nikolai slowly begins to see his shell as a mocking burden. In his sterile but safe captivity, where he doesn’t need his shell to protect him from predators, the shell begins to weigh on him. He’s always tired. He thinks about what sort of creature he might have been had he not been given such a colossal mass to shoulder. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the shell will outlive him—even though it’s inanimate.
While Nikolai’s decline is certainly tragic, what’s most tragic about this story (in a good way) is the ending. At the story’s close, after all of his struggles in captivity, Nikolai symbolically retreats back into his shell, where he says he’ll stay “for the rest of the season, or for the year, or, if need be, for the rest of his life” . (As an aside, the ending is satisfyingly circular, since the story began with Nikolai’s cautious emergence from his shell.) In his final gesture, what once was an object of torment to Nikolai has again become his tool of self-protection—as it should be—only the self-protection’s now from his own artificial habitat and unfeeling human captor. So what I like about this final move—and the piece in summation—is that it’s a tragic tale about a protagonist who doesn’t realize that his story is a tragedy. Throughout, Nikolai lives ‘in the dark’ about the twisted darkness of his life, always expressing confusion but never resentment. This makes the tortoise’s final gesture ironic: As he retreats into his shell, Nikolai experiences a physical darkness and yet still doesn’t comprehend the larger darkness and tragedy of his own existence.
“Testudo” by Reid Wegner can be found in Issue 90 of The Greensboro Review.
Emma Boggs is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and an Editorial Assistant forThe Greensboro Review.