Thousand-year-old is an exaggeration. The turtle emerged only to bellow at the cranes as they sloshed in ahead of the rains, and no creature along this reach of the river could claim more than eight or ten sightings.
“KEEP OFF MY PRAWNS!”
The turtle was roundly ignored.
On leave from ferrying souls between worlds, the cranes had tales to tell, calls to trumpet and leap-and-bow and dance to.
But one day, a young crane stepped away from the waggling blob to wash ashes off his wings. The turtle squinted at the youngster, who stared back then bent his head and thought of the marsh’s bounty – water lilies and sedge tubers; an occasional grasshopper; farther upland, panicles of rice nodding at the wind… Finally he shrugged, “mmm yeah sure, I’ll ask ‘em to keep off.”
Diffidence proved even less effective than crankiness. As soon as the crane had learned to persuade, he too had other interests to trumpet and leap-and-bow and dance to.
Over time the conflict shifted. Villages ringed the marshland. Banked up against its edge were ponds stocked with prawns and fiercely guarded.
No one pegged their good fortune to counting cranes. The flock dwindled from thousands to hundreds to tens.
Then came the great flood. It rained for months. The river roiled. Embankments gave way.
The crane struggled to rise off the rushing waters until he found himself atop the back of the turtle.
Defeated, the crane took his leave.
The next years brought not a drop of rain. Villages sprawled onto what the marshland ceded until it was but a dun cracked shell.
The turtle poked his head out. His bellow whirled downwind toward the estuary. Soon he felt the crane’s grip on his back.
The crane opened his wings, stretched his neck, and ferried away the thousand-year-old turtle.