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The Tortoise and the Gem of Priceless Value: A Poem by D.M.D. Goodhead

The Tortoise and the Gem of Priceless Value

(For the incomparable ST)

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The mighty drum roared in the arena,
its bull neck throbbing with the fever
of an urgent message for a town
still in the deep throes of night’s
fabled gift.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The drummer cleared his throat
and cleared it again. His short legs
rested on firm supports. His heart beat
with the ferocity of the pestle on a heap
of pounded yam. He looked to his left,
and to his right. His feverish hands
rested on the bull voice of the drum
and went to work again. He had an urgent
message for the town. In the belly of the still fading
night he had dreamt of a gem of priceless value
and its refuge in the deep bosom of the earth.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The animals separated themselves
from the still heavy embrace of sleep,
scratched their eyes until they were sore,
and sharp as the slowly unfolding light of the morning,
and trudged to the arena, the clamorous voice
of the heavy drum putting the fire to their feet.
None wanted to be told by his neighbor
of what had transpired in the market square,
while he kept company with fabled sleep.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

I dreamt last night of a jewel of priceless value.
Her kind I have never seen before and will
likely never see again. Her light was like the light
of a thousand stars, her burnished face like the face
of the golden wayfarer of the gentle sky.
I intend to find her. Ah, to seek until I have ferreted
her out from her hidden stable and ride into the sunset with her.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

Ah, tortoise has come again. The loose-lipped
fellow has come again with his bag of empty dreams,
and empty sallies forth and back, his path scattered
with the mildew of last season’s empty dreams.

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

Ah, ha, said the tortoise,
your guffaws cannot deter me.
I have heard them so many times;
they no longer trouble me.
I will proceed right away
on this seven-knotted task,
a day’s supply of food
and my working tools
will be companions enough.

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

Immediately, the tortoise set off
for the hard-boiled task,
a day’s supply of food,
and his working tools,
his only companions.

The smiling clown of the sky
was at this time still girding himself
for the day’s task, his fabled smile
carefully tucked away behind the shutters
of a day still throbbing with the colors
of the night before.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The fabled worker went about his work,
searching with eager eyes the portion
of the earth he had espied in his dream
the hallowed portion holding the star-kissed
prize of the star-ridden Milky Way.

At last, a loud roar went up,
just before the powers of the tortoise
had begun to fade into the now brilliant day,
just before the doughty twins courage and hope
had made good their threat to flee his already sagging spirit.

A loud roar went up,
for his powers were many fold rekindled,
the redoubtable twins gathered on the threshold,
pressing their shoulders to the task at hand.
The tortoise pressed his sinews to the task
like one covering several leagues
in one magical bound.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The light-hearted day drummed its way
across the mighty savanna of the sky.
The earth rumbled with the gritty labor
of the fabled fellow of animal town.
His feverish blows rose and fell
on the unforgiving earth. His strength
ebbed like the receding waters of the low tide,
but the dream manacled his hands
to the sweat-ridden shovel, and kept them there,
even as the merry clown of the sky rode
its fleet-footed horse into the gathering night.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The darkening day brought the animals
from their labors like fireflies gathering
around a feast in the belly of the night
to the earth where the tortoise his strength
now ebbing faster than a fleeing tide
stood in a deep hole, a pick axe
in his hands, breaking the stubborn earth,
and his back almost bent double
with the rigors of the back-bending labor.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

Tortoise, O foolish tortoise,
have you found the gem of priceless
value yet? Or is the legendary madness of yours
on the threshold of getting a lasting cure?

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

I am indeed standing at the spot of the earth,
where my wandering eye—poor fellow—espied
the great prize buried thick in the bosom
of the unyielding earth. And my powers,
puny as they are, have bent themselves
to the task and will not give themselves
a holiday until they have prized away the earth
from the face of the jeweled one. Now,
if this be madness, I assure you sirs,
that it is indeed about to get a lasting cure,
for the more I dig the closer I get
to the jewel of jewels, the fabled prize
of my dreams.

The tortoise wiped the sweat
from his throbbing brow,
and kept on digging.
The night spread thick
over the earth. A silken
blanket, it spread like
a tarpaulin over the earth.
The animals began to drift
away to find solace amongst
the seven hundred pillows of the night.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

Alone again, the tortoise surveyed
the work of his hands with the sharp
eyes of the eagle king. What he had
done was great. But what was left
to be done was greater. The tortoise
groaned, despair rampaging through
the acres of his soul like a band
of urchins on the loose.

I am mistaken, he told himself.
It was a dream and nothing more.
And if it was no mere dream,
then it was false. I ought not
to be here but in the soft, silken
embrace of sweet night, resting
my tired body and soul, and
dreaming not false, wind-chasing
dreams, but dreams of a happier hue,
enriching both the body and the soul,
that both waking at the stir
of the fabled fellow of the sky,
will venture into the day refreshed
like a sapling just bursting
from its shoot.

He was hungry.
He was tired.
A battalion of ants
broke into a civil war
in the austere fields
of his yawning stomach.

A slight fever struck
a vicious blow to his temple,
and threatened to embrace
him in a vice-like grip.

Ah, ah, all is lost, cried he,
as the fever threatened to gambol
on the taut earth of the hallowed bowl.
But the vision appeared again,
sharp as he had first seen it
in the smooth folds of fabled night.
And at once he gave a roar that traveled
across the vast expanse of his sagging spirit.
Invigorated, he once again sallied into the fray,
reborn in the cusps of the breaking day.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

The afternoon came, hanging onto
the coattails of the departing day.
And once again his fellow animals
gathered around the deepening hole
and raised a clamor that was heard
round the town. Tortoise, O foolish
Tortoise, have you found the gem
of priceless value yet?

The sweat poured from his aching
brow like a barrel of water burst
open in the middle of a busy road.
His bones creaked like a regiment
in mutiny. His muscles ached
like a bevy of roaring canons.
Deep in the belly of his sagging
spirit came the cry to hoist himself
out of the hole and be done
with his irredeemable foolishness.
But his hands would not venture
away from the bone-headed shovel.

I wish I could be done, he said.
I wish I could hoist myself
out of this forbidding hole,
and carry my near-dead feet
to the singing river and take
a dip, and going with the current
forget all my sorrows in its
laughter-giving bosom.
But here I am stuck with the tail
of a dubious dream—at least, so
it is beginning to look to me—
with no way out until I have
got to the bottom of the matter.
And, so, I must continue in my
labors, harsh and unforgiving
as it is, and prove to myself
beyond even the worst of my doubts
that my dream was a chimera,
or, nay, an oasis in the midst
of a famished night.

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

We said you were out of your senses,
and say it again that you wear madness
like a new suit of clothing, a new suit
for each season, and what fine suits
of clothing, they keep us entertained
even in the midst of a harvest of sad

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

Thus they assailed him, pelting him
with the mildew of previous mishaps,
guffawing loudly till their eyes ran
like the swift-flowing water of
a high tide, and their throats sour
from overuse ached for the balm
of the rapturous wonders of
an unpolluted stream.

But the fireflies began to traverse
the arteries of the night. Their flaming
torches bringing in thoughts of blessed
sleep and rest from the harshness
of the day’s labors.

Accordingly, their remaining salvos
were quickly fired and weary feet
followed the trails of night’s wardens,
since the moon had disdained to reveal
herself even for a one-eyed look
at the sorrows of the tortoise.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

Alone with himself and his labors,
his weary hands fell to working again,
until aching beyond the pain of ache,
the tortoise cried aloud, fool, fool,
I am a common fool, and should be
out of here, for now I am convinced
this surely is nothing but madness.
Where, where, is the rope?
I must hoist myself up, and be gone
from this hole of despair.

But at the very moment of his cry,
his shovel struck a hard object,
and as if eager to offer the tortoise
her services to make up for her
earlier disdain, the moon now
revealed an enormous smile,
benevolent as a river filled
from its bottom to its sky-seeing
top with healthy fish.

At once, tiredness disappeared
from all the nooks and crannies
where it had lodged itself in
the tortoise’s body and spirit.
It fled like a marauder surprised
in the act by the vigil-keeping
owner of the house.

The tortoise fell on his hands
and feet and with the adroit
services of a scraping shovel
began to shave the dirt away
from the face of the enormous
promise that lay beneath it.

He had not gone very far
when a blinding light threw, nay,
knocked him to his back,
for in one not-too-careful
scoop he had revealed
the radiant one in all
her beauty.

Picking himself up with the bounce
of a trampoline, he shielded his
eyes from the glorious gaze
with one hand, and with the other
continued to scrap away the sodden
earth from the radiant face of the beautiful

At last, the great beauty was revealed
in all her wonders, and this was no
little matter, for the light of the priceless
beauty was so powerful its fleet-footed
rays rose in majestic grandeur in a towering
beam from the bowels of the despairing earth.
So powerful was the light, its fleet-footed
rays immediately gathered up all
the watchmen of the night and shooed
them out of the sleep-laden town.
As it were in a dream, each animal
espied this glorious light, and taking
quick leave from the fabled one of the night
rushed out of their trusted hearths.

Dim, dim, dim, dim, dim, dim

They ran as if a nine-eyed plague
had set fire to their tails
until their singing feet came to rest
on that same piece of earth where
not too long ago they had pelted
the tortoise with the mildew
of his past mishaps.

Once they had formed a thick
knot around the gaping sore
of the earth from which came
beauty so glorious, each animal
had to shield his eyes, or sacrifice it
and go wandering in the desert
of the night for the rest of his days;
their spokesman, the hedgehog,
cleared his throat, once, twice, thrice,
for the ritual for the august occasion
demanded no less, and raised his voice
like a well-blown trumpet so
that the ears of the inhabitant of
the gaping earth could be the beneficiary
of his words.

Ah, ha, said the hedgehog, ah, ha,
dear Tortoise, ah, my dear, dear
tortoise, valiant warrior, the most
respected of all the animals,
O wise tortoise, what is the meaning
of this blinding light that seeks
to put the laughter of the moon,
and the radiance of the sun to shame?

Ah, ha, said Tortoise, ah, ha,
my dear hedgehog, ah, my dear, dear
hedgehog, tell me sir, my dear sir,
my dear, dear sir, what do you think?

The tortoise was in the best of his elements,
his spirit towering as high as Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I guess we can see for ourselves, said the hedgehog,
almost chewing his tongue. If this glorious light
be not from the gem of priceless value
for which you went in pursuit, and for which
you have labored like the unceasing seasons
these past two days, I should go to my trusted
hearth and not venture out again, for wisdom
must have packed her bag and baggage
and left me in an unseeing darkness.

Wisely spoken, my dear hedgehog, ah, my
very dear hedgehog, you need not worry
that wisdom has marooned you on an island
and forbidden even her minions to sail
by your shores. You are wise, sir, and you
have spoken wisely. What more is there
to add to your sage words but to affirm
them firmly and that I do without
any reserve. Yes, sir, you are right.

Well spoken, my dear tortoise, well spoken.
Now, do be kind to hear what next is
on my mind, for I know that I speak
for everyone here. (The rest of the animals
nodded their heads as one.) It is clear to us
as the light of the fabled fellow of the sky
that you need help in ferrying up this
worthy gem from this woebegone cellar
that sits like a truculent wound on the face
of the earth.

Hum, hum, hum, hum, hum, hum

All the animals shook their heads
in firm affirmation.

Ah, no grandpa hedgehog, said the tortoise,
his spirit stirring in him like the waltzing flight
of the eagle when his heart is merry beyond telling.
An animal who has dug all morning, all afternoon, O
my dear, dear hedgehog, and all night for a prize
such as this should have what it takes to take care
of her without interference from his neighbors.

Wisely spoken, ah, wisely spoken, said the hedgehog,
but don’t forget—a disconsolate sigh—that a stone
of priceless value is like the sun. She is not seen by just
one pair of eyes.

I know, I know, grandpa hedgehog—a sylph of a smile
spread across his face—but a gem is a gem, and though
other eyes might admire her, only one pair gets to keep her.
So saying, the tortoise hurled the gem of priceless value
out of the gaping wound of the earth, hoisted her onto
the back of his wooden horse and rode off in a cloud of hibiscus
dust into the still unfolding day.


(c) D.M.D. Goodhead

D. M. D. Goodhead
D. M. D. Goodhead
D. M. D. Goodhead. has a Bachelors in literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of Washington. He won third place in the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright literary competition in 1999. He will be concluding his Ph.D. in literary theory and criticism in June 2008. In addition to theory and criticism, Goodhead's other areas of interest are African and African Diaspora Studies, Post-colonial Studies, Theatre and movie-making.

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