"When my grandfather was a young man and living in Great Britain, he bought a giant tortoise," says Brendt, cupping his hands over his coffee, harboring the warmth in his palms. Haney has finished his own drink and has pushed the mug to the side. His hands are balled in front of him. He listens.
"There was a department store near his home, and on occasion, the store would sponsor exotic animal fairs just outside the entrance. The salesmen were English blacks or Middle-Easterns, but they would dress in Oriental and African garb. They would wear bright dashikis or secondhand Eastern silk, and they would have cages with them, and inside the cages were the beasts for sale. Snakes, lion cubs, panda bears, rainbow-feathered birds...that sort of thing."
"Illegal, isn't it?" interjects Haney.
"Yes, of course. But domestic laws involving wildlife were only half-shaped by then, and those that had settled were widely ignored. The police, even, were so taken by the spectacle that they would stop and look and marvel at all the imported life. Infant lions chained up and made to roar with a stick; giant lizards, the size of a man's wingspan."
"Truly. There were books available, of course, that had illustrations of some of these things, but to see them up close...to know they really existed, and to see how they moved and behaved...it was remarkable."
"I can imagine."
Brendt pauses to take a sip of coffee. The heater underneath the nearby window starts to choke. Brendt's home is small and cold. Haney keeps his fingers dancing to ward off the chill.
Brendt lowers his cup and licks his lips. He continues.
"Now, my grandfather never thought much of these shows. He knew of perverted European exhibits like this. Marvels of Africa, Great Beasts of the Orient. Treating entire cultures like flea markets and freak shows. He knew a few hundred years prior, those cages housed blacks. Those chains were attached to dark men with price tags at their feet.
"And due to both the rarity of the creatures and the risk involved, both in procuring and selling them, prices were enormous. He was a young man studying and holding a menial job just to get by, and the last thing he could afford was some huge, expensive, and useless animal, beautiful though many of them were."
"But still, he would pass by in and out of the department store, and, reasonable though his thinking may have been, his curiosity would sometimes get the best of him, and he would spend time there, watching the animals."
"I don't blame him. I doubt I'd find the strength to resist."
"Nor would I. The one animal that really caught his attention, time after time, was a turtle. What he thought was a turtle, at least, but it was actually a giant tortoise. The children would line up to see the man-eaters and the pythons, but he would sit alone on the sidewalk, observing the tortoise. There wasn't much to see, of course. The animal would be completely still for minutes at a time, and when it moved, it was slight and deliberate. But what many dismissed as dull, my grandfather saw as sort of noble. There was a dignity in the tortoise that he felt was overlooked. Nobody came to see this big, lumbering thing. Except for him."
Brendt sips his coffee and realizes it has gone cold, and so he pushes it away. Outside, the wind moans like a fresh widow.
"One day, he got the attention of one of the keepers, and when the man came over, my grandfather asked, what kind of turtle is that? And the man said, it's not a turtle, it's a tortoise. My father asked, what is a tortoise, exactly? And the man said, it's sort of like a turtle.
"And the man said, this is an Aldabra giant tortoise."
"From certain islands in Seychelles, off the eastern coast of Africa."
"I've never been," quipped Haney.
"Nor I," said Brendt. "The man told him that the tortoise was 60 years old. My father was amazed. It was far older than he was; older, even, than his father, my great-grandfather, would have been, had he not been killed. He had no idea a tortoise could live so long. So he asked the man, how long do these animals usually live?"
"And the man told him, around 100 years."
"My grandfather went home and took the savings from inside his mattress and returned to the store. He bought the tortoise on the spot. He was living in a house with a gate and a small garden. He kept the tortoise in the garden. He was studying Shakespeare at the time, and so he named the tortoise Voltimand."
"Not Hamlet? Not Romeo?"
"The lions and the serpents were named Romeo and Hamlet. The tortoise was clearly a supporting character."
"Of course," says Haney, smiling.
"My grandfather was a young man, as I said, and had plans to live at least as long the tortoise had left. He fed Voltimand, which was easy, and, besides that, there was little in the way of caretaking. But he loved that tortoise. He enjoyed the animal's company so much, in fact, that he would often turn down invitations to the pub from friends, preferring a night in, studying the tortoise. Understanding how it lived. How it spent its time."
"It may as well have been a dog," says Haney.
"For my grandfather, yes. He treated it like a dog. It was his companion, and he was its master. Domesticated dogs retain their pack instincts, to some extent. A dog sees its master as the alpha. It sees not an owner or even a friend, but an infallible being. A creator. A god."
"But a tortoise is not a dog, is it? It has no pretensions of god. It isn't lost without us. Its life is no more defined by its creator than by itself.
"And so, when my grandfather died, the tortoise was 95. Wildlife laws had gotten more stringent by then, but my father inherited the animal anyway and kept him in private on his farm. It soon became obvious that the English keeper had severely underestimated Voltimand's lifespan."
"Because, right around when my father became ill and passed, Voltimand was nearing 140."
Haney shakes his head in disbelief.
"My family had no idea how long its property had planned to exist."
"And Voltimand is where, now?"
"In the care of my brother," says Brendt, "Whom Voltimand, no doubt, plans to watch die as well."
The men are silent. There are no more sounds outside, of automobiles or jovial drunks. The world is still. Contemplative. Between battles.
"It's remarkable, to repeat the word, Haney," wonders Brendt, "that we are so boldly naive as to assume immortality for our masters."
Haney's hands are quiet, as well.
"Or that it should matter, for good or bad," Brendt adds.
Haney checks his wristwatch. It is deep into the twilight. He stands from his chair and yawns and stretches.
"I apologize, Brendt, but I must sleep. It is late."
Brendt nods and reclaims his cold coffee. He finishes what is left of it and wipes his lips.
"Indeed, Haney. It is."