"Let me tell you all a story," Jory said, settling herself back in the chair and pulling the cat close against her. "Once upon a time, there was a turtle..."

Nela made a sound, halfway between a snort of laughter and a sob.

"Perhaps you've heard this tale before?" Jory asked. "Never mind. You can hear it again, Nela, and you, Bertran. This story is for all of us.

"Once upon a time, there was a turtle who lived in a pond: gray reeds and gray mud and gray moonlight falling, which was what turtles see who cannot see color. Not for him the glory of the sunset or the wonder of the dawn. Not for him the liquid sounds of water moving, the slosh and murmur of the stream, the wind in the trees; for him the difference between shadow and darkness. He was content, as turtles are content, to be deliberate in his habits and slow in his pace, to eat leaves and the ends of worms and suchlike fodder, and to think long slow thoughts on a log with his fellows, where he knew the sunlight was warm though he did not know it was yellow.

"But a time came on an autumn evening, gray leaf and gray thorn and gray mist rising, when he sat overlong on the log after the sun was well down, and the swallows came to drink and hunt on the surface of the pond, dipping and dancing above the ripples, swerving and swooping with consummate grace, so that the turtle saw them as silver and black and beautiful, and all at once, with an urgency he had never known before, he longed for wings.

" 'Oh, I wish I could see them more clearly,' he murmured to the bullfrog on the bank. 'That I might learn to fly.'

" 'If you would see them clearly, you must go to the secret sanctuary of the birds,' said the bullfrog in a careless voice, as though he did not take the matter seriously.

"And when the turtle asked where that was, the bullfrog pointed westward, to the towering mountains, and told the turtle the sanctuary was there, among the crags and abysses, where the birds held their secret convocations and granted wings to certain petitioners. And this made the turtle think how wonderful it would be to go there and come back to tell the bullfrog all about it.

"And on the next night, he asked again where the birds went when they left the pond, and the owl pointed westward with its talon, telling him of towering peaks and break-back chasms in a calm and dismissive voice. And again he thought of making the journey and returning, and of the wonder the bullfrog would feel, and the owl, to hear of it when he came back.

"On the third night, he asked yet again, and this time it was the bat who answered, squeaking as it darted hither and yon, telling of immeasurable heights and bottomless canyons. 'No one dares go there,' the bat squeaked, and the turtle told himself that he dared even if no one else could.

"So, for three nights the turtle had watched, each night his longing growing. And at midnight on the third night, when the bat had spoken and the swallows had departed, the turtle went after them without telling anyone good-bye, slowly dragging himself toward the great mountains to the west.

"He went by long ways and rough ways and hard ways always, first across the desert, where he would have died of thirst had not a desert tortoise showed him how to get moisture from the fruits of a cactus. And then across the stone, where he would have died of hunger had a wandering rabbit not giving him green leaves to eat, and then into the mountains themselves where he would have given up and died many times except for his vision of himself going back to the pond to tell the creatures there of this marvelous and quite surpassing quest.

" 'They didn't know,' the turtle told himself. 'They had no idea what it would be like. They made it sound easy, but when I go back to tell them what it was really like...' And he dreamed the cold nights away visualizing himself telling his story to his kindred turtles on the sunlit log, and to the bullfrog among the reeds, and to the owl and the bat, all of whom would be admiring and astonished at his bravery and his perseverance.

"And so, sustained by this ambition, he went higher and higher yet, gray stone and gray cliff and gray rain falling, year after year, until he came at last to the place the swallows danced in the air above the bottomless void.

"When they saw him, they stopped dancing to perch beside him on the stone, and when he saw them there, silver and black, beautiful as a night lit with stars, he was possessed once again by a great longing, and he told them of his desire for wings.

" 'Perhaps you may have wings, but you must give up your shell,' they cried. And even as they told him he might have wings, he seemed to hear in their voices some of the carelessness he had heard in the voice of the owl and the bat and the bullfrog, who had told him where to go without telling him the dangers of the way. He heard them rightly, for the winged gods have a divine indifference toward those who seek flight. They will not entice and they will not promise and they will not make the way easy, for those who wish to soar must do so out of their heart's desire and their mind's consent and not for any other reason.

"And the turtle struggled with himself, wanting wings but not wanting wings, for if he had wings, they told him, he would no longer be interested in going back to the pond to tell the creatures there of his journey -- that comfortable telling, the anticipation of which had been, perhaps, more important to him than the wings themselves. So, he struggled, wanting and not wanting..."

Her voice trailed off.

"And," cried Bertran. "Tell the ending!"

"There is no ending," said Jory. "I do not know what he chose to do."

"He should have gone back to his people," cried Nela. "He'd have been contented there. He'd have told his story in the evenings, and the little turtles would have clapped their feet together..."

"Yes," said Danivon. "They'd have danced and drunk beer, and everyone would have asked him to tell again..."

"No doubt he'd have enjoyed that," Jory said.

"Perhaps, when he had given up his shell, he would have found there were no wings," said Bertran from some remote corner of himself. "No wings, and no shell either. It is hard to be content with your shell when you have seen the birds flying, but it is hard to choose wings when you aren't sure where they will take you."

"That's true," said Jory. "And it's a troubling thought."

Fringe stared at her feet and said nothing, though she felt Jory's eyes upon here.

Jory put here head against the back of the chair and closed her eyes, her hand moving on the cat's back, the cat purring, the chair rocking.

"I didn't know she knew that story," whispered Bertran.

"But she didn't know the ending," said Nela.

"No one knows the ending," said Fringe, staring at the dust, her mind a tumult of doubt and suspicion. "Each of us has to choose it for herself."

Sideshow, by Sheri S. Tepper