Author's Note: This story takes place shortly after April's encounter with Leonardo early on in the CGI movie. Those who enjoy this story may also want to check out a related one-shot of mine, Las Cosas Penquenitas.
Before we get to the story, I've included translations to some Spanish phrases used within. I translated as many as I could within the text because I know it can be annoying to have to scroll back up, but for some it was just too clunky. Once again, for the Spanish speakers out there, please feel free to correct me if I've botched any of it.
Está bien, mi hermano – It's okay, my brother
Cariblancos – white-faced monkeys
Pura vida – A standard Costa Rican greeting or farewell. In the context of this story, it would mean something like "good journey" or "live well"
Tortugitas – little turtles
Lo siento – I'm sorry
Vamos – Let's go
The timing was all wrong.
It was early. Much too early—or much too late, depending on how you looked at it, and Leonardo could feel the beads of sweat dripping, crawling like legions of army ants down his skin. The only parts of him that didn't feel scorched were his feet, periodically washed as they were by the more determined waves of the low tide.
He dearly would have loved to sink down into those waves, to let go, allow the surf to wash over him, cool him, pull him out into the cold vast nothing…
But he couldn't. There were too many innocents counting on him.
Leonardo clenched his jaw and re-gripped his sword. The metal shone almost blindingly in the overhead sun, and he swiftly scanned the rough-hewn shadows where the jungle met the pale expanse of sand, waiting, waiting…
They were growing bolder. When they came out into the open, Leo would be ready for them.
At last they crept out into the full light, cautiously at first, then more confidently as they drew closer to their victims, and finally with a yell Leonardo sprinted forward, sword flashing as he charged them. They immediately turned and retreated into the greenery, but Leo didn't stop running until he'd reached the tree line. He hacked some of the plants with his sword, yelling as he did so to make as much noise as possible, but they only stared down at him with their bare, wizened faces framed in white fur from the safety of the trees, flashing their fangs and shaking branches in their own displays of ferocity.
Leo threw sticks at them, forcing them to climb higher, and finally he turned, panting, and walked back out onto the sand. He crouched and gently picked up a small object dropped by one of the monkeys in its haste, peering closely as he cradled it in his hand.
Baula. A hatchling Leatherback sea turtle, and Leo breathed a sigh of relief when he found it unhurt, the pale knobbed ridges of its flattened carapace contrasting sharply with the charcoal body as its oversized forelimbs continued to move in rapid stroking motions.
"Está bien, mi hermano," he whispered soothingly. He turned, intending to bring the youngster straight to the water, but before he could take a step another threat appeared—from the air this time. The wings flashed black and white as the bird swooped low, making little sound other than the wind whistling through its feathers, and even as Leo started sprinting down the beach, churning up clods of sand in his wake, he knew he was too late. "Aaaaaarrgggghh!" he yelled, again waving his sword, hoping that, as with the monkey, he could startle the caracara into dropping its prize.
But this hatchling wasn't so lucky.
Leo's last glimpse was of small flippers paddling frantically against the sky as the as the hawk-like scavenger disappeared into the glare of the sun.
With a cry of frustration, he sank to his knees and drove the point of his sword into the sand, yelling as he stabbed again and again until his arm was shaking with the effort. At last he stopped, head bowed and still grasping the handle of his sword where it stuck up out of the ground. He was only vaguely aware of the blistering heat of the sand against his legs.
I'm sorry. He bowed his head still lower and tried to swallow back the lump forming in his throat. I'm sorry, forgive me.
And at once, there was an answering voice in his head: Leonahdo—you cannot save dem all.
The turtle's eyes opened wide in shock, and he sucked in a breath. There was no mistaking that nasal, heavily accented voice. "Ancient One," he breathed. He cast his eyes around the beach, at the scores of diminutive sea turtles laboring toward the water. These unfortunates had hatched out of sync with the usual pattern, under the fiery sun instead of the pale glow of the moon, and many had already begun to slow, exhausted and disoriented by heat and dehydration. And with the low tide, the water was still so far away…
"I can't just turn away from them," Leo said, his muscles tensed and his brow pinched with emotion. He looked down at the struggling hatchling he still held in his hand. "So many will die."
And what of de others, fahder down?
Leo's eyes shifted, following the long curve of coastline to the south. Beyond the river that cut across the beach, and the rocky escarpments topped with twisted trees that jutted up behind it, there were more beaches. And beyond them, even more.
"I, I don't know."
You cannot save dem all, the voice repeated.
Leo squinted down at his rescued hatchling, and let go of the hilt of his sword for a few moments to allow it to crawl between his two hands. Then he took hold of the tiny creature's shell again, and looked at all the other dark shapes scrabbling over the vast dunes of their miniature world. "But I don't know how to choose," he said hoarsely. "How can I choose?"
He waited, but this time there was no answer.
Back up by the treeline, the cariblancos were growing bolder again, and Leo knew it was only a matter of time before the monkeys would be back on the beach, along with the ever-ready sea birds. The feral dogs he'd chased away when he'd first come upon the nest were nowhere to be seen, but by the look of them, their tight stretched skin and jutting ribs, they'd be back.
Leonardo clenched his teeth and looked down. A droplet of sweat dripped from his body and landed with a plop on the carapace of the baula hatchling.
"How can I choose?" he repeated, more strongly this time. When there was again no answer, he yelled it, screamed it at the boundless azure sky and the laughing monkeys and the sun-drenched palms. "HOW CAN I CHOOSE?"
But his voice was insignificant against the roar of the ocean. Leo squeezed his eyes shut and rocked forward on his knees, ignoring the discomfort of the heat. Why did it always come down to this? Everything he did to protect the innocent, whether turtles or humans, it would never be enough.
Community. That's why he was here to begin with. The fifth lesson, the final leg of the Five-Fold Path… and Leo had tried so hard to understand. He knew the lives of the people in the remote, impoverished village nearby, knew their trials and their joys, their names and faces. He'd sacrificed for them. Killed for them.
Cared for them.
Yet understanding still eluded him.
Poor dumb kumquat—you still think dis is about you?
Leo's eyes snapped open. "About me?" he sputtered. "I've done so much for these people, and I've asked for nothing in return!"
Ah. Maybe that is yoh problem.
Leo clenched his teeth, seething with the injustice of it. Even the voices he heard in his head did nothing but disparage him. He grabbed a fistful of sand and flung it as hard as he could, but the wind flung it right back on him, forcing him to turn his head away while the stinging grit rained down around him. Then the turtle's shoulders slumped in defeat. He was every bit as dumb as the Ancient One thought him, if he thought throwing a tantrum was going to get him anywhere. All it got him was a faceful of sand. He swiped a hand across his face and thought about the Ancient One's words.
Maybe that was his problem? Maybe what was his problem? That he asked for nothing in return? Wasn't that what it was all about? Sacrifice?
The trees give people shade, wood foh deh houses, coconuts to eat and drink from… so dey are part of the community, neh?
It was an absurd question—but Leo forced himself to consider it anyway. It was a technique favored by both of his teachers, and one he was very familiar with. Obviously, trees weren't part of a community anymore than houses or livestock were, they were just resources the people in the community used. So what was it that set the people of the village apart as a community? What did he have to do to…
And suddenly he had an answer, so clear before him it may as well have been the sun beating mercilessly down on him this whole time. "Reciprocation," he whispered. The members of the community helped each other. It was the very essence of community—mutual support and reliance. The people bought and traded goods, received wages for the work that benefitted others, and at times volunteered their services with the hope that, if it was ever needed, others would do the same for them. That was community.
And he was not part of it.
He was El Fantasmo. The Ghost. But Leonardo only now realized just how fitting of an appellation it was. He had no more substance to most of them than an apparition. They appreciated what he did, left him bags of rice and beans and other supplies as thanks—or maybe the gifts were meant to appease him. He wasn't certain. But if he left, the truth was that only three creatures in all of Costa Rica would miss him as an individual… and one of them was a pig.
Another voice came to him then—equally recognizable, but infinitely more compelling… and one he'd been trying very hard to put out of his mind.
Your brothers need you, Leo. They're lost without you.
He closed his eyes again and forced himself to breathe through the sudden pressure in his chest. There was only one community he'd ever been part of, only one place where he'd ever known what it was to belong, what it was to rely on others as they relied on him.
Slowly Leonardo rose, tugged his sword out of the sand, and wiped it off as best as he could before sliding into the scabbard. Then, after removing his leather belt and shoulder strap that secured his weapons and setting them on the ground, he shielded his eyes and scanned the beach, at length striding resolutely towards a mound of seaweed not far away. Gently he extracted an unfortunate baula that had become ensnared in the green tangle of vegetation, and held it in his hand along with the other he'd rescued from the monkey.
After another short pause to look around, he made his way up the beach to a churned-up area from which all of the hatchlings had emerged to begin their odyssey. He crouched and scraped away some of the sand to reveal a baby turtle still struggling to make his way up out of the mire. This one was almost unrecognizable, coated as it was in sand, and its movements were more sluggish—it didn't have much longer before it succumbed to the harsh conditions, and it hadn't yet made it past the first leg of the journey. Leo plucked the little one up, clearing away as much of the encrusted sand as he could, and then he cupped all of the youngsters in his large hands and studied them for a long moment.
These three, then. If he had to choose, these were the ones he would save.
He walked back down the beach and waded out into the frothing coolness of the ocean, not stopping until he was more than waist-deep—he'd seen baby turtles snatched directly out of shallower waters by the seabirds. Then he dipped the three infant turtles briefly into the sea to revive them. They came out of the water dark and shining, as clean and slick as if newly born. A baptism, a start of a new life… but this was saltwater, not mutagen, and Leonardo would not be part of the further trials they faced.
When their small limbs were paddling vigorously once again, like little bullet-shaped wind-up toys, Leo knew he couldn't delay any longer. He lowered them gently into the water, holding them until he was sure they had a good feel of the current, and then he let them go. The ocean immediately plucked them away, pulling them first shoreward, and then sucking them seaward once again, but braving the waters was something they'd been born to do, and their tiny flippers kept right on rowing, drawn like homing pigeons to the vast blue deeps that would be their home.
Leo let out a long breath, and with that release, he felt lighter than he had in a very long time. "Pura vida, tortugitas," he said quietly as he watched the hatchlings trying to navigate the currents. Only when they were lost to his sight did he allow himself to sink down into the surf. He submerged himself, reveling in the coldness that engulfed him, and then he pushed off against the sandy bottom, swimming vigorously until his lungs were pounding, screaming for oxygen. At last he broke the surface with a gasp and flipped over onto his back to float, letting the waves push him shoreward as he recaptured his breath.
As he floated, he thought about the words his father had spoken the day he was to leave: The Five-Fold Path shall lead you to the One.
He'd never understood them—until today. There was no more confusion, no more indecision. He knew the One Path; it was as clear as the cloudless sky above him.
When he felt his carapace scraping the sand, Leo made his way out of the water and back up the beach, retrieving his swords along the way. Once he arrived at the tree line, he walked down a ways until he came to a young saino tethered to a piece of driftwood in the shade. The pig rose from her dugout, a shallow hole he'd scraped out to give her access to the cooler sand beneath the surface, and came to the greet him, the eager twitching of her tail punctuated by soft grunts.
"Lo siento, Miguelita," he said, giving her back a scratch in apology as he untied her. She didn't like being tied up, but peccaries, too, would eat baulas, given the opportunity. After he'd reaffixed his belt and harness, he knelt down, and immediately the pig clambered awkwardly into his lap, grunting happily as she nuzzled him for food. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat as he stroked her coarse hair. "I'm going away, 'Lita," he told her in Spanish, hoping the catch in his voice didn't mean anything to a pig. "But first, you and I are going to take a little boat ride to the island. You'll like it there—and you'll be safe."
Leo fed her a bit of dried fruit from his belt pouch before pushing her gently off of his lap. "Vamos," he told her, and he rose, turning to gaze at the beach for a long moment before setting off into the jungle, Miguelita at his heels.