This book was first published as part of a Kindle eBook in 2013. That book is no longer available.
The story here has been edited, expanded and reformatted for reading on multiple eBook formats and is issued as a free eBook in 2015
Text copyright © 2013 Imonikhe Ahimie
Text copyright © 2015 Imonikhe Ahimie
All rights reserved.
The Tortoise is the most popular character of all the varied characters that abound in the folklore of the Nigerian peoples. The exploits of the Tortoise, whether in all-animal stories or in stories that have an animal-human mix, are without compare in all of the folklore that originates from The Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Indeed, in all of Nigerian folklore, there may be as many Tortoise stories as there are all other stories combined. In different circumstances, the Tortoise is associated with wisdom, selfishness, just low cunning or, even, kindness.
In this adventure, our hero cajoles the Eagle to allow him to follow to an island bristling with the most beautiful palm fruits in creation, but not even the Tortoise could have imagined what his greed for those luscious palm fruits would lead him through!
Once upon a time, there was a very great famine in the animal kingdom. So severe was the dearth of food that large numbers of folk had died as a result of the severity of the famine. As for those who were yet in the land of the living, the king and his nobles, the farmers and the traders, the freeborn as well as the slaves, every single one of them was no more than a mere shadow of his or her former self.
Well not quite everyone, for the Eagle and his family were in better shape than they had ever been. Whilst the other folk wasted away each passing day as they bemoaned a cruel fate, the Eagle was finer than ever and each passing day saw him grow finer and finer still. His plumage shone in the burning sun as he flew along in majestic fashion and every time that he took his evening constitutional, every other animal stared at his well-rounded stomach with unabashed envy.
This state of affairs was extremely galling to the rest of the animals, especially as the Eagle roundly refused to share with anyone the secret of his well-being; all entreaties in this regard were met with an amused look and a firm no. But, pressed as they were by hunger, the other animals were determined to discover the Eagle’s secret whether or not he was cooperative or not. So they mandated the other birds to follow the Eagle at all times so that they could discover his secret and every animal could share of the benefit in these so difficult times.
The birds tried, oh, they really tried; but their attempts to discover the Eagle’s secret were futile. Even before the famine had so weakened the folk, the Eagle was amongst the swiftest of all birds and there were few that could match him in speed and endurance. In their reduced state, all attempts by the birds to trail the Eagle ended as dismal failures. And so the situation remained: as the famine showed no signs of abating, every other animal continued slowly wasting away by the day while the Eagle grew ever more and more robust.
Such was the situation when the Tortoise decided that enough was more than sufficient. He was determined to search out the Eagle’s secret.
“I’ll discover his source of food or I’ll die in the attempt!” he declared to his wife, and forthwith he set about his self-determined task.
Now the Tortoise was one of the wisest persons upon the face of the earth, the very wisest some folk declared unequivocally, and, when he put his mind to it, he could be extremely persuasive indeed. So off the Tortoise went to call on the Eagle in order try to weasel out of that close-mouthed bird the secret of his source of food and, I must tell you, the Tortoise’s reputation for persuasiveness remained fully intact after his encounter with the Eagle that day.
Although the Eagle had stoutly resisted the entreaties and blandishments of every other person who had approached him in an effort to share of his secret, he was no match for the master. Finally, pleading only that the Tortoise would keep the information solely to himself, the Eagle told all.
Far away in the middle of the wide, wide sea was an island garden. This garden was without compare in terms of beauty and fertility and it was filled with the most beautiful and bountiful palm trees ever seen; these wonderful trees were beyond what the mind could imagine. Each palm fruit was as large as a hen’s egg! It was this garden, which the Eagle had discovered during his travels in the days before the famine, which had proved to be the saving grace for the Eagle when the famine struck. It was not, the Eagle explained to the Tortoise, due to any hard-heartedness on his part that he had refused to share his secret with other folk. But the island was a small one and if the starving hordes of animal-kind were to descend upon those fruit-heavy trees then they would be denuded of fruits in a twinkling of an eye and the later situation would be worse than even the one in which they all now found themselves.
As the Eagle spoke, the Tortoise’s eyes grew wider and wider as he visualized this paradise on earth. He hastened to assure the Eagle that he did not hold it against him that he had kept this wonderful knowledge a close secret. Indeed, the Tortoise declared, he would have done precisely the same if he had found himself in the Eagle’s situation. It was surely better that a portion of animal-kind survived rather than that the whole of animal-kind should perish as a result of some misplaced ideas of kindness. However, the Tortoise continued, the addition of just one more person and his family could hardly result in the kind of depletion that the Eagle feared. If the Eagle would allow him to benefit from this wonderful knowledge, he could assure the Eagle that he would rather die than reveal this knowledge.
The Eagle was not averse to this suggestion, especially as his conscience had preyed on him severely when he had felt that he could not share his good fortune with all the other unhappy, starving animal folk. But, he asked, how would the Tortoise get to that island of delights? As he had said, the island was located far away in the middle of the deep blue sea. As far as he knew, there was no way by which the island could be reached dry-foot. Now this was a problem and, for some time, both the Tortoise and the Eagle sat in brooding silence. But the problem that would keep the Tortoise stumped for long had yet to come into being.
‘I think I have a solution”, the Tortoise cried in such jubilant accents that the Eagle was startled out of his reverie. “I will construct a pair of wings for myself!”
The Eagle stared at the Tortoise with a somewhat dubious look. A pair of wings! Was the Tortoise going out of his mind? But before the Eagle could utter a word, the Tortoise went on.
“Oh, my friend, I can see that you’re thinking that I’ve finally taken leave of my senses; not that the effects of this prolonged period of hunger are not sufficient to cause one to finally lose whatever senses he once possessed”, with a smile.
“No, dear Eagle, I haven’t taken leave of my senses just yet. I do not expect that the wings I construct will enable me to fly. However, if I attach a pair of wings to myself, then I can ride on your back and by flapping the constructs I can reduce the amount of work that you would have to do. In this way, we will both be able to go to and return from this garden of delights that you have described.”
After careful consideration, the Eagle admitted that the Tortoise’s proposal were meritorious and ought to meet the requirements of both of them journeying to and from that island of delights. So, agreeing to meet up with one another at the Eagle’s house first thing the next morning, the Tortoise, after thanking the Eagle once again in the most effusive manner, went off to set about constructing his wings.
The construction of the wings did not present any great difficulty for there was an abundant supply of stray feathers lying all over the place as the effects of the famine had caused most birds to molt in a most copious fashion. Staying up almost all night, the Tortoise carefully went about collecting the feathers he required and sticking and stitching them together until he had two very serviceable wings indeed.
At first light, the Tortoise was at the Eagle’s house where the wings were strapped upon his back and, climbing on to the Eagle’s back, the pair took to the air and set off on their journey to that wonderful garden. They flew and flew, the Tortoise providing assistance by flapping his wings and soon they were flying over the sea. Looking down from on high, all that the Tortoise could see was that seemingly unending expanse of water. There was absolutely no sign of dry land to be seen; the Eagle’s description of their destination had been absolutely true. Finally, though, the Tortoise espied a thin line on the far horizon. As they pursued their course, it became clear that here was land at last. They had arrived at that wonderful island garden.
The garden island was everything that the Eagle had described; if anything, it seemed, at least in the eyes of the Tortoise, that the Eagle had understated the richness of the garden. The Tortoise was beside himself and found it impossible to control himself. Not having had a decent meal in months, the Tortoise engaged in a greed-driven orgy gorging himself so much that he could hardly move! He couldn’t remember ever having eaten such a satisfying meal.
“This”, the Tortoise said to himself, “is the life!”
After the pair had eaten their fill, they both lay back and had a nap. Then, it was time to begin the journey back home. The Tortoise picked six large palm fruits to take back home with him. The Eagle who had picked up just one stared at him in amazement. He advised the Tortoise not to carry more than one palm fruit with him; on account of the size and weight of the individual palm fruits, carrying more than one was likely to be a great burden. In any case, the Eagle continued, why burden oneself? The garden was going nowhere and the fruits would still be available for them to eat of and to pick on the morrow when they came there again. But the Tortoise refused to heed the Eagle’s advice. Six fruits, he declared, were just the right number for him to carry; they would not, in any way, cause him any trouble. The Eagle was extremely skeptical but, as the Tortoise was extremely insistent on his ability to handle the fruits, he gave up the argument and they set off on the homeward journey.
As they flapped across the wide sea, the Tortoise began to appreciate the value of the Eagle’s advice, for the weight of the fruits that he had carried soon began to tell on him. It was with a sinking heart that the Tortoise watched as, one after another, the fruits that he carried dropped out of his arms and fell down into the deep blue sea. When the sixth fruit, the last one, slipped out of his clutches and fell into the uncaring sea, the Tortoise could no longer bear it. Without a thought and issuing an anguished cry, he leapt off the Eagle’s back and followed that last palm fruit straight into the sea.
Now, it so happened that on this very day one of the great deities of the sea, Yemojai, was holding court and all of her subjects had come to pay their respects to the great queen. There were the merfolk and the fishes; the seals and the octopi; all manner of sea-dwelling folk were present there at the great assembly. It was right in the midst of this great gathering that the Tortoise found himself when he came to the end of his great drop! The sea-dwellers were so angry at the Tortoise’s rude intrusion that they set upon him, gave him a very sound beating, and then bound him up in stout cords. They then began to debate as to what would be the appropriate punishment for one who had so desecrated the court of the great queen.
As the discussions proceeded, the Tortoise realized that he was in quite dire straits and that it would require all his vaunted cunning to escape from this predicament that his own greed had placed him in. so as his hostile hosts were debating his immediate future, a future that seemed likely to be of extremely brief duration, the Tortoise was engaged in deep thought trying to find a way out of the mess he found himself.
So deep in thought was he that from the moment that he had been captured and bound, the Tortoise had not uttered a single word. Seeing that their captive seemed to be completely unmoved by his capture and the debate that was going on all around him concerning his fate, the assembly gradually talked less and less until there was complete silence.
When the whole debate had come to a stop, the Tortoise turned his head, which was about the only part of his body that he could move, so stoutly was he bound, toward the great throne upon which Yemoja was seated.
Speaking in a loud voice, the Tortoise declared that he was shocked, indeed he was horrified, that a folk for whom he had always harbored the highest regard and who he had hitherto believed were a most civilized folk could so ill-treat a guest. The least that they could have done was to have asked him concerning his mission into their country, for such was the manner employed amongst civilized folk in every nook and cranny of creation. Rather, they had attacked him; assaulted him; and here they were debating as to what would be the best manner of putting him to death! As for himself, he was resigned to his fate; knowing that civilization was yet to penetrate to these depths, he would accept whatever it was that they chose to do to him with a happy heart.
As usual, the Tortoise was eloquent, reasonable and extremely persuasive and the folk began to feel somewhat ashamed at their hasty reaction, for the barb at their civilized status hit very hard. The deity herself admitted that perhaps her subjects had been somewhat overhasty in their reaction to the Tortoise’s unexpected arrival. It was only right, she declared, that inquiry should have been made as to who he was and what his mission was. Thereupon, she ordered that the cords be removed. The Tortoise was set free, a place of honor set for him right beside Yemoja herself, and the most mouth-watering dishes and the most delicious drinks set before him. When the Tortoise had eaten and drunk to his satisfaction, Yemoja engaged him in conversation. Who was he? Where did he come from? What mission was it that had brought him to her watery queendom?
The Tortoise was happy to explain. He was, he declared, the most renowned practitioner of the ancient art of tattooing in all of creation. As the deity herself was undoubtedly aware, tattooing was the highest form of increasing the beauty of the recipients known to all creatures. It was sad to say, however, that the procedure had not hitherto been available for the fishes that made up a substantial proportion of the inhabitants of her watery country. Fishes had been for far too long denied a means of increasing their beauty that was available to all other beings!
However, all that had changed. Such were his God-given skills that he had been able to devise a means whereby the fishes of the deep could benefit from a procedure that the rest of creation had long enjoyed. It was his desire to intimate the fishes of this boon that had brought him to Yemoja’s queendom. He had been stunned when on his arrival he had been treated as if he were the greatest criminal the universe had ever known! He! The greatest tattooist that had ever lived! A tattooist without compare! In all of his travels, and he had travelled farther and wider than any being who had ever lived in the pursuit of his art, he had never been so humiliated. As things were then, it was his intention to leave as soon as possible and return to his homeland and try to live down his shame!
The Tortoise’s declaration caused a great deal of consternation and Yemoja and all of her worthies, especially the leadership of the fish community, immediately began to plead and humbly offer their most abject apologies. Mistakes would happen, they declared, and to forgive actions carried out in error was a divine attribute which endeared the forgiver to the almighty Creator. So persistent were they that the Tortoise, reluctantly, as it seemed, agreed that he would stay on after all. Since everything had been as a result of misunderstanding he was prepared to forgive and forget for he was not one to hold a grudge. However, were the folk of Yemoja’s queendom prepared to furnish him with all of the materials that he would require in order to practice his art? The deity hastily assured that everything that he required would be provided; he had only to ask. So the Tortoise listed out his requirements. They were to build for him a windowless house that had a couple of fireplaces and a couple of chimneys and the house was to be fitted with a very stout door. In addition, they would have to provide a great quantity of firewood. Notwithstanding the difficulties of building fireplaces and acquiring firewood in her undersea realm, so determined were Yemoja and her subjects to make amends for their impolite reception of the Tortoise that they were happy to agree to the Tortoise’s requests and matters were immediately put in hand to provide all that he had declared that he required.
It was quite a week before all of the Tortoise’s requirements were fulfilled, what with fireplaces, chimneys and firewood for use under water. But in due course every one of the requirements set out by the Tortoise was ready and the great work of tattooing the fishes was ready to begin.
The Tortoise then declared that only those fishes that were desirous of having their bodies decorated with tattoos were permitted to come into the tattoo house. They were to come into the house in an orderly fashion one after another upon his instructions. Any candidate that he deemed unfit to be tattooed must leave immediately without any complaint. He, the tattooist per excellence, would not tolerate any form of rowdy behavior; if anyone caused any disturbance or failed to follow his instructions in the strictest fashion then he would put an end to the procedure and return to his own country. Further, once all candidates for tattooing had entered into the tattoo house, the door was to be firmly bolted behind them and on no account was the door to be reopened before he called for its opening when his great work had been completed. Every fish that underwent the procedure must take oath never to reveal the details of what went on behind the bolted door. The fishes all cried out in a loud voice that they would strictly adhere to his instructions and Yemoja pledged herself to see to it that all of the Tortoise’s instructions were followed to the letter. All was now ready.
The Tortoise went into the house. For a prolonged period, all that the crowd outside could hear was the Tortoise’s voice chanting out incantations in unknown tongues. Everyone nodded wisely; their visitor was indeed a worthy person. How lucky they were that he had not treated them in the manner that their rude reception truly deserved and gone back to his own country with all of his arcane knowledge! Many fishes who had hitherto been reluctant to undergo the procedure now determined in their minds to get a tattoo.
After what seemed an interminable wait to the would-be tatooees, the Tortoise cried out in a loud voice that everyone who was desirous of being tattooed should form a line and enter into the shrine, as he described it, one after the other. There was quite a queue but, keeping in mind the Tortoise’s strict injunctions and the stern admonitions of the deity and the grandees, everything went on in the most orderly fashion as the fishes entered into the shrine one at a time.
What no one realized was that the Tortoise was standing just inside the doorway armed with the heftiest piece of wood that was in the great pile of firewood that had been gathered with so much difficulty. As each fish entered into the shrine, the Tortoise brought that hefty piece of wood crashing down upon the head of the entrant and did him or her to death. When he felt that he had enough, he cried out in a loud voice that all available places were now filled up and no one else would be able to undergo the procedure; the door should now be shut and bolted until he directed otherwise. There was palpable disappointment amongst the many aspirants who had now missed the great opportunity, but the discipline held. The door was shut and bolted and, leaving a guard to listen out for the Tortoise’s instruction to open up the door, the folk went off to their homes.
Once the door had been bolted shut, the Tortoise laid out the firewood in the fireplaces and started the fires. In no time at all, he had begun to smoke all those fishes that he had done to death. Very soon, the inhabitants of the place could see great columns of smoke pouring out of the chimneys, and this went on unceasingly day after day, whilst they could hear the Tortoise singing and chanting raucously all the while.
Inside the shrine meanwhile, the Tortoise was indulging himself in an orgy of unparalleled gluttony as he gorged himself on the smoked flesh of the unfortunate seekers after beauty. On the sixth day, the smoke began to abate and by evening of the seventh day, the smoke had ceased entirely. The singing and chanting that had been heard at all hours during the last several days also came to a raggedly finish.
With bated breath, the folk gathered in a crowd all around the shrine as they awaited the appearance of the great tattooist and those lucky ones who had had the luck to benefit from his expertise. There was quite a bit of weeping in that crowd, I tell you, as those unlucky folk who had missed out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for it was certain such an opportunity was extremely unlikely to come to their homeland again in their own lifetimes, bemoaned their ill luck. Well there was still a bit of waiting to be endured, as it was not till midday on the ninth day after he had entered into the shrine that Tortoise’s hoarse voice was heard demanding that the bolts be thrown open so that he could come out for, following his epic gourmandizing, the Tortoise had fallen flat on the ground and slept for two whole days!
It was a weary but elated Tortoise that stepped out of the door as soon as the bolts had been removed and the door opened, but before anyone could even catch a glimpse of the interior of the shrine, he had shut the door behind him and thrown back the bolts. Declaring that the door must remain locked up for the nonce, the Tortoise walked majestically to Yemoja’s court trailed by a large crowd. They were hailing him; some were pleading, in tears, that he make an exception in their case and allow them to undergo the procedure; yet others were beating the drums and singing his praises. Ignoring all of the hullaballoo that accompanied him, the Tortoise came before Yemoja’s court. The news that the great tattooist had come out of the shrine had, of course, reached the court and Yemoja and all of the grandees of the queendom were gathered to receive the hero.
“Your Majesty”, the Tortoise cried, prostrating himself to the ground. “I have done all that I have sworn to do; yes, your Majesty, even more than I had thought to do. Even if I say it myself, the work that I have done on you loyal subjects is the best that I have ever done. And”, he added in most modest manner, “I have done some great works in my time!”
Rising from her throne, the deity came down to where the Tortoise was lying prostrate and, raising him up with her own hands, led him to the place of honor set beside her own throne. Speaking in the most affectionate manner, Yemoja asked him to stay in her land forevermore.
“You, greatest of all tattooists, will be second only to me in all of my queendom” the deity declared in ringing tones. The acclamation that followed Yemoja’s declaration was deafening; amongst the nobles and amongst the commons, the queen’s declaration was welcomed in the most wholehearted manner.
The Tortoise had a stunned look on his face; it all was, it seemed to anyone watching him, too much to bear. Then with tears running down his face, the Tortoise stood and addressed the queen and all those assembled there.
“Your Majesty, may the crown never leave your head! Yes! May your sandals always be worthy of worship! May the Creator, Almighty, continue to keep you and you queendom in peace for all times.
“Your Majesty, I cannot accept your so gracious offer. Apart from the fact that my expertise is needed in so many places”, smiling, “in all of the wide creation, there is something that requires me to leave and to leave as soon as possible. As your Majesty is well aware, tattooing can be extremely painful.
“Those fishes that chose to undergo this process of beautification seemed sadly unaware of this fact! That I am here, alive before you, is due only to the fact that I had, as always, girded myself with the most powerful charms imaginable. In addition, the process had left them all somewhat weakened for my patients, inflamed by the pain, attacked me and I barely escaped with my life. I have left them all sedated but I fear that if I’m still here when they come back to full consciousness they may resume the attack”.
Yemoja and her grandees agreed that the danger of an attack by the fishes was a genuine one and that the fishes would not be let out until the danger was past. So they made haste and gathered a hoard of costly goods as the payment for the services of their esteemed guest. Then a boat was made ready and the presents placed in it.
“I had almost forgotten” exclaimed the Tortoise. “Your Majesty, the boatman must be a deaf person!”
The gathered folk looked somewhat surprised, but the Tortoise was quick to explain. To complete the process and ensure proper healing, he had to sing a certain song. This song, however, was something in the nature of a trade secret. In the normal course of events, he would have sung the song in the shrine after every one of his patients had left; in the circumstances, of course, that option was unavailable. Whilst he could look for a secluded place to complete his ritual, the possibility of violence being done to his person also precluded this option. Slyly, the Tortoise reminded Yemoja that her subjects had, just a few days back, already laid violent hands upon him. The deity and her grandees all cringed in embarrassment at this subtle reminder of the uncivilized manner in which they had first welcomed their honored guest. The Tortoise declared that he had thought through the whole matter carefully and he had reached the conclusion that if he sang the song whilst in the boat only in the company of a deaf boatman all of the proprieties would be met. Every one there agreed that this was the perfect solution.
So Yemoja procured a deaf boatman and, leading her retinue, went with the Tortoise to the jetty where the boat and boatman were waiting to convey the honored guest back to his own land.
“Oh, by the way, when can we reveal the newly beautified fishes to the adoration of the public?” Yemoja asked.
“Once I’m gone, you may let the new beauties out for public adoration!” declared the Tortoise smilingly, as he stepped into the boat.
As the boatman poled away from the jetty, his back turned to the crowd of dignitaries standing and doing honor to their esteemed guest, the esteemed guest himself stood in the boat facing the dignitaries, smiling, waving and bowing as the boat made its way sedately away.
The boat was quite halfway to the far shore, practically out of sight of Yemoja and the other dignitaries who had come to see off the illustrious guest, before the Tortoise sat down and the dignitaries at the jetty left to go and welcome the newly beautified fishes back into the larger society. One can only imagine the shock that struck Yemoja and her grandees when they had the shrine opened up!
Rather than a bevy of beautifully tattooed fishes, they were faced with a veritable charnel house! Every single one of those fishes that had elected to have him or herself tattooed was dead! Only the skeletal remains of the would-be beauties remained!
The deity burst into tears and immediately vowed to exact a terrible vengeance on the creature that had so used and misused her and her poor subjects. Followed by her grieving retinue, Yemoja ran to the jetty. The boat was still in sight, if only barely; but although they all screamed at the top of their voices for the boatman to turn back and return, it was all to no avail. The deaf boatman, his back to the jetty, poled the boat further away. All that Yemoja and her folk saw was a smiling Tortoise waving insouciantly at them!
But the deity was determined to have her revenge. Summoning the Crocodile, she instructed him to proceed with all dispatch, overhaul the boat, and bring back the malefactor so that she could visit condign punishment upon him.
The Crocodile set off at once but in spite of his phenomenal strength, so great was the distance that the boat had covered, he was only able to catch up with the boat just as the Tortoise was preparing to disembark on the opposite shore; that rapid chase had taxed the Crocodile’s much-vaunted powers! But he was a conscientious person, the Crocodile, and, tired or not, he was determined to carry out the commission with which he had been charged. So, in the sternest tones he could manage given his breathless state, the Crocodile informed the Tortoise that he had been mandated to arrest the Tortoise and bring him back to face the deity; therefore, he could not permit the Tortoise to proceed further at the present time.
Somewhat to the Crocodile’s surprise, the Tortoise evinced no alarm at his declaration. In calm tone, the Tortoise declared his intention of returning with the Crocodile to hear what it was that the deity had to say to him. Whatever it was, Tortoise continued, he was certain that he could explain it all.
“But, dear messenger,” the Tortoise went on looking at the Crocodile shrewdly, “it seems to me that you are somewhat out of breath; that long swim must have been somewhat taxing, even to one of your renowned strength!”
The Crocodile admitted that the swim had indeed taxed his powers.
“In that case”, the Tortoise continued insinuatingly, “I’m sure that a little rest before we set back will be most welcome. Coming by boat, myself, I didn’t have to tax myself at all” he finished with a kind smile.
The Crocodile was extremely grateful for the Tortoise’s understanding and, after the Tortoise had communicated with the boatman by means of signs that he was to wait and convey them back, the Tortoise climbed up into the branches of a nearby tree and seemed to drift off into sleep. The Crocodile was pleased at the manner things had gone; settling himself under the tree in which the Tortoise was calmly ensconced, he tried to catch a nap himself.
Now whilst the Crocodile was enjoying his well-deserved nap, the seemingly sleeping Tortoise’s inventive mind was working furiously as to how to get himself out of the scrape into which he had gotten himself.
Suddenly, the Crocodile felt someone poking at him. Snapping out of his napping state, he discovered that it was a smiling Tortoise poking at him.
“Say, loyal messenger,” the Tortoise declared heartily. “We oughtn’t to keep Her Majesty waiting for longer than is absolutely necessary.”
A pang of guilt went through the Crocodile’s body for he had been thinking along these same lines when he had fallen into his now disturbed nap. But what could he do? He was so tired that he did not think he could fulfill his office if he didn’t get a bit of rest.
The Tortoise had a benign smile upon his face as he answered.
“Just as I thought. Now, I have found in the past that if a tired person plays a game then he is more likely to recover himself than if he just lay around! Why don’t we play a game? Then we can get on our way all that much quicker.”
The Crocodile thought that this was a great idea, but he didn’t know any games, really. Did the Tortoise have any ideas? Well! For a while, both the Tortoise and the Crocodile lay there thinking about what game it was that they could play so as to speed up the restoration of the Crocodile’s strength. After a little while, the Tortoise brightened up and spoke excitedly.
“Dutiful messenger, I’ve thought of a game.”
The Crocodile was all ears.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever played this one, but it was quite a favorite when I was growing up and it always worked wonderfully to relieve fatigue.”
The Crocodile admitted, somewhat shamefacedly that he had never been overly involved in games; he had always been much more involved in hunting, he told the Tortoise.
“Well, that’s nothing to worry about” returned the Tortoise with a benign smile upon his face. “I’ll teach all about this one. It involves the use of fire, though; I have noticed, during my short sojourn amongst you folk, that you people don’t really make much use of fire, hmmmn?”
It was an even more embarrassed Crocodile who had to admit that fire was a rarity amongst the water-dwelling folk.
The Tortoise was quick to reassure him that the game was the epitome of simplicity. Without further ado, the Tortoise had gathered a great deal of dead palm fronds and other combustible materials that were littered all around the beach and built them into a pile. In the twinkling of an eye, the pile was blazing merrily. Then, climbing back up into the tree, the Tortoise came down with a very stout forked branch.
The game was all simplicity; one player would lie down among the burning embers whilst being held down by the other player by means of the forked branch. When the player lying in the burning embers had had enough, he would cry out “STOP!” Then the players would exchange places and a rollicking time would be had by all. By the time they had finished playing the game, the Crocodile would have recovered fully from his exhaustion. He would go first, the Tortoise declared and forthwith he leapt into the flames, lay upon his back and cried out in a joyous voice “let the play begin!”
This seemed a great idea to the Crocodile, and he entered into the fun most wholeheartedly. He snatched up the forked branch and pinned the Tortoise down in that fiery heap, at the same time that the Tortoise withdrew his head and all his other extremities into the recesses of his shell. After a while, out popped the Tortoise’s head and from his mouth came “STOP!”
The Crocodile stopped immediately and the Tortoise jumped out of the now red-hot embers. Declaring that he had never felt so rejuvenated in his entire life, the Tortoise begged that the Crocodile allow him another go!
This request was not to the Crocodile’s liking; it was his turn. The Tortoise had had his go, and it seemed unfair to the Crocodile that the Tortoise wanted another shot at the fun when he had yet to have a go! And the Crocodile made his views known in no uncertain terms. The Tortoise was all contrite; the pleasure of the game had so overwhelmed his senses as to overcome his natural belief in fair play! It was a most humbly apologetic Tortoise who agreed that it was the Crocodile’s turn.
“But, you must agree to let me have another go before we leave to return to Yemoja!” the Tortoise declared and the Crocodile was pleased to acquiesce to the Tortoise’s demand.
So the Crocodile leapt into the red-hot embers and, lying on his back, cried out “let the play begin”. The Tortoise was more than willing to set the play into motion. Grabbing the forked branch, he pinned the Crocodile down in the hot embers with all his strength. Now, after a few minutes, the Crocodile began to think that this was a pretty hot game! Unable to bear the increasing heat, he cried out “STOP!”
The Tortoise was completely unmoved. Laughing maniacally, he held the Crocodile down with all his strength and, although he struggled fearsomely, not even the Crocodile’s great strength was sufficient to enable him break out from the trap in which he had unwittingly placed himself. As the Crocodile’s struggles grew feebler with every passing minute, the boatman cast off and, poling furiously, went posthaste to report to Yemoja all that had happened. Most of the presents that that grateful deity had given to the Tortoise were still in the boat, for the Tortoise had only brought out one bundle of the numerous ones packed in the boat at the time that the Crocodile had arrived on his mission. As for the Crocodile, he was roasted to death in those hot embers.
The Tortoise was a little bit sorry that the boatman had fled with his presents but, all in all, he considered the loss small in exchange for his life; for he was absolutely certain in his mind that if he had had to return to face that furious and grieving deity not even his much-vaunted fluency of tongue would have availed to save his skin. So it was with a light heart that the Tortoise opened up the only package left to him. To his delight it contained some extremely fine and sharp knives as well as several lengths of tough, durable cloth. With a song on his lips and merriment in his heart, the Tortoise set about the butchering of Yemoja’s unfortunate messenger.
Sometime later, the Tortoise had completed his job as butcher and had partially smoked the chunks of meat that used to the Crocodile so as to preserve them on his homeward journey. Once the chunks of meat were done to his satisfaction, the Tortoise carefully arranged the meat and wrapped them up in the manner of a corpse in the cloths that were in the one package that he had been able to get away with from all the presents that the grateful Yemoja had bestowed upon him. Placing the package upon his head, the Tortoise began to make his way home.
As the Tortoise started to approach closer to home, he began to weep, wailing at the top of his voice with the tears flowing copiously from his eyes. As he started to meet other passers-by, they asked him as to the cause of the tears. It was his beloved mother, the Tortoise declared; she had finally succumbed to the effects of the dreadful famine and given up the ghost. Even now, he was on his way to perform the final rites as demanded by family tradition and practice. Everyone that he met was full of sympathy for all knew that the famine had caused considerable ravages amongst all members of the community. Many offered to go with him to assist in the burial rites but unfortunately this was not to be for, as the Tortoise explained sadly, it was a peculiar family custom amongst his lineage that a mother's burial be performed solely by her son. So, the folk commiserated with him and went their way whilst the Tortoise continued on his. Just as he thought he had outwitted all inquirers, for his home was now just around the next corner or two, the Tortoise met up with the Leopard. In answer to the Leopard's inquiry, the Tortoise made his now customary response.
However, the Leopard was just a tad skeptical. He seemed to remember that the Tortoise’s mother had passed on several years previously; more so, his keen sense of smell suggested to him that what was contained in the shroud that the Tortoise was carrying was something quite eatable. Knowing that the Tortoise was the most devious person upon the face of the earth, the Leopard insisted that the shroud be unwound so that he could pay his last respects to the Tortoise’s venerable mother. The Tortoise was aghast; it was a taboo, he declared, to unwind a shroud once it had already been wound around a corpse but nothing that he said moved the Leopard; the Leopard was insistent that the shroud be unwrapped. The Tortoise knew better than to continue arguing and sadly he put down his burden and unwound the shroud.
“You inveterate liar” roared the Leopard. “Your mother's corpse, indeed! I have a good mind of putting an end to miserable life right here and now! Well, I may still do just that but, first, you are going to sit down right there and watch me make a meal of all this delicious meat; greedy and selfish so-and-so, you!”
Whilst the Leopard was ranting at him, the Tortoise’s agile mind had been working furiously and as soon as the Leopard paused to draw breath, he spoke.
“King Leopard, you must forgive your most abject servant” he cried, throwing himself prostrate before the infuriated Leopard. “The thing is, Sire, I was actually bringing all of this meat over to your court. In my determination to make sure that the whole package reached you without mishap, I concocted the story I told to you. Unfortunately, Majesty, I had repeated the tale so many times (so many famine-ravaged folk have I encountered on the road) that I unthinkingly repeated it to you!
“Please, forgive me. Of course, I would never be so disrespectful as to deliberately lie to you! The very idea! The meat belongs to you, Sire, and to no one else and, if it is your wish, you can eat all of it right here on the roadside. But, if you’ll forgive me Sire, given the level of hunger in the land, I would humbly suggest that we repack the meat and carry it off to your lair; otherwise, every hungry fellow and his household will be scurrying around disturbing your repast!”
Once again, the Tortoise’s sweet tongue was successful; the Leopard’s anger abated as he listened to the Tortoise’s explanation and he agreed that it would be all the better if he took the meal to his own home rather than risk the almost certain invasion of hungry folk if he decided to eat right there by the roadside. So they wrapped up the meat and the Tortoise resumed his role as carrier and the set out for the Leopard’s lair.
As they made their way down the path, the Tortoise affected to notice the Leopard’s unkempt, shaggy fur and he cried out in pained surprise. How was it, he declared in injured tones, that the Leopard had so let himself go; for the Leopard in past times had been a veritable dandy who prided himself on his meticulous grooming. Sadly, the Leopard admitted that the rigors of the famine had brought him to this low state. So concerned had he become with the necessity of daily survival that he had become unable to care for his appearance in the manner he had been wont to in the past. Well, this was totally unacceptable, declared the Tortoise in aggrieved tones, but all would be made well. Surely the Leopard was aware that he, the Tortoise, was perhaps the most renowned groom in all of creation. So, if the Leopard would deign to sit beneath this tree, yes this very tree, he, the Tortoise, would climb into the tree and get that fur back into its erstwhile pristine condition. The Leopard was extremely touched and grateful for, truth to tell, he had been feeling very ashamed of going about in such a disheveled manner. So they placed a large log right beneath the tree and the Leopard lay down upon the log whilst the Tortoise placed the package right in front of him (“for absolute protection”, the Tortoise declared laughingly), and climbed up into the tree and started to groom the Leopard.
Every time that the Tortoise made a small plait, he would show it to the Leopard so that he could admire it; however, when he made a thick plait, he would loop it around a convenient branch and make it fast. It was not very long before the Tortoise had finished his ministrations and, climbing down from the tree, proceeded to kick away the log upon which the Leopard was lying and left the great cat dangling from the branches! With a sneering laugh, the Tortoise picked up his package of meat and left the Leopard pleading to be set free and struggling, with no success, to free himself from the trap the Tortoise had led him into.
The Tortoise reached his home without any further incidents. On his arrival, he summoned his wife and instructed her to prepare a meal with some of the meat that he had brought back with him. Mrs. Tortoise was extremely glad that, after the prolonged period of near starvation which had been aggravated by the absence of her husband for several days, at last there would be something worthwhile to eat and she set about carrying out her husband’s instruction with a will. But just as she was about to set about her task, the Tortoise informed Mrs. Tortoise that for the foreseeable future she should avoid using the pathway over which he had just passed. Mrs. Tortoise was somewhat surprised as this pathway was the most convenient one for their residence and it had always been that which the household used; why should she avoid it now, she wanted to know?
Looking somewhat shamefaced, the Tortoise informed her that as he was approaching home, he had developed a sudden and urgent, a very urgent, need to go to the toilet. So urgent was the need that he had not been able to step off the pathway into the bushes to ease himself; he had been obliged to go right there on the pathway! So large was the amount of excreta that he had passed out onto the pathway that the way was completely blocked up, and so foul was the odor that the great mound gave off that he would be ashamed if anyone saw or smelt that foul waste.
The story seemed a bit thin to Mrs. Tortoise, but she agreed to abide by her husband’s wishes. She was, after all, much more interested in the prospect of eating the first real meal that had presented itself in more days than she could remember. At all events, one of the effects of the famine had been to drastically reduce the numbers of outings that she made so that the use of a particular pathway rather than another did not perturb her unduly. Shrugging her shoulders, she set about preparing the meal.
The meal was ready and the table set but just as the Tortoise and Mrs. Tortoise were about to fall to, the Tortoise glanced at his wife sharply and declared that he perceived that his wife was menstruating! Consequently, they could not eat at the same table for, the Tortoise declared, it was a longstanding, ironclad principle of his never to eat at the same table as a menstruating woman! Mrs. Tortoise stared at her husband in utter amazement for this was the first, after several years of marriage, she was hearing of this longstanding and ironclad principle! At all events, she assured her husband that she was not menstruating so that they could eat together at the same table without any injury to his principle. But her protestations were in vain for the Tortoise declared that his perceptions never failed; Mrs. Tortoise was menstruating and he was not minded to break his sacred principle. So Mrs. Tortoise was obliged to leave the table and sit by and watch her husband make a glutton of himself. When he had finished eating, Mrs. Tortoise was obliged to make do with the leftovers.
Shortly after he had finished eating, the Tortoise felt a great need to go to the toilet. However so determined was he that no one else would share in the meat that he had brought home with him that he could not go off into the bushes in order to relieve himself. If once he let the meat out of his sight, he felt, his wife would help herself to some of it. So squatting just beside his wife’s kitchen where he had the meat package firmly in his sights, the Tortoise proceeded to ease himself! Mrs. Tortoise was aghast! Right there beside her kitchen! But her husband was completely unmoved as he went about his business.
Things went on like this for three days: the Tortoise would eat all of the best parts of the meat and Mrs. Tortoise would make do with the bony scraps that were left over. On the third day the Tortoise ate the last of the meat and promptly declared in the most magnanimous tones that he now perceived that Mrs. Tortoise’s period of menstruation was over; henceforth, she was once again permitted to join him at meals!
As may be imagined, the Tortoise’s behavior over the last several days had hurt Mrs. Tortoise deeply and she was determined in her mind to pay her husband back for his greed and selfishness. So, on the morning of the fourth day, Mrs. Tortoise went out to the mound of excreta that her husband had deposited beside her kitchen, took some of it and cooked it with his food. The Tortoise was, of course, completely in the dark for, as soon as the meat he had brought home was exhausted, he had no further interest in his wife’s kitchen or the goings-on in it. When she served her husband his food, the Tortoise cheerfully invited her to sit down and join him, but Mrs. Tortoise declined politely. Assuming that his wife was still upset about his behavior, the Tortoise ignored her and fell to. Smacking his lips as he consumed the offering set before him, the Tortoise declared that he had never eaten a better tasting meal in his entire life. With a smile of modest thanks, Mrs. Tortoise assured her husband that she did not have any intention of changing this manner of cooking anytime soon. So, the next day and the day after, the Tortoise enjoyed what he declared to be the best food ever made in the history of the world. By the sixth day following the Tortoise’s return the excreta had been exhausted so on the seventh day Mrs. Tortoise made the best meal she could from whatever scraps she found in the famine-ravaged land. When the Tortoise tasted the meal that his wife placed before him, he cried out in anger and flung the plate away from him in disdain. He was not prepared to eat such poorly cooked food, he declared in stentorian tones. He had told his wife that she was not to change her method of cooking; he wanted the same fare as he had had for the three days previous. Meekly, Mrs. Tortoise explained that she had run out of the special ingredient that had made those meals so flavorful. Then, cried the Tortoise, she must go about finding the special ingredient, or else……. Then, with a gleeful smile upon her face, Mrs. Tortoise carefully explained to her husband the origin of that special ingredient.
To say that the Tortoise was furious would be a gross understatement. Seething with rage, a frenziedly wrathful Tortoise dashed into his room, snatched up his machete, and, frothing at the mouth, swore by every deity in existence to cut his wife up into tiny little bits! The wife fled for dear life, pursued by her irate husband. In her desire to escape her husband’s manic anger, Mrs. Tortoise clean forgot her husband’s instruction as to which pathway to avoid. The very pathway that the Tortoise had forbidden her to use was readiest for her getaway and she had no hesitation in bolting down the path. The Tortoise followed her down the path for some ways but was unable to catch her. Determined to punish his wife for the trick she had played on him, but equally determined not to come near to the Leopard, the Tortoise resolved to stop where he was and await his wife’s return. With his mind made up, he hid himself behind a large iroko tree growing beside the pathway and proceeded to wait.
Now, the Leopard was still dangling, seven days after, where the Tortoise had left him. From his vantage point in the air, he had seen the Tortoise pursuing his wife and he could now see the Tortoise where he was hiding behind the great iroko tree. As for Mrs. Tortoise, so intent was she on escaping her husband’s murderous attention that she ran right underneath the dangling Leopard in her headlong dash without even noticing him.
“Mrs. Tortoise; Mrs. Tortoise; please help me for God’s sake”.
The thin squeaky voice brought her to a halt. Who could be calling her, she thought. It wasn’t her husband’s voice but, although the voice held some trace of familiarity, she couldn’t make out whose voice it was. Looking around her, she could see no one, then, happening to glance above her, she beheld the dangling Leopard.
“Your Highness!” she cried in shock, “what are you doing up there?”
As best he could the Leopard narrated what had occurred and entreated Mrs. Tortoise to set him free. Mrs. Tortoise was quite naturally apprehensive; after seven days hanging in the tree, an already famine-battered Leopard would be extremely hungry indeed. If she set him free, would she not be his first meal? As these thoughts swirled in her mind, the Leopard perceived what must be troubling her.
“My dear Mrs. Tortoise” the Leopard wheezed. “I would be the most ungrateful wretch in all of creation if I were to repay your kindness by eating you. My anger is not directed towards you but towards your husband whom, I suspect, is also your enemy.” Then he swore a great oath, invoking every single one of his illustrious ancestors to always be a friend to and protector of Mrs. Tortoise if she would only do him this kindness. So, Mrs. Tortoise climbed up into the tree and set the Leopard free. Then, rushing into the nearby bush, she found a few rotting stuff and some water for a hurried meal for the by now thoroughly famished Leopard.
When the Leopard had regained a bit of his strength, he thanked Mrs. Tortoise profusely for her help. “By the bye” he went on, “I could not help but notice that as you ran down the pathway, your husband, that ignoble fellow, was in hot pursuit with his machete drawn. Pray, what was all that about? For myself, I know that the Tortoise is certainly at fault, for the whole world knows, Mrs. Tortoise that you are the quietest person in the land and are not given to causing trouble. ” So Mrs. Tortoise explained all to him. As she told her story, the Leopard’s ire grew; that the Tortoise would actually treat his own wife in this manner. He was now more determined than ever to serve condign punishment upon the Tortoise. Thanking Mrs. Tortoise once again, the Leopard got up and started to stalk towards the tree where he knew the Tortoise was stationed.
In the meantime, the Tortoise who was somewhat exhausted from the effects of the chase had fallen asleep as he leaned against the iroko tree. The first he knew of the Leopard’s freedom was when he was lifted off the ground by the scruff of his neck and shaken in a most violent manner. “Now, I have you” growled the Leopard.
Faced with imminent death, the Tortoise had to think and think very rapidly indeed. In a jiffy, he had withdrawn his head and his limbs into his shell and, try as he would, the Leopard could not get at him. “Well” declared the frustrated Leopard finally “what I’ll do is that I’ll carry you right up to the top of the tallest tree in the entire forest and fling you down! That ought to put paid to you and your shenanigans once and for all!”
The Tortoise’s heart skipped a beat but, pretending that he had misheard the words spoken by the Leopard, he started to scream from inside his shell: “Oh, your highness! Please! Oh, please! Forgive me! Don’t throw me into the fast flowing waters; oh please, don’t! I’ll never behave in such a manner ever again! The devil made me do it. Please, oh please don’t fling me away into the fast flowing waters!” And so on and so forth.
“Well” declared the Leopard, “I hadn’t thought of flinging you into any fast flowing waters but perhaps that’s what I’ll do now that you’ve mentioned.”
Now the Tortoise wailed and he wailed. He bemoaned his fate at the top of his voice. Why, oh why, had he made mention of fast flowing waters? Whatever had caused him to reveal his greatest weakness to a vengeful enemy? And he continued to plead; he would reform his character, he declared; he would do anything to placate the Leopard. But it was all to no avail. Aside of an evil chuckle from time to time, the Leopard made no answer.
Now, the sound of the rushing river reached them clearly and the Tortoise’s wails became even more agitated and frantic. He called upon the deities and upon every single one of his ancestors to come to his aid and free him from the grasp of a cruel and unrelenting enemy. He called upon the Most High God. Alas! The Leopard was not moved. Climbing up to the top of the tallest tree on the river bank, and whispering “good riddance to bad rubbish”, the Leopard flung the wailing Tortoise down into the fast flowing waters of the river.
Then, as soon as the Tortoise hit the water, out came his head and all of his other extremities. With a cheeky smile upon his face, he flung a saucy salute at the surprised Leopard as he swam away smoothly to yet another adventure.
i Yemoja is a sea deity worshiped amongst the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
Publication Date: 09-12-2015
All Rights Reserved
For my grandma, Virginia Ilekiwere Ahimie, nee Imoneko (1901 - 2001). Thank you for the unending stories.