How the Tortoise Lost His Stripes

TortoiseA Just-So Tale

In the beginning of our story, the Giftgiver gave wonderful gifts to all the creatures of the world, and all the creatures were happy. The mouse was proud of his long, sharp teeth; the elephant was happy with her big, floppy ears; the eagle enjoyed soaring high in the air. But the happiest creature of all was the tortoise, who had two lovely racing stripes down his hard shell, to signify his great speed.

Like the gazelle, the tortoise was able to run very fast, to get away from predators that wanted to nibble on his tender feet, and his tail, and his head even. He enjoyed running so much that he didn’t just run when a predator was after him. He ran for the pure joy of running.

Unfortunately he was also reckless. The other running animals took great care not to bump into trees or rocks or other creatures. They were responsible with their gift of speed. The tortoise, though, did not take care. He was not responsible. He careened off trees and rocks and other animals, causing not a few bruises and even some broken bones. He paid no heed to their cries of “slow down! be careful! look where you’re going!” All that mattered to him was speed.

After they had gotten totally fed up with the tortoise’s recklessness, the other animals came together and had a meeting. Each one came forward and made its complaint. “The sharp edge of his shell cut a gash in my leg!” said the elephant. “He stepped on my son and broke several bones, and they’ve just now healed!” said the mouse. “He ran into my tree, and one of my eggs got bumped out of the nest and smashed onto the ground,” said the eagle. Every creature had its tale of woe, all caused by the tortoise’s recklessness.

“We must send a delegation to the Giftgiver and lodge our complaint,” they said. They decided to send the mouse, the eagle, and the elephant, which is why I kept mentioning them. The eagle reported that with his keen eyesight he had seen the Giftgiver in the mountains, teaching the little brooks how to chatter as they flowed over the rocks in their beds. So the next day, the delegation set out for the mountains.

Now it was late in the year, and they knew they had to get back to their homes before winter came and filled the mountains with snow and the rivers with rain. So they set out in a hurry, and ran (and flew) as fast as they could each day, until they got tired and had to rest for the night. (The mouse rode on the elephant’s back.)

On the second day of their journey they came upon two beavers whose lodge was buried beneath a pile of fallen logs. “Help us!” they cried. “We must get into our lodge before winter comes, and we could never chew through this many logs by then!”

“I can help,” said the elephant. With her strong trunk and long tusks she began to lift the logs off the lodge. She worked all afternoon, and they all slept through the night, and by noon the next day she was done.

“Oh, thank you!” said the beavers. “Please accept this small gift as a token of our appreciation.” The delegates took the gift, a beautifully carved stick of wood, and continued on their way.

On the fourth day of their journey they came upon a rabbit who had lost her husband. “Help me!” she cried. “I cannot find my husband, and we must get underground before the winter comes!”

“I can help,” said the eagle. He flew into the sky and with his keen eyesight began to look for the lost rabbit. He looked all afternoon, and they all slept through the night, and by noon the next day he found the husband and led him back to the burrow.

“Oh, thank you!” said the rabbits. “Please accept this small gift as a token of our appreciation.” The delegates took the gift, a beautiful shiny green pebble, and continued on their way.

On the sixth day of their journey they came upon a squirrel couple who could not reach their store of nuts. Something had blocked the knot-hole in the tree where they had stored them, and they could no longer squeeze through the tiny hole. “Help us!” they cried. “Without our store of nuts, we will have nothing to eat through the long winter!”

“I can help,” said the mouse. He crawled through the small hole and began to push the nuts out of the tree one by one. The squirrels caught them and put them in another place for safekeeping. He worked all afternoon, and they all slept through the night, and by noon the next day he was done.

“Oh, thank you!” said the squirrels. “Please accept this small gift as a token of our appreciation.” The delegates took the gift, which was a beautiful little acorn-shell cup, and continued on their way.

On the seventh day, just as they reached the mountains, the snows came. The wind blew, and the snow flew, and they could go no further. “Alas! we cannot reach the Giftgiver this year,” they said. “We will have to winter here, and continue our journey in the spring.” Just then the Giftgiver came walking through the snow, and when he reached the three travelers, he said a word and the snow stopped, and the sun came out and shone down on them.

“What have we here?” said the Giftgiver. “A mouse, an elephant, and an eagle, traveling together in the mountains! Where are you going, and why?”

“We are looking for you,” said the eagle. “We have come to ask you to do something about the tortoise.”

“What do you mean?” asked the Giftgiver.

So they told their story, about how the other fast running creatures took care not to bump into anything or anyone, but the tortoise was reckless and irresponsible, and was causing hurt to his fellow animals.

“I will come with you and deal with him,” said the Giftgiver. And so together they began the journey back to their homes. Soon they came to a raging river that had only been a small brook when they were going the other way.

“I can fly over, and I could even carry my friend the mouse,” said the eagle, “but the elephant cannot cross.”

“If I only had a wooden stick,” said the Giftgiver.

“Here is a stick,” said the elephant, and she gave him the carving that was a gift from the beavers.

“Excellent!” said the Giftgiver. He spoke a word over the stick, and it grew and became a great tree trunk, reaching across the river like a bridge. It was sturdy enough that even the elephant was able to cross over.

The next day they came to a fiery volcano that had only been a warm spot on the ground when they were going the other way. The hot, burning lava was running across their path.

“I can fly over, and I could even carry my friend the mouse,” said the eagle, “but the elephant cannot cross.”

“If I only had a rock,” said the Giftgiver.

“Here is a rock,” said the eagle, and he gave him the pebble that was a gift from the rabbits.

“Excellent!” said the Giftgiver. He spoke a word over the pebble, and it grew and became a great boulder, stopping the mouth of the volcano. Soon the lava was cool, and they were able to cross over.

The third day they came to a giant waterfall that had only been a little trickle down the hillside when they were going the other way. It was raging across their path, and would have swept even an elephant away if she had tried to pass beneath it.

“I could fly around, and I could even carry my friend the mouse,” said the eagle, “but the elephant cannot cross.”

“If only I had a cup,” said the Giftgiver.

“Here is a cup,” said the mouse, and he gave him the tiny acorn shell that was a gift from the squirrels.

“Excellent!” said the Giftgiver. He spoke a word over the cup, and it grew and became a great cauldron, catching the water of the waterfall above their heads. Soon the path was dry, and they were able to cross over.

Not long after that they came back to their home country. All of the other animals came rushing up to the Giftgiver, and told their tales of woe about the selfish tortoise and his heedless running.

“I will solve this problem,” said the Giftgiver. He called the tortoise before him, and said, “You have been irresponsible with the gift I have given you, so I will take that gift back. From this day on you will have short stubby legs and go slowly on the ground. Also I will take off the racing stripes, because racing stripes would look silly on a very slow animal.”

“But then predators will be able to catch me, and nibble on my tender feet, and my tail, and my head even!” said the tortoise.

“That is true,” said the Giftgiver. “I must think of a way that you can protect your tender feet, and your tail, and your head even.”

“Hmm,” said the Giftgiver.

“Hmm,” said all the animals.

“I know!” said the Giftgiver. “I will give you the gift of being able to withdraw your tender feet, and your tail, and your head even, inside your shell, where no predator will be able to reach them.” And he made it so. The tortoise was sad because he could no longer run fast, but he was enjoying pulling his tender feet, and his tail, and his head even, into his shell, and then pushing them back out again.

“Is it good?” asked the Giftgiver.

“It is good!” said the tortoise.

“Then this story is over,” said the Giftgiver. “Let us begin a new one.”

Copyright © 2011-2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

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