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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Lazy tortoise gets tripped up by greed

Adapted by Amy Friedman

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"The Tortoise and the Magic Drum" is a Nigerian tale.

Once upon a time, a king owned a magic drum. Some said this drum was the secret to the peace that filled his land, because whenever the king beat the drum, marvelous food and drink appeared. Whenever anyone declared war on the king's land, he invited his enemies to the palace. There he beat the drum, and a feast appeared.

The king shared the feast with his enemies, and when they had eaten their fill, they were so content that they didn't want to fight.

There was one catch to this. If the owner of the drum stepped on a fallen branch, the juju, the magic of the drum, would disappear, and the owner would reap nothing but trouble.

The king became a wealthy man. At his palace on the seashore he lived a happy life. Often he invited everyone in the land to a feast. He included all the animals in these joyful parties, too, for in those days, the people and the animals lived in peace. Elephants, leopards, antelopes, zebras, giraffes and baboons all loved their king.

As more and more attended the king's lavish parties, word spread about the drum. Some envied the king, and everyone knows envy can be poisonous.

One day, the tortoise was up in a palm tree cutting nuts for his family. He was feeling sorry for himself, for he worked day and night to feed his family, and there seemed never to be enough. Suddenly one of the nuts fell to the ground.

Down below, the king's wife was bathing in the stream, and when she heard the nut fall, she turned. "Ah, that would taste good," she said, and without looking up, she ate the palm nut.

When the tortoise climbed down from the tree and saw the king's wife, he bowed his head. "Excuse me," he asked. "Have you seen a palm nut here? One of mine dropped to the ground."

"Why yes," she said. "I ate it. I didn't know it belonged to you."

The tortoise, who had long envied the king's drum, had an idea. "Dear lady," he said, "I climbed that tree to get food for my family. We are awfully poor, and I work hard, but now you've stolen our food. I'm afraid I must report you to the king as a thief."

The king's wife explained that she was married to the king, and then took the tortoise to the palace to make his complaint.

The king replied, "We are sincerely sorry. Please, let me pay you for your loss. What would you like? Coins? Cloth? Oil? Beans?"

"What would I do with coins?" the tortoise asked. "And cloth is something no tortoise requires. I don't like oil or beans."

"You may have whatever you wish," the king said.

The tortoise pretended to think. All afternoon he wandered around the palace, looking at this, lifting that, tasting, touching and sniffing everything. Finally, he looked at the king's drum. "I'll take that drum," he said.

By now the king was tired of the tortoise, and so he gave him the drum, but didn't tell the tortoise about what would happen if he walked over a stick.

Overjoyed, the tortoise hurried home with the drum. "I'm rich! I'm rich!" he cried. And his family was pleased to hear they would never go hungry.

"Show us how it works," his children begged.

The tortoise beat the drum, and a feast appeared. They sat down and, for a week, they did nothing but eat.

The tortoise was so proud of his drum that he sent invitations to everyone in the forest to attend a feast.

Word spread of the tortoise's wealth, and the tortoise grew fat and lazy. He no longer worked. He ambled around the country bragging about his riches.

One day as he was trundling home, he tripped on a stick.

He arrived home tired and hungry, and his children begged for food. The tortoise beat his drum, but this time, his house filled up with enemies who attacked the tortoise and his family, beating them with sticks and stones.

The terrified tortoise gathered his family and fled from his house. They hurried to the riverbank, where they hid beneath mud and grass and prickly palms, and there they have lived ever since, eating only fallen fruits and snails and slugs, millipedes and grass.