(A Nigerian Tale)
Once upon a time there lived a king who owned a magical drum. Some said this drum was the secret to the peace that filled his land, because whenever the king beat upon the drum, marvelous food and drink appeared. And so, whenever anyone declared war upon the king’s land, he called his enemies to visit the palace. There he beat upon the drum, and before his guests’ astonished gaze, a feast of delicacies appeared.
Then the king shared the feast with his enemies, and when they had eaten their fill, they felt so contented, they no longer wanted to fight.
There was one catch to this. The owner of the drum could never step upon a fallen branch, for if he did, the juju, the magic of the drum, would disappear, and in its place the owner would reap nothing but trouble.
The king became a wealthy man. His palace stood upon the shores of the sea, and there he lived a happy life. Often he invited everyone in the land to attend a feast, for he was a generous man. 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, and everyone spoke well of him.
As more and more attended the king’s lavish parties, word spread around the country about the king’s magical drum. Most were pleased, but 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’s meal. He was feeling terrible 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 he had cut 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.
Now 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 did not know that it belonged to you.”
Now the tortoise had long envied the king’s drum, and this gave him 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.”
Theft was a serious crime, one of the worst. The king’s wife quickly explained that she was married to the king, and if the tortoise wished to make a complaint, she would take him to the palace. She never meant to harm the tortoise, she told him.
And so together they walked to the palace, and when the tortoise told the king what had happened, the king said, “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 do not like oil. Or beans,” he snapped.
“You may have whatever you wish. Only name it,” the king said.
The tortoise pretended to think. All afternoon he wandered around the palace, looking at this, lifting that, tasting, touching and sniffing every thing, and at long last, as the sun was setting, he looked at the king’s drum. “There. I’ll take that drum,” he said.
By now the king was tired of the tortoise, and so he gave him the drum, but he didn’t tell the tortoise about what would happen if he walked over a stick on the road.
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 began to beat the drum, and a feast appeared before the family’s startled eyes. They sat down to enjoy it, and for one long 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. Before long, word spread of the tortoise’s vast wealth, and the tortoise grew fat and lazy. He no longer worked. He simply ambled around the country bragging about his riches to anyone who would listen.
One day as he was trundling home, he happened to trip upon a stick, and though he did not know this at the time, the magic of his drum was instantly broken.
He arrived home tired and hungry, and his children were begging for food. The tortoise beat upon his drum, but this time, when he did, his house filled up with enemies who attacked the tortoise and his family, beating them with sticks and stones, swearing to make war on them forevermore.
The tortoise was terrified, so he gathered his family together and fled from his house. Together they hurried to the riverbank, where they hid beneath mud and grass and prickly tie-tie palms, and there they have lived ever since, eating only fallen fruits and snails and slugs, millipedes and grass.