Oral Literature: The Herons and the Tortoise

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful lake, near a big mountain. There lived many animals in the water and on the banks of the lake. Among those animals lived two herons, who had a little tortoise as their friend. All three of them were very good friends. They played together all day long, sunning themselves on the sand and swimming in the lake. They were very happy and did not like to be apart even for a single day.

But as ill luck would have it, that year there was a drought. In the six months from March until September not a single drop of rain fell. All the rivers and lakes dried up. Even this beautiful lake could not escape the wrath of the drought. Day by day, the water became less and less. The three friends did not know what to do and brooded and sighed all day. One day the two herons decided to fly away in order to assess the situation. Next day they flew away and saw all the animals moving towards the Heavenly Lake, a very big lake.

On coming back they told the tortoise about the migration of the other animals to the Heavenly Lake, and said that they should also shift to the big lake, otherwise they could die of hunger and thirst. On hearing this, the tortoise wept, shedding tears from his small eyes because he could neither fly, nor walk fast. There was the danger of hunters picking him up on the way if he walked slowly. He accused the herons of deserting him in the time of difficulty despite being such good friends.

The tortoise wept so pitifully that the herons, unable to hold back their own tears, did not have the heart to leave him behind. So they decided to stay back themselves for the time being. They were also positive that the rains would begin.

But the weather promised no change. The days were absolutely clear and the sun beat down mercilessly. The beautiful little lake was nearly dry. The herons now thought that they could no longer live there. The tortoise also knew that they could not survive, so he pleaded with them to think of a way to take him also with them as they were friends for such a long time.

The herons also wanted to help their friends. So they thought of a plan, but were not sure whether it would work. The tortoise was excited and asked them about the plan. The herons told him of their plan. It was, that they would hold two ends of a stick in their beaks, and he could hang on to the middle. Then they could fly carrying him between them. They asked the tortoise whether he liked the plan or not.

The little tortoise was very happy. He told them to go at once. The herons were also very pleased, but they warned him about one thing. This was that he should not open his mouth, under any circumstances. The tortoise told them that he would be very careful, because it was his life which mattered.

That evening all three of them had their last dinner on that little beautiful lake which had been their abode for such a long time. Early next morning they said goodbye to their home. The herons held the two ends of the stick and the tortoise gripped the middle in his jaws. They flew for a long time over dark forests, glittering snow-covered mountains, temples with golden tiles and vast grasslands.

Down on the earth, some people saw this scene and commented on it saying that the tortoise was very clever because he had made the herons carry him. The herons continued their flight without paying any attention to what the people were saying. But the tortoise glowed with pride, when he heard people praising him.

After sometime, a group of children who were playing down below saw the three friends and cried to the herons saying that the herons were very clever, they were carrying the tortoise to the very sky. The herons paid no heed, but concentrated on flying. The little tortoise, however, was hurt by the children’s taunts. In his heart he said, “These children are very foolish. How silly of them to say that the herons are carrying me. I was the one who thought of this plan and they don’t know which of us is the cleverer.” So with all his might he began to shout at them.

But as soon as he opened his mouth, he fell head downward and tail up, straight towards a big black stone, killing himself. And that was the end of the tortoise.

(Folktale from China)