How The Turtle Got Her Shell

Once upon a time, Tameala the turtle and Bebebi the butterfly were close friends. Tameala looked very different in that long-ago time, for she did not have a shell. Bebebi was a huge butterfly with bright orange, black and green patterned wings. They made a strange contrast, these two friends. The turtle was a slow, plodding creature, while the butterfly was always flitting from place to place. However, in the heat of the day they enjoyed sitting on the soft sand under the shade of a giant banyan tree, gossiping about things that did not matter. When other people criticized them and scolded them for being lazy, they laughed and took no notice.

One day, while they were sitting in their favorite place, Tameala decided to move a big rock nearby. She pushed and strained at it, and as she did so, some wind escaped from her body. Bebebi immediately flew into the air to get away from the smell. Luckily, the breeze dispersed it quickly. As the butterfly settled again, he planned to pay back Tameala for that, and presently he felt his inside move and was able to do so. ‘Geh-yah!’ Tameala exclaimed, ‘what is that sweet fragrance? It is like the scent of a manibolu blossom!’ Then she realized that the scent was actually coming from the waste product of her friend. ‘What did you eat, that produces such sweetness?’ she asked Bebebi.

‘I eat ripe bananas, ripe mangoes-plenty of fruits, and I drink nectar from the flowers of the wild bush’, the butterfly told her. ‘What do you eat?’

‘I eat sea plants and drink saltwater’ the turtle replied. ‘I should like to know what your food tastes like. Why don't we both fetch some of our food here and then we can try each other’s and see whether we like it?’

Bebebi thought this is a good idea, so they both went off together food. At sunset they returned and put their food on the ground beneath the banyan tree.

‘Eat everything I have brought and tell me which food you like best,’ Bebebi told Tameala. ‘Meanwhile, I will try your food.’

The turtle picked up a banana, peeled it delicately and gobbled it up. ‘Delicious!’ she pronounced, as clearly as she could, for her mouth was crammed full.

The butterfly picked up a small piece of sea plant and began to chew it. ‘Very pleasant,’ he decided. ‘A sharp taste, but a nice change after all the sweet foods I am used to.’

Tameala, who was inclined to be greedy, quickly tasted some mango and drank some flower nectar from a shell. ‘Now I have tasted all the food you brought,’ she told Bebebi. ‘I like the banana the best. Could you show me where bananas grow?’

‘Of course,’ Bebebi replied. ‘Follow me.’

He led the turtle to the gardens close by where many banana trees grew. Bunches of many fingered ripe bananas hung down from the tree stems. The two friends ate and ate until their bellies could hold no more. As they left the gardens Bebebi warned Tameala that the trees belonged to the villagers, who planted them and cared for them. They were very valuable. ‘Anyone who steals from the trees is put to death,’ he told her.

But Tameala, the greedy one, did not heed Bebebi’s words. The very next evening she came to the gardens again, and as she was stuffing her fifth banana into her mouth, three angry villagers jumped out and caught her. So many bananas had been missing from the trees that morning that they had lain in wait to see if the thief would return.

‘Tomorrow we will feast on turtle flesh!’ the villager chief put proclaimed. ‘Today, let every man, woman and child go out to collect more food and firewood for the feast.’

All the villages did as they were told, except for an old, blind woman who was left to guard the turtle and make sure it did not escape. As soon as the last person had disappeared from sight, Tameala spoke to the old woman. ‘As you can see, this rope that binds my arms is cutting into my flesh and bruising it. It really would be much better if you untired my bonds, so that when I am killed for the feast, my flesh will be unmarked, and you will be able to eat every part of me.’

The old woman was not very clever. She thought the turtle's advice sounded sensible, and without thinking twice, she slashed the rope that held Tameala captive. The turtle at once picked up a piece of wood from the ground and held it out to the woman. ‘Take hold of my arm,’ the turtle said. ‘Don't loosen your grip or I might escape!’

Then Tameala set off for the seashore. How she longed to immerse herself in the cool sea after standing in the hot sun for so long! But she knew that because she went so slowly with her plodding gait, she might not reach the sea before the villagers returned and discovered she had escaped. She picked up a beautifully grained wooden ceremonial bowl as she went and carried it on her back as she crawled off to the shore.

Soon the villagers returned bearing wood for the cooking fires and food for the feast. They were astonished to see the old, blind woman sitting beside the steak in the middle of the village, holding a piece of wood.

‘Where is the turtle?’ they screamed.

‘Surely you can see that I'm holding onto her arm,’ the old woman replied. ‘I untied her bonds so that her flesh would not be bruised.’

‘You stupid old woman!’ shouted the chief. ‘Don't you realize that what you are gripping so tightly is nothing but a piece of wood? The turtle has deceived you and escaped!’

Then, one of the villages saw the track of the turtle, leading towards the sea. All the men got their spears ready and set out in pursuit.

Tameala had just reached the water's edge when her pursuers came running onto the beach. They flung their spears, but the turtle was protected by the ceremonial bowl she had put on her back, and she swam into the sea unharmed. When she was at a safe distance away, she looked back at the villages and called out to them: ‘Return to your village and eat the pieces of firewood you gathered to roast my flesh!’

Then she dived into the water and swam and swam until she came to a small, uninhabited island called Bunola. She lived there for many, many years, for turtle’s life is a long, long one, and she produced many young turtles. The ceremonial bowl on her back had protected her so well that she never removed it. Strange to say, the young turtles born to her each had a little bowl on their back as well; and ever since that day all turtles have had shells. If you scrub a turtle’s shell thoroughly, you can still see the beautiful grain of the original bowl that Tameala picked up in the village. Today, the little island of Bunola, not far from Misima Island, in the Louisade Archipelago, is still uninhabited by man, but there are hundreds of Tameala’s descendants there. It is sometimes known as the Isle of the Turtles.

‘How The Turtle Got Her Shell’ was contributed by Amo Mark. Amo Mark comes from Liak Village, on Misima Island in the Milne Bay Province. Collected by Donald S. Stokes and retold by Barbara Ker Wilson.