Once upon a time, animals all talked and live together in what was to become Japan.
They frolicked and played all across the hills, but also bickered and argued, loud and clear very much like humans do today.
Tortoise was one of those bitter creatures. Though his shell was sturdy, smooth amber and polished like a mirror, he longed for fur and long elegant limbs.
– I do live long and in good health, but how time goes slow when you can’t run!
Tortoise looked with envy at Rabbit, all soft ears and agile gait.
Rabbit was all the old reptile wished he could be: he dashed graciously through bushes and brambles, eyes shining with glee, his pearly white fur as delicate as snowflakes.
Not the least out of breath, he would come to him and asked, unknowingly rubbing salt into the wound:
– Do you need anything today? ‘Cause I’d bring it back to you in a flash!
The more days passed, the more grumpy Tortoise grumbled under his hull. And one morning he had enough of all Rabbit carefree acrobatics.
Oozing jealousy, he went to his longstanding friend, Owl, and said:
– This youngster need a lesson. I think I am going to defy him.
Surprised, Owl hooted :
– Defy? But how?
– I’ll race with him. I only need you as referee.
Said day, Rabbit was pacing near the starting line, happily babbling. Tortoise did not seem to care, hard eyes set on the path.
Owl whistled to get their attention:
– Alright! The first to reach the sea win! Ready? Go!
Before Tortoise had made a step, Rabbit had already disappeared uphill.
Long ears down, he ran and ran, delighted by his own speed. Flying above him, came Owl’s voice:
– Hurry my friend, Tortoise has nearly won!
– I am the fastest of all animals. How could he win?
And soon, he had reached the glittering sea. He gasped.
Tortoise was already there, laying lazily on the white sand, his smooth carapace catching sunrays.
Rabbit could not believed his eyes:
– But how is this possible? I cannot loose against you Tortoise: I demand a rematch!
Tortoise craggy face cracked with a sly smile:
– Of course, the first to reach the creek then?
And the referee Owl sighted and screeched:
– Ready? Go!
Rabbit gave all he had, paws barely touching the ground as he bolted through the woods. But, when he arrived by the creek, Tortoise was already there, looking quite smug.
– I… lost… to a tortoise…
Rabbit had a soft soul and this blow was too much to bare. He crawled under a tree, and cried his heart out. He bawled and bawled for hours, rubbing his eyes so much they turned out red and swollen.
A dry snort shook him out his daze. Perched on a branch, Crow looked down at him:
– Tender things like you are so easily deceived. Owl and Tortoise worked hand in hand. That damn bird has flown his friend to the finish line. You sure know how quicker sky roads are.
Rabbit sniffled miserably:
– But… that’s mean!
Crow croaked a biting laugh:
– Did you think we were all friends here? It’s because of Owl that I am now this ugly…
The black bird peered closely at Rabbit, his beady eyes unreadable. He suddenly clacked his beak:
– Dam it!
And before Rabbit could have spoken, he had flown away.
Tortoise didn’t see him come. Before he had realised what was happening, Crow had dived from the skies and seized him, flying up and up again.
– But what…?
Without a word, Crow let him fall down. Tortoise hit the ground so hard his pretty carapace shattered.
And that is why, today still, swift rabbits have red eyes and tortoises slowly bear heavily cracked shells.
Here is a new tale in the classical “Why does this animal has…” serie!
Tortoises and turtles (japanese only has one word for both, kame) are usually quite well seen in Asian folklore. They are symbol of long life and good fortune. For example, the hexagonal shapes of their shell (kikko) are still today very auspicious motifs in Japan. Finding a bad tortoise character is very much a surprised!
This story shows a pretty simple moral (jealousy is bad). A variation has God taking pity on Rabbit and punishing both Tortoise and Owl (cracking one’s hull and blinding the other). But I like the presence of the Crow in this version, not entirely good nor bad.
Crow’s feud with Owl in an echo of this tale.