Once upon a time, a hippopotamus was king of the land. Some people thought the elephant ought to be king, and others recognized the strength of the lion. But at that time the hippopotamus was the biggest and mightiest, almost as mighty as the king of the sea, the whale. The hippopotamus ruled his kingdom with absolute authority.
Nobody knew the hippopotamus’s name; they bowed down to him and called him king. But in fact, he had a real name. It was Isantim, and he took great pride in this name and took even greater pride in the secret he kept from his kingdom.
One night he invited everyone in the kingdom to his home to enjoy a sumptuous feast his seven wives prepared. Just as everyone prepared to enjoy the marvels spread across Isantim’s table, he stood up before the crowd. In a loud and mighty voice, he asked, “Who can tell me my name?”
Each creature looked at the creature beside him, but one after another, they shook their heads, for nobody knew. Then they all looked down at the table, unable to meet their mighty king’s gaze.
“What? Nobody knows my name?” he said with glee. “Well, then, you are not welcome here. Only my wives may stay to feast with me tonight.”
Isantim’s many wives, you see, knew his name, but they were sworn to secrecy or they would lose their high standing.
Fearful of their king’s anger, everyone quickly stood up and started to leave. Everyone, that is, but the tortoise, who shuffled up to the king, bowed down and asked, “Excuse me, your highness, but what if I can tell you your name?”
“Ha!” roared Isantim. “No one can find out my name, for I am mightiest of all the creatures.”
“But what if I can?” the tortoise prodded.
“Ah, if you were to learn my name,” he said, “this would bring shame upon me and my family. Hear me now: If anyone learns my name, I shall leave this great land. My family and I will live forever afterward in the water.” And with this notion, he burst out laughing, for he felt confident that no one could learn his secret.
The next morning the tortoise watched from the bushes while the hippopotamus and his wives ambled, as was their custom, along the path that led to the river. There they would spend their morning drinking and bathing. When they had passed by, the tortoise shuffled into the middle of the path, and there he dug a hole. When he was finished, he scuttled back into the bush to wait.
He watched as the king returned, passing by the spot where the tortoise hid. And then, one after another, his wives followed his path. When all but two of the wives had passed by, the tortoise hurried out to the path and settled into his hole, but he left his shell exposed above ground.
As the last two wives were passing, one of them stubbed her toe against the tortoise’s shell and instantly let out a cry of pain. “Oh my toe,” she cried. “Isantim, stop and wait for me. I’ve hurt myself. Isantim, please slow down!”
That very night, the tortoise returned to Isantim’s home, but he brought along as many of the creatures of the forest as he could find.
“Your highness,” the tortoise said, bowing down before the king and all the other creatures bowed, too. “I have come to ask if you will keep your promise.”
“What promise is that?” the king asked.
“Did you promise if anyone could learn your name that you and your family would move forever into the water? Tell me, did I understand you properly?”
Again the king laughed. “Yes, of course. I did say that. But nobody will ever know my name.”
“Isantim!” the tortoise shouted at the top of his lungs, and when everyone saw the look upon the king’s face, they knew the tortoise had outsmarted their king.
“Isantim, Isantim, Isantim,” everyone shouted. “The tortoise has learned the king’s name, and it is Isantim!”
Now all the wives looked at each other, and Isantim looked at them with fury in his eyes. “Who told my secret?” he bellowed.
Each of the wives just shook her head. “Not I, beloved husband,” each one said.
Isantim knew he was defeated, for a king must never break a promise. And so that very day, the hippopotamus and his seven wives returned to the river, and ever since that day, they have lived in the water, walking onto land only when darkness has fallen.