Long ago in southern Africa, the animals lived peacefully together, sharing the forest, sharing watering holes, grass, and game. The land was plentiful, and no one grumbled or complained, and all seem content.
No one grumbled or complained, that is, except the tortoise. He muttered under his breath as he trundled through the grasslands on his short, stubby legs. When he drank at the watering hole, he stared with envy at the other creatures.
“Ah, look at the zebra’s stripes,” he sighed, “and look at the lion’s luxurious mane. Oh, what I would give to have the springbok’s impressive antlers. They’re magnificent! And the cheetah’s coloring is beautiful. And, oh, how I wish I were a snake, with his shiny skin. And the birds! The birds have feathers and wings! The elephant has that great trunk. The giraffe can reach the highest leaves, and the chameleon can change color, but I can do nothing special.”
“Why are you grumbling so?” the doves asked.
“Every animal is special,” the tortoise whined. “Everyone is special but me.”
“You’re special, too,” the doves cooed. “You have a shell, after all. No one else has that.”
“Oh, but my shell is nothing to look at. I wish I were like you. You can fly.”
“Leave him to grumble,” the giraffe told the others, and they walked away, leaving the tortoise all alone to dream of stripes and spots, of feathers and antlers, of wings and other wonders.
One day as the tortoise ambled along, the doves flew down to say hello.
“Good day, Tortoise,” they called. “How are you today?”
“Same as always,” the tortoise complained. “I have no feathers or stripes. No long neck, no wings, no camouflage.”
The doves began to titter. They were used to his complaints.
“Tell us, Tortoise, if you could make your dream come true, what would that dream be?”
Now the tortoise closed his eyes, and in his dream, he saw the animals gathered at the watering hole. Each one was beautiful to him, but loveliest of all was the birds. They could fly so high. With just a flap of their wings, they rose into the bright blue sky and whirled and twirled in the wind. How he wished he could be like the birds.
“I wish I were anyone but me,” the tortoise said, opening his eyes. “But it’s no use. I’ll always be here on the ground with my stubby legs and ugly shell and no stripes or spots or wings. I’ll always be just what I am.”
“But think Tortoise. Use your imagination. Use your dreams. If you had your wish, what would it be?”
Again the tortoise closed his eyes, and now he envisioned the land. He saw hundreds of watering holes, and he saw mountains and valleys, streams and lakes. He saw the land he knew the doves must-see as they flew. “I wish I could fly!” the tortoise cried.
“Then you will!” the doves said sweetly.
“Don’t be silly,” the tortoise grumbled. “Everyone knows a tortoise cannot fly.”
Now the doves tittered again, for they had a plan. “Wait here,” they said, and off they flew. While the tortoise waited, he dreamed again. This time he imagined himself in the sky, covered with feathers, fixed with wings. He imagined the sights he would see.
A few moments later, the doves returned, one of them carrying a long, thick stick in his beak.
“Here, Tortoise,” the doves said. “We’ve figured out a way that you can fly. Just clamp your jaws into this stick. We’ll carry it between us and fly you to a brand-new watering hole. Even tortoises can fly.”
Now the tortoise was overjoyed. He trundled as quickly as he could toward the stick.
“Just one thing,” the doves reminded him. “While we are flying, you must keep your mouth firmly shut.” With that, the tortoise snapped his jaws around the stick. The doves began to flap their wings, and soon they were flying up, up, up into the bright blue sky.
The tortoise could not believe his good fortune. He was flying! He looked down and saw the land he had once only dreamed of. He saw the cheetah speeding across the plain and the elephant drinking at the watering hole. He saw the zebra and the springbok and all the others, but he no longer envied anyone. He was the happiest creature of all.
Suddenly some of the other animals looked up, and they began to howl with laughter. “Whoever heard of a flying tortoise!” the parrots mocked. “He looks ridiculous,” the cheetah sneered. “He looks very foolish up there,” the zebra agreed. Again they all laughed.
The tortoise grew angrier and angrier, and then, without thinking, he opened his mouth to cry, “Stop laugh …” But that was all he said, for the moment he opened his mouth, he began to tumble to the earth. Down, down, down he went, gasping for breath, furious at himself for his foolishness. The doves, though they swooped low to catch him, couldn’t stop his fall.
The tortoise landed with a crash. And when he landed, his once smooth shell cracked and split. Ever since that day, every tortoise is born with a shell covered with cracks and lines, a reminder of the day the tortoise forgot the advice of the doves, a reminder of what envy will do.
Still, the tortoise was glad to see his shell was different now. He too was special, marked with new designs, and he knew he must never envy the others. And he never again tried to fly.