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Home » Children's Stories » How The Tortoise Became


How The Tortoise Became

Ted Hughes

When God made a creature, he first of all shaped it in clay. Then he baked it in the ovens of the sun until it was hard. Then he took it out of the oven and, when it was cool, breathed life into it. Last of all, he pulled its skin on to it like a tight jersey.

All the animals got different skins. If it was a cold day, God would give to the animals he made on that day a dense, woolly skin. Snow was falling heavily when he made the sheep and the bears.

If it was a hot day, the new animals got a thin skin.

On the day he made greyhounds and dachshunds and boys and girls, the weather was so hot God had to wear a sun hat and was calling endlessly for iced drinks.

Now on the day he made Torto, God was so hot the sweat was running down on to the tips of his fingers.

After baking Torto in the oven, God took him out to cool. Then he flopped back in his chair and ordered Elephant to fan him with its ears. He had made Elephant only a few days before and was very pleased with its big flapping ears. At last he thought that Torto must surely be cool.

"He's had as long as I usually give a little thing like him," he said, and picking up Torto, he breathed life into him. As he did so, he found out his mistake.

Torto was not cool. Far from it. On that hot day, with no cooling breezes, Torto had remained scorching hot. Just as he was when he came out of the oven.

"Ow!" roared God. He dropped Torto and went hopping away on one leg to the other end of his workshop, shaking his burnt fingers.

"Ow, ow, ow!" he roared again, and plunged his hand into his ice bucket to cure the burns.

Torto meanwhile lay on the floor, just alive, groaning with the heat.

"Oh, I'm so hot!" he moaned. "So hot! The heat. Oh, the heat!"

God was alarmed that he had given Torto life before he was properly cooled.

"Just a minute, Torto," he said. "I'll have a nice, thin, cooling skin on you in a jiffy. Then you'll feel better." But Torto wanted no skin. He was too hot as it was. "No, no!" he cried. "I shall stifle. Let me go without a skin for a few days. Let me cool off first."

"That's impossible," said God. "All creatures must have skins."

"No, no!" cried Torto, wiping the sweat from his little brow. "No skin!"

"Yes!" cried God.

"No!" cried Torto.



God made a grab at Torto, who ducked and ran like lightning under a cupboard. Without any skin to cumber his movements, Torto felt very light and agile.

"Come out!" roared God, and got down on his knees to grope under the cupboard for Torto

In a flash, Torto was out from under the other end of the cupboard, and while God was still struggling to his feet, he ran out through the door and into the world, without a skin.

The first thing he did was to go to a cool pond and plunge straight into it. There he lay, for several days, just cooling off. Then he came out and began to live among the other creatures. But he was still very hot. Whenever he felt his own heat getting too much for him, he retired to his pond to cool off in the water. In this way, he found life pleasant enough.

Except for one thing. The other creatures didn't approve of Torto.

They all had skins. When they saw Torto without a skin, they were horrified.

"But he has no skin!" cried Porcupine.

"It's disgusting!" cried Yak. "It's indecent!"

"He's not normal. Leave him to himself," said Sloth.

So all the animals began to ignore Torto. But they couldn't ignore him completely, because he was a wonderfully swift runner, and whenever they held a race, he won it. He was so nimble without a skin that none of the other creatures could hope to keep up with him.

"I'm a genius-runner," he said. "You should respect me. I am faster than the lot of you put together. I was made different."

But the animals still ignored him. Even when they had to give him the prizes for winning all the races, they still ignored him.

"Torto is a very swift mover," they said. "And perhaps swifter than any of us. But what sort of a creature is he? No skin!"

And they all turned up their noses.

At first, Torto didn't care at all. When the animals collected together, with all their fur brushed and combed and set neatly, he strolled among them, smiling happily, naked.

"When will this disgusting creature learn to behave?" cried Turkey, loudly enough for everyone to hear.

"Just take no notice of him," said Alligator, and lumbered round, in his heavy armour, to face in the opposite direction.

All the animals turned round to face in the opposite direction.

When Torto went up to Grizzly Bear to ask what everyone was looking at, Grizzly Bear pretended to have a fly in his ear. When he went to Armadillo, Armadillo gathered up all his sons and daughters and led them off without a word or a look.

"So that's your game, is it?" said Torto to himself. Then aloud, he said: "Never mind. Wait till it comes to the races."

When the races came, later in the afternoon, Torto won them all. But nobody cheered. He collected the prizes and went off to his pond alone.

"They're jealous of me," he said. "That's why they ignore me. But I'll punish them: I'll go on winning all the races."

That night, God came to Torto and begged him to take a proper skin before it was too late. Torto shook his head:

"The other animals are snobs," he said. "Just because they are covered with a skin, they think everyone else should be covered with one too. That's snobbery. But I shall teach them not to be snobs by making them respect me. I shall go on winning all the races."

And so he did. But still the animals didn't respect him. In fact, they grew to dislike him more and more.

One day there was a very important race-meeting, and all the animals collected at the usual place. But the minute Torto arrived they simply walked away. Simply got up and walked away. Torto sat on the race-track and stared after them. He felt really left out.

"Perhaps," he thought sadly, "it would be better if I had a skin. I mightn't be able to run then, but at least I would have friends. I have no friends. Besides, after all this practice, I would still be able to run quite fast."

But as soon as he said that he felt angry with himself.

"No!" he cried. "They are snobs. I shall go on winning their races in spite of them. I shall teach them a lesson."

And he got up from where he was sitting and followed them. He found them all in one place, under a tree. And the races were being run.

"Hey!" he called as he came up to them. "What about me?"

But at that moment, Tiger held up a sign in front of him. On the sign, Torto read: "Creatures without skins are not allowed to enter." Torto went home and brooded. God came up to him. "Well, Torto," said God kindly, "would you like a skin yet?" Torto thought deeply.

"Yes," he said at last, "I would like a skin. But only a very special sort of skin."

"And what sort of a skin is that?" asked God.

"I would like," said Torto, "a skin that I can put on, or take off, just whenever I please." God frowned.

"I'm afraid," he said. "I have none like that." "Then make one," replied Torto. "You're God." God went away and came back within an hour. "Do you want a beautiful skin?" he asked. "Or do you mind if it's very ugly?"

"I don't care what sort of a skin it is," said Torto, "so long as I can take it off and put it back on again just whenever I please."

God went away again, and again came back within an hour.

"Here it is. That's the best I can do."

"What's this!" cried Torto. "But it's horrible!" "Take it or leave it," said God, and walked away. Torto examined the skin. It was tough, rough, and stiff.

"It's like a coconut," he said. "With holes in it."

And so it was. Only it was shiny. When he tried it on, he found it quite snug. It had only one disadvantage. He could move only very slowly in it.

"What's the hurry?" he said to himself then. "When it comes to moving, who can move faster than me?"

And he laughed. Suddenly he felt delighted. Away he went to where the animals were still running their races.

As he came near to them, he began to think that perhaps his skin was a little rough and ready. But he checked himself:

"Why should I dress up for them?" he said. "This rough old thing will do. The races are the important thing."

Tiger lowered his notice and stared in dismay as Torto swaggered past him. All the animals were now turning and staring, nudging each other, and turning, and staring.

"That's a change, anyway," thought Torto.

Then, as usual, he entered for all the races.

The animals began to talk and laugh among themselves as they pictured Torto trying to run in his heavy new clumsy skin.

"He'll look silly, and then how we'll laugh." And they all laughed.

But when he took his skin off at the starting-post, their laughs turned to frowns.

He won all the races, then climbed back into his skin to collect the prizes. He strutted in front of all the animals.

"Now it's my turn to be snobbish," he said to himself.

Then he went home, took off his skin, and slept sweetly. Life was perfect for him.

This went on for many years. But though the animals would now speak to him, they remembered what he had been. That didn't worry Torto, however. He became very fond of his skin. He began to keep it on at night when he came home after the races. He began to do everything in it, except actually race. He crept around slowly, smiling at the leaves, letting the days pass.

There came a time when there were no races for several weeks. During all this time Torto never took his skin off once. Until, when the first race came round at last, he found he could not take his skin off at all, no matter how he pushed and pulled. He was stuck inside it. He strained and squeezed and gasped, but it was no use. He was stuck.

However, he had already entered for all the races, so he had to run.

He lined up, in his skin, at the start, alongside Hare, Greyhound, Cheetah and Ostrich. They were all great runners, but usually he could beat the lot of them easily. The crowd stood agog.

"Perhaps," Torto was thinking, "my skin won't make much difference. I've never really tried to run my very fastest in it."

The starter's pistol cracked, and away went Grey- hound, Hare, Cheetah and Ostrich, neck and neck.

Where was Torto?

The crowd roared with laughter.

Torto had fallen on his face and had not moved an inch. At his first step, cumbered by his stiff, heavy skin, he had fallen on his face. But he tried. He climbed back on to his feet and made one stride, slowly, then a second stride, and was just about to make a third when the race was over and Cheetah had won. Torto had moved not quite three paces. How the crowd laughed!

And so it was with all the races. In no one race did Torto manage to make more than three steps, before it was over.

The crowd was enjoying itself. Torto was weeping with shame After the last race, he turned to crawl home. He only them wanted to hide. But though the other animals had let him go off alone when he had the prizes, now they came alongside him, in a laughing, mocking crowd.

"Who's the slowest of all the creatures?" they shouted.

"Torto is!"

"Who's the slowest of all the creatures?"

"Torto is!" all the way home.

After that, Torto tried to keep himself out of sight, but the other animals never let him rest. Whenever any of them chanced to see him, they would shout at the tops of their voices: "Who's the slowest of all the creatures?"

And every other creature within, hearing would answer, at the tops of their voices:

"Torto is!"

And that is how Torto came to be known as "Tortoise".



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