Have you ever heard of the story of The Scorpion and the Turtle, by Nur Jami? In a nutshell, a terrible tragedy occurs. At turtle swims happily in the river. A scorpion asks for a ride. They have a short conversation wherein the wily, dishonest, rascal of a scorpion convinces the naive, mentally challenged, inexperienced turtle to give him a ride across the river. Half-way across, Scorpion stings Turtle. As they both drown, Turtle asks “Why? Why?” Scorpion says, “Because!” Or, maybe he says “Because it’s just my nature.” Whatever. The point is, the story is not satisfying. Where’s the justice? Where’s the sneaky, table-turning, retribution? Where’s the hero avenging the poor, innocent, stupid turtle’s death?
Well . . . not many people know there is much more to the story. I learned it from the ghost of the very turtle who drowned in the river. I woke early one morning when the light was just beginning to edge out the night, and there was a rather large, grayish turtle, sitting on the end of my bed.
“My name is Tom Turtle,” he whispered. “You have to tell everyone!” And as he faded away with the coming light, Tom told me what happened after his untimely demise.
* * * *
While Tom Turtle was sinking down in the water, along with the evil, wicked killer scorpion, a couple of Tom’s friends on the river bank saw the murder. Deeply shocked by this turn of events, his two friends traveled back to the neighborhood and told all the turtles what they had witnessed.
Oh, it was a sad day on the river! By all accounts, Tom Turtle was known for his kindness and speed.
He was a very fast swimmer. But we cannot be too surprised to hear that even some of Tom’s own family admitted that Tom wasn’t the brightest turtle on the river.
Still, many songs were sung to his heroism. After all, he was the only turtle in the entire, six volume account of “The History of Terrapins” who was known to have ever carried a scorpion on his back. And while the river turtles all agreed that it seemed, on the surface, to be extremely foolish, they felt in their hearts that it was also extremely brave.
Tom Turtle’s large, extended family sang a funeral dirge all night long. Tom’s cousin Tim Turtle was especially sad because Tom was his best friend. They grew up together on that very same river, had a double wedding ceremony, and lived a short distance down the river bank from each other.
All that long, mournful night, every song sung and every story told made Tim Turtle sadder, and then madder. And then angry. And vexed. And annoyed. And irritated.
The more Tim Turtle thought about poor Tom Turtle drowning in the very river they called home, the madder and more indignant Tim got! Before the night was through, Tim made a decision. He was going to bring justice to Tom Turtle, and restore the good name of terrapins everywhere.
Now, every turtle—just like every person—has his or her very own, special skill. Tom Turtle (may he rest in peace), could swim very fast. Tim Turtle was just an average swimmer, but he was a very good thinker. In fact, Tim Turtle was the smartest thinker on the river. Tim began to think . . . and think . . . and think some more. Then suddenly, he thought of a plan.
It was risky. It was even what you might call down-right dangerous. But Tim Turtle was willing to bet
that it just might work!
* * * *
Meanwhile, word spread all up and down the river. Scorpions everywhere heard about one of their own who rode on the back of a turtle and then drowned in the river. They were elated! After all, this was the only scorpion in the entire history of Arachnida—which means cousin to spiders—the only scorpion in the entire history of Arachnida who had ever ridden on the back of a turtle. And while they all agreed that stinging the turtle before reaching shore seemed to be extremely foolish, they felt in their hearts that also it was unusually sneaky and clever. They did not sing songs to their now famous scorpion, because all scorpions are very antisocial and prefer to live quietly, alone. They continued to come out from under rocks to hunt, and they waited in burrows to strike at passing bugs. The scorpions continued living as they always had, and the story of The Scorpion and the Turtle made them feel even more smug, and self-satisfied and strong.
* * * *
Over on the bank of the river where the turtles hung out, Tim Turtle started the day with a hearty breakfast of water plants and snails, then walked slowly down to the river’s edge, dipped his feet in the water, and waited. Once in a while, he’d jump in the river to cool off, swim slowly around, and climb back up to sun himself on a rock. Tim Turtle waited. And he waited some more.
He knew that once word got around, a scorpion somewhere would decide to make sport of riding on a turtle’s back. They just wouldn’t be able to help themselves. Scorpions liked to outdo each other, to be bigger and badder than the other scorpions. (If you’ve ever met anyone like that, you know exactly the kind of creature Tim Turtle was waiting for.) Tim figured that another scorpion would most likely wait to sting his turtle once his ride reached shore, just so the scorpion could survive to tell his story.
One day, while Tim was dangling his two front feet in the water, a scorpion sidled up next to him. “Hey, would you mind giving me a ride across the river?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Tim Turtle said slowly. “A while ago, a turtle died while ferrying a scorpion across this very river, and the scorpion too!”
“You don’t say!” said Scorpion. “I suppose you think it was the scorpion’s fault.”
“Seems that way,” answered Tim. “The scorpion got a little too eager to whip that tail around, if you know what I mean. Ended up drowning them both.”
“I see,” Scorpion said. “That was foolish of the scorpion. Was he suicidal, do you think?”
“Can’t say. You’d know better than I.”
“Maybe the scorpion wasn’t very bright.” He eyed Tim, giving him the once over. “Look,” Scorpion continued. “It’s like this. There’s a party tonight on the other side of the river. A bunch of us are getting together to feast on a mouse.”
As it turns out, mouse was one of Tim Turtle’s favorite foods. He couldn’t help but lift his head a little.
“Ah! I can tell you like the taste of mouse!” continued Scorpion. “So, you see, it would not be in mynbest interest to end my life, at least not until after I’ve had my fill of succulent rodent!”
“Well . . .” Tim Turtle hesitated a little so as not to appear too eager. (Which I’ll bet is exactly what you’ve done if you’ve ever gone fishing and were careful not to jerk your pole too quickly, so as not to scare the fish away.)
“Well . . . I do need to swim to the other side. And it would be nice to know that not all scorpions are alike.”
I assure you we are all very individualistic.” Scorpion fairly danced in anticipation.
“Okay,” Tim said. “Hop on, and keep that tail curled up!”
“Not a problem!” assured Scorpion as he climbed aboard. “No problem at all. Lots of room up here. Fine weather for a ride on the river!”
Tim slipped gracefully through the mud and into the water. He swam with slow, firm strokes.
“My cousin Tom Turtle used to frequent these waters,” said Tim.
“You don’t say!”
“Yep. He’d swim a hundred laps every morning. Then come evening, he’d swim a hundred more. He was the best swimmer on the river.”
“How nice,” said scorpion. (Which is a good thing to say to your Great-Aunt Lilly when she’s telling you a rather boring story and you really don’t know how to respond.)
“In fact,” continued Tim, “Tom Turtle was the fastest turtle in these parts. Nobody could hold a candle to him when it came to swimming. His mom said it was because he had such long legs.”
“Hmm,” said scorpion. (Maybe you say this sometimes when your Great-Aunt Lilly shows you an old photograph album, and you sit politely and try not to yawn while she names people who were dead long before you were born, and you’re thinking, when is she ever going to quit talking and make lemonade?)
“I’ve known Tom to cover 50 miles of river in a single day, and not even tire afterwards!” Tim Turtle continued.
Scorpion watched the water ripple at the edge of Tim’s shell. “Can you swim any faster?”
“Not really. I’m slow and steady. That’s what my mom always says. She says, ‘Tim, you’re not nearly as fast as Tom, but you’re slow and steady.’”
Tim continued swimming, telling stories of turtle races, turtle mud parties, turtle bathing, turtle sunning. All the while he spoke slower . . . and deeper.
“Are we there yet?” mumbled scorpion. (Which might be what you’ve said on occasion when you’re on a trip with your parents to an amusement park or the zoo, and it’s taking, like, forever to get there!)
“What?” said Tim. “You want to know . . . if we’re up to the other side of the river? Well . . . I’d say we’re probably half-way there. It’s a little hard for me to tell . . . because I’ve always been so near-sighted. Mom says . . . she says, ‘Tim, you are near-sighted. Why . . . are you so . . . near-sighted?’
“And I always answer, ‘Well Mom . . . I don’t really know why I’m so near sighted . . . I just seem to be that way . . ..”
At this point Tim Turtle heard a gentle snore from scorpion, who had fallen dead asleep on Tim’s back. (Maybe just like when you fall asleep in the back seat of the car on a very long trip because the car is rocking just a little and you can’t keep your eyes open . . . one . . . more . . . second.)
While scorpion snored, Tim Turtle gently rolled over, his back slipping into the water so smoothly that scorpion never woke up. Scorpion went sinking down, down, down to the bottom of the river, never to sting anyone ever again.
Tim Turtle let out a deep, rumbling laugh, turned around, and swam slowly home.
* * * *
Most every fable is a cautionary tale and comes with a moral. For instance, the original Scorpion and Turtle story was told so we might learn not to trust strangers too quickly. This story also has a moral. I’ve thought of several. You can choose your favorite.
1. World-wide, more people die each year from drowning than from scorpion stings, so don’t go too near the water. (This would be my Grandmother’s favorite.)
2. When you walk around with a stinger on your tail, sooner or later you’re going to use it. (You know somebody is going to say it, so it might as well be me.)
3. If you tend to act like a scorpion, someone might actually kill you. (Come on, admit it! You know at least one person who needs to fall asleep in their soup and . . . well, you know.)
4. Don’t be lulled to sleep by rhetoric. It could prove fatal. (‘Nuff said.)