A story about the birth of a very special tortoise
Deborah Robins

All day the hot sun burned into the hard dirt by the waterhole. But that evening, the sky grew grey and then purple and then black. Hard drops of water pelted into the cracked ground until the dirt melted into a thick oozy mud and loosened the sandy bank where I was sleeping in my egg.

That's what Mama said happened just before I hatched.  She and Papa had left their own burrows and were waiting in the waterhole. Neither had seen each other nor any other tortoises since the water dried up. They had burrowed down deep into the moist earth to escape the hot sun and to sleep through the summer. The rain must have woken them. Mama watched the nests along the creek bank. She laid five eggs there last spring.

She saw the first of my brothers and sisters and cousins break out of the mounds two days after the wet season began. They were only as long as young gum leaves but they were clever. They knew which way to the creek and they headed off straightaway.

Mama said that by the next daybreak, ten or twenty more baby tortoises had dug their way out of the nests. The rain had set in and was making the waterhole bigger and bigger. Soon, if the weather held, the waterholes would join up and Mama and Papa would see all their friends again.

Sometimes Mama and her sisters remember the babies that didn't make it to the river. Some of the little ones were taken in the beaks of the swooping shadows and some by the big land lizard, old goanna. They never saw them again.

Now and then, the grown ups will look at me and say that I am 'palari' - different. They tell Mama that it would have been better if old goanna or one of the black sky shadows had taken me instead.  Mama doesn't answer, she just tells them the story of my hatching.

The last batch of babies had hatched and were scurrying for their lives to the river. Mama looked back toward her nest one last time and she saw me poke my head out of the sand.  Mama knew there was something different about me. I wasn't like the other babies. My shell was not a perfect oval shape. One side of my back was large and gnarled and the misshapen shell made me slow and awkward. She wondered how I would carry my heavy burden to the river.

I don't remember this, but Mama said that I was clever too.  I sniffed the air once and headed straight for the river.

Mama's heart was in her throat as she watched me crawl down the muddy bank.  The black shadows crossed over me again and again. They didn't seem to think I was a tortoise. Maybe I was the wrong shape!

I made it to the river. There were baby tortoises up ahead.

In the river was a new danger. The river lizard waited. Mama had seen him snapping at the babies and scooping them up in his long jaws.

I reached the cool water and waded straight in. I could swim much better than I could crawl! I wasn't far behind the other babies anymore.  I felt free and flimsy in the water.  Mama was far away in the mangroves on the far bank, but she saw what happened next.

Death sliced through the murky water. Croc was closing in.  Like an arrow, he was cruising just behind us. He opened his mouth wide and snapped.

I swam hard. The two rows of teeth smashed together. Lucky for me, I had changed course.

Mama's eyes twinkled with amusement. She said that I never did swim straight, that my shell was crooked and it made me swim crooked. It is true. Sometimes I swim around in circles if I don't concentrate!

When I got to Mama and Papa, there were only two other babies left in our little family.  Up close, Mama could see that I was not like any baby she had ever seen before.  My strange shell didn't matter to Mama, though. She said that I was meant to live, that I had struggled hard to live.

She called me Kinka.  It is what the black people do when they are happy. They make a call like the Kookaburra. It is the happiest sound Mama ever heard.

I heard her tell all the other nosy old tortoises that I am special. Mama says that I have a big heart just like my big lopsided shell. I love Mama. And, I don't think my crooked shell is so bad either.  It got me to the river and it got me past Croc to Mama!

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Joan Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing, Lehman College, CUNY
Bronx, New York 10468

Last updated: November 14, 2004