The distant sound of low voices, broken now and again by singing, reached Okonkwo from his wives’ huts as each woman and her children told folk stories. Ekwefi and her daughter, Ezinma, sat on a mat on the floor. It was Ekwefi’s turn to tell a story. Suddenly the murmuring stopped and all eyes turned to their favorite and most skillful storyteller.
“Once upon a time,” she began, “all the birds were invited to a feast in the sky. They were very happy and began to prepare themselves for the great day. They painted their bodies deep red and drew beautiful patterns on them with dye.
“Tortoise saw all these preparations and soon discovered what it all meant. Nothing that happened in the world of the animals ever escaped his notice; he was full of cunning. As soon as he heard of the great feast in the sky his throat began to itch at the very thought. There was a famine in those days and Tortoise had not eaten a good meal for two moons. His body rattled like a dry stick in his empty shell. Slowly but surely he began to plan how he would go to the sky.”
“But he had no wings,” said Ezinma.
“Be patient,” replied her mother. “That is the story. Tortoise had no wings, but he went to the birds and asked to be allowed to go with them.
“‘ We know you too well,’ said the birds when they had heard him. ‘You are full of cunning and you are ungrateful. If we allow you to come with us you will soon begin your mischief. We know you of old.’
“‘You do not know me,’ said Tortoise. ‘I am a changed man. I am not the
mischievous man you once knew. On the contrary, I am thoughtful and well-meaning. I have learned that a man who makes trouble for others is also making trouble for himself. Rest assured, I promise I will not cause you any trouble.’
“Tortoise had a sweet tongue, and within a short time all the birds agreed that he was a changed man, and they all gave him a feather, with which he made two splendidly colorful wings.
“At last the great day came and Tortoise was the first to arrive at the meeting place. When all the birds had gathered together, they all set off together. Tortoise was very happy as he flew among the birds, and he was soon chosen as the man to speak for the party because he was a great orator.
“‘ There is one important thing which we must not forget,’ he said as they flew on their way. ‘When people are invited to a great feast like this, they take new names for the occasion. Our hosts in the sky will expect us to honor this age-old custom.
“None of the birds had heard of this custom but they knew that Tortoise, in spite of his failings in other areas, was a widely traveled man who knew the customs of different peoples. And so they each took a new name. When they had all taken a new name, Tortoise also took one. He was to be called All of you.
“At last the party arrived in the sky and their hosts were very happy to see them. Tortoise stood up in his many-colored plumage and thanked them for their invitation. His speech was so eloquent that all the birds were glad they had brought him, and nodded their heads in approval of all he said. Their hosts took him as the king of the birds, especially as he looked somewhat different from the others.
“After a selection of nuts had been presented and eaten, the, people of the sky set before their guests the most delectable dishes Tortoise had ever seen or dreamed of. The soup was brought out hot from the fire and in the very pot in which it had been cooked. It was full, of meat and fish. Tortoise began to sniff aloud. There was pounded yam and also yam soup cooked with palm oil and fresh fish. There were also pots of palm wine. When everything had been set before the guests, one of the people of the sky came forward and tasted a little from each pot. He then invited the birds to eat. But Tortoise jumped to his feet and asked: ‘For whom have you prepared this feast?’
“‘ For all of you,’ replied the man.
“Tortoise turned to the birds and said: ‘You remember that my name is All of you. The custom here is to serve the spokesman first and the others later. They will serve you when I have eaten.’
“He began to eat and the birds grumbled angrily among themselves. The people of the sky thought it must be their custom to leave all the food for their king. And so Tortoise ate the best part of the food and then drank two pots of palm wine, so that he was full of food and drink and his body grew fat enough to fill out his shell.
“The birds gathered round to eat what was left and to peck at the bones he had thrown on the floor. Some of them were too angry to eat. They chose to fly home on an empty stomach. But before they left each took back the feather he had lent to Tortoise. And there he stood in his hard shell full of food and wine but without any wings to fly home. He asked the birds to take a message for his wife, but they all refused. In the end Parrot, who had felt more angry than the others, suddenly changed his mind and agreed to take the message.
“‘ Tell my wife,’ said Tortoise, ‘to bring out all the soft things in my house and cover the ground with them so that I can jump down from the sky without hurting myself.
“Parrot promised faithfully to deliver the message, and then flew away smiling to himself. However when he reached Tortoise’s house he told his wife to bring out all the hard and sharp things in the house. And so Tortoise’s wife dutifully brought out her husband’s hoes, knives, spears, guns, and even his cannon. Tortoise looked down from the sky and saw his wife bringing things out, but it was too far to see what they were. When all seemed ready he let himself go. He fell and fell and fell until he began to fear that he would never stop falling. And then like the sound of his cannon he crashed to the ground.”
“Did he die?” asked Ezinma.
“No,” replied Ekwefi. “His shell broke into hundreds of pieces. But there was a great medicine man in the neighborhood. Tortoise’s wife sent for him and he gathered all the bits of shell and stuck them together. That is why the Tortoise’s shell is not smooth.”