How the Tortoise Lost His Tail
Across the river of death lay the gigantic long-necked tortoise that bridged the gulf between the land of men and the land of souls. The spirits of men were required to cross the river before they could reach the world of eternal life, and the only path by which they could travel lay across the tail of the tortoise. It stretched over the swiftly flowing river from one bank to the other.
No one knew what would happen when death came, and the spirit set out on its long journey to the land of spirits, until a man returned to tell them of his experiences.
'I travelled across a wide plain,' he said. 'In the distance I saw the gleam of running water and knew that I would have to cross the river. When I came close to it, I saw that the banks were steep, and that no man could hope to live in the rushing torrent. But the way was made plain. There is a giant tortoise by which the souls of men may cross. On the far shore the shell of the tortoise rises up like a mountain, and its head is as big as a small hill. Its mouth is full of sharp white teeth, and its eyes gleam like fire.
'There is no other way to cross. I stepped on to the tail and ran across as quickly as I could, but I had not gone half the distance when the tortoise wriggled and I fell into the river. I was tossed about like a twig and carried into a dark tunnel. I thought I would have died a second time, because I was dashed against rocks, and bruised and cut by their sharp edges. Look, you can see the scars which will tell you better than any words of mine that what I say is true.
'Presently I was carried into the daylight again, and I saw many people playing by the banks of the river, hunting, and gathering firewood. Some of them were our own people who have died, but I do not think that the river is the true land of spirits. It may be that they are still resting before they continue their journey.
The river swept me past them and carried me into the ocean, where I was battered by the waves, and the salt water stung my wounds. I was washed to and fro. The salt water healed my bleeding body, and after a long time I was thrown up on a sandy beach. When my strength returned I kept the sun on my left side, crossing wide plains and high mountains, until at last I reached my home. You can see for yourselves that I have returned.'
'What shall we do?' he was asked. 'When the time comes for us to die, how shall we escape the tortoise with the long tail and the wicked head?'
'Someone who is strong and fearless and has the power of the great spirits must take an axe and cut off the tail of the tortoise. Men will then be able to travel the road in safety.'
'Who shall it be?' they asked, and they looked at the wirrinun, the sorcerer who lived with them.
'I know you are looking at me,' he said with a smile, 'and you are relieved that it is me who has the power and not you. Very well. I shall die this night, and I will do as you wish. But when you bury my body you must also bury my axe with me.'
The next day the spirit of the wirrinun rose from his body in the newly-dug grave, took his axe and set out for the river. He went by a circuitous route and climbed a tall tree, where he sat on a branch, waiting to see what would happen.
Far below him the souls of men reached the river bank, looked round them, and when they realised that there was no other way across the river, began to walk along the outstretched tail. Before they reached the opposite bank, the tortoise twitched his tail, and they were shaken off and swept away in the river.
The wirrinun descended the tree, went over to the tip of the tortoise's tail, and ran lightly across it. He sped over like a gust of wind, feeling the sharp jerk as the tortoise tried to shake him off, but he was running so fast that he reached the body of the creature before the tail could swing into action. Turning round, the medicine man gave a terrific blow with his axe and severed the tail at the root. The tortoise reared up, twisted in the air, and fell on the bold wirrinun. But the sorcerer was ready for him. He wriggled clear, the axe descended a second time, and the ghastly head rolled on the ground.
With a sigh of relief, the wirrinun went to a tall tree and cut it down so that it fell across the river, providing a safe bridge for all the souls who would come that way. At the root of the tree there was a snake which uncoiled its body and flicked its tongue at him. With a final blow he cut off its head.
The body of the tortoise was still quivering, and the wirrinun felt a momentary pang of pity. After all, the creature had but obeyed the will of the great spirits who had designed the pattern of the universe, and had appointed him as the pathway for men's souls.
It was destiny that had brought him to this place and had changed the passage of souls for all the days to come. The tortoise had been the unwitting instrument of fate, and the bulk that lay helpless on the river bank had not acted of its own volition.
The wirrinun could not restore its tail, but the snake's head still lay by the tree stump. He picked it up, cut off the poison fangs with his knife, and joined it to the stump of the tortoise's neck.
That is why every tortoise has a short, stumpy tail and the head of a snake.
A.W. Reed, Aboriginal Fables & Legendary Tales (Aboriginal Library)