The Turtle Who Conquered Time

A turtle appeared in a meadow one summer’s day and attracted the attention of all the creatures in the grass and in the trees, because the date 44 B.C. was carved on his shell. “Our meadow is honored indeed,” exclaimed a grasshopper, “for our visitor is the oldest of all living creatures.”

“We must build a pavilion in his honor,” said a frog, and the catbirds and the swallows and the other birds built a stately pleasure dome out of twigs and leaves and blossoms for the very important turtle. An orchestra of crickets played music in his honor, and a wood thrush sang. The sounds of jubilee were heard in nearby fields and woods, and as more and more creatures turned up from farther and farther away to have a look at the ancient turtle, the grasshopper decided to charge admission to the pavilion.

“I will be the barker,” said the frog, and, with the help of the grasshopper, he composed an impressive spiel. “Yesterday and yesterday and yesterday,” it began, “creeps in this carapace from day to day to the first syllable of recorded time. This great turtle was born two thousand years ago, the year the mighty Julius Caesar died. Horace was twenty-one in 44 B.C., and Cicero had but a single year to live.” The bystanders did not seem very much interested in the turtle’s ancient contemporaries, but they gladly paid to go in and have a look at his ancient body.

Inside the pavilion, the grasshopper continued the lecture. “This remarkable turtle is a direct descendant of one of the first families of Ooze,” he chanted. “His great-grandfather may have been the first thing that moved in the moist and muddy margins of this cooling planet. Except for our friend’s ancestors, there was nothing but coal and blobs of glob.”

One day a red squirrel who lived in a neighboring wood dropped in to look at the turtle and to listen to the ballyhoo. “Forty-four B.C., my foot!” scoffed the squirrel, as he glared at the grasshopper. “You are full of tobacco juice, and your friend the frog is full of lightning bugs. The carving of an ancient date on the carapace of a turtle is a common childish prank. This creep was probably born no earlier than 1902.”

As the red squirrel ranted on, the spectators who had paid to get into the pavilion began departing quietly, and there was no longer a crowd listening to the frog out front. The crickets put away their instruments and disappeared as silently as the Arabs, and the wood thrush gathered up his sheet music and flew off and did not return. The sounds of jubilee were no longer heard in the once merry meadow, and the summer seemed to languish like a dying swan. “I knew all the time he wasn’t two thousand years old,” admitted the grasshopper, “but the legend pleased the people, young and old, and many smiled who had not smiled for years.”

“And many laughed who had not laughed for years,” said the frog, “and many eyes sparkled and many hearts were gay.” The turtle shed a turtle tear at this and crawled away.

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“The truth is not merry and bright,” said the red squirrel. “The truth is cold and dark. Let’s face it.” And, looking smug and superior, the iconoclast scampered impudently back to his tree in the wood. From the grass of the meadow voices once carefree and gay joined in a rueful and lonely chorus, as if someone great and wonderful had died and was being buried.

MORAL: Oh, why should the shattermyth have to be a crumplehope and a dampenglee?

The Turtle Who Conquered Time

James Thurber

James Grover Thurber (December 8, 1894 – November 2, 1961) was an American cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine, such as "The Catbird Seat", and collected in his numerous books. He was one of the most popular humorists of his time, as he celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people.

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