WHEN I GOT back to the Ministry the electricity was still down. Our open plan office was a cavernous space, quiet now without the hum of the air conditioning and the clickety-clack of the one desktop computer. The bags I carried came under scrutiny – there was little else to do. I was single and childless and my sister had just had a son back in Australia so the bags were full of delightful 'little' things that got my Marshallese colleagues clucking. I'd particularly fallen in love with one tiny T-shirt at the one tiny department store on the island. The stencil was bright and cheerful: a pink hermit crab and a startled, elongated green fish over three wavy blue lines representing the water all around us. Om eo im tak eo, it read.
'What does that mean?' I asked.
'You don't know the story of Om eo im tak eo?'
Kiaben, my counterpart on the UN project, piped up then. Every kid on the island knew the fable so they all appreciated the opportunity of a fresh audience. Bwebwenato, storytelling, was the national pastime. So we sat in the dark office around a mythical fireside, and I first heard the story of the Hermit Crab and the Needlefish. It had a familiar rhythm. For a moment I didn't feel so far from home.
NEEDLEFISH ARE LICKETY-SPLIT fast; hermit crabs lumber over the land slowly with a scavenged shell on their back. Any race between them would be unlikely, and unequal. But that is the way of fables. 'Let's race,' shouts the Needlefish, and isn't he startled when the Hermit Crab says yes. Being of a pedantic – slow – nature, the Hermit Crab sets the rules. They will start here, tomorrow, the Needlefish in the lagoon and the Hermit Crab on the land.
A little geography lesson is perhaps needed at this point. The Marshall Islands, the home of the fable, and my home of four years, are made up of atolls. Each atoll is a ring of islands, often likened to beads on a necklace, dropped around an internal body of water called a lagoon. Any visual image will probably revolve around the word bikini. Bikini clad westerners on picture postcard beaches beside turquoise lagoons, or a mushroom cloud rising in awesome wrath above the atoll which gave its name to the shocking apparel.
Further south of Bikini Atoll, Kiaben explained the Hermit Crab's rules. The race course would be a circle, starting and ending where they now stood. So that, the Hermit Crab said, the Needlefish couldn't just swim about in one place and simply claim he won, he was to call out each time he got to a new island in the chain. He was to call out, 'little crab where are you?' The Hermit Crab would call back. The Needlefish agreed this sounded sensible and spent the night boasting to all his aquatic friends about how he was going to win the race.
The next morning they met again at the spot and off they went, the Needlefish swimming faster than lightening, faster than a shooting star. At each island he called, 'little crab, where are you?' and each time he heard a voice from the shore, assuring him and taunting him, 'here I am, here I am in front of you.' He couldn't believe it. He swam faster. There was no way slow-poke Hermit Crab could beat lickety-split Needlefish.
When he got to the finish line, the Hermit Crab called out, 'what took you?' And the Needlefish disappeared below the surface of the lagoon, never to be an arrogant prick again.
The Hermit Crab had a big feast to celebrate with his cousins and brothers, uncles and sisters. Each had played their part well, calling from an island, 'here I am, here in front of you.' They may not be the fastest creatures on the atoll, but together they had won the race.
'BUT THAT'S CHEATING.' I didn't say this out loud. It wasn't my country. But the sense of umbrage stayed even as the electricity came back on and I put away my nephew's new clothes. I took it – the umbrage, not the T-shirt – to dinner that evening and discussed it with the new man in my life, a German Indiana Jones, who'd arrived on the island a month before. I told him about Om eo im tak eo and he too recognised the rhythms. But instead of the collusive evening I'd imagined championing the slow and steady tortoise over the arrogant hare, he told me the German version: The Hare and the Hedgehog.
We sat in the bar above Reimer's department store looking out over the lagoon and another perfect sunset that would blot out the rusting tankers and half-finished breeze-block constructions. He could tell a good story, large hands giving a visual accompaniment. He described the arrogant Hare teasing the Hedgehog until he was goaded into a race. They agreed on the course, from one end of the field to the other and then back, but once again, this momentous competition was, on the Hedgehog's request, held off until the next day. They met anon, as agreed, and they were off, the Hare leaping down the field faster than lightening, faster than a shooting star, et cetera. When he got to the far end of the field, the Hedgehog called out, 'I'm already here.' The Hare ran even faster back up the field only to find the Hedgehog standing there. 'I won,' he said.
'Again! Run again!' shouted the Hare and he ran up and down the field, finding the Hedgehog had beaten him every time, and was hardly panting, until the Hare dropped dead of exhaustion. The Hedgehog and his helpmate, his brother, celebrated in style.
This time I did say it out loud. 'But that's cheating.'
BUT I AM being completely ethnocentric here, assuming in Australia we all have Aesop's Tortoise and the Hare as our touchstone story from childhood, the true template against which to judge the cheating Hermit Crab and the lying Hedgehog? Perhaps in multicultural Australia this version needs to be retold.
I heard it first at pre-school, sitting comfortably cross-legged on the reading mat, hands folded in my lap, the teacher holding our attention with a sing-song voice and the turning pages of an over-sized book. Hare was long and lean. I think I have superimposed his carrot from a later cartoon. The Tortoise wore glasses – implying wisdom – because he was wise enough to have a winning strategy.
You should have the rhythm of the story by now: the fast creature, the slow creature, the race, the astounding victory by the slower of the two. In the Tortoise and the Hare, our hero has no help from family. He runs the race, and he keeps on going, completing the course in his methodical way. He wins because the Hare is the victim of hubris. He is so sure of his speed he thinks he can spare the time for a nap. While sleeping, he is overtaken. His self-delight brings him down. And so we were taught at pre-school, and onward, a lesson to take into life: slow and steady wins the race.
DESPITE OUR CULTURAL differences, I married the German Indiana Jones. We joined our cultures in a child. (I sang our son nursery rhymes; his father saw the pictures in the book. He exclaimed, 'what, Humpty Dumpty is an egg?') Motherhood is a slow and steady race, day by day, minute by minute some days.
We came to Australia and I took our child to Reading Time up the perilous stairs of the local library. It was Multicultural Week, and Anansi was our hero: the well-known trickster of the Caribbean who often presented himself as a spider. His race was through a swamp with a mud turtle who had to use the road and the bridges. The clever, but physically slow, Mud Turtle enlisted the help of his family, one stationed on each of the bridges. 'Here I am, in front of you,' each in turn shouted as Anansi popped up along the course. So the slow creature won again.
I was sensing a pattern. It was becoming clear: the version of the Aesop's fable popular in the English language was the odd one out.
Of course Anansi, being an archetypal trickster, won in the end. He challenged the mud turtle to a second test, who could hold their breath the longest underwater, and while the turtle was patiently holding on, under water, Anansi disappeared with the prize. Nevertheless, the race result remained. And it was won by collusion, cheating and trickery.
OVER THE YEARS a second child arrived and I came across more versions of the fable, half-deliberately, while never truly searching. Stories are like viruses, they infect us so they get retold again and again. This one got itself around the world and back. On Pentecost Island it is the Crab and the Kingfisher, in Polynesia the Rat races the Octopus. Across in Africa, there is the Snail (and his identical brother) and the Squirrel of Zaire.
Interestingly, there was one gap. I worked as a community development officer at an Indigenous corporation during this time but never came across a version from Australia. I worked with mainly Wiradjuri and Barkindji people and the corporation ran a pre-school, so we were always on the lookout for good stories from other language groups too. Maybe the culture is so ancient their stories developed separately and there is no equivalent. I keep my ears open though, hoping one day to find an Indigenous version. When writing this I looked and drew another blank, but I did discover the Malay King Crow and Water Snail. The snail's friends helped him win the race.
And so, the version I grew up with remains the odd one out. It makes me wonder why my lot, the white Anglo-Saxons, so opposed the moral found everywhere else in the world that we adopted the fable with such different internal workings. What did it reflect in us? How did it mould us? We are told to rely on ourselves, that the individual is all, that hard work will pay off. So we delight when high-flyers falter and fall. We deny nepotism and inherited wealth even exist as forces in Australia. We worship the cult of the individual. We believe in the Tortoise; though who cannot say they've never felt the tiresome, steady, pedantic life is not for them…
When the German Indiana Jones left for a sequel elsewhere, I had to go on telling our children the stories on my own. Though my world had ended, the world had to go on. Life's race had to go on. The UN Project I'd been working on in the Marshall Islands was titled 'Family Life Education' and I, at least, had learnt a lot. Now when I read Om eo im tak eoI don't think about the hermit crabs cheating. They won because the family pulled together and helped. Just as I know I would not still be in the race without the help of my family. The little T-shirt bought on the slow day in the Marshalls had been handed down through all the cousins. It's a symbol of a greater whole: that we share. Together – that's how we get through.