Once upon a time there was a man who lived in Buenos Aires who was very happy because he was healthy and hard working. But one day he fell ill and the doctors said to him that he would only get better if he moved to the countryside. He did not want to go because he had younger brothers for whose welfare he was responsible. Little by little his condition worsened until a friend of his, the director of the zoo, said to him one day:
“You’re my friend, a good, hard-working man. That’s why I want you to go and live in the mountains, where you’ll be able to take a lot of exercise in the open air and get better. And because you’re a very good shot, hunt wild mountain animals and bring me the skins. I’ll give you money in advance so that your younger brothers are able to eat well … ”
The sick man agreed and went to live in the mountains, far away, farther away even than Misiones. There it was very hot and this made him well.
He lived alone in the forest and cooked for himself. He ate birds and wild animals, which he hunted with his rifle, and afterwards ate fruit. He slept beneath the trees and when the weather turned bad it took him just five minutes to build an arbour out of palm leaves, and there he would sit smoking, very happy in the middle of the forest that bellowed around him in the wind and the rain.
He had made a tie out of the animal skins and carried it over his shoulder. He had also caught many venomous vipers alive, keeping them in a large gourd; in the region there are gourds as large as a kerosene tin.
He regained his colour, his strength, and his appetite. One day when he was very hungry, because two days had passed without his hunting anything, he saw by the shore of a large lake an enormous tiger intent on devouring a tortoise. He had turned the creature on its back, held it in place with a foot, and was preparing to remove the flesh with his claws. Seeing the man, the tiger emitted a terrifying roar and leapt upon him. But the hunter, who was a great marksman, aimed at him between the eyes and smashed his head. Afterwards, he removed the skin, which was so immense that it could only be used as carpet.
Now, the man said to himself, I’m going to eat tortoise, which is delicious meat.
But drawing near the tortoise, he saw that it was wounded, its head nearly separated from its neck and hanging by no more than two or three threads of flesh.
Despite his hunger, the man felt sorry for the poor tortoise and dragged her to his arbour with a rope, bandaging her head with strips of material that he removed from his shirt, because he only had the one shirt and had no rags. He had dragged the tortoise along the ground because it was so large, as high as a chair, and of the same weight as a man.
The tortoise remained in one corner and there she passed a number of days without moving.
The man dressed her wounds the whole time and afterwards he lightly struck her on the back with his hand.
Finally, the tortoise was cured. But then the man fell sick. He contracted a fever and ached all over.
Later, he could no longer leave his bed. His fever worsened and his throat burnt from so much thirst. The man understood that he was gravely ill and spoke out loud, though he was alone, because his fever had him in a delirium.
“I’m going to die,” said the man. “I’m alone, already I can no longer get out of bed, and I don’t have anyone to bring me water either. I’m going to die of hunger and thirst.”
But the tortoise had heard and understood what the hunter had said. And then she thought:
That other time the man did not eat me though he was very hungry. He cured me and now I’m going to cure him.
She then went to the lake, looked for a small tortoise shell and after cleaning it well with sand and ash gave some water to the man, who was lying on top of his blanket, dying of thirst. She went at once to look for nutritious roots and tender small herbs, which she gave the man to eat. The man ate without realising who was feeding him because he was delirious with fever and would not have recognised anyone.
Every morning the tortoise went searching in the mountain for better quality roots to give the man, regretful that she could not climb the trees to gather fruit for him.
For several days the hunter ate without realising who was giving him the food until one day he recovered full consciousness. He looked all around him and saw that he was alone, there being no one around but the tortoise, which was an animal. Again, he spoke out loud:
“I’m alone in the forest, the fever’s going to return, and I’m going to die here, because only in Buenos Aires would I be able to get better. But I’ll never go and I’ll die here.”
As he had said, the fever returned that afternoon, stronger than before, and again he lost consciousness.
But this time too the tortoise had heard him and said to herself:
If he remains here in the mountain he’s going to die, because there’s no cure, and I have to bring him to Buenos Aires.
This said, she cut some fine, strong lengths of creeper, which are like lanyards, laying the man very carefully upon his back, fastening him well with the creepers so that he would not fall off. She made many tests to ensure that the rifle, the skins and the gourd with the vipers sat well, and in the end she achieved what she wanted and, without disturbing the hunter, set off on the journey.
The tortoise, weighed down accordingly, walked and walked day and night. She crossed mountains, fields, swam across rivers a league wide, crossed marshes in which she was almost completely buried, always with the moribund man upon her back. After eight or ten hours of walking she stopped, undid the knots and carefully laid the man down to rest in a place where there was dry grass.
She then went to find water and tender roots and fed them to the sick man. She ate also although she was so tired she preferred to sleep.
At times she walked in the sun and as it was summer, the hunter was so feverish that he fell into a delirium and almost died of thirst. He cried out water! water! repeatedly. Every time that he did the tortoise had to bring him something to drink.
Thus she walked day after day, week after week. Gradually they drew nearer Buenos Aires although the tortoise felt that she was weakening, that she had less strength every day, though she never complained. From time to time she lay flat, devoid of strength, and the man recovered partial consciousness. And he said, out loud:
“I’m going to die. I’m getting sicker by the minute and only in Buenos Aires will I be able to be cured. But I’m going to die here, alone in the mountain.”
Unaware of anything, he believed that he was still in the arbour. The tortoise then rose and recommenced the walk.
But one day, around evening, the poor tortoise could advance no further. She had reached the limit of her strength and could not go on. In order to arrive quicker, she had not eaten for a week. She no longer had the strength to carry such weight.
When night fell, she saw a distant light on the horizon, a brilliance that lit the sky, and she had no idea what it was. Little by little she felt weaker until she closed her eyes, prepared to die with the hunter, thinking sadly that she had not been able to save the man who had been good to her.
However, they had already arrived in Buenos Aires, and she did not realise it. The light she saw on the horizon was the brilliance of the city and she was preparing to die at the end of her heroic voyage.
But a city mouse – possibly the little mouse Pérez – encountered the two dying travellers.
“What a tortoise!” said the mouse. “I’ve never seen a tortoise so big. And that which you’re carrying on your back, what is it? Wood?”
“No,” replied the tortoise, sadly. “It’s a man.”
“And where are you going with that man?” asked the curious mouse.
“I’m going … I’m going … I wanted to go to Buenos Aires,” replied the poor tortoise in a voice so low that it could barely be heard. “But we’re going to die here because we’ll never arrive … ”
“Ah, silly, silly!” said the little mouse, laughing. “I never saw a tortoise so silly! Yes, you’ve already arrived in Buenos Aires. The light you see over there, that’s Buenos Aires.”
Hearing this, the tortoise felt enormous strength because she still had time to save the hunter. She recommenced the walk.
And it was still morning when the director of the zoo saw a mud-spattered, wasted tortoise carrying flat on her back, attached to it with creepers, so that he would not fall off, a dying man. The director recognised his friend and hurried off to look for a cure, with which the hunter got better at once.
When the hunter found out how the tortoise had saved his life, that she had made a journey of 300 leagues to find help, he did not want to be parted from her. And because he could not keep her in his house, which was very small, the director of the zoo agreed to house her in the zoo and look after her as if she was his own daughter.
And so it came to pass. The tortoise, happy and content with the affection they showed her, roamed through the entire garden, and she is the same tortoise we see every day eating the small grass around the monkey cages.
The hunter goes to see her every afternoon and she knows from afar that it’s her friend by the sound of his steps. They spend a couple of hours together and she never wants him to leave without giving her an affectionate little pat on the back.