“You didn’t finish so very far ahead of me, you know,” said Hare, when the other animals had moved off and the stars were spinning through the sky.
Tortoise looked at him, blinking slowly. “Come again?”
“We crossed the finish line practically at the same time.” Hare did his best to speak slowly enough that Tortoise could hear; no one understood him when he spoke as fast as his thoughts ran. “I was only a few seconds behind you. If I’d woken up a few seconds earlier, I still would have beaten you.”
“That’s true enough,” said Tortoise agreeably. “But what does it matter?”
“It means you shouldn’t be getting so much praise!” Hare’s ears twitched in agitation. “And why should I be humiliated? Over a difference of a few seconds, should you be held up to the world as the right way to live, and I the wrong way?”
Tortoise looked up at the stars, his expression placid. “I believe, Hare, that it was you who started up the talk about the right and wrong way to live. You always said you could accomplish more than me because you were fast.”
“And I don’t dispute it now. All I did was take a nap.”
“But why take a nap in the middle of a race?”
Hare glared away from Tortoise. He was filled with energy; he wanted to run a hundred thousand more races. But no one was watching them now. No one cared.
“I suspect you think I’m a showoff,” said Hare at last. “You think I dozed off only yards away from the finish line so I could laugh at you when I won.”
“I don’t think that at all,” said Tortoise.
Hare looked hard at him. “Don’t you?”
Tortoise didn’t answer. He didn’t even return Hare’s gaze, preferring to keep staring up at those glacier-slow wheeling stars. Hare glanced up to see if Tortoise was seeing something interesting. But slow-moving things, even ones as brilliant as those, had never held much interest for Hare.
“You didn’t know I was going to take a nap,” Hare pressed at last. “What made you say you thought you could win the race? You know I’m a faster runner than you could hope to be, so why did you make the challenge?”
A slow, satisfied smile crossed Tortoise’s face. “I suspected you would sabotage yourself.”
Hare sniffed angrily. “What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t be offended. You did sabotage yourself, didn’t you?”
“And you just knew I was that sort of creature?”
“I just knew you would underestimate me.”
Hare didn’t know what to say. The sense of unfairness that had pervaded him since the disastrous end of the race wouldn’t leave him. Tortoise had won by luck. He’d just admitted it wasn’t any real speed on his part that had handed him the day, but only Hare’s failings.
But then, Tortoise hadn’t claimed any speed skills, had he? He’d only claimed he could beat Hare.
“Never mind,” Hare said at last. “I’m going home. And I’ll bet I reach home before you do.”
“I’m not interested in another bet,” said Tortoise.
“It’s steadiness you lacked,” said Tortoise, “not speed. Of course hares run fast - that’s only your nature, and out of your control. But steadiness is something you can choose.”
“Oh,” said Hare haughtily, “that’s just the sort of thing I’d expect a tortoise to say.”
“What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Hare turned his back on Tortoise to nibble at a stalk of grass. Tortoise was chewing his way through a pile of lettuce, and had been for several hours. “You don’t have any idea what it’s like to be a fast creature.”
“Enlighten me,” said Tortoise.
“Why should you care?”
Hare looked at him hard, again. This time Tortoise was making a little effort to look at him, though he still seemed mainly preoccupied with his lettuce leaves. Still, it was nice to be told someone cared about his words; since the end of the race the rest of the animals had done nothing but laugh whenever they saw him.
“Well,” he said, somewhat haltingly now. “Well, when you spend all your life dashing from place to place, you need to stop and rest quite a bit. You can’t keep up your pace for hours on end.”
Tortoise blinked. “Why not go slower, then?”
“It’s not in my nature.” Hare gestured with his head toward his large, powerful hind legs. “I have to run everywhere, or not move at all. I really was tired, when I lay down beneath that tree. I wasn’t only doing it for attention.”
There was a silence as Tortoise took another mouthful of lettuce into his mouth. Hare nibbled another few stalks of grass. The sun, just as slow-moving as the stars, hung high and bright above them.
“It gets hot, too,” Hare declared. “Here in the brightest part of the day. And I get terribly cold at night when the wind blows through my fur. I don’t have any hard shell to hide within when the weather turns poor.”
“I never thought of that,” said Tortoise. “I wish I could share mine with you.”
For a third time Hare looked hard at Tortoise. He was being honest. Earnest, even. Another animal might laugh at such a statement. A tortoise, share his shell with a hare?
“Well,” he said, “I find shelter enough under trees.”
“It’s not quite the same, though, is it?”
“It must get inconvenient to have so heavy a burden all the time.” Hare couldn’t believe what he was saying. “And that’s something that stacked the odds in our race - you had to carry your shell, and I carried nothing.”
“True enough,” said Tortoise.
“And I’m sure it hinders your range of movement, too, when you only have those small arms and legs sticking out.” Hare didn’t seem able to stop himself going on. Why was he defending Tortoise to himself, when he’d been the one to win the race? He was already getting more praise than he deserved.
“I don’t mind,” said Tortoise. “It’s only a part of me. A part of my nature, as we’ve been talking about.”
“Steadiness, though, was your choice,” said Hare. “And given your limitations it’s an impressive one.”
Tortoise finished off his leaf. “Perhaps your unsteadiness isn’t really your fault. There’s a greater difference between tortoises and hares than simply speed.”
Hare swallowed. He wanted to continue the conversation, but he was growing terribly thirsty in the sun, and he had to get water quick when he got thirsty. He prepared his long back legs to dash off again. “I have to go now, Tortoise.”
“Maybe I’ll talk to you another time?”
“Yes. Maybe so.”
They sat by the wide, flat lake and watched the sun go down together. Both were already full, and Hare had gotten his fill of water. Tortoise seemed content to sit in silence, but it made Hare nervous, as though he’d forgotten what he was supposed to say.
“What are you thinking about?” Hare asked at last. “When you sit so still and quiet for hours and days, and look out with your eyes fixed on something that isn’t moving?”
Tortoise looked a little surprised. “What are you thinking about, when you twitch and fidget as you’re doing now?”
“I’m thinking about -” Hare struggled to get a grip on his train of thought; a thousand things were always swirling through his mind. “I’m thinking about the bunch of leaves I ate last. I’m thinking about whether I’d like to go back and eat some more in the morning. I’m thinking about whether it’s better than the leaves I ate last week. I’m thinking about whether my fur is well-groomed enough. I’m thinking about a fly I can hear buzzing several yards away and I’m wondering whether a frog is going to see it and eat it. I’m thinking about -”
“My goodness,” said Tortoise. “How can one creature be thinking so many things at once?”
“So what are you thinking of?” Hare challenged.
Tortoise gazed at the crimson and pink streaks of the sky far ahead. “I’m thinking about the moon.”
“The moon?” Hare blinked. “What about it?”
“What it might be like to see it close-up.” He smiled, his most secret and buoyant smile. “That’s all. I’ve been thinking it over for the whole day.”
Hare stared at him, more aghast than if Tortoise had told him he’d been contemplating turning into an aardvark. “All day, you’ve just been thinking that single thing?”
“Is that so very strange?”
“Maybe not for you,” Hare acknowledged. “But I couldn’t possibly focus so long on anything, much less such an idle fancy as what the moon looks like.”
“That is another difference of our natures, then.”
Hare wondered if Tortoise was mocking him. Was this just another attempt to prove that Tortoise did things better, because his thoughts were higher than Hare’s and more noble, and because he didn’t leap from one to another like a tiny bug skating over still water? Would Tortoise tell all the other animals about Hare’s ramblings on leaves?
But somehow Hare doubted this was true. Somehow, he’d grown to believe Tortoise was simply interested in him. And, Hare thought suddenly, he hadn’t told anyone else about the things Tortoise had said in these conversations, had he?
Still, he had to ask. “Do you think I’m a fool, for the things I think about?”
Tortoise smiled at him. “How could anyone be considered a fool for what’s in their nature?”
“I won’t deny it’s inconvenient at times,” said Tortoise, “being so slow. It takes me so long to get food when I need it.”
Hare tried to imagine dragging a heavy shell on his back whenever he went out to nibble the grass. He’d faint before he reached a thick patch, he thought with a shudder. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Well, I don’t mind so very much. After all, I can still think a little while I walk.”
“But it must derail your big, long thoughts, mustn’t it?”
“Only a little.”
Still, thought Hare suddenly, there was no reason for such a difficulty to exist at all. “I could bring you food, you know. I’m sure I could get it much faster.”
Tortoise’s brow lifted. “You would do that?”
“I don’t see why not.” He thought of something else, just as suddenly. “Consider it an apology, for my calling you stupid and slow.”
“You needn’t apologize for calling me slow.”
“For stupid, then.”
“Then you don’t think I’m stupid anymore?”
Hare fidgeted again. He had to work out, in his mind, whether Tortoise was asking the question in anger. But there was no trace of irritation in his demeanor. And Hare had grown to trust Tortoise over these few weeks. They’d spoken more deeply together than Hare could remember having spoken to anyone before.
“No, I don’t think you’re stupid,” he said. “You seem very wise, indeed.”
For a moment Tortoise looked more pleased than Hare had ever seen him. Then his brow lowered again, and he frowned. “It’s no good. A whole head of lettuce would be too heavy for you to carry.”
Hare opened his mouth to deny it, then realized he’d never carried a head of lettuce before.
“There’s another thing,” said Tortoise decidedly. “I have more strength than you do, though I’m not so light on my feet.”
More nature. “Well, I’m sorry not to be any help.”
“If you’d still like to help,” said Tortoise, “perhaps you could walk with me. We could continue talking on the way, and then it wouldn’t be quite so dull.”
If rabbits could blush, Hare would have at such a comment. But he quickly shook off his pleasure. “No, that’s no good at all.”
“Why not?” asked Tortoise.
“Haven’t we been proving, all this time, that the two of us can’t walk together? You’re too slow and I’m too fast. You’re steady and I’m flighty. How could we reach any sort of middle ground?”
Tortoise dipped his head and stared at the crumbly dirt beneath his feet. He sank into thought, and Hare wondered if he could see the dirt moving, as the grass pushed its way glacially upward at the same pace as the spinning stars. He waited with quivering ears for Tortoise’s response.
“It’s true I’m slower,” said Tortoise at last, “and steadier. But if you’d like to match my pace, you only need to run ahead a few yards, then stop and wait for me. That way you can be sure to have your rest as well.”
Hare felt ridiculously happy at the proclamation. He couldn’t have felt happier, he thought, if he’d won the race with all those hundred other animals watching.
“I should like that very much,” he said.
“No animal shares many characteristics with any other,” said Tortoise, plodding along sedately through the grass and under the trees.
Hare darted ahead and then stopped short. He turned back to address Tortoise, who was, after all, not so very far behind him. “What about you and Turtle, then? You’re similar enough some can’t tell you apart.”
“That’s only our exteriors.” Tortoise shook his head. “Why, Turtle lives in the water, and his feet are made for swimming. There’s all the difference in the world between us.”
“I hate swimming.” Hare shuddered. Then his thoughts spun in a new direction, and he perked up as Tortoise reached him. “Say - isn’t it strange, Tortoise, that there can be animals who hate swimming, but all animals need to drink water to survive?”
“Very strange indeed.” Tortoise let Hare dash in front of him again, keeping up his pace. “Nature is full of contradictions.”
Their conversation was sporadic, sometimes, and sometimes it flowed as easily as a river. Hare never ran so far ahead as to be inaudible to Tortoise, and Tortoise never stopped or told Hare to slow down. It was a nice walk, without animals shouting and cheering and booing on either side - not a race, but only a stroll between friends. They kept in step by paying attention to each other.
Hare found he was glad of the way things had turned out. He was glad that they reached their destination at almost the same moment. But he couldn’t help hopping a little in front of Tortoise, there at the last, so the moment wasn’t quite the same.
“Ha!” he cried. “And who is the victor this time?”
Tortoise smiled amiably. “Well, then. So you can win a race by quick starts and stops sometimes too.”
“It’s always possible.”
“But that was only a slight victory.”
“Well, then,” said Hare, and smiled too. “Perhaps our natures aren’t so different after all.”