In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature
THE SON OF THE TORTOISE
The rains were very late, and the whole countryside was parched and dry. The cattle were hollow-eyed and thin, as they eagerly licked the mud, the only moisture that was left, in the nearby riverbed.
"The Spirit of the River is angry," the old men muttered among themselves. "Maybe a gift would bring forth water for our beasts and ourselves to drink."
Dinga, the little herd boy, listened to their talk, and at noon the following day as his cattle licked the mud, he said,
"Oh, River, the best black ox in my father’s herd I bring to you today. He is yours if you will let the water up for all to drink." But no water came, and the thirsty beasts mooed in their despair.
"Maybe," Dinga continued, "a red bull would please you more? Here is one, the best in all the land. Take him and fill the pool for all to drink." Still the water refused to come.
Now there was one among the herd, a milk-white flawless cow, and the pride of his father’s herd. This cow he drove forward from the rest.
"Take ‘Mhlophe,’ and my father’s heart goes with her—only let the water come!" pleaded Dinga. But the cracks in the hard dry riverbed seemed to widen as they smiled their refusal at his bribe.
In despair he searched his mind for something that would please. Then he said to the river,
"I have a little sister at my father’s house. A laughing, fat, and happy child. Even her will I give to you if you will quench the thirst of all!"
As the words left his lips, the water bubbled up, crystal-clear, and filled the pool for all to drink.
After a time Dinga went home to fetch his little sister, telling her that they would play beneath the trees that fringed the river-bank. This they did until Nompofo fell asleep, her cheek upon her little hands. Then dinga stole away, leaving her in fulfillment of his work.
Soon she awoke, and as she did so the Spirit of the River rose up out of the water to claim his reward. But Nompofo was so terrified at the sight of one so strange that, with a scream that echoed through the hills, she ran as fast as her fat little legs would carry her, and in time she escaped him.
She wandered on and on among the hills, but could not find her home. Finally, as night approached, a well-kept field of mabele (Kaffir corn) came in sight.
"Ah," she thought, "someone must live here!" But she was wrong, for she had wandered far from her own chief’s land into the adjoining animal kingdom, and the field belonged to Ndlovu (the elephant), their king.
By the time she was very hungry, so she made herself a little shelter in a thicket near the lands, and went to gather some ripe mabele. This she crushed between two flat stones, made a fire, and prepared herself a meal. Then, covering herself with branches and grass, she went to sleep.
Early next morning she heard talking and laughter nearby and peeping from her little "hide," she saw the elephant’s animal servants collecting the ripe mabele for their king.
Soon she heard one say! "Alert, alert! There is danger close at hand. Can you not smell a foreign smell?" And they all put their noses in the air and sniffed.
Then another one exclaimed, "A thief has stolen our lord Ndlovu’s grain. See where the ripened fruit has been torn down!" And they all stamped their feet, and turned this way and that, but nowhere could they see the thief.
Now, as they neared the thicket where Nompofo hid, she blew her smouldering fire to a blaze, and set the mabele field alight, to drive the beasts away.
In panic they all raced before the flames to report to Ndlovu, calling out, "My lord, my lord, a thief is in your fields!"
"My lord, my lord, your lands are all ablaze!"
The elephant was angry at being disturbed at such an early hour, especially when he saw that his servants had come empty-handed from the lands. So he called the jackal to him and said,
"Go you who sing to the moon, and kill this creature that has dared to spoil my lands." So Mpungushe (the jackal), bushy tail dragging on the ground, nervously looking over his shoulder from time to time, unwillingly returned to the field.
There he poked his sharp nose first into one bush and then into another until he finally came to the thicket where Nompofo hid.
"I am Mpungushe," he called out nervously, "the bold and cunning Mpungushe. Come out and let me kill you!"
But Nompofo, making her voice as deep and as fierce as she could, replied, "How should I fear one as small as you? I am Nompofo! It is well known that my horns are branched like a tree, with ten sharp points to run you through, ten of such as you would fit comfortably in my mouse. Be ready, for I am coming out!"
The jackal gave a piercing yell and, with his bushy tail well between his legs, bolted back to Ndlovu’s hut without once looking back.
"My lord, my lord," he cried, "a wicked giant is in your land, I saw him. He is taller than the trees. Even you he could crush beneath his foot."
There was silence among the animals while the elephant flapped his great ears backward and forward in distress.
At last one spoke, "It would take more than a giant to crush me," boasted Fudu, the tortoise. "I will rid you of your enemy!" And he swaggered down the path toward the field while they all craned their necks to watch.
Now, Nompofo was really very frightened and near to tears. When she heard Fudu thudding along the path toward her, making all the clatter he could with his heavy shell, singing loudly as he came. "I am the
son of my father, I am the son of my father," she could hide her fear no longer, and, bursting from her hiding place, ran screaming into the forest. At this Fudu sat for a long time in the pathway and laughed and laughed and laughed!
At last, he thought, Mpungushe had shown himself in his true colors—the coward of the veldt, frightened of a little child who had lost her way! He determined, however, to keep this to himself, so as not to belittle his own daring.
He waddled back to Ndlovu with his thumbs stuck under his armpits, still singing loudly, "I am the son of my father; the mighty giant has fled at the sight of the brave and bold Fudu! I am the son of my father."
There was great rejoicing in the kingdom of Ndlovu at Fudu’s victory over such a dangerous enemy, and in his gratitude the elephant made the tortoise his chief counselor while Mpungushe was banished from the land for his cowardice.
Since his downfall the jackal has never had the courage to hunt for himself, but follows the lion, eating the scraps that he leaves—and crying to the moon!