Vusi was an honest man and a hard worker. He had cleared a large piece of moorland and turned it into a beautiful fertile field. He had married Duduzile and a beautiful child was born, to whom they gave the name Thembelihle.
For some years they lived happily. They wished to have a son, who would help them with the farm work; but the worry was compensated for by the industriousness of their daughter, who, as she grew older, became more and more useful at the housework, while her parents tilled their field.
One day, however, misfortune befell the happy little family: Thembelihle was struck down by a harmful spell, uttered by a drunken witch. One night, as the old woman was wobbling home from a nearby village after she had guzzled beer and danced frantically the whole time, she tripped over Vusi’s hoe. Thrown to the ground in the stubble, she cursed the owner of the hoe, shrieking in her rusty voice: “May the first and last of your children remain as mute as a giraffe, until a stupid deed like the one that happened to me tonight calls back the word.”
Thembelihle was, of course, the first and last child. At the age of six, she suddenly stopped talking, laughing, crying and singing. Vusi and Duduzile were desolate and had no idea how such a great misfortune could have happened. No matter how hard they tried, they could not get a word out of her.
The years passed and the daughter became a beautiful girl, so good and hard-working that many young men began to court her. They came to visit her in the brightest clothes; they danced the merriest dances and sang the saddest songs … But Thembelihle did not speak, did not sing, did not laugh, did not cry. The young men felt desolate and discouraged. “What are we to do,” they said, “with a wife who is unable to cheer us up when we return tired from work, and who has no song for our children?”
One by one they all forgot about Thembelihle, except for Mandla, a young friend who felt deep compassion for the girl and her parents. Mandla decided to do something. One night the young man went into the forest to ask the tree spirit for help. He prayed in a loud, heartfelt voice, but no one answered. It was winter. All the plants were inert and leafless, and even the tree spirit was in a deep sleep. Hearing no answer, the young man’s prayer turned into desperate cries. At a certain moment, he thought he heard someone.
“Why do you disturb my sleep?” asked an angry voice. Mandla trembled with fright. He turned to the euphorbia plant from where the voice seemed to be coming. He looked carefully but could see anyone. At the foot of the plant, there was a hole, the lair of Kalulu, the hare, but he did not think at all that the voice could be that of that cunning animal.
Thinking that the tree spirit had, at last, answered his prayers, he threw himself on his knees: “Mighty spirit, hear me, please! – Speak to me!” said Mandla. “The great spirit hears you,” replied the hare in a raspy voice, remaining hidden in his burrow and barely holding back his laughter.
Mandla told the story of the unfortunate Thembelihle and begged the spirit to help him restore the girl’s faculty of speech. “If you offer the spirits fresh vegetables and fruit, papayas especially, every day by this euphorbia plant, I will do all I can to help you”, replied the voice. Now leave me to my meditations!”
Mandla returned home still trembling with fear, but with a heart full of joy at the great tree spirit’s promise of help. Meanwhile, Kalulu, the hare, burst into a hearty laugh at having succeeded in making himself the spirit of the trees. But he could not get back to sleep. Instead, he began to think, remembering how, when he was very young, a little beetle had told him one night, that it once heard an old woman pronounce a curse against the owner of a hoe: “May the first and last of your children be dumb until a foolish deed calls back the power to speak.”
At the time, the hare had given no importance to what his friend had told him, not least because his mother had told him that the little beetle was now senile and only good for a guinea hen’s dinner. Now he thought long and hard about that story.
As soon as dawn broke, he closed the door of his den and walked towards Vusi’s house. He found him hoeing in the fields with his wife. “I see that you have a lot of work”, he told the two farmers. “I think you will need a hand. I am looking for work and would be content with little, just enough to live on. Will you allow me to help you?” “You are too young for field work, don’t you think?” replied Vusi, and then “how can I trust you not to eat my cabbages as soon as I turn my back? I have already met others from your tribe, and they all ended up on the wrong side of the spear.”
“My conduct is without blemish”, replied the hare with a hint of resentment, “and I am much stronger than I look. Give me a hoe and you will see!” And so, he began to hoe, making the earth fly. “Alright!”, said Vusi, “You look strong enough. I’ll hire you for a week, then we’ll see.”
Every day, Kalulu went to work in the fields, milking the cows and feeding the pigs. When Vusi and his wife were present, no one could have wished for a more diligent worker, but when Thembelihle was there, he seemed to do everything he could to make trouble: he spilled the bucket of fresh milk; he walked with muddy feet on the washing hung out in the sun; he let the pigs go rooting in the garden, tearing up the new green beans and stepping on the pumpkins that were still in flower.
Many times, the girl opened her mouth to scold him but not a word came out and she walked away disconsolate. Kalulu was increasingly sorry, for every day he found fresh offerings at the foot of the euphorbia and could not give anything in return.
Meanwhile, Mandla, hiding behind a huge baobab tree, continued to spy on the girl, to see if the tree spirit would answer his prayer. He, too, appeared more and more sad and disconsolate from day to day. One day Vusi and his wife decided to go to the village to sell vegetables and fresh eggs. Before they left, they told their daughter to plant cabbages. The hare helped her. As he worked, he racked his brains: “What can I do? I really feel indebted to that young man.” All caught up with such thoughts, he planted the cabbage upside-down with the roots in the air and the leaves in the earth.
“What a stupid thing I have done!” thought the hare as soon as he realized. His mind lit up as if struck by lightning. From that moment on, he took great care to plant the cabbages upside down. Thembelihle continued planting without looking around until she reached the end of the furrow. Then she straightened her sore back and looked back at the rows of cabbages that had just been planted. All the desperation in the world could be read on her face.
“What are you up to, you stupid animal?”, she shouted angrily, “Why are you planting the cabbages upside down?” As soon as she realised what had happened to her, she covered her mouth with her hands. Her ability to speak had returned. Like a thunderbolt, Mandla burst out from behind the baobab, shouting and laughing, drunk with happiness.
Then, hand in hand, the young couple ran to find their parents to tell them the good news. The hare, on the other hand, remained standing, hoe in hand, admiring the cabbages planted with their legs in the air. “Just look what men are like!”, Kalulu mumbled, laughing with satisfaction. “Here is the great tree spirit himself and he doesn’t even get a thank you! Let’s hope, at least, that we still find some nice papayas there under the euphorbia.”
(Folktale from the Zulu people, South Africa)