Kwenda was an irritable man who irritated everyone. “He has swallowed a lemon, ” the neighbours would say, and “He has no reason to be like that when he has such a beautiful daughter who can give him many children.”
But Kwenda didn’t want any of his daughter’s children to remind him of his dear wife who had been taken from him on the same day that the country had celebrated its triumphant democracy. For what reason had she been taken, Kwenda would mutter. The old order had gone. But so had his beloved Zia.
Kwenda felt empty without the woman who seemed to have been gifted by the gods to read him just as surely as the leopard could read every pathway to its kill. He dreamed often about Zia’s beautiful burnished skin and her long, willowy neck which she used playfully to tease him. When he spoke to her she would turn her back on him and then slowly turn her neck around and look him straight in the eye. Like a snake fixed on a forbidden egg. Kwenda would laugh at her brazenness and berate her fondly for not showing her husband the right amount of respect. There was no sign then of the irritability that in time would beset his mind and grow like a boil on a child’s bottom.
With Zia gone, and as Kwenda approached his 60th year, it seemed that nobody would ever understand his deep loneliness and pain. So Kwenda grumped and groused at everyone. Even at poor, harmless Tortoise who had been around for as long as he could remember since Zia’s passing. Whether just sitting or shambling about, Tortoise was always there. “Move yourself, you stupid thing! ” Kwenda would bark irritably.
“That man should be living with wolves, ” the neighbours would whisper.
The more irritable Kwenda became, the more aware he was of Tortoise. Behaving like a contented cow. Saying nothing. Hurting no one. Even when treated badly by many who were much bigger in size. But Kwenda brushed the thoughts away. Even his own daughter kept away, preferring to spend her time with her friends and their elders.
One day, the paramount chief announced that he had a great surprise for his people. There would be celebrations and much feasting. “Come in your best finery, for you will need to make me proud, ” he said.
There was much hushing and fussing as the villagers pondered on the nature of the celebration. What could it be?
Kwenda, irritable as ever, sought to escape the constant presence of Tortoise, so he rose and hurried to the tailor.
“Tailor, ” he said, “I need to bargain with you. I have need of a magnificent robe for the chief’s celebrations and in exchange you may have my daughter.”
“What? ” cried the tailor. “Are you certain of this? ” The tailor had an odd gleam in his eye.
“Of course I am certain, ” Kwenda replied. “Of what use is a beautiful young woman in my house when I am such an irritable old man? ” A slight movement and Kwenda noticed Tortoise settling down.
”Oh be off with you! ” he shouted, giving Tortoise a nudge with his foot, “can a man not do anything without you always being in the way? ”
The tailor briefly closed his eyes. He was ashamed of his kinsman’s behaviour. “I’ll tell you what, ” he said, “I will take your daughter and I will be well pleased. But for the robe I will need the help of both you and Tortoise.”
“What? Am I to be even further plagued by this irritating creature? No, tailor. That is something I cannot do.”
The tailor turned his back and murmured, “Good day, sir.”
Kwenda was stunned. “Good day? ” Did he mean goodbye?
“I cannot work with you unless you do as I ask, ” said the tailor. “There is no other way.”
“Very well, ” Kwenda said reluctantly.
“Go into the forest with Tortoise and seek out the finest colours. Work together as a team but do not ever raise your arm or your foot to this little creature again. Or to any other beast of the forest, large or small, for we have been well taught that there is place on earth for everyone.”
Kwenda had the grace to look ashamed for indeed his elders had taught him these things at an early age. “I will do as you say.”
“Good. Now what I want from you are the vibrant, radiant colours of our land. Bring them back to me and I will make you a robe of great splendour.”
A feint memory tugged at Kwenda’s heart as he recalled the wonderfully bright, beaded necklaces his Zia used to wear. Row upon row around her long graceful neck. Kwenda shrugged the thoughts away as he and Tortoise walked off in the direction of the forest.
“Oh come on you slow thing, ” Kwenda said irritably, “we will never accomplish this task at this rate.”
Suddenly Kwenda looked up at the sky and shouted, “I will climb a tree and reach out for some of that wondrous sky blue and the purest white from the clouds above. Come, Tortoise! Sit down next to the tree trunk and see that I do not fall too hard when I come down.”
Good-naturedly Tortoise ambled over to the tree trunk and was there when Kwenda slid down the tree with an armful of the brightest blue and white. It was not long before they had also collected the finest green from the forest and the richest gold from the breast of a busy weaver bird whose generosity they guessed must have come straight from the gods.
As evening drew near, Kwenda gasped, “Look, Tortoise! Look at that magnificent sun! Only in this land is such a vision to be seen.” From the last remains of the nevoid fireball Kwenda reached out and grasped a handful of its glorious chilli red just before the sun disappeared sleepily into the West.
“Almost finished, ” Kwenda cried happily, but in his excitement he had not noticed darkness beginning to descend upon the forest. Kwenda began to feel a little apprehensive. And not without reason, because suddenly they were confronted by a large black dog.
Without even thinking, Kwenda turned around and picked Tortoise up, holding him close to his heart. As if reading Kwenda’s mind the dog said, “I will not harm you. I am aware of your mission and it will be my pleasure to give you some of my rich dark black for your chosen robe.”
Kwenda bent down and gave the dog a warm hug of thanks. Tortoise, squeezed between the dog and Kwenda, was happy, despite the slight discomfort. As Kwenda stood up, he looked down at Tortoise and their eyes locked. In that moment Kwenda and Tortoise realised that something had changed between them and they were both well pleased.
Kwenda’s robe was soon completed and the tailor promised to deliver it to Kwenda personally at the paramount chief’s feast. Kwenda was aware of the old irritable feelings building up in him but hurriedly checked himself and agreed.
On the day of the feast, Kwenda arrived carrying Tortoise so that they would not be late. The neighbours had never seen such a thing. “Perhaps he swallowed the marula berries, ” they whispered.
The drums were gently rolling when suddenly the paramount chief appeared with a beautiful young woman at his side. Shocked and surprised, Kwenda realised it was his daughter, his own flesh and blood that he had exchanged for a robe of silk. The young woman noted Kwenda’s sorrow and they smiled at each other as she touched his hands and bent her knees in respect, as was the way.
The chief called for Kwenda to come before him. Still with Tortoise in his arms, Kwenda moved forward and acknowledged the wise man.
“You have done well, my son, ” said the chief. “It was I who put the thought of the exchange with the tailor in your mind because I wanted to marry your daughter. I had to do it this way because your irritability was too much for me.” A quick smile passed between Kwenda and the paramount chief, then turning aside the chief said “Come now tailor-man.”
With a flourish, the tailor revealed the vividly festive fabric to all the people. Some shielded their eyes. Some turned away briefly. All gave loud thanks and chanted much joyous praise. Kwenda was overwhelmed by the tailor’s creative skills and somewhat uncertainly moved as if to take the robe from the chief.
“No, Kwenda, ” said the chief, “this is for Tortoise.” Kwenda’s expression was that of a stunned eagle, but like the whole village he respected the chief’s unfailing wisdom in all things.
To everyone’s surprise, Kwenda placed Tortoise on a large tree stump in front of the chief. Immediately Tortoise started to grow. And grow. When Tortoise was almost as tall as the chief himself, the chief placed the robe around Tortoise’s shoulders.
Suddenly Kwenda saw Tortoise’s neck extend and then turn around, until they were staring straight into each other’s eyes. Kwenda gasped and reached out to touch Tortoise. But Tortoise’s sudden spurt of growth was over and she had immediately reverted to her previous size.
Kwenda could only stare at Tortoise, once more sitting on the tree stump where he had put her. Tortoise could hardly be seen as the robe covered her completely. Kwenda was a very confused and puzzled man and turned to the chief with a question in his eyes.
“Yes, my son, ” said the chief, lifting the robe off Tortoise and handing it to him, “Tortoise is indeed your beloved Zia. She has never left your side since she was taken so many years ago. You never knew because you were so absorbed in your own sadness. But no more, ” continued the chief. “Your eleventh year will be one of love and never again will you be subject to the irritability that once plagued your life.”
And so it came to be because the wise chief had said so.
Time moved on and Kwenda grew to be well loved by the neighbours. “He has swallowed all the good spirits, ” they laughed.
Kwenda spent most of his days sitting in the warm sun. He would make very little movement but every now and then his crooked hands would reach out to Tortoise who was always somewhere near.
A clearing had been made in the middle of the village and the wonderfully vibrant fabric which the chief had handed to Kwenda at the feast now had pride of place hanging from the top of the tallest tree. Waving freely in the summer breeze, it looked magnificent, and just as it had taken eleven years for Kwenda and Tortoise to be joined in unity and strength, so too had it taken eleven years for all the people in the land to join hands and celebrate their freedom.
And so it happened that everyone finally understood Kwenda. And all was well. And Kwenda was happy and proud of Tortoise and of everything and everyone in the land. He was indeed proudly South African.