Long, long ago, when the world was new, the Great Mother made all the plants and animals out of the clay outside her door, and breathed on them so they came to life, and threw them out on the veldt so that they could run and play around.
Time passed, and the Great Mother saw that the animals were all alike, so that she could not tell them apart.
“Suppose one of them needs something, or causes an injury to another,” she thought to herself. “How can I ever identify which is which?” So she thought that she must give them different looks and abilities so that she could distinguish between them.
So, one day, she called them all together to the gate of her kraal, so that she might give them abilities which would suit them and which they wanted. From all over the veldt, they came in a crowd to the gates of her kraal, and she called them one by one and asked them to choose what they wanted. To the lion, she gave majesty and courage, to the giraffe height, to the elephant wisdom, to the buffalo valour and bad temper, to the gazelle grace and agility, and so on. The tortoise was late, because he was lazy and did not want to leave his home in the river bank, so she gave him a home which he had to carry about with him at all times.
And so, little by little, all the animals had new forms and abilities. When they hopped, ran, flew or stampeded away from the kraal, the Great Mother saw they were now different, and could easily be told apart, and she was content.
Now one of the animals was Rhino, who at that time did not look at all like what he is like now. No, back then, Rhino was one of the most handsome-looking animals in the veldt. He was slim-bodied, slender-limbed, and had long soft fur which shone like gold in the sun. He was, in fact, quite the best-looking of all the animals, without exception, and this was because he had stood first in line at the kraal and had had his pick of all that was on offer.
This aroused the jealousy of some of the other animals. Hyena was sly and vicious by nature, and she had been consumed by a violent hatred of Rhino ever since she had first seen him gliding smoothly over the veldt while she could only gallop along clumsily, with her high shoulders and sloping back. She decided that she must harm him somehow, in whatever way she could. But she also realised that she could not do it alone, because everyone knew how sly she was and nobody believed anything she said.
So one day she went to visit Baboon. He had seen her coming from a distance and taken the precaution of climbing on to a thorny acacia tree, where she could not reach him. But Hyena had no intention of hunting Baboon, at least not on this occasion.
“Baboon, my brother,” she said in her sweetest tones, “don’t worry, I’m not here to harm you. I want your help against Rhino, whom I hate because he is favoured by the Great Mother for no other reason than he was first in line. I, on the other hand, must fight for my meals and live off scavenging if the hunting is poor.”
“I agree entirely,” said Baboon, who had his own grievances against Rhino, as Hyena well knew. “Everyone praises his slender limbs and golden fur, but they laugh at my doglike face and my red calloused bottom.”
“So shall we ally together and bring about Rhino’s downfall?” Hyena asked.
“We shall,” Baboon agreed, and although he was careful not to come down from the tree, he and Hyena talked far into the afternoon.
Then Hyena went to Warthog, who, because he was as ugly as cracked mud, had just as much reason to hate Rhino, and she talked to him too. Warthog agreed to help, just as Hyena had anticipated. Then she went back to her den, satisfied.
The next day, Hyena came to where Rhino was drinking at the waterhole.
“Oh, how beautiful you are, Rhino,” she gushed. “I just have to look at you to admire every line of your body.”
Rhino looked at her with surprise, because he had never heard her saying anything good about anyone before. “Thank you for your kind words, Sister Hyena,” he said warily.
“Have you thought about taking a wife, Rhino?” Hyena asked. “With your wonderful good looks, you shouldn’t be alone. The Great Mother would want you to have a family.”
“Well,” Rhino said shyly, “I have sometimes, but I really wouldn’t know what to say to a female, you know.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Hyena said. “With your wonderful golden fur, and those lovely slender limbs of yours, you won’t have a problem. As soon as they see you, the females will fall head over tail in love.” She paused a moment to let Rhino preen at his reflection in the water. “Only...”
Rhino looked at her. “What?”
Hyena hesitated. “I just had a thought. No, it’s probably nothing. Just let it go.”
“What is it?” Rhino demanded. “Tell me.”
“It’s just that I wondered what your prospective in-laws would say. After all,” she licked her fur delicately, “they’ll want a son-in-law who can feed and take care of their daughter well, and the grandchildren too, of course. Isn’t that so?”
“So?” Rhino bristled indignantly. “Do you mean to say I can’t feed and take care of them?”
“No, no, Brother Rhino,” Hyena hastily assured him. “I don’t mean anything of the sort. I merely meant that they’ll look at that slender frame of yours, and think that you’re all skin and bones. Obviously, they’ll say, you don’t get enough to eat. So they’ll refuse to give their daughter in marriage to you. That’s what I was thinking. But then I’m just a silly hyena, and I don’t really know anything of these matters.” Bowing low, she turned away. “It was great talking to you, Brother Rhino,” she said over her shoulder.
Rhino looked at her retreating back, and told himself that she was right when she said she was only a stupid hyena who knew nothing of these matters. Still, as he went about his daily business, the thought came more and more to dwell on his mind. He would look at the birds on the trees with their families of chirping fledglings, and the meerkats with their babies sitting beside them, and he would think that he really should get himself a wife. But as soon as he thought that, he would remember the hyena’s words, and he would begin to wonder just what the in-laws would say. By the time he met Warthog, who was sitting half out of his burrow enjoying the sunshine, he could think of nothing else.
“What’s the problem, neighbour?” Warthog asked. “You look worried.”
“It’s nothing,” Rhino assured him. “I was just thinking of starting a family.”
“Good, good,” Warthog said. “That’s a very good idea, neighbour. So, whom are you going to marry?”
“I’m sure I’ll find somebody,” Rhino said. “I’m told a female just has to look at my wonderful golden fur to fall head over tail for me.”
“Of course, of course.” Warthog casually ground his tusks together, as though thinking of something else. “I hope your in-laws won’t cause a problem though.”
“About what?” Rhino asked sharply. “About what would they cause a problem?”
Warthog wrinkled his snout deprecatingly. “I’m just a stupid ugly pig,” he said, “so I don’t know much about these matters. But I thought that the in-laws might just ask themselves how a stick-thin...um, I meant svelte...creature like you could possibly keep their daughter fed and healthy. Not to speak of the kids you’ll be having, either.”
Rhino was silent a long time. “Do you know,” he said finally, “you’re the second person to tell me something like this today. What do you suppose I could do about that?”
“Well,” Warthog said, shrugging his mane. “You could give up the idea of marriage and a family. Or else...”
“You could go back to the Great Mother’s kraal and ask her to make you big and heavy, so that the in-laws will have no doubt about your ability to take care of their child.” He ducked his head obsequiously and began backing into his den. “That’s just a suggestion, but then I’m a stupid ugly pig, and it’s time I turned in. Good night, neighbour.”
Rhino did not get any sleep that night. The next morning he turned up at the Great Mother’s kraal. She was sweeping the yard, and looked up at him in surprise.
“Great Mother,” Rhino said, “I need a favour, I want you to make me big and heavy.”
“Whatever for?” the Great Mother asked in astonishment. “Aren’t you happy as you are?”
Rhino felt far too shy to say that he was afraid of what his prospective in laws might say. So he merely shook his head. “No, Great Mother. I’d just like you to make me big and heavy.”
The Great Mother looked at him, perplexed. But she had a long day ahead of her, with little time to waste, so she shrugged. “If you’re sure...” She took away his slim body, and gave him one which was as heavy and round as a barrel. Since it was too large for his thin legs to support, she took them away and gave him thick sturdy limbs like pillars. And then because his small elegant head was now far too small for his new body, she took that away too, and gave him one which was huge and heavy and ponderous.
“There,” she said at last. “Are you happy now?”
“Thank you, Great Mother,” Rhino said, and went off to search for a mate, lumbering slowly along because he could no longer glide effortlessly through the grass as he had been wont to do. His beautiful golden fur began to snag on the thorn bushes and brambles, so that it ripped and tore away in clumps, and after that the brambles began ripping at his soft exposed skin, and gnats and flies gathered, biting at him. Soon he started looking very bedraggled indeed, patchy and bloodstained.
Then Baboon saw him. “Ha ha,” he shouted, from the top of an acacia tree. “Just look at you, Rhino. Fat as a barrel and ugly as a hippopotamus. You’re a sight.” And all day he kept following Rhino along, keeping up a stream of mockery. “Find a wife, will you?” he jeered. “They’ll be dropping dead of laughter when they see what you look like now.”
Finally Rhino had enough. The next morning he turned up at the Great Mother’s kraal. “O Great Mother,” he said. “I can’t bear this any longer. Please give me my old form back again.”
“I can’t do that,” the Great Mother said sadly. “I’m afraid you’re stuck as you are. But I can remove what’s left of your fur, so that it doesn’t stick in the bushes, and I can make your skin thick to protect it from the thorns and biting insects. That’s the best I can do.”
“Do it,” Rhino said miserably.
So the Great Mother took away what was left of his lovely shimmering golden fur, and gave him thick naked skin tough enough to withstand the brambles and the biting insects. She then sat back to look at him. “I’m afraid you aren’t very good-looking any longer,” she said. “Could you tell me just why you wanted to change from the way you used to look like?”
So Rhino, weeping bitterly, told her the whole story.
“I see,” the Great Mother said grimly. “It was all a conspiracy hatched by Hyena and the others, to destroy you. The way you are now, you’ll be helpless against Lion and Leopard, and Hyena intends that they hunt you and kill you.” She thought a moment. “I think I know what to do,” she said. “I’ll give you weapons to defend yourself with.”
So she took the remnants of the fur and twisted and bent the hairs together until they became matted and hard as bone, and she fashioned horns out of them and stuck them on Rhino’s nose. “Never forget,” she told him, “that those animals are your enemies. Never trust anything that they say again.”
So Rhino lumbered away from the kraal, not just completely different from the way he used to look but filled with anger towards all the rest of the animal world. And that is why, to this day, he is always bad-tempered and aggressive.
As for Hyena, she was disappointed that Rhino was not eaten by Lion and Leopard. But then he was no longer the most beautiful animal on the veldt, and she had to be satisfied with that.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014
1. This is a story by me. There is no place called Korangustan, and never was.
2. The illustration of the rhinoceros is a watercolour by me as well.