Oral Literature: The Leopard and the Boy

Long ago and far away there was a wealthy man who had several wives. All of a sudden, this man learned that his town was to be invaded by men from another tribe.

Fearing for his life and the lives of those in his family, the man thought long about what he must do to save them all. Finally he decided that he and his family would leave the town under cover of darkness, and seek safety for themselves in the land at the other side of the forest. Accordingly, that night he gathered together his wives and all their children. Packing up whatever possessions they were able to carry, the party started out through the forest.

Now, the man’s favourite wife was soon to bear a child, and she found travelling through the forest very difficult. Despite her husband’s urging, she walked more and more slowly, until finally she could go not a single step farther.

Her husband halted in his flight, uncertain of what to do about his wife. If he left her there alone, she would without question be torn apart by wild beasts. On the other hand, if he kept the whole party together, travelling only as fast as this wife could go, they would all be captured and enslaved by the enemy tribe. At last he decided that he must leave his wife to face her own fate, and he went off through the forest with the rest of his family.

The following day, a boy was born to the abandoned wife. Taking her baby, the woman went deeper into the forest and found a place safe from the enemy tribe and from wild animals. There she cared for her child, going out from her shelter only to seek food and clothing for herself and the boy. As the boy grew, he played with the small animals of the forest, each day wandering a little farther away from his mother’s protection.

One day while he was playing in the forest he found a leopard cub. They approached each other timidly, but soon, as is the way with young creatures, they were good friends. All day they played in a sunny place in the forest, and when the boy had to leave the cub and go back to his mother, he promised the cub that he would return the following day to play with him. At length the two discovered that they had been horn the same year and that each had a mother as his sole protection. When the boy seemed fearful that the cub’s mother would kill his own mother, the cub promised to kill meat for the boy and his mother so that the woman need not risk her life by going out to hunt.

One day, however, the young leopard came home to find his mother standing over the body of the woman, who had gone out to seek water and had been brought down by the mother leopard. Grief-stricken, the cub went in search of the boy and, telling him what had happened, he promised to take care of the boy so that he would suffer neither hunger nor harm.

After that, he took the boy to live with him in his own cave. Day after day, the two became closer friends, until they almost forgot that one was a leopard and the other a boy. The cub noticed one day that his friend was very sad. After much coaxing, the boy told the cub what was troubling him. “Long ago my mother told me that when I was old enough I should offer a sacrifice to the gods so that I might have a life filled with joy and contentment. I am now old enough, but I am unable to get the proper things to offer in sacrifice.”

“What do you need?” asked the young leopard. “My mother said I must offer snails, kola nuts, and palm nuts. But such things are beyond my means. They are sold in the marketplace. How am I to get the money for such a purpose?” the boy asked sadly.

“Do not worry -, said the leopard -. I shall go to the market myself and get them for you.” Despite the boy’s urging, the cub would not reveal the plan he had for getting the goods from the marketplace.

On the following market day, the leopard arose very early and quietly left the cave. Going to the marketplace, he climbed a tree overlooking the market and hid himself there. By midday, the marketplace was thronged with people. Suddenly the leopard leaped down into the midst of the crowd. The people fled far and wide in their panic. Calmly the leopard chose those things which the boy needed for his sacrifice and he returned with them to the cave. The next day, the boy offered a sacrifice to appease his gods.

Not long after that, the boy again looked sad. “What is the matter now, my friend?” the leopard inquired. The boy sighed. “I need clothes. But how am I to find something suitable to wear?”

“Clothes? –  Puzzled the leopard -. I do not see why you need clothes, my friend, but if you need them, I shall get them for you.” Going to the market on the following market day, the leopard again frightened the crowds away from the stalls and brought back some fine clothes for the boy.

Some time later, the leopard, noting that the boy looked sad and woebegone, asked what was troubling him. The boy sighed deeply. “My friend -, said he -, it is the custom among men to marry. But how am I to find a bride?”

“A bride? Why do you need a bride? Am I not a sufficient friend for you?” asked the leopard. “Ah, indeed, you are the best friend I could ever have -, the boy assured him -. All the same, I feel a great longing for a wife”. “Do not worry, my friend – the boy added -. My having a wife will never be permitted to interfere with our friendship.” Comforted thus, the leopard agreed to help the boy seek a wife.

On the very next market day the two friends dressed themselves in some of the clothes which the leopard had brought back for the boy, and then they walked to the marketplace. As they approached the centre of the market, they saw a very beautiful girl. The boy looked after her with longing, and the leopard resolved to capture the girl as a wife for his friend. To capture her would take much doing, for she was the only daughter of the king. Nonetheless, the leopard was determined to please the boy, and he thought and thought about the matter until finally he had arrived at a plan.

“Listen carefully –, he said to the boy -. On the next market day I shall go to the market, kill the girl, and refuse to release her body for burial to anyone but you. Then you will squeeze into the eyes of the princess several drops of juice from a certain leaf I shall get from the forest for you. With this juice you will be able to bring the girl back to life. The king will surely give his daughter to you when he sees how brave and skilful you are.”

The boy was pleased with the leopard’s plan, and he promised to follow his friend’s directions exactly. On the following market day, the leopard did exactly as he had planned to do: he killed the princess and then he stood over her body, refusing to permit even the bravest of the king’s soldiers to recover the body for burial. Suddenly the boy appeared in the marketplace and went directly to the king. “Sire –,  said he -, if you will permit me to marry the princess afterwards, I shall not only recover her body from the leopard, but I shall bring her back to life.”

The king stared in disbelief at the young stranger. Finally he promised his daughter’s hand to the boy if he could do all that he had claimed. The boy, after reciting some incantations, walked boldly up to the leopard, stooped down, and picked up the body of the princess. Without a sound, the leopard fled into the forest. Then the boy, laying the princess down gently at her father’s feet, squeezed several drops of the magic juice directly into her eyes. Rumours had taken wing that the princess was to be revived, and the crowd pressed in upon the two, eager to see whether the princess would indeed recover.

The moment the juice had entered the eyes of the princess, she blinked and then sat up and looked around. “What am I doing here? –  she asked – . And why have all these people gathered here?”

The king, astounded and pleased beyond measure at the recovery of his daughter, told her what had happened. Then, true to his promise, he gave his daughter to the boy in marriage. In a matter of weeks he built for them a beautiful house with a garden extending clear to the edge of the forest.

The night after the boy and his bride had moved into their new home, the boy slipped away into the forest to tell the leopard all that had happened and to urge him to come every night and meet with him in the end of the garden right near the forest. The leopard, rejoicing that the boy’s marriage would not interrupt their friendship, began coming every night to the garden to visit his friend. At length the girl noticed her husband’s absence and, wondering what he could be finding to do in the garden in the middle of the night, she followed him to find out for herself. To her astonishment, she found her husband at the lower end of the garden talking with a large leopard. Fearful that harm would come to him, she was just about to scream for help when her husband saw her and motioned to her to be silent. He explained then that he and the leopard had been friends since childhood and that she must not fear the leopard, since he would be coming each night as a visitor. Despite her horror and surprise, the girl agreed to accept the leopard as a friend of the family.

But fear is not easily dismissed. Although the girl wished to please her husband, she became steadily more uneasy about the leopard’s visits. Finally she slipped away one day to visit her parents, and when they detected that something was troubling her, she wept and told them of her husband’s strange friend. Her father at once suspected that this was the animal which had killed his daughter in the marketplace. “He may be a friend of your husband’s, but he is no friend of yours -, her father said -. The leopard must be destroyed.”

At once the king summoned a dozen of his most trusted palace guards. “Go this evening at sunset –, he instructed them -, and lie in wait at the lower end of my daughter’s garden until you see a leopard enter. Kill him and return to me.” As for his daughter, he kept her at the palace, where she would be safe until the leopard had been disposed of.

That evening the leopard came a little earlier than the usual time. To his surprise, he was met by a shower of poisoned arrows. He ran back toward the forest, but he had been fatally wounded, and shortly afterwards he died. The guards were satisfied that he had been destroyed, and they returned to the palace to carry their report to the king.

When the boy arrived at the appointed place, he was surprised not to see the leopard. A trail of blood led him to the edge of the forest, where his friend lay dead. As the boy knelt to examine the leopard for any faint signs of life, he became aware that some creature was watching him. It was the tortoise, who had chanced to see the close of the leopard’s life. Weeping, the boy begged the tortoise to find him one of the magic leaves, that he might restore life to his friend. After much persuasion, the tortoise led him to a plant bearing the magic leaves. Quickly breaking off a leaf, the boy went to the leopard and squeezed a few drops of the juice into his eyes.

As soon as he had opened his eyes, the leopard reproached the boy for his unkind treatment. “Ah, but I was not the one who shot you -, the boy assured him -, nor do I know why you were shot.”

“My friends -, the tortoise said -, do not blame men for this action. Your fellowship does not fit the world of men. And even in the world of animals it is unusual enough so that many will strive to destroy it. The time is past for your friendship. Return each to your own world and be content.”

Cutting a palm branch, the tortoise tore it apart before them in the age-old symbol of separation. Heavy with grief, the leopard turned and went off into the forest. The boy watched sadly until he could no longer see the leopard among the trees. Then he turned and walked through his garden and into the world of men. From that day, men and wild animals ceased to be friends. (Folktale from Zulu people. South Africa)

Subscribe to our mailing list!

Recent Posts