Oral Literature. The Chameleon

Long, long ago, at the beginning of time, when man and the beasts were brothers and did not raise their hands, one against the other, the world was a wonderful place. Sweet water flowed from the hills, the earth was fertile and crops flourished. There was enough, and more, for everyone.

The Great God who had created the world dwelled high on the tall, sacred mountain where no man was allowed to set foot. He was well pleased with the result of his labour. Well pleased but for one thing.

Although fighting was unknown, arguing was not —and man had proved to be the most argumentative creature in the land! Whenever two men from different tribes met each other, they would squat down on their haunches and proceed to argue which of their respective tribes was the better.

Even in the villages among their own people, they would spend many hours in quarrelsome debate. Seeking to find the answer to the question of why this cow was brown and that one was black and white, or whether this wife or that one was the better cook.

Once, the men of one village sat cross-legged around the fire the whole of the night, until the stars in the velvet sky dimmed and faded into dawn, discussing where the flames from the fire had gone when only the dull, glowing charcoal was left.

The Great God would not have minded had the men been able to arrive at their own conclusions to each argument, but they could not, and each one ended in the same way. As man was forbidden to walk upon the sacred mountain, they would send one of the animals to ask the Great God the answer.

It was not only the Great God who was annoyed with this state of affairs. The mountain was a long way from the villages of the tribes and its sides were very steep, with the result that at the end of the journey, the animals were very weary. And so it came to pass that whenever an argument started all the animals would run away and hide in places where they could not be found.

This is what happened on the day of the last big discussion when many tribes were gathered in one village. It was about sleep. Where, they said, does a man go when his body sleeps? They mentioned the dreams that come to a man during those dark hours. Is he living those things, or is he not?

Backwards and forwards went the words, now supporting this theory, now that one, and still they were no nearer to finding an answer. The animals, realising that this argument would end in the same manner as so many others, had long since found hiding places and so when the deadlock was reached and the men were calling out for a messenger to be sent to the Great God, none could be found.

The villagers searched everywhere for them, but without success. All they could find were a lizard and a chameleon, both of whom had been asleep on a rock, so contented with the sun’s warmth that they had not even been aware of the argument.

The men would have preferred to have sent the fleet-footed buck, or even the sturdy, galloping zebra, both of whom would have brought them a speedy reply from the sacred mountain but, despite the grumbles of the more impatient ones among them, they realised that they had no alternative but to despatch the lizard and the chameleon.

It was late afternoon when the two set off on their journey. They were good friends and found much to talk about so the journey, at first, was quite pleasant. Then, almost before they realised it, the sun disappeared over the horizon and it became quite dark.

They had never been on the sacred mountain before and in the darkness, they strayed from the path and lost their way many times. Eventually, they arrived at the dwelling of the Great God in the early hours of the morning. Their stumbling in the darkness wakened him and he hurried out to meet them, wondering what had brought them to see him at this time of the night.

As they explained the argument that the people wished him to resolve for them, he became extremely angry. His eyes flashed with lightning that reached out to the furthermost corners of the earth and the echo of his voice sent whole mountains tumbling, crashing into the valleys.

“So!” said the Great God. “So! Despite the many things I have given to them, food, water, and peace on the face of the earth, yet still they are not happy. Still, they continue with these silly arguments and quarrels about things that are of no consequence. Very well, they shall have their reply. In fact, they shall have two replies, and whichever one reaches them first, then so shall it be from this time hence. There will be no turning from it. This is my word.”

He turned to the chameleon. “You, Chameleon, shall take this answer. From this day, the mind of man shall be as the mind of God. All things shall be revealed to them. They shall have life eternal and, when they sleep, their dreams shall reveal to them more than they ever knew. When they awaken, the meanings of these dreams shall be clear. Their daily life shall remain as it is today, full of peace and plenty. That is your message to my people, Chameleon.”

Then he spoke to the lizard, and once again the thunder and lightning went forth over the face of the earth.

“To you, Lizard, I give this message. The days of milk and honey are ended. No more will my people be provided with all that they require, they will have to seek and work for it. No more will they live in peace with their neighbours, and when they quarrel the result will be fighting and bloodshed. Their sleeping hours will be filled with dreams that have no answer until one day they sleep a sleep from which there shall be no awakening. Only on that final day, when life is ended, shall the answer to life be given to them.”

He finished speaking, and looking first at the lizard and then at the chameleon he shook his head sadly. “Now you must return to those who sent you. I know that you are tired but you must go as fast as you are able. Whoever reaches the people first will decide their fate, because his message will decide the future of man, forever and ever.”

The lizard and the chameleon realised that he was indeed a very Great God, and without even a word to each other, they set off on the return journey as fast as they were able. At first, on the downward slopes of the mountain, they travelled side by side but when they’ reached level ground the chameleon began to feel very, very tired and dropped behind.

Not so the lizard. He raced on as fast as his short legs would carry him, scuttling around trees and over rocks, through bushes and clumps of tall grass. Even when the sun came up, red and gold over the horizon, he did not pause or slacken his pace.

The chameleon moved slower and slower until you could scarcely see him moving. When the sun came up it dazzled him, and he closed his eyelids until only the merest pin-prick of his eye was to be seen. He was so tired that for long periods he appeared to be asleep on his feet, standing sometimes with one leg poised in the air. Only the tiny spot of his eye that could be seen indicated that he was still awake.

All that day he travelled in this slow manner and night had fallen once again before he reached the village from which he had been sent. Going into the first hut he told the occupants his story but they laughed at him.

“Go away, Chameleon,” one of them said. “Do not come to me with your lies. The lizard returned this morning and he had the answer to our question. Go and tell your stupid story to the people in the next village, they may be foolish enough to believe you — but you had better go quickly, tomorrow they will not be there. When the dawn comes, we are going to fight them and will prove that we are better than they.”

Slowly, the chameleon left the hut and made his weary way to the next village. Entering the hut of the headman he found him busily sharpening a spear. The headman was no more inclined to believe him than the others had been.

“Run away, Chameleon,” he sneered. “I myself heard the words of the lizard this morning. Do not try to trick me. I believe you have been sent by the men from the other village. They are frightened because they realise that we will defeat them in battle tomorrow.”

Sadly, the chameleon left that village also. He made his way to the next, and the next, and the next — but always the lizard had been before him.

But he never gave up. Even today he may be seen, tired and slow, eyes squinting against the sun, making his way from village to village, hoping to find a place where the lizard has not yet been.


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