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Short Stories for Children of All ages: The racing chameleonPedagogical Project “The Joy of Reading”

 
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The racing chameleon
 

‘I wonder where that slow-coach is? What can he be doing?’

‘You don’t mean to say that you sent Chameleon with a message?’ Bushbuck was astonished at such foolishness on the part of his friend Nantusi, the Toad. No one sent messages by Nadzikambe – he was even slower than a Tortoise and not half as reliable. No. If you had to send a message, you tried to get hold of a bird or a bee - somebody with a reasonable turn of speed. ‘Couldn’t you find anyone else?’ Bushbuck asked.

‘No. And, you see, the message wasn’t really urgent,’ Nantusi explained. ‘Just an invitation to Changa, the Lemur. And, since I knew he was sure to be somewhere in the tree-tops, I had to send someone who could climb.’

‘Well, yes. That’s reasonable.’

‘I must say, though,’ Toad continued, ‘I never thought he could take quite so long.’

‘The lazy, swivel-eyed sluggard! He’s the slowest, most irritating creature in the forest...’

‘Oh? And who are you calling a lazy, swivel-eyed sluggard, I’d like to know?’

Mbawala, the Bushbuck, and Nantusi, the Toad, both gave a jump of surprise and looked hurriedly in the direction from which the voice had come. They knew it was the Chameleon’s voice, but could they see him? No. Not a sign.

‘Ha-ha-ha!’ laughed Nadzikambe. ‘Can’t you find me? Look at the pretty orchid clinging to the tree above your heads.’

Obediently, Bushbuck and Nantusi looked up. A glorious spray of blossom, white with crimson spots, hung like a banner from the tree; but, peer as they might, they could not discover the Chameleon.

‘Oh, where are you?’ they asked, in exasperated tones.

‘Not where you are looking, ha-ha-ha!’ Peals of mocking laughter came from behind them. ‘I never said I was sitting on the orchid, did I?’ Bushbuck and Toad turned round and, before their eyes, a bright green leaf changed suddenly to a little emerald dragon that advanced towards them with slow deliberate steps.

‘You are infuriating, Nadzikambe!’ Bushbuck exclaimed. ‘This trick of yours of making yourself invisible is enough to drive one crazy.’

The Chameleon grinned. ‘It’s a trick you’d be wise to bear in mind,’ he said, ‘especially when you start calling people lazy, swivel-eyed sluggards, and saying all kinds of rude things about them.’

‘Well, it’s true. You are lazy, your eyes do swivel and you are the slowest thing alive...’

‘That’s what you think, but I could win any race if I wanted to!’

‘Oh? Bragging now!’

‘All right. You think you are the fastest creature in the forest, don’t you, Bushbuck? I challenge you to a race. I bet I’ll get to the winning post first.’

‘Done!’ said Mbawala.

‘Now, wait a minute, wait a minute!’ Nantusi, the Toad, was thinking deeply. ‘Don’t you be in such a hurry to agree,’ he said to Bushbuck. ‘I reckon there is some catch about this. Maybe Nadzikambe is planning a trick like the one the Tortoise played on the Osprey?’

‘What was that?’

‘Surely you remember the story? Kamba’s grandfather it was, I believe. He made a wager with Osprey that they’d race to the sea and the one that got back first with a bag of salt was to be the winner. Naturally, Osprey thought this was a bit of fresh fish for him! What he didn’t know was that old Kamba already had a bag of salt.’

‘What happened?’

‘Well, Kamba knew that the country over which the Osprey would have to fly was dense jungle and that Osprey could only expect to see him at the open spaces. So what does he do? He arranges for one of his relations to wait at every river and the moment Osprey comes into view, the Tortoise starts crawling up the river-bank and vanishes in to the jungle. You see the idea? Every time Osprey looks down to make sure he is in the lead, there is his opponent, just a little way ahead. How is he to know it’s a different Tortoise each time? And all Kamba, himself, has to do is to wait near the winning post and crawl in with his bag of salt just before the Osprey is due.’

‘My, that was smart of old Kamba!’ Nadzikambe’s voice was full of admiration. Bushbuck looked coldly at him.

‘Most unethical!’ he said austerely.

‘Yes, yes, of course,’ agreed the Chameleon hurriedly. ‘But clever, you must admit?’

Bushbuck grunted with disapproval.

‘Very upset, Osprey was, I believe, when he found out how he had been tricked.’

‘No wonder!’ Nadzikambe now sounded smug and virtuous.

‘Well, we don’t want anything of that sort in this race,’ said Nantusi. He fixed the Chameleon with a cold, forbidding stare.

Nadzikambe managed to look shocked at the suggestion. ‘The idea!’ he murmured, in horrified tones.

‘All right, then,’ said Bushbuck. ‘I’ll race you tomorrow. Where shall we start from?’

‘Would the Drinking Pool be a good place, do you think?’

‘Yes. That’ll suit me. I often breakfast there.’

‘Where shall we race to? The Lion Rock on the far side of the river?’

Bushbuck laughed.

‘As if you’d ever make it!’ Toad exclaimed, his voice full of contempt. ‘I’ve never heard a sillier suggestion.’

‘That’s my business,’ said Nadzikambe stiffly.

‘Very well.’

‘And the one to reach the rock first will be the winner?’

‘Yes.’

Nantusi gave a scornful snort. ‘It’s a bunch of bananas to a sweet potato that Bushbuck wins this race on his head,’ he said.

The Chameleon grinned. ‘Perhaps I’ll be the one to do that. You never know. Life is full of surprises!’

 

Not far from the Drinking Pool there grew a slender dark-leaved shrub whose tiny star-shaped flowers – pale as the stars themselves – bloomed almost all the year and, withering, turned in time to shiny scarlet berries. These were delicious to eat as a relish, but hot and peppery and, as Nadzikambe knew, even the smallest taste of them gave one a tremendous thirst.

It was this bush that the Chameleon now sought and, when he had picked a few berries, he made his way to the pool. Making sure that he was unobserved, he carefully smeared the berries’ juice on all the tenderest leaves of Bushbuck’s favourite breakfast shrub. Then, smiling with confidence and satisfaction, he climbed up a flowering rush, ate six mosquitoes for his supper, and settled down to a good night’s rest.

He woke next morning as the sun was rising on a silvery dew-drenched world. He felt in wonderful spirits. So did the Bushbuck who was already wandering towards the pool, nibbling a few leaves here, a tender shoot there. The leaves of his favourite shrub looked particularly attractive and he took a large mouthful ... thought they seemed unusually tasty, and had another. Why hadn’t he noticed that fascinating hot flavour before? Really, they were simply delicious. He ate them all. Then, feeling rather thirsty, he walked to the edge of the pool, stooped down, and had a long refreshing drink.

‘Ah! Good morning,’ said the Chameleon brightly. ‘I see you are up early. Feeling well, I hope?’

Bushbuck stopped drinking and looked up. ‘Good morning,’ he said vaguely, feeling sure that he would not be able to see the Chameleon; but, for once, he found him immediately. The vivid green that Nadzikambe had acquired while sleeping in the rushes showed for a moment clearly against the gnarled darkness of the tree to which he had just climbed. But, even as he moved along the branch above the place where Mbawala stood, the colour faded and, in another minute, the Chameleon was as difficult to see as ever.

‘If you’ve finished drinking, we could start our race?’ Nadzikambe suggested.

Mbawala agreed but said he would like one more drink first.

‘What starting signal shall we have?’ Chameleon asked.

‘What do you suggest?’

‘How would it be if I were to drop a twig into the pool when you’ve said "ready"? We can start from where we now are, as I am exactly level with your head.’

Bushbuck considered the suggestion. ‘Yes,’ he decided, ‘that’s fair enough.’

‘Very well, then. Have your drink and let me know when you are ready.’

Mbawala stooped again and drank deeply of the clear cool water. It was remarkable how thirsty he felt, but he knew that he mustn’t drink too much before a race. That would never do. He lifted his head, shook himself, then: ‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m ready.’

A twig snapped, fell on to one of Bushbuck’s horns, glanced off it and landed in the pool with a loud plop. Bushbuck turned and bounded away. The race was on!

Through the forest, swift as an arrow, the Bushbuck sped with effortless ease.

Through the forest, swift as an arrow, the Chameleon sped with no effort at all, for, when the twig had fallen on Mbawala’s head, Nadzikambe had fallen too, just as he had planned and, unnoticed, he’d remained clinging tightly to the Bushbuck’s horn. He was, as usual, almost invisible, and so light of weight that Mbawala certainly would feel nothing suspicious. Nor would he dream that Nadzikambe was literally proposing to win the race on his head!

The Bushbuck bounded along, not even looking round to see if his opponent were near. How could he be? Going flat out, Mbawala reckoned, the Chameleon could not have covered more than a few yards of ground, whereas he, himself, would reach the river shortly and have time for a good long drink when he got there. Really, it was extraordinary how thirsty he felt! The Chameleon was enjoying himself. Never in his life had he travelled so fast and he found the sensation of speed altogether delightful. He was enchanted, too, at the way his plan was working out and it was with difficulty that he refrained from laughing out loud. All he had to do now was to choose the ideal moment at which to leave the Bushbuck. He felt sure that Mbawala would have to stop at the river for a drink and he knew of a tree that grew beside the best drinking pool whose branches actually touched the Lion Rock – that, of course, was why he had suggested the place as their goal. So, pr ovided Bushbuck forded the river first and took his drink at the right spot – and the odds were all in favour of his doing so – he had only to climb on to the tree, hurry on to the rock, and he’d win the race. It was as simple as that.

And it was as simple as that.

Nothing could have been easier. Bushbuck was still slaking his thirst when he heard the cries of surprise and shouts of applause that greeted the Chameleon’s arrival. Nantusi, the Toad, had spread around the news of the race and all his friends had assembled there to see what the outcome would be. Each one felt certain that Bushbuck was bound to be the winner.

‘Well done, Nadzikambe!’ exclaimed Kalulu, the Rabbit. ‘I wouldn’t have believed it possible.’ And, privately, Kalulu was wondering how it had been possible.

‘Where’s Bushbuck?’ Nantusi asked. He looked a very deflated Toad. ‘What’s happened to him?’

‘Mbawala stopped for a drink at the river. I suppose he thought he had plenty of time.’ The Chameleon shook his head. ‘Over-confidence’, he murmured, ‘is such a mistake.’

At that moment Mbawala galloped up to the rock. More cheers broke out; cheers, laughter and questions. ‘Whatever made you waste time in drinking?’ someone asked.

‘I was terribly thirsty.’

‘But for that, you’d have won,’ Toad told him, reproachfully.

Bushbuck looked completely bewildered. ‘How can he have got here? I never saw him.’ Mbawala sounded aggrieved.

‘Well, it is never easy to see Nadzikambe unless he means you to,’ Kalulu pointed out. ‘You should have remembered that.’

‘Hullo, everybody!’ Changa, the Lemur, leapt from the highest branch of the tree that the Chameleon had, so recently, found useful, and landed in their midst. ‘What goes on?’ he asked – he had not heard about the race – and, without waiting for an answer, he turned to Nadzikambe. ‘How on earth did you manage to persuade Bushbuck to give you a ride? It must have been nice for you to travel fast for once in your life!’

Silence ... a sharp hiss as breaths were sucked in ... and the animals waited expectantly to hear what Nadzikambe had to say.

Confused, the Chameleon first turned pink, then to all the colors of the rainbow. ‘I d-don’t know what you m-mean,’ he managed to stammer.

‘Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain!’ Kalulu asked the Lemur with icy politeness.

‘Well,’ Changa began, ‘I happened to be in these tree-tops this morning and suddenly I saw Bushbuck racing along. I watched him cross the river and I noticed that he had an odd lump on one horn. When he stopped to drink, the lump began to move and I saw that it was Nadzikambe. He detached himself carefully, swung on to an overhanging branch, and disappeared. Naturally, I thought that Bushbuck had given him a ride. Then I heard shouts and decided I might as well find out what was going on.’

The horrified silence that followed this disclosure was broken by Nantusi, the Toad. ‘Is this true?’ he asked sternly.

The Chameleon rolled his eyes unhappily from side to side and it was clear to everyone that he had indeed been trying to deceive them all.

‘You fraud!’

‘You cheat!’

‘You despicable trickster!’

Nadzikambe’s mouth set in a mutinous line. He turned to the Lemur and stamped his foot. ‘Why did you have to be in these tree-tops today?’ he demanded angrily. ‘They’re not your usual haunt. If it hadn’t been for you, my plan would have worked perfectly. No one would ever have known how I’d won the race.’

‘How you could after all we said yesterday about Kamba and the Osprey!’ Nantusi was shocked at such baseness.

‘Utterly unethical!’ muttered Bushbuck in disgust.

‘It was such a good plan,’ the Chameleon wailed. ‘I was sure it would work - and it did. But for Changa ...’

Kalulu, the Rabbit, tapped Nadzikambe on the shoulder. ‘Over-confidence’, he murmured, ‘is such a mistake. I think you’d better go home.’

Dejectedly, the Chameleon crept away. Oh, he felt, to be able to jump like Changa or to move as fast as Bushbuck now. It was terrible to be so slow when you wanted to get away from jeers and mocking laughter. Thank goodness no one knew about the red berries - they’d be considered unethical, too, he had no doubt.

He crawled on, reached the cover of the tree and hid himself amongst the thickest leaves that he could find. He felt very depressed. Then he heard Bushbuck’s voice.

‘Really,’ Mbawala was saying, ‘it’s extraordinary how thirsty I am today. I can’t understand it. I shall have to go back to the river for another drink.’

The Chameleon brightened a little and grinned to himself. It had been a good plan. Clever. A pity it had failed through sheer bad luck. Well, at least it had given him a lot of amusement ... and he’d live down the disgrace in time. He peered through the leaves at the drinking pool and chuckled. Mbawala was back in the river, drinking like a fish.

 
 

Geraldine Elliot

The Hunter’s cave

Johannesburg, MacMillan South Africa, 1951

 

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