The Great Beasts of the Plains


(A Folktale)
All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. (Children’s Songbook, page 231.)

The hot sun beat down on Bhutto’s shoulders as he crossed a dry riverbed. He found his father on the other side, sitting beneath a baobab tree, making a bow to be used for hunting. Without saying a word, Bhutto knelt by his father’s side and watched him work. First his father poured sand over a large leaf. Then he wrapped the leaf around the bow and rubbed it up and down. Slowly the rough wooden surface of the bow became smoother.

“It is a hot day for one so young to be walking about,” said Bhutto’s father.

“I am not so young,” Bhutto quickly answered. “I am almost twelve years old.”

“Ah.” His father smiled. “So you are. But why have you come looking for me, Bhutto?”

Bhutto took a deep breath and rocked back and forth on his heels. “I have come to ask you if I may begin hunting alone.”

Bhutto’s father stopped working and looked at Bhutto. “You are a good hunter. You have worked hard to learn how to hunt. Now you must learn when to hunt.”

“And how will I learn this?”

“By hearing a story,” answered his father. “Listen. Many years ago, in the direction from which the sun awakens each day, there lived a people here in Africa called the Mazumbas.”

Bhutto stopped rocking on his heels and sat down. He did not want to miss a word of his father’s story.

“The Mazumbas were greater hunters than others because the tips of their arrows were sharper and finer than any man could make.”

“How did they make the arrow tips?” asked Bhutto.

“They did not make them,” said Bhutto’s father. “They found them in a secret cave. And because the Mazumbas had such sharp arrow tips, no animal could stand against them.”

“Not even lions?” Bhutto asked.

“Not even lions,” said his father.

“Not even elephants?” Bhutto tried again.

“Not even elephants,” answered his father. “Not even the Great Beasts of the plains.”

Bhutto looked puzzled. “What are the Great Beasts of the plains?”

“The Great Beasts were the hardest of all the animals to slay. They had the eyes of an eagle, the ears of a giraffe, and the swiftness of a gazelle. But even so, the Great Beasts could not hide from the Mazumbas.

“One day, one of the Mazumbas was hunting when he came across the tracks of a Great Beast. For many hours he followed the tracks through grasslands, over hills, and down ravines until they led to the entrance of the secret cave.”

“Where the Mazumbas found their arrow tips,” Bhutto remembered.

“That’s right,” said his father.

“And was the Great Beast inside?”

“Yes, he was. And when the hunter saw the Great Beast, he put an arrow to his bow.”

“Did he kill the Beast?” Bhutto asked excitedly.

“Not right away,” answered his father, “because the Great Beast began to speak.”

Bhutto frowned. “Animals cannot speak.”

“That is true,” Bhutto’s father answered. “But the Great Beasts were not like other animals.”

“What did the Great Beast say?”

“He said, ‘Please do not kill me, great hunter of the Mazumbas. Your people have killed all the Great Beasts except me.’

“But the hunter just laughed and said, ‘If you did not want to be caught, you should not have come into our secret cave.’ And with that, the hunter let the arrow fly.”

Bhutto watched his father string the bow he was making. “Is that the end of your story?” he sadly asked.

“Not quite, Bhutto,” said his father. “When the Beast fell to the earth, a stone rolled from his mouth—a sharp stone, sharper than any a man could make.”

“Then, it was the Great Beasts that made the arrow tips!” Bhutto cried.

“Yes. The Great Beasts went to the secret cave to chew on stones and sharpen their teeth. The arrow tips were what they left behind.”

“But the hunter—he killed the last Beast!”

“Yes, and because of that, the Mazumbas soon used up the last of the very sharp arrow tips. No longer were they the great hunters they had once been.”

Bhutto sat very still and listened to the wind. It howled like a lonely animal at night.

“Here,” said Bhutto’s father, handing him the bow. “I was making this for you.”

Bhutto took the bow from his father and ran his fingers up and down the wood. He turned it over and pulled the string. “Oh, Father, it is a wonderful gift! I shall take very good care of it!”

“And my story? Did you learn anything from it?”

Bhutto was quiet for a long time. He thought about the Mazumbas. He thought about the Great Beasts and how beautiful they must have been. “I have learned to try to choose wisely about when to put an arrow in my bow and to be certain I need what I kill. For every time I take something from the earth, it can never be quite the same again.”

Bhutto’s father looked at him and smiled. “And now,” he said, “you are ready to hunt alone.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Don Weller