THERE was once a little Princess named Kitila, the prettiest and nicest child you could possibly find. She was her mother’s one delight, and her father was a very great Chief indeed. But for all that many little girls were far happier than she, for her father hated her mother and did everything he could to show how much he despised her and her child. He did not allow Kitila so much as one necklace of beads, and her little skin cloak was shabby and poor. He had another daughter, Mapindane, whose mother was his favourite Queen. He loved her dearly, and delighted in her beauty and pretty ways, for she also was a charming child. But so much did he dislike Kitila that he was quite annoyed to see that she was pretty and likely to be admired. At last he determined to humiliate her and her mother forever by dressing her in the skin of the Nya-nya Bulembu, so that everyone might be frightened of her and no Prince might ever love her.
Now the Nya-nya Bulembu is a strange beast who lives in the water. He has long teeth and claws, and his skin is covered with bright green moss. No one has anything to do with him who can help it, and his very name means "the Despised One covered with Moss." The King thus hoped that his little girl would be taken for the monster himself, and would be hated by all as much as he himself disliked her. You will see, however, that he would have done much better to be kind to his little daughter, for the Nya-nya Bulembu is a fairy beast, and it is not wise to meddle with him.
One day the King called his Chief Councillors and his people together and told them of his intentions. "The little Princess Kitila," he said, "is to be dressed in the skin of the Nya-nya Bulembu. Fetch me an animal which is young, with regular teeth, long claws, and a perfect skin well covered with green moss."
The King also gave orders for plenty of green mealie-bread to be made with which to entice the animal out of the water. A party of picked men then went out together and came down to the river. They followed its course till they came to a deep pool, where the water was quite black. The huntsmen stood round in a ring and sang the song of the Nya-nya Bulembu:
"Nya-nya Bulembu, Nya-nya Bulembu,
Come out of the water and eat me!
The King has sent us for the great Nya-nya Bulembu!
Come and let us see you!
Laugh and show us your teeth!"
Out came a huge old monster, with only two or three teeth left, and no moss on his skin at all.
"No," said the huntsmen at once, "we don’t want you."
They journeyed on again in a great storm of wind and rain. When it had passed away, and the sun shone once more, they found themselves at a second big pool, which was blue as the sky. Here they stopped and sang the song of the Bulembu once more. Out came a vicious-looking creature, with but little moss on his coat, and only one tooth three feet long.
"No, we don’t want you either," said the huntsmen, and they travelled on again till they came to a third pool, which was bright green. Round it grew a most beautiful fringe of green moss, and the water itself was vivid green, like the grass in spring.
Once more the huntsmen sang the magic song, and out came a nice green Bulembu, beautifully covered with moss, and showing all his long white teeth. They set big pieces of mealie-bread for him, and as he came out to eat they caught him alive. Then they travelled like the wind to the King’s kraal. As they drew near home they sang:
"Have all your assegais ready!
The Nya-nya Bulembu is coming!"
All the men in the kraal seized their assegais and hurried to the gate by which the Bulembu must enter. They stood in line in front of the entrance, and as the green monster rushed upon them he fell on their spears and died. Then they took the body to the hut of the despised Queen, and began to prepare the skin for use.
First they cut the body open, and to their great surprise out came the most lovely beadwork. There were necklaces, bracelets, and girdles of every colour and pattern, the most lovely little embroidered bags, and the most beautifully woven mats. Nothing that a King’s daughter could want was missing, and everything was of the finest workmanship. It seemed as if the supply would never come to an end, for the more beads they pulled out the more appeared, till there were enough to last the Princess her life long. But the moment they began to remove the skin no more appeared. They stripped the Bulembu most carefully, preserving the nails and all the teeth, and when the skin was quite complete they wrapped the little Princess in it. The instant it touched her it fitted as if it were a part of her; indeed, she could not get it off again, for it was the skin of a fairy beast, as the old King knew well. You could no longer see that she was a little girl at all, she looked just like a hideous green monster.
Kitila and her mother cried most bitterly at this undeserved disgrace, but the Chief Councillor could only say, "It is the King’s order; we must obey him."
The two little Princesses were never allowed to play with the other children. They sat by themselves every day in the middle of the huts near the cattle-kraal, the one in her green skin with long white teeth, the other in all the prettiest beads imaginable and a lovely little cloak of leopard-skin, the finest the King could procure. The two little girls were great friends, and as they played and ate their food hundreds of little birds came every day and picked up the fragments.
Many years passed by, and the girls grew into womanhood. Mapindane was now very lovely, and was a joy to behold as she sat in the sun, but poor Kitila was still clothed in her hideous green skin, and looked the same as ever. The feast of the first-fruits was now at hand. The King’s wise men had been absent a month travelling to the coast to fetch water from the great sea, for no other may be used for the potion which cleanses the land from all evil. They set their calabashes in the sand at low tide, and when they are filled by the magic power of the ocean they return home joyfully. Every day they were expected, and when at last they arrived the King gave orders that all preparations should be made.
The day before the feast everyone went out to gather the first-fruits in the fields, and no one remained in the kraal but one old Queen to watch over the two Princesses. The two girls sat in their usual place, and the birds flew round them as they ate and picked up all they could. Suddenly a flock of rock-pigeons swooped down upon them, and in a moment they had seized the beautiful Princess and carried her away, but the green monster they left alone.
The old Queen looked up and shrieked, "There goes the lovely Princess! There goes the King’s favourite child!" She called out all the people from the fields and sent them after the pigeons. But the birds rose high into the air, and then headed straight for the North. They carried Mapindane far far away to a new country, and placed her in the kraal of a very great King. There she stayed till the King saw her, and made her his wife, and there she lived in great happiness. But she could never send a message home, for no one had even heard the name of her people, or knew the way through the thick forests which lay between them.
So her father and mother never knew of her good fortune, and always believed that the birds had eaten her. Poor Kitila in her green skin was worse off than ever, for the bereaved Queen was very jealous and angry, and as she was all powerful, Kitila was no longer allowed to live as a Princess, but was set to do all sorts of degrading work. At last the King said to her, "You are no good at all; you must go and scare birds. You are so ugly that every bird who sees you will fly away at once."
From that day the Princess was no longer called Kitila, but Nya-nya Bulembu. She often said to her mother, "How hard my life is! Why was I born to all this?"
But her mother always remembered the Bulembu’s magic gifts, and said, "Do not despair; all will come right presently."
And so it did; for the first time the Princess went to the fields she met a Fairy in the shape of a very old man. He took pity on her, and gave her a stick, saying, "When you come to the fields just wave this, and call aloud. All the birds will fall down dead at once. When you go bathing take the stick with you into the water; it will give you your true shape again. But remember never to leave go of it, or your power will depart."
Kitila took the stick, and found it quite as powerful as the Fairy declared. She had no trouble with the birds, but kept the crops in safety as easily as possible. Every day in the hot, still afternoon, when all creatures are asleep, she went down to the river. As her foot touched the water the green skin floated away, and hundreds of pretty girls came to play with her at her call.
She stood in the water and sang:
"Nya-nya Bulembu, Nya-nya Bulembu,
Here I am!
I was dressed like a monster,
But I am like any girl.
Today they fed me with the dogs."
Then she called for food, and instantly a feast appeared, and she and all the Fairies ate and laughed together. But when she came out of the river her green skin reappeared, and she was once more Nya-nya Bulembu.
The other little boys and girls who were also scaring birds were dreadfully afraid of the monster, and never went near her. They never asked her to join them in the afternoons when they played together in the water, but they often wondered what she looked like when she bathed by herself in a lonely pool. One day they went down to see, but they hid behind the trees, so that the Princess never knew. When a beautiful girl appeared instead of the ugly monster, they were so astonished that they ran straight home and told the whole story to the Princess’s mother. The despised Queen was very pleased, but she told the children not to say a word to anyone. So the moss-green Princess continued to scare the birds.
Some months later a great Prince came to visit the King. He was young and handsome, but he was noted above all for his wisdom and good judgment. His father had sent him to seek a bride; she was to be the most beautiful woman he could find, and everyone was anxious to see the girl chosen by so wise a Prince. The young man travelled far and wide, but found no maiden whom he could love. At last he came to the kraal in which lived the moss-green Princess. He went straight to the King and asked him if he had any daughters.
"Yes," said the King, "but I have only one. You shall see her with pleasure."
"Let the Prince see the monster," said Mapindane’s mother, with a bitter laugh. So the Prince was taken to the fields where Kitila was scaring birds. When he got there the little boys and girls who were at work came to him and said, "Do you want to see Nya-nya Bulembu? She is bathing just now, we will take you to the pool she always visits."
They took the Prince, and placed him where he could see the moss-green Princess enter the water without being seen by her. When he first saw the green monster appear he held his breath with horror, and thought some trick had been played upon him. But directly this hideous creature touched the water the green skin fell away, and there stood the loveliest maiden he had ever beheld. He instantly fell in love with her, and vowed to make her his wife, no matter what spell might have fallen on her. He watched her all the afternoon playing with the Fairies in the cool green shadows, and longed to join them, but did not dare. He heard Kitila sing the story of her life. Then he went straight back to the kraal and asked to see the King.
"I will marry your monster," he said.
The King was surprised beyond measure, but he consented, and all preparations were made for the wedding. The wonderful presents the green monster had brought years before were now gathered together and made a royal outfit for the young Princess. The Prince returned to his father, and sent a present of one hundred cows to the King, to show in what consideration he held the bride, and also a fine head of cattle for her mother.
Then he waited for the moss-green Princess to come to him, for in Kafir-land the marriage always takes place in the bridegroom’s home. All his people waited, too, in great expectation, for the Prince was known to have chosen the most beautiful girl he could find. Their horror was great when they saw a strange green monster arrive, with long white teeth and claws, attended by four bridesmaids.
"What!" said they. "Is this the peerless beauty chosen by so wise a Prince? How can he marry such a monster?"
The poor Princess sat at the door of the chief hut, trembling lest she should be refused admittance, and the Prince repent of so bad a bargain. But he kept faith with her in spite of her green skin, and received her kindly. She was taken to a beautiful hut, and the next day was fixed for the wedding.
Very early in the morning the Princess and her maids went down to a deep pool in the river to bathe. The sun had barely risen, the air was fresh and cool. Nya-nya Bulembu took the stick in her hand and stepped into the water. As she touched it the green skin fell away, but instead of floating on the water it flew straight up into the air, and was carried many miles, till it fell down right at the door of her mother’s hut. Then the despised Queen knew that all was well, and her daughter happy at last.
The Princess came out of the water in her true form—no longer Nya-nya Bulembu, but Kitila, the King’s daughter. She returned to the kraal with her bridesmaids, all in their wedding array, and was met by the women who were to be her friends in her new home, for they were to take her to the Prince. Great was their joy and astonishment when they saw so lovely a Princess. They declared that such beauty had never been seen among them before, and praised the wisdom of the Prince who had chosen her.
The marriage ceremony then took place, and the Princess lived among them ever after in much happiness and honour. The fame of her beauty was such that people came from South, East, and West to see so lovely a woman.
But the old King was well punished, for while he often heard of the happiness of Nya-nya Bulembu, he never saw his favourite daughter again, and always believed her dead.