SEKOLOMI, the Chief's son, was as brave and handsome a youth as ever tracked the wild buck to its lair or led his warriors to battle; but he was dumb. He could hear the grass grow and the buds burst their sheaths in the Spring, but he could hold converse with no one. Yet though his spirit was thus imprisoned, Sekolomi bore himself as a ruler of men, and none could doubt his royal birth.
Now, it happened one day that when he and certain of the young men of the tribe were out hunting, a flight of birds, whose plumage was of a rare and wonderful beauty, passed over their heads. The young men at once hurled darts, but the birds flew on, and they had to chase them for many a weary mile before they brought their quarry to earth. By this time night was falling, and they were far from home; so they looked round to see where they might rest until the morning. One saw at a distance what seemed to be a deserted hut, and finding no one in possession, they flung the birds into one corner of it and lay down to rest.
All slept soundly save Sekolomi, in whose heart was a dim fore-knowledge of evil. About midnight he heard some one approaching the hut, and presently a wicked-looking old woman entered and picked up the dead birds. Then she looked round upon the sleeping men, and fixing her eyes upon the watching youth, she said, "First I shall eat these birds, and then when it rains I shall eat Sekolomi." Then she disappeared into the darkness.
Next morning when the young men woke they saw that the birds had vanished, and they were angry, for they had wished to make head-dresses of their gay plumage. At the door of the hut they saw the marks of foot-prints, but these were soon lost in the long grass, and they could not track the thief. Sekolomi alone knew what had happened, and his lips were sealed.
The young men had no mind to return without feathers for their head-dresses, so they once more went out to hunt. They found birds even more beautiful than those which they had slain the day before, and determined not to let themselves be robbed a second time. Before lying down that night they drew a cord made of plaited grass across the entrance to the hut, and tied strings from the cord to their feet. By means of these they would be roused from their sleep if anyone tried to come in.
There was no rest that night for Sekolomi, who lay awake waiting for the terrible old woman. At midnight she came, but not daring to force her way into the hut on account of the cord across the entrance, she contented herself with muttering as before: "These birds will I eat, and then when it rains I will eat Sekolomi."
With the first light of dawn the young men awoke, and gathering up their beautiful spoil, set out at once with it in the direction of their village.
Sekolomi, however, had been so alarmed by the second appearance of the old woman, and was so confused by want of sleep, that it was not until he had gone some distance that he realized that the bright-hued bird which he had brought down had been left behind in a corner of the hut.
So distressed was he that his lips were opened.
"I have forgotten my beautiful head-dress," he exclaimed. "Which of you will return with me to recover it?"
"A miracle has happened!" the young men cried. "The son of our Chief has spoken."
But none was bold enough to return with him. Each offered him his own spoil instead, begging him not to go back to the place of danger. He gave no heed to their entreaties, and since no one would accompany him, determined to set out alone. Before leaving his comrades he planted his staff in the ground, saying, "If this staff falls to earth, you will know that I am dead, but as long as it remains upright, it is a sign that all is well with me."
His companions saw him go with many misgivings and, fearing to see the staff fall to the ground, sat down to await his return.
Meanwhile Sekolomi had reached the hut without adventure. He had picked up the bird, which still lay where he had left it, but when he came out with it in his hand, he saw not far away the terrible old woman who had visited the hut by night engaged in a fierce struggle with another hag as evil-looking as herself. Sekolomi hoped to pass them unseen, but they caught sight of him, and ceased their fighting that they might chase him. Luckily he was fleeter of foot than they; moreover, a thick fog rose and hid him from their view, and they gave up the pursuit.
Meanwhile the comrades of Sekolomi saw the staff they were watching, tremble. The eldest of them cried: "Brothers, the son of our Chief is in danger; let us hasten to his help!"
Thereupon they set out to his rescue; and in truth he was sore in need of help. Encircled by the fog, he had fallen into a pool wherein dwelt a great snake, which wound itself tightly round his body and made him gasp for breath. He could not shake it off, but managed to scramble out of the pool, and even to walk, though his progress, so handicapped, was slow.
He was now in sight of his comrades, but when they saw him encircled by the snake, they fled and left him to his fate. So ashamed were they afterward of their cowardice that never again did they show their faces in the Chief's kraal.
When at last he arrived at the spot where his staff was planted in the ground, Sekolomi halted and began to sing: "Snake, snake, unfold your coils, and let me take a pinch of snuff."
The snake obeyed, and unwinding its great scaly body, allowed Sekolomi to breathe and to refresh himself. Then once more it coiled round him. So he continued on his way, released now and then from its deadly folds, but only for a few moments.
At last, worn out, Sekolomi drew near to his father's kraal; but it was night, and all the people were sleeping, and there was none to welcome him. At the entrance to the village, however, there was an empty hut, and into this he crept. As he lay down, he begged the snake to release him, that he might rest, but the monster refused, and Sekolomi fell asleep, still tightly enfolded in its clasp, and fearing that he would never awake.
In the morning all the village gathered round the hut where Sekolomi slept, for a herd boy, astir at the first streak of dawn, had seen the Chief's son lying in the monster's coils, and had carried the news to the village.
When he awoke, Sekolomi again begged the snake to relax its hold, but in vain; nor would it yield to the prayers of the Chief or of Sekolomi's mother. But when it smelt the roast oxen which the Chief had commanded to be slain to celebrate his son's return, it unwound its coils and, setting its victim free, glided toward the spot where the meat was cooking and gorged until it could no longer move.
Then came the men of the kraal armed with axes and would have slain it when a woman none had seen before stepped forward, saying, "You must not kill him, for, know you, he is my son."
The young men answered, "No matter; we will slay him, for he has tried to kill the son of our Chief." And forthwith they fell upon the monster.
When it was dead they wrapped the body in the skin of an ox, and placed it on the head of the woman, saying, "Carry away the body of your son from the kraal. It is the body of an enemy, and we will not have it in our midst."
And without mercy they drove her away.
When they returned to the village they found that Sekolomi had quite recovered from his weariness, and the dread he had felt of the snake. He could now speak as clearly as any one. His father ordered more cattle to be slain, and there was joy and feasting.