HILDA CURLED UP IN HER FATHER’S LAP. Tongai (Tom to his European friends) wrapped his arms around his daughter and gave her a squeeze. She fit easily in his crossed legs, but she was getting heavy. At six, she was already as tall as the third- and four-graders in her school.
Across the campfire from them sat her grandfather, resting easily on his heels, as he moved a small log closer to the centre with a stick. The light from the flames reflected off the black skin of the trio. The two men might be brothers, both two metres tall, with black eyes and black hair. The girl only shared their skin and hair colour. Her eyes were brilliant blue and her features Nordic: high cheekbones and long, fine hair. Every time Tongai looked at her, his heart swelled with his love for her mother, a Swedish beauty almost as tall as Tongai himself.
The night was pleasant after the heat of a cloudless day, a rare thing in the Scottish Highlands. They had walked north from the Tay Forest Park deep into the woods on an estate belonging to a friend of Garai. (No one knew why a peer of the Realm would be such close friends with the vicar of a poor parish that served Asian and African immigrants in London. Tongai knew that his father had some stories from World War Two that the old veteran was not ready to share.)
Except for the crackling of the fire, the rustling of leaves and the occasional hooting of an owl, Hilda could hear nothing. Instead, she felt the stillness of the forest all around her. It breathed and spoke to her of powerful things. She waved at her backpack. Tongai reached over and pulled out her stuffed kitten.
“Sekuru,” she said, hugging the toy. “Tell me a story.”
“Of course, my mudiki.” My little one. The old man thought for a moment, then spoke in Shona, his voice matching the rhythms of the wind in the trees.
In the days before the white man came, your many-times-great-grandmother lived in mountains like these, but with deeper forests and bigger animals. Her father was the chief of their tribe and the king of their clan. Being a princess was not all castles and balls such as European princesses expect. Instead, the girl learned to herd and to milk their cattle. Being king, her father owned many cattle.
She also showed a natural ability at throwing both knife and spear. And she was fast. The boys of the tribe vied to compete with her. They had great fun. No one was embarrassed that a little girl could beat them. She was, after all, the daughter of the king, and he was a mighty warrior.
The girl learned to cook and to weave, and she watched when her mother helped deliver babies for the women of the tribe. When she was about your age, she fetched hot water and towels, and became a good helper. The queen taught her to bind wounds, to pick herbs for healing and pound them into poultices. Together, the girl and her mother tended young warriors who came back wounded, so that the king never lost men to infection or disease. The neighbouring clans noticed how strong was her clan’s army and left their villages alone.
One day, the girl had a rare afternoon off. She chose to walk in the woods, something that made her mother nervous because leopards and other predators hunted there. But she had promised not to go too deeply into the forest, and she carried one of her two knives unsheathed as she walked.
In the woods, she collected herbs and mushrooms that she recognized. She listened to the birds, knowing that they would go silent if a predator came near.
Over a small rise, she heard a soft sound, a very non-birdlike sound. The mewling of a kitten. Then she noticed that the birds had stopped making noise. Her heart pounded so loudly she was afraid it would attract attention. She drew her other knife and stood perfectly still, listening and watching.
Besides the mewling, she heard crunching and a sort of snorting and growling. She leaned to see around a tree. A pack of hyenas was fighting over the corpse of a large cat. She hated hyenas. They were nasty and mean. But her mother said they also kept the forest clean by eating the animals when they died.
As she stood there, the pack wandered off, leaving only one chubby little hyena at the scene. The girl crept up and shouted at the hyena, who turned and ran at her.
Did I say she was fast?
As the animal lunged, she drew her knife across its throat and ducked. The animal flew over her and fell dead to the forest floor.
The girl turned to the mewling sound. Something was moving in the pile of entrails and bones, which were all that was left of a leopard that had been nursing its litter. The girl reached down and extracted a little kitten. A trail of blood ran from its side where the hyena had started to eat. The leopard cub fit into the bend of her arm. She ran home with a knife in one hand and the kitten in the other.
The queen was not impressed.
“We cannot have a leopard cub in the village,” she said. “It will grow to be a large cat, and eat people and our animals.”
“Let me care for her, mother,” said the little girl. “She looks at me with those large eyes, and I know she loves me. If it doesn’t work out, we can return her to the hyenas, but let me try.”
“It, not her,” said the girl’s mother.
“Her, mother, I already checked, and you taught me how to tell.”
“You are already too affectionate with it, my mudiki. It.”
“What’s this? Is my little girl disrespecting my queen?” Her father appeared magically behind them. She always admired how a man so tall could move so quietly.
“No disrespect, my father. I saved a kitten from a hyena, and I want to care for her.”
Her father looked at the little animal. “You want to make a pet of a leopard cub?”
“If she starts acting wild or hurting anyone, I will take her back to the forest. I promise.”
Her parents exchanged looks. The girl watched. These wordless conversations between her parents amazed her. Her mother shrugged, sighed, and smiled, cocking an eyebrow at her father.
“And I promise to kill it myself if you fail,” said her father. “You cannot return it to the forest. It has the smell of humans on it.”
He laughed. “Okay, but I am serious. If you cannot train her, you must kill her and return her to the hyenas.”
“Remember something else always.” He crouched down to look deeply into her eyes. “If you succeed in taming this beast, she will die before you do. A large cat like this should not live more than twenty years. She will grow old while you are a strong young woman. That is why we do not name our cattle. Do you understand?”
The girl nodded solemnly. “May I call her Ingwe?” Leopard.
The king looked up at his queen. She smiled and bowed her head.
“So be it,” he said. He ran his hand over her head and stood.
And so the girl began to care for the cub. First, she patched up the side wound, which healed nicely. Nursing mothers were happy to let her have their extra milk for the cub, so the little cat grew up on human milk. The young leopard followed the girl everywhere, which terrified the people at first, but they grew used to it.
She kept her promise. The leopard was devoted to the girl and learned to follow her every command. From the very beginning, the cub knew not to harm the people or livestock of the village. She would play with the children, but never harm them. When the time came for the cub to eat solid food, the girl went into the forest, and they hunted together.
The two developed an understanding, so that the girl could communicate many things to the young leopard. Likewise, she leaned to read signals from her cat. When the girl and her mother tended the sick or delivered babies, the cat waited outside. Thus, the villagers always knew where to find the princess and, usually, her mother the queen.
The girl grew tall and strong and beautiful. So did the large cat. When the girl became a woman, the clan gathered for her naming ceremony. The people from the farther villages were nervous about the leopard, but when they saw how comfortable the girl’s tribe was, they relaxed — somewhat.
“What was her name, sekuru?”
“What would you name her, my mudiki?”
“I don’t know? Maybe Ingwe Amai.” Mother of Leopard.
“Very good, but she was named for her role among her tribe.”
“Princess?” Her grandfather laughed.
“That’s my Shona name!”
“I know. There are many healers in our family, as many as there are warriors.”
Hilda waved for her grandfather to continue.
One day, Murapi was coming back from a village at the edge of the clan territory, carrying the medicine kit. She had been treating a sick boy, who was doing much better.
Suddenly, Murapi heard war cries. She whirled around. A band of a dozen men came out of the forest, heading for the cattle enclosure of the village. The men of the village came out of their huts and ran toward the attackers. Two were struck down by the raiders immediately.
Murapi dropped the medicine kit and ran toward the fight, drawing both knives at once. She did not shout, but ran silently, the way her father would. She tilted her head toward the man to the right of the band of enemies and gave her leopard a look.
While Murapi’s knives found their targets, the leopard leaped at the neck of the third man and brought him down. The others in the band turned, but it was too late. The leopard took down another man, while Murapi picked up the spears of the fallen men and hurled them at the remaining attackers. Meanwhile, the village men captured two of the attackers. The four survivors ran for their lives. Murapi made a noise, and the leopard came back from chasing them.
In less than two minutes, the fight was over. The leopard did not sniff at the fallen but returned to Murapi’s side and sat. Ingwe was not even panting.
The news that young Murapi and her leopard had taken down a half-dozen warriors and saved the village spread quickly throughout the mountains and valleys. The king of the attackers’ clan sent an embassy to Murapi’s father to apologize and offered six fine cows, which Murapi’s father gave to the village that had been attacked. In a land where raiding was a way of life, it was notable that Murapi’s people lived in peace with their neighbours for many years after that.
One day when Ingwe came back from hunting, Murapi noticed her belly was bigger than usual. Sure enough, Ingwe was pregnant.
“Oh-oh. Lots of little leopards.” Hilda giggled. Garai held up his hand.
When the time came for Ingwe to deliver, the leopard went into the forest.
“Don’t follow her,” said the king. “This is something she must do, and you are not a friend of her litter’s father – or of the other animals who will smell them.”
“I understand, father. Still, I worry for her. She must seem more human to them than leopard.”
“Probably, but some leopard wooed her, eh? Ingwe can take care of herself.”
Murapi was busy with the harvest and birthing two calves, but images of Ingwe succumbing to the teeth of another leopard tortured her sleep for the next two weeks. Worse, she remembered the pack of hyenas from which she had rescued Ingwe years before.
Then one day, Ingwe came out of the woods. In her mouth she clamped a cub by the nape of the neck. A gash on her side had clotted, but she seemed to walk well.
Murapi ran to her friend and hugged her. Ingwe put down the kitten and nuzzled the young woman.
“Wouldn’t she have had a whole litter?” Murapi asked her mother.
“Don’t ask, dear. Ingwe came back, and she obviously fought for this one. I think you will have to raise another Ingwe.”
Indeed, Murapi and Ingwe did raise the little leopard. She called them both Ingwe, so the tribe got used to referring to the cub as “little Ingwe.” Murapi never used their names. Each cat knew exactly who she meant and what she wanted, all the time.
As Murapi grew, so did the cats. By the time she (and her parents) accepted an offer from the son of the king whose clan had attacked the border village years before, Ingwe’s coat was showing much white in it, and the old cat walked with a limp on the coldest days. Still, the wedding would be recalled around campfires and in village meetings for many years. Never had anyone seen a bride walk down the aisle with two full-grown leopards guarding her.
From then on, the title of a reigning queen of our clan would be Mai Vembada.
“Mother of Leopards,” Hilda said.
One day a year after the wedding, Murapi walked out with her two leopards. Her husband saw that she was crying. She motioned to him not to follow, so he stood and watched as his princess and her two cats walked into the forest.
When she came home later, only one Ingwe came with her. From then on, the cat was never known as “little,” but simply Ingwe. She protected Murapi for the rest of their lives together.
Hilda shifted a little in her father’s lap. In the silence of the woods, Garai and Tongai watched the girl fall asleep. Did she dream of leopards? Or of running with an unsheathed knife? Or both?
© 2022, JT Hine