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The devoted friend


Retold Dawn Garisch

One morning Swamp Rat stuck his head through the reeds on the bank of the river. He put his nose in the air and wiggled the end, sniffing the air to smell who was about. Seven newly-hatched ducklings came swimming round the bend, looking like a group of fluffy balls. Their mother followed closely behind them. Mother duck had a white face and a black head. She was trying to teach the ducklings how to stand on their heads in the water.

“You will never impress anyone unless you can stand on your heads,” she kept saying, showing them how it was done. But her ducklings paid no attention to her. They were so young they did not know what an advantage it would be to impress others.

“What disobedient children!” cried Swamp Rat, “they really deserve to be drowned.”

“Nonsense,” answered Mother duck, “everyone must begin somewhere, and parents have to be patient.”

“Ah! I know nothing about being a parent,” said Swamp Rat. “I am not a father and I never intend to be one. Love is all very well, but a devoted friendship is much more noble.”

“What is your idea of a devoted friend?” asked a yellow-billed stork who had overheard the conversation while wading in the water nearby.

“I would also like to know,” said the duck, standing on her head again.

“What a silly question!” cried Swamp Rat. “My devoted friend must be devoted to me, of course.”

“What would you do in return?” asked Stork, shuffling his feet and poking about in the mud with his long yellow bill.

“I don’t understand your question,” answered Swamp Rat.

“Let me tell you a story,” said Stork.

“Is the story about me?” asked Swamp Rat. “If so, I will listen.”

“You could say so,” answered Stork, catching a fish in his bill and gulping it down with a jerk of his head. He stood on one leg, gave a contented sigh and told this story of the devoted friend.

Chapter 2

Once upon a time there was an honest fellow named Sizwe.

“Was he very impressive?” interrupted Swamp Rat.

“I don’t think he tried to impress others,” answered Stork. “He was very kind − that was always  his way. Anyway let me continue…”

Sizwe lived near a stream in a tiny hut all by himself. Every day he worked in his field. In all the countryside there was no field as plentiful as his. Mielies grew there, and tomatoes, and pumpkins as big as wheelbarrow wheels. There was spinach and potatoes, and two tall banana trees. His carrots were so sweet and orange that people ate them raw before they got near the pot. Sometimes he even grew juicy, red strawberries.

Little Sizwe had many friends, but the most devoted friend of all was the dairy farmer who farmed on the hill. So devoted was the rich dairy farmer that he would never go past Sizwe’s field without leaning over the fence and picking a few mielie cobs or a bunch of bananas to take home.

“Real friends should share,” the dairy farmer would say. Little Sizwe nodded and smiled, and felt proud that his friend appreciated his produce so much.

Little Sizwe never stopped to wonder why the rich dairy farmer never gave him anything in return. After all the dairy farmer had a hundred rounds of cheese stored in his cellar, and thirty milk cows, and a large flock of woolly sheep. Sizwe was grateful to listen to all the wonderful things the dairy farmer said about the unselfishness of true friendship.

So little Sizwe worked away in his field. All autumn, winter and spring he was very happy, but when summer came, heavy rains fell. The stream grew into a river, and the river roared over its banks and rushed into Sizwe’s field. The crops he had planted were washed away or they rotted underwater. Sizwe had no vegetables to take to the market. During that long summer, he often went hungry or had to go to bed with only a few mangoes in his stomach. He was also lonely, as the dairy farmer never came to visit him during this time.

Chapter 3

“It is pointless going to see little Sizwe while his field is flooded,” the dairy farmer said to his wife. Their farm was up on a hill, so his cows and sheep and fields were safe. “When people are in trouble, they should be left alone and not be bothered by visitors. I shall wait till the flood subsides and Sizwe has managed to plant a new crop. Then I shall pay him a visit and he will be able to give me a large basket of vegetables and that will make him so happy,” said the dairy farmer.

“You are certainly a very thoughtful friend,” answered his wife as she unpacked the groceries into their fridge. “Very thoughtful indeed. It is far too hot to go anywhere. And it would be quite horrible for poor little Sizwe if you saw his ruined field.”

“But could we not ask him up here?” said the dairy farmer’s youngest son, chewing his food. “If poor Sizwe is in trouble I will give him half of my sandwich and show him my white rabbits to cheer him up.”

“What a silly boy you are!” shouted the dairy farmer. “What is the use of sending you to school if you don’t learn anything. If little Sizwe came up here and saw our cool swimming pool and our good cheese and our great cask of red wine, he might get envious. Envy is a most terrible thing. It can spoil a kind nature. I certainly will not allow Sizwe’s nature to be spoiled. I am his best friend. I will always watch over him and make sure that he is not led into temptation. Besides, if Sizwe came here, he might ask for some cheese on credit, and that I could not do. Cheese is one thing; friendship is another, and they should not be confused. The words are even spelt differently and mean quite different things. Everybody knows that.”

“How well you speak!” said the dairy farmer’s wife, pouring herself a large glass of milk. “I must say that I feel quite drowsy listening to you. It is like being in church.”

“Lots of people act well,” answered the dairy farmer, “but very few people speak well. It is far more difficult to speak well, and so you see, I am a very fine man.” He looked sternly across the table at his little son, who felt so ashamed of himself that he hung his head, grew quite scarlet and began to cry into his tea.

Chapter 4

“Is that the end of the story?” asked Swamp Rat.

“Certainly not,” answered Stork. “That is the beginning.”

“Then you are quite old-fashioned,” said Swamp Rat. “Every good storyteller nowadays starts with the end, and then goes on to the beginning, and concludes with the middle. That is the new method. I heard all about it the other day from a critic who was walking along the banks of our river with a young man. He spoke about it for a long time, and I am sure he must be right, for he had blue spectacles and a bald head, and whenever the young man made any remark, he always answered ‘Pooh!’. But go on with your story. I like the dairy farmer immensely,” said Swamp Rat.

Stork took a deep breath and continued.

As soon as the flood waters had subsided, little Sizwe started working again. He ploughed and composted his field and then planted his crops. He worked from early in the morning until late at night. He worked until his forehead dripped with sweat and his hands broke out in blisters.

Before long the seedlings pushed their leaves out of the ground and held them up to the sun. Cabbages grew as big as babies’ heads, and bean plants wound their way up the fence. From up the hill, the dairy farmer saw that little Sizwe’s field was quite recovered. He said to his wife that he would go down to visit Sizwe.

“Why, what a good heart you have!” said his wife, “you are always thinking of others. And please take the big basket with you for the vegetables.”

So the dairy farmer went down the hill with the basket on his arm.

“Good morning, little Sizwe,” said the dairy farmer.

“Good morning,” said Sizwe leaning on his spade and smiling from ear to ear.

“And how have you been all summer?” asked the dairy farmer.

“It is very good of you to ask,” said Sizwe, “very good indeed. I am afraid I had rather a difficult time because of the flood, but now I am quite happy and my vegetables are doing well.”

“We often talked of you during the summer, Sizwe,” said the dairy farmer, “and wondered how you were getting on.”

“That was kind of you,” said Sizwe, “I was afraid you had forgotten me.”

“Sizwe, I am surprised at you,” said the dairy farmer. “Friends never forgets about each other. That is the wonderful thing about friendship.”

The dairy farmer looked around. “How lovely your cabbages are looking!” he said.

“They are certainly very lovely,” said Sizwe, “and I am very lucky to have so many. I am going to sell them to the mayor’s daughter. Then I will be able to buy back my cart with the money.”

“Buy back your cart? You don’t mean to say you have sold it? What an unwise thing to do!” said the dairy farmer.

Chapter 5

“Well, the fact is,” said Sizwe, “I was obliged to. Because of the flood, I had no money to buy bread. So I first sold my leather jacket, then I sold my silver chain and lastly I sold my cart. But I am going to buy them all back.”

“I will give you my cart,” said the dairy farmer. “It is not in a very good condition. One side is broken and there is something wrong with the wheels, but in spite of that I will give it to you. It is very generous of me. Many people would think me silly to give it away, but I think that generosity is the essence of friendship. Besides, I have bought myself a new cart.”

“That is very generous of you,” said little Sizwe as his face glowed with pleasure. “I can mend the cart because I have a plank of wood in my shed.”

“A plank of wood!” said the delighted dairy farmer. “That is exactly what I need for the gap in my fence. The sheep will get out if I don’t fix it. How lucky that you mentioned it! It is quite remarkable how one good action always leads to another. I am going to give you my cart and you will give me your plank of wood. Of course, the cart is worth far more than the wood, but true friendship never notices these things. Get the plank at once and I will mend my fence this very day.”

“Certainly,” replied little Sizwe. He ran to his shed and dragged out the plank.

“It is not a very big plank,” said the dairy farmer looking at it, “and I am afraid that after I have mended my fence there won’t be any left for you to repair the cart, but that is not my fault. And now, as I am giving you my cart, I am sure you would like to give me some cabbages in return. Here is the basket. Mind you fill it quite full.”

“Quite full?” asked little Sizwe rather sorrowfully, for it was a very big basket, and he knew that if he filled it, he might not earn enough money to get his leather jacket back.

Chapter 6

“Well,” answered the dairy farmer, “as I am going to give you my cart, I don’t think that it is too much to ask for a few cabbages. I may be wrong, but I should have thought that friendship, true friendship, was quite free from selfishness of any kind.”

“My dear friend, my best friend,” replied little Sizwe, “I would much rather have your good opinion than my leather jacket.” He ran and cut the stalks of five of the best cabbages and filled the dairy farmer’s basket.

“Goodbye, little Sizwe,” said the dairy farmer as he went up the hill with the plank on his shoulder and the heavy basket in his hand.

“Goodbye,” said little Sizwe as he began to dig away quite merrily. He was very pleased about the cart he would soon have.

The next day Sizwe was taking snails out of the spinach patch when he heard the dairy farmer calling to him from the road. Sizwe ran down his field and looked over the fence. There stood the dairy farmer with a large sack of cheese on his back.

“Dear little Sizwe,” said the dairy farmer, “would you mind taking this sack of cheese to the market?”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” said Sizwe, “but I am very busy today. I must weed all my vegetable beds.”

“That won’t do,” said the dairy farmer. “Considering I am giving you my cart, it is rather unfriendly of you to refuse.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” replied little Sizwe. “I wouldn’t be unfriendly to you for anything.” Sizwe ran to his hut to fetch his cap, and trudged off with the heavy sack of cheese on his shoulders.

It was a very hot day. Before Sizwe had reached the town he was so tired that he had to sit down and rest. At last he reached the market where he sold the cheese for a very good price. Then he returned home quickly, for he was afraid of meeting robbers on the way.

Chapter 7

Early the next morning the dairy farmer came down to get the money for his cheese, but little Sizwe was so tired that he was still in bed.

“Goodness,” exclaimed the dairy farmer, “you are very lazy. Idleness is a great sin and I certainly don’t like my friends to be sluggish. Please do not mind my speaking openly to you. What is the good of friendship if one cannot tell the truth? Anybody can please and flatter, but a true friend says unpleasant things, for he knows that he is doing good.”

“I am very sorry,” said little Sizwe, rubbing his eyes, “but I was so tired that I was lying in bed listening to the birds singing. I always work better after hearing the birds sing.”

“Well, I am glad of that,” said the dairy farmer, clapping little Sizwe on the back, “for today I want you to come and mend my fence.”

Poor little Sizwe was very anxious to go and work in his field, for he needed to plant some onions.

“Would it be unfriendly of me if I said I was busy?” he inquired in a timid voice.

“Well,” answered the dairy farmer, “I do not think it is much to ask of you, considering that I am going to give you my cart, but of course if you refuse, I will mend the fence myself.”

“Oh! On no account,” replied little Sizwe. He got dressed and went up to the dairy farm.

He worked there all day long, until sunset, when the dairy farmer came to see how he was getting on.

“Ah!” said the dairy farmer, seeing that his fence was mended, “the best work is the work one does for others.”

“It is a privilege to hear you talk,” answered little Sizwe, sitting down and wiping his forehead, “a very great privilege. I am afraid I shall never have such beautiful ideas.”

“Oh! they will come,” said the dairy farmer. “At present you have only the practice of friendship, but some day you will have the theory as well. Now you had better go home and rest, for I want you to drive my cows to the shed early tomorrow morning to milk them.”

Poor little Sizwe was up early the next morning. He drove the dairy farmer’s cows to the shed and spent most of the morning milking them. When he returned home he was so tired that he fell asleep in his chair.

Chapter 8

“What a delightful time I shall have in my field today,” Sizwe thought when he awoke the next morning, even though his arms were aching from all the milking.

But somehow he was never able to look after his vegetables, for his friend the dairy farmer was always coming round and sending him off on long errands, or getting him to help on the dairy farm. Little Sizwe was very worried, as he was afraid his vegetables would think he had forgotten them, but he consoled himself with the thought that the dairy farmer was his best friend who was going to give him his cart.

So little Sizwe worked hard for the dairy farmer, and the dairy farmer said all kinds of beautiful things about friendship. Sizwe wrote everything down in a notebook and read the words to himself at night, for he was a very good learner.

One very cold winter’s night, little Sizwe was sitting by the fireside when there was a loud rap at the door.

“It must be some poor traveller,” thought little Sizwe as he ran to the door. But there stood the dairy farmer with a torch in one hand and a big stick in the other.

“Dear little Sizwe,” cried the dairy farmer, “I am in great trouble. My little boy has fallen off a ladder and hurt himself. He needs the doctor, but the doctor lives so far away and it is such a cold night. I think it would therefore be best if you went to fetch the doctor instead of me. You know I am going to give you my cart, so it is only fair that you should do something for me in return.”

“Certainly,” replied little Sizwe. “It is a compliment that you asked me. I will go at once. Lend me your torch, as the night is so dark that I am afraid I might fall into a donga.”

“I am sorry,” answered the dairy farmer, “it is my new torch and it would be a great loss if anything happened to it.”

“Never mind, I will manage,” said little Sizwe bravely. He took down his coat and his warm scarlet cap. Then he tied a long scarf round his neck and set off.

Chapter 9

What a cold night it was, with only a sliver of moon! Little Sizwe could hardly see, but after he had been walking for about three hours, he knocked at the doctor’s door.

“Who is there?” called the doctor.

“Little Sizwe, Doctor.”

“What do you want, little Sizwe?” called the doctor.

“The dairy farmer’s son has hurt himself and he wants you to come at once,” answered Sizwe.

The doctor came downstairs and rode off on his bicycle in the direction of the dairy farmer’s house. Little Sizwe started the long journey home on his own.

But dark clouds blew over the moon and little Sizwe lost his way. He wandered towards the river, which was a very dangerous place. Steep cliffs rose on either side of the river and poor little Sizwe fell over the edge and into the flowing water. He was dragged down by his heavy coat and drowned. The next day some goatherds found his body floating in a pool of water.

At little Sizwe’s funeral, the dairy farmer was the chief mourner.

“I was his best friend,” said the dairy farmer. “It is only fair that I should have the best place.” So he walked in front of the coffin wiping his eyes with a handkerchief where everyone could see.

“Little Sizwe’s death is certainly a great loss,” said the dairy farmer’s wife when the funeral was over. “What will we do without his vegetables?”

“A great loss,” answered the dairy farmer. “Why, I had as good as given him my cart, but now I don’t know what to do with it. It is in my way at home and it is so broken I cannot sell it. I won’t give away anything ever again. One always suffers for being generous.”

“Well?” said Swamp Rat, after a long pause.

“Well, that is the end,” said Stork.

“But what became of the dairy farmer?” asked Swamp Rat.

“Oh! I really don’t know,” replied Stork, “and I don’t care.”

“It is quite clear that you have no sympathy in your nature,” said Swamp Rat.

“I am afraid you don’t quite see the moral of the story,” remarked Stork.

“The what?” asked Swamp Rat.

“The moral,” repeated Stork.

“Do you mean the story has a moral?” asked Swamp Rat.

“Certainly,” said Stork.

“Well, really,” said Swamp Rat angrily, “I think you should have told me that before you began. Then I would not have listened. In fact, I should have said ‘Pooh!’ like the critic. However, I can say it now. So he shouted out, “Pooh!” at the top of his voice, gave a whisk of his tail, and disappeared into the reeds.

“How did you like Swamp Rat?” asked the duck, who came paddling up.

“I am afraid I annoyed him,” answered Stork. “I told him a story with a moral.”

“Ah! That is always a dangerous thing to do,” said the duck. Then she dipped into the water and stood on her head to impress Stork.