One day, long ago, The Old Elephant Died.
Now, one must understand that it came as no shock to the other animals. The had seen how their old leader deteriorated, and some even thought he had died some time ago – but still, it saddened them all when the jackal ran through the woods, spreading the news.
“We’ll have to make sure he gets a proper funeral,” the owl said.
“Yes, and we must invite all the animals to attend. We’ll all gather on that open piece of veld where we can all see what’s happening. And we must keep the vultures away…you know how they are. Any death is good news to them; they just love to pick at bones once any of us lies down for the last time.” Tortoise spoke wisely because he had been granted the longest life of all, and had seen (many, many times) what happened once one of the animals died.
“I don’t know.” The little bushbuck was the shyest of them all. “I think it must be a private affair. Just the family. Maybe one or two close friends. That’s what I think.”
“Oh no!” Hyena had other ideas. “Let us have a huge send-off. Let us, indeed, gather all the animals to share in our grief. We owe The Old Elephant that.”
He was fooling nobody. They knew he had some plan up his sleeve, but were afraid to get involved in an argument. Hyena had a short temper and a long memory. Also, he had the strongest jaws of all, which caused great fear amongst the antelopes who fed on grass only. The other carnivores took pride in hunting, but this involved careful planning and lots of patience. Hyena wasn’t like that; he simply ran up to his prey with tremendous speed and agility and bit them to death. Nobody was as fast, as cunning and as strong as hyena – they all knew that.
“Y-you want to eat us.” Hare was surprisingly bold to say this, but he had made sure he was near enough to his burrow for a quick escape. “You do that type of thing.”
Hyena controlled his anger and forced a broad smile to show he’s not offended. “Me? No, not at all. Nobody must take advantage from the death of The Old Elephant. Much too respected for that. We’ll bury him to honour him.” Despite his friendly tone, he made a mental note to dig up hare’s burrow as soon as the funeral was over. He’d dig him up and eat him, that’s what he’d do.
Hyena wasn’t planning on eating them at all, though. With The Old Elephant out of the way, there was no way the other animals could stop him from being their king. Now was his chance to rule and he wanted everybody to know that. As soon as the funeral – the big one he planned – was over, he’d simply announce that he’s taking over. The plan was ingenious in its simplicity.
Although the animals discussed the idea at length, hyena got them to agree with several growls and snaps from his powerful jaws.
There was a problem, of course. The giraffes and the rhinos and the parrots – in fact many other animals – didn’t share the language of their plain. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that jackal will have to act as the interpreter. He’s the only one clever enough to make everybody understand each other.
Then the problems started. Why, asked the animals, was hyena suddenly so important? Yes, they were all afraid of him, for was he not fast and strong? And sometimes, it was rumoured, he’d start eating even before one of them was properly dead. Imagine, they whispered, being eaten alive!
No, they wanted another animal to be in charge of the proceedings on that sad day…but who? Owl came up with the answer.
“O, hyena, we all know you are the most important of us all. You must be the host and the guest of honour. That’s why you must arrive to loud cheers only after everyone has been seated already. Then we’ll get some of the other animals to say a few nice things about The Old Elephant before you make the most important speech of the day. That’ll ensure everybody knows you are in charge.”
Hyena thought about this for a while. This was, after all, his chance to show everybody they were right to fear and respect him. Then he nodded – yes, it would be like that.
Jackal had also been making plans. If he could get eagle to attend, then hyena won’t steal the show. Eagle, with his sharp eyes, razor-like talons and his strong wings, was one of the most honoured animals in all the world. As a hunter he earned the respect of every animal…and he could fly, soar, higher than any other bird. Yes, if the eagle spoke before the hyena, the hyena would pale in comparison.
Happy with his plan, jackal then set off in the jungle to have private talks with some of his friends. He had to ask them to do him a special favour as well….
On the day of the gathering, the animals cheered loudly when eagle landed. Then, just as jackal told them to (for they’d never have done it spontaneously), they hissed and grunted when hyena strode in amongst them. Jackal set his features in a grim expression and scolded the animals, who knew he was just putting on a show.
Oh, and how beautifully did the eagle speak. His words filled them with pride and even hippopotamus – who rarely exhibited any emotion – had to ask some of the more agile creatures to help her dry the tears.
Then hyena walked gracefully up to the ant hill to make his speech. Once again the animals grunted, hissed and growled, upsetting hyena tremendously. Secretly he vowed to get even with them – all of them. Once he took over from The Old Elephant, they’d see…
Jackal had to tell the other animals what hyena said; but because he had other plans, he translated the speech to his own satisfaction.
The great hyena says you will all be struck with lightning bolts and he will make a stew out of you. Yes, and even though I don’t want to tell you this, I’m afraid hyena isn’t in a good mood. He’ll start hunting you as soon as the funeral is over. You have been warned.
Now, of course hyena didn’t understand this, as jackal was speaking the other animal’s language. When he finished speaking, jackal told everybody to cheer, which they reluctantly did.
Soon after hyena trotted off, looking for somewhere quiet where he could plan his revenge, the other animals gathered.
“Look,” jackal said, “you all know what’s going to happen next. Hyena is going to start killing us all. The only way we’d be able to stop him,” and here he paused, waiting for them to listen real carefully, “is to tackle him. All of us, together. As soon as the funeral is over. That’s when we must combine our strengths and get rid of him.”
And so it happened that, on a bright and sunny morning, the animals ambushed hyena. Because they were scared of his deadly jaws, they all jumped on him from behind, breaking both hips. Then hyena snapped at them and they all ran away.
But jackal’s plan worked. Now hyena had these short hind legs, which robbed him of his speed. His jaws were as fearful as ever, but he could no longer hunt like he used to. Hyena, poor hyena, had to resort to the habit he has to this day: eating the leftovers after the real hunters had their fill.
Now the other animals realised hyena’s weakness, they started taunting him, calling him names and teasing him. Eventually hyena became so mad…that he lost his mind. That’s why, in the stillness of Africa’s nights, there is no mistaking the whoop-whoop! cry of the hyena, followed by mindless laughter.
Who became their king after The Old Elephant?
The fable doesn’t tell us. Maybe they found a nice, strong lion to lead them into the future.
One can only hope they did.
But hey! Why worry about this? It’s only a fable about animals. Right?
And yes, you may share it…