The Red Toad and the Buffalo

Listen, o Apple of my Eye, to the tale of Tola Tola the Adjudicator, red toad of Africa, and Ibzan, his son. Once upon a time, the red toad was keeper of the law for the cradle of life known as Serengeti. Listen and hear, o Precious Treasure of mine, how it came to pass that Tola Tola and his lineage restored the Law of the Jungle when it was broken at the dawn of the world.

***

In the great Serengeti grasslands as wide as the sea, the acacia is a gathering place most ideal. Her branches reach from east to west like the roof of the world. She can be seen from a great distance. Her leaves grant shelter and shade from the hot sun. The clearing beneath her canopy is green and still. And so, it was here, as the setting sun brought each day to its close at the appointed time, and evening gathered towards darkness in purple dusk, that Tola Tola, the red toad of Africa, would appear before the gathering to hear and settle grievances.

Tola Tola sat on the smooth stone beneath the acacia tree. Ibzan, his son, sat at the edge of the clearing beneath the great branches. Creatures of the savannah large and small assembled patiently before the rock. The baboons were present, as was customary. (The baboons did so love gossip, Apple of my Eye). The cunning jackals and hyenas joined in pairs, as they often did, to see if they could learn a trick to play upon their neighbors. Shirazi the lion, King of Beasts, with Mkuu his son, would grace the assembly with their royal presence from time to time. The stately giraffe and the solemn elephant were yet rarer guests. And the hippo had only been in attendance on one occasion since even as far as the elephant’s memory could reach. (The hippo was not the best mannered of creatures, o Precious Treasure of Mine.)

Tola Tola blinked one round toad eye, then the other, as the Sun sank below the hem of the grassland of the Serengeti plains. As the last ray winked out, he made note of the spot in the sky where Bright Star would appear.

Then Tola Tola turned his red, knobby head toward the gathering. He nodded once. Court was in session.

Two meerkats, sleek and quick like otters of dust, approached the stone.

“Tola Tola,” they chirped, “Grant us judgment fair and final.”

The red toad lowered his chin. He neither smiled nor frowned.

“Proceed,” croaked Tola Tola. His eyes did not blink and his gaze seemed to pass straight through the meerkats’ hearts.

“My brother Moja ate my grasshopper!” said the short meerkat.

“My brother Mbili stole the grasshopper which I flushed out of the grass,” said the tall meerkat. “I merely reclaimed what was mine.”

Tola Tola raised his chin to address the crowd.

“Opinions?” he croaked.

Buzzard flapped his long black feathers like broken fence posts. “Finders keepers, finders keepers,” he cawed. “Little Mbili should have eaten that grasshopper, by rights.”

A squadron of bees hummed in protest. “To the worker goes the reward,” they sang. “Big Moja earned his supper.”

Leopard purred and licked his chops. “The little one could use a bit more meat on his bones,” he remarked. “Let him have the extra meal.”

The creatures began to talk at once. They were soon divided and arguing heatedly. Some were convinced that big Moja was right, while others were insistent that judgment be handed down in little Mbili’s favor. Tola Tola closed his eyes in annoyance. When he opened them, he saw that Bright Star had begun to faintly shine.

“Silence!” he croaked.

The clearing around the stone became still.

“My judgment is thus: Neither brother deserved the meal. What does a younger brother do, if not watch his brother’s back? What does an elder brother do, if not see that his brother eats first? Whilst you were fighting over that grasshopper, who was watching for a leopard in the grass?”

At this the leopard nodded knowingly, very pleased to have been mentioned in the toad’s pronouncement. The meerkats bowed their heads.

“Moja and Mbili, return to your hill as allies, not adversaries. There are enemies sufficient and more than sufficient without creating yet another in your own house. My judgment is fair and final.”

Tola Tola shut his large toad eyes. Twilight had begun. Court was adjourned.

The creatures left in twos and threes with those of their own kind, murmuring amongst themselves. The verdict delivered by Tola Tola had been unexpected, yet again. Nevertheless, no one could deny the justness of his decision.

Leopard’s eyes followed the meerkats Moja and Mbili. But not for long. He climbed to a low branch of the acacia tree to settle in for a nap. So valued were the hearings of Tola Tola, the red toad of Africa, that predators submitted gladly to his sole request: that they delay until twilight became full black before beginning the hunt.

***

Tola Tola sat on the smooth stone beneath the acacia tree. Creatures of the savannah assembled nervously before the rock. Tola Tola watched the steaming blue-black mass of Kiburi, the cape buffalo, out of the corner of his large, round eye. The buffalo herd waited, restless, beyond the clearing.

Shirazi the lion, King of Beasts, sat in the center of the circle. Members of his pride, with Mkuu, his son, joined the gathering. The Sun sank beneath the line of the horizon, rippling with heat. Ibzan, the young toad, watched his father. Tola Tola noted the spot in the sky where Bright Star would appear.

Then Tola Tola turned toward the assembly. He nodded once.

Kiburi the cape buffalo swung his head as he strode forward, his curved horns glinting dangerously. His muscles showed clearly in his neck.

“This flea-ridden, buzzard-eating, son-of-a-jackal murdered my son.” The cape buffalo’s eyes went red, and he snorted at King Shirazi’s golden lion flank.

The lion did not turn to look at Kiburi as he spoke, but kept his eyes on the red toad.

“In accordance with the law of the jungle, Kiburi, I thanked your son for sacrificing his life for mine. For mine and my son’s. Your son had left the protection of the herd. He was fair game.” He paused. Not a creature stirred.

“Grant us judgment fair and final, Tola Tola,” said Shirazi, King of Beasts. It was an order, not a request.

Tola Tola addressed the assembly.

“Opinions?” he croaked. But the clearing was as silent as the desert.

Tola Tola looked at the twilit sky, still blue. Bright Star did not yet show his face.

“Kiburi,” he croaked, “please accept my condolences for the loss of your son. But this case is straightforward. The Law of the Jungle may not be broken. The lion has as much right to eat as the meerkat. Today you go home empty-handed. May tomorrow grant you sons full of health and vigor. My judgment is fair and final.”

For a moment, Kiburi looked as if he were going to bow. He stepped forward a pace, and swung his snout within a hair’s breadth of the ground.

But with a swift heave of his shoulder, the cape buffalo brought the pointed spike of his horn up under Shirazi’s rib, lifting the lion clear off the ground. The King of Beasts snarled, but the fountain of red that sprang from his side left no doubt his next breath would be his last.

Kiburi tossed the lion’s carcass to the ground. His horn glistened red in the darkening light.

“Your justice is a farce,” he bellowed. With another step he brought his powerful hoof down on Tola Tola. The stone under the acacia tree showed a small, dark stain of blood.

There was a heartbeat of silence. Then there was panic. A stampede. The buffalo herd rushed the lion pride. The creatures who had come seeking justice tried to escape. Some were trampled. Many were injured. In the chaos, the lion cub Mkuu and young toad Ibzan escaped into the tall grass. Shirazi’s pride joined the King’s fate as Kiburi’s ambush advanced, swinging cruel horns low. The evening was not yet full black.

Bright Star hung silent in the sky.

***

The Sun was bright but the days were dark, o Apple of my Eye. Hear and understand. The meat-eaters were too few. The grass-eaters were too many. The dry season approached, and the sky with clenched fists refused to bless the land with rain. The grass was gone and the ground withered to dust. There was dust on the leaves of the acacia tree; it filled the clearing beneath her canopy.

In a land with no food, many dams wept over the loss of cub and calf until their eyes, too, were dry like dust. Mother zebra and mother gazelle, never once enemies, fought to exhaustion over a blade of grass. They lay down to rise no more. The leopard and the cheetah dealt one another heavy blows to claim the zebra’s and gazelle’s last breath, but precious little meat was to be found. They, too, lay down to rise no more. Even vulture’s feathers grew thin. For although the bones were many, little work was required to pick them white and clean.

Bright Star shone on the empty clearing at twilight. One night, two nights, nights beyond number. The stain on the stone faded from red to black.

***

The Sun at midday was very hot indeed. Kiburi’s skin hung slack off his bones. His eyes were dull as he looked at his newest son, yet a calf, panting in the dust.

Amani the white-headed weaverbird perched in the cradle of Kiburi’s horn. She could count the buffalo’s ribs clearly through his limp hide. She could count the ribs of his newborn son in the dirt below. If she wished, she could count the ribs of all the cape buffalo as far as the eye could see.

Kiburi shook his head.

“I have made a terrible mistake,” he said.

“Oh?” said Amani, kindly.

“The law of the jungle kept us fat and happy,” said the cape buffalo, his voice weary. “But I broke it. For once, I killed the lions. I felt like a king. But now there are too many buffalo. Not enough lions. Not enough grass. My herd is starving. And… it is my fault.”

“Hmmm,” said Amani, not unkindly.

Kiburi hung his head low, snuffed at his son. “I killed Tola Tola.”

“Ah.” sighed Amani.

The cape buffalo looked again at his young son.

“I must make this right.” A shadow of the old steel returned to his voice.

“Good,” said Amani.

***

A red toad sat on the smooth wood of the log beside the stone beneath the acacia tree. The animals of the savannah assembled expectantly. The circle teemed with creatures great and small. Kiburi the cape buffalo pawed the ground as the Sun sank beneath the lip of the cradle of life. A lion with an adolescent’s mane and large paws sat in the center of the clearing, facing the stone. As the last ray winked out, the crowd made way for even the hippo to join the circle. The young toad marked the spot in the sky where Bright Star would appear.

Then the toad turned his red, knobby head toward the gathering. He nodded once.

Kiburi the cape buffalo approached the red toad of Africa. He bowed low and addressed the assembly.

“My brothers of the savannah,” he said, “I present you with Mkuu, King of Beasts, son of Shirazi the lion slain. May his rule be long and vigorous.”

The young lion sat up straighter and lashed his tail. The cape buffalo drew a deep breath and spoke again.

“I present you with Ibzan, Adjudicator, son of Tola Tola the red toad slain. May his decisions be fair and final.”

Ibzan blinked one large, round eye, then the other.

The cape buffalo sank to his knees, turned his head aside, exposing his jugular to the young lion.

“I confess to breaking the law of the jungle,” Kiburi continued, looking into the eyes of his son. “I killed Shirazi the lion and Tola Tola the red toad of Africa, neither for food, nor in self-defense, but for my own pleasure.”

Mkuu’s voice was steady as he roared to the toad.

“Grant us judgment fair and final, Ibzan,” he commanded.

Ibzan looked long at the stain on the stone. He gazed into the flashing eyes of the young lion before him, the sunken and angry eyes of the creatures encircling the clearing.

“Kiburi,” croaked Ibzan the red toad, “for breaking the law of the jungle, you have earned death not only twice, for my own father and for the father of my King, but many times over. For many inhabitants of the Serengeti have perished to no purpose during these days when our land was without law.”

The beasts stirred where they stood. Each heart was heavy with the memory of those lost to bloodlust and famine.

Amani, the white-headed weaverbird, alighted on Kiburi’s horn. Ibzan looked at the cape buffalo calf at the edge of the circle, just skin and bones.

“However, Kiburi, these past moons you have already spent suffering a fate worse than death: you have reaped the starvation of your own son from your pride and recklessness.”

The murmuring assembly’s anger waned. Ibzan the red toad looked into the silent face of Bright Star, shining faintly as the blue of the twilight sky deepened to violet.

“Therefore, I say, on this night let all debts be cancelled. Kiburi, rise. Break the law of the jungle no more. May we all, each one, submit to Mkuu the lion, son of Shirazi, King of Beasts, just as he in turn submits to the Law. Tomorrow as the Sun takes his rest I will grant an audience beneath the acacia tree to hear the grievances of the Serengeti. My judgment is fair and final.”

***

And, Precious Treasure of Mine, the creatures of the great Serengeti plains did assemble the following sunset, and the next, and sunsets thereafter without number to seek justice of Ibzan the red toad of Africa, just as they had done from his father before him. That, o Apple of my Eye, is the tale of how Tola Tola the Adjudicator, and Ibzan his son, restored the Law of the Jungle to the cradle of life at the dawn of the world.

© Bethany Joy Carlson  |  January, 2012

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