My father told me this story
when I was a child. We sat
in the shade of a tree and he began:
Long ago there lived a king
who sprouted a pair of horns - just buds,
at first, but he checked them every day
and wore his turban low to hide
this blemish, to hide this mark of shame.
But a king, of course, doesn't wash his own hair!
His man-servant knew all about the king's shame
and day by day the knowledge grew
inside him, a word that had to be spoken,
a terrible secret that had to be told.
They said, You're mistaken.
He said, No.
They said, Dead men keep secrets.
He said, Ah...
There were people, he knew, who would feed on such news,
but his daily bread stuck in his throat.
There were people, he knew, who dreamed of such news,
but he slept on a bed of burning coals.
Then, one night, he could bear it no longer.
He left his house, he walked out of the village,
mile after mile in a torrent of darkness
and came to the watering holes, where the eagle
took flight at his footstep, where the gentle gazelle
shied and ran. He sat by the water
and thought, ‘There was a time when such things
could be openly said. Yes, there was a time
when even the poor could be told the truth.'
When dawn-light shone through the trees, he dug
with his hands, deep down, as a beast digs a den
and placed his mouth close to the hole
he'd made and whispered his terrible secret
to the earth: ‘King Goojaa, King Goojaa has horns.
Horns like the kudu. The king has horns!'
Don't interrupt, my father said.
Please don't ask me what these things mean.
It's just a story I got from my father,
And he from his. Do you want to know
how it ends? Then listen: when the man told his tale
to the earth, the burden left him, it went
underground, and the man, why, he brushed himself down
and went on his way. And this is the strangest
part of the story: that even today,
when the soft rain falls on that place in the bush,
that very same place where he planted his secret,
horns like the kudu's grow from the ground.
The final translated version of the poem is by David Harsent
© Poetry Translation Centre 2004-2014