Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Look through the Window – Searching for the Butterfly

When a building gets old, it decays with gangrene-like progression with every passing year. The last time Mary Mitchell was here, was in her late teens, and even then it was obvious the homestead was dying. It held on, she is sure, for another few years, before its soul departed to leave the skeleton bleached and withered in the merciless heat of the Kalahari. Empty window sockets, staring at nothing, like she used to.

Here, she remembers, was the lounge, with the faded arm chairs and the defiant couch. Defiant, because it held the unfulfilled promise (and temptation) to explore the limits of romantic exploration. Somehow, the ultimate frontier was always a bridge too far. Something would come up: a curious parent, a sniffing dog, a crash of thunder.  Even when the carefully-selected suitor came visiting, her father would be there, watching like a hawk. Later, in the year after her father’s death, she found it impossible to close her eyes and let go when the galloping horses of desire reared, hooves clawing the air, white eyes bulging, frightened by the visions of the past.

Romantic exploration… Yes, there was very little of that. The other type was much more common. Romantic destruction. Nowadays, sexual fracking – the abuse of ability and the pollution of purity and beauty…

She closes her eyes. Holds her hands to her ears. Nooo – she doesn’t want to go there, ever again.

Deep breath. Again… Okay.

And here was the dining room. It was a place of simple meals and deep religion. Her father used to read to them every evening. Long passages, starting with January’s Genesis and ending in December with Revelations. She detested these rambling readings of family trees and archaic laws. It seemed so out of place, so mundane, to listen to So-and-so, father of Such-and-such, who had This-and-that with Rebecca. Or Lea. Or whoever.

By August the readings finally got to the New Testament, which is quite old anyway. At least it seemed more contemporary with main characters she at least recognised. And it had a message of love and forgiveness. The sick, the lame, the sinner and the dead each got a new chance in life – which is what she had hoped for, prayed for, for such a long time.

But here…here was her bedroom. The Room of Shame, as she secretly called it back then. This is where she cowered in the dark, hiding under the blanket, when the heavy boots creaked the wooden floorboatds outside her door. This was after the reading and the prayers and the washing up and the normal things happened, like it should in every normal family. This is where normality stopped and shame began.

In the kitchen – now almost gone with not a brick on another – they used to have coffee in the mornings. Her mother, eyes downcast and hands busy preparing breakfast, would mumble a subdued Good Morning  and tried to hide the fresh bruises. Her father would stomp in, the cattle rancher inspecting his herd, daring his wife and daughter to say anything. Openly taunting them to challenge his right to use, to abuse, his position as provider and master.

But it is here, in the frame of her bedroom window next to the front door, she’d stand to stare out at the world-out-there. She’d make a conscious effort to note anything positive she could see. A butterfly flitting past would bring a smile. A brigade of hard-working ants scurrying to and fro with bits of grass for the winter pantry, directed her thoughts to a better future. A family of plovers hatched their eggs in the exposed nests they have used since time immemorial, telling her even the most vulnerable lasted longer than the dinosaurs.

It was at this window she closed her eyes, imagining a normal street with normal people doing normal things. Smartly-dressed women and loving couples waltzed by, smiling happily in the afternoon sun. And then she’d open her eyes, staring out to see if God would not, please, send somebody to change circumstances. A person, a catastrophe, a miracle – anything.

This is also the window Boggel used that night, when at last her prayers were answered and the miracle happened.

“This is where I grew up. Long ago, I stood at this window, waiting for you. And, Boggel, even though I didn’t know your name, I knew the day would come that I’d be brave enough to come back, and I’d be able to look through this window again. Only this time, I’d have the courage to look in. In those days I could only look out.”

Mary walks back to her car, carefully avoiding the line of marching ants with their grass-harvest for the winter. Yes, she thinks, a time to gather, and a time to let go. A time to cry and a time for joy. A time to hope for tomorrow – and a time to seize the day.

For the first time in her life, she can smile as she walks away from the house with the Window-of-Hope and the Room-of-Shame.  Funny, she thinks, that a window has two sides; somehow both of them give a vision of  Freedom, only in different ways. Hope-for-the-future from the inside. A future-of-hope from the outside.  The trick is to look through that window, remembering the pane of forgiveness separates the time for mourning in captivity from the time for rejoicing in freedom.

At least, she thinks, that just might be the butterfly her father left behind…

The Road Back…

images (12)There hides – in the small hours of the night, especially in the Kalahari – a particular loneliness. It’s carried in the soft night-breeze; it travels with the last tendrils of smoke from the hard-wood embers. It reaches into the vague mistiness between being awake and sliding off to sleep. Those who seek out the vastness of the semi-arid desert on purpose, do so because they need to escape the background noise of the beast we call civilisation.  And some – let’s call them accidental visitors – experience this solitude as a world shrinking onto itself, until only the tormented soul and the overwhelming darkness fill the long hours before dawn. Long, cold hours; in which to hold up a mirror of doubt to inspect the deep and private recesses where we normally hate to go. Africa, in the most definite of terms, is not for everybody.

Dewald Fourie is an accidental visitor. He sits up; it’s useless to try to sleep. There’s an owl somewhere, hoo-hoo-ing every few minutes. The piercing cry of a jackal refuses silence the keys to the kingdom of stillness. And the pain in his ankle gnaws – like a diligent little rodent – at his thoughts; reminding him of the calamity he has brought on himself.

It started out innocently enough. A few beers, a group of young men, and too much testosterone -  a heady and dangerous mix that may produce hilarity and tragedy with equal ease. Oh, they thought it would be funny, of course. Strange. Weird. Something exceptional.

Lets go camping, somebody said, somewhere different. Like in a desert. And we’ll play a Survivor game. They all agreed it was a wonderful idea. Somebody must scout the area for a suitable location. We’ll draw lots.

And it was he, Dewald, slightly befuddled by beer and massively cheered on by alcohol, who drew the short match and was ceremonially blessed with several toasts, to embark on a fact-finding mission. It sounded important. It even sounded adventurous. And it certainly earned him the respect of the group when he promised to set off the next morning.

The children of the so-called Idle Rich are usually seen as a bunch of ne’er-do-goods; spoilt brats with a penchant for spending money they didn’t earn. While the label might be harsh and sound uncompromising, it certainly fits the group of intoxicated young men that got into their Lamborghini’s, Jaguars and sleek BMW’s after the party. Life is a never-ending challenge to be entertained, to have a ball, and enjoy the days of sublime laziness. The money comes from mines, inheritances, drug deals and lately: clever fathers who ride the BEE-corruption wagon with amazing dexterity. They, of course, would never stoop so low as to work for a salary.

Driving around in the Kalahari is somewhat different to choosing the fastest lane in Sandton. In fact, there are no lanes. No other cars. No daring pedestrians in death-defying dashes across the road. No beggars at the traffic lights, because there are no traffic lights.  The Kalahari boast many a track that has never seen any road-works at all. They develop because of necessity. At first these tracks are merely two lines of flattened dry grass, but over time they become two sandy lanes – and eventually a sandy strip of road. The evolution of roads in the desert does not require engineers and teams of idle road workers – they are self-invented and self-sustained.

That’s why the new Range Rover – one of the seven in his father’s stable – left the road. It was sandy.  The mathematics are simple: one sandy curve, one tipsy driver, infinite self-confidence and too much speed.  The final factor comes into reckoning then: deep sand, excessive cursing and a heavy foot on the accelerator. And Bingo! One stranded vehicle resting quietly on it’s chassis in the middle of nowhere. Dewald Fourie tried pushing and pulling the few tons of metal through the sand, failed, and kicked the vehicle in his rage and frustration. That’s how he injured his ankle. Joints used to resting on bar-stools shouldn’t be exposed to such harsh treatment. The vehicle didn’t even dent…and stayed stuck, of course.

!Ka doesn’t know much about spoilt children. In his culture, all children are equal and they all get treated the same. He’s been watching this one since the vehicle careened off the road. He saw the frustration and anger. What does it help, he wondered, to kick the stone you stumbled across? And to yell at a machine is as clever as trying to shout at the clouds dispersing in the hot sun. This young man, obviously, has no manners. In the San language, spoilt is used to describe meat that has matured too much, like carrion; it isn’t used as a description of humans. ‘Bad manners’ is as far as you can go on the scale of unacceptability in a Bushman village.

Well, he’ll just have to do his fatherly duty and talk to the young man. How else will he see the wrong in his ways, if an elder did not tell him how to act? Surely his parents must be dead, or away, or very ill – otherwise they would have taught him the right way. No, he can’t walk by and ignore this man. It isn’t the way to respect Life. Would he, as the oldest of his tribe, not have done the same for anybody in his family? This man, he decides, needs help.

He’ll wait for the moon to rise. The fire the young man had made is a pathetic example of how to go about it. The few twigs scarcely give enough light to see his face. If !Ka tried to approach him now, the man will most probably attack him. No, he’ll wait for enough light, and then hail the man from a distance, the way it should be done. The correct way. He’ll tell him he need not fear, as he simply wants to tell him about the correct way to handle his life.

Dewald Fourie watches the flames die down. He thought the twigs would have lasted longer… Glancing fearfully around, he decides the Range Rover is the warmer, safer place to spend the night.

When the door clunks closed, !Ka gets up. If a man has closed his shelter for the night, you do not disturb him. It is not done. That is bad manners.

Sometimes, !Ka decides, it is the solitude that has the loudest voice. Maybe, if that young man listens to it long enough, he’ll hear the words… He settles on a soft patch of sand. Tomorrow he’ll try again.

It is one of those nights you only get in Africa. The stars are brighter. The wind is softer. The distant roars, grunts, squeals, snorts, scuffles and plods are nearer. The orchestra of crickets is in full swing tonight, and the cicada choir joins in with gusto. The sounds soothe !Ka into a happy dream, filled with antelopes and trees, with white clouds promising rain.  Dewald, on the other hand, cannot sleep. The dragons and vampires and serial killers are out there, waiting to feed him to the cannibals. Electronic robots, controlled by dirty little men in blood-stained white coats, want to rip his eyes out the moment he falls asleep. They use them to open secret doors, just like on TV.

When the dawn settles the shadows in their rightful places, !Ka walks to the vehicle and sits down a few yards from the door. When the man appears, he must see he has a visitor.

***

The walk back to Vetfaan’s farm takes two days. The first day is spent in silence. Not even !Ka’s broken English seems to penetrate the shell of misery surrounding the young man. What promised to be an adventure – an episode to impress his friends – has turned into a nightmare. The grass hat !Ka has fashioned doesn’t stop him from turning an unhealthy red in the heat of the sun. He has to suck a vile-tasting tuber of sorts to quench his thirst. And the termites !Ka heated up on a rock next to the fire…it’ll take him a long time to get over that!

Then, on day two, !Ka decides he doesn’t care if the young man doesn’t want to talk. He’ll tell him anyway. Manners are important, no matter who you are. And what better way to make the time pass quickly, than to talk? So he does.

***

Back in the mansion overlooking the sprawling city of Johannesburg, the parents watch their son brooding on the patio.

“Ever since he came back from that stupid trip, he hasn’t been himself. Look at him! Just sitting there, staring into the distance. Maybe he must see my psychologist – she’s very good.”

“Cheer up, man. As soon as that sunburn has settled, he’ll be his old self again. “

“I hope so… Last night he said he wants to become a game ranger! Can you imagine him spending days in the veld? That’s ridiculous! I told him he had too much sun.”

“You’re right.” She sits back, studying her son through the window.”I know what to do. I’ll phone those friends of his. What he needs now, is a proper party. We’ll get that band he likes so much, and the caterers will make all his favourite snacks. That is exactly what he needs to get back on track.”

“Good idea.” The man gets up, stretches. “I’ll check the booze. We can’t let them run dry, can we now?”

***

There hides – in the small hours of the night, especially in the wild city-parties – a particular loneliness. It’s carried on the off-key notes of screaming electric guitars; it travels with the last tendrils of smoke from the hubbly-bubbly in the corner. It reaches into the vague mistiness between being awake and sliding off into drunken oblivion. Those who seek out the emptiness of this pseudo-existence on purpose, do so because they imagine the need to embrace the background noise of the beast we call civilisation.

It is sad.

Or, as !Ka would put it: ill-mannered.

But even !Ka would have applauded the bad manners of the young man walking away from the party that night. Sometimes, he’ll admit, being bad-mannered takes a lot of courage. Or loneliness. Or maybe both.

Weekly Writing Challenge: A Picture worth a 1000 Words.

couple-embraceSince my escape from that cell last night, I’ve been extremely careful. If that man with the blue-striped T-shirt sees me, the game will be up. That’s the man next to the tram, scanning the faces around him.

He might not look dangerous, but let me assure you: he is one of the KGB’s best trained agents. That’s why I grabbed Maria, the girl who helped me escape, in a passionate embrace. Two young people in love in Naples – who’d give them a second glance? Pretty soon the tram will cut off his view, and we’ll disappear in the narrow alley behind us.

***

couple-embracec

“That’s him! Be careful now – don’t let him see us. We have to surprise him!” His whisper is barely

audible as he unbuttons the tunic. This may get rough…

“How can you be sure? He seems such a nice guy?”

“Look: he’s standing like that again. He always does that when he tries to hide.”

“You think he’s paranoid?”

“Completely delusional. He’s got this imaginary character, Maria, who always helps him. I bet he’s trying to hide behind her right now.”

“Okay. We’ll grab him while he’s watching the other side of the road. Radio the others to bring the ambulance and the straight jacket.”

The Eland and the Crocodile – the story of African Politics

“So why is the Eland so big? And its horns – why are they so small?”

!Ka looks up in surprise. He and Vetfaan has been sitting in comfortable silence around the fire for some time now, and the question is quite unexpected. He shakes his head. This is difficult. To tell the story, he must tell Vetfaan about !Kaggen first, and he knows Vetfaan will have difficulty in understanding his words.

The Eland and the Kudu were made the same day. You can see the lines on their backs, which are the scratch marks the thorn bush made when they came forth.

“They came out of a thorn bush?”

Everything came out of it. All life. !Kaggen saw how empty the world was, so he made everything. They came out of the thorn bush, and some got scratched. The leopard, he got stuck for a while because the hyena in front of him was too lazy to move. You can see it: their spots are where the thorns pierced their skins. And the Springbok – he was in such a hurry, he jumped over them. A part of his skin got ripped off by the thorny branches and white hair grew in its place. It’s like that to this day.

Vetfaan wants to say something about Genesis, but decides to wait for a better opportunity. It’s rude to interrupt a story.

The Kudu and the Eland were brothers. They walked together. At that time, they both had magnificent horns.

“So what happened, !Ka?”

Long ago, there was a lot of water, First it was very cold, but when the ice melted, it made many rivers. There was a sea here. And next to the waters, a big crocodile lived. It was very fat because it ate so many animals. It lived in the reeds and the grass, where it waited next to the bush paths the animals had to walk on when they went to the waters.

All the animals were afraid to drink water. The crocodile seemed to keep on eating and eating as it grew larger by the day. Soon, the animals said, they would all end up inside the crocodile. So, the held a meeting. Who would drive the crocodile away?

The lion said it was too big for him. The elephant said he was afraid. The hyena laughed, asking what a small animal like him could do?

That’s when the Eland said he would fight the crocodile. He had magnificent set of horns, and he was the biggest antelope of all. The other animals were overjoyed.

The fight of the Eland with the crocodile went on for many days. As the Eland was so tall, it tried to pin the crocodile to the ground; but the crocodile was fast and very angry, so the horns only made large scratches and cuts in the thick hide of his back. They fought and they fought. Both got weaker and weaker. The crocodile was losing much blood, but the Eland was grinding his big horns down at a great rate.

At last the crocodile fled and tried to hide in the water. The Eland could only watch as the crocodile swam away.

To this day, the Eland is slow from the fatigue – it can’t run so fast. And it always stays away from dangerous animals – its horns are too short now. But the crocodile – the crocodile does not live on the land any more. It knows the Eland is there.

****

Vetfaan sits back after he’s told the story to Gertruida.

“It’s a story of our times, Vetfaan. Thorns: we have many of those. The thorn of history. The thorn of evil and crime… We were born in pain, but that didn’t prevent evil from living amongst us. When we tried to fight evil, it simply changed address. It costs us dearly, and it won’t go away, it’ll just find a new place to hide. But there is a moral – no matter what the cost, the rest of the animals benefited tremendously by the Eland’s bravery. One single animal, out of all in creation, had the courage to face the threat to their way of life.”

Boggel gets on his crate to serve another round. “Well, guys, we have our own fat crocodile. He’s eating up our country. He thinks he is invincible, untouchable. And one day, one day, the people will finally realise what is happening and they’ll work out a way to get rid of him. It’ll be a long fight. Some will win. Others will hide. And the scars will remain forever. But mark my words, the Eland is coming…”

Credit: thereal-southafrica.co.za

images (9)

Credit: Mail&Guardian

Daily Prompt: Ode to a Playground

A place from your past or childhood, one that you’re fond of, is destroyed. Write it a memorial.

Straining, she rolls the log back to its original place before sitting down gingerly on the mossy old tree stump. It’s been there for ages, even before she first played here. The teacher said it was a magical stump – fairies came out of it at night – and it’s been there forever. She remembers how they built little mud houses and planted twig-trees for the fairies to play under. Now it’s all gone. No see-saw, no slide, no swing; just the old stump, rotting away quietly amongst the weeds.

Of course, this is the right place. A visit to long-lost innocence and purity by a woman who finally has to let go of her childhood dreams. Where else can she leave her fantasies, anyway?

The fairies always made her come back initially. When she left the play-school for the real thing, she still clung to the fantasy. And of course she could never tell the others about it, because they’d laugh at her and call her a baby. Still, on weekends when the little playground stood empty and forlorn, she’d sneak back there to build a mud palace surrounded by twig-trees. That’s when she sang the fairy-songs: little rhyme-less verses on impromptu melodies, telling the fairies and gnomes and dwarfs about her life. They always listened from their hidden rooms inside the wood, always understood when she cried or laughed. They were very kind…

Later still, she went to high school – and still the playground remained her secret place where she could talk about growing up. About her parent’s divorce. About the uncertainty of becoming a woman. About the first date and the first fumbling kiss. About…

That’s why she’s back.

“My marriage lasted five years, that’s why I’ve been away so long.” Somehow, the tuneless melody comes back as she sings. “I should have known, shouldn’t I? But I was in love and I didn’t come and tell you, because… well, because I was afraid you’d say no. I knew you would. You’d have seen right through him. You’d have said he’s too old. You wouldn’t have liked his games…

“Well, now he’s all yours. Now I have to go away. Far away. Before they find him. Before they find me.”

The fairies will sort him out – he’s their problem now. She gets up and walks away without looking back. The destruction of innocence is complete, the playground gone forever.…

The Gift

!Ka smacks his lips – the coffee is strong and sweet, a special treat after the months of desert-living. The thick slices of bread, generously covered with butter, disappear one after the other amidst numerous clicking sounds of appreciation.

Vetfaan once asked him how old he was, but the old man simply shook his head and said he was born after the Year of the Fire. When he asked Gertruida about it, she said fire destroyed most of he Kalahari grasslands in 1932, which meant the old man could be nearing his eighties. His wrinkled face and the gaunt body make it impossible to guess how old he might be, although the lack of most of his teeth suggest many, many seasons in the veld.

The first time Vetfaan met the withered old man, !Ka ran away. He had just shot a klipspringer and was so intent on skinning the animal that Vetfaan was almost next to him before he noticed he had company.  Grabbing the slain little antelope, !Ka set off across the sand. Vetfaan shouted for him to stop, but of course that didn’t help. On impulse, Vetfaan took his rifle and fired a shot in the air.

In Africa you learn to use whatever form of guile you can fool your opposition with. It’s an essential part of survival. Animals use camouflage for the same reason. Humans can be more inventive. !Ka threw his hands in the air, imitating having been shot, and fell face-down in the sand. Of course, by the time Vetfaan reached the spot, !Ka and his antelope were gone. Not a trace. Not the slightest hint of a spoor. Vanished into proverbial thin air.

The ruse had been so skilfully executed with such stealth, that Vetfaan sat down and laughed. It was a laugh of merriment, of appreciation, even respect. Then as he scanned the horizon, he thought he saw !Ka move behind a bush a distance away. In fact, it wasn’t !Ka, it was the foot of the antelope that protruded from the hiding place. !Ka realised it might be visible to his pursuer and dragged the carcass deeper into the shadow of the bush. Had it not been for that single movement, Vetfaan would never have found him.

To !Ka’s mind, it was useless to flee. The White man had a gun, after all. The stories the old people told about how the men with horses and guns hunted down their ancestors, were all to clear in his mind. When Vetfaan strode towards the bush, !Ka stood up. He waited, whites of his eyes showing clearly against the walnut-brown of his face, and when Vetfaan was near enough, he bent down to lay the small buck on the ground in front of Vetfaan’s boots. The message was clear: I’ll buy my life back from you with this animal I had killed.  A taken life for a given life. Fair exchange…

How do you explain your intentions when the language-barrier is so daunting? Vetfaan knew enough about Bushman-lore to know you shouldn’t refuse a gift. He also knew the meat represented quite a number of meals for the man’s family, who must certainly be around somewhere near.  So he sat down, making  sure !Ka saw how he moved the gun away to one side. I’m not here to hunt you, Old Man, the gesture said. And he smiled, took out a packet of cigarettes and offered one to the scared man with his dead antelope.

It was difficult at first. Finally realising the futility of long sentences and excessive gestures, they started at the beginning.  Me, !Ka. You?  They finished the packet of cigarettes and shared water from Vetfaan’s bottle. Vetfaan tried to tell !Ka that he was curious to know more about Bushmen, and meant him no harm. It was impossible to say whether he had been understood.

In the end, Vetfaan clapped his hands together in a gesture of gratitude, and accepted the klipspringer. Then he picked up the gun and indicated that !Ka must follow him to the Land Rover. The herd of Gemsbok he had seen that morning was only a few kilometres away.

The joy on !Ka’s face was overwhelming.  A Gemsbok! Now, that was a prize! He thanked Vetfaan with many clicks and gestures, and was overcome by emotion when he realised Vetfaan would supply the transport back to his family as well. By that time the nagging suspicion that the White man meant him harm, had disappeared.

Vetfaan was welcomed at !Ka’s little settlement as a king, after a long and elaborate explanation by the Bushman. Families gathered around the carcass. The gift of the Gemsbok meant a sudden abundance of food and was celebrated with much singing and dancing. Still unable to communicate with any sense of purpose or certainty, it was made abundantly clear that Vetfaan was welcome at !Ka’s fireside whenever he wanted to visit.

And so their infrequent meetings at irregular intervals started. Sometimes, when Vetfaan patrolled his farm, he’d pick up the little man’s footprints. Occasionally, it was !Ka who found his way to the homestead.  Slowly, over the years, they started understanding words and phrases, which made communication easier. !Ka knew Vetfaan would always help with the hunting in the dry seasons when animals were scarce and scattered over vast areas. And every meeting brought deeper understanding in how different their lives were.

Now !Ka puts down his mug on the step of the stoep beside him. He’s here for a reason, but this time it’s got nothing to do with hunting.  His wife (he indicates breasts) is ill (eyes crossed, tongue lolling to one side, breathing fast), and has a fever (hand across the brow, wiping away sweat).  Vetfaan gets the Bushman to get into the Land Rover and sets off in the direction !Ka indicates. His first-aid kit nestles between them.

Bushmen live a simple or complicated life, depending on how you view it. Simple, because they need only the bare necessities. Complicated, because they survive on those only.  !Ka’s family have erected their shelters next to a rocky outcrop where a damp spot on the ground told them about the water below the surface. The huts ware fashioned from twigs and grass, with animal skins supplying shade during the day and warmth during the night. A small fire was kept going in the clearing between the shelters.

!Ka’s wife tries to get up when Vetfaan enters her shelter, but she is so weak, she almost topples over. A wet sheen of sweat covers her diminutive face, and even in the half-light inside the shelter, she seems pale.  It takes only a cursory inspection to realise this woman needs expert help. Asperin and Band-Aids aren’t going to fix her.

Vetfaan makes carrying motions, points at the vehicle, and lets his hand cruise up and down, indicating a journey over the dunes. !Ka is aghast.

***

It takes three months.  !Ka’s wife had a ruptured appendix and needed repeated surgeries to fix everything up again. Vetfaan travelled to the hospital in Upington and back once a week with a wide-eyed !Ka in the passenger seat. It was difficult to say which was the more frightening to the small man: the trip to the hospital, or the pathetic little woman who seemed to be slipping away. In the end, she started getting better, filling out the wrinkles  as the pipes and drains got less. During that time, !Ka stayed in a backroom on Vetfaan’s farm; doing odds and ends to earn his keep. They also found it easier to communicate as time went by, learning words in each other’s language as they went along.

When at last the day of her discharge arrived, the entire hospital staff was there to bid her goodbye with singing and dancing like you only find in Africa. The old lady must have made quite an impression. !Ka responded with a long speech in his language. Nobody understood the words; but his gratitude was so obvious, he didn’t need an interpreter.

The following morning !Ka is waiting for Vetfaan in the kitchen. He’s dressed in his traditional loincloth, barefoot, and has his bow in his hand.

I’ve come to say goodbye. It’s time.

But no, you can’t. She’s just out of hospital…

She needs the sand. The desert. The space. She’ll be better out there. These walls prevent her from being in the Kalahari.

!Ka solemnly shakes Vetfaan’s hand. Then, as a gesture of thanks, he places a small leather bag in his friend’s hand.

I go. Someday maybe we’ll see each other again. Thank you…

Vetfaan watches as the two stride out towards the horizon. Two small persons, heading back to family and home – wherever home might be. Then again, home is where the others are; the little ageless people who roam free in a kingdom they have made their own. He can hear their melodious voices chanting a happy-sounding song, over and over again, as they grow smaller and smaller in the distance.

He sits down on his stoep, unravels the thong around his present, and drops its contents in his hand. It is a large stone, almost transparent – and it feels surprisingly cool to the touch.

What do you do with one of the huge diamonds that get mentioned in so many Bushman legends? This one is half as big as a man’s fist and must weigh almost a kilogram. Do you sell it on the black market? Take it to the police and explain where you got it? Get somebody to cut it up in smaller bits, work it into jewellery, and sell it as heirlooms?

Vetfaan pours another mug of coffee while he admires the large, seemingly flawless stone. Then, after wrapping it up again carefully, he buries it next to the old tree behind his house. Buries it in the sand – the red sand of the Kalahari – where it came from. It’s not a rejection of a heartfelt present, not at all. !Ka will tell you: presents are to be cherished and embraced. Gifts are like sliced bread, he once said. It must be given with love and appreciated with respect. It may not be rejected and cannot be returned.

“This is appreciation and respect,” Vetfaan tells himself, “this stone belongs here. No money can compare with the friendship this stone represents. It’ll be safe here, it’ll stay here.”

He smiles when he remembers one of their halting conversations. Friendship, !Ka said, is the generous helping of butter on life’s slice of bread. It tastes as good, but fortunately, it lasts longer…

The Influence of Music

Amos van der Merwe:

In response to a daily prompt…

Originally posted on Rolbos ©:

Wherever you go in Africa, you’ll find rhythm. Unlike China and America, Africa exudes a simple rhythm; a strikingly basic one; and it is not generated by small plastic objects with LED lights and earphone plugs. In Africa the beat often blends so smoothly with the background that one has to concentrate to be able to hear it. Only then do you realise that Africa is, in fact, rhythm.

Of course, music is part of this pulse. So is the flapping of a big bird’s wings; or the stampede of hooves across the Serengeti. You can hear it in the beat in a thousand waterfalls, or in the tapping of a humble toktokkie. Africa is filled with it. And people – even people – contribute to the repeated melody that makes Africa so unique.So do events, wars and history. It’s been like that since the dawn of creation. It’ll…

View original 1,113 more words

Eulogy

Photo Credit: Flickr

Photo Credit: Flickr

Oudoom sits in his study, staring at the blank page in front of him. Figuring out what to say as a eulogy at a funeral of a virtual stranger is not an easy thing to do. After all, how can he justify telling the congregation about somebody’s wonderful life; when his only involvement was with Kwaaikarel, the farmer whose nephew had the misfortune of underestimating the amount of cocaine in that last, final snort?

Kwaaikarel is an infrequent visitor to Rolbos. Living far out in the periphery of the district, he is a somewhat strange hermit who avoids human contact as much as possible. When Oudoom asked him about it once, Kwaaikarel simply said people have a way of disappointing him, and he prefers the company of his sheep. Look at the prophets, he said, they sought isolation when they needed to be near God. And that, in Kwaaikarel’s mind, was enough explanation – and he left it at that.

Now, after months of absence, he knocked on Oudoom’s door this afternoon; hat in hand and sorrow written over his face.

“I’m sorry. It’s my nephew. He died. We must bury him. Christianlike, you understand? It’s the least I can do. I have to.” Always stingy with words, Kwaaikarel obviously had great difficulty to string his request together. Long sentences, like people, seem to make him uncomfortable.

It took a good half-an-hour and three cups of coffee before Oudoom got the story. The nephew – one Gert Steyn – was his only relative. He died in Upington, where he worked as a clerk in the post office. A few years ago, Kwaaikarel went to unusual lengths to trace his nephew, because he felt the need to draw up a will.

“I never married, Dominee. My sister married this psychopath, and they had a kid. The man died in a crash. The police were chasing him. Then my sister got cancer. Gert was just out of school. Me and my sister, we didn’t get along. I had told her she married wrong, before the wedding. She told me what I could do with my opinion. Very angry. I didn’t go to the wedding. Or that crook’s funeral. I didn’t even hear about her cancer until months after her death.” Kwaaikarel needed another cup of coffee before he could continue.

“I’m not getting younger. The farm isn’t worth much. I don’t want the State to take my farm if I die. So I got a lawyer in Upington to draw up a will. He said maybe I should talk to Gert. I didn’t want to. But I went back to the farm and thought about it. So I went to see him.”

The meeting didn’t go well. The young man didn’t fit in with Kwaaikarel’s idea of what his nephew should be like.

“Long hair. Tattoos. Fancy clothes. Pointed boots. Big silver belt buckle. He had a motorbike and an attitude. Said I never cared for his mother. I didn’t get a chance to tell him why I was there. So I told him he looked like the devil and left.”

Somehow the morgue got hold of Kwaaikarel’s address (there are no phones in that stretch of the Kalahari) and they sent a man all the way out there to inform him of his nephew’s death.

“I didn’t like Gert. He was arrogant. Used drugs. All those devils tattooed all over. And he was right. I should have cared for my sister. Shouldn’t have stayed away after her husbands funeral. Shouldn’t have felt I told her so. Shouldn’t have been angry at her.” The deeply tanned hand wiped away a troublesome tear. “Now he’s dead. You must bury him. You and me, we’ll do it. The body will be here tomorrow.”

Kwaaikarel apparently settled the bill with the funeral parlour, arranged for the body to be transported to his farm, and had dug the grave himself. Once the coffin was delivered, he planned to ask the driver and his labourer to help him get the coffin in the grave.

“Then you can say a few words. Maybe we can sing a hymn. At least it’ll be Christianlike.”

Oudoom couldn’t refuse. Here was a man, already living at the outer edges of society, asking a favour. If he refused, it’ll just ostracise the hermit to an even greater degree. Yes, he said, he’d do it. He’ll be there around lunch time the next day.  Oudoom offered to do a prayer with Kwaaikarel, but he refused, saying thank you and Mevrou makes good coffee.

Now, the only thoughts in Oudoom’s mind are those concerned with grief. Grief and sorrow about wasted opportunities. Chances to fix things that were never taken. Soft words that could have avoided so many year’s worth of bitterness.  Simple little kind gestures that could have prevented the rift in this broken family from becoming an abyss of hate and misunderstanding.  And now he has to go and say nice things to make Kwaaikarel feel better about his past…

***

The sun beats down mercilessly as Oudoom negotiates  the rutted track to Kwaaikarel’s  mud-and-brick homestead next to the creaking wind pump. A surprisingly thin goat (most probably the milk supply of the farm) pokes at a shrub with a dusty foot as if admonishing it for its lack of foliage.  The disinterested grrr-arf! tells Oudoom where the grey old dog is sleeping on the porch. The place has the run-down look of a slowly dying animal.

The grave is just beyond the house, dug into the soft sand of a slow rise in the ground. Kwaaikarel has dragged out a chair and is sitting there, hat in hand, staring at the coffin in the hole. He doesn’t look up as Oudoom’s shoes crunch their way across the gravel.

“I should have done more.” The whisper floats away on the slight breeze. “Could have done more…”

Oudoom clears his throat.

“I tried to think of something nice to say…” His eyes rest on the coffin, varnished and shining in the grave. “But that would be stupid. Things happened. Life went on. Choices were made. Nothing I can say now, will change it.” Oudoom looks down at the tears on Kwaaikarel’s cheeks, wishing it was easier to lie. Eu-logy … Good Words. What good are words, afterwards? “We have to live with our pasts, Karel. We can’t change that. But we can learn from it…”

The drone of an approaching vehicle makes him hesitate. Both men turn to see the streak of dust on the track leading to the house. Kwaaikarel opens his mouth to protest, thinks about it, and clams up. No need to start a fight next to a grave. He glances up to Oudoom, and is surprised to see the pastor smiling.

The old Land Rover strains to a stop next to the house. They’re all there: Vetfaan, Kleinpiet, Gertruida, Boggel, Precilla – dressed in their Sunday best. Without a word, they take up position next to the grave.

“Good words…” Oudoom’s voice is suddenly filled with new enthusiasm. “Good words are for the living, Karel, not for the dead. Good words are there to direct your future, not to glorify the past. Good words serve to encourage and support. Good words are the friends that will journey with you even when the route is uncharted and uncertain.

“And today, we want to be good words for you. All of us. If you allow us, we’ll be here to help.”

He pauses a moment in thought, decides he’s said enough, and says: “Amen.”

***

Gertruida says it shows you: nothing in life is permanent. Kwaaikarel is an excellent example, she says; look at the way he’s changed. Despite his name and his past, it took a funeral to make him visit Boggel’s Place every two weeks or so. She says they will see: one of these days he’ll attend one of Oudoom’s services again. Not for good words, but for The Word. An eulogy, according to Gertruida, should tell us where to go and not where we’ve been…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Love

Love….

I’ll have to think about this one. Carefully. I’m sure a million posts will go up about the wonder and the magic and the beauty of love, and I wish each photographer and writer well when they do so.

But, much like a photographer behind his camera, I’ve been more of an observer of love – and never quite in picture itself.

These Bushmen children in the Kalahari understand more about love than most people. They share everything without expecting anything in return. That is love…

This is Rosie, the game ranger in Damaraland. She watches over a small family of desert-elephants in Namibia. She knows them all by name and interacts with them. She’ll do anything to protect them. That is love…

When I was younger, I thought I knew a lot about love – and was quite outspoken on the subject.

I ended up digging quite a hole for myself.

In my case, the perfect sunset has always been an illusive dream. Like this spotted hyena in the Serengeti, I’ll just have to get used to looking the other way.

Sooo…my message to all you young lovers out there? Have joy. Have fun. Have a season in the sun. And look after each other with care and compassion. May your season last forever.

The Painting

The hospital in Upington is like most hospitals you’ve ever been to. The almost-shiny floors, white walls and hushed tones leave you in no doubt that this is a place of hope and despair. Babies are born here. Old people die. It’s the same the world over.

Vetfaan sits quietly next to the freshly-made bed, gazing at the drawn face of Crazy Coetzee; the man with no fear. Once a strapping young man with long sideburns, a bushy moustache and sky–blue eyes; Crazy now resembles a skeletal scarecrow. A forlorn and lonely man on the singular journey we all have to face at some stage. For Crazy, the route involves a lot of pain and suffering.

“Remember that river?” Even his voice is fading. “It was bad.”

Yes Crazy. I remember. We were lucky to crawl away from that one. They were shooting at us from all sides – we should have been more careful. The river saved us.

When the mortars started, it wasn’t good enough to simply lie down flat or hide behind the ant heaps. Death came silently, suddenly, after the whoomph! of the mortar leaving the tube. We didn’t know where the next one would land. Then, after that terrible silent waiting, the explosion would rip through tree and flesh alike, destroying life with unbiased abandon. We watched the captain’s helmet sailing through the air to land, entangled, in the thorn tree behind us. We saw the last drops of blood dripping down on the green grass.

“It was you and me, Vetfaan. We were the only two left. And then you said we must make our way to the river.”

Twenty paces away, the river held the promise of escape. The firing had stopped; maybe they thought we were all dead. I said we must wait for dusk, but you shook your head. They’d come to scavenge for equipment and ammunition, you whispered. If we were to get out of there alive, we had to move immediately. You said I had to go first, you’d cover me.

“I’ve never seen anybody crawl so fast, so flat, so silently. You made it in record time.” The skin around the eyes crinkles to suggest a smile. Crazy used to have the most disarming smile in his younger years. It was a slow, honest type of smile, one that started in the eyes and ended with the lips arching upwards to expose a perfect set of teeth. Now, the pale-pink gums peek from behind the dry skin of his lips.

Vetfaan runs a hand over his face. This isn’t easy.

Yes, and when it was your turn, you almost made it. Almost. That’s when they shot you in the leg. I didn’t see the man with the gun until it was too late, but I had him running away with a well-aimed shot past his head. It gave me time to crawl out to fetch you.

“Yes, that river. It saved us. Once across, we were safe. I’ll always thank you for that.”

But at what cost? You lost a leg and tried to make a living as an artist. People looked at your work and agreed it had a lot of merit. But it was the graphic detail that made them buy paintings of flowers and portraits by other artists instead, Crazy. Nobody wanted to hang broken soldiers on their walls. I told you so; but you said those pictures are in your head and they had to come out. You said your life can’t be normal as long as those pictures remained in your mind. In fact, you mentioned that it wasn’t just your body that was crippled…the mental damage was more destructive than the physical problem. 

“I finished my last painting a week ago, Vetfaan. I want you to have it.”

Straining from the effort, Crazy reaches for the bell-button. In the duty room, a soft bong makes the nurse come over. She’s young and pretty, filling the uniform in a slightly provocative way. The green eyes are concerned.

“Now, Mister Coetzee?”

They must have discussed it beforehand. When he nods, she trots off to fetch a large package from the office. Brown paper with a string around it.  She holds it out to Vetfaan – it’s obviously a painting.

“Not now. Have a look when you’re home. I put in more detail in this one, specially for you.”

The tired eyes disappear behind the drooping eyelids.

“I need to sleep now, Vetfaan. Just doze off a little. Thanks for coming.”

Back home, Vetfaan puts the wrapped painting on his kitchen table, before getting a beer from his fridge. Then, with trembling fingers, he peels away the brown paper.

The painting was done with exquisite care. There’s no red in the picture, he notices immediately. It’s a river, quietly flowing under the bright sunshine, with green-green trees and lush undergrowth. Ferns flank the water, almost hiding the family of Egyptian geese in the shallows. Away on the horizon, a little herd of grazing Impalas seem so life-like, Vetfaan has to run his fingers over the painting to make sure it isn’t a print.

The focal point is the empty chair on the riverbank. It’s an old camping chair, with a single crutch on the ground next to it.

Vetfaan picks up the phone to call the hospital. Then, with a wry smile, he puts the instrument down. No need. Crazy has crossed his river.

He won’t need a crutch any longer.

I was so afraid Fernando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
And I’m not ashamed to say
The roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry