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The Miracle

hare-head01plFaith and politics, Gertruida will tell you, have a lot in common. A lot of what we believe are based on promises that we choose to believe. The action following the promise, however, is a matter of personal interpretation.

Take for instance – and here Gertruida will smile knowingly – the case of Ma Roberts’ rabbits. If ever there was a club for non-believers, then Ma would have been the founding member and life president. And it wasn’t like Oudoom didn’t try either. Back then, the townsfolk would observe a full minute’s worth of silence – staring longingly at the glasses in front of them – every Wednesday afternoon as Oudoom’s old Ford huffed its way down Voortrekker Weg to pay a visit to this formidable woman.

Oudoom used to say Ma Roberts was his equivalent of Jonah’s whale, especially placed on earth to test his faith, his conviction and his commitment. To his credit: it must be said that he never wavered. Regular as clockwork, he visited the huge lady with the short temper – every Wednesday afternoon. He took his Bible along, of course; but he was careful not to overplay his hand. With Ma you had to be careful…extremely careful. She had a way of clamming up, growing red in the face while her eyes bulged ominously, before telling you what (exactly) you could go and do with yourself. This was the same for the occasional traders that visited her farm, the campaigning politicians, and poor Oudoom. He said she can move surprisingly fast, just like a hippo – which we all know is the animal responsible for most killings in Africa.

And, Gertruida will add, one must not forget that Ma was a progressive farmer. Quite successful too, if one considers her methods. She started off with chickens, which she supplied to the fried-chicken franchise in Grootdrink. It is rumoured that she made quite a fortune with this endeavour; which one can understand if you take into consideration that after two months, her neighbours didn’t have a single chicken left. These neighbours remembered what happened to Japie Mulder, the chap who had a dream of representing the district for the ANC in the town council. Oh, he can walk quite well again, even without the crutches (for short distances).  But still, one thinks about such an incident quite deeply before accusing Ma Roberts of stealing a simple thing like a chicken.

With her supply of chickens gone, Ma Roberts contemplated the prospect of a diminishing cash flow, which would have meant reducing her intake of peach brandy. That’s when she took up rabbit farming. Actually, it wasn’t rabbits she kept in that cage behind her house: they were hares. But skin a hare, marinate it ever so slightly in lemon juice, and not even an expert will tell the difference.

Gertruida says one mustn’t confuse hares with rabbits. Rabbits have a soft, succulent flesh – which is why the Belgian restaurant in Kimberley was keen to procure the real thing. But hares? They’re a lot tougher than rabbits. They occur naturally in the Kalahari, fend for themselves within an hour after birth, and do not need the fancy feeding rabbits do. As an aside, Gertruida will remind you that a baby rabbit is called kittens, while the young of hares (which are hairy at birth) are called leverets. This she says just to impress you – not because it has anything to do with The Miracle.

So Ma sent out her labourers to catch the hares on her farm (for a start) and after a week she had eight of the furry animals living in her old chicken coop. After a month, she had twenty-four, due to the original hare’s natural…er…social interaction.

And during this time, Oudoom redoubled his efforts to get Ma Roberts to reconsider her faithless life. He told her about Hope, Love and Mercy. Ma wouldn’t listen, telling him that’s why the country is in such a terrible state. Oudoom changed tack and told her about Jesus – His life, His teachings, and His crucifixion.

Now, Gertruida adds happily, it’s time to talk about Herman du Preez, the chickenless neighbour. Herman was a sickly old man, patiently waiting for the end of his days on the dying farm where the drought (and Ma Roberts) finally stole his hope of a better life on earth. Realising The End was slowly creeping up on him, he took to reading the Bible on his stoep every day, while the only other living thing on his farm – Butch the sheep dog – rested at his feet. Oudoom visited him occasionally to assure him the Paradise was real, and yes, the streets were paved with gold, indeed. This made the old man very happy.

That is, until the day he realised Butch was missing. He closed the Bible, noting the chapter in the book of Job he was studying, and shuffled to the back of the house to look for his faithful friend.

And he found Butch.

With a hare in his jaws.

The hare was dead.

And old Herman looked up at the sky and told the Lord he still had to finish Job. And the New Testament, old Herman prayed earnestly, needed another going-through as well. Surely he can finish that before he closed his eyes for the last time? He reminded his Maker that Ma was a rather deadly opponent, just look what happened to Japie Mulder?

So he sat down, took the dead body from the guilty-looking Butch, and he thought about his problem deeply. If Ma knew his dog had taken one of her rabbits…er, hares…

Herman washed the little body in the basin in his kitchen. Then he dried the dead hare, fluffing up the fur as well as he could. He remembered his long-departed wife’s meagre collection of cosmetics, fished out the almost-dry lipstick and added colour to the lips and a touch of rouge to the cheeks. The brush came in handy, too.

That night, when all the Kalahari slept peacefully, old Herman walked all the way over to Ma Roberts’ farm. Being old and frail, this took longer than he expected, but he made it an hour or so before dawn. He found the wooden gate to the chicken coop, opened the latch, and quietly deposited the small corpse next to the one sleeping hare, who didn’t seem to mind too much.

Then he started shuffling back home.

That Sunday he attended church as usual and was completely surprised to see Ma Roberts in the front pew. Oudoom smiled broadly and halfway through the service he said one of the members of the congregation had something to say.

Ma Roberts hoisted her hefty frame upright, turned around and said she was happy to announce that she’d been wrong all along.

“Look,” she said, “Oudoom has been badgering me about faith for a long time now. As you all know, I thought it was just to soothe his own conscience. But…” and here the whole district saw Ma Roberts falter for the first time in her life, “I was wrong.”

She took a deep breath.

“Oudoom told me about the Resurrection last Wednesday. I listened with one ear. He asked if he could pray for me. I said yes because I wanted his sorry ass off my property.” She ignored the giggles. “Well, he prayed for a sign. Any sign, he said, to make me see the Truth.”

Another deep breath…

“Then one of my rabbits – er… hares – died and I buried it in the veld. It was dead. Really dead.

“And you know what happened? That bloody hare rose from the dead, returned to the coop and looked more alive than I’ve ever seen any hare look like – in all my life.”

***

Old Herman died the following month – peacefully in his sleep. When Koos Kadawer laid him out, he was amazed. Corpses, in his experienced opinion, have slack faces. Mostly expressionless. Unless they died of fright or after being struck by lightning, like Electric Eddie, the best weather forecaster the district ever had.

Not so with old Herman. He looked contented. Happy. His lips curled upwards in death, like a smile.

Or like somebody who knows a delicious secret he doesn’t want to share.

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 7)

Mokoro-on-okavango-deltaGert Smit headed due east until dawn. He was tired, hungry and thirsty. The bush in this area is dense, making progress only possible if he followed a game tract. These, are of course, dangerous: not only are snares and traps set for animals, but it wasn’t uncommon for the local soldiers to use landmines to obtain something for the pot at night. Add to that poachers, hunters, farmers and patrolling soldiers, and you get a situation where any game track can lead to any number of surprises at any place.

***

“So did he make it, Gertruida?”

“Vetfaan, let me tell the story, will you? The middle of the story is as important as the ending – and in Gert Smit’s case, you have to know everything before you can understand what happened later. So…just be patient, okay?”

***

Gert was about to look for a hiding place for the day, when he heard the cry of a Fish Eagle. Come….on here! Come….on here! He decided to risk the track a little while longer: the river had to be close.

It was.

And there, on the river bank, were two mokoros, one with several fresh fish in a little basket in its front. He saw a few huts a bit higher up on the bank, but nobody seemed to be up and about just yet. Gert didn’t hesitate. He got the new suit, socks, shoes and shirt from his rucksack, put them neatly into the empty vessel, and got into the other dugout. One day, he promised himself, he’d come back and apologise. At that moment he felt he had no choice – and that the swap had been a relatively fair exchange of assets. Especially the smart shoes. In some villages, after all, your status is determined by the shoes on your feet.

***

To keep your listeners interested in your story, Gertruida says, you have to keep on surprising them. That is the backbone of a good story. Now, with Gert Smit’s Tomatoes, she says this is easy to do, simply because fact is so much stranger than fiction.

That’s why, she says, Major Gericke stood there, gaping, after his daughter’s kiss. Even in his well-organised, disciplined mind, he couldn’t get a grasp on the fact that she was standing there in front of him, in this secluded army base so far away from home.

In the army, you handle surprises in one of two ways: either you speak your mind in no uncertain ways (rather loudly), or you dismiss the junior officers in your presence. Gericke chose the latter before sitting down heavily.

“Letitia…,” he started, but faltered when he looked at her again. His little girl was all grown up; a beautiful young lady, self-assured despite the circumstances. He remembered the baby swaddled in a pink blanket, oh, so many years ago. Then the army happened and the war started and he missed how many birthdays? Did she really grow up so fast…or had he simply been an absent father who cared more about uniforms and orders than the simple pleasures of parenthood? “Lettie, my child…what are you doing here?”

She explained. He listened. They shared an uncomfortable silence. Then, breaking all the rules, he told her exactly what had happened to Gert Smit. At least, he told her as much as he knew, which was that Gert was dropped at the Kaplyn and that he hadn’t been heard of since.

Lettie took the news calmly up to a point. When her tears welled up, the strict major got up stiffly, walked over to her and patted a shoulder. It was too much – or too little – for Lettie. She rose from her chair and hugged her father. Hugged him like a little girl would, tight against his chest, her arms around his fit body. And she did what a little girl would do: she sobbed uncontrollably. Major Gericke was too overwhelmed  to say anything about the mascara on his tunic.

Later, when she calmed down, he told her they had to figure out something. It turned out to be much more complicated – and simple – than they both would have guessed.

***

Gert Smit made good time on the Cuando. The stream was strong and he only used the paddle to keep the mokoro (as far as possible) under the overhang of the trees on the banks. Once, he heard a helicopter, some distance away to the west. Twice he heard the crack of distant gunfire. He wondered if his guard was okay..

1279350385572_hz-cnmyalibaba-web2_35556At about midday he felt that he had put sufficient distance between him and Jamba, and beached the mokoro on a sandy island in the middle of the river. Carefully hiding under the huge Jackalberry tree that dominated the island, he started a fire with the magnesium rod in the emergency kit from the rucksack. He roasted the fish as they were, and then had to wait impatiently for his meal to cool down.  Oh, how he wished he had a knife!

After having his meal, he settled down under the tree to rest. It’d been a long night…

***

300px-SchuckmannsburgMapThe village of Katima Mulilo wasn’t much to look at in 1977, but it was teeming with soldiers. It is situated just south of the place where the Zambezi takes a sharp turn towards the east before tumbling down the gorge of the Victoria Falls, some 200 km away. The South African Defense Force maintained a strong presence here, as well as an airfield and later its only inland ‘harbour’ on the Zambezi.

In 1977 the war had not really reached Katima yet. Armoured vehicles were handy only because they were used to chase elephants off the rugby fields on Saturday afternoons. At that stage a posting to Katima was welcomed – but in later years that changed, of course. This was before the SADF’s success with Operation Reindeer and the response by the Angolans by launching Operation Revenge in 1978.

So, when Major Gericke arranged for Lettie to stay in one of the safe-houses the army maintained (chiefly for reporters, visiting dignitaries and occasionally for important defectors from the Zambian side), it seemed like a very reasonable compromise. Lettie would be relatively nearby, and still be protected. Any news, her father promised, would be relayed to her immediately.

“Lets give it a week or two, my child. We haven’t heard anything from Smit for some time now, but you never know. No news is good news these days. If he had been killed or captured, we would have heard something by now. And…” he hesitated, “I checked on Smit’s record. He had the best training. He’s a rebel, that’s for sure, but he’s also a very capable soldier. He can look after himself.”

“Will you pray, Daddy, please? Pray for his safe return?”

This time Major Gericke looked into the pleading eyes of his little-girl-all-grown-up-to-be-a-striking-young-woman, and it was his turn to blink away a tear.

***

Traveling down the Cuando at night proved to be too dangerous. There were rapids to negotiate, deep pools where hippos snorted their displeasure and twists in the course of the river that ended up in banks of reeds and grass. Gert Smit adopted a new strategy: he paddled in from first light until the sun was about three hands above the horizon. Then he’d find an island, build traps for fish, and wait for late afternoon. He’d take to the water then, and keep going as long as possible. This made his progress slow, but he was fairly sure he’d avoid being detected in this fashion. He was right.

On the fourth evening, he spotted the Golden Highway. He was back in the Caprivi! He must have missed the Kaplyn in the early morning gloom. Be that as it may, he was both safe…and in danger. With darkness increasing by the minute, Smit settled down for the night. Going down the river past Fort Doppies was out of the question. Hitching a ride to Katima Mulilo would have been equally stupid. No! He had made up his mind. As far as the army knew, he had been caught or killed in Angola. That suited Gert Smit just fine. He’d make his way back to South Africa somehow, tell his mother he’s okay, and then wait for the war to end.

***

Gertruida smiles sadly when she comes to this part of the story. “Just shows you how naive the poor fellow was. The war would drag on until the 90′s, but he wasn’t to know that. He just had the basic outline of a plan in his head, but his main motivation was his disappointment that the army used him as a disposable pawn in their game of one-upmanship. Savimbi and his men had treated him well, after all, and he felt rather ashamed at the thought that he was sent to kill the leader of UNITA. Were they not allies? The more he brooded on this thought, the more upset he became.

“Well, he decided, the next morning he’d set off towards the east along the Golden Highway, until he was far away enough from Fort Doppies. Then he’d cut across the veld, southwards, to reach Botswana. How he’d survive and what exactly waited for him en route, was a secondary concern. He’d face the problems as they arose.

“And so Gert Smit fell asleep next to the river that was now called the Kwando. And he slept soundly, like a young, tired man should. He was prodded back to being awake by something. He opened his eyes, straining to focus. There, level with his face, a row of boots faced him.

Boots? Eight of them? Here? Then, sitting up in fright, he stared at the faces of the four-man patrol that had stumbled upon him a few seconds ago.”

 

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 6)

5312721 Gertruida waits until everybody has had time to refill their glasses before continuing, To tell a story successfully, she says,  you have to pause at the right moment; and sometimes, after a cliffhanger, simply yawn and and seem surprised at the expectant looks.

“Gert Smit had his hair cut. He was taken to the showers. And then he was locked up again. There was simply no chance to escape.

“He was desperate to get away, but how? With nothing else to do, he sat down in his cell and started re-reading the 75-page Bible. By that time, he knew most of the pages almost by heart, but that night he read the story of Queen Victoria and General de la Rey again.

“Despite the years of rebellion against religion (why did God take away my father even before I was born? You call that the act of a Loving God? Tell me another story…!), he knew enough of the Bible to vaguely connect the story with Samson and Delilah. He smiled at the analogy – old Hieronymus had ‘modernised’ the original Bible text to suit the circumstances he lived in. Maybe, he thought, the old man had a point: instead of reading the Book as a collection of old stories, he lived these stories in his everyday life. His Bible didn’t dwell on the past, but told the story of God in actual, everyday terms.

Then the guard peeked through the bars of the door to ask him what he was reading. Gert Smit showed him the Book and told him it represented a new way of looking at religion. The guard was curious, asking him to tell more.

“Gert Smit looked up and suddenly realised what a great opportunity had presented itself…”

Two minutes later the guard sat next to Gert as he read Psalm 23. The guard was intrigued, especially when he heard about the nice guest house in the pasture, where beds are free and the menu included bread-pudding every evening. Gert then read the passage where David shot Goliath with a dum-dum and followed that up with the history of Jonah and the Crocodile.

“At first his idea was to overpower his keeper and escape, but as the evening drew on, he found that he actually enjoyed reading his great-great grandfather’s Bible to the guard. Despite the fact that they laughed at the way the old man twisted the stories to make them relevant to the tribulations he lived through, the underlying message of Love and Redemption was all too obvious to ignore.

“It is difficult to say which of the two had the most profound experience that night. Gert Smit had never been religious – yet sharing the stories in the condensed and slightly warped Bible seemed the most natural thing to do. It was almost as if he felt compelled to do so – he couldn’t stop. The guard, for his part. had never heard of the Bible explained the way old Hieronymus did when he filled the pages with his precise writing on that faraway island more than a century ago.

That’s when they started asking their own questions.How would you tell the story of David today? Or Daniel? Or Jonah? Or Jericho?  

“They ended up having a whole heap of fun. Angola became the paradise; the Cuando River became the Jordan. They smiled as they changed the Tree of Knowledge into the CIA. Jericho fell to a G6 onslaught, The Ten Plagues were the Soviets, the Chinese, the Cubans, several tropical diseases, fear, uncertainty…and death.

“The guard brewed some coffee and they shared a comfortable silence. A strange feeling of camaraderie had developed between the two men that night: they were both soldiers caught up in a war, they prayed to the same God, and they both hoped their countries would be freed of violence. The enemy, they discovered, was an ideology, not a person. They talked about home, about family. And they found out they had more in common than they ever imagined before.

“To cut a long story short: the two of them slipped out of Jamba in the middle of the night. The guard was tired of the war. Gert wanted to go home. And they both realised Hieronymus wasn’t crazy when he wrote that the all governments acted just like the Pharisees. They both wanted freedom, and like so many Israelites before them, they discovered that freedom was a choice.”

***

As soon as they reached the outskirts of Jamba, the guard said goodbye. His home was in Cunjamba, next to the Cuando River, so he headed towards the north. Gert Smit had no idea which way to go. It was a dark, moonless night and only the Southern Cross gave him an idea where south should be.

angola_map_townsBut going south? That’s where UNITA would look for him. They’d expect him to head straight for the Caprivi Kaplyn, even though he wasn’t quite sure where that was. (Jamba was, indeed, not far from the border.)

He was pondering his options, when a shooting star drew his attention. It was one of those you only see on dark Africa-nights. It came from the west and streaked across the sky towards the east – a display that lasted several seconds. And it was there, in the darkness and uncertainty, that Gert Smit finally acknowledged that the Lord, indeed, was his shepherd.

Yes! If he walked east, he’d reach the Cuando River as well. The Cuando that became the Kwando in the Caprivi, the Linyati River further south before finally changing its name one last time to be the Chobe River where it joins the Zambezi near Kasane, northern Botswana. It is the river that runs past Fort Doppies, but he’ll worry about that when the time comes. At that moment, putting distance between himself and Jamba was the most important.

It was maybe an hour later that Gert Smit realised he never asked his guard’s name.

And then he remembered how the gates of the jail were opened for Paul and Silas.

And then he wondered whether his guard had been human, after all…

***

Lettie stood impatiently in front of the captain, who was not at all sure what to do with the rather shapely young lady who arrived unannounced at Fort Doppies. She was a civilian, for goodness’ sakes! She should not even have come near the base, which the army tried to keep as secret as possible. And she’s asking about Gert Smit – demanding answers he was not at liberty to give.

The major was called in to sort out the problem.

Major Gericke was a strict disciplinarian. He ran the camp with an iron hand and was mostly feared by everybody. When he was summonsed to the hut that served as a mini-headquarters, he was fuming. A  mere captain, summonsing him? Bah!

He was ready to explode in his customary fiery fury, when he skidded to a halt.

“Letitia! What the bloody hell are you doing here? Damn it all, girl, you should know better than to come barging in here like this!”

And she smiled sweetly and said: “Hello, Daddy…”, before getting up on tippytoe to kiss his suntanned cheek. “Oooh…you need a shave.”

Fanny’s Surprise (# 8)

 Fanny looks up in shock. Take off her clothes? Sit here naked? She sees Vetfaan turning to go.

“Wait…”  She Holds up a restraining hand before turning to !Ka. “You have to help me here, !Ka. What is this all about? What does she want to do?”

!Ka confers with the old woman before answering.

“There must be a dance. A long dance, for as long as the full moon lasts. Round and round the fire, shuffling. She’ll teach you the words. After a while you’ll enter another world, a deep world, where you’ll see another Life. She calls it The Different Way. After that, your gift will develop. You’ll be able to see,” he taps his head, “up here.”

Fanny gets up and walks away from the circle of light around the fire. !Tung holds out an imploring hand as if wanting to stop her, but the younger woman ignores it. The events of the day are too surreal to digest in such a short period of time. To think the bones they buried here, were from  her own family? And that coincidence after coincidence eventually brought her back to this place, these people? That, without the Busmen’s help, that little boy would have died and she wouldn’t have been here? The story is so absurd, so fantastic…and yet it has a ring of truth to it.

And now, old !Tung wants to dance her into a trance to awaken something she inherited from her mother, who received it from her grandfather?

Vetfaan walks over to her to put a protective arm around her shoulders.

“If you’re confused, girl, so am I. This day rates as the strangest I’ve ever lived through. I can’t tell you much about anything right now, but I can try to help. If you don’t feel like doing this dance…well, then, don’t. You’ve got a wonderful life as it is, why meddle with things we don’t understand…?”

“I don’t want to do this, Fanie. It must b scary to know what’ll happen tomorrow or the next day.  What would I do if I knew you’d die next week? Or what’ll happen to you and me and Henry?  These are strange, spiritual gifts and talents and abilities I don’t want to meddle with. We weren’t created to know the future until we arrive there. That’s the secret of Life, isn’t it? To seek, to find and never, never give up?”

Vetfaan nods. “I agree. You have everything you need.” He wants to add ‘including me’, but doesn’t. “Let’s go talk with them.”

“I’m not sure about this, !Ka,” she tells the two Bushmen at the fire. “It may be different in your culture, and I respect that. But I don’t think I’m comfortable with awakening things I don’t understand. Can’t I think about it and meet here again next month? This is all too sudden, too much.”

Vetfaan clears his throat. “You see, !Tung, we have a great Book that warns us about such things. For you it may be something you grew up with and accepted as normal. But we believe the spiritual world is forbidden. We don’t understand such things, see? That’s why the Book says we may only pray to God, and Him alone. If we listen to Him, He will provide all we need. That’s why we don’t have shamans. We don’t need them.” Although his tone is kind, there is a firmness to his words that brooks no argument. Fanny’s hand find his in the dark to give it a little squeeze. Suddenly Vetfaan feels ten feet tall.

!Tung smiles sadly. “A part of me believed this would happen, but I had to try. This thing must happen with the full moon, and this is my last. Look.” She slides the skirt made of soft skin to one side, to reveal large irregularities in the region of her groin. She also shows several more glands under her arms. “This disease does not go away with plants.” She asks !Ka to translate again.

My mother had this. So did my grandmother. It is something that happens. First you get weak. Then these swellings come. Then you die. Her tone is matter-of-fact, as if the words have nothing to do with her. Next month I’ll be in the New World.

“It must be some form of cancer,” Fanny whispers. They all sit down around the fire, each with a muddle of  own thoughts.  !Ka slumps back, tired after the day’s exhaustion and fatigued by pain. Vetfaan fishes out the last beer and shares it with Fanny.

“I must tell one more thing, then.” !Tung glances at !Ka who is soundly asleep. “To see in the mind is good and bad. Easy and hard. It gives you the respect of people. “ She sighs. “But it also makes you lonely. People fear me.”

“I can understand that, !Tung.” Fanny moves over to sit next to the old woman. “You have been very good to me. You taught me a lot while I was here. But this thing…I can’t do this. You understand? You were born into a certain way of life.  With me, it is different. I don’t want to know…”

“You are wiser than I thought.”  There is a glint of light in the old woman’s eyes. “Wiser.” She works her lips around the word as if it is something exquisitely foreign. “Then it will be so. My work is finished.”

She gets up to walk over to !Ka, shaking his shoulder gently to waken him. Vetfaan and Fanny listen to the steady stream of clicks as they talk. Then she returns to the fire.

“Mister Vetfaan, tomorrow !Ka will be better. You’ll take him to the doctor who will help him. Thank you for being his friend – he will need your help in the future many times. And Miss Fanny, I see you growing old as a happy woman. You’ll have a good husband. I can tell you who, but it will take away all the adventure of discovering.

“Now I have to go.”

She bows down slightly before allowing Fanny and Vetfaan to give her a hug. The night’s darkness folds around her like a cloak as she walks out of the light, with small, purposeful steps carrying her to her destiny.

“Will she be back?”

!Ka looks at her incredulously. “ Of course not.”

Coming soon…604043_532682216772817_1360375968_n

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

Maybe we should distinguish between Home and House…

A house is a building, a place to accumulate stuff that’ll decay over time. It does, however, afford protection from the elements.

No matter how elaborate – or basic – the structure is, a house remains an empty shell, waiting to be transformed into a home.

.Home is where you hang your pictures to remind you of the fun you had so far.

Where you arrange the furniture to suit your taste..

Where you can swap tall stories and think out new ones…

Home doesn’t have to be an elaborate place..

Because:

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.”

A Visit by Dee and Dum

Gertruida reckons they’re a man-and-wife team, although it is impossible to say which is which. Both are round, pony-tailed and dressed in khaki. The voices suggest they would make a good soprano duo. Their eyes are dusky-grey, filled with mirth and the bushy eyebrows tend to lift when they laugh. They don’t laugh a lot. And they talk in tandem. They arrived just after opening time.

“Hi, I’m Dee…”

“…and I’m Dum…”

“…like in Tweedle.”

Satisfied that they have introduced themselves properly, the two sat down to order Two glasses of milk… Cold… Thank you.

“We’re used to people staring at us…”

“…because we’re weird. That’s okay. We won’t stay long…”

“…they usually end up ingoring us, anyway.”

Of course Gertruida couldn’t help herself. She had to know.

“We travel a lot…”

“…and we make lists.”

It turned out that Dee wrote up all the positive things they meet along the journey, while Dum noted all the negative stuff.

“But Dum always wins…”

“…because my lists are longer.”

Oh yes, they’ve travelled extensively; here, there, everywhere. All over, in fact; except for the deserted places where no people live.

“There’s no point if there are no people around…”

“…because no people means no Evil…”

“…so there’s no point, is there?”

“So what are you going to do with your lists? Isn’t it a bit foolish to create a list of rights and wrongs?”

They laughed at that, the way you laugh at a joke you’ve heard too often before.  You have to have lists, they say. Without lists you can’t compare and have no way of knowing how things balance out.

“But we don’t just make lists…”

“…we also leave gifts…”

“…for you to use.”

***

“Do you think they made a list here, in Rolbos?” Kleinpiet says after they left. “They surely are the strangest people I’ve ever met.”

“You can bet your life they made lists. They’re professionals, those two. Did you notice how intensely they looked at everybody? It’s as if they mentally weigh up each person they meet. I’m sure they’re extremely serious about this list-business.”

“But why, Gertruida? Why would anybody travel the world to check out what people are? I mean: what do they want to do with those lists?”

“It’s not a new thing, Kleinpiet. Remember how children believed Father Christmas checked out each child – and then decided what present will wait below the tree? Or how the Tooth Fairy rewards well-cared for teeth? We grew up believing we are being watched and behaved ourselves even when our parents weren’t nearby.

“Then we started attending church and Sunday school – and suddenly we became aware of a Higher Presence that knew about everything we did. That was a frightening thought – the constant watch of our most secret thoughts and deeds. Only, the stakes were higher. It wasn’t about a Christmas present anymore, neither about some coins in the slipper before your bed – now it had serious, eternal implications.”

“Yes, Gertruida, but people don’t believe that anymore. They murder and steal and lie as if it doesn’t matter.” Vetfaan shakes his head – the world has gone crazy. “Some attend church and make all the right sounds; but come Monday morning, and you’ll find them scheming to get to the top of the heap. It’s all about Pride, Ego, and Greed – nothing else matters anymore.”

“Maybe that’s why their journey is so important, Vetfaan. I mean: somebody has to remind us about moral values – about Good and Evil – otherwise society will destroy itself eventually. If the church and the courts can’t do it, who will?”

***

“They  will tell the world, won’t they?” Dum is updating the Bad list.

“I hope so. In the other towns nobody believed us…”

“…and it’s a big mistake. That’s why everything …”

“…is such a mess…”

“…even so, we left the gifts, didn’t we?”

***

And so we leave the two intrepid travellers as they visit town after town and talk to person after person. Few recognise them for what they are and most are surprised to find that – in this day and age – Dee and Dum are alive and well, and still hoping to find enough to put onto the Good list to balance the Bad list.

Oh?

The gifts?

Well, it’s a bit of a misnomer, really. What Dee and Dum do, is to dust off a few thoughts and impressions in the minds of people they meet along the way. Sometimes it’s a personal encounter, but mostly people only read about them. (Like you, now.) They force people to take a good, hard look at themselves. Their gift is the reminder that honesty and kindness are the two virtues the world needs more than any other.

Sadly, most people laugh at this absurd idea.

That’s why the Bad list is so long…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beyond

 

The view from my writing room is an ever-changing canvas Mother Nature works on constantly. Whenever the words stop coming, I can simply gaze out  over the vast ocean and wait. This week, some thunder clouds formed out at sea and while I watched, I was rewarded by a fleeting segment of rainbow – just a little display telling me to wait, the Muse is on her way…

Starting over? Definitely!!

“But we  can’t hold a concert here,” Servaas says earnestly, “who’d come?”

“Not that kind of concert, Servaas. If we asked Oudoom to use the church, then Ben can play there. And we don’t ask money – if somebody wants to donate something, that’s fine. We give whatever comes in to the orphanage in Grootdrink. We kill three flies with one stroke: Ben gets to play, the orphanage will get something and the church will be full, for a change.” Gertruida glances over to Vetfaan. “You’ll see to it, won’t you?”

When Gertruida uses that tone of voice, people pay more attention to what she’s saying. It’s a mixture of playful octaves, with a high ‘you’ll’ and a low ‘won’t’. It’s said in a joking manner, but the eyes are steely-grey and direct – there’s no mistaking that some parts of your anatomy may go missing if you ignored the remark. Sure, he’ll tell Oudoom…

Vetfaan can only smile sheepishly and flex his considerable biceps. Sure…he’d rather argue with a deranged Kalahari lion than cross swords with this woman.

Servaas is brave enough to ask if Ben knew about Gertruida’s plan. She gives him a withering look.

“Ben has been practicing for three months now. The driver of Kalahari Vervoer’s lorry told me so himself. Every time he drives past Bitterbrak, the sound of that violin makes him stop and listen. He says it’s improved a lot. And remember: that driver is a member of the Grootdrink Skoffelorkes – he knows his music.”

Ben, quite naturally, gets taken by surprise by Gertruida’s visit the next day. No, there’s no way. Definitely not. Impossible.

Gertruida ignores the man and walks through to the make-shift kitchen area. The old tin mug and a faded and chipped dinner plate glares back at her from the basin of soapy water. The shelf above the Primus is empty, except for three packets on instant soup (tomato) and a single tin of beans. Without a word, she chucks out the water, loads the mug, plate and food into the basin, and walks out to her car. Ben is so shocked, he can only stare.

Gertruida returns to the cottage, staggering with a big box. She starts unpacking the crockery: four new plates, mugs, a salt-and-pepper set (full), and a set of knives and forks. Next are the groceries: coffee, sugar, bully beef, tinned meat, long-life milk, sugar. By the time she’s finished, the shelf can barely hold everything.

“W-w-what’s this all about, Gertruida? I can’t pay…”

“Oh shush, you silly man. You haven’t been to town lately, so it was logical you had just about no food left here. We held a collection in Boggel’s Place.”

“But I don’t nderstand?”

“It’s not a gift, Ben. It’s your pay for the concert. One piece. You only have to play one piece. That’s all.”

The people of the Kalahari are a proud lot. They’re honest, too. (Most of the time.) Generally, they don’t accept charity. You grace a homestead on an isolated farm with a visit, and you’ll leave with a bag of biltong. Or maybe a leg of lamb. Or some eggs. People in these parts are so independent, that they never want to feel they owe you something. They pay their debts. Always. Gertruida knows this, and that’s why she has no doubt that Ben will reciprocate with a little performance in the church the next Saturday.

With a smile and a mock curtsey, she leaves Ben gaping as she drives off.

***

When the sun sets in its red throne of glory, the patrons in Boggel’s Place empty their glasses and amble over to the church. There’s a box at the door (marked: Orphanage), which fills up with home-made toys and teddybears. Gertruida has lit a row of candles down the small aisle and placed two lanterns on the lectern. The atmosphere is soft, inviting,  as the little congregation sits down in the silence only churches have. It’s different to the quiet outside, where one feels more in touch with the dust and the vast landscape around. Here, especially in the flickering glow of the candles, they become aware of a Bigger Presence – something holy and sacred.

Nobody wants to say anything – the mood is too fragile.

Oudoom and Gertruida exchange worried glances. She had told Ben the concert would be at sundown, and then left; certain he would have no choice. But…what if…

The drone of the old Land Rover lights up the faces with brilliant smiles. Ben is coming! Everybody tries hard to believe they never doubted that he would come; nevertheless, the relief is tangible. The old wooden benches creak and groan as they twist around to see Ben enter the church.

Ben obviously went to a lot of trouble to do this right. The long khaki pants were pressed to smooth the material under a mattress, while the white shirt really seems white in the golden candle-glow. His shoes – shined with sheep’s fat – are even made more impressive by the fact that he is wearing socks for a change.

Ben stops at the door, uncertainty overwhelming him. The fine sheen of sweat on his forehead is clear even in the twilight. Oudoom sees this, and extends both arms to him.

Without a word, Ben walks to the front of the congregation. As he unpacks the violin with tender hands, Gertruida notices he has brought no sheet music along. Then he closes his eyes; takes a deep, shuddering breath; and starts to play.

The music moves like a gentle wave through the audience. In the sad and forlorn melody, everyone is carried back to an age of innocence when it was so easy to believe everything would work out. It drenches the regrets of lost loves and shattered hopes. The notes eddy back and forth amongst the successes and failures that exist in everybody who has ever grabbed at life’s trapeze – missed – fell – and got hurt. It’s a melody of healing, one that touches everybody in that church; even Ben, who plays on with his eyes shut and the picture of a beaming Lori in his mind. She’s there, he is certain, smiling her approval as she dabs away a tear.

There is a hushed silence at the end of the piece as the shabby man packs away his cherished violin. There’s no applause. It isn’t necessary. The shining eyes and arms reaching out to comfort each other say it all..

Gertruida will join the others at the bar later on, after she has spent a few quiet minutes with Ben in the church. Starting over is so difficult – so painful. Its foundation is previous failure; its future is so uncertain.  Along Life’s way there are loved ones who find new, greener pastures; some find new partners; and some depart on the final journey. Whatever we aim for doesn’t always reward us with the expected bounty. And in the late-night hours, every soul on this planet will – on occasion – wrestle with the age-old question…what if…?

This is when Ben’s music will be the rising tide to float the floundering ship. It’s the wings that lift us above the storm. It’s there, in the happy smile of a child, receiving an unexpected gift. It is, in the end, the flickering glow of a candle in a small church, reminding us that starting over is the only way ahead…

In a Crisis

The Daily Prompt made me remember…

During my specialist training, I had to rotate through ICU. There the principles of taking care of the unconscious patient on a ventilator are learnt, and that experience is used for as long as you handle a scalpel. Some patients had metabolic problems, septicaemia or were recovering from major surgery; each of them posing situations a good surgeon must be able to manage. That initial rotation through ICU is extremely important to any doctor who treats critically ill patients.

It was during my stint in ICU that one of my patients had a particular problem with his heart rate and the consultant told me to do a cardioversion. I had never seen the procedure before but he explained that it was rather simple. As the patient was fully conscious, I was to give him a bit of Pentothal, and while he drifted off to sleep, an electric current is passed through his heart. Readers familiar with ER-TV shows know that’s when the doctor shouts “Clear!” and pushes the little red button on the paddles. Now in those days, things weren’t so sophisticated. The red button was grey. The dial on the defibrillator had to be set on a certain strength (no little LED lights), and the ECG machines were huge brutes with a mass of complicated connections.

I explained to the patient what was going to happen and gave him the Pentothal—just a little, as he was going to be asleep for just a minute or so. He smiled as he drifted off into sublime sleep. I set the machine, applied the paddles, and pushed the little grey button. The patient gave a little shudder. I glanced up at the console of the ECG machine. A straight line had replaced the wriggly squiggle of his abnormal rhythm. I felt ice water dripping down where my spine used to be. That straight line meant that I had, all by myself, officially killed my first patient!

I panicked. I had to do something, and quick! I replaced the paddles, and gave him another shock… straight line. Shock again… straight line. Another one… straight line. By now the patient’s chest was adorned by the red circles of my efforts, making him look like a pancake baker with Parkinson’s disease. Sweat was running down my nose as I frantically tried to think what to do next.

At this time the patient sat up and gave me an exasperated look. His Pentothal-induced sleep had long worn off.

“My G-d, Doctor, when are you going to stop?”

It took me what seemed a lifetime to figure it out. With my first shock, the ECG machine had blown a valve (yes, they still had those bulb-like stuff in there, in those days!) and of course, hence the straight line. When I connected him to the machine of the patient in the next bed, a completely normal ECG pattern rewarded me.

The patient left ICU a few days later, convinced that I may be a good doctor, but as a technician my future was in doubt.

(From: Facing Surgery with Christ, Tate Publishers)

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