“There once was a very tall man.” Gertruida sits back, making up the story as she tells it. “Very tall. Taller than anybody else on earth. He was a soft-spoken man who cared for his family very much.”
Servaas nods to egg her on. He wants to hear another fable, a myth, a legend – anything – to make him forget the way things are in the country.
“He was a good hunter and an even better farmer. His family ate well every day. But…like his family, he was afraid of the dark. In those days, the nights were black with only a few stars to light up the sky. His family, because of their fear, collected firewood every day so that the flames could drive the darkness away once the sun had set. This made the tall man very happy.”
By now, everybody in Rolbos is listening with rapt attention. Gertruida’s fables aren’t stories to ignore; they all have a moral hidden somewhere.
“But one day he tracked an Eland and he ventured too far away from his home to return to the family’s fire. The sun set. It became dark. And the man was afraid once more.
“Getting up carefully, he stretched a hand into the darkness and to his surprise he touched something. Up there, in the black of the sky, he felt an object nobody had ever seen before. It was the moon. The man sat down and thought about his discovery. If only he could make the moon bright, he’d never have to fear the night again.
“He went home the next day and told everybody what he had found, but nobody believed him. They laughed and told him he must have dreamt it, nothing can exist in such blackness. No, they said, only a few stars could live in the dark, and they weren’t things to touch, anyway. Did everybody not know that those pinpricks of light were holes in the blanket that covers the sky at night? They laughed at the tall man and he felt much ashamed.
“Still, he knew there was something up there, something only he could touch. But how was he going to make the people stop laughing at him? He had to make a plan, so he went down to the river to think. He asked the water to go up there and roar like a waterfall – so the people might hear the object. The water refused, mumbling that water runs down, never up.. Then he asked the crows to fly up at night to nest on the object so they can squawk there, but they didn’t want to. They had to stay on earth to scavenge from Man, they said.
“And so he asked jackall to howl on the moon, lion to roar on the moon, hyena to laugh on the moon. They all refused. Eventually the man realised he would not be able to make the people hear the moon – he had to show it to them…but how?
“That’s when the fireflies came to him to tell him they’d go. They could fly, they said, and make light. If many of them gathered on the tall man’s moon, people would be able to see not only the moon, but also through the darkness of the night.
“The man was delighted. The next evening he gathered everybody around him and watched as the fireflies all gathered on the moon to give them light. The people were amazed and now treated the tall man with respect. They even made him their leader.
“The sun welcomed the moon in the sky and befriended the new source of light. They were very happy.
“But the tall man became old and told the people to elect a new leader – he wanted to rest, he said. So a new leader was chosen and the tall man lived out his days in peace. Once his soul left his body to join those that went before, the people soon forgot about him. Such is the nature of man, after all. Good people are much easier to forget than bad ones.”
Oudoom holds up a hand, interrupting Gertruida’s story. “That’s true, you know? History books are filled with the stories of bad men – when last did you read about something nice and uplifting in the past? It’s there, of course, but there are more Mussolini’s than Mother Teresa’s.”
Gertruida flashes a wintry smile in Oudoom’s direction – she hates interjections. “Anyway, the new leader was jealous of the tall man’s accomplishment and wondered what he could do to impress people. After much thought, he decided to make the moon black again. If his predecessor gave the people light at night, he’d give them darkness. Surely they’d respect him for that? So he went down to the river to fetch long reeds, to which he fastened some grass. He piled mud on this long brush and waited for night-time. Then he painted the moon black again. The fireflies died and night became dark once more.
“The sun saw what had happened and grieved for his friend the tall man had created. It therefore refused to draw back the night’s blanket from then on, leaving the earth in darkness.
“The people became afraid again and cried out, but the darkness remained.”
Gertruida falls silent and asks Boggel for a beer.
“That’s it? That’s the story?” Servaas shakes his head; surely that can’t be the end?
“Well, that’s as far as the story goes, Servaas. Until another tall man comes along, the land will remain dark. So far, it hasn’t happened.”
Oudoom nods slowly. He grasped the moral. “So, we’ll just have to wait, Gertruida?”
“Yes Oudoom. It’ll remain dark until another Mandela comes along.”