Old Oom Hatting’s Eyes

ImageWhen Servaas woke on the morning of the 1st, the rolling of distant thunder scattered the few doves nesting in the gutter above his bedroom. Kalahari people understand gutters. That’s where the rain gets channelled to the big green plastic tanks every household needs to survive in these parts. Without rainwater, you have to rely on the meagre supply coming from the fountain at the foot of Bokkop – a water specific to the area. Kleinpiet says you can taste the dust in that water, but of course it simply is salty. The only place where the water is worse, is at Bitterbrak, where even the sheep refuse to dip their dry noses into the dam below the fountain. Boggel doesn’t complain. It’s the water that drives the people of Rolbos to his establishment.

Servaas, who sleeps with no specific dress-code, rushed outside to scan the skies. The dark and distant clouds on the horizon told the story: they could be due for some welcome relief. He rushed back inside, of course, when Gertruida remarked on his lack of suitable attire. Dressing as fast as he could, he emerged to fetch the long ladder from the store at the back of his house. A blocked gutter would mean less water in his tank; something every household wants to avoid.

The nest was an untidy one; as doves are wont to do. Sticks and grass, adorned with scraps of material, pieces of twine and an odd assortment of fluffy feathers, were all the birds required to make a home. Servaas is a meticulously neat man and he wondered for a second if this was really the best the doves could do. If he had to build a nest, he’d arrange the little twigs in neat little criss-cross rows, form a cup out of them, and then line it properly. Rough stuff at the bottom, finery to ensure a good nights rest on top.

However, his reflection on aviary architecture was only fleeting. What caught his attention, were the four naked, featherless, little bodies huddled in a group in the middel of the untidy little nest. The parents sat some distance off, watching anxiously. It was Servaas, The Almighty Warrior, against the defenceless chicks. As if in encouragement, the thunder crashed louder, nearer, more urgently than before.

Servaas held on to the ladder with his left hand and reached out with his rough and calloused right hand to rip the nest from its resting place.  It was situated right on top of the down-pipe – the pipe that led to his water tank – the tank that supplied his little house with the sweet, fresh water he needed to survive.

His hand hesitated as if of its own mind. He, the Powerful One, found himself suddenly unsure. If he removed the nest and the rain didn’t come, he’d have killed four innocent lives just because…well, because he had the power to do so. If the rain did come, they’d drown, anyway. The bigger dove (the father?) swooped nearer to perch on the side of the roof. He coo-ed at Servaas. Servaas looked up…

And saw himself. He was in the train, a new and young soldier on his way to the border. Next to him and also hanging out of the windows were other new and young soldiers; also waving goodbye at their loved ones. They were in high spirits. The powers-that-be had called them up to defend their country and that is what they will do. That night they got drunk on that train; horribly drunk until they collapsed in each other’s arms. They swore they’d fight the enemy (whoever that might be) and that they’ll come back heroes.

Of course it didn’t happen that way. Some deserted. Some were evacuated with a variety of limbs and organs missing. Some became mentally unstable (just another term for losing it and becoming mad). And some died. Quite a few died. Horrible deaths in flames, in explosions, in planes and in tanks. The lucky ones got killed by a well-aimed shot – they didn’t suffer so much.

When it was over, he returned in that train. The comrades-in-arms were very quiet during that trip. They had fought a good fight, but nobody was certain who the victory belonged to. They had become fighting machines, an expendable asset of the State, with empty minds and hollowed cheeks. They had shot and blasted and stabbed their way through those months – bringers of death, apocalyptic beings without feeling. And now, on that train, they had to become human again. It was impossible. The memories were burnt in too deep.

The loved ones – those who still had living, sane and healthy soldiers on that train – were there to meet them when the train pulled into the station. Even that was a subdued affair and nothing like they promised each other when they left, those many months ago. The relief of touching living, normal flesh was a quiet and thankful feeling. Almost holy, like you’d find in a church or when a baby gets born. There was joy; but this was a hallowed joy.

Somewhat to one side, a lonely figure stood. Servaas knew that man: he was the father of Happy Hatting, the joker who made them laugh all the way to the front. He was half-way through a joke a month later, when they shot the top half of his head away. And here his father was, grief written on his face but still hoping against hope that the army had sent him that telegram by mistake.

It was the look, the eyes, of old Oom Hatting, that triggered the thought. Fat old Oom Hatting with the round face and the small, pleading eyes. They had the same look the father-dove’s little round eyes had when he coo-ed at the hand about to destroy his offspring.

So Servaas, with his hand hovering over the defenceless nest and the father-dove cooing at him, saw the young soldier coming home. Felt the rattling of the wheels over the iron track. Breathed  freedom in the Kalahari air again. Saw the anxious face waiting at the station. It was all so real.

When he walked into Sammie’s Shop to buy the sheets of plastic, the shopkeeper wanted to ask the obvious question. Then he saw the set face with the grief in the eyes, remained silent and measured off the lengths.

It didn’t rain that day. Not in Rolbos, at least. Bitterbrak got that shower.

That evening, in Boggel’s Place, Kleinpiet glanced over to where Servaas was sipping his beer.

“He’s moody tonight,” he said, nudging Vetfaan to point at the lone drinker.

“No,” Gertruida (who knows everything) said. “He’s finally come home.”

And Servaas, who could hear every word in that small bar, looked up and gave her a small, trembling smile. It was the second time that day she had seen him naked and defenceless.

Kleinpiet didn’t understand, of course. Vetfaan didn’t care. But Boggel shuffled over with the Voortrekker Monument sugar bowl freshly filled with peanuts.  “We’re all glad about the rain, Servaas.” A small town like Rolbos has no secrets, you see?

Servaas dipped his huge hand into the bowl, gathered a handful of peanuts and deposited it in his pocket. He’ll feed the doves tomorrow. When he looked up, Boggel saw the strange look in his eyes: the look old Oom Hatting had, that day on the station.

14 thoughts on “Old Oom Hatting’s Eyes

  1. thehappyhugger

    While reading this story I had a cd playing softly…Erik Clapton – Tears in Heaven…the song and the story somehow go together, very sad, very heartbreaking. When Servaas feeds the doves, the sad look in his eyes wont be there anymore, even just for a little while.

  2. colonialist

    Really brilliant. I loved this one, moving from humour through tragedy to pathos, to hope. Bravo.

    btw – How well I remember reliance on the rain, and on nice clean water-collecting gutters!

  3. Antoinette

    It realy wake some memories. Hopefully Servaas will feel better after feeding the doves.
    Good story

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