The old man sits – like somebody much younger would – on his haunches as he blows the smouldering grass to flames. He’s done this so many times in his life, he doesn’t even think about what he’s doing. His eyes scan his immediate surroundings: this valley is renowned for its snakes and scorpions.
He’ll wait till only the embers of the fire remains before he places the rabbit’s carcass on them. In the meantime, he’s got nothing to do but wait.
His journey has been a long one; happy and sad, easy and hard, like most older people may say. However, the secret of the family now rests upon his shoulders and he has to trust somebody to carry it into the future. He looked at the Moon last night, and saw the message: it is time for him to go home.
But what about the secret? The Moon said nothing. It is up to him, now.
The secret has been in the family since before other people came here. Before the blacks and the whites and the others. His grandfather used to say they are the oldest family in the Kalahari and that they already stayed here when the Great River still flowed across the Makgadikgadi Pans, many, many years ago. There were giants in those days, huge men in flowing white robes that sailed across the water of the pans that was a sea back then. They transported gold from up north as well as many slaves. His grandfather didn’t know where these men came from, but said they had big stone houses, and they lived near another great river.
Then, according to the grandfather, the Moon saw what was happening and shook the earth, like a dog would shake his body to get rid of the sand. And the earth shook and trembled, And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed all the water, so that only the bottom of the sea remained, The shells and the fish died and the men in the flowing robes went away. That’s what his grandfather said.
The Moon felt sorry for the small family that lived at the edge of the great lake that once provided them with abundant food.
Look, the Moon said, I had to punish those men who came here to take away the gold and the slaves. I shook the world and they fell from it, even like sand does from a dog’s back. But now this family has lost its way of living. I will have to give them something else.
The Moon thought and thought. Now the country was dry the small family, that used to stay at the edge of the great lake that used to be there, grew very thin and weak. The Moon felt sorry for them and taught them how to hunt. It showed them where to look for water. And it gave to them the secret of fire.
And it showed them the Cave of Stones. The Moon said: These are the hardest stones on Earth. They are also very beautiful. If other men knew about this cave, they will do what the men in the flowing white robes did. They will take it away from you and you’ll become their slaves. Only you and one person out of every generation must know about the cave. Tell the secret once, only. Show the cave once, only. And in doing so, many, many years from now, the last one of the family must be buried here. For when all the seasons have passed, I shall return to look for my stones. If the family has looked after the cave well, I will make them live next to a great river once more, where there are fish and good hunting and honey and many trees with sweet berries.
The old man knows those words by heart, for he has said them over many fires, for fear of losing them. If he keeps the words alive, he won’t forget them. Now that it is time for him to return to his family, he must make sure he gets buried in that cave. But who can he trust and who can he tell?
Then, a few days ago, he came across another family in the desert. They shared water with him and they talked late into the night. When they asked him to travel with them, he smiled and said he was too old. But there was something he wanted to know…
Oh, said the one. There is a man in the town near Bokkop. You may trust him. People tell him all kinds of secrets, but he’ll never say anything to anybody about it. You’ll know him when you see him. He is bent like a broken branch. And: I’ll ask my nephew to tell him about you. I’ll ask my nephew to ask him to come.
Three days later, Kleinpiet walks into Boggel’s Place to find Gertruida behind the counter.
“Well, I never! A woman to serve our drinks for two days in a row! Now, I can become used to that…where’s Boggel?”
Gertruida shrugs. “He left in a hurry. Remember he drove into the desert yesterday after Platnees spoke to him? He said he felt the need for some peace and quiet. Well, he came back this morning and asked me to look after his bar for one more day. Said he needed a bit more time.”
Sammie walks in and waits for Vetfaan to buy him a beer. “Only two months to go, Vetfaan, then you’re all square and I’ll buy my own beer again. Don’t sulk, now.” He turns to Gertruida: “Boggel told me you’d be here today. I saw him at the shop just after I opened.”
“Oh?” Curiosity gets the better of her. “What did he buy?”
“That’s the strangest shopping list I ever had. One Bible and two sticks of dynamite. I asked him what he up to, and he said he was going to save the world. When I wanted to know more, he simply clammed up. And, even more strange, he paid in cash. That’s the last I saw of him. Got into that old Land Rover and headed for the desert.”
Vetfaan scratches his head. “I can understand the dynamite. Maybe he’s found an old well or a fountain. Sometimes you can get them flowing again if you use some explosives. But the Bible…now what would he want with a Bible?”
“Well, I disagree. I think the Bible is for meditation. Or maybe he’s found somebody that needs one. It’s the dynamite that puzzles me.” Even in Gertruida’s mind, the two things cannot be made to fit together.
Kleinpiet suggestion about a heavenly blowjob gets cut short by Gertruida’s withering stare.
That evening, Boggel is behind the counter as usual. Between serving beers, he rests on his cushion below the counter, where he pages through the old Reader’s Digests. Eventually, Vetfaan can’t stand the silence any more.
“Come on, Boggel, tell us! Where did you go today and what did you do?”
But you know how it is. Barmen hear all kinds of stories, some of them are gossip, others contain great wisdom and even occasionally, a secret will cross the counter. A good barman must sometimes give the impression he heard nothing, even if he did. At other times he must listen carefully, and do his best to look sympathetic. There are occasions, too, when his advice is sought or where he may be required to help smooth over a troubled relationship.
But always, always, a good barman knows when to keep his trap shut. So, when Vetfaan asks the same question for the third time, Boggel looks up from his Readers Digest.
“What is the most important right now, Vetfaan? To be served another beer or hear the answer?”
Of course he chooses the beer.
That’s another thing a good, trustworthy barman must be good at. He can tell you to go screw yourself with a smile and without saying a word.