Recce White lives in a cottage on the edge of a small salt pan, way out in the most arid part of the desert. He doesn’t farm with anything, doesn’t come to town, and doesn’t speak with anybody. Gertruida will tell you – in a hushed voice, filled with awe – that he is a writer.
“He writes poetry. Deep stuff he gets published in New York and London. He’s won the Neustadt Prize in 2010, but he’s turned it down. Apparently the organisers were so upset they sent some local agents out there to talk to him, but they never got to see him – he simply disappeared into the desert.
“A month later he bought some supplies from Sammie, who asked him about it. Recce simply smirked, and said he writes so that people can understand – and not to win silly prizes. Sammie said that was the most he had ever heard the man say.”
They sometimes talk about the hermit in Boggel’s Place, but then only to say it is strange that somebody stays alone like that. And they wonder about water. And why he writes about wars and Bushmen and injustice. Even Gertruida can’t tell you these things. She’ll tell you that Recce used to be a soldier, but she doesn’t know much more.
Things may never have changed if Sammie hadn’t checked his books to see if everybody paid up their April accounts. That’s when he found out that Recce last bought anything in November, and that he hasn’t been back since. He mentioned this to Gertruida, who said something about it in Boggel’s Place that night.
That’s why the little group sets out in two vehicles as the sun rises over Rolbos. Vetfaan and Servaas drive on ahead, while Kleinpiet and Precilla follow on the faint track leading North-West from the end of Voortrekker Weg. Vrede, the town dog, gives little yelps of pleasure on the back of Vetfaan’s pickup – he enjoys every excursion into the Kalahari. So much to sniff at, so many tracks to follow.
It takes them a full four hours to reach the cottage, more or less where Gertruida said they would. To call it a cottage is also not quite accurate – it’s a shelter, a shack, with a corrugated iron roof and wooden walls. Recce’s old Land Rover is parked at the side, covered with a thick layer of dust.
“It looks deserted,” Servaas remarks as the all get out of the vehicles, “and I doubt if anybody has been around for months. Look at the Landy – and the tumble weeds against the door. I think he’s left. Poor Sammie.”
“No, Recce isn’t like that. He always settled his account at Sammie’s whenever he went into town again. I don’t think he would have left without paying what he owed.” Kleinpiet’s forehead is furrowed in a deep frown. Something must have happened…
Vrede has jumped off the pickup and is scampering about, sniffing at everything and enjoying the freedom. There are no fences – only the wide horizons calling him this way and that.
Precilla knocks; gingerly at first, but more insistent later; on the rickety door. To her surprise, it swings open to reveal the almost-bare interior. It isn’t much of a home.
Against the one wall, a neatly made bed is unoccupied, with a few folded shirts and pants laid out on the plank that serves as a shelf. Below it, two pairs of boots are arranged next to each other. Next to the opposite wall, a stack of paper rests on small table. A box obviously served as a chair.
“There’s no kitchen. No utensils, either. It looks as if he merely slept here, maybe even wrote here, but I can’t see how he lived. Where are the groceries? What about water?” Precilla goes out to walk around the dwelling, but finds nothing of interest. The place is deserted, indeed.
“Well, this is where he lived,” Kleinpiet isn’t aware that he is using the past tense. “His Landy is here, so are his clothes. He hasn’t been here for a long time, either. Look at the dust on those papers…” His voice trails off into uncertainty.
“My, my, my. This man certainly wrote a lot! Such neat handwriting, too… Look at these poems – so many of them! And here are a few crumpled pages he was obviously not happy with.” Precilla blows the dust from the topmost page. “This one is titled An unjust war, and the next one: Innocence caught in cross-fire.” When she reads the poems, her hand flies to her mouth.
Servaas notices this and looks at some of the others. “This one reads, Remorse; and look at this page: Hiding from Hell.” He shakes his head. “This was one troubled man, that’s for sure. Who’d read something called Humanity Humiliated? Or Nobody won? It starts with: On the bloody plains of yesterday/ Tomorrow rests unsure/ We crawl through mud and grime/ Our minds no longer pure… and then later: In ivory towers of blanching white/ The men in suits drink tea/ They care not about my blood and death/ They care not…about me. Who’d read stuff like this? It’s sick man, it doesn’t make sense. And they wanted him to receive a prize? No wonder he turned them down.”
Vetfaan, practical as always, shakes his head. “I don’t know much about poetry, guys; but I do know this man is long gone. He’s not here anymore. We may as well go back.” He doesn’t say it, but he reads death in the empty shack. Somehow the rest understands…
“Ja, man, I agree. Close the door, let’s go.” Kleinpiet wants to get home before dark. He calls Precilla, who is reading a poem called The Wisdom. She’s just finished Roots when she picks up the envelope.
They have difficulty getting Vrede back on the van. He seems to want to explore a bit more, but Vetfaan’s stern voice makes him jump on the back, tail drooping. Vetfaan promises him a piece of biltong, which cheers him up a bit.
As the little convoy bounces back towards Rolbos, it is only Vrede who notices the glint of sun on glass in the veld, some distance off. He barks loud enough for Kleinpiet to smile.
“He loves riding on that van. He must enjoy the freedom.”
Precilla doesn’t hear: she’s in deep thought. The poetry has had a profound effect on her. She’s fingering the envelope with Sammie’s name on it.
The man gets up, puts the binoculars in its case and walks back to the little yellow woman, where she’s waiting in the hollowed-out shelter next to the shallow fountain. He calls her Ruth, because her real name has too many clicks in it. She’s slicing a fat tuber into a bowl – it’s almost lunch time.
“Come, Ruth,” he says kindly. “They’ve gone. Tonight we can sleep in our bed again.”
She smiles up at him; a smile almost touching the high cheekbones. “They no understand. Only you. You write page again tonight?”
“They don’t understand the truth, it’s foreign to them. They only like stories.”
“I know, Recce-White. But my stories are true. I tell them, you write. Like we did before.”
He stares down at the red sand of the Kalahari, head bowed. Then he glances over at her eager face, and his heart melts. They’ve been through all of this – many, many times. And we: well we are just at the beginning. Somebody must tell the people.
“Yes,” he says with a tired sigh, “you tell me about Ruth. I’ll write. Just like before. Maybe they’ll hear us this time.”
“Come, Recce-White,” she says in a singsong voice, concentrating on keeping the click out of come, “we go home now. Me and you. I tell more of my story. You write about Ruth. Put my people on a page. We tell people…maybe they hear.”
He walks ahead wondering, as he always does, where he is leading her to.
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