“The Springboks lost again,” Kleinpiet is so upset; he’s not even drawing a picture on the counter today. “At half-time I thought we had them. Then, for some strange reason, we allowed them to beat us. It’s not that they won the game – we lost it. And of course, that Haka. Pure witchcraft, if you ask me.”
“Let it rest, Kleinpiet. We’re not going to change history. Anyway, we’ve got more important things to worry about.” Vetfaan wants to add that, being a previous flanker for Prieska’s first team doesn’t qualify you to judge international standards; but Kleinpiet’s mood would most probably not see the humour in that.
Ever since Servaas, old Marco and Martha returned from Italy, they had a lot to talk about, anyway. The story of Roberto had to be told and retold, until the townsfolk could actually see and hear the Ming vase as it broke on Roberto’s skull. Then Servaas would have to wait every time for the whoops and the applause to die down before he could demonstrate his tying-up technique on some hapless volunteer. It’s been years since they had so much good, clean fun in Boggel’s Place.
But there is another – more serious – situation to consider in Rolbos at present. Martha is here. Without her cocaine; she’s not doing very well. Servaas has put her up in the small spare room in his house (she refused to go anywhere else), and her tantrums cause a lot of discussions.
Gertruida knows all about addiction. “To stop cold turkey isn’t the way to do it.” Vetfaan says cold turkey can never match a good steak, causing Gertruida to roll her eyes and explain. “…so a sudden stop in the usage of these drugs cause the brain to malfunction. You get depression, aggression, bouts of complete insanity, insomnia, lack of appetite and even down-right criminal behaviour. Over and above that, such a person may have bowel abnormalities, become suicidal and irrational. This young lady is in a lot of trouble, and we have to do something about it.”
“Well. Oudoom is doing his best. He visits her twice a day. I never knew the old man had so much compassion – he’ll sit for hours, just talking to her. She’s always a bit calmer when he leaves.” Precilla has read up on addiction, as well. “I’ve given her a mild sedative, but that’s not going to do the trick. She needs lots of positive support, a healthy diet and some exercise. Servaas has taken to accompanying her on long walks, which is good. However, we must do more to get her physically fit.”
“Well, don’t look at me,” old Marco says, nudging Boggel. “The two of us won’t be much good if we tried to jog or do stuff like that. You need somebody with strong legs and a straight back for that.”
“Platnees!” Vetfaan is the one who grasps the solution. “We must get Platnees to run with her. Oh, boy, she’s in for it!”
Platnees listened, agreed to help, but said he wasn’t the man they needed.
“No. I know the man who’ll fix Miss Martha. He stays out in the desert and it’ll take me a few days to find him; but he’s the one. Nobody else.”
For four days the inhabitants of Rolbos scan the horizon for any sign of Platnees. Martha isn’t doing well. She has attacks of rage, followed by intense remorse. Oudoom’s visits – three a day, now – also seem to be less effective.
When at last Platnees arrives with the promised help, even Gertruida can’t believe her eyes. Ouboet Geel isn’t exactly what they expected. Sure: the man is a sinewy character with an engaging smile, but he is old and withered.
“He’s your runner?” Vetfaan asks incredulously.
“Yes, a little. But he’s also a fixer. He knows how things work. He can fix things that are wrong.”
“Listen, Platnees, this man knows nothing about cocaine. Out there in the desert he’d have had no clue what this type of addiction may involve. How can he hope to help?” Gertruida has joined the circle of people who’ve gathered around the old man. Loin-clothed, grey and toothless, Ouboet doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. “Does he even understand Afrikaans? Or English? Or Italian, for that matter?”
“No. He talks the language of the San, which I understand. But he says talking isn’t good. It is silence that heals the mind, not words. He says the Missy must go with him, and he’ll help her. He also says this thing in Miss Martha’s mind is not a sickness. It’s a demon. He knows demons.”
The strangled scream from Servaas’ cottage interrupts the conversation. It has become necessary to lock Martha in the room to prevent her from breaking any more crockery – something Martha has become very good at. Ouboet Geel turns his head, like a predator would, sniffing the air. He turns to Platnees to address him in the strange language of clicks and guttural sounds.
“Ouboet says he knows that demon. It is a bad one, he says. She must go with him, that’s the only way.”
Boggel’s Place has seen many an argument over the years. Some of them were serious, some not – but none compares to this discussion. How can they trust this old man with Martha? But how else can they help her anyway? This old man isn’t a doctor or a therapist, what does he know? That may be true, but supposing he has the ability – should they not give Martha the chance?
“There’s only one way to find out.” Gertruida, of course. “If the old man wants to take her into the desert, we can only allow that if we know she’s safe. So…let him take her. And we’ll select one of you guys to follow them. If she’s in danger, or the old man does anything untoward, then you bring her back. How about it?”
“Okay, Platnees, you can tell Ouboet we agree. He can take Martha, and when he returns with her all sober and cleaned up, we’ll give him two sheep. Is that okay with him?”
Platnees translates. Ouboet claps his hands in appreciation.
“Now, we’ll have to explain to Martha what is happening. Tell Ouboet to wait here, we’ll be back with Martha and some supplies, clothes and water.” Vetfaan turns to go while Platnees translates. Halfway to Servaas’ cottage, Oubout overtakes him, stops and shakes his head.
“He says this is no place for you. It is his job. He’ll do it.” Platnees seems a bit unsure, but Ouboet fixes him with a smiling stare. “Just give him a chance, Mister Vetfaan?”
They watch as Ouboet Geel walks to the cottage, opens the door and disappears inside.
“Did you tell him where she is, Platnees?”
Platnees shakes his head. You don’t explain things to Ouboet…
The screaming from inside the house reaches a crescendo and then dies down to a whimper. Servaas and the rest of the townsfolk watch through the window as Ouboet sits down in front of the locked door. He doesn’t say anything. He just sits there.
“What’s he doing?” Kleinpiet asks the question on everybody’s mind.
“Only Ouboet knows, Mister Kleinpiet. Only him.”
With nothing happening inside the cottage, the villagers retire to Boggel’s to reflect and down a few beers. Two hours later, they see the withered old man walking from Servaas’ cottage, leading Martha by the hand.
“She’ s got nothing with her. No extra clothing. Not a brush. And she looks terrible – her dress is a mess and she’s torn her blouse. Platnees! Tell Ouboet to stop. We’ll fix her up a bit, first.”
But Platnees holds up a hand, saying one mustn’t interfere with Ouboet when he’s working. Ouboet, he says, knows what he is doing.
Pete, the fittest of the Rolbossers, grabs his water bottle. He’s agreed to be the one that follows Ouboet and Martha into the desert and he doesn’t want to give them too much of a head start. With the sun already racing to the western horizon, he can’t afford to lose sight of them.
“They walked to the other side of Bokkop, there where the patch of thorn bushes is. He made her sit down, and he sang something while he made a fire. She seemed calm. Then he threw something into the fire, causing a billowing cloud of smoke. When that cleared, they were gone.” Pete seems dazed when he returns to Boggel’s Place two hours later. He tells them how he searched for footprints, even after it became dark and he had to use his torch. “It’s as if they disappeared into thin air. Poof! Just like that.”
“Ouboet does that thing, sometimes. If you follow him, he’ll disappear. But don’t worry, Mister Pete, Ouboet is a man of his word. He said three days. Three days. Then he’ll be back. Now we must wait.”
The three days is a period of intense debate. Vetfaan and Kleinpiet had a look at the place where Ouboet made the fire – and found only Pete’s footprints next to the ashes. Servaas is too distraught to participate in the discussions; the Verdana’s suggest a posse to scour the desert; Sersant Dreyer does wide-ranging patrols in his Land Rover; Precilla has that I-told-you-so expression and Gertruida reads up on the ways and actions of shamans.
“He’ll be back, you’ll see,” Platnees tells the men at the bar. “Ouboet will come back.”
And Ouboet does, on day three, as he promised. The first thing the townsfolk notice is the frail column of smoke on the other side of Bokkop. Platnees sees it initially, points it out and says it’s a sign. They must go there, go there now, because Ouboet will be waiting…
They find Martha next to the little fire. She seems…different. Servaas can’t help himself: he storms ahead to embrace the girl, telling her how much he was worried about her.
“Are you okay? Are you…well?”
She looks into the concerned eyes of the old man and laughs. Not an ugly laugh, you understand, a tinkling laugh of joy. “Oh, yes, Servaas! I’ve never felt so good in my life.” Then, momentarily, she looks confused. “But…but what am I doing here? And why is everybody looking at me like that?”
And it is true. They all stare at the woman who ranted and raved only three days ago. Now she is smiling; a radiant picture of health.
Servaas tries to explain. Vetfaan tells her about her withdrawal and how they didn’t know what to do. Kleinpiet chips in, asking about Ouboet. Precilla asks who washed her dress and fixed her blouse. Gertruida wants to know who did her hair so beautifully. Oudoom shakes his head.
It’s only Platnees who separates himself from the group to sit down on the sand with a satisfied smile spreading across his face. Yes, Ouboet did it again. You have a problem – a mind problem (or a demon-problem, as Ouboet calls it) – he’s your man. There are shrubs out there in the desert. Shrubs and herbs and …silence. Ouboet always says that silence can fix most things; you must just learn to listen to what it tells you. The white people won’t understand; they think they are too modern to believe in such things. Maybe, one day, they’ll realise the healing power of the whispers you only hear in silence out there in the desert.
And oh, yes, Mister Vetfaan can go and count his sheep. There’ll be two missing…