“Don’t you lock the front door?” Small-girl voice from Precilla.
“With what?” Kleinpiet laughs at the absurdity of the question. Seeing her reaction, he back-pedals quickly: “In all the time I’ve lived here, that front door never had a key. I simply push it closed, move this brick against it, and we’re secure for the night.” He moves the brick – neatly covered in an old flour bag, against the door. “See?”
The evening had been a quite pleasant one. Kleinpiet tried to be the perfect host, burnt the Boerewors and had to ask help with the salad. The wine rescued the evening: a deep-red, aromatic Merlot with the perfect lingering aftertaste. They talked, listened to the old wind-up gramophone, and even said things to each other they never did before. When Precilla started yawning, Jock (the ancient Sheep Dog) flopped down in front of the fire. He kept on glancing at the two; they were interfering with his bed-time.
An awkward moment followed. Must he kiss her goodnight? Follow her to her bedroom? Make a move? Precilla saw the uncertainty and told him it’s way past her bedtime. Would he mind if she turned in? Kleinpiet – much relieved to be free of any further expectation – readily stood up and closed the front door.
He listens to Precilla in the bathroom. He has tied the bucket-shower up high after filling it with warm water; and now he imagines the trim body as the hands work the soap over the skin. Jock gives him a baleful stare. Humans are crazy – they complicate things too much. Kleinpiet smiles as he ruffles the hair around the dog’s neck. “As if you know anything,” he whispers.
Five minutes later, dressed in a shapeless tracksuit, Precilla waves goodnight and disappears into her room.
It’s way past midnight, and the two of them – each for his or her own reason – can’t drop off the slow slope that leads to sleep. Kleinpiet worries about the burnt wors; and then later, whether she’d ever like to stay on the farm. Then he turns around yet again, telling himself not to count his sheep before they are all in the kraal. Precilla, on the other hand, stares into the darkness, wondering what to do about Kleinpiet. He made it clear he wanted children, but after the incident with Richard, it is out of the question. She remembers that they chatted about their individual pasts a long time ago, but did she tell him everything? Or did he understand exactly what she told him?[i]
But the silence is the thing that gets to her the most. In Rolbos, Vrede will bark at something occasionally. The old alarm clock next to her bed ticks off the seconds. The roof of her rondawel will sigh as the wind moves over it. But not here…here the silence is absolute. No crickets. Not even the cry of a jackal. Nothing. It is as if the Kalahari is holding its breath in anticipation of …. what? She wishes she had the nerve to creep in behind Kleinpiet’s back – just to be near another living, breathing person.
The radio crackles to life at exactly 2:07 – that’s what the luminous dial of her watch reads. Sitting bolt upright at the sudden intrusion, Precilla listens to the excited voice reporting over the network that ‘something strange’ is going on. She can’t hear everything – the radio is next to Kleinpiet’s bed – but the tone of the voice tells her more that the words would have. Straining to hear, she only makes out single words here and there: masses of them, and: try to divert the leaders. Later: broke through the fence near Bokkop. Nothing will stop them.
The broadcast lasts for maybe two minutes. Too frightened to light the candle next to her bed, Precilla draws the blankets close: what will Kleinpiet do? She hears him tumble from bed, then the rustle as he dresses in haste. His heavy footsteps rush towards the kitchen where he opens the creaking door of a cupboard. Then she hears the sound that makes her cringe – the distinct clack of a bullet being rammed into the breech. Kleinpiet Is loading a gun to …. shoot? No! His footsteps rush back to her door, stops, he knocks softly.
“Precilla?” It’s a forced whisper. “I’m going out quickly. Don’t get up. Don’t leave your room…” With that, he’s gone – the slamming of the front door a terrible sound that tells her she’s all alone in the rickety house; the one with no locks in the isolation of the Kalahari.
The mind can act up a lot under such circumstances. It computes the possibilities, analyses the situation, comes to conclusions. Precilla is no fool; if they are in mortal danger (Kleinpiet loaded the gun, for goodness’ sakes!), then she can’t just sit in the bed, waiting for the inevitable! But what to do? Going outside will put her in an environment she has little knowledge of. Hiding in the shed? Not a good idea. Maybe she should take Kleinpiet’s pickup and rush to Rolbos to get help? But … she might very well run into an ambush, and what good will that do? Even lighting the candle can make her a target.
The crash of a heavy calibre gun echoes off the low hills and cramps her fingers clutching the blankets to her chest. For a minute the silence is so intense that she forgets to breathe. Then another shot – and another. With rising panic, Precilla starts sobbing.
She becomes aware of another sound – a soft whimpering noise outside her door. Jock, the old Sheep Dog! She pulls herself together, slips from bed and opens the door. A thankful bundle of canine gratitude bundles into her room; and jumps on her bed. It’s difficult to say who is the most relieved: woman or dog, but it doesn’t matter – two very frightened souls find solace in each other’s company as the shots keep on echoing across the veld.
“At least we know he’s still okay if we hear those shots, Jock,” she tells the panting dog.
The eastern sky shows the first hint of orange when at last Kleinpiet pushes open the front door again.
“They’ve gone,” he tells her while he pumps the Primus to make some coffee. “Can’t say how many there were, but the shots sure scared them off. They swerved to the north, towards Bitterbrak. I’ll have to let Ben know to be on the lookout.”
“Who were they?” Precilla is still shivering from shock.
“Not who, Precilla. What. Trekbokke. Thousands of them.”
It takes several mugs of strong Voortrekker coffee to explain it all. The last big Springbok migration happened early in the 20th century, but indiscriminate shooting and the erection of fences caused such a drop in wildlife numbers, that it eventually stopped. In recent years, farmers have started dropping fences and conserving game with the aim of providing wildlife with a more natural habitat.
“The guys wondered whether Nature would be able to restore the old instincts to migrate, and tonight we’ve seen it. That’s wonderful. The only problem is that we have to divert the herd from homesteads and places they can damage during their headlong rush. Such a migrating herd can cause mayhem in their wake – they trample everything. The only solution is to make a lot of noise, hoping they’d change their course a bit. They did. I must have shot up a whole box of ammunition, but it was worth it.”
“You fired those shots … in the air?”
“Sure did. Didn’t want to harm the herd, you know?”
Two miles away, in the lee of Bokkop, two men roast the chicken they stole the previous evening from the isolated farm where they watched the couple having dinner.
“Eish, that man – he is too ready. He was shooting all night.”
His companion glared at him. “I know, I’m not deaf.”
“We’ll have to report that to the others. Tell them to look for easier targets. Over here, these farmers shoot first, then ask questions.”
“They don’t have much to steal, anyway. I have a better house than that man. That’s what we’ll report.”
“Hai, Comrade, you’re burning that chicken. Turn it over, will you?”
“Always complaining! Too raw. Too burnt. Just like the politics – it’s never done exactly right.” He ignores the questioning look he gets as an answer.
Mass migration is a natural phenomenon. Springbok, Wildebeest, Zebra – they all obey the urge to seek greener pastures from time to time. Sadly, especially in Southern Africa, people will do the same. Striking, demanding, destroying property, the massive herd of people trample everything in their way in the quest to feed the hunger for power. Maybe it is time to remind these men and women that, during the biggest migrations, it is said that the trekbokke just kept on running, running, until they reached the Atlantic Ocean – where they all drowned.