Monthly Archives: October 2012

Stampede

“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.

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The Warthog Way

They have to stop at the dry drift as a mother warthog leads her young across the road. Hurrying as fast as their short legs can carry them, the erect tails signal their urgency.

“Oh, look, Kleinpiet! Aren’t they cute? It looks like a little procession of dwarfs…”

“Well, don’t be deceived. Those tusks can do a lot of damage and even cheetahs will shy away from a confrontation. But…they do look cuddlesome, don’t they? And look at the five babies: they always run in a specific order, with their little leader right behind mamma.”

Precilla smiles happily – get Kleinpiet into the veld, and he’s a veritable fountain of information. Often, in Boggel’s Place, he’ll sit quietly while drawing silly pictures on the counter top with his beer froth. Out here, he’s in his element and talking with him isn’t only easy – it’s quite a pleasure, too.

“I’ve watched this female for some time; she has at least eight burrows I know of – sleeps in a different bed every night,” he glances over with a smile, “but only with her kids. Males have no function other than providing the other half of the recipe for pregnancy. It’s the females that do the rest – protecting the young, feeding them, putting them to bed at night.  That’s why she’s so careful not to use the same burrow every day – she doesn’t want predators to figure out how to ambush her family.”

The little procession disappears behind some bushes, leaving only a small dust-cloud to mark the spot. Kleinpiet reaches below the pickup’s seat to extract two cold beers, twists off the tops and hands one to Precilla. She’s wearing no makeup today – just the old-fashioned blouse and jeans – and somehow he prefers her natural look.  She catches him staring at her and blushes.

“Don’t look at me that way, Kleinpiet. You make me nervous.” Although said in a light tone, the words sting.

“I…I was just…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. A lioness suddenly appears from the overgrowth, clearly following the scent of the warthogs. Kleinpiet has switched off the engine when they first saw the family of hogs, and now the big cat awards them only the briefest of glances. Within a few short seconds, she melts away in the bushes, still intent on securing a meal for the day.

“Oh, nooo! That lioness wants to eat one of the piglets!” The horror on Precilla’s face reflects her thoughts. “You have to stop her, Kleinpiet! Please!!” Her hand grips into his thigh as the reality of the situation dawns on her.

Kleinpiet sighs. “The lioness most probably has a few mouths to feed as well – and they have to eat to survive, too. It’s the old law of nature, I’m afraid.” He pats the cramping hand to try and calm her down. “Long ago, I’ve decided not to interfere. Nature must run its course, Precilla – the way it’s been since the beginning. We humans have an uncanny way of upsetting the balance that has existed through all the ages. I’m sorry, but we’ll just have to let them sort it out themselves.”

“But they’ve got no chance! In that lioness charges, least one piglet will die!” A tear streaks down te rosy cheek.

“Nah..it isn’t one-sided. That hog has a burrow next to the tree over there. The breeze comes from over here,” he points to the direction the animals came from, “so she most probably smelled that lion a long time ago. That’s why she’s heading towards safety. At the burrow, the young ones will pile in head first, but she’ll reverse in to watch the opening. And believe me! If you want to sustain some serious damage, you go ahead and poke your snout into that hole. She’ll slash away with those tusks until you give up. No, they’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

He starts the vehicle and allows it to roll forward slowly. Precilla seems relieved, but still keeps on glancing towards the tree to see if anything happened. Despite his assurances, she’s not convinced at all.

***

It’s the first time that Kleinpiet invited her to his farm. Like all other in the area, the farm is a huge stretch of Kalahari, dotted with stunted growth and the occasional wind pump. The sheep have been divided into smaller groups, each assigned to a specific area to prevent overgrazing. Precilla is mildly surprised at the neat little homestead with its small lawn surrounded by thorn trees – and says so.

“It isn’t much, I’m afraid, but it’s enough. Over there are the sheds for shearing and storing the wool; and if you look carefully, you’ll see my cow Julia Milkcow, browsing next to the tree behind the wind pump. The two cottages are for the workers – Patrick and Nkosasana – who help make this set-up work. Come, let me show you to your room.”

The house is spotless. Although the furniture is slightly aged and the floor has born the brunt of generations of feet, everything is tidy and all surfaces shine with obvious recent attention. The kitchen dates from a bygone era, with the Dover stove and the lantern as testimony of the remoteness of the farm. The single bathroom offers an enamel basin with its jug, a bucket-shower and a toilet.  In the guestroom, a small arrangement of desert flowers keeps the candle company.

They spend the afternoon on the stoep, talking. Kleinpiet has quite an astounding array of wine in his little pantry, and soon they forget the strangeness of being alone in this isolated spot. Kleinpiet gave the workers the weekend off, and they have the place to themselves.

“Aren’t you scared to live alone like this? I mean, with all the farm attacks and such.” Kleinpiet has just refilled their glasses and looks up in surprise at the question.

“This?” He stretches out a tanned hand towards the endless horizon around them. “No, this isn’t what all those farm attacks are about. We’re too remote, see? Now, if you live near a city, that’s different. There you have thousands – millions – of disillusioned people who believed the government when they were promised housing, schools, hospitals and exorbitant salaries. There, if a farm is attacked, it is easy for the TV crews and the newspapers to get the story. Sensation. Morbid fascination. And the government doesn’t do much about it, because if they get involved, the truth of their non-compliance will surface. It’s far better for them to label it as racially motivated than to acknowledge their failures.

“But over here? Who wants this ground anyway? Its only if the Kalahari is in your blood that you will want to stay here. Sooo …. To answer your question: no, I’m not worried. But like that warthog, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. They attack me, and I’ll show them my bank overdraft. That’s enough to scare anybody away.” He laughs at this, but can still see she’s uncomfortable. He’s not going to tell her about the radio network, the electrified fences and the arsenal in the cupboard. Nobody’s going to take his farm away from him – not like they do in Zimbabwe. He’s the fifth generation Kleinpiet on this ground and he plans to make sure his son will take over one day.  “Enough of that. Let’s go for a drive, and I’ll show you the farm.”

He takes a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses along as he allows his old Land Rover to meander across the vast stretch of arid ground. They sight a few gemsbok, a lonely tortoise and later, an eagle circling overhead. In the shade of a thorn tree, he stops and scans the veld.

For a few moments its only the creaking of the cooling engine that mars the silence – then they are enveloped in the unique hush of a Kalahari sunset.

“This is what peace is all about, Precilla. Late afternoon, a lovely lady and a good wine. What more can a man ask?”

“Maybe that more people in the country realise the value of listening, and stop shouting?”

***

On their way home, Kleinpiet takes the same route they used this morning. Maybe it’s luck. Or possibly coincidence. Or – more likely – it just happened, like things do on this great continent. Whichever it is: as they round the bend in the sandy road, the mother warthog and her five youngsters trot across the road, tails held high, proudly proclaiming they have survived another day in Africa.

Precilla heaves a happy sigh. “They made it.”

“Yes,” he says. “One day at a time, Precilla, one day at a time. As long as they have a burrow, they’ll endure.”

Sometimes men say things about their world: about the struggle and risks for survival. Men all over the world do it. And all over the world, women listen to this on a far more personal note. Precilla and the warthog have at least one common goal: to find a way to live in an environment few others are able to.

“That’s the thing to do,” she whispers to the last little warthog as it disappears amongst the shrubs. “One day at a time. May the burrow be warm and safe tonight.”

Kleinpiet isn’t at all sure she’s talking to the warthogs.

The Life Saver

It’s not uncommon for people to get lost on their way through life. It happens. Look at Boggel – a man of immeasurable abilities: he ended up being a barman. Or Precilla; who lost everything and had to start over in Rolbos. Or Oudoom, who married the wrong girl for all the right reasons. In fact, most people take the wrong turn somewhere and end up in some crazy situation that begs explanation.

Most people visiting Boggel’s Place for the first time will think the Verdanas are exceptions to this rule. Lucinda, with her breathtaking beauty and ready laugh; and old Marco, the successful businessman; they both exude an aura of triumph over adversity.  Like the rest of the townsfolk, they choose to live in Rolbos – but in contrast to them, they’ve come here to rest, not escape. At least, if you asked around town, that’s the answer you’ll get.

Sammie summed it up the other day. Look, he said, the lot of us sought refuge here because we don’t want to face society with our broken lives. Those Italians, however, came here because the world is crazy and they can’t face that any more. Sammie can be quite a philosopher if he wants to. Gertruida says it’s because he spends a lot of time thinking and very little time drinking.  Vetfaan says it works the other way around.

Still, when Lucinda walks into Boggel’s Place, nobody cares about the psychology behind their staying in Rolbos. The only thing that counts, is the way she walks; a swaying, easy gait. And there are the dresses she wears: short and flaring, a flash of tanned leg and those ankles that draw the men’s eyes like magnets. Add the red lips, the sparkling eyes and the alluring smile – and you forget about all the theories of life to sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

She’s also the reason why Boggel is such a hero these days. Whenever she walks around the counter to plant a delicate kiss on his forehead, the rest of the men sigh, sip their beers and sulk. Today she is particularly lovely: she let her hair loose and wears a little pendant around her delicate neck. When Kleinpiet stared, Precilla slapped him and he swore he only tried to see the locket. She might have believed him, had Vetfaan not laughed at that moment.

Lucinda promised herself never to talk about the ornament. It hurts too much. But, as much as she hates the damn thing, she feels compelled to wear it, anyway. Oh, it does represent good times, wine and lots of laughter; and maybe that makes it easier to fasten the little clasp behind her neck. It also contains the photograph of the man who never had the opportunity to tell her what he wanted to.

***

Being a student in Rome is arguably the nearest thing to complete freedom she ever had. Away from Marco and surrounded by throngs of friends (mostly male), Lucinda ruled the social roost with her presence and her beauty. Everybody wanted to be her friend. There were parties and dances, evenings in the theatre and in the music halls. She became a familiar face in the many street cafes and bistros where doe-eyed suitors vied for her attention.  She played them all like a finely-tuned instrument, filling her life with the melodies of love and laughter.

Then Andrew arrived. Andrew Scott, the American student, the son of an oil tycoon in Texas.

Most people will tell you there is a very thin line between being good friends and being in love. Or maybe there is little to distinguish falling in love from being in love. However these things are defined, Lucinda fell for Andrew in a big way. One cannot blame a young girl for doing so, can one? Andrew, for instance, didn’t arrive in Rome by aeroplane, like the rest of them. He parked his yacht in the harbour of Civitavecchia, and used his Lamborghini to drive to Rome. At the end of the academic year, he’d collect a bevy of beauties, get the crew ready, and sail back to Houston, where the private jet waited to take them to the ranch for Christmas.

Marco objected, of course. It didn’t help.

Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, the party was in full swing and Andrew’s guests were gorging themselves of the caviar and champagne. Lucinda stepped up to the deck to get away from the din, to stare at the millions of stars above. She remembers thinking that the passengers on board of the Titanic must have looked at the same stars before tragedy struck.

***

She becomes aware somebody behind her as the boat cruises silently through the smooth sea. Over the last few days she has become disenchanted with the continuous partying and excesses on board. At home, Marco would be in front of the fire, drinking Chianti and reading a classic. How she regrets coming on this cruise! What seemed to be an adventure of a lifetime has turned out to be nothing more than a drunken nightmare.

“Don’t turn around,” he whispered as he placed the trinket around her neck. “This is to say I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Surely he has done this every year for the past few years – this is what he likes, isn’t it? Girls – scantily dressed (or not at all), flanking him from morning to night, while waiters in pristine white saw to their every whim?

“I shouldn’t have done this.” He places his hands on her shoulders, turning her around gently. “You don’t belong with them” He sweeps an arm towards the cabin below them, where the music blared and the voices reach a new peak. “I don’t belong there, either. Not any more…”

When she shakes her head, he tries to explain.  “I thought it would be fun, like last year, and the year before. One long, trans-Atlantic party. Girls. Music. Champagne.” He shrugs and remains silent for a while. “My mother said it was all right, rich young men must experience life before settling down. Father agreed, because he always does what my mother tells him to. Anyway, I came to Rome to be as far away from home as possible. I wanted to live – not as the son of an oil baron, but as myself. But I found out you can’t escape wealth unless you give it all away.  You see, those girls down there;” pointing at the cabin once more, “they don’t care about love or friendship or even being a passable companion. They see a lifetime of luxury and will sell their souls to the devil to manage that. If they say I love you, you can’t believe them.

“But you? You are different. That’s why I have to apologise. It’s the least I can do.”

At that moment, one of the blondes comes storming out, champagne in hand and giggling drunkenly.

“Andrew, you naughty boy! You left me all alone with all those silly girls down there!” She stops to stare myopically at Lucinda. “What! You’re flirting with this Italian hussy?  Are you crazy? Come down to the party immediately!”

Alcohol will do that. You can change from playful banter to rage in an instant – and that’s what happened to the girl.

“It’s okay, Lucinda,” Andrew whispers. “I’ll handle her. Wait for me, there’s something I have to tell you.”

Taking the girl by the elbow, he tries to steer her back inside, but she manages to turn in his grip to shout at Lucinda. You keep away from him, you sgualdrinetta! She has to try three times before she manages to get the word right. If I catch you near him again, I’ll rip your eyes out! Yanking free from the hand on her elbow, she storms Lucinda in the rage only irrational people are capable of. Andrew makes a desperate attempt to grab her, misses, comes crashing down on the deck. As the girl reaches out to grab her, Lucinda steps aside, allowing the girl to crash against the railing.

Time can be deceptive. Although every second is measured in exact terms, some seconds seem shorter – or longer – than the rest. In the second it takes for the girl to stare wide-eyed at Lucida before finally toppling over the balustrade, three people experience time as they’ve never done before. When at last she disappears from view, there is another long second before Andrew acts.

Shouting at the crew, he strips off his shirt to dive into the ocean. Lucinda is hysterical, screaming that they must stop, stop now, for there are people overboard. The captain, truth be told, is quick and efficient. Having marked the spot by GPS, he turns the boat to look for the two unfortunate people.

They find and rescue the girl almost immediately.

A passing passenger ship finds the body of Andrew Scott a week later.

***

Lucinda kisses Boggel gently as the patrons sigh, sip their beers and sulk. Boggel is surely a lucky man! Imagine that – in a place like Rolbos!

“Boggle,” she still struggles with the guttural double ‘g’, “you’ll tell me, won’t you?”

And Boggel, who has never been on a cruise on the Atlantic, nods dumbly.  But sometimes – rarely – it is better to not ask the obvious question.

“And Boggle,” she hesitates, “I promise to do the same.”

An involuntary hand goes up to the pendant, to run a finger over the smooth surface.  Last night she took out the little photograph of Andrew Scott. It was time, you see? Time to set the sails on a new route, to make a choice. It’s bad enough to get lost in life – it’s worse to lose your way in the past. After all, if nothing changes, everything stays the same; and she is willing to take the risk. Maybe it is a road less travelled by, but that’s what makes the difference.

Boggel makes a choice too. Oblivious of the stares, he cups her face in his hands as he mouths the three words she so desperately wants to hear.

“Come,” she says, “I must tell you about the man that saved my life. It is time..”

And the patrons sigh, sip their beers – and cheer.

Vetfaan’s Dance with Fonda…

“We’re a bunch of unfit misfits.” Vetfaan runs a worried hand over his paunch. “I’ll have to start doing some exercise, otherwise I’ll have to ask Sammie to order a whole new wardrobe for me.” Finishing his beer, he signals for another.

“Exercise can do more harm than good, Vetfaan. You start wearing down those joints, and it’s off to Cape Town for a hip replacement. And there’s the danger of overburdening your heart, too. And…remember what happened to Piet Potlood?” Kleinpiet shakes his head; one has to be very careful with these things.

Vetfaan nods. Poor Piet had the dream of completing the Comrade’s Marathon, and started running from Grootdrink to Rolbos at least once a week. He’d flop down on a chair in Boggel’s Place and always ordered water on arrival – something that cause much more consternation than his running did.  Gertruida said it was the stress that made his hair first go completely white, before falling out. That’s when he began using a cosmetic pencil to draw in a small, black moustache on his upper lip. Vetfaan shudders at the thought.

“But look at you, too, Kleinpiet. Your belt is almost too short these days as well. No man, I think we must do something. Maybe start walking or doing those slow Japanese exercises where you hardly move. Surely you can’t  do harm with that?”

“Boys, I’ve still got a Jane Fonda tape from way back.” Seeing their puzzled looks, she explains. “She’s a very sexy lady dressed in a leotard, and she tells you what to do. It’s not hard, but if you do it every day, I can guarantee results. I used that tape when I picked up weight a few years ago – and look at me now: I’m still in shape.” Precilla has been worried about Kleinpiet’s weight for some time now, and pounces on the opportunity.

“Do we have to wear those as well? Leotards, I mean?  I refuse. I’m a man, not a circus clown.”

“No, Kleinpiet, you can exercise in anything you want, any time you want. It doesn’t even have to interfere with your visits to Boggel’s place. I’m sure the two of you can manage that, somehow?”

***

Landslides, avalanches and an obsession with weight have a few things in common. They start small, and they can become all-consuming. What started as a hesitant, uncertain few steps this way and that on the music, while Miss Fonda shouted out instructions, became a race to see who lost the most. They meet weekly in Boggel’s Place, where Oudok placed his scale. Much like two boxers, the two men would shed as much clothing as is socially acceptable, step up to the scale and wait for Precilla to announce the reading.

It was a neck-on neck affair for weeks. The sessions with the tape became longer and longer. Some weeks Kleinpiet won with a gram or two, at others Vetfaan was the victor. Boggel started taking bets and made quite a bit of money this way.

After yet another weigh-n where Kleinpiet lost 25 grams more than he did, Vetfaan decided it was enough – he announced that the next week would be the final week of this ‘sissy-dancing’ and that whoever lost more in the coming week, would be the overall winner. Kleinpiet agreed thankfully.

***

“Platnees, bring your guitar. You must play for me.”

Platnees  has worked on Vetfaan’s farm for many years. He knows all about the farmer’s moods, most of his strange ideas and about the peach brandy he keeps locked up in the old chest in the dining room. Despite this, he is astounded.

“Eish! The last time I heard such a story, was when Saul asked for Master David to play for him. Oudoom had a sermon on that a few years ago. That story didn’t end well.”

“No, man! I just need music to dance to. You can’t expect me to do all those fancy steps in silence, can you?”

It takes a long time to explain what it’s all about, but eventually Platnees gets it. “So I play, you dance, and you win Mister Kleinpiet?” Scratching the stubble on his chin, he eyes Vetfaan critically. “It’s a bit like crooking, isn’t it? And you’ll have to pay me.”

“Name you price, you scoundrel.”  Platnees knows it’s just a mock show of anger. Vetfaan’s eyes have lit up in triumph – victory is assured.

“Two bottles of peach brandy. One is for playing – I don’t play so well if I haven’t had a sip. The other one is payment. And I promise I won’t tell anybody.”

Platnees goes off to find his petrol-tin guitar after taking a few healthy swigs. On his return, he notices that Vetfaan has cleared the stoep, and that he has stripped down to the blue underpants. He’ll have to remember to wash the red one before church on Sunday. Being careful not to say anything and averting his eyes, he takes a seat on the top step to the stoep.

“Okay! Play!”

People make a lot of noise about poor Lance Armstrong and all those athletes that spend thousands of Dollars to use performance-enhancing drugs. It’s because such contestant s use complicated and convoluted programs that involve drugs that are bad for you. They should have asked Platnees’ opinion about speed and endurance; he’d tell them the answer is peach brandy. And even if you’re a bit sozzled, they can’t ban you for life, can they? As long as you stay in your lane, you’re fine.

So, while Platnees started off with a slow waltz and a few old Voortrekker songs, he gradually changed to his rendition of the popular tunes of David Kramer. However, the peach brandy enhanced his performance to such an extent, that Vetfaan had great difficulty moving his feet to the rapid beat.

Halfway through the bottle, Platnees is in his own world. He sees himself on stage next to Mister Kramer, with a whole rugby field full of people cheering madly. Dawid steps up to the microphone to introduce South Africa’s newest sensation, the man from the Kalahari who can play the guitar like no other. The crowd goes mad as young girls throw various bits of clothing at the stage. ‘Ah, the rewards of fame’ Kramer smiles at Platnees, ‘you know you made it if they start doing that.’

Platnees, now at full speed and completely oblivious of his surroundings, is halfway through the next song when Vetfaan’s scream stops him. In a desperate attempt to keep up with the tempo, Vetfaan has pirouetted off the stoep. That didn’t do the damage. The prickly pear did.

***

It’s a well-known medical fact that you can’t put clothes on a man full of thorns. You have to remove the thorns first. To do that, it’s preferable to have a sober assistant who can focus on one thorn at a time. It also helps if your assistant doesn’t think the whole incident is hilariously funny.

Also, it isn’t customary to wash your prickly pear every now and then. People seem to think these cactus plants have a self-cleaning ability, which is obviously not true. Two days after Oudok removed the thorns (after the wild chase to get him to the doctor, while Platnees did his rendition of an ambulance siren with remarkable gusto), Oudok sent Vetfaan to Upington to get some antibiotics and a hefty dose of cortisone.

“It’s the cortisone,” Vetfaan mumbles at the weigh-in. “I was way ahead until I had those shots.”

“No,” Precilla smiles sweetly. “It’s the new underpants. Those are far too big – now that the swelling has gone down.”

***

Top ten (so far)

Due to family commitments, no new Rolbos sagas (ok, I know they’re just stories, but it sounds great to call them sagas!) will be posted for the next few days. Have a look at what has been most popular:

Die Wolletjiestrui
PG 18
The Rolbos Factfile
A Calabash Full of Wishes for Madiba
Sandy’s Song
Friday Flash: E-Tumbleweed Town
Lucinda’s Waltz with Fate and Melkkos.
Words
Ouboet Geel’s War
Dawid Kruiper

And a few personal favourites:

https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/alfies-earwig/

and

https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/just-another-winters-tale/

and

https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/skeletons-of-valentine-past-2/

Then again: these weren’t so bad:

Gertruida’s lie.
Rolbos – The Sheepthrowing Competition
The Luck of Spin
Boggel’s Birthday

I hope you enjoy the visit!

The Visit

Smiling happily, Servaas tips the vegetables from the pan, keeps back the butter, and adds a dash of garlic. The Kudu fillet, carefully matured and marinated with his special mix of wine, Cactus and lemon juice, gets added to the pan. Yes – that’s it! Neatly browned to perfection… He takes out the old flat-bottomed black pot (Siena’s favourite), arranges the vegetables and fillet inside; adds a bit of Mrs Ball’s and more wine; and pops the lot into the oven. Servaas knows one mustn’t hurry venison – that buck had run enough already. The key to success is a slow roast, two or more hours, before coating the meat with a mixture of Balsamic vinegar and honey, and leaving it in the oven for the last few minutes.

He’ll do the rice just before she comes, but now it’s time to lay the table with Ouma Siena’s cutlery – the real silver with ivory handles. Servaas doesn’t use this cutlery often – in fact, when he and Siena celebrated their 40th – or was it the 50th ? – anniversary, they decided not to use it any more. Way back when the set was made, people didn’t think. They killed elephants to make piano keys, snooker balls and cutlery – and never thought it strange to kill an animal just for that. Then again, look at what they are doing to the rhinos today…  But, Servaas thinks, it still is the best set of knives and forks in the house. The stainless steel set he bought from that trader in Upington three years ago, has started to rust…

The house is clean. Spotless. Servaas has cleared out every cobweb, every speck of dust and the chewed tennis ball Vrede always hides behind the couch.  The grime on top of the pelmet, the gunk beneath the fridge. His house hadn’t  been so clean in years … and he even changed the bed linen.

He wonders about that. Surely she won’t inspect his bed, would she? Or is it the subconscious male, out on the prowl? He smiles at himself. Noo..not him! Not Servaas Venter, elder in the church, keeper of morals…or…maybe…?

He prepares the pudding, still worrying about the impulse that made him do the bed. Filling two ramekins with the rich, thick cream from Kleinpiet’s cow, he inserts ginger snaps to fill the little containers – making sure the cookies are well covered with cream. Now, all he has to do is to pop it into the oven after they’ve finished the venison, and voila! Boerepoeding in a flash.

When he opens the door to allow Martha in, something deep inside him stirs. That old feeling…the thumping of his heart; the dryness of mouth; the feeling that his eyes just can’t take in enough to tell the brain exactly what he’s seeing.

Whereas before, Martha seemed excited (he knows now it was artificial, due to the cocaine); this time she looks positively gorgeous. Inviting. Demure and challenging at the same time. Her eyes sparkle with some inner merriment while her tongue – delicate and teasing – sweeps over her lower lip. Servaas had seen photos of Marilyn Monroe (that’s before Siena chucked out the magazine), and she had a similar look: head slightly back, lips ever so adventurously parted.

And the dress! My, my…. Servaas can’t help but stare at the cleavage. During her previous visit, she seemed flat and thin – but now the dress accentuates the curves, screaming to him that she is a woman. Feminine, voluptuous  – and available. The dress stops halfway down her thighs, leaving the black nylons to cover the rest.

***

He has a sudden flashback to the evening he walked Martha over to the Verdana’s. When they realised her hosts had already gone to sleep, they sat down on the bench in front of the church. She said she had a wonderful evening. Servaas could feel her warmth next to him, smell her perfume, hear her breathing. He did manage to fold his arms to hide his trembling hands, but he didn’t dare say anything. How long did they sit there? Two lonely people, each with own thoughts, staring at the night sky; both so much aware of the nearness of somebody special.

It was a shooting star that broke the spell; it arched high overhead in a streak of light and they followed it until it faded away.

“That’s life,” he said.

She nodded. “I have to go.”

He watched until the darkness swallowed her silhouette.

***

He stands to one side to allow her in, but she bends forwards to peck him on the cheek. He imagines the slightest brush of a breast as she passes.

“You dressed up again,” she says with a playful smile. “I hoped you would. It makes you look so handsome, like a gentleman should.”

“And you did too,” he gets the words out without stumbling over them. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Dressed up, Servaas? What did you want – or do you expect me to visit my beau in the nude? It can be arranged, you know?” The tongue flicks over the smiling red lips again, teasing him.

“No! .. I mean yes… no… “ He tries to swallow, gives it up and blurts on regardless. “You’re being deliberate, Martha…  No, I don’t want you to go running around nude. Yes, y-y-you look stunning. I prefer you looking good. No, don’t arrange any such thing.” Servaas has trouble breathing – and speaking – normally. Some words simply get stuck while others tumble out.

***

Martha like teasing men – they are so easy to manipulate! You want to get your way with a man? Simply tease a bit. A flash of flesh, a sparkling eye, a sideways glance – and suddenly the growling Rottweiler  turns into a puppy. When Roberto was angry because the rent was late, she simply made sure he saw enough of her to divert his attention. Initially she always felt cheap and sleazy about this, but over time it became a habit – second nature – something she didn’t even do consciously any more. Of course, being of such slight build and not having ravishing looks play a role as well. To have a man give her a second glance, was a huge victory over mediocrity.  Whenever a man paid special attention to her, her femininity celebrated with yet more teasing. She always convinced herself that this wasn’t immoral – every girl dreams about being desirable, don’t they?

The fact that those men in Milan used her as a consumable, use-once-and-throw-away product, escaped her attention. Having to feed the addiction she had, she slipped down the spiral of nonchalance; of not caring any more, of not even thinking where all her actions might lead.  And now that she’s left the cocaine, the habits still remain, dormant and sleeping, waiting for the trigger to set them off. Like Pavlov’s dog, she cannot help acting the way she does when a man seems excited with her presence.

Servaas serves the wine, sits down and wonders if his heart will make it through the evening. She’s dangling the bait, he thinks, and I’d look like a fool if I don’t go for it. He’s about to open his mouth, when it happens…

***

Describing ‘it’ is difficult. After all, it may be something that happened only in his mind – his conscience, or the bit of brain behind the ‘Moral Dept.’ door. It is entirely possible that he imagined ‘it’. But then again, Martha was aware of the event as well, so it can’t all be imaginary, or can it?

At first, unnoticed by the two people in the room, the old grandfather clock slows down (Servaas wound it up an hour ago). The ticks become more and more separated from the tocks, stretching the interval into longer and longer periods of time. Servaas’ racing pulse slows down to a quarter of the rate. His breathing becomes sluggish, as if his body no longer needs the ample amounts of air to stay alive.

The room seems to shrink around the two of them, until that, too, disappears into insignificance,

And that’s when Siena sits down next to Servaas. It seems the most natural thing that she’s here, now, and that she takes his hand in hers. Although surprised, Servaas notices how well she looks: vibrant and healthy with the blushed cheeks he remembers from their first meeting. Even the wrinkles are gone.

“Oubaas,” she always called him that. It was a sign she is in a good mood.  “Oubaas, I want to tell you a story.”

He can only nod slowly.

“There once was a sailor,” she says, “who travelled far and wide across the oceans of life. He was respected for his knowledge of the currents and the winds and the treacherous animals that lived where the horizon ends. In fact, he was the only one with such knowledge.

“Then, one day, he abandoned his compass, deciding to test a new route to a new foreign land. Here, he knew, his compass and his map will not be of any help. So, bravely and a bit unsure, he set sail to the new  world. He heard people talking about it – other sailors who said they heard it from other sailors … who heard it from other sailors. It was difficult to determine how much of these stories were true, but the excitement of discovery urged him on – he simply had to see for himself.

“Well, you can imagine what happened. On his way to this new world, his ship lost the wind. The sail hung slack. Doldrums – lasting for days, months, longer. And slowly –ever so slowly – the ship drifted towards the horizon where the hungry dragon awaited.

“Back home his family waited and waited; but the sailor never came back. He just couldn’t find his way back home.

“And now, Oubaas, I must go. It was nice talking to you again. Oh, and one ore thing: that dog that chews the tennis ball behind the couch: I don’t like it. Keep him on the porch. You know how I hate to think there may be fleas in the house.”

And suddenly, just like that, the ticks follow the tocks again very smartly, like they are supposed to.

“Did…did…you see anything just now? H-h-hear anything?”  Servaas is as white as a sheet.

Martha shakes her head. “But I do feel cold all of a sudden. Very cold. Do you possibly have a coat or something I can put on?”

***

They manage it through the evening somehow. Oh, the food was absolutely perfect; the wine an excellent: a smooth Pinotage; and the dessert just right. But there was something else, something that changed the atmosphere. Servaas was still the perfect host, they chatted like old friends – but a strange distance developed between them. It started after Martha put the robe on.

***

After coffee, the silence becomes awkward.

“It must have been difficult in Milan. Very different from life on the farm; or even your student years in Stellenbosch.”  Servaas, strangely calm and sure again, glances at her over the rim of his mug. “A girl can get lost there, I think” He’s told her how frightening the crowds were and how glad he was to be back.

She ignores the question, recognising the fact that he was merely making conversation. “Siena was a plain girl when she was young, wasn’t she?”

The question catches Servaas off guard.  “Yes. I suppose you can say that. Her beauty wasn’t hidden beneath a layer of cosmetics or displayed by the fashion of the day – and I loved her for that. Of course, as we grew older, some things got worse; but,” he wags a finger in the air, “her beauty improved. Bodies get old, you know. Faces get shrivelled up. Some organs refuse to maintain teenage levels. Lots of things happen along the way. But, if you’re lucky, age brings peace. You don’t have to impress people any more. In fact, you find that you don’t really need a million friends. One, maybe two, is enough. If one of them happens to be your spouse, then…” A sudden tear makes him stop. He’s boring this child-woman with old-man talk. He tries to change direction: “Oh, and it wasn’t as if she was a push-over. No sir! She had an acid tongue and a determined mind. Always knew where she was going. But not at home. She was a lady, when she was at home. Always a lady.”

Martha fishes an old handkerchief from the bathrobes pocket. It’s white, with a lace border. She looks up. Finds his eyes. Sees the sadness there.

“May I keep it, please?” Small-girl voice, pleading. “I think I need her with me for a while. It’s such a long way back.”

“Keep the robe,” Servaas says. “You can still smell her perfume on it.”

He walks her home afterwards. At the church they hesitate, waiting for the shooting star.

It doesn’t come.

***

Servaas slumps down on the couch, after checking for the tennis ball. Then, with a sad smile, he puts on Siena’s old favourite by The Ink Spots…

Martha’s Diary

Dear Diary

It’s been some time since last I wrote anything here. Just didn’t feel like it, I suppose. Or maybe I didn’t have anything to say. I think it’s the same thing.

I must say something about the past few weeks. Never in my life have I had such a feeling that life doesn’t get much better.

Let’s start with Servaas. He’s ancient. Maybe that’s why I like him so – he surely cannot look at me like the other men do et, sometimes, I catch him staring at me in the strangest of ways. Almost with a hunger in his eyes. He once said I remind him of Siena, but I don’t think I like that idea. I had a look at her picture in the hallway – she looks far too stern to be a fun-person. Maybe she was one of those people who looked one way and acted completely different after the Oom blew out the candle. Maybe he’ll tell me one day.

Still, he’s one of the kindest persons alive, I’m sure. Not like Roberto, who saw me as a piece of merchandise – a commodity to use and exploit and … abuse. I’ll never be able to tell the people in this little town what I really did in Madrid. Or maybe I should, because Uncle Marco knows already, I’m sure. He seems to have a tremendous network of friends in Madrid, and that always makes me suspicious. Look at the way he handled the bookings for the plane back to SA? One call. Just one. And it wasn’t to the airline, either. I know enough Italian to understand he phoned somebody and ordered him to get the tickets. Ordered. Nothing about money – and I never saw him pay for those tickets, either. How did he manage that?

Then at the airport, the polizia waved us through, but searched everybody else. I know they found Roberto’s stash – it must have been a small fortune – and that Marco had the money in his attaché case. I know that because they exchanged it for Rands in Cape Town. But neither in Milan nor in the Cape did anybody say anything about the money. Surely, if you arrive with bundles of Dollars, the police or the customs or the tax people will be interested to hear where you got it from? But no. No questions – not in Italy, not in SA. I find that a bit strange. Well, good luck to him and Servaas – I just hope some of Roberto’s friends don’t take it upon themselves to try and get the money back. They’re ruthless, those guys. They’ll burn Rolbos to the ground.

But Dear Diary, that is not the uppermost thoughts in my mind. Ouboet Geel is. If Servaas is a unique being on the face of this earth, Ouboet surely deserves a similar description. Servaas is a kind and harmless old creature – but not so this man of the desert! He knows every plant, every inch of the veld, every bird. He talks with these things, too. Sits down on his haunches like a teenager (I can’t do it any more) and talks to them. Especially that one plant – he called it a skilpadsuuring. He says white people don’t know about skilpadsuuring – which is the translation of the San name.  He says this plant will change the world.

I laughed at that. Not unkindly, understand, more incredulously than anything else. He looked at me very seriously, and then he spoke at length.

He says this plant has things inside it, similar to what we have. I don’t think he’s ever heard of DNA, but that it is what he was talking about. I wrote down his words.

Now see, Kleinnooi, these things inside, they’re inside us too. Only, the plant works like a policeman. It seeks the broken stuff inside us, and makes a plan to fix it. If it is a small problem, it fixes it quickly. Some people get a sickness where the blood goes the wrong way. They get blood in their lungs, or bowel, or kidneys. This is bad. They get sick, and they die. Now these people – if the get skilpadsuuring, they have to take it for a long time to work.

He smiled then and said even if it took time, it always works.

I asked him why nobody knows about the plant. Ouboet told me: the world isn’t ready for it yet. He says the Cubans or the Chinese or the Russians will come here with bulldozers and take all the skilpadsuuring. Then nobody will have it.

His father told him that one day, the rains will change. It’ll rain more in the Kalahari and less in Upington. The dunes will have grass and the veld will turn green. That’s when the skilpadsuuring will grow fast and multiply. In the meantime, the Geel family will watch over the few plants that grow next to that fountain and make sure they don’t die.

Well, I had some of the skilpadsuuring. Ouboet said I was the first white person to have it. It was, indeed, sour. Other than that, I thought nothing of the leaves he gave me to chew. Then an hour later, I had the most intense awareness of my body. It was as if my brain was testing every limb, every organ in my body. My hair tingled. My eyes watered. My feet itched. My hands felt warm. This lasted for about five minutes, and then I felt drowsy. An incredible sadness came over me – all my lies and deceit flashed by in a fast and ugly sequence, causing incredible remorse and grief. When that was over, I was so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open.  Ouboet had told me that would happen. He said it was a sign that the leaves were working. He told me to lie down and sleep, and that’s what I did.

I woke up the next morning at dawn. Ouboet was at the fireside, talking to the flames. When he realised I was awake, he apologised to the fire, saying he had to take me home.

And that was it.

The craving for cocaine is gone. The mole under my arm is gone. My hair is shiny, my sore knee is well…and my voice is the best it ever was. Skilpadsuuring?  I’m a convert.

Servaas invited me to supper again tonight. I feel a bit wicked! I’m going to wear that low-cut dress I never had the courage to put on – the short black one. Oh, and some make-up. Perfume. Yes, I’ll give the old dog a bit of a treat tonight.  Excite him a little. Reward him for his kindness.

I do hope I still fit into that dress – I’ve picked up weight since I visited Ouboet. I’ll have to watch what I’m eating in future.

Then I’ll have to tell him I want to go to Cape Town to see the people at the Arts Theatre. My future is on stage – and if it’s not La Scala, it will be somewhere else. With my voice the way it is now, I’m sure I’ll impress them in the Cape.

Servaas may be a bit sad, I think. Maybe he must get some of Ouboet’s herbs. Then again – I think he was quite a tiger in his younger years. Maybe it’s better to keep him old.

Well, Dear Diary, that’s all for now. I’ll talk to you soon…

Ouboet Geel’s War

They promised me freedom.

As soon as this bloody war ends, you’ll have a house. A piece of ground where you can keep cattle. A place for your children to be educated. A clinic nearby. That’s what they said. Those things are important – but it was the freedom that made me help them.

They said it better than the Chinese and the Cubans and the Russians – even the Americans, later on. Help us win this war, and we’ll look after you. Just help us; you’ll see.

The Afrikaners understood me. They are from this continent, this soil. Oh, we’ve fought in the past. Fought; until my ancestors were almost completely wiped out. That’s why I hesitated when they asked.

Those other people from other countries over the waters: they don’t understand the Kalahari or the Caprivi. They have fountains in their houses and the meat is so plentiful, they keep it cooled for another day. It’s not like here. If you shoot a Kudu, you eat it immediately. Trying to keep it for tomorrow is useless, as the vultures and the hyenas and the flies and the beetles will finish it before you do. And water…we have no water in our huts. We keep it in an ostrich shell under the ground. If we’re lucky, we can find it again before a jackal digs it up to slake his own thirst.

But the Boere – they understand this. They understand a little of the Kalahari. They even – and this is a guess – understand my people. Anyway, they do it better than the Chinese. Or the Russians. Or the Cubans. That’s why, when they said I must help them, I went to the elders and we discussed it.

Look, I said, this is not our war. I know that. But if they lose, we’ll lose the bit of ground we had. We won’t be able to hunt here any more. The country will belong to many other peoples, but not to us. But these men said they are strong. They’re not afraid. They say they’ll win and then we’ll have this ground. I must go.

Of course, my job was not to fight on their side. I did what they couldn’t do. Not with their big machines and guns and canon could they do what I do best. Give me the spoor of an Eland, and I’ll find that antelope. Show me the tracks of a boot, and I’ll find its master. This is what my father taught me. I know I can do it. I can follow that track faster than their machines can make their way through the thick growth of thorn bushes we have here. I can jump across riverbeds and wade across swamps while I follow a spoor. They can’t.

I can name the operations I was involved with. Savanna. Protea. Many others. I was there, finding the strongholds and secret caches. When they came too near, I was often the one to warn them. My ears and my eyes are tuned to the veld – not like their city ears and eyes.

I saw many of them die. Sometimes they were careless, and didn’t spot the disturbed earth where a landmine was waiting for a hasty foot. Others were unlucky and walked into traps. I even saw men killed by their own canon fire. In war, all casualties are equal: you’re not immune to a bomb with your country’s flag on it – it kills whoever is nearest to it.

But there was one man[i]. He was good to me. Happy Hatting was one of those people you take an immediate liking to. He said his father taught him kindness, and I believed him. He shared his rations with me – he didn’t smoke, I did. Sometimes he’d bring me a beer. And once – it was Christmas – he brought me a present of biltong, saying everybody deserved a Christmas present.

It was near Cuito Cuanavale they shot him. In the head. I saw it. The fighting was ferocious and the bullets and shrapnel filled the air with their sharp whooshes and high-pitched voices. And there was a rule: if you get wounded, they’ll help you. If you get killed, you get left behind until after the shooting stops. Everybody thought Happy was dead.

Everybody, except me.

I couldn’t believe that smile was dead. Not all that kindness and humour and friendship. Not Happy.

San people know about being invisible. We can creep up to an Eland or a Springbok without it noticing us. It’s a strange thing: becoming one with the veld and the grass and the bushes. But we can do it. Those Cubans never knew I was there.

I was right. Happy still breathed. The top of his head was blown away, causing his right eye to droop down on what was left of his cheek. But the left eye: the left eye was awake and watched me as I drew near.

“Go away,” he said, “you’ll be killed too.”

But I refused, saying I want to help him.

“You’ve done enough. This is useless. We’ve lost. Go back to the Kalahari and live like a free man. They won’t find you there. Don’t worry about other people’s laws. You’re yourself, that’s what counts.”

It was a remarkable speech, considering the circumstances. Mortars were arching overhead; the MIGs were shooting the veld to pieces. Screams and blood and gunshots mingled into awful minutes of chaos.

I’m here, now. I’ll help you.

“No,” he said, “you can’t.” He slurred the words, struggling to get them out. I knew he was dying, but I couldn’t leave him there, alone. No matter what the people in Pretoria or Moscow or Beijing said – this was a human being and he was dying. Surely they don’t want such young men to die alone? If they insisted on killing people, shouldn’t they allow them comfort in their last seconds?

I held his hand and felt it go slack. I thought he was gone, when he cramped up the last time. “Go back, now. Go back and help people to …”

He never finished the sentence.

And now I’m back in the Kalahari, doing exactly what he told me to. I left that war that same night, put on my loincloth, and came back.

I am Ouboet Geel. I am free.

And I still help people to fight their wars…

Ask that lady, Martha. She’ll tell you: the worst wars aren’t against other people. They’re against yourself.

Ouboet’s Silence

“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…