The arid wasteland of the Kalahari contains many surprises. Fountains of clear water occur in the most unlikely places, although most of them are hidden below the sand. It requires a thorough knowledge of nature to know where to look for the life-saving little reservoir, which often will supply a mouthful of two before the water disappears at the bottom of the little well you dug. The area is home to the graceful oryx, the gentle tortoise and thousands of elegant springbuck. Here too, the spoor of last night’s lion will circle your campfire (when you discover a jackal made off with your biltong) in the morning.
Vetfaan knows all about these things, of course. He left his supplies safely locked up in his bakkie before turning in. Now, with the dawn edging out the night, he emerges from his tent to add a few sticks to the still-glowing embers of the fire. He smiles at the lion tracks as he salutes the murky darkness around him. It is a sign of respect, a submission to the king of the desert.
Once or twice a year, Vetfaan will greet the people in Boggel’s Place, to disappear into the desert. He tells them he needs solitude, and that is true. He also maintains he needs the silence, which is (almost) a lie.
His camp is in the lee of a lone hill, where the thick sand prevents most people from getting there. It requires considerable driving skills to negotiate across the treacherous terrain and even Vetfaan is always relieved when at last he arrives to pitch his tent. It is here, in this remote spot, a single half-mens (Pachypodium Namaquanum) has listened to Vetfaan for many years.
The visits started soon after his return from the army. Devastated by the experience of shooting and being shot at – as well as the death of Madelein – he simply drove into the desert in a futile attempt to escape the demons of the border war. When he reached this spot, he stopped. The half-mens was waiting for him there, bent to the North in a silent prayer that Africa would come to her senses. And there, isolated in silence, Vetfaan poured his heart out, told everything, and waited for the red, forgiving sand to seep up his pain.
He decided the half-mens was female. It was easier that way. The top half was straight and shapeless, but (he always smiles at the idea) at least the bottom half may have a passing similarity to some ladies. He called her – naturally – Madelein. Initially, he only thought their conversations. He formed words inside his head, knowing she’d hear them, anyway. Over the years it became easier to talk to her. He feels it creates a more normal conversation, even if it’s only a half-a-chat, seeing she can’t answer in the normal way. Half-chats with a half-mens seemed quite normal, once he got used to the idea.
“It was cold last night,” he tells her, “and I see the lion was here again, as well.” Like old lovers, they don’t have to do the good-morning-thing; it’s not necessary. “And you’re looking quite spiky this morning. I like your bald look – reminds me of Sigourney Weaver in that space movie. Then again, when you grow your leaves in winter, it gives you that tousled morning-after look, like Goldie Hawn. I like that, too.” He smiles at the plant, knowing she likes being complimented.
He fills the old, black kettle from the container on the bakkie and settles it next to the flames.
“I need to talk with you.” It’s a senseless statement. Why else would he be here, anyway? “About you being here – alone, I mean. Look around you – there’re no other plants. Oh, I know about the little bush over there, and the clump of grass next to those rocks; but they’re no real company, are they? And why would you choose to live in a place like this?” He sweeps his hand towards the empty horizon. “You could have chosen a better spot; like a willow, growing next to the river. But no! Miss Smartypants chose the desert. Alone. Forlorn. Almost forgotten. I don’t understand you.”
The dry desert-breeze sighs through the thorns on her side. This is what I’m made for, Fanie. She always addresses him in the diminutive form; Vetfaan likes it that way. Willows belong next to water. They’re weak trees – you know that, don’t you? Without all that water, they die. Now me? I’m different. You give me so much water, and I’ll die. I’m tough – I only need a little moisture. And when it rains, I store some of that water in my trunk. You say it’s for a rainy day; but out here, it’s for the many unrainy days.
Vetfaan throws a hand-full of ground coffee beans into the kettle while he contemplates this. “But that means you’re destined for a lifetime of loneliness. There’s no one to keep you company. Even the seeds you make float away to grow miles from here. Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but what fun is that? Being lonely, I mean? What about love?’
She waits until he’s poured the coffee into the tin mug and he’s settled on the log next to the fire.
Love is also a choice, Fanie. It’s not something that just happens. You can choose to love – or not. Your choice depends on who you are: if you’re a willow, you have to spend your life at the river side. You’ll have plenty of water until a flood washes you away. If you’re like me, you only need a little love to last for many, many years. And, of course, I never fear floods.
“But you still remain a lonesome half-mens, Madelein. Alone, with just the memories of the past to keep you company.”
That’s the test, Fanie. People seem to think love is something they can build a future on. They expect love to rescue them when times are tough. But look at me, Fanie. It hasn’t rained for so long now, and still I’m fine. I can remember my love – and that’s why I survive. Love – even if it is short-lived like ours – can sustain you through the drought. That’s why love must have roots, you see? To dig into that moment you made a choice. Remembering. That’s where the nourishment comes from. Then you have to store it, otherwise it’ll evaporate. It’s the only way to grow…and survive.
“So you mean a little love in the past, may be enough? “
We’re not all willows, Fanie, I’m still here..
Vetfaan never talks about his excursions into the desert, partly because people may think he’s strange. Even mad. Talking to a half-mens isn’t exactly normal, according to conventional thinking. But Vetfaan always comes back without the anxious look he had when he left town. Gertruida says it’s because he needs the solitude out there in the empty space beyond the horison.
She’s only half-right, of course.
He needs the company. There are lions out there. And jackals. We all do, when you come to think of it. There’s a pachypodium growing in each of us, if we care to admit it. So Vetfaan camps there – in the middle of nowhere – to find answers.
And Madelein, the half-mens who refuses to be a willow.
And, of course … himself.