“So there I was, upside down, hanging from the branch with a leopard staring at me and the cobra only inches away. I remember looking past my feet at the circling vultures as my legs started slipping on the smooth bark of the tree. It was unbearably hot that day and I was quite dizzy with thirst. And suddenly – unexpectedly – I realized my branch was the home to a whole tribe of poisonous spiders. You know the black ones with the red dot on the tummy? Well, they weren’t impressed with my little visit to their lodgings. They were swarming down my pants towards my face. I could see them marching down in an untidy group – past my knees and over my thighs. I would have swatted at them to shoo them away, but of course, my hands were tied behind my back. I tried to shout at them. My throat was so dry I only managed a strangled bark.”
Grootpraat Grove sips his beer as he watches the group at the bar. He’s come to town to buy his supplies and he promised his long-suffering wife he’d be back in two day’s times. This is day four, and he’s enjoying every minute of his visit. It gets awfully quiet out there on the farm…
“So what did you do?” Kleinpiet always enjoys Grootpraat’s visits. He has the most amazing adventures out there on his farm.
“Well. I looked over to where the dust was settling after Kwaaihendrik Vosloo galloped away. I suppose I shouldn’t be angry at him. He did catch me with his daughter after all.” He smiles fondly at the memory. “I was young then, and young men do tend to do silly things. And boy! Was it stupid to undress Marietjie at the dam! Man oh man! We had a lovely swim and were just getting down to business when Kwaaihendrik appeared as if from nowhere. Marietjie didn’t bother dressing. She just took off and ran. I can still, to this day, see that white bum wobbling about as she sprinted across the thorn bushes.” He gurgles a happy giggle as he thinks back.
“No man, what did you do? What with the spiders and the leopard and the snake?”
“Did you know how thirsty I get from talking? My throat feels parched.”
It works every time. With a new beer before him, he sticks his finger in the froth and licks at it with a smile.
“There was nothing I could do. I fell from that tree, turning in mid-air like a cat, so I don’t break my neck. Wham! Right on top of the snake. Flattened the poor critter with my fall, I did. Funny how time slows down when things like that happen. I recall a rather explosive hiss as I drove the air from its lungs, poor thing.
“I still wasn’t sure about the snake, when the leopard charged. He was fast! One moment he was sitting there like a trained house cat, looking up at me in the tree, the next he was a blur of paws and teeth as he stormed the place where I was. I was sure it was the end. I struggled to my knees, thinking he might listen if I pleaded nicely, but he wasn’t a very clever leopard. He didn’t understand Afrikaans at all. The more I told him I’m just a skinny bag of bones and that he’d burn more calories from taking me apart than he’d get from taking me in, the faster those paws moved as he sped up his charge.”
He pauses for a dramatic second as he takes several large swallows from the glass, allowing his eyes to travel over his little audience. They were all watching him carefully, hanging onto every word. Belching his satisfaction, he continues:
“There was nothing I could do. To curl up from a kneeling position is easy: you simply faint. Not that I fainted, of course! But because I knew that, I fell forward at the last moment. Flat on my face.” Ha places his big hand on the counter top with a loud slap. “Like that. The leopard was already airborne at that stage, so he couldn’t change his direction. He came flying at me, but just an inch or two too high. His long talons were extended to grab me – and fortunately for me, I wasn’t where he thought I’d be. He would have made it clear over me if his hind foot didn’t catch the rope that tied my hand together. And let me tell you: afterwards I measured his tracks. They were huge!” He spreads his hand to show how big the paws were; at the same time ‘discovering’ his glass is empty. The situation is quickly rectified.
“That claw ripped through the rope like a new knife through fresh biltong! Slash! Just like that!” He sighs at the memory and swigs away at the beer. “So now I had my hands free, but the leopard was turning around, ready to come at me again. By this time I knew he didn’t understand Afrikaans, so I tried English. You know what happened? He picked up speed. That’s when I realised this must be German leopard. And fortunately,” he digs about in his pockets to produce a piece of dry wors, “fortunately I always have a bit of dried sausage with me. You know? Padkos? Just in case I get hungry out there in the veld. So I told the leopard in my best German he’d do better for himself if he took the wurst. What a relief! I finally said something he could understand! I threw the sausage at him and he grabbed it. Then, purring happily, he disappeared into the bush.”
“Now tell me, Grootpraat, what about the spiders? What happened to them?”
Grootpraat flashes a thankful smile at Kleinpiet. It’s always nice if the guys concentrated on the story.
“They were chest high at that point, and I knew they must be deaf, otherwise my pleas with the leopard would have made them stop as well. Now what do you do with deaf people?” Glug-glug and the glass is almost empty again. Bu-u-urrrp! “You use sign language of course! Because they were well on their way to my jugular, I had to speak fast, very fast. And talking fast in sign language isn’t a good idea if you have a million spiders on your chest. My hands moved faster and faster. And…” Glug. He smiles as he puts down the empty glass while he demonstrates how fast he is with sign language. Gertruida whispers that it looks like somebody with a fit. “…and before I could explain myself properly, those poor spiders fell off my clothes. All of them. Not a single one clung on long enough to let me finish my sentence. I was thankful enough not to be angry at their bad manners. To leave anybody in the middle of the sentence isn’t nice. But I forgave them. Yep. I forgave them all. You can’t be angry at deaf spiders. It’s not done.”
“And the vultures?” Boggel replaces the beer, “at least you got away from them, didn’t you?”
“Of course! I’m here, am I not?” Boggel gets a pitying look. “No, they got the dead snake, so they were happy. For me it was a long walk back to my home. Barefoot. But it was worth it. I’ll never forget that swim in the dam – or the white cheeks as they ran across the veld. Sometimes no sacrifice is too big. Old Kwaaihendrik chased me off the farm a few times after that, but it didn’t help. Me and Marietjie celebrated our twentieth last year.”
“But how did you get into the tree in the first instance, Grootpraat? You were tied up and upside down? How did that happen?”
Grootpraat was just about to lie his way out of that one, when a shadow falls across the window. The door opens with a bang.
It’s funny how huge men get to be called Tiny, or bald old omies get the nickname Hairy. Marietjie sounds like a name for a diminutive, frail, fragile beauty. It certainly doesn’t fit the huge mountain of furious woman at the door.
“You scoundrel! You worthless piece of meat! You lying, loudmouthed, sneaky bastard. Come here, or I’ll hang you from the rafters, just like I did that day at the dam! Now!”
And as she leads him away by the ear, he casts back a look at the group at the counter.
It’s a forlorn look. The look of a man on his way to the gallows.
As Gertruida puts it, quite helpless.