Gertruida will tell you Einstein was right. Everything should be viewed relative to everything else. Take time, for instance. Not all seconds are of equal length, irrespective of which atomic clock you use. The perception of time is relative to the conditions prevailing at the moment. She tried to explain that once in Boggel’s Place, but Servaas objected, saying she’s busy with some New Age theory.
But now, outside Oom Sakkie Liebenberg’s humble house, Gertruida is proved to be right (as she usually is). In the moments after the old man exhaled and steadied his gun, the sands of time stopped trickling through the hourglass,
Like it happens in that microsecond before the speeding bus hits your car, the senses in the men and women on the Liebenberg farm intensified, focussed and became so heightened, that they would remember every detail of what happened.
Old Oom Liebenberg will remember drawing a bead on the black man approaching his farmhouse. The Himba man, so used to observing detail in the veld, notices the gun barrel protruding from behind the shabby curtain of the open window. Vetfaan feels ice running down his back as he recognises the danger.
And Servaas, the garrulous old man with the pious self-righteousness of an elder of the church, curses loudly, shouting that they are friends and they want to help.
Almost too late.
Oom Liebenberg hears the shout and it distracts him enough to lift the barrel of the gun a fraction as he pulls the trigger. The booming crash of the gun, the smoke from the barrel, and the frightened shrieks of the women seem to remain frozen – almost like a rehearsed act on stage – for an eternity.
The Himba man falls to the ground, unhurt, his eyes wide in surprise.
“Stop! Don’t shoot! It’s us, Oom Sakkie.” Kleinpiet stands rooted to the spot, his voice strained but loud enough to echo from the barn fifty yards away. “Don’t shoot, you bloody old fool.” The last bit almost whispered in a plea.
The old man lowers his gun, baffled by the shouts. His eyesight is so bad – and his fear so great – that he has to concentrate to notice and recognise the other people approaching the house cautiously. He puts down the gun with trembling hands before pushing the curtain aside.
“Wha…what? What’s happening.” The old man stares myopically at the group, completely confused and utterly uncertain.
“We come in peace,” Oudoom says. Gertruida thinks this is something Tonto would have said and starts giggling uncontrollably. Even Oudoom’s stern stare can’t stop her.
“Who’s this man?”
Ben Liebenberg heard his father move away after he had tried to speak to him through the locked door. He doesn’t care – just can’t care – about the world out there. Too much had been taken from him, too many heartaches had been his fate, and finally he’d withdrawn in the dark interior of his lost world. Only here, in the darkened bungalow, did he find peace and safety. Out there, more pain waited…
Then the shot went off…
Gertruida says it happens like that sometimes. After severe emotional trauma – which may take years to fester and build up – a person may experience a condition similar to a Locked In Syndrome – or LIS for short. While true LIS is a feature of brain stem injury and severe paralysis, the emotional LIS is a form of psychosis – or even hysteria. In these cases, the sudden change in circumstances may (very rarely) be the trigger to unleash the bonds of depression, fear and self-pity.
It’s the gunshot that does it.
After years of silence (except for his father’s pleading voice), the gunshot is totally unexpected. Benjamin Liebenberg, the pitiful, dirty, unshaven wreck of a man, jumps up in alarm. Danger! The old battle-fear hits him with such a force that he is left breathless for a second. Then, acting on instinct, he storms the door and tries to yank it open.
Key! He must find the key to get out. Now! Key! Where is it?
Under your mattress, Sergeant Ben. You put it under the bed, remember?
Who said it? Something in his mind? A rebooted hard drive following the correct circuit again?
He finds the key. Unlocks the door. storms outside. Many people there. Too many. Who…?
“Sergeant Ben?” The incredulous Himba man stares at the caricature storming from the bungalow. Ben’s hair hangs over his shoulders, tussled and unwashed, uncombed for years. The beard creates an unflattering and unkempt Moses-look. He’s lost weight, causing the torn jeans to sag around his middle. Dirty feet skid to a halt at the sound of his name.
The dull eyes turn slowly to gaze at the Himba.
“I brought back your bullet.” The Himba dangles the chain from his fingers, allowing the bullet to swing to and fro. He hesitates before adding a single word: “Father.”
“You?” Benjamin Liebenberg gapes at the Himba. “You? Really?”
His vocal chords, unused for so many years, cause his voice to be high-pitched and almost inaudible.
“Yes, my father. I heard you were sick. I came.”
Silence. With all eyes trained on him, Ben stands gaping at the group. Then the weight of his past bears down on him; the thoughts and the fears and the nightmares buckle his knees as his thin legs refuse to carry his burden one single step more.
“Yes my father. This is the bullet that saved your life. It must do so once more.”
As if in supplication, Ben holds out both trembling hands to receive the dangling brass bullet.
And then the emotional dam inside his head is – at last – no longer able to contain the pent-up demons kept captive there for so many years. When he falls forward, face in the sand and clutching the bullet to his forehead, he starts sobbing uncontrollably.
“Leave him,” Gertruida whispers, “it’s all got to come out.” She shepherds the rest into the house, leaving the Himba man and Ben to themselves.
Three days later, the Himba man gets into the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer. He leans out of the window to wave at the little crowd. Between him and the driver, the now-cleaned-up Ben stares stoically through the windscreen. Off to one side, Oom Liebenberg stands next to Gertruida.
“Will he be allright?”
She nods slowly. “His healing will be a journey in itself. Somewhere along the road, your son got lost. The best thing now is to go back to the beginning – to where he felt wanted, and alive…and loved. That’s where he’ll find his old self again.”
“But I’m his father!” Frustration creeps into his voice. “Why couldn’t I do it?”
“He’s your son. That’s different. You care, he receives. But with the Himba man, he’s the one that once cared. Still does, as you can see. He gives, the Himba receives. And that’s why, Oom Sakkie, he’ll recover. Nobody snaps out of depression because they are pitied by others – that makes it worse. But when you find that fountain of caring inside…that’s when the mind decides that it is worthwhile to face the future.”
Back in Boggel’s Place after the lorry left, the atmosphere is almost sombre. The events of the last few days have touched them all deeply, leaving a sad sweetness in its wake.
“Quite a remarkable chap, that Himba man,” Vetfaan says to break the silence.
“Yeah.” Kleinpiet draws a Himba hut with his beer’s foam on the counter top. Then he looks up as a thought strikes him. “You know, I never asked his name…”
Gertruida has the answer, as she always does.
“It’s Ben, Kleinpiet. Back then the troops called him Little Ben. Now, it’s just Ben.”
On the road to Upington, a white man sits quietly between the driver and the Himba man. Around his neck, a copper-coloured bullet hangs from a chain. He’s going to fight his own war without a gun and only with a spent bullet.
That, and the man next to him, the one who calls him ‘Father’.
For the first time in many years, his lips curl upwards in what could be a smile.