…And of course, that’s where Gertruida stops telling the story. Just there, with the red tomatoes in !Ka’s hand. Just when he asked her help to find somebody. Leaving Vetfaan exasperated, confused, irritated and angry.
“Then what? You can’t stop it there, dammit! What happened then?”
Gertruida says a good story ends with a question. At least, in real life, it does. Whatever has happened before simply brings the story to a point in time when telling more is unnecessary. But, she asks, since when does Life work up to an ending? Nothing ever stops completely. The bottom line of: and the lived happily ever after, only happens in fairy tales. We all know that, don’t we?
We live a never-ending story, and for those of us who believe, even death isn’t the final full stop. Our stories continue in the lives we have effected in so many ways – some small, indeed – but others in a more remarkable way.
So she simply smiles and tells Vetfaan to make up his own ending for the time being, just like we all do, every day.
Anyway, she says, they’ll all have to wait to see how it ends. “This story isn’t finished yet, Vetfaan. Not yet.”
Gertruida doesn’t say anything about her further discussion with !KA. Not a word about how he discovered the tomatoes and later – cautiously, carefully – the two people living nearby. This happened, – oh, how many seasons ago – when he stumbled across the little fountain while he was tracking a klipspringer.
And she tells nothing about the strange friendship that developed after that.
Gert and Lettie lived in their tree-cave, quite content with their circumstances. They were safe, had enough to eat and drink, and never considered returning to civilisation. Captive, in a strange way…
At first it had been the fear that the war wasn’t over and that Gert would have to go to jail; but as the seasons rolled by, they simply settled into a comfortable existence where all their needs were catered for. They had each other, and that seemed quite enough. Yes, they said over many a campfire at night: why return to the madness people call civilisation, when they have love and tranquility right there?
And then, one morning, they found !Ka sitting – cross-legged – outside their dwelling as if he’d always been there. At that stage !Ka command of English was rather poor, but still the two parties soon established that the one meant no harm to the other.
Some people may have considered !Ka to be primitive, but that wasn’t true, of course. In exchange for tomatoes, he taught Gert more about tracking, digging for roots and tubers and showed Lettie how to use the skins of animals to make soft, comfortable clothes and shoes. Gert learnt a little about the difficult San language. !Ka readily memorised many English words.
!K a didn’t stay with them. That would have been rude, He visited them often, though – not only for tomatoes, but also because Gert was a very proficient hunter and meat was always plentiful. Their friendship grew.
As soon as they could communicate relatively freely, Gert impressed on the little yellow man the importance of secrecy.
“Look, I was in the army,” he said. !Ka knew about the army. Some of his family were recruited to be trackers up north. “The war…wasn’t good.” !Ka understood that as well. Many Bushmen who helped the army, were left destitute after the war. “I didn’t want to kill somebody. So I came here. Nobody must know.”
“Nobody?” !Ka couldn’t figure it out. San people always supported each other, no matter what the circumstances were.
“Nobody. Especially not people with my skin.” Gert lifted his shirt to expose the untanned skin. “Like this. They’d want to hunt me.”
!Ka, like his family, understood the plight of the hunted. For generations they have been chased, killed, imprisoned – just because they were Bushmen. All ‘other’ peoples did that; black and white. That’s why the Bushmen chose to live where ‘others’ can’t. The desert became their keeper of secrets and sanctuary – and now he would honour his two new friends in the same way.
Besides, he liked the two strange pale people who made the Baobab their home. Did they not, when !Tung became ill, give him powerful medicine that took the fever away? And did they not share their meat when Gert hunted? How else could he repay Lettie for the needle and thread she gave him – without expecting anything back? No, their secret would be safe. He wouldn’t even whisper a word to Vetfaan and Kleinpiet on the rare occasions they met.
And so it stayed.
Until Gert got ill.
It was a strange sickness, which he first noticed when he stepped on a thorn and the wound wouldn’t stop bleeding. Lettie applied a poultice and a pressure bandage, but to no avail. !Ka suggested putting raw liver on the little wound, and that stemmed the drops of blood. Not thinking about it much, Gert went out hunting again the next morning. This time, his nose started bleeding for no reason at all.
Lettie then looked at her husband critically for the first time in many months. We all know the situation: you live with somebody and eventually don’t notice the small changes we all experience as time passes. Only then did she notice the pallor, the weight loss. Why hadn’t she picked it up before? Yes, he lost two teeth last month, but so had she – albeit only one. And his hair? What happened to his hair? And yes, he had been tired lately…unnaturally so.
That’s when Lettie took !Ka for a walk to the garden, where the little patch of tomatoes thrived under their canopy of thorn branches.
“You have to get a message out, !Ka. We need help. My father. He has to come. Please…”
Gertruida sat, open-mouthed, as !Ka told the story of the two white people he had befriended out in the desert. The Kalahari is a vast place, yes, she knew that, but for two people to live there…for almost forty years? They must be in their sixties at least! And if Letties father still lived, he must be well over eighty?
“How is this man, Gert? Is he…okay?”
“He still hunts, Miss Gertruida, but the bullets have long since been finished. He hunts with a bow and arrows, like me. Only, he comes home with a rabbit or a very small buck these days. Once, he brought a tortoise. I do most of the hunting now. Miss Gertruida, I think he’s dying…”
Gertruida phoned an old contact from her time in National Intelligence. Within an hour she had an address for Brigadier Gericke, Huis Vergenoeg, on Beauford West. Another telephone call confirmed that yes, this had been the Major in Fort Doppies, and that he was one of the more ‘difficult’ old men in the old age home.
“Are you family?” The young voice at the other end seemed excited. “We need a break, madam. Really. The Brigadier is too much. Just last night he chased old captain Starke right around the home, because Starke said General Viljoen was a coward and a sell-out. We had to lock them both in their rooms for the whole night. Please Madam, come and take him, even if it’s just for a few days…”
Gericke was much more forthcoming when he got on the phone. Without waiting to hear what the call is about, he launched straight into a tirade.
“If this is about that damn fool Starke, I can tell you he can count himself lucky my arthritis has been acting up lately. If I caught that man, I would have moered his false teeth right back to his hemorrhoids. And I’m not sorry. Don’t expect me to apologise.”
It took more than an hour to get the old man to grasp fully what the call is all about. He asked a million questions, of which Gertruida could answer only a few. In the end, he understood: his daughter is alive! Alive!
Sobbing, he told Gertruida to expect him the next morning.