“Dad? …. Daddy?”
Lettie looks up as the brigadier stoops to enter the tree-cave. She hasn’t seen her father for such a long time – decades – that she’s uncertain at first. But when he kneels next to her, she lets out a sob of relief. “You came…”
There is no time – or need – for introductions now. !Ka and Gertruida join father and daughter next to Gert.
!Ka is shocked to see his friend like this. When he left a few days ago, Gert was still talking about going hunting the next day, even though he looked tired. Now, however, his cheeks seems to have melted away, and his eyes are unnaturally large in the sunken sockets. !Ka knows about death – it is part of living in a desert – and he knows Gert won’t live to see another sunrise.
Gertruida says a teller of stories must put a lot of effort into making the dialogue believable, and that is true – of course. Sometimes, however, the silence between the characters is more important than words – simply because it says such a lot.
This is what happens in the tree-cave when they all gather there. It’s unnecessary for the brigadier to express his joy and relief at finding his daughter. Gertruida and !Ka, being spectators and unable to help in any way, cannot contribute by trying to make smalltalk. And Lettie, of course, has so much on her mind that words won’t express her emotions.
It is, in the end, Gert who breaks the silence.
“I would…have saluted…if I still had…a beret. Sorry…sir.”
“At ease, soldier. What’s the position?”
“Dad!” Lettie throws her hands in the air in mock-anger. “You haven’t changed a bit! Stop the army-talk, please? Gert isn’t well…”
Almost immediately the brigadier softens as he shoots her an apologetic glance. His abrupt manner had served him well during his career as a soldier, something he found useful in his retirement as well. Whenever he faced a difficult situation, this trait surfaced to put him back in command again – its almost as if he can distance himself and then manage circumstances from afar. A commander cannot become too involved with his troops, can he? It’ll cloud his judgement every time he plans a battle.
But this time – here… Seeing his daughter as an aging woman, hair all dishevelled and dressed in soft rabbit skins, has been a shock and a pleasure. He saw the way she instinctively ran her fingers through her hair; just like she did as a young girl, when she wanted to look her best for her Daddy. Barefoot. Big brown eyes filled with sadness. As much as the brigadier would have loved to assume an unaffected attitude, he simply can’t. His daughter…the one he lost. How many nights has he spent wondering? And now, to find her like this?
Gertruida kneels next to the grass mattress to feel Gert’s feeble, racing pulse. She notes the pale cheeks and lips, the lumps of glands in the neck, the sheen of fever sweat.
“How long…?” She meets Lettie’s stare.
Lettie tells her about the deterioration in the last few weeks. “He just lost his appetite, then he became so terribly thin. And his tummy…” She lifts the old shirt to show the bloated abdomen.
Gertruida closes her eyes. Leukemia? Hodgkin’s disease? Some other form of cancer? Whatever it is, its beyond any possibility of cure. Plus…Gert’s condition is such that transporting him would be too much for his failing system, anyway.
Gert opens his eyes one last time. “Sir…I…love…your…daughter.”
“I know, Smit. And you took good care of her – I can see that. I’m sorry…”
The brigadier doesn’t say what he is sorry for. Maybe the list is too long, or maybe the reasons are so obvious that it is superfluous to elaborate. Still, his remark draws a weak smile from Gert.
Gertruida once said that dying is like giving birth: it’s a process with a predictable outcome…eventually. However, nature determines the individual course of each and every one of these moments – whether we enter life, or finally depart from it. So, when Gert closed his eyes for the last time, he did so with a contented smile. His woman will be taken care of. His commanding officer appologised. His friend !Ka is at his side. The last thought that cruised through his fever-ridden mind, was one of gratitude.
“He’s gone,” the brigadier says gently.
“I know, Daddy.”
!Ka has lit a fire for his dying friend outside the tree-cave, and now walks in a circle around the smouldering embers, chanting softly. When an irritated frown appears on the brigadier’s forehead, Lettie puts a finger on the old soldier’s lips.
“Let him be, Daddy. There’s only one God. There are many ways to pray, and even more ways to say ‘thank you’…. They were good friends.”
They buried Gert next to the little fountain he had found so many years ago – next to the garden he started with the St Helena tomato seed, and within sight of the old Baobab that gave them shelter for so long.
Lettie was surprisingly strong when she told the mound of earth how much she loved him. She read the passage on the mustard seed in the great-great grandfather’s version of the Bible, pointed at the tomato plants, and realised that said it all.
Gertruida says a good story has a life of its own. Once told, it remains with the listener as a memory of something special. The words may have fallen silent, but the pictures remain. Stories, according to her, have a mystical quality to live in the minds of the listeners.
And, she says, a story is worthless if it doesn’t change the listener. “Even reading a single sentence – or a single word – makes the brain rearrange all the thoughts you have stored up in your lifetime. It’s such a complex process, that people don’t even consider the vast influence of listening to a story, watching a drama or reading a book.
“We become our words, our stories. That’s why it is necessary to have vows and pacts and promises. What we say today, determines how our minds react tomorrow. It’s elementary, really.”
Vetfaan sighs. Ever since Gertruida has come back, she is in this horribly philosophical mood. Boggel’s Place might as well be a psychiatrists office.
“But why,” Vetfaan tries to understand what happened, “did you leave the brigadier out there? Surely it would have been better for him and Lettie to return to civilisation?”
“That, Vetfaan, would have been a silly way to end the story.”
Way out in the desert, next to a huge old Baobab, a father and his daughter sit and watch the sun set. They’ve spent the last few days talking, talking and talking. The old man discovered something strange: living out here – away from it all – released a feeling of freedom inside him. The open horizon, the absence of people (especially that stupid Starke character!), the nearness of his daughter – his daughter! – and the quiet !Ka who is teaching him things about the veld he never knew…all these things now combine to create a strange new peace, a comfortable feeling of belonging.
And yes, he thinks, it’s only right to stay here for now. Here, With his daughter and that strange little yellow man. And the tree and the half-buried ruins. That, and the mound of earth next to the fountain, where the tomatoes grow and the fifty-one shiny stones spell out the name of the man who loved his daughter so much.
Gertruida says some stories have many beginnings, and some may even have many endings. But, she says, a good story has the colour of Gert Smit’s ripe tomatoes. It says so much about war and love and faith.
And, of course, Life.