Approx 4000 years ago, The Holy Cave
//Xi stands trembling while he waits for the old man’s response. When !Xuiram works in his trance-like state, one does not interrupt his drawing. However, the news he has to impart is too terrible, too overwhelming, to keep to himself.
“Yes, my son?” !Xuiram puts down his brush with a smile. The impatience of youth! It makes them forget their manners.
“The Holy Cave! The Holy Cave has fallen, my Father.”
Old !Xuiram closes his eyes. He knew it was going to happen. In his dream the giant cave collapsed in a jumble of rock, robbing them of their most potent place of magic. Only a skeleton of the cave will remain, an arched rock, as a reminder of their way of life. The magic will die..
This, he understands, is the signal for them to leave the lush fountain and seek refuge in the desert. It may take many, many seasons, but their days of peaceful existence is over.
“The hunters, dear //Xi, have become the hunted. From now on, this place is cursed. It has been foretold for many generations… The fountain will dry up. Men will come, many men, and they will die here. I saw that in my dream.”
But, !Xuiram tells the youth, this is their spiritual home. They will never, ever, leave it. Even after death…
And //Xi sits down next to the old man, and they weep together.
Captain Wilmott gathers the men and women on the beach, telling them that the radio operator did, indeed, get a message out.
“We shall be saved in a few days. We have some food and hopefully enough water in the lifeboats. The ship, alas, is lost – but fortunately we got near enough to the shore before she sank. It is a miracle so many have survived the cold waters of the Atlantic.” He takes off cap and bows his head. “Let us say a prayer for the ones who didn’t make it…and also offer our thanks for those who did.”
Way out in the ocean, the prow of the City of Baroda hesitates a while above the water – as if in a mock salute – before it slips quietly below the surface.
Boggel’s Place, 2014
Elsie and Servaas has a lot of catching up to do. Boggel serves the drinks while the rest of the townsfolk stop pretending that they’re not eavesdropping. Even Oudoom is there, Old Brown in hand, listening to Elsie telling her old school friend about the search for her father.
“You know, Servaas, when my Dad got lost in the Sperrgebiet, our world collapsed. My Mom moved us to Pretoria to be with her family. This was just before you met Siena – I suppose – and you stopped writing. Oh, you were such a gentleman, telling me about your new-found love and how you felt it is better if we stopped corresponding. Back then I was furious, but later I understood your loyalty and even came to respect it.
“The authorities handled us like dirt, unfortunately. Nobody seemed to know anything about my father or where he was sent. Some Colonel arrived at the house one evening and told my mother there was nothing they could do. My Dad, he said, had been sent on a secret mission, mentioning the Sperrgebiet but saying it was something he wasn’t at liberty to discuss. He did, however, mention that the project was authorised by the Minister of Finances. However, he regretted to inform us that the entire expedition had been killed. He wouldn’t say anything more, except that my Mom would receive a generous state pension and that we children would be able to study at any university at no cost.
“What could we do? It was 1974 then, and strange things were happening all over the country. People died in bomb blasts. People disappeared. It was a terrible time – for Black and White. Well, Mom received the pension and I went on to study architecture. While at university, I met Barend, got married, had two children of my own. Life went on, you see, and with time I just sort of accepted the way things turned out to be.”
Elsie sighs as she stares at her neatly manicured nails. Servaas, in turn, stares at her. Yes…Elsie. Elsie Parker. He tries to remember if he had ever been bold enough to hold her hand. Yes, he hugged her that day when she cried…but that’s not the same, is it? He shakes his head…it’s just too long ago.
“But…Elsie?” Her name makes his cheeks tingle. Even after all these years, the very sound of her name has a profound influence on him. “What brings you to Rolbos? I mean, I’m glad to see you and all that, but…?”
Elsie lights another cigarette, exhaling a thin line of smoke to the ceiling. “Because you’re the only one I can trust, Servaas. That’s why.”
She proceeds to tell him about her architectural firm, which did very nicely, thank you. Barend, a sweet, portly man who indulged in all her whims, died two years ago.
“…and suddenly my life was empty. My kids are all grown up and have families of their own. The architectural firm is run by young men with ponytails and earrings. They wear Raybans indoors and smell like the cologne counter at Woolworths. I am independent and don’t really have to work any longer – and in fact, my ideas are….well, let’s say…old-fashioned? That’s why I looked in the mirror one day – and saw a dinosaur. I just didn’t belong any more.”
She had to do something, she says, to keep going. And then, one night, she dreamt of her father. He seemed happy enough, all decked out in some sort of white outfit, and he told her it is time.
“Time for what, I asked? And he smiled and said I should know…and then he was gone. You know Servaas, I had never had a dream like that one before. It was so lucid, so clear, that I could smell the old pipe he used to smoke.
“Anyway I woke up and made a cup of coffee. The dream bothered me. My Dad wanted me to do something – but what? And then I remembered 1973 and the way he disappeared and I knew…just knew…that I must find out what happened.
“So I did. Went to the archives in Pretoria and started digging. At first I found nothing – but later on I stumbled across the Smit murders in 1977. You know? Robert and Jeanne-Cora Smit? The financial guru for the Nationalist government? At first I thought it was too far-fetched to be a connection, but then I started looking at Dr Nico Diederichs, the man who – ostensibly – authorised my father’s secret mission. And then…then I started thinking maybe…just maybe…”
By this time, Gertruida sits with her hand over her mouth. Yes she knows about the gossip and rumours surrounding the Smit murders – but has this woman dug up something concrete?
Gertruida isn’t superstitious – she knows far too much to dabble with such things. But here, she realises, is the foundation for something extraordinary.
“Boggel! A round of Green Ambulances, please. I think we’ll need it!”