“Tell us your story, Grootgert. We know so little about you. Where do you come from? What do you do?” Gertruida, who knows (just about) everything, is almost pleading with the big man.
“Things are lost out there,” Grootgert says in his slow way, waving a hand towards the desert, “that you don’t know about. I find them.”
Whenever Grootgert pays one of his rare visits to Boggel’s Place, the whole town turns out to find out more about him. He is, after all, the most secretive man in the Kalahari. Still, Gertruida maintains, the man is at least more entertaining than the news of the government’s successes you hear on the radio every day. After all, he never told them who he is – he simply arrives in Rolbos occasionally, has a drink, and then walks off again. They dubbed him Grootgert simply to ease their conversations about him.
Gertruida summed up what they knew about him a while ago. Yes, he’s a loner. And sure, he lives out there in the desert, all by himself. It is also true that he talks with a heavy accent, suggesting that he must be from somewhere far away, like Williston, or Kimberley even.. But that’s about it – and he never talks about himself, anyway.
Vetfaan once said he thought he had met Grootgert on the border, during the war. That might have happened, for a generation of young boys grew up to be men during those troubled times when the Army gave them guns and pointed them North. They came back – well, some of them did – as adults who chose not to remember everything. So, when Grootgert said he had never met Vetfaan before, it may have been true, or maybe it was something he wiped from his mind.
Vetfaan still isn’t convinced. There was a skirmish, on the wrong side of the line between Namibia and Angola, involving three (or was it four?) platoons and an unknown number of enemies. That’s when the MiG’S swept down – out of the blue, guns blazing – and strafed the whole area. It was one of those horrifying stupid events that happens during wars – attackers and defenders found themselves scurrying for cover. The young men – who seconds before were seriously trying to kill each other – now sprinted in a mad dash for communal safety.
Vetfaan remembers the big tree and the ant heap. While the jets screamed overhead, he found shelter behind the tree. Two yards away, he saw the ant heap – a big one. Once or twice (or was it more?), he saw chunks of earth flying off the big mound as the deadly bullets tore into the hardened earth. But then, during a lull in the shooting, he saw a movement behind the ant heap.
Now, during such times, one doesn’t engage in casual conversation. Oh, hi, I’m Fanie. From the North Cape, you know? I see you’ve got a Russian uniform? How interesting! It gets to be very cold in the winters over there, doesn’t it? No, that isn’t the way wars go. You reload your rifle carefully, take aim, and kill the bastard.
Only, it is rather important to have your rifle with you to do this. Even if you have a full magazine strapped to your webbing, you can’t shoot very well without the rifle. And throwing bullets at your enemy doesn’t work so well, either. So you end up as a shivering and frightened young man, peeking ever so carefully past the coarse bark of the Acacia tree to see what the man behind the ant heap is doing.
Now, even though one tends to forget a lot of things as one gets older, some impressions simply refuse to fade. Even if you tried – really tried – there are pictures that remain as sharp as the day you experienced them for the first time. It happens, for instance, at births, funerals and such events like romantic moments and other accident scenes.
When Vetfaan peered at the ant heap, he saw a face staring back at him. A clearly frightened face, with large eyes and an open mouth, saying what sounded like ‘Nyet’ or something. Then the man pointed at the leg he was sticking out behind the mound: a trickle of blood stained the trousers above the right knee. He’d been wounded. No more shooting, please! And they both withdrew to their shelters and waited for the MiGs to go away. And afterwards – a minute, an hour, more? – neither of them looked for the other as they crept away to the South and the North respectively.
That’s why Vetfaan can never be sure. Although that fleeting glance only recorded the eyes and mouth of his adversary in his mind, and although he can still recall it as clearly as that day when he trembled behind that tree, he can’t be sure. Maybe he chose to forget other bits of detail, or maybe there was too much dust on that face to fill in more features – but the fact remains: he can’t say for certain. Grootgert, that huge enigmatic and nameless man, may or may not have been behind that ant heap that day.
“Out there? Like what?” Kleinpiet prompts. Grootgert, he is sure, must surely tell them something about himself now.
“Things. Many things. I find things. Things I never though should be in the desert.”
Then, while Gertruida thinks about her next question, the big man gets up and walks out. They watch as he ambles down Voortrekker Weg to reach the end of town, and struts out towards the red dunes on the horizon.
“Strange man.” Kleinpiet says. “Imagine forgetting what you find.”
“Yes, I can. It’s even harder than finding what you forgot.” Vetfaan runs his hand through his thinning hair.
“Ag, come on, Vetfaan, you’re not making any sense.”
A slow smile wrinkles the tanned skin on Vetfaan’s cheeks. He was thinking about the slight limp – something with the right leg? – as the man left town. “That’s the way a man should tell a story, Kleinpiet. A good story must leave you with questions. You must find the forgotten bits the man didn’t tell. And that’s what you’ll remember… “