They still talk about Hennie Kirstein. About him and the girl and the way he disappeared.
Not often, though – simply because the story has so many endings and nobody is quite sure what had happened after the honeymoon. Some (like old Servaas) are convinced that leaving Hennie’s farm caused a fast exit in the Vertical Elevator; but others (like Precilla) believe differently. The ensuing argument usually ends in an icy silence in Boggel’s Place, something that the patrons prefer to avoid. Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t think about the handsome young man they used to envy.
Hennie, you see, had the midas touch, although it came to him by accident. He started with his small flock of sheep on the farm nobody wanted, It was haunted, they said, after Oom Ferreira fell down the well he was digging. He drowned in the middle of the driest, most desolate and isolated part of the Kalahari. Hard to believe? Maybe. But that’s what happened.
At the auction afterwards, only Hennie rocked up and bought the farm for a pittance. He had just enough money left to buy a few sheep and settled down to wait for the next lambing season. The farmers in the area predicted failure, but there must have been something in that water of the well that affected his sheep. No ewe had a single lamb. After the first season Hennie went to Upington to change the farm’s name from Alles Verloren to Tweeling.
At the end of his second year on the farm, Hennie imported a ram and a couple of ewes – prime stock everybody said would break him financially. Not so. Within the next two years he was able to host auctions that made his neighbours swallow their words. Hennie was on his way to becoming the richest farmer in the Northern Cape.
Everybody agrees that Hennie should have stuck to farming: then the outcome might have been a happy one. However, Hennie noticed a strange phenomenon, long before it became the subject of so much speculation. He naturally considered the fact that his prize ram – now valued at many times the original cost – would eventually cease to be the magnificent fertile animal it used to be. (This is true for humans, as well). At the age of four, the ram had it’s full set of teeth (four pairs of incisors, neatly stacked close to each other) and Hennie expected the decline to become evident as soon as the teeth started chipping and falling out – which should have happened in the next four years or so. That, he decided, would be the time to sell the ram.
But it didn’t happen. His ram – affectionately called Pumper – not only kept his teeth, but he also continued with unabated enthusiasm to do what he did best. The ewes of the flock seemed to adore the ram, bleating sadly around the sturdy pen Hennie had built to protect Pumper from being overwhelmed by the anxious mothers-to-be. At the age of 11, when even the strongest rams pack up to depart to the pasture-in-the-sky, Pumper was still fathering twins in most of his amorous relationships. (Which Hennie applauded as a work of art. He often boasted that his ram was a master seducer, even to the point of baa-ing softly to his conquests after the act – like a real gentleman should.)
Hennie wondered about his ram a lot. His virility, his fertility, his refusal to grow weary and old…and then he thought about old Oom Ferreira’s well. And then it dawned on him…
It happened when he attended the yearly auction in the eighth year of his farm. Not given to frequent visits to Rolbos or Upington, Hennie lived quietly on Tweeling and rarely saw the other farmers of the district. That year, as he stood listening to the auctioneer’s rattle driving the prices sky high, he looked at the other farmers. Stared intently. And went inside to look at the mirror above the washbasin. And gasped.
The other farmers were getting older, with wrinkles and bald heads and liver spots. He, on the other hand, looked like he had just come out of school. His beard was still fuzzy, his skin as smooth as the day he fantasized about the pigtailed girl in Standard 8, and his stomach as flat as it was when he played wing for the first team. In short – he wasn’t showing the signs of aging the other farmers endured so stoically.
It had to be the water from the well. What else? By the twelfth year his observations were more acute than ever. Pumper was in his prime. And yes, he, Hennie, was still as handsome and as young as ever. His neighbours, sadly, were getting about with replaced hips, used canes to lean on and had servants bring chairs to the auctions. His well – where Oom Ferreira drowned – was the source of….everlasting youth? Could it be?
But, since the well only provided enough water for him and the sheep, Hennie kept quiet and watched his bank balance grow,
This, as every handsome and wealthy bachelor knows, is a very bad thing. There is no stronger aphrodisiac to a would-be spinster than the number of zeroes on the little piece of paper the bank sends out every month to such rare gentlemen. Hennie later considered Pumper to be lucky to be kept safe in his sturdy pen – he, Hennie, didn’t have that privilege. The buxom ladies came a-calling in droves and he had to be rude at times to get rid of them.
Until Bessie Cronje rocked up. She was different. Shy, demure, pretty, only slightly curvy and the greenest eyes you ever saw. What tipped the scales in her favour? Who knows? Gertruida reckons it was because Bessie wasn’t interested in money – she had inherited the Cronje millions; money made by printing T-shirts for the various political parties in South Africa. (No self-respecting political gathering is complete without T-shirt handouts and free food) Anyway, Bessie arrived in her Bentley, dressed in jeans and a high-necked blouse, and told him she wanted to settle down, make her husband happy and generally be a pleasure to have around.
So, her approach was unpretentious, honest and very, very effective. Hennie fell for her faster than Oom Ferreira descended down his well. The two of them were married by Oudoom in a very private ceremony on the farm, attended by Gertruida and Precilla as bridesmaids and witnesses. Gertruida, who never lies, says that Hennie looked more handsome than ever on that day.
It was the postcard that set the tongues wagging. Taken on the beach in Mauritius, it shows the honeymoon couple tanning happily, each with a tall glass festooned by a little umbrella. If you looked closely, you’d see a little worried smile on Bessies lips. And Hennie? Why is his brow furrowed so deeply, his hair suddenly tinged with grey?
“I tell you, that man needed his farm’s water. Stopping drinking it caused his body to age at a rapid rate. Mother Nature had been tricked for a while, but as soon as he stopped drinking from that well, the years took their revenge. I’m sure he never made it back – probably ended up in a geriatric institution somewhere.” Servaas runs a tired hand over his withered face. “You can’t fool Time, my friends.”
“Ag no, Servaas. I’m sure Bessie had twins and they settled somewhere peacefully. Why stay in the Kalahari if you can lounge around in luxury somewhere? Yep, settled down and lived happily ever after, that’s what happened.” Ever the romantic optimist, Precilla’s emphatic statement sounds a bit desperate even to herself.
Hennie’s farm is still out there, lost in the arid landscape of the vast Kalahari. The flock had been sold, except for the ram which disappeared mysteriously on the day before the sale. Kleinpiet says that, on some full moon nights, you can hear the bleating of a young ram near that well – and that usually makes his listeners laugh.
Not happy laughter, mind you – more like the impolite grunts people make upon hearing a bad joke. Just like we do when the president tells us that the ANC will rule until Jesus returns. One thing is sure, however: Uncle Zumzum would like to know about that well – he’s certainly aging far too fast to still be around when that happens.