‘Now, you know,’ Gertruida says, ‘That little CJ Jnr was only a boy. He knew his father was a soldier and that he was defending something in a faraway land. It was such an innocent, vague and romantic impression – he naturally assumed his dad would return with a chest full of medals and maybe even a souvenir for him.’
Oupa – with Geel as translator – took CJ Jnr to the waterhole. The boy loved these excursions. By then he knew most of the spoor and quite a lot about the behavior of some animals. In the shade of a Withaak tree, the old man smoothed the ground, wiped away the twigs and leaves and spread his karos.
‘Now, son, today you must watch the reeds on the far side of the water. See that muddy patch? Just there.’ Oupa pointed. The boy nodded.
For a long time, they just sat there, staring. CJ Jnr trusted Oupa completely. If he said he had to watch that space, there was a very good reason for it. It seemed like ages. Then the grass moved. Just a little.
And a huge, snake-like head appeared. A forked tongue dashed here and there. The long-nailed claws followed. Then the bulky, multi-coloured body followed.
‘Likkewaan,’ the boy whispered. ‘A really, really big one.’
‘And what did Oupa teach you about a likkewaan?’
The boy frowned. ‘He said they are dangerous. He said they can break a small cat’s neck with one big clout. And then swallow him whole.’
Geel nodded. ‘You’re right. Now watch.’
The boy watched as the iguana slowly slid into the water. Still its tongue darted out every now and then. The big head rocked in rhythm with the paddling of the front claws. And it was coming straight at them! CJ Jnr made to get up to move away, but Geel laid a gentle, restraining hand on his arm. ‘Watch,’ he whispered.
The reptile crossed the pool and raised itself on the stumpy legs. Then he waddled over to Oupa. CJ Jnr hissed a warning which Oupa ignored. Shaking his head, he said ‘Shhhh…’ Then the old man took out what looked to be a root or tuber of sorts from his pouch. This he placed in front of the overgrown lizard. The tongue flicked out, touching the offering. Then, in what seemed like a single movement, the root was grabbed, swallowed, and the iguana returned to the water with an almighty splash.
They sat in silence as the iguana swam back to its nest and disappeared in the reeds.
‘What did you learn, Little One?’ Geel translated softly.
The boy shook his head.
‘That likkewaan is like life, Boy. It is dangerous. Unpredictable. It can swallow you whole. But what did we do?’ Oupa didn’t wait for an answer. ‘We got to know it. We faced it. And when you are as old as I am, you don’t fear it. Your lesson today is that you must never be afraid of life, little CJ. Respect it and learn to tame your circumstances.’ (Here Geel had to explain Oupa’s words very carefully, until he was certain their message was received.) ‘Once you accept that life may not always be what you wanted, you stop being afraid. You respect it and you learn that what you expect, is often far removed from what you get. That, Little Brother, is when you start to Live.”
They sat there for a long time. Around them the veld lived with the little creatures that crawl, fly, scamper, make their tiny sounds in the silence of the Kalahari.
‘Do you understand, Little Brother’
The boy nodded.
‘Then I must tell you something about your father. Something that happened. Something important.’