Category Archives: myth

Following Ariadne’s Thread

ariadnetheseus krauss8,3.jpg“People still argue about her, you know? Was she a goddess? Was she immortal? Or was she, like you and me, simply human? Or…most disappointing of all – is she only a myth, after all?” Gertruida simply loves doing this when the group in the bar has grown tired of discussing the drought and the latest blunders by our bungling party in power. She’ll throw out a sentence like that and pretend everybody knows exactly what she is talking about. Then she’ll get out her book of crossword puzzles and ignore the rest.

Servaas sighs dramatically and rolls his eyes before digging an elbow into Vetfaan’s ribs. “Your turn,” he whispers.

The problem with small towns – if Rolbos can even be elevated to such high status, more often being called a hovel or sometimes a ‘small collection of scattered buildings’ – is that the set routine about how things are done, is seldom subjected to logical scrutiny. Their behaviour is governed by the way things were done in the past, and that’s the way it’d be done next week…or next year, for that matter. Servaas had taken the bait the last time Gertruida egged them on, so now it is Vetfaan’s turn.

“Ag, okay then, Gertruida, we give up. Who you talking about? Our previous Public Protector? She certainly  fits the bill… ”

“She’s much older than dear Thuli, Vetfaan. Much older and  … much too young.. Like Thuli, she had a analytical, logical brain which she used to solve the most difficult problems with. And, sadly, like Thuli, there are many voices condemning her today as an unfaithful and two-faced character. The only difference, maybe, is that our heroine belongs to Greek mythology, while Thuli is very much alive and well and living in our midst.”

“Oh, for the sake of Vrede,” Servaas gestures to the town’s dog, patiently waiting for a bit of biltong on Boggel’s pillow beneath the counter, “stop the nonsense. Who – or what – are you going on about?”

“Why, Ariadne, of course.” Gertruida rolls her eyes in mock horror. “Didn’t you know? I thought everybody knew about the stunningly beautiful girl who helped Theseus to slay the Minotaur in the labyrinth.”She stares at the blank faces for a few seconds before sighing heavily. “Oh my. Surrounded by the crowd of super-gifted intelligentia once more.

“To slay the Minotaur, Theseus had to find his way through the labyrinth to get to the creature/man. And once he’d managed to kill the beast, he had to find his way back again – a seemingly impossible task. Enter Ariadne with a ball of twine, which she handed to Theseus. Then, much like Hansel and Gretel did with their breadcrumbs, Theseus knew exactly what route to take to get to the exit of the labyrinth again.

dePasse16002gs.jpg“So, today, if you talk about Ariadne’s Thread, you talk about the ‘solving of a problem with multiple apparent means of proceeding – such as a physical maze, a logic puzzle, or an ethical dilemma – through an exhaustive application of logic to all available’. Simply put, it says that you must consider all the ways to solve a problem and that logic will dictate the best route.

“So, Ariadne’s thread helped Theseus to accomplish the apparently impossible, just like we have to in the current political climate.” Gertruida drew two sketches on the countertop to illustrate her story:

Minotaurus-in-center-300x232.gifimages (1).jpg

“A grand story if ever there was one.” Servaas suppressed a bored yawn. “But your analogy to our politics doesn’t make sense.”

“Oh, it does, my friend. You see, the majority of people approach our current situation on an emotional basis. They argue that the ruling party deserves credit – and loyalty – because of the struggle to free the country of Apartheid. That’s why our prez cannot say two words without harping back to the past.

“But, of course, the ANC of Sobukwe and Biko and Mandela has passed on a long time ago. The high ideals of the struggle have been replaced by individual greed and chronic megalomanioses. To keep the masses voting for them, the ruling party has to remind them of the past – all the time. And then, of course there are the 2,3 to 5 million (depending on which source you believe) taxpayers who have to support 17 million recipients of social grants. Logic whispers, Servaas, but money shouts.

“There’s no logic to our electoral system, see? There is a huge difference between democracy and being held at ransom by the masses who cast an emotional (as opposed to a logical) vote.”

“Old news, Gertruida. We know that.”

“True. Everybody does. But we need somebody like Ariadne to give us the thread so we can slay the Minotaur and still get out of the Labyrinth alive. We need respected people to stand up and tell it like it is. We don’t need emotional votes, neither do we need emotional criticism. We need logic to be resurrected in our society, with people choosing their words and actions wisely and … logically. Ariadne’s way, in fact.”

Vetfaan slices off a piece of Kudu biltong and slips it to Vrede.

“I’ll drink to that. May our Ariadne  have enough thread for a nation.”

“So, what happened to Ariadne?”

“Nobody really knows, Vetfaan, there are variations in the myt,.depending on who tells the story. Some say she committed suicide, others maintain she was abandoned on some island. Most agree that she had a sad end.”

Servaas nods slowly. “The price of honesty. That’s the problem. Few are brave enough to face the truth…”

 

The Charmer, Vetfaan’s Gout and Immortality

Paul_Désiré_Trouillebert,_The_Nude_Snake_Charmer.jpg

Paul Trouillebert: The naked snake charmer

Whenever Vetfaan is asked about the sexy girl he had met that fateful summer’s day, he blushes, stutters and tells you to mind your own business. Should you persist, a rather unpleasant exchange of a more physical nature is sure to follow.

The problem involves the fact that this waif of a girl – somewhere between mid-thirty and menopause – had the body of an athlete and the ageless wisdom some women seem to possess.

It was a particularly hot day, with heat shimmers rising and warping the scenery of the Kalahari. The distorted surroundings often create a surrealistic symptoms-of-gout-in-the-toe.jpgatmosphere, especially if the traveller is new to the area. Vetfaan, being a born-and-bred son of the region, simply failed to notice the visual impact of the heatwaves. His attention was focussed on the joint where his big toe joined his foot.

Now, anybody who has had some experience with gout, will understand the degree of pain and discomfort poor Vetfaan endured that morning. He had already eaten a handful of black cherries, drank two litres of water, ate three lemons and packed his foot in ice. Nothing helped. The throbbing, red, painful joint insisted on swelling up even more, forcing Vetfaan to take off his boot while driving to Upington, where he hoped to see the new doctor he had heard so much about.

Well, heat waves may have escaped his attention…the girl in the middle of the road did not. No Kalahari-man will ever drive past a stranded woman. Especially if she’s beautiful. Or wears a revealing, short skirt. Or stands  in the middle of the road, aiming a short-barrelled  .38 at you. In this case, the woman in question had ticked all these boxes, and Vetfaan did, indeed, stop.

She was unapologetic about the gun, saying a girl could never be sure who would stop to offer help.

“Listen, I’ve been around. I’m a woman. You’re a man. It all adds up.”

“What does?” Vetfaan didn’t understand.

She ignored his question, picked up her bag and got in. “Drive slowly and don’t make an accident. I’ve had enough trouble in my life.”

“What’s wrong with your vehicle?”

She eyed him for a full minute before answering. “Mam doesn’t like the smell of petrol. Neither do I, for that matter.”

“Mam?”

She rolled her eyes heavenward in exasperation. “Mam. My snake. Short for mamba.”

To recount the disjointed conversation that followed, would involve many pages of blank looks and horrid stares and still-born sentences. The short version: Mimi – she of no fixed abode and rather limited means – made a living as a snake charmer. She also treated various  health conditions, communicated with departed family members and had once sat as a model for a famous artist.

“That’s immortality, understand? Paintings don’t grow old and die. Oh, the paint the artist used, might get a bit flakey,but the picture? It remains as beautiful as the day the brush touched the canvas.”

By the time they reached Upington, Vetfaan was completely confused.  His passenger was either completely mad, or perhaps the most interesting woman he had ever met. Fascinated by the possibilities, he asked her to join him for coffee before his appointment with the doctor.

“Doctor? What for?”

He explained. She suggested moxibustion. Vetfaan said the people in the Northern Cape frowned on polygamy. She laughed.

japanese-moxibustion.jpg“No, it’s not that, silly man! I burn a herb on your toe, and you feel better. Moxi-bustion…the burning of mugwort.  It’s an old Chinese trick. see? Mugwort, that’s the herb – is what you need. I’ve got some.”

Vetfaan claims to be the first man in the Kalahari to have undergone moxibustion. There, on the front seat of his old Land Rover, his strange passenger rolled a few mugwort fibres into a little ball and placed it on his swollen toe. He watched, horrified, as she lit the potion with a small gas lighter and was amazed that he felt no pain.

“The swelling will go down now,” she said, “but I must go. Mam needs something to eat and you’re too nice. And…I must still find my two friends. I’ll just keep on looking, even if it takes forever. So, thank you and bye-bye.”

Vetfaan watched, dumbfounded,  as she sauntered down the street, swinging her bag casually as she strode along. He ran a hand over his still-bare foot and sighed with relief when he noticed how much better it felt. By the time he had his sock and boot back on, Mimi was nowhere to be seen.

On his way back to Rolbos, Vetfaan stopped at her abandoned vehicle. On the back seat he found an old shoe-box with a dead rat in it. Mam’s supper?  In the boot, another box – a lot bigger, containing three pieces of art.

Trouillebert-servante_du_harem.jpg1 (1).jpg

 

It was Gertruida who told Vetfaan about the girls and the great portrait artist, Paul Désiré Trouillebert. “The Young Girl, the Harem Girl and the Snake Charmer were all painted by the same man, Vetfaan. Remember, Trouillebert was a landscape artist – he abandoned his attempts at portrait works because he fell in love with the girls in his painting – like all artists do. The real, flesh-and-blood subjects were admired for their beauty, but the paintings became the loves of his life – because they were immortal. Time would not decay their beauty, neither would the lovely faces and bodies sag and become wrinkled.”

“Immortal? Really? Are you saying that I…?”

“Either that, Vetfaan, or you’ve lost your mind.” Gertruida shrugged. “I don’t know which is worse…”

The Diary (#5)

Credit: multiverses.wikia.com

Credit: multiverses.wikia.com

I had a dream last night. A very vivid one, the details of which remain imprinted on my mind as if I had lived through every moment of it.

I felt that I was a spectator of the first moment of time. Initially there was only darkness, but then a spectacular array of light – green, yellow, blue, red – exploded and millions and millions  fragments of light scattered into the darkness. One of these fragments enlarged and became the Earth, And then it, in turn, exploded and formed many Earths. I couldn’t count them, but they sort of drifted away from each other before merging again.

Well, ‘merging’ isn’t the right word. Those worlds came together, but stayed apart. I don’t know how to explain it… It was like a herd of Springboks – while they move as one, graze together and basically act as a single group, they still remain individuals forming a larger whole. Something like that happened when the different Earths came together. There were many different Earths, but they formed one single entity. And then the dream drew me closer and I was standing on Kubu Island. In  my dream I looked out at the salt pan, and it ceased to be a barren place: it became a sea….a sea of faces, and all of them were mine. 

I couldn’t understand, so I asked the sea why all the faces were me? And then the different faces – all of them me – they all answered…and the answers were different for every face.

When I woke up, I was covered in sweat. I felt more confused than ever. And then I remembered the three Kubu Islands the old man drew in the sand. And it clicked.

We live on Earth. Our Earth. But out there, or in here, there are many other Earths. And each of them are made up of everybody and anybody that lives or ever lived. On this Earth, I am me. On the other Earths, there are many more of me. It doesn’t make sense, does it? But like there are many Kubus, there are many Earths and each Earth has a me, and everybody else.

The reason, I realised, why the old man wiped out Kubu in one of his drawings, is that things are different on the different Earths. Why? Obviously Nature is a relatively constant phenomenon. Weather patterns follow an unwritten set of rules. The Earth’s crust is subjected to changes which have scientific bases. So the way the Earth develops, is maybe similar on all the Earths.

But people, now… There are no rules for people, are there? Even small decisions or seemingly insignificant discoveries may change the world a lot. If, for instance, antibiotics had been discovered a hundred years before that doctor did tests on the piece of rotting bread, then thousands – if not millions – of people would have lived longer and contributed to society’s progress or downfall. What would have happened if Hitler lived in the 1700’s? Or if Lincoln died as a baby?

Sooo…if there are more than one Earth, there’d be as many histories as there are human whims…

Despite the terrible fatigue, I called the old man over. I drew his pictures in the sand, wiped out one, and nodded to show him I understand. He smiled. Then he redrew the Kubu I wiped out and pointed at me. He proceeded to take the little bag of herbs from his quiver, looked at me in a questioning way and spoke at length. Of course I couldn’t understand. He took to his drawings again, and sketched two stick-men in the sand. He pointed at them and pointed at the two of us. Yes, I got that: the two men on the sand represented the two of us. He drew the herb’s bag, then made the one stick-man hand it to the other. He then wiped out one, leaving a solitary stick-man in the sand. He pointed at this one, then pointed at himself.

I felt strange at that point. Strange and tired and excited all at once. The old man wanted me to take the last dose of herbs, but obviously something will happen to me. This time, his drawing was telling me, I wasn’t coming back. Why would I do that? 

Right then, the young woman joined us on the sand. Her eyes were bright and she spoke in an excited tone with the old man. His replies were calm and soothing, but he obviously agreed to something she asked. Without another word, she led me to their shelter. 

***

multiverse2“Gosh!” Gertruida takes a deep breath. “This is about parallel universes, the multiverse and other dimensions. Even time travel. Most astounding, I’d say.”

“Most deranged, I you asked me.” Vetfaan slugged back some peach brandy. “Mad people can be very convincing, you know? And they experience stuff – completely irrational stuff – as real. They sort of create their own reality and will be so convinced about it, that they’d be absolutely sure the rest of the world is crazy for not believing it. I don’t for one moment think he was normal when he wrote this.”

Gertruida puts on a Mona Lisa smile when she lays the diary on the counter. “Maybe you’re right, Vetfaan. But you remember how this diary was found, don’t you?”

“Of course. Some warden found it.”

“So we were told by the man that brought the diary here. So, I checked.” Her lips now form a thin, straight line. “There are no wardens at Kubu, Vetfaan. Only a type of overseer-caretaker from the local community. and he knows absolutely nothing about a book being found there.”

“But the guy who brought the book?”

“Yes. Him. The chap who initialled the receipt J.V. Oldish guy, grey hair, weatherbeaten face. With the same initials as Jakobus Visagie, known as Koos or, otherwise, Spook…”

“Oh, hogwash, Gertruida! You think it was Spook, himself? Not even a fertile brain such as yours can explain why he brought it to us, then!”

“If I’m right, Vetfaan, it’ll be in the diary. And then you’ll owe me an apology.” With a withering glance at Vetfaan , she silenced the burly farmer before taking up the book again.

(To be continued….)

Trusting Liar (#10)

Liar's Meteorite

Liar’s Meteorite

Once the helicopter disappeared over the dunes, the group finally stops laughing.

“Oh, Liar, you are sooo convincing! Damn! I started believing you when you threw out that bit about the radioactive Boron. And then you…you…you added the bit about manhood! Shew! I almost burst out laughing right then.” Gertruida slaps Liar’s back as she starts giggling again.

Liar’s indignant response is immediate. “And what, Gertruida, do you think, do they use to accelerate electrons and bits of atoms in Switzerland? Or do you imagine that I’d be roving around here for my entire life, looking for lost diamonds?”

“Oh, stop it, Klasie! You’re killing us!” Vetfaan wipes the tears from his eyes as he succumbs to another bout of laughter.

Servaas gets serious all of a sudden. “You are looking for diamonds, aren’t you? Walter Kempf and the Wolf’s Tears? All that you told us? It’s true, isn’t it?”

Klasie Louw, known as Liar, scoops up a handful of sand and lefts it sift through his fingers. “There are many stories buried in the sands of the Kalahari, my friend. Legends and myths and tales that are more marvellous than anything you’ve ever heard. Here you’ll find the ghosts of the Dorsland-trekkers who tried to escape to an illusive Utopia. Amongst these dunes the history of the Bushmen, the Koranna and the lost civilisation of the gold-miners of Zimbabwe are whispered in the night breezes. Once this was an inland lake bearing boats filled with riches – then the climate changed and the earth moved…and now only the sand remains. This, Servaas, is a magical place. A place were everything is possible.”

“But that doesn’t answer the question, Klasie. I just want to know whether your story is true? We did pick up that diamond, didn’t we?” Getruida points to Liar’s pocket, remembering how he had snatched it away from her.

It is Liar’s turn to smirk. “Ah yes…the aeroplane wreck! Come, I’ll show you. It’s about an hour from here.”

***

lancaster_desert_500Sure enough, after tramping trough the loose sand in the valley between the two dunes, they arrive at a little plain – an open space with the dunes forming a natural amphitheatre around it. Off to one side, the wreckage is clearly visible.

“This was Walter’s plane. And this is the direction the flood washed his treasure away.” He points towards the south. “And over there,” pointing again, “is the rocky outcrop. I wouldn’t suggest you go near it.”

***

“I’m still not sure,” Servaas says. They’re gathered at the counter in Boggel’s Place, relieved to be back in Rolbos. “I mean, can we really believe everything he said?”

“Well, all I can tell you is that Boron is an extremely rare element in the universe. Scientists don’t believe it is natural to our planet, and that most of the Boron found on earth is due to cosmic dust and possibly meteorites. There is, indeed, radioactive Boron and it may very well be used in reactors – although the rarity of the substance makes its common use impossible. If that rocky outcrop of Liar’s is pure Boron, it could very well be the remains of an ancient meteorite and as such be a unique find.” Gertruida shrugs. “Who knows? Anyway, I made a few discreet enquiries: our friend Klasie Louw is a multi-multimillionaire. The story of the Reserve Bank taking notice of his activities may be true…”

“And the men? The helicopter and the search?”

“Oh, read the papers, Servaas! There are so many scandals in our country, it’s hard to pick the most likely one. But….I like my theory about somebody wanting to buy silence. Suppose you bribed South Africa into hosting the World Cup in 2010 and now people are starting to ask questions. You have the FBI, CIA, Fifa and even Morocco breathing down your neck. If the story is proved and evidence confirms the corruption, it won’t just impact on one single person. It’d mean that the government, the local organising committee and especially the governing party will be left with more egg on their faces than they can clean off. People will have to resign, and some will go to jail. It’d be a diplomatic catastrophe of massive proportions. International credibility – already at a low point – will fly out of the window.

“You see, Servaas, for some of the officials – from president down to the ticket-sellers – the outcome of an intensive investigation will mean the end of their careers. The money-barrel will run dry. The authorities involved with drugs, smuggling and money laundering will be forced to face the wrath of not only the local populace, but the international community as well. Can you imagine the fall-out?

“So…it is entirely possible that certain men and women will want to buy their way out of trouble – and that’s going to involve massive payments to the investigating forces. Just like FIFA bought Ireland’s silence and avoided legal action, so it may be possible to influence the reports of investigators. For that, not only would billions be required, but there cannot be any paper trail. No Banks, no transfers, no documentation. The answer: diamonds…”

“Ja,” Vetfaan signals for another beer, “desperate times. Desperate measures…”

Servaas shrugs. “Be that all as it may. I still don’t know whether I can believe Klasie Louw…”

l15 copy_edited-1“We’ll never know,” Getruida says as she puts down  her glass. “But he has a good story. Maybe we should trust Liar for a change…”

Below the counter, Vrede thumps his tail on the wooden floor. He sniffed around the wreck and the strange rock out there in the desert. He knows exactly what the facts are. But, even though he’d like to tell them about the weathered shoebox he found under the one Nara-bush, he’d rather keep the secret. It’s much more fun this way.

The End.

Trusting Liar (#9)

Robinson R66 small 1“Don’t get up,” Gertruida hisses. “Just sit where we are and let’s see what happens. If they land, I’ll handle it.”

Gertruida is one of those rare persons that relish awkward situations. During her time at National Intelligence, she was the one to bring calm to the negotiations in Dakar and London. Whenever a discussion threatened to get out of hand, she was the voice of reason, placating the flaring tempers by sheer logic. Now, she realises, she might be facing one of the most challenging scenarios of her life. She is sure Liar’s adversaries have some government connection – especially after Liar mentioned that they said something about  ‘Pretoria’. Who…? She’s mulling the thought in her mind when the helicopter approaches the group, hovers some distance off, and then lands.

“It’s a Robinson R66, five-seater, but only this one only carries the pilot and two passengers.” Vetfaans whisper sounds strained after the rotors stop turning. He remembers seeing one at  the recent agricultural show in Upington, where it was on exhibit as part of a game lodge’s display. He also remembers the R10-million price tag.

The two passengers alighting from the craft could not be more dissimilar. The one man striding purposefully to them seems to have been built out of circles: round body and face stuck on podgy legs. Number Two, panting a few yards behind, is tall, reedy and his face looks like it’s been flattened by a sudden stop against a solid object.

Roundface stops a few yards away, surveys the group and lets his gaze rest on Liar.

“You failed to keep your appointment, Mister Louw. I’m disappointed.”

Liar doesn’t bat an eyelid. “I lied,” he says quietly.

Gertruida wants to say something but Flatface shuts her up. “Nobody interrupts the Boss, understand?” He whips out a snub-nosed .38 to emphasise his point. Gertruida closes her mouth with an audible click of her teeth.

“Why, Mister Louw? Why force me to go to the expense of hiring this chopper and searching for you?  It is so childish to play games with us – in fact, it’s downright stupid!”

“Excuse me, sir, but who are you?” Boggel flinches as Flatface swivels to point the gun at him.

“Who I am, is of no consequence. Who I represent, is important.” Roundface ponders the question for a second before going on. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. As soon as Mister Louw has shown us the location of his mine, our problem is solved. So….Mister Louw…?”

Liar shrugs. “No mine, sorry. Not out here.”

“You have been sending diamonds worth millions to Antwerp, receiving the money from a bank in London.  We know that. And you’re the only one doing that from this region. We have contacts with the Reserve Bank, Mister Louw, you can’t fool us.”

“Ag! Diamonds? You think I dig for diamonds? Boy, are you guys confused! Who sends out diamonds in lead-lined boxes, huh?”  Liar’s honest and incredulous stare seems to upset Roundface. “In fact, I’ve got the manufacturer of those boxes right here. Ask him, his name is Servaas.”

“What…?” Roundface glares at Servaas.

Servaas has never worked with lead, let alone built boxes with the material. The old man now crosses his fingers as he nods. “Sure, been making those boxes for years now. And you know what, L…Klasie never pays me. Always promises, promises. Last time I told him it’s the last time. That’s why I’m here, to demand payment – he owes me ….let me see…just over two thousand rand. It’s a lot of money.”

“Lead boxes?”

“Yessir!” Liar is in his stride now, quite comfortable in the talent he’s developed over the years. “Radioactive Boron. Very rare. There’s an outcrop not far from where we are right now. Highly radioactive, a rare El-Ac material.”

“El-Ac…what the hell is that?”

Liar rolls his eyes at the stupidity of the round man. “Electron-Accelerator material. sir.” Seeing the big man still gaping at him, he continues. “When an El-Ac substance is brought into contact with one of the halogen gasses, like Chlorine for instance, it speeds up the electrons. It’s just one of those strange phenomenons of Nature. Now – and this is important – there are scientists that are very interested in doing such things…speeding up electrons…in Switzerland somewhere….”

Higgs at CERN

Higgs at CERN

“The place is CERN, where they’re trying to find the Higgs-boson.” Gertruida interrupts. By now their two visitors are clearly off balance. “That’s the particle that holds the key to how energy is turned into mass.”

“But there is a problem,” Liar continues, eyeing the men carefully. “The radioactive Boron has certain….effects on the male physiology. Bad effects. If you come into contact with it, it’ll…er…change you.”

Roundface has lost his threatening demeanour.  All he had to do was to find the source of some diamonds, and now…? “Change? Change? What change?”

“Um…you know?”Liar shoots an apologetic glance towards Gertruida. “Er…let me put it this way. Here I am, working all alone. Never been interested in a woman all my life. Isn’t that strange?”

“”It takes away your…manhood?”

Liar nods cheerfully. “Never missed it. Just as if it never existed, you know? It’s a wonderful freedom.”

Roundface turns to his companion and an urgent, whispered conversation follows.

“I think we’ve been misinformed,” he says at last. “The reports mentioned diamonds…”

“Oh, please! Sending over legit diamonds with a trusted courier doesn’t raise eyebrows. But…have you ever tried to mark such a parcel as “Radioactive Material”? Nobody would touch it.” Liar’s contempt at their ignorance drips from the words.

Gertruida tries again. “So, who sent you, anyway?”

A thoroughly deflated Roundface sits down heavily. “I can’t tell you that. All I can say is that a very important man is interested in acquiring a lot of money, and get it quickly. We work for him. He needs the money urgently.”

“Why? Because of some recent developments?” A glimmer of understanding appears in Gertruida’s eyes.

“Yes. Some men need to be paid off. To keep quiet. There’s nothing money can’t buy, see? So our boss…well, he has a friend in the Reserve Bank, Asked him about individuals who receive large amounts of money from overseas, especially if such individuals seemed to be working alone and if they  might be persuaded to share their income. He – the Boss – doesn’t want to send out money from South Africa; the exchange regulations are just too strict for the large amounts needed in these transactions. Diamonds are easy to transport and can be exchanged for currency anywhere in the world – it’ll solve a lot of problems.  Mister Louw came up trumps – diamonds, no family, working alone…understand? But diamonds…yes! This radioactive stuff? No!”

“That’s a hare-brained scheme, Sir.”  Gertruida goes tut-tut.This man, your boss, wouldn’t be associated with some sport, would he? Like soccer, for instance?”

Roundface doesn’t answer. He gets up slowly to plod back to the helicopter, motioning his companion to follow.

The group on the ground waits for the helicopter to lift off before collapsing in laughter.

(To be continued…)

The Man with the Stick

xenophobia-poster a“They tell a story,” Gertruida says after Boggel switched off the radio, “up in North Africa. About the treacherous nature of man.”

She waits, knowing they’d want to hear more. The news of the horrendous xenophobic attacks caused them all to fall silent as they searched for words to describe their feelings. Yes, the government proved once again their inability to grasp the reasons behind the attacks, failing to act timeously to the repeated warning signs over the last few years. Most of the unrest during this time coincided with the burning and looting of foreigner’s shops, a fact the authorities chose to ignore. Xenophobic tendencies were evident as far back as the Marikana incident and even before that. But, always too keen to please the masses they need to vote them in power, the government remained silent about these crimes.

“Ag, go on, Gertruida. Tell us. We know you want to.” Vetfaan signals for another beer. Although he is mildly interested, his mind dwells on the sudden nature of recent events. Why did the authorities not see this coming? Surely there should be enough ears on the ground to pick up rumblings of such impending disasters? Or is there something more sinister behind these attacks? He doesn’t believe in the so-called ‘third force theory‘ – no, somebody or something must have orchestrated these attacks to occur in such a wide-spread manner.

Oudoom nodded his encouragement. Anything to divert their thoughts from the mess in ESCOM and the national airline, the corruption in the police, the disastrous land reforms, the state of the roads, the failure of service delivery…

“Well….”

****

Once upon a time a kind man found a baby snake in the veld. He picked it up and took it home, as it quite obviously was an orphan. The snake was well-cared for and eventually grew up to be a big, healthy adult.

Oh, he loved that snake! It kept the rodents away from the corn and scared off the rabbits that eyed the vegetable garden. But the snake watched his kind master and wondered…

Then, one day, the snake wrapped itself around the man’s neck. Just like that, out of the blue. “You say you’re a kind man, and yes, you’ve fed me well. But in reality you are ungrateful and selfish. You raised me to serve you, not because you were compassionate. I shall kill you for that.”

“Oh, no!” The man cried. “Of course I’m grateful. Ask the ox.”

The ox chewed it’s cud and thought about the whip that drives him to pull the plough. “No, you’re not.”

The man panicked. “Well, the ox isn’t a clever animal. Ask the cow. Go on, ask her…she’ll tell you.”

The cow cast her big, brown eyes on the man and moo-ed softly. “That man pulls my udder and takes my milk – every day. For my whole life, he’ll just steal my milk. And when I run dry, he’ll kill me and eat me. No, man is ungrateful and selfish.”

Desperate, the man told the snake to ask the tree.

The tree didn’t hesitate. While it rustled it’s leaves, it whispered: “Man isn’t grateful. He eats my fruit and sits in my shade. One day he’ll chop me down and burn me for cooking his meals. Grateful? Oh please….”

The man’s wife had been standing outside the door, listening. Knowing that the snake will kill her husband, she went in and started making the snake’s favourite dish with cream and porridge.  The snake hesitated at first, but then let go of the man to eat the meal the woman had placed on the floor. 

“Quick, now is your chance!” The woman handed a stick to her husband, who hit the snake repeatedly until it died.

****

“Gee, Gertruida, is that it? The whole story?” Kleinpiet shakes his head. What a horrible story!

“That’s the way they tell it in Kenya, Kleinpiet. It’s typical of the stories you find up north – they leave you to complete the narrative after the storyteller falls silent.” Gertruida smiles her all-knowing, superior smile; always keen to show off her vast knowledge. “In this case the story leads you to examine the concept of kindness and gratitude while it exposes the greed of man. The ox, the cow and the tree gave unselfishly, but in the end man will destroy them, too.  It also makes one realise that we have to examine our actions carefully – we have to look at ourselves as others see us. You may think you are such a hero, but in reality your motivation may be selfish greed.”

“I still think it’s sad. Why kill the snake?”

“Because the snake asked the wrong question, Kleinpiet. Because the snake looked and saw how lazy the man was. The man was simply using everything around him to do his work and to enrich himself. You know what? The man became so embarrassed when he realised the snake was right, he killed it. A dead snake can’t spread the word…”

“But the word was spread. You’ve just told the story?”

“Yes, Kleinpiet.” Gertruida suddenly looks old and tired. “The story will always escape, no matter how hard you try to kill it. That’s what the news was all about.”

The Bird that would be King

Albatross_Atl_YN_1_clive_harris_01_november“Fire,” Gertruida said, “is a natural phenomenon. Ever since the first thunderclouds gathered in the sky or the first volcano erupted, flames have been at work on dry grass and old wood. Fire isn’t there just to make light and cook food – nature needs fires to clear land, to help seeds germinate and then allow new growth to take over.”

“That may be true, but the fire in Cape Town destroyed much more than a few old trees. Houses, resorts, forests and the mountainside  will need a lot of time and money to recover. People have been left without homes. Animals were burnt to death. I can’t see the bright side this time, Gertruida, I just can’t.” True to her nature, Precilla dabs a tear.

“Nature – like Life – works in endless circles, Precilla. The forest of today is so often the burnt landscape of tomorrow. Beauty yields to age just like summer must bow to winter. Once we understand that, we know that the devastation we now see, will return to be the fairest Cape of all in the near future.”

“Does it always work that way? Even with people?’

Gertruida sighed. This question, she knows, leads to the one exception of the rule. “Not always. You see, Nature will recover from fires and floods and droughts – simply because Nature accepts the cycles of fortune it is subject to. In contrast, we are prone to overstate our importance, which may very well lead to permanent damage. Let me tell you an old African myth, Precilla. . Maybe it’ll help you understand…”

***

Once upon a time – long, long ago – the earth belonged to the birds. Not only were they the only ones who knew the secret of navigation and seasons, they also could fly high to look for fountains and rivers, forests to live in and safe places to nest. Over the years they became more and more numerous as they occupied the most fertile pieces of the land.

One bird, in particular, outstripped the others in wisdom. It was a  huge animal with beautiful plumage – the envy of all the other flying species.

“I shall rule over the land,” he said as he surveyed the vast continent, “for I am bigger and more beautiful than the rest of my family. And,” he added smugly, “I am so much cleverer than they.”

So this bird – his name I shall tell you in a moment – set about proclaiming his kingship. “I am of royal blood,” he cried, “and all the animals will pay homage to me. It is my right!”

While it was true that this bird could fly higher and remain in the air much longer than everybody else, the other birds accepted his claim and then addressed him as their king. For a while this brought great satisfaction to the self-proclaimed monarch and he bore himself in a manner befitting his new rank. He was gracious and kind and took a keen interest in all those under his proverbial wing.

Then, one day, the big king-bird soared high on the winds and looked down at the small animals grazing on the plains below.

“Is it right,” he mused, “that all the feathered animals proclaim me as their king, and yet those with hooves and paws ignore me? They are surely too small to oppose my rightful claim.”

So the big bird soared down to land next to a tortoise.”I am now your king. You shall respect me as such.”

And the tortoise, slow and small like he was, drew back into his shell to contemplate this.

Next, the bird approached a jackal, repeating his claim.

And the jackal, as clever as he was, slipped into a burrow under a rock to think about it.

Then the bird found a porcupine and informed him that he had to bow down before the new royalty.

And the porcupine rustled his quills and withdrew to analyze the situation.

Finally, the bird landed next to a lion. Before the bird could finish his proclamation, the lion smote it heavily with his huge paw, cursing the bird for being so forward.

“As the king of all the animals, I will not allow such foolish talk. You, who have inflated your importance to the point where you are deceiving not only others, but also yourself….you will henceforth not return to land. You will soar over the oceans, vainly searching for peace and rarely put your feet on solid ground again. Sailors will stare at you in fear, as you will be the symbol of misfortune and bad luck.  A king you shall never be, only a servant of the winds.”

The lion turned to go, but the badly injured bird pleaded for mercy.

“Please, Lion, do not leave me like this. I am but a poor bird and your curse will make me poorer still. Have you no mercy?’

And the lion turned to look at the bedraggled imposter and felt sorry for him. “I am, indeed, merciful. I shall grant you one wish.”

The bird didn’t hesitate.

“Give me something – anything – to help me?”

Lion thought about this and finally agreed. “I shall give you the sharpest eyes of all – so that you may gaze upon the land while you are flying over the oceans. You shall see the land and the rocks and the rivers. You shall observe the animals grazing and playing and hunting. But you, banished over the ocean, shall only see and only observe, for you have laid claim to what isn’t yours and tried to rule over what you have no right to. Your eyes, Bird, will be your punishment and your reward, which will be as one.”

And so the Albatross gathered his feathers and limped away. After he regained his strength, be flew to the ocean, where he resigned himself to his fate.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Gertruida. But…why tell it now?”

Gertruida smiled as she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t you see? It’s the story of South Africa. It is also the story of most countries. The rulers of today will one day – if they live long enough – wonder why they didn’t go about their tasks with more compassion and kindness. They’ll look back and see what they have lost.

“Sadly, it isn’t only the politicians and the rulers who suffer this lot. It happens to common people – like us – as well. And the source of this hardship, Precilla, is greed. It’s the ego. It’s the demand to be more important than we are.”

Precilla thought about it for a long time. Then: “The fire in the Cape has come. Now it is gone. And nature will recover?”

Gertruida nodded.

“But people who succumb to greed and ego will lose what they craved for? Rulers and subjects alike?”

“Yes, Precilla. The proud and unbowed necks of too many, will wear the albatross of their folly in the end. It’s in every newspaper, every day – radicals, extremists, fundamentalists – once you proclaim that you have not only all the answers, but the only one, the winds over the vast ocean awaits you.”

“The Cape is lucky, then. It’ll recover.”

“Yes, Precilla. That’s the message. Nature can complete it’s cycles. Humans don’t.”