Category Archives: short stories

Coulrophobia is alive and well..

12060d75ff7931e6cad9fc882e79b3ce.jpg“I think it started with The Joker in the Batman movies. That guy was as evil as they come, and boy, was I scared of him! Although…,” Servaas smiles wickedly, “I sort of admired his stupidity. Imagine taking on Batman? It’s a one-horse race, but still he didn’t give up. Evil would never trump Good, yet it didn’t prevent The Joker from trying.”

Gertruida nods. “Yep. A real bad guy. Wikipedia describes him as: ‘ a criminal mastermind. Introduced as a psychopath with a warped, sadistic sense of humor…‘ Interestingly, he associated himself with various criminal elements, like the Injustice Gang and Injustice League. In short, a very realistic figure who resonates quite remarkably with us  – almost 80 years after he was first created. Interestingly, The Joker was created on April 25, 1940, just about two years before our prez was born.”

“Amazing coincidence, Gertruida. To create such characters in the middle of WW II might represent some form of logic. I mean, while everybody is shooting at everybody else, it is only natural that that period of time gave birth to some rather strange characters. I mean, Bob Hewitt was also born in 1940.”

“Ooooh…you just can’t generalise like that, Servaas! Some good people also started life in that year. Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Kitch Christie, Eddie Barlow, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert – to name only a few.” Despite her stern tone, Gertruida pats her old friend’s shoulder. “It’s not the year, Servaas. It’s not the war. We simply have to stop blaming the past for everything – as if it absolves us from all blame and gives us the right to condemn modern society.

“The choice to become a criminal is a purposeful movement away from what is just and fair – by the individual. It is he or she who decides to swindle others in the community and steal or murder or act unlawfully. To blame it on circumstances is the original cop-out. To blame it on racism or apartheid or whatever other wrong, has become the norm – but think about it. Is it justifiable to engage in criminal activity because Jan van Riebeeck started something in the Cape, establishing a world-renowned and terribly strategic port? So successful was his endeavour that we may not breathe a word about ‘colonialism’ today.”

“That’s  Greek word, isn’t it?”

“It is. The Greek word kolon, means ‘limb’, and because of stilts, was also associated with clowns. Of course, if you say ‘kolon’ today, people hear ‘colon’ and think about the temporary store for stuff the body wants to dispose of.”

“Huh?”

“Ag Servaas! The word coulrophobia has it’s origins in the way the old Greeks amused themselves. Some men would walk about on stilts and thus try to be funny. They elongated their kolons to appear comical. They were the original clowns, see? So, in an obscure way, the word Kolon is the parent word for colony (a limb of the sovereign nation) as well as for clown.”

“So, if a colony is run by a kolon, we get coulrophobia?”

“The pathological fear of clowns? Just so, my ancient friend, just so.”

Gertruida’s Fish-in-a-Bottle Analogy

images (2).jpg“You see, in the beginning everything is small  – but that tends to change as time goes on.” Gertruida smiles at her little audience in Boggel’s Place. After their protest march on Friday, they have decided not to talk about politicians for a while – but now it’s Monday and it’s time to take stock of recent events.

“Are you talking about babies, relationships or lies, Gertruida?” Servaas brushes his bushy brows flat with a drop of beer. “Nothing new there, I’m afraid.”

“Actually – yes and no. What I’m really referring to, is the fish-in-a-bottle analogy.” Her smile widens as she enjoys the blanks stares she gets. “It’s simple, really.”

***

One day, a man noted a number of small fish in the pond near his house. They were exceptionally beautiful and exhibited all the colours of the rainbow.

“I want those fish,” he said and strolled off to find a net somewhere.

“Haven’t seen a net for ages,” his friend said when asked. “It’s not something we do. Anyway, some of those fishes are quite poisonous, I’m told. Best to leave them alone.”

But the man was determined and made up his own net with bits of string. Then he thought about a container to keep the little fishes in and once again his friend advised against it.

“If you keep fish in a container, they will need to be fed. And you’ll have to clean the thing every now and then – fish swim around in their own poo, you know?”

images (3).jpgStill, the man ignored the advice. The only container he found, was an old wine bottle – the type with little handles at the neck. It was also a very precious bottle, something that had been in the family for some time. This, the man thought, would be a great container for the fish.They’d have plenty of room to swim around in and the clear glass would display their colours beautifully to anybody who cared to look. And who cared if the fish were poisonous – they’d be safe behind the glass. Anyway, they were to be looked at, not handled or eaten.

The man started catching the fish with his net. It was slow going at first, but he soon got the hang of it and he quickly filled up the bottle with a small school of lively fish bodied. Their colours were even more remarkable inside the glass container, causing the man to puff out his chest in pride.

“Nobody in the whole, wide world has fish as beautiful as mine,” he boasted. He’d spend countless hours admiring his fish, feeding them and watching them grow.

And grow…

And grow.

In time, the fish became so big that he wanted to put them into a larger container, but there was a problem. By then the fish had grown so big that he couldn’t get then out of the bottle any longer. The neck of the bottle had been large enough when the fish were small, but now – having been fed well and grown to a considerable size – the fish could no longer negotiate their way out of the bottle.

“My fish have grown too much!” The man wailed. “They are now trapped inside my bottle. Even if I wanted to, I can no longer set them free or return them to the pond.”

And still the fish grew and grew and eventually became so big that they no longer could swim in the bottle. They just hung there, suspended in water, eating all day while their scales slowly lost their lustre.

“Oh, how ugly and fat have my beauties become! I used to be so proud of them, but now they’ve become bloated and fat and lazy – and I cannot get rid of them.” The man wept as he tried to imagine what the fish looked like before.

“You have to break the bottle,” the man’s friend suggested.”Set them free in the pond and get rid of them.”

“But my bottle! It’s such a precious bottle! I belonged to my father, and his father before him. If I break the bottle, I’b be betraying their trust and disrespect their memory.”

“And if you don’t, the fish will die in that bottle and you’ll have to wait for everything to rot away before you’ll be able to get them out – piece by piece. Either way, the bottle is doomed. Either way, the fish get out. Your choice.”

The man didn’t know what to do. In the end the fish died, they rotted away and the bottle stank to high heaven for many years afterwards.

And the man had no choice. He discarded the bottle – which nobody wanted any more – and regretted the day he first thought of catching the beautiful little fish in the pond near his house.

***

“Oh, I get it.” Vetfaan’s face lights up with excitement. “You’re talking about the cows coming home. The chickens return to the roost. And being hoist by your own petard?”

“Exactly. The ANC tried to restrict the havoc Zuma caused by closing ranks and proclaiming their unyielding support for the president. Well, a while ago this might have worked and they could have gotten away with it. But now the elephant in the room has grown too big to ignore. The fish is now too big for the bottle. The only way ahead is now to break the bottle and set Zuma free to face the music, or to remain steadfast in their support and die with him inside the bottle. Either way, the ANC is causing terrible damage to the party’s image. The darling of world politics have become the skunk.”

“You mean a junk-skunk?” Vetfaan manages a lopsided grin.

“Just so, Vetfaan, just so.” Gertruida doesn’t return the smile.

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.

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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…”

‘Survivor’ in the Kalahari?

survivor-logo.jpg“We need tourism.”

Gertruida’s remark makes them all sit up. While they are used to her coming up with some very strange ideas, this one strikes them as particularly odd. When Servaas – rather cautiously – reminds her that they have chosen to live in Rolbos especially, to escape the madness other people accept as ‘civilisation’ (at the same time reminding her of the dangers posed by foreigners like ISIS and Trump), Gertruida simply shrugged.

“Look, it’s a question of economics. We need a new borehole and the potholes in Voortrekker Weg needs filling. We have two choices: either we slash away at our budgets for sitting around in Boggel’s Place, or we get other people to pay for our amenities. I don’t know about you, Servaas, but I’d prefer the second option.”

Of course, this makes a huge lot of sense to the group at the bar. Why fork out good money when visitors would not only solve their problems with the infrastructure, but also boost Boggel’s profit…which in turn would reduce the cost per glass? Simple mathematics. They all nod.

“But how? We have a dusty little town in the middle of nowhere. Sure, we have plenty of sand and a lot of sunshine, but that would not draw tourists – for that they go to Etosha and Kgalagadi, where people get to see animals and lodge in luxury. We can’t compete with that.” Vetfaan shrugs. “Unless they want to see sheep, that is.”

“That’d only draw people from New Zealand, Vetfaan. We don’t want that after the game on Saturday.”

“No, we have to create an event. Something that’d catch the attention of people. And if we get TV-coverage, that’d generate a lot of money.” Boggel likes the idea. “Maybe a literary festival or a music show or something.”

“Yeah right! People are going to drive all the way from Prieska to read a book in Boggel’s Place? Or do you want them to listen to some old records? I’ve got one of Jim Reeves…”

“Nope. Don’t be cynical, Servaas. Boggel has the right idea, though. People plus TV equals income. More of either multiplies the result. The hottest thing on TV these days, is a reality show – something scary or gaudy or quite abnormal – like the American presidential debates or Survivor.”

Of course she has to explain the Survivor concept to the patrons in Boggel’s Place. The outlandish idea of exposing teams or perfectly normal people to completely insane conditions makes no sense to Kleinpiet.

“So – you ask people to pay money to participate, then you get them to pay for accommodation and food, then you make them suffer beyond human endurance, then the TV companies show it to some overweight couch potatoes sipping beer….and then you get paid millions?”

“Exactly, Kleinpiet. All we have to do is to write a proposal and get BBC of CNN interested. The rest is up to them. We sit back and count the money…”

Like most ideas generated after a few beers in Boggel’s Place, this one gets analysed with great care. Yes, they all agree, this is a sure thing – provided they come up with a novel concept. Their final proposal gets drafted that same evening.

“So, there we are. A nice little list of items with enough endurance and fear to make millions want to watch.” Gertruida glares – somewhat bleary-eyed – at the paper.

1. Sheep Dog Imitation: the team has to round up a flock of scattered sheep and chase the flock through a gate.

2. The Ostrich Race: grabbing eggs from the roosting ostrich on Kleinpiet’s farm.

3. The Kudu Relay Run: team loaded on Vetfaan’s Land Rover, with one runner chasing a kudu. When the runner tires, he gets on the Landy while another runner takes his place. Judging will involve both distance and time to catch up with the antelope.

4 The Great Lion Escape – this item still needs refining.

“I think it is a great proposal, but item 5 is just too scary to include, guys.We cannot really expect even the strongest of the strongest to endure so much pain. I think it’s inhumane.” She glances up to see if they all agree.

“No, I think this is the item that’ll draw the audience.” Servaas manages not to slur his words. “Look, we need to be real and convincing – viewers have to identify with, and understand what the contestants are going through. This one will make them want to cry, puke and bash their heads against any available wall. It’ll make them extremely angry and inconsolably sad. I think it’s a winner.”

“Shees, Servaas – you are not only a true cynic, you are the reincarnation of Machiavelli! Okay then, we’ll keep it.”

***

Two months goes by without a response from the TV moguls.

“I told you: it’s much too painful. We should have stuck to the first four items.” Gertruida smiles sadly. “But…we gave it a good try. In the meantime we’ll just have to swerve around the potholes.”

“Ja.” Vetfaan sighs. “Item 5: making the contestants sit through the South Africa – New Zealand game to see who can suffer through the entire match? Truth be told. I couldn’t. I don’t think anybody should live through it again. It’s like harakiri with a blunt saw.”

The Horizon Hunter #4

download (8).jpg“Life in Atlantis was okay, I guess. The neighbours all knew our story and warned us many times whenever the inspectors were checking up on people’s ID’s. However, my mother refused to send me to school – the danger of exposure loomed too large. Anyway, I was an unregistered child, remember? Basically – as far as the officials were concerned, I didn’t exist.”

***

Mo’s mother found work as a waitress in Cape Town itself, which involved a lengthy train trip to a fro every day. Mo stayed at home, under the care of Achmad, her brother, for a while. Achmad was the main middleman in the supply of dagga (hashish) to the local community. A friend of a friend had a hidden plantation in the Transkei and he had several distributors who acted as agents in the Cape area. In the days before drug lords, Achmad was the king of Atlantis.

Dealing in illicit drugs  was (and still is) a nefarious and dangerous business. Achmad could not survive without a network of dealers and informers. A lot of people depended on him for an income and quite a few were deeply indebted to him in more ways than one. One of them was the lovable Aunty Florrie.

Florrie was a remarkable woman. She used to be a social worker and even helped out at the small local school for a while, but the slippery slope of alcoholism deposited her squarely in the cul de sac of addiction. She was one of Achmad’s runners and – despite her sales – could never quite get out of debt with her supplier. Achad made her an offer she could not refuse: if she housed Maria and her child, her past transgressions would be forgiven. No more debt. A new start.

Florrie grabbed the opportunity and not only provided a roof over the poor mother’s head, but also started teaching the child the basics of reading and writing. Mo proved to be a fast learner.

At the time, Mo’s identity remained a huge problem. Achad suggested that he’d arrange with ‘some people he knew’ to register the child in his name. A sympathetic Methodist pastor agreed – rather enthusiastically – to baptise little Mohammed Sulliman, clearly a convert to Christianity from a Muslim home. Now, with documents from the church and Achmad’s ID papers, the Department of Home Affairs had to be convinced that the child’s birth simply wasn’t registered due to an oversight by the Sulliman family. Money changed hands. Mo Sulliman became a real, official person.

Aunty Florrie continued her home schooling simply because it kept Achmad off her back. No, she didn’t think formal schooling would bring out the best in the child – not at all. He was far too clever to be immersed in the second-rate teaching the government provided (she said) and she provided individual teaching, didn’t she? The other side of the coin also deserves mentioning: so profound was M0’s influence on Florrie’s life that she almost stopped using drugs. Almost. Not quite.

Initially Aunty Florrie guided Mo through the basics of learning quite successfully, but when the boy was about nine years old, her addiction flared up again. Achmad was dismayed and then had to face the problem of an almost-ten years old boy who never had formal schooling. A government school was out of the question – but what to do with a ten-year old kid with nothing to do? The solution: recruit Mo as a runner to make deliveries to the agents. images (22).jpgThis was a brilliant move. While his other distributors were adults, mostly convicts and generally known to the police, the little boy could fool them all. The only problem was his rather white skin – which was solved by generous applications of Coppertone and plenty of sun.

And so, gradually over the next two years, Mo became familiar with the underbelly of the Cape’s drug world. In turn, people accepted the little runner as one of their own, while his reputation of always managing to avoid the long arm of the law eventually earned him the respect of  a number of ex-convicts and other individuals surviving in the world of petty crime and other illicit activities.

At the time, the Anti-Apartheid Resistance Movement was gaining ground amongst the Coloured people of Atlantis. The community was ripe for rebellion – after their forced move from District Six, the mood in the community was distinctly anti-government. AARM needed informers and made a deal with Achmad: they’ll smuggle the new drug, LSD, to him, in exchange for information. Achmad’s network fitted their requirements like a glove: his distributors and users worked in the affluent houses of Cape Town and some were cleaners in government departments. A few even were employed as officials and clerks. And they all could be trusted to be true to the cause as long as the supply of drugs was guaranteed.

Mo became the trusted runner with stolen documents, secret messages and  drugs – a heady mix of danger and adventure for the youth who understood the necessity of secrecy all too well. But, in the end, even this elusive runner became the focus of police activity, for the officials also had their own network of informers. A reward was posted and Mo was caught.

What followed is not something Mo wants to talk about. His interrogation was merciless and involved the usual methods used on other so-called terrorists. Solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, water – these and other ways of making him talk were all used. However, young Mo stubbornly refused to answer any question, repeating over and over again that he knew nothing. He was a street child, homeless, with no real family. Yes, he knew Achmad Sulliman, he was an uncle. And yes, Achmad had adopted him, but that was a long time ago. No he didn’t know where his mother was. He survived by scavenging on the streets – go on, ask anybody in Atlantis: they’ll all confirm that he was seen here and there, doing odd jobs and living off scraps. His interrogators redoubled their efforts. Mo remained unbroken.

The one thing Mo still remembers, is a visit from Aunty Florrie.

“I only heard – later – that she had died a week before. I didn’t know that.  But one night, while I was shivering from being cold and wet and hungry – suddenly, as if by magic – Aunty was there at my side. I was so disorientated and confused, I didn’t question her presence or how she got there.

1990-02-03.jpg“Well, she held me in her arms and made soothing noises. It was wonderful. Then she told me I had to be strong, everything would change soon. I would be free again, she said. She said I must remember the date: it was Thursday, the 1st of February, 1990.”

Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, Aunty Florrie was gone. The next day, on the 2nd of February, President F.W. de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the resistance movements.

 ***

Mo sat back, his characteristic smile replacing the scowl of recounting his experiences during those terrible days.

“I thought that would be the end of it all. You know – Mandela was freed, there were talks about a negotiated settlement and even free elections for all. And…you won’t believe it…my interrogators arrived on the Monday after De Klerk’s speech with new clothes and a hamburger. They said it didn’t matter anymore and that I’d be freed that Wednesday. A doctor came and examined me. They even sent a pastor to give me a lecture on forgiveness!

“Me? I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I’d be set free and that the beatings stopped. I was old enough to understand that everything had changed, but too young to be cynical about it. So, on that Wednesday, I was ushered to a back door in my new clothes, given ten rand and told to bugger off.”

Mo sioghed. “You know, I really thought that was the end of my troubles.” He shook his head. “Had I but known…”

To be continued…

Vetfaan’s Angoraphobia

Spang-Angora-Rabbit-1024x768.jpgThis fear of Angora rabbits is unique to our burly farmer in the Kalahari, and it is still as real and acute as it was when he found the dead rabbit staring back at him with unseeing eyes in the kraal that used to house his sheep. It’s a story nobody dares tell in Boggel’s Place, for it reminds them of the time they all hoped for a better South Africa, way back, after the ’94 elections. That’s the time when everybody invested heavily in tinned food, bottled water, guns and religion. It’s also the time Vetfaan sold his entire sheep flock to the ANC.

We all know elections are never free and rarely democratic. The voter is captured by some ideology or policy he thinks will benefit him personally. The ANC knew this (they still do) and handed out T-shirts and free meals at their rallies. A well-clothed voter with a full tummy does not care what rhetoric is blared out over the loudhailer – immediate needs are far more important than some ideology and promises that’ll fade away in a few week’s time. So, when the elections loomed on the horizon, the future ruling party used the funds they got from well-wishing sympathisers in Europe, England and the USA, very wisely. A man arrived on Vetfaan’s farm with a suitcase full of money and a fleet of trucks.

“We need your sheep, Mister Vetfaan. All of them. It’s for our meetings in the Northern Cape, see? We need to feed the masses on a diet of meat and political jargon. If they understand the first bit, the second part is unimportant.”

Vetfaan is a realist. He knew where the elections were going to take the country. So, he counted the money, suppressed a surprised whistle and made the deal.

The results of the election is a matter of historical fact. However, the results of Vetfaan’s transaction are far more traumatic than the effect of the Weapons Scandal and Nkandla combined. When he realised he had a suitcase full of money, a farm and a completely empty kraal, Vetfaan approached Gertruida for advice. As always, she had a unique plan.

“Angora rabbits, Vetfaan. They multiply faster than the president’s wives, you can shear them four times a year and they’ll eat hay and some Kalahari bushes. Lots of good nourishment for a hungry, reproducing rabbit all around us, Vetfaan, and the price of that wool is far better than a sheep’s. The fibre is much in demand right around the world; you’ll be able to export and benefit from the fall in the rand. It makes sense, don’t you think?”

To cut a long story short: that’s what Vetfaan did. His flock of Angora rabbits was the talk of the district. The old kraal was spruced up and soon housed a myriad of hopping, long-haired rabbits – mostly doing what rabbits do best. His flock grew at an alarming rate.

Platnees, however. would have absolutely nothing to do with the furry animals. “Eish! Those things are the tokoloshe, Mister Vetfaan. They’re not rabbits like we have in the Kalahari – look at them! They are bad, bad news, you’ll see!” Platnees put more bricks under the legs of his bed, burnt some herbs and consulted his ancestors. They confirmed his worst fears: the rabbits were gremlins from another time; they represented evil spirits with ominous intentions.

Enter now the young Vrede, the town’s dog, who had developed a liking in Kleinpiet. Although it was generally agreed that the dog didn’t belong to anybody in particular, Vrede seemed to prefer Kleinpiet’s leftovers and spent most of his time next to Kleinpiet’s back door. Vrede, the ex-police dog, was the result of careful breeding over many years. He had been trained to identify crooks, criminals and other corrupt officials. But somewhere in his illustrious ancestry, a champion rabbit-chaser had left his mark on Vrede’s genes. It was an instinct he could not deny or suppress – he simply couldn’t help himself.

So, when the dry west wind carried the scent of rabbits over to Kleinpiet’s back door, Vrede sneaked over to Vetfaan’s kraal to help himself to a tasty meal. Vetfaan wasn’t amused.

“Your bloody dog ate one of my rabbits, Kleinpiet. That’ll be R600, thank you very much.”

Kleinpiet paid up – for the first rabbit. But when Vrede’s excursions resulted in more rabbits being dinner for the hapless hound, Kleinpiet pleaded poverty. Arguments ensued. A long-standing friendship almost got wrecked on the rocks of Vrede’s instinctive drive to supplement his diet with tasty rabbit meat. Kleinpiet tried to rescue the situation by keeping Vrede indoors at night and on a leash during the day. For a full two weeks nothing happened.

And then…

One dark and quiet night, Vrede managed to get out once more. The next morning he presented Kleinpiet with a very dead rabbit. Oh, how he scolded that poor mutt, calling him the names of all the politicians he could remember! Vrede, cocking his head to one side, tried to look contrite at first but started growling softly after a while. Being reprimanded for following his instincts was one thing – but having to endure comparison with the new leaders of the country did not sit well on his conscience. Kleinpiet’s tirade eventually blew itself out  and the two of them sat down on his veranda to contemplate the prize Vrede had brought home. Platnees walked by at that moment, saw the rabbit and ran off, shouting that he knew those things were omens of doom.

“Tokoloshe, Mister Kleinpiet, that one is evil! If you killed it, it comes back for revenge. Hai! Bad luck, bad, bad, bad luck!”

Kleinpiet was beyond despair as he watched Platnees race off. What will Vetfaan do? Shoot Vrede? Bad luck, indeed!

Noooo! He’d have to make a plan.

So he did.

Kleinpiet inspected the  fluffy body; there were only a few superficial bite marks and a lot of doggy slobber all over the corpse – causing a lot of red Kalahari sand to stick to it. Okay…think! Using some of Precilla’s left-over shampoo, he went to work in the bath before going on a hunt for her brushes and hair dryer. Three hours later he sat back to view his handiwork.

The rabbit, he concluded, looked even better in death than when he was hopping around in that dusty old kraal! Then he had to wait for the cover of night to carry out the next step – returning the rejuvinated but still deceased rabbit to his rightful place on Vetfaan’s property. As most of the crazy plans the Rolbossers dream up end in some type of catastrophe, it is quite surprising that Kleinpiet managed to carry out this part of his campaign without a hitch. The spruced-up rabbit was placed next to the feeding trough in the kraal, propped up by a strategic rock to keep it sitting upright. Vetfaan would wake up the next morning, find that the poor little animal had died from natural causes and be none the wiser…

Not to be…

Kleinpiet was just having his second rusk with his first mug of coffee, admiring the sunrise, when a very upset Vetfaan shuddered his old Land Rover to a halt in front of the veranda. Kleinpiet wiped away a bead of sweat and locked Vrede in the bedroom.

“Charlie! Charlie died!” Vetfaan cried as he stormed up the steps leading to the veranda. “I saw it with my own eyes!”

Kleinpiet managed to look puzzled. “Wha…?”

“My prize stud, my sire of a multitude, the king of the roost, is no more. Blew out his last breath. Copped it. Took the fast elevator upstairs. Followed the white light. The damn rabbit died, dammit!”

Kleinpiet suppressed a smile – this was going according to plan. Great! He made sympathetic sounds. “Charlie? That was his name? Shame man! But you have other males, don’t you?”

“That’s not the point, Kleinpiet. You don’t understand! That thing died. He was dead!”

“Calm down, Fanie. Have some coffee.”

“He must have pumped the well dry, poor thing.” Vetfaan’s eyes were wild, worried and surprised all at the same time. He settled down somewhat after some coffee. “Three days ago, I picked him up. Dead as a doornail. Stiff as a rod. Hell, man, I was upset but what could I do?  Poor thing! Well, the least I could do was to bury him good and proper – which I did. Put a little cross on the grave and even some flowers.

“Then, this morning, there he was, sitting next to the feeding trough with the females sniffing at him. I checked his grave – it’s been opened, the flowers scattered all over the placed and the cross gone.” Vetfaan took a deep breath. “That rabbit rose from his grave, Kleinpiet!”

Kleinpiet didn’t know what to say but somehow managed to keep his face straight. “Um…maybe Platnees is right, you know?”

***

If you visited Vetfaan today, you’d notice that he went back to farming with sheep – much to Platnees’s relief. In Boggel’s Place you won’t dare say anything good about Angora rabbits – an uncomfortable silence will follow. Vetfaan hates it when they remind him of Charlie, the dead rabbit that insisted on a last meal.

Gertruida, however, once remarked that Charlie was much like the ruling party today – dead but still sitting at the feeding trough. She also said they mustn’t ignore stories of tokoloshes and evil spirits, especially not when the newspapers carried headlines like we’ve seen lately.

The strange thing is that even Kleinpiet now agrees with Platnees. On dark, quiet nights, a strange, furry animal occasionally hopped over the sparse little lawn in front of Kleinpiet’s veranda. It seemed a bit agitated, sniffing here and sniffing there – as if it was looking for something. On Platnees’s advice, Kleinpiet once took a much-chewed wooden cross from its hiding place behind his wardrobe to put it on the grass. He swears he saw the apparition snatch it up in its tiny hands before running off.

Of course, he has never breathed a word about this – but then again: nobody has ever asked him about the bricks under the legs of his bed, either.

The Fable of the Jackal and the Eagle

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Credit: enca.com

Whenever Gertruida starts telling them stories, the little group in the bar falls silent, paying close attention to what she says. Gertruida never just tells a story – she has the uncanny ability to recount fables at very strategic times; when the fable really mirrors the bit of history unfolding in the current situation.

That’s why – when she finally falls silent – that they all stare out of the window, wondering how Boggel managed to understand while they didn’t.

***

A long time ago (Gertruida says) and also in recent times (typical Gertruida), a jackal spied a rabbit in the tall grass. Now, this was exactly what Jackal felt like at the time: a nice, young, succulent rabbit, slowly roasted over a few embers and served with a few termites on the side.

The problem was that Jackal was on the one side of a river, and the rabbit was feeding on the opposite bank. Jackal, like many of his brothers, had never learnt to swim. Despite this handicap, Jackal wasn’t entirely stupid – he was even more cunning than Snake and Scorpion combined. He was also ruthless, a trait the other animals were aware of all  too clearly.

So Jackal sat down, eyed the rabbit, and imagined how much he’d enjoy his next meal. But how? How to get to that rabbit? The problem had to be solved!

He had, of course, seen other animals swim. Badger was very good at it and even Buffalo could manage. Other animals, however, had failed dismally; like Tortoise for instance. The way Tortoise drowned, made Jackal very worried. If he were to attempt – and failed – that’d mean the end of him. He wasn’t prepared for that yet.

He then thought of getting help from Owl.. As one that preferred hunting at night, Owl would be sleeping during the day and be an easy one to catch. And once he’d convinced Owl to take him across, he’d be onto Rabbit in a flash. Owl was, after all, big and strong and more than capable of carrying his weight.

Owl was, to say the least, not impressed. Jackal reminded Owl that he knew exactly where Owl’s nest was and that he’d make a point of stealing  the next batch of chicks. Owl grumbled and moaned, for he actually liked Rabbit; but because of Jackal’s threats, he gave in with a heavy heart.

“You promise to leave me alone after this, and never touch my nest?” Owl didn’t trust Jackal very much.

“Of course!” Jackal said with a toothy grin. “You won’t have to worry about that. You have my word.”

Well, Owl flew Jackal across and put him down on the other side. Rabbit, however, saw him coming and hid behind a huge rock.

“The Rabbit,” he said in a squeaky, shrill voice like mouse’s, “has gone to Eagle. She’s in a foul mood. If I were you, Jackal, I’d go away.”

But Jackal would have none of that. He wanted that Rabbit and no Eagle was going to stop him. So he crept up the hill where Eagle lived and tried to see what was in her nest. And Eagle, sharp-eyed as ever – saw him coming and threw a few small stones at him. Jackal persisted and approached even closer. Then Eagle flew up high, high in the sky, and dropped a large rock on Jackal’s head. The blow was so accurate and so hard that Jackal became confused. He swore he’d get Eagle if that’s the last thing he’d do. And Eagle laughed, sprouted celebratory feathers, and flew off to her inaccessible nest on a high cliff.

“Do what you like, Jackal,” she shouted, “but by now all the animals have seen your cunning and cruelty.  Your days as a glorious hunter is over. From now on you’ll only prey on the dumb and the stupid.”

And so it was. Jackall could not go back to his home any longer – the river was too full and he still couldn’t swim. Owl laughed at him, telling im that as long as he couldn’t cross the river, he’d never be able to threaten his nest again. And Jackal looked around him, realised he couldn’t get to his old home and his hunting grounds at all, and became exceedingly angry.

***

“It didn’t help, of course. Getting angry never solved a problem.” Gertruida gets up to walk to the window. Outside, the sun was setting in a wonderful array of colours. “So Jackal, my friends, tried to steal sheep from farmers after that. Still does it to this day. But the farmers put up fences and traps and got vicious dogs to protect them. And Jackal became the most hated animal amongst the farmers and he had to flee into the wilderness to escape.”

She falls silent and turns around. The puzzled frowns on her audience’s faces pleased her tremendously.

It is Boggel who breaks the silence.

“That wasn’t a fable, Gertruida. Fables are pure fiction. This is too new, too recent, too true, to be called a fable. “

Gertruida’s smile broadened. “Yes, Eagle got him, didn’t she? Without her, Rabbit wouldn’t have survived.”

The Porcupine and the Coconut

154768913“So now the president is offering to pay back the money – at last? After all those commissions and enquiries he simply ignored and laughed away in parliament?” Servaas puts down the paper with a sarcastic smile. “I’d say that’s mighty big-hearted of the man to eat humble pie for a change.”

“Ag, Servaas, you’re being your old facetious self again!” Gertruida throws her hands in the air in mock horror. “It’s all about not fighting the battles you cannot win. The Constitutional Court is about to hear the case and the municipal elections are just around the corner. He’s performing plastic surgery on the wrinkled face of the governing party -even though he knows it’ll leave lasting scars. Better to cut your losses than to erect a house on sand.”

“He’s good at that,” Vetfaan smiles. “Erecting things, I mean.”

They giggle about that for a while. Then Gertruida tells them of the porcupine and the coconut…

***

One day, she says, Porcupine found a coconut in the desert. Now, this was a strange thing, for the coconut was completely out of place: it simply didn’t belong there. Porcupine wondered about this, but when he shook the coconut, he heard the milk swill around inside.

“Now this thing may be very precious,” the porcupine mused, “I shall take it to my home to prove how farsighted I am. Nobody else has one like this – they’ll all admire me for being so clever to own a coconut that’ll benefit all. I’ll wait until it starts germinating, then I’ll plant it. It’ll become a huge tree, with fruit and shade.”

images (20)Oh, and how the other animals admired Porcupine’s new object! Zebra liked the hair on the surface, while Gemsbok thought it resembled the tsammas that fed him during dry seasons. Elephant sniffed at it, thought it was foreign, but still said it was a nice thing to have.

But in all communities you’ll find that not everybody accepts what others admire. Hare, for instance, asked what good does the coconut do, sitting there on a shelf in Porcupines house? And Owl, wise as always, remarked that such a thing could only bring bad luck if it were to start growing.

“Keep it on the shelf – don’t try to do anything with it. As a showpiece it’ll be okay, but if you really think planting such a tree will be useful, you’ll only be disappointed.”

And so the coconut stayed in Porcupines house, where the other animals  could see it. Although some maintained that it underlined Porcupine’s powers, after a while others started doubting it. They asked owl to explain.

“It doesn’t belong here, see?” Owl shrugged. “We are used to living in the desert. Our world is a harsh one, where you survive because you understand the circumstances. Now that coconut…well, when it starts growing, it’ll need water and nourishment and lots of care. More importantly, if Porcupine really tries to grow here, it’ll steal our precious water. And, mark my words, it may survive a good season or two – but when times are tough, or it becomes too big and thirsty,  it’ll die. And to what avail, I ask you? If anything out here can’t contribute to our well-being, it’ll simply be a thief and a scoundrel that’ll rob us of our livelihood. No, it might be a nice thing to look at, but in the end Porcupine will regret taking it home.”

Porcupine ignored such remarks, of course. Instead, it watched as the coconut sprouted a few little roots and started growing a stem.

“Oh, how beautiful my coconut is!” Porcupine was  very proud. “In all the desert, this will be the most beautiful of all things. I shall care for it, make it grow, and the others will see my powers.”

To keep the coconut alive, Porcupine had to water it every day. Whenever its roots became dry, its fragile leaves drooped and hung limp. No longer was the coconut able to sustain itself with its own milk and oil – Porcupine had to spend his days carrying water from the little fountain that supplied water to all the animals in the desert.

One day, the animals gathered to discuss the situation. Coconut was using so much water, there was almost nothing left for them.

“Let us get rid of Coconut,” Hare said. “Coconut must fall!”

Many of the other animals simply nodded, because their mouths were too dry to speak.

When Porcupine heard this, he became exceedingly angry. “We,” (Porcupine loved using the royal plural), “have brought this wonderful thing to the desert. If you do not revere Coconut for it’s beauty and power, you’ll regret it. Moreover, Coconut provides shade for you to protect you from the sun.”

“Protect? Protect!?” Hare was furious. “It has grown so high that even the birds cannot nest in its silly things it calls branches. As for us down here, it only provides shade for you. Coconut has left us with no water and no shade. You, Porcupine, have brought great hardship upon us.”

For a long time the animals only complained like this, but nobody dared face Porcupine with his terrible quills. And then, at last, the fountain dried up completely. It was no longer possible for Porcupine to sustain the tree he had planted. Some animals died. Some animals sought for a new home.

In the end, all the animals suffered.

Ever since then, Porcupine had to hide from the rest of the animals, and had to search for food at night. His wonderful Coconut had ruined his reputation as a powerful creature. Walking around in daylight, proud of the object of his power, became impossible. Instead, he became a shadowy figure of the night, causing the other animals to scorn him as he dug around for roots in the moonlight.

It took a long time, but in the end Porcupine secretly wished he had never found the coconut.

By then it was too late.

***

“Well, that’s a nice story, Gertruida. I don’t understand why you felt like telling it now, but I’m sure there’s a moral  hiding in it somehow.” Servaans beckons for another round of beers. “But to get back to the point: do you really think the prez is going to pay back the money?”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “The fountain, Servaas, has dried up. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a heavy thud one of these days. Tall trees do that when they crash to the ground.”

The Gift of The Little Drummer Boy

little-drummer-boy-album-cover“At last,” Servaas sighs as he tears ‘December’ from the calendar above the counter in Boggel’s Place. “I simply cannot listen to that silly tune any longer.”

As usual, Servaas is in a bad mood in the beginning of the year. He says he’s just gotten used to writing 2015 on his cheques and now it’ll take weeks before he gets 2016 on every one. Gertruida laughs at this, knowing it isn’t true: Servaas simply doesn’t want to add another year to his age.

“Oh shus, you old sourpuss! Christmas and New Year is a time to count your blessings, man! Cheer up and have another Cactus Jack…”

“It’s the tune with all those barumpapapum’s in it. It’s like the composer didn’t have enough words for the music, so it’s barumpapapum this and barumpapum that. And it’s been on the radio since November. Argh! I can’t stand it!” He knits his brows together and stares angrily at the old transistor radio on the shelf. “At least we’ll have eleven months of peace now…”

“But it’s such a beautiful story, Servaas. A little boy with a drum, no gifts to offer the newborn Christ, and then the solution: he plays his best for Him. So sweet, actually.”

Servaas shrugs. He’s not going to grace the debate by adding to it.

“Did you know, Servaas, that it’s one of the most popular modern Christmas songs?  However. it has its roots way, way back. If I remember correctly, it’s based on the 13th-century medieval legend by Gautier de Coincy, in about 1220, called Le jongleur de Notre-Dame. The story tells of a juggler who became a monk and the French author,  Anatole France, published it again in 1892. Beautifully written, the legend sketches the events on Christmas day, when all the monks in the monastery offered gifts to the statue of Mary.  However, the juggler was too poor to buy one and had nothing fancy to offer. What to do? When it was his turn to lay down a gift in front of Mary, he stepped up and did what he does best: juggle.

“The other monks were furious…but then a miracle happened. The statue came alive, and smiled at the monk. Oh, the  surprise on the other monks’ faces! One moment they’re scolding the poor juggler, the next they realise the importance of honesty. If you give your best to Him – however insignificant it might be – there is joy in heaven!”

“Thanks for the lecture, Professor Gertruida. I don’t need it.”

“Oh yes, you do, Servaas. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the song in the middle of WW II, in 1941 and called it The Carol of the Drum. That song evolved into the popular song we know today. Incidentally, the Trapp Singers – the family made famous by The Sound of Music – made the first recording. You’ll remember that an earlier generation of the Trapps were responsible for the preservation of Silent Night.

“The point, Servaas, is this: something out of antiquity resurfaced after centuries to bring joy and hope to us today. The message is simple, but strong. Be who you are – the best you, you can be – and that is good enough. No need for pretence and glamour – just be simply who and what you are. For that, you get a smile from Him.”

Servaas keeps on staring at the radio.

“Oh, and one more thing, Servaas. If your mood is the only thing you can offer Heaven today, I doubt if you will be smiled on. The song is a challenge, my friend: it asks you to offer the best in you at all times. Your gift to those around you are as important as the drum the little boy played, or the apples the poor juggler tossed up in the air. If it is given with a joyous heart, it is the most precious thing you can bestow on others… Think about that and stop glaring at the radio. It’s not going to help anything to be angry about a song…or will you keep on spoiling the day by being childish?”

Servaas goes ‘harrumph’. Then he blushes.

Then, to everybody’s surprise, he starts drumming on the counter with his fingers…

 

Sparks Strydom and his Speeding Gun.

3fc23d2c4a81ab717c9d8f35e9804dba“Sparks Strydom got me stopped again today.” Verfaan sits down heavily, takes off the sweat-stained hat and wipes his brow. “I feel so sorry for him.”

Now, if you’re a regular traveler between Upington and Rolbos, you’ll know all about Sparks. He’s a sinewy man of about fifty, sporting a small moustache and a goatee beard. He’s not altogether unhandsome, but the high cheekbones and the sunken eyes combine to give him a cadaver-like appearance, which  seem to frighten children. The few who know his story, also know that he’s a kindhearted, gentle soul who’s only trying to make ends meet.

“Really? I thought that gun would never work.” Kleinpiet signals for a round of beers. It’s been another scorcher in the Kalahari. He knows all about Sparks. They served on the Border together. “He used to be quite clever, that man. But that was before…”

Yes, they all nod, Sparks could have had such a bright future. He had been the star student in Pofadder High, the only one who passed matric with distinctions. A bursary was offered to study engineering, but the Border War intervened and he was conscripted to the army. 

“I remember that day they brought him back to the hospital in Grootfontein. Man, was he a mess! It was a miracle that he survived.” Vetfaan, who also spent some time recovering in that hospital after an ambush, shrugs as he sips his beer. “The doctors said he’d never be the same again. They were right.”

“Ja, shame, the poor guy. And when the war was over, he tried to study. Lasted two weeks in the university before the professors realised he couldn’t keep up. Such a pity.” Kleinpiet recalls the day he met Sparks in  Upington. He had been shopping for a new transistor radio at Kalahari Electric, when the gaunt man behind the counter offered his help.

***

“Gosh, Sparks? Is it really you?”

The man allowed his eyes to drift upward from the glass-topped counter to travel over Kleinpiet’s paunch, his chest and finally to Kleinpiet’s face. A small frown furrowed his brow. “Ja, it’s me.”

“I’m Kleinpiet, remember? We played rugby against each other. In Prieska…before the war.”

“Oh.” The dull eyes attempted an apologetic smile. “I don’t remember things so well anymore.”

It was an embarrassing moment. Kleinpiet smoothed it over with smalltalk and then said he wanted to buy a radio. Sparks shuffled away to call the other salesman.

***

“He did get better,” Gertruida tries to sound optimistic. “At least, that’s what I heard. Some of his old ways returned – he actually started reading again.”

“Yes, that’s true. He read up on wars. Fascinated by conflict, Sparks was. Maybe he still is, for that matter. But the gun? I think it’s a stroke of genius.”

Gertruida nods. “Yes, when he stumbled upon the work of Barker and Midlock during WW II, he became obsessed with them. Imagine soldering tin cans together to create microwaves? Shew! But that was the start of the radar speed gun, which paved the way for laser speed guns. And our Sparks copied that – only he had at his disposal a whole heap of old, broken radios – an unlimited supply of transistors, and diodes and who-knows-what.”

“Yes, and now he’s the only independent speed analyst in the Northern Cape. He’s hard to miss, dressed up in his old army uniform like that. I could see him a mile away, standing next to the road with his contraption, so I speeded up a little.  Didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“That was kind of you, Kleinpiet. So what was your fine?”

“Well, he stepped onto the tar, held up a hand and I screeched to a halt. As usual, he didn’t say much; just held the contraption so I could see the reading. So I apologised and waited. He held out his hand and I gave him fifty bucks. Then he waved me on.”

“His usual routine, eh?”

“Yup.”

The group at the bar remains silent for a while. Yes, they do feel sorry for Sparks. And yes, they know how the scars of war sometimes never heal. Politicians so often blow on the embers that flare up emotions, cause conflict and result in harm and bloodshed. Gertruida once said it’s the result of an imbalance in the logic/ego ratio. Once the ego increases in a disproportionate ratio to logic, irrational circumstances are sure to follow. They all nodded wisely as she said this, just to show her they weren’t ignorant. Afterwards they tried to figure it out until Servaas told them about the rabies one of his dogs once contracted. It’s a fatal thing, he said, when the brain cannot cope with fear. That, they agreed, was what Gertruida tried to say.

“At least he’s making an honest living,” Boggel say  as he refills their glasses.

They laugh at that, because they know Boggel is just trying to lift the mood. Just like stopping when Sparks holds up a hand when you approach, one should at least smile when Boggel makes a remark like that.

***

Note: If any of the readers ever travel to Rolbos, please be on the lookout for Sparks. He’s the one with the Ricoffy tin next to the road. He’ll stop you and make you read the little ‘screen’ on the back, where ‘150 km/h is clearly scrawled in his shaky handwriting.

Don’t argue.

Give him something.