Tag Archives: cat

The Waiting Cat

“Oh, she’s doing all right,” Servaas says as he delivers his report on his monthly visit to Nellie Pretorius. As elder in the church, it is his duty to drive out to the deserted farm once a month to see the old lady. It is a long drive, and on his return he always stops at Boggel’s Place to rehydrate and tell Boggel the latest. “Fortunately she has old Phineas to help her, but I doubt if she’s going to last much longer.”

“And that cat? Is he still around?”

“Yes, that cat…” Servaas doesn’t like to talk about the cat. The concept that a cat may be waiting for someone to die, is weird enough. To have a tradition  linked to it, is completely insane. “Sure. He spends his days on her bed now. Tannie Nellie says he won’t budge…”

***

The first time Servaas drove out to see Tannie Nellie was a cold winter’s day in the middle of June. He found the aging woman in front of the hearth in her stone-and-thatch cottage on the farm, where they had tea and talked about everything else except her health. When it was time to go, Servaas finally asked her about it.

“Oh, I’m fine thank you.” She wasn’t, it was plain to see. The stroke had caused the left side of her face to slide down even further than the right, and she was obviously short of breath. “As long as the cats roams about outside, I’m not worried.”

What’s the cat got to do with it?

“They wait for you to die. They know when it’s time. When my mother died, her cat was at her side; and when it was my father’s turn, the same thing happened. Mamma told me it would happen. She said cats have something to do with your soul – something about how cats are sensitive about the spiritual world. Maybe they help carry the soul to the other side. Maybe they assist the soul out of the body. Or maybe I’m just a bit daft!” She cackled a hoarse laugh while tapping against the side of her head with her good hand.

Servaas didn’t respond. She was old, somewhat senile and weak. To get into a Biblical argument about how stupid it is to think that a cat … ? No, he decided, as he put down his empty tea cup, best to go now.

Over the months that followed, she deteriorated slowly. She refused to see a doctor because they shouldn’t interfere. “Life is a book, Servaas. When you turn the last page, the story ends. You can’t add pages just because you enjoyed the story. And look at my cat – we don’t want to disappoint him, do we?”

The cat, indeed, did spend more and more time inside the house. When her bedroom became her home in November, the cat followed her and refused to budge.

“He waits until I doze off before going outside. That’s why the window is open. Quick out, quick back.” She tried to laugh, spasmed up in a spell of coughing, and gave a weak smile.

Servaas once tried to convince her to consider an old-age home. It was a mistake.

“You crazy?” Her eyes blazed at him. “This is my farm. My grandparents are here. My parents are here. My two children are here. Why would I leave?”

Servaas knew about the little cemetery near the dam – the one that never held any water. Tannie Nellie said it was the thought that counts, anyway. Her two boys are buried there (what they think were their remains, anyway, she said)– both died n the Helderberg disaster. “The bloody government used that plane to carry stuff for the atom bomb they built. That’s why the Americans blew it up.” It was the only time he ever heard her use foul language.  As for the Americans blowing up a South African plane – well, he’s never heard anything so absurd in his entire life. “That is a problem, of course. They had no cats near when they died…”

***

The month passes quickly, as time does when the year starts running downhill. Servaas wrestles his old pickup over the rutted road leading to Tijgersrust, Tannie Nellie’s farm. According to local lore, the farm got its name because the last leopard in the district was shot there.

It is still plain to see that the farm must have been very successful at some stage. The remains of several cottages dot the area, stone walls remain where the kraals were and the huge shed must have housed the implements. Now only the skeletons of those days remain. The dam-without-water is a mocking tribute to the dreams of a few generations. Dust to dust, Servaas thinks as he opens the gate.

Phineas opens the door even before he can knock.

“Hai, Mister Servaas, come in. It is a sad day. How did you know?”

“Know what, Phineas?”

“Tannie Nellie has just passed away. Thank you for coming.”

***

Servaas doesn’t stop at Boggel’s Place when he returns to town. He needs time to think. Last night he dreamt about a cat – a big one with spots. The animal was resting on his bed and refused to budge when he drew the sheets over his head. It wasn’t a nightmare; somehow, it was the most natural thing to share his bed with the creature.

Then there was the other thing: when he opened that gate to the farm, he saw Tannie Nellie’s cat resting on the veranda. He hesitated before knocking, thinking the cat seemed exhausted.

He flops down on his old couch. People can be very strange in their beliefs. Now he, Servaas, isn’t going to be intimidated by some silly myth. That’s why he agreed to bring the cat to town. Phineas told him that he was leaving now that Tannie Nellie is gone; there is nothing to keep him on the farm. If Mister Servaas would be so kind? Please. I can’t take the cat home – in my village people keep too many dogs.

He knew Phineas was lying. He had spent more time on that farm than anybody else. He also knew about the leopard and the cats.

Well, he, Servaas Venter, isn’t superstitious. He’s not afraid. That old woman deluded. Deranged. Demented. Or something.

On impulse, he gets up to peek through the window. The cat is wandering around outside, inspecting his new environment.

Outside, Servaas thinks as he opens the fridge. I’ll put out a cushion and some milk outside. 

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A Lion’s Share (of love, amongst other things…)

Kalahari Lion

When Lucinda asked about the history of Rolbos, everybody chipped in with snippets of information. That’s why the story of Jantjie Lourens came up. Gertruida – who knows everything – says she knew someone who knew Jantjie;  and Servaas says yes, his name appears in the  church register, in the fifties… he got married to Katryn Klopper. She moved to a congregation in Cape Town a few months after the wedding.

It started (so they tell Lucinda) when Jantjie Lourens was out in the veld, looking for a lost sheep. Now we all know how sheep get lost. They’re not very clever. Sometimes they wander off into the bush and they never seem worried about finding their way back. Gertruida says you get people like that, too. Occasionally – not all that often – a lost sheep finds a lost sheep. And sometimes they stick together. That one sheep you don’t find today, might very well start a rogue flock somewhere – and if you happen on it a few years later, you suddenly own a whole bunch of vagabond sheep that hates being kraaled.

Servaas says this happened to him once. He found twelve ragged and woolly sheep in the kloof on the other side of Bokkop a few years back. And yes, he says with bristling indignation, of course they were his sheep.  He personally snipped his mark into the ram’s ear when he was a lamb – and lo! all the new sheep in that kloof had the same snips. They had to be the offspring of his sheep – and therefore they were his. Gertruida remarks that  it doesn’t work like that. Servaas tells her Darwin was a heretic and the church rejected his so-called theories. That’s when Gertruida asks Judge to hold her, for she feels a sudden urge to strangle somebody. They laugh at that and Servaas, despite his age, blushes to a crimson red. Gertruida always says you don’t have to convince the other guy he’s wrong, you only have to make him doubt his argument. That’s where you leave the discussion, she says.

Anyway, Jantjie scouted high and low for his sheep. He waited at waterholes. He climbed the little hills. He looked under the thorn trees. That’s when he found the cub.

People say that Jantjie had a a sort of an epiphany, right there. His sheep was resting under a bush with a baby lion at its side. You know – the picture of the lion and the lamb? Well, that’s what Jantjie saw. The cub was a sign. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but he was sure there was a message in that picture, especially when he bent to pick up the lamb and the little lion growled at him.

“What happened to the lioness – the mother of the cub?” Pretty Lucinda is puzzled.

They speculate about that. Vetfaan reckons she might have gone hunting, and got gored by a gemsbok. And, Kleinpiet adds, the farmers in those days put out poisoned meat for the jackals. Jantjie apparently also looked for the lioness, but not half as hard as he searched for his sheep. “I mean: what do you do if you find a lost lioness? Ask her to be a better mother?”

The cub must have been about a month or two old and Jantjie couldn’t get it over his heart to kill the kitten-like creature – so he took the sheep and the cub home. Now, Jantjie’s father – Grootjantjie – was an avid hunter of all vermin that have developed a taste for sheep meat. He took it personally if something started chewing on the odd hind leg pf one of his flock. Servaas says yes, he was in that house after the funeral, and the entire living room floor was covered in a carpet  made from jackal tails.

So Jantjie had to hide the cub in an unused shed near the wind pump, where he spent considerable periods of time with the growing lion. Soon after that, Grootjantjie got sick – Tuberculosis was still common in those days – and had to spend his last few months in bed. Jantjie could then take the lion out for walks, during which he tried to teach the animal to hunt for his own meals.

Gertruida says lions are cleverer than sheep. You can hand-rear a lamb and leave him in the veld; he’ll start feeding himself soon. Lions, according to her, are like cats. Once they know how to manipulate you, they don’t have to slink around the veld looking for prey. Cats own you – they’re never pets. They will sulk until you feed them; then they reward you with some purring and then you feel good about yourself. She calls it Feline Logic. Or human stupidity. It’s the same thing.

After Grootjantjie died, Jantjie and the lion inherited the farm. And the lion, knowing his next meal would be served up in the big bowl in the kitchen, never even glanced sideways at the sheep following him. The two of them, you see, had become attached to each other in a strange way. Even when the cub was kept in the shed, the sheep would hang around in the vicinity, grazing quietly and baa-ing his reassurance every now and then to let the cub know his best friend wasn’t far away. The two of them followed Jantjie everywhere, and he simply had to make peace with the fact that he had an unusual entourage wherever he went on his farm.

Lions, Gertruida knows, grow to be big animals. In the Kalahari they can weigh about 200 kilograms. Jantjie’s lion (according to local lore) was much bigger than that. Of course, it is rather difficult to convince the average lion to get on a scale and remain there until the needle stops quivering, so one must assume that this one was a fully mature and healthy animal when Jantjie disappeared.

It happened soon after his wedding, Kleinpiet remarks. The next day, in fact. Jantjie had fallen in love with a secretary he met at the auctioneers in Upington. The entire distric watched in awe as the two young people fell madly in love and eventually got engaged. Jantjie couldn’t do enough for her – it was an endless stream of flowers, chocolates, little love letters, messages and even a bottle pf perfume from Omar’s Emporium.

People say the ceremony was a quiet affair; with the pastor, Jantjie, Katryn and the few guests who took their chances with the lion. Everybody knew about the lion, of course. The animal – unlike the sheep who seemed quite happy to be left at home – developed the habit of driving everywhere with Jantjie.  People also knew you can’t shake Jantjie’s hand – the lion wouldn’t allow anybody near. It took, for instance, a lot of patience to make the lion understand that Katryn  was acceptable company – and even then she had to walk two steps behind her husband-to-be and the lion. Gertruida says that is how the pecking-order in the feline world works.They also say the lion kept poking his head between the bride and groom during the service. When Jantjie put the ring on her finger, the lion let out an almighty roar that filled the church. A single second later Jantjie and the lion stood abandoned in front of the pulpit – everybody else had fled to the vestry and locked the door. Jantjie had a stern chat with the lion, and it took a lot of talking through the locked door to convince the others to come out again.

Their wedding night was – again according to local gossip – a much disturbed night. Jantjie had locked the bedroom door, leaving the lion ititchen. All through the night the lion kicked up a fuss, roaring and growling and later even making mewing sounds. Apparently Katryn woke up the next morning to find Jantjie crying in the kitchen. The lion had eaten his sheep-companion during the night.

She told her parents the lion then came in and gave her a knowing look. Now, Gertruida has her doubts about that bit. The only look a lion can give you is a hungry look. Or maybe an angry look. They’re not much different, anyway: both are up-and-down scans before the yellow eyes settle on the little pulse in your neck area.

The lion padded over to Jantjie and lay down at his feet, emitting the growl-grumble-purr big cats do when they’re satisfied you understand them and their needs perfectly. Boggel remembers the cat they had in the orphanage: it did the same (only softer) if you rubbed the spot behind its ears.

That lion doesn’t like me, Katryn said, pointing at the lion with a trembling finger; and Jantjie, who knew the big cat well by that time, had to agree. He had to do something. Precilla also had a cat, a long time ago. She understands a bit about the cat-mind. Cats don’t share, she says. Either they get your full attention, or they start scratching at your furniture. A real upset cat will hiss displeasure or even bare it’s fangs to scare you back into behaving yourself.

Jantjie took a long look at his bride, nodded sadly and took the lion for a walk.

He never returned.

“This is such a stupid story, Vetfaan.” Lucinda shakes her head. “I’ve heard many stories in Africa, but nothing like this one. Do you really want me to believe this man had a grown lion as a pet, and the lion didn’t like sharing this Jantjie’s attention with his new bride? So he ate him?”

“Oh Lord no, Lucinda,” Kleinpiet parries, “the lion simply took back what he claimed to be his. Look, he ate the sheep to show he would sacrifice anything to be Jantjie’s only friend. The lion set the example, you see? If the lion wasn’t prepared to share Jantjie with the sheep, then Jantjie had to do the same in return.”

“True.” Precilla leans forwards to emphasis her point. “Remember, cats aren’t pets: they own you. With dogs it’s different – they submit to your authority. Cats however, are much more intelligent and much more emotional. They can love, hate, share joy, be mischievous … and unforgiving. You do something bad to a cat, and it’ll avoid you forever.  Cats feel love. They sense loyalty. They detest being ignored when they want attention. But…,” she pauses a dramatic second, “he didn’t eat Jantjie.”

Lucinda shakes her head. “So what happened?”

“No, Katryn stayed on the farm for a while. She waited and waited, hoping Jantjie would come back somehow. Search party after search party went out, looking for Jantjie or whatever remained of him. Eventually a Bushman found the tracks leading off into the desert. One lion; walking beside one person wearing a number nine boot; the same size as Jantjie.” Servaas takes a long sip of his Cactus and smacks his lips in appreciation. “The Bushman refused to follow the spoor. He said Jantjie was a tokoloshi, that he was under a spell. They believe in witchcraft, those guys.”

“Weeks passed. She eventually moved back to her folks in Cape Town. A year or so later the farm was sold on an auction.  The marriage was annulled, of course; and she married a much respected surgeon a few years later. She became one of the first women in South Africa to fight for animal rights, and was also involved in the establishment of transfrontier parks. There were several articles in the newspaper about her – Gertruida kept a few – where she said that humans shouldn’t prevent animals from roaming in their original territories.” Kleinpiet gives a wry smile. “I think she simply wanted that lion to be happy. As long as that lion was content, Jantjie was safe.”

Old Marco doesn’t buy it. “No. I may be Italian, but I no believe this story. You joking, si?”

“Nope.”Vetfaan is suddenly serious. “I bought that farm. I just arrived in the district when the auction took place and couldn’t believe nobody else was bidding on the property. Anyway, I was happy with the price and moved in as soon as I could. That’s when I first noticed the scratch marks on the bedroom door. Huge marks. Deep into the wood. Only later, when I heard the story, did it make sense. That cat wanted to share Jantjie bed on the night of the wedding…and when the door remained locked, he tried to show Jantjie the sheep wasn’t his companion. Jantjie was. And Jantjie knew that Katryn would be next unless he and the lion reconfirmed their friendship. That’s when he took the lion for a walk. A long walk. Because he was the lion’s pet, you see, and the lion wasn’t about to give him up. If you think about it, Jantjie must have loved that woman a lot, to leave her like that. He saved her life, if you ask me.”

“So this is love sory?”Marco guffaws his sarcasm. “We Italians like love story. Only ours end better.”

“No, Papa,” Lucinda says gently, “love stories tend to have tragic ends. Look at our operas. This one, I think, has best ending.”

On cue, Boggel puts on the CD. He loves Sonja Herold, and especially this song. Turning to serve another round, he watches the crowd at the counter with a sardonic smile hovering around his lips. These Rolbossers! They can cook up the most fantastic stories ever! Get them started, and the one ofter the other will add another bit, another twist, to create a convoluted narrative of note. No, it’s not lying, he decides. It’s how our forefathers sat around campfires at night, entertaining each other. It used to be the way families played with ideas before television took the fun out of evening-talk. It’s a gift…

“Lucinda?” He calls her to the back. “Now let me tell you what really happened.”

“Oooh! You crazy man! I think you were all fibbing back there!”

“Yes, my dear, I’m sorry.” He hangs his head in shame. “But let me fix it now…”

Head thrown back, Lucinda folds her arms while she taps out a staccato rhythm with the toe of her boot. “Ye-e-e-es?”

“I’m really sorry. I am. There was no lion…”

“I knew it! I knew!” She hisses the words from between clenched teeth.

“It was a leopard,” Boggel says with a twinkle in his eye. “A leopard…”