The hospital in Upington is like most hospitals you’ve ever been to. The almost-shiny floors, white walls and hushed tones leave you in no doubt that this is a place of hope and despair. Babies are born here. Old people die. It’s the same the world over.
Vetfaan sits quietly next to the freshly-made bed, gazing at the drawn face of Crazy Coetzee; the man with no fear. Once a strapping young man with long sideburns, a bushy moustache and sky–blue eyes; Crazy now resembles a skeletal scarecrow. A forlorn and lonely man on the singular journey we all have to face at some stage. For Crazy, the route involves a lot of pain and suffering.
“Remember that river?” Even his voice is fading. “It was bad.”
Yes Crazy. I remember. We were lucky to crawl away from that one. They were shooting at us from all sides – we should have been more careful. The river saved us.
When the mortars started, it wasn’t good enough to simply lie down flat or hide behind the ant heaps. Death came silently, suddenly, after the whoomph! of the mortar leaving the tube. We didn’t know where the next one would land. Then, after that terrible silent waiting, the explosion would rip through tree and flesh alike, destroying life with unbiased abandon. We watched the captain’s helmet sailing through the air to land, entangled, in the thorn tree behind us. We saw the last drops of blood dripping down on the green grass.
“It was you and me, Vetfaan. We were the only two left. And then you said we must make our way to the river.”
Twenty paces away, the river held the promise of escape. The firing had stopped; maybe they thought we were all dead. I said we must wait for dusk, but you shook your head. They’d come to scavenge for equipment and ammunition, you whispered. If we were to get out of there alive, we had to move immediately. You said I had to go first, you’d cover me.
“I’ve never seen anybody crawl so fast, so flat, so silently. You made it in record time.” The skin around the eyes crinkles to suggest a smile. Crazy used to have the most disarming smile in his younger years. It was a slow, honest type of smile, one that started in the eyes and ended with the lips arching upwards to expose a perfect set of teeth. Now, the pale-pink gums peek from behind the dry skin of his lips.
Vetfaan runs a hand over his face. This isn’t easy.
Yes, and when it was your turn, you almost made it. Almost. That’s when they shot you in the leg. I didn’t see the man with the gun until it was too late, but I had him running away with a well-aimed shot past his head. It gave me time to crawl out to fetch you.
“Yes, that river. It saved us. Once across, we were safe. I’ll always thank you for that.”
But at what cost? You lost a leg and tried to make a living as an artist. People looked at your work and agreed it had a lot of merit. But it was the graphic detail that made them buy paintings of flowers and portraits by other artists instead, Crazy. Nobody wanted to hang broken soldiers on their walls. I told you so; but you said those pictures are in your head and they had to come out. You said your life can’t be normal as long as those pictures remained in your mind. In fact, you mentioned that it wasn’t just your body that was crippled…the mental damage was more destructive than the physical problem.
“I finished my last painting a week ago, Vetfaan. I want you to have it.”
Straining from the effort, Crazy reaches for the bell-button. In the duty room, a soft bong makes the nurse come over. She’s young and pretty, filling the uniform in a slightly provocative way. The green eyes are concerned.
“Now, Mister Coetzee?”
They must have discussed it beforehand. When he nods, she trots off to fetch a large package from the office. Brown paper with a string around it. She holds it out to Vetfaan – it’s obviously a painting.
“Not now. Have a look when you’re home. I put in more detail in this one, specially for you.”
The tired eyes disappear behind the drooping eyelids.
“I need to sleep now, Vetfaan. Just doze off a little. Thanks for coming.”
Back home, Vetfaan puts the wrapped painting on his kitchen table, before getting a beer from his fridge. Then, with trembling fingers, he peels away the brown paper.
The painting was done with exquisite care. There’s no red in the picture, he notices immediately. It’s a river, quietly flowing under the bright sunshine, with green-green trees and lush undergrowth. Ferns flank the water, almost hiding the family of Egyptian geese in the shallows. Away on the horizon, a little herd of grazing Impalas seem so life-like, Vetfaan has to run his fingers over the painting to make sure it isn’t a print.
The focal point is the empty chair on the riverbank. It’s an old camping chair, with a single crutch on the ground next to it.
Vetfaan picks up the phone to call the hospital. Then, with a wry smile, he puts the instrument down. No need. Crazy has crossed his river.
He won’t need a crutch any longer.
I was so afraid Fernando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
And I’m not ashamed to say
The roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry