Tag Archives: sheep

Vetfaan’s Caracal

images (1)“How’s Vetfaan?” A worried frown wrinkles Kleinpiet’s brow. “It’s been…what?…three days now? Should be coming home soon, I hope.”

Boggel slides a beer over the counter with a sympathetic smile. Kleiniet hates drinking alone, and – to be honest – the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place certainly took a nosedive ever since the ambulance came to fetch the burly farmer.

“I phoned this morning, Kleinpiet. They’re sending him back today, but I don’t think he’ll be joining us for a drink for a while. His backside….”

Kleinpiet winces, nods, and swallows a mouthful of beer. “Poor chap. He shouldn’t have…”

***

The tragedy started when Vetfaan checked on his sheep two weeks ago. That’s when he found three of his best ewes missing. After a prolonged search of the area, he eventually  discovered the three carcasses close to each other with several bite marks on their necks.

“That was a lynx,” Servaas said when Vetfaan complained about it that night. “Nasty cats. they are. One of them gets amongst a flock of sheep, and they go crazy. Bite, bite, bite – that’s what they do. They don’t settle down for dinner after killing a single prey – for them it’s the joy of hunting and killing that does the trick. I know Ben Bitterbrak lost twenty sheep in a single night due to one of them.”

“Oh Servaas!” Gertruida’s irritation bubbled to the surface. “We don’t have any of the lynx species in Africa. I’ll have you know there are four subspecies of lynx: the Eurasian, Canadian, Iberian, and the North American Bobcat. Over here, we have the caracal – which is far more vicious than the lynx family. You should have known that.”

“Well, I’m going to shoot that bastard, no matter what you call it. I can’t afford to lose any more of my flock. Lamb season is almost here…” The grim expression on Vetfaan’s face hadn’t softened, despite the peach brandy.

Vetfaan returned to Boggel’s Place three days later, looking haggard and even grimmer. “That cat! Dammit, man – I wait for it here, and it kills over there. My farm is just too big for me to cover the whole area. And I can’t keep my sheep herded together every night – it’s impossible.” That, of course, is true. Farming with sheep in such an arid area means that the sheep have to graze over extensive tracts of land,

Kleinpiet then – two more rounds of peach brandy later – suggested that they establish COSATU – Caracal Observation, Strategy and Terminating Union. “We’ll all join you to eliminate that cat. We’ll start tonight.”

For the next four nights Boggel did no business – except for selling a few beers to the ladies of the town. Fortunately, the men had the foresight to stock up during the day – reminding each other of the desert chill at night. It’s not that they want to drink peach brandy during the vigil, it’s only to ward off the cold, understand?

Their strategy was simple: spreading out on the higher parts of the farm and armed with powerful spotlights and a variety of guns (Servaas insisting on the old Mauser his great-grandfather used in the war against the British), they waited. And waited. And felt the freezing wind. And partook – cautiously at first but later with considerable enthusiasm – of the peach brandy which they then dubbed ‘Antifreeze.”

Perhaps that’s why, on Night Four, Servaas accidently (so he claimed), discharged his gun, killing hundreds of completely innocent termites in a cat-shaped ant heap a hundred yards away. By then, the lack of sleep and the peach brandy had so fatigued the members of COSATU that they were reduced to mumbling idiots. The next day they discussed the issue, and created the New Union of Modern Stalking Activists – an entirely novel approach to the threat to Vetfaan’s sheep.

Perhaps a little explanation will help to understand what happened next. One must remember that the combination of peach brandy and sleep deprivation does not enhance intelligent thought. The plan formulated by the group in the bar that day, serves to emphasise that fact.

“You have to think like a caracal to catch a caracal.” Kleinpiet only slurred the words ever so slightly. “We’re thinking like real people here, and that won’t do. That cat has it’s own way – and last night he proved it by killing two more sheep while we were waiting at the wrong place.” (They had all fallen asleep, of course, but nobody thought it wise to correct Kleinpiet’s version of events.) “By now Vertfaan has lost ten sheep – if we don’t change our strategy, he’ll lose everything.

“We’ll stalk that cat. Follow it and then get rid of it. That’s the only way.”

This remark caused a lot of debate. Stalking a caracal would be impossible, Servaas observed. “So you think that cat is going to sit there, watching how a man with a gun sneaks up to it? They’re not that stupid.” He was right, they all agreed. Stalking had to be done subtly, cleverly.

And two more drinks later, it was Vetfaan who proposed The Plan.

“I’ve got it! We’ll do it the Bushman way.” He waited for everybody to fall silent before continuing. “Remember that movie by Jamie Uys? The Gods must be Crazy? In the second film he had this lady…” He couldn’t remember her name until Gertruida told him it was Lena Ferugia, who played the role of Dr. Ann Taylor. “Well, with a few bushes and a long stick, she fooled the ostriches to think she was one of them. That’s what we’ll do!”

“Okay. I get it.” Sarcasm dripped from Servaas’s remark. “We give you long ears and make you go meow, then that cat thinks you’re sexy. When he asks you out for a date, you grab him and stuff him into a bag. Hey, that’s so ingenious, can’t think why Gertruida didn’t suggest it hours ago.”

“Or maybe he’s a fast one and you get to have kittens!” Precilla asked for a tissue to wipe away the tears while she laughed.

“You can laugh if you want. I’ll show you.”

And Vetfaan did. He returned just before sunset with his sheep-suit. Well, it must be said that he made quite a good job of it. After stitching two sheep skins together, he draped it over his body and kept it in place with some webbing he still had from his army days. When he got down on all fours, he received a modest applause from the group in the bar.

“Nice job, Vetfaan.” Kleinpiet sniggered. “You’ll fool that cat, for sure. And hey, you don’t have to bother about the head at all. You look like a fine sheep just as you are.”

Vetfaan took that as a compliment, told them to wait up and drove off. No, he won’t need any help, thank you. He’s got a 9mm pistol and his camouflage. The cat was about to depart to kitty heaven…

***

“At least the caracal took off. I’ve checked on Vetfaan’s farm every day, and no more killing. He’ll be glad to hear that.”

“You can’t blame that poor cat, Kleinpiet.” Servaas has managed not to giggle every time they talk about Vetfaan’s misfortune. “Imagine his surprise?”

“Give the devil his due, Servaas. I don’ think even Vetfaan expected  that the caracal would be fooled so well. I mean, when he joined that flock in the darkness, baa-ing peacefully, he must have thought it was a long shot, too. And yet…”

“Ja, shame. And he didn’t even get a shot off, either.”

“Ag, come on, Servaas. If a vicious carnivore takes a bite out of your bum, it’s difficult to think about shooting. You only do running and screaming. You think the cat was surprised? I think his prey was completely thunderstruck!”

“Hey guys!” Precilla bumps open the door to Boggel’s Place. “The ambulance is on it’s way. Now, please, please don’t say anything about his bandages when he gets here. Let’s be nice…” She want’s to add ‘for a change’, but decides against it..

When Vetfaan limps from the ambulance, he heads straight for the bar. He is thirsty and in a bad mood. He doesn’t bat an eye when Servaas said he heard that somebody made a ewe-turn, and even ignored the time when Kleinpiet stepped aside to say ‘After ewe.”

But what gets his goat – in a manner of speaking – is when Servaas asks him about the way the caracal surprised him. “Didn’t you feel a bit sheepish”

Fortunately, the ambulance hasn’t left yet. The ambulance  man says it’s not serious; if Servaas keeps the ice-pack in place, that black eye will look much better tomorrow.

The Fluke

download (6)“That ram of mine is driving me crazy. Oh, he does the job all right  I suppose – another six ewes had lambs last week. The problem is two of them have only one ear – like he does. Maybe it’s not such a big thing, but it looks funny.” Kleinpiet draws a woolly sheep on the counter top with a lob-sided head and one ear.

“But that’s the ram that the jackal almost got, isn’t it? And that’s how he lost his ear?” Gertruida – because she knows everything – shakes her head. “It can’t be hereditary, Kleinpiet. It must be a fluke.”

Vetfaan is just about to chip in, when Servaas shuffles in.  The bent shoulders and furrowed brow say something about his mood and everybody falls silent for a while. You don’t fiddle with box of matches when you’re sitting on a pile of dynamite.

“There was a time,” Servaas says, “when  Rolbos was a lonely and desolate patch of arid ground, where the tumbleweeds were the only things that lived here. It was a long  time ago. In those days, before people came here, the Kruiper family occasionally hunted in the vicinity.  You know here that fountain is near Bokkop? Well, that’s where they got springbuck, gemsbok and rhinoceros.  And next to the orange River, they’d find elephant, as well. And lions, of course. Always lions. At least they’re still around. The lions, I mean.”

Annually, when the rest of Rolbos start reflecting on the events of the past year; Servaas gets all morose and depressed about the way time sifts through our fingers, much like when you try to scoop up the red Kalahari sand. And during every Christmas season, at least half of Rolbos will tell him he shouldn’t worry about it so much, he still looks as young as last year. It doesn’t work, of course. And somehow, the old man gets around to the story he always tells on his birthday – a date he never shared with anybody. In Servaas’ mind, birthdays are little signposts along your way; every one you pass, is one less you have left. According to his thinking, birthdays should not be celebrated. Rather, it’s better to keep it secret and pretend it’s still in the future, somewhere…

“In those days, the mine was still digging out sillimanite, there where the hole in Bokkop’s side is. Those were heady days, I tell you. People were young and carefree. The women were wild. And I met Siena here, who now rests under the white headstone behind our church.”

Kleinpiet glances over at Vetfaan. If they don’t stop the old man now, he’s going to have them all looking the way Vrede does when Boggel forgets to feed him. It’s a mix between accusation, depression and anger – not a good cocktail to serve before Christmas.

“Servaas, those days are thankfully past, man,” Kleinpiet tries to sound happy. “You had no TV, no newspapers and the radio only reached Upington. Now, that must have been hard. How on earth did you know what’s happening in the world out there?”

Vetfaan pumps him in the ribs, leans over, and whispers: “We still don’t have those things, Kleinpiet. Think of something else to divert him. He’ll tell us the mine captain’s story if we don’t stop him.”

Servaas ignores them. “There used to be a pub down the road, more or less where Gertruida stays now. Not an evening went by without a fist fight. That’s in the time Mankmanie busted his knee. Never walked up straight after that, not at all. It ruined his life.”

“Let him be,” Kleinpiet whispers back, “It’s almost Christmas, so if he tells the story now, it’s done for this year. Otherwise he’ll relate it nearer to Christmas and spoil an entire evening.   He’s almost at the point where Mankmanie runs off with the mine captain’s wife, leaving the captain all distraught and unhappy. And, remember, Mankmanie didn’t get that knee in a fight, it’s when the horse kicked him.” Vetfaan sits back with a resigned look and beckons for another beer. Like a good doctor would hand out painkillers, Boggel obliges.

Servaas gets all teary when he tells them how the mine captain disappeared into the Kalahari one night, vowing to find his beloved. He promised he’d look after her better in future, and not lose his temper so much anymore. People didn’t quite believe him, because of what he said he’d do to Mankmanie when he found him. And, he had promised, he’d give her that diamond he traded from the smous who always came around with sugar and tobacco.

“Yes,” Vetfaan says softly, “when he gets to the part where his wife comes back because Mankmanie also had a short temper, you must order a double Cactus for him. She arrived back in town only to discover the captain was missing. He always struggles to keep talking about how she went looking for him. It’s very sad.”

Servaas wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “They went looking for him, you know? Even had some of the Bushmen help them find his tracks, but by then the wind had blown everything away and they didn’t know where to look for him. One expedition stayed out for two weeks. Two weeks!  But nothing…”

Boggel leans over. “Have they found him yet?” he asks behind his hand. He wants to be sure to get the timing of the Cactus right. Too soon, and Servaas goes home without finishing the story. Too late, and everybody will get upset by his sobs.

“No,” Kleinpiet whispers back. “They haven’t looked in the mine’s store room yet.”

“Well,” Servaas fights to regain his composure, “so they all sat in that bar, staring silently at the ceiling, waiting for him to come back. His wife tried her best to act normal – especially after Mankmanie also returned, looking for work at the mine again. With no mine captain around, nobody knew whether to re-appoint him or not. It was awkward, I tell you. I mean, she did run off, didn’t she? And Mankmanie was the cause of everything, wasn’t he?”

“This is the best part,” Vetfaan is quite excited, “the horse is going to kick him now.” He rubs his hands together in anticipation. He loves it when a story has a moral.

“So Mankmanie took his horse and said he would fix things up again. He’ll find that mine captain if it was the last thing he does, he said. With that, he rode out of town. He didn’t tell the people he was going to stop at the mine’s store room to get supplies – that would have added stealing to his repertoire as well, and he had enough hay on his proverbial fork already. But he stopped there and broke the lock. Only the mine captain had the key, see?”

Boggel reaches over to the bottle of Cactus Jack, got the glass, and poised to pour.

“And that’s where he found the captain. The man must have been dead a long time. He was sitting behind his desk, with a bottle of peach brandy in front of him. And there, on the desk…” Servaas gets out his handkerchief to dab his eyes, “…on the desk was a letter and the diamond. The letter…” Now he swallows hard to get a grip on his emotions while the group around him exchange knowing looks.

“The letter was to his wife. Said he loved her, and he’s sorry. People said it was funny, he was always a meticulous man, but the writing on the letter was all skew and squiggly. He wrote he was in a lot of pain. And people must watch out for the mamba between the boxes back in the store. He didn’t have a lot of time – he wrote – but he hoped…”

“Ja,” Vetfaan whispers, “ he never said what he hoped for. The letter ends there. Some thought he hoped his wife would come back; others said no, he hoped Mankmanie would blow himself up with dynamite.”

Boggel starts pouring as Servaas attempts to go on. “That Mankmanie took the diamond and fled. He wasn’t sure about the mamba, but he wasn’t taking chances. His horse got such a fright when he stormed out of the building, it  reared up on it’s hind legs. And when he grabbed at the reigns, the horse kicked him. Right there.” He points at his knee.

“And the diamond, Servaas? What happened to the diamond?” Vetfaan eggs the old man on, eyes shining in expectation.

“He took it to the mine captain’s wife. Said the mine captain wanted her to have it.” Pocketing his handkerchief, he sighs as Boggel pushes the glass towards him. “And then he left. Just took the road to Grootdrink, hobbling along towards civilisation. He sold the horse, of course; said he couldn’t trust it no more.”

“And the captain’s wife remained behind?”

“Yes. It was only after the funeral she found out she was pregnant. Big scandal, it was. She wasn’t sure who the father was, you see? It could have been either of the men, how was she to know? But there you are. Such a sad story.”

Vetfaan nods. “Sure, very sad. And to think it all happened here. That poor boy must have had a terrible youth – I mean, everybody would have wondered about his father. Mankmanie was gone, the mamba got the mine captain, and the poor woman had to live with the gossip. It couldn’t have been easy.”

Servaas nods, finishes his drink, and gets up to shuffle towards the door.

“No man!” Kleinpiet gives his friend an angry look. “You interrupted his thoughts at the crucial point. You should have let him finish where she tried to sell the diamond, only to find out it’s a piece of glass.”

Vetfaan turns around to lean his elbows on the counter to stare at the old man as he disappears into the night.

“Such a sad story,” he says.

“Ja,” Kleinpiet sighs, “and his limp is getting worse every year, too.”

“It can’t be. Genetics don’t work like that.” Gertruida shakes her head.

“It’s a coincidence, Gertruida. Like my one-eared sheep. A fluke. That’s all.”

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…”

Secrets

Vetfaan stood staring at the jackal for a long time.

For several months now, something has been killing the occasional lamb and the not-so-infrequent chicken on his farm. He’s set several traps, scouted around with Vrede, and even guarded the flock in the huge kraal – but still the killings went on. Lambs, mostly, when the sheep were scattered across the barren veld of the Kalahari.

Kleinpiet suggested setting out poisoned bait, something that prompted a verbal volcano from Gertruida. The dead jackal would, in turn, poison the rest of the feeding chain – from the vultures, right through to the beetles feeding on the carcass. “You wipe out an entire eco-system by using poison, you idiot!” She apologised immediately, and then had to explain what an eco-system is. Kleinpiet hung his head in shame and ordered a round of Cactus as a peace-making gesture.

That’s why Vetfaan eventually built the box-trap. A sturdy crate; with the trapdoor triggered when the bait (a nice piece of biltong) was taken; was set up near the rocky outcrop he suspected housed the vermin. For two weeks, the jackal avoided the trap. For two weeks, Vetfaan checked the box twice a day, with no results. For two weeks, the jackal disappeared…

But now the trapdoor is closed and he can see the animal through the slats of the crate. Now it’s only a question of pointing his old Mauser at the jackal, pulling the trigger, and he’ll be free of the scourge that has been eating away at his sheep.

The jackal watches him as he walks around the trap, its frightened eyes following his every move. Vetfaan knows a lot about jackals – they usually have a mate somewhere. Unlike humans, jackals mate for life. Yet this one seemed to operate alone – the tracks around the dead sheep suggested that. Something must have happened to its partner – a hyena, a wild dog, even maybe one of the occasional lions that venture about in the Kalahari? Or old age, disease? Another farmer with a trap and a gun? Who knows?

He slots the round into the chamber of the antiquated gun. Killing a trapped animal isn’t easy. Something about it seems so cruel, so primal. I can kill you because you are trapped and I have a gun. Hooray, I am the victor! Big man with a rifle will kill the defenceless bundle of fur. Vetfaan swallows away the bitter taste in his mouth as he takes aim.

The jackal gives a last, defiant snarl.

Nature, it must be said, is often unpredictable. Take animal behaviour, for instance. You can read up all the books you want, and still not know exactly what an animal will do under certain circumstances. Books will tell you about mating and predating and gestation periods and aggressive patterns. Even so, books don’t know everything.

The jackal-in-the-trap must have realised this is the end of the road. The tunnel of white light awaits. The beetles are going to have a feast. It is, without doubt, the end…

So it simply lay down, waiting for the bullet. It even turned on its back – but maybe that was a sign of submission. Who knows?

That’s when Vetfaan saw the swollen teats. This was a lactating mother, for goodness sakes! Somewhere there is a lair, with several pups. A single mother trying to feed her offspring…

If he killed her, the pups would die. Game, set and match to the brave farmer protecting his herd… But – to let the pups die of hunger and thirst, alone in some hole somewhere? It just doesn’t seem right.

For some reason, Vetfaan is reminded of his friends in Boggel’s Place. Most of them are loners (well, Oudoom is married, but Mevrou cannot really count as a mate, can she?), and they all are doing their best to survive. They are just as defenceless as the trapped jackal – caught in the Kalahari, with nowhere to go. Maybe their cage is bigger, but still – they don’t fit in elsewhere.

Gertruida said so, once. We’re prisoners here. Yes, we argue occasionally, but we have built a trap for ourselves. Whenever I go to Upington or Calvinia, I realise how important it is to return to Rolbos. Here, we understand each other. We help one another. Outside-people don’t work like this. No, Rolbos is our trap and Boggel’s is the bait. I wouldn’t have it any other way, thank you.

“Yes, Mama,” Vetfaan tells the jackal, “the Kalahari is your trap and my sheep is the bait. It’s the way it is. I can’t change that by killing you.”

*

Vetfaan went back to town to fetch Vrede. If the jackal gave birth recently – it must have been in the two weeks while Vetfaan watched the trap – then the lair can’t be far away. Vrede found the baby jackals within an hour, barking happily when he poked his nose into the crack between two large rocks.

*

“Geez, Vetfaan, we missed you today. Gertruida gave such a nice lecture on threatened animals and how we must protect the environment. And Boggel told the most outrageous jokes!” Kleinpiet slaps Vetfaan’s shoulder and orders two beers.

Even in Rolbos, you can’t tell everybody everything. After all, this is a tough place, where survival means you have to make tough decisions sometimes.  And there is an accepted norm to take into consideration, as well. Farmers kill jackals, for instance. No exceptions. Even if they feel bad about it, that’s the rule. And if you could wipe out a whole family of jackals, you’ve saved you and your neighbours a lot of sheep…

You can’t tell them about the small little baby jackals you loaded into your pickup. About the crate on the back. About the long trip into the arid desert, to where you know about the tiny fountain next to the rocky outcrop, where the rabbit-holes are. About the way you set the family free to be what God created them to be: jackals with the instinct for survival that served them so well over the aeons of time.

You don’t tell them those things. Not if you’re a farmer with a flock of sheep and a gun.