by Herman Charles Bosman
There is a queer witchery about the moon when it is full – Oom Schalk Lourens remarked – especially the moon that hangs over the valley of the Dwarsberge in the summertime. It does strange things to your mind, the Marico moon, and in your heart are wild and fragrant fancies, and your thoughts go very far away. Then, if you have been sitting on your front stoep, thinking these thoughts, you sigh and murmer something about the way of the world, and carry your chair inside.
I have seen the moon in other places besides the Marico. But it is not the same there.
Braam Venter, the man who fell off the Government lorry once, near Nietverdiend, says that the Marico moon is like a woman laying green flowers on a grave. Braam Venter often says things like that. Particularly since the time he fell off the lorry. He fell on his head, they say.
Always when the moon shines full like that, it does something to our hearts that we wonder very much about and that we never understand. Always it awakens memories. And it is singular how different these memories are with each one of us.
Johannes Oberholtzer says that the full moon always reminds him of one occasion when he was smuggling cattle over the Bechuanaland border. He says he never sees a full moon without thinking of the way it shone on the steel wire-cutters that he was holding in his hand when two mounted policemen rode up to him. And the next night Johannes Oberholtzer again had a good view of the full moon; he saw it through the window of the place he was in. He says the moon was very large and very yellow, except for the black stripes in front of it.
And it was in the light of the full moon that hung over the thorn-trees that I saw Drieka Breytenbach.
Drieka was tall and slender. She had fair hair and blue eyes, and lots of people considered that she was the prettiest woman in the Marico. I thought so, too, that night I met her under the full moon by the thorn-trees. She had not been in the Bushveld very long. Her husband, Petrus Breytenbach, had met her and married her in the Schweizer-Reneke district, where he had trekked with his cattle for a while during the big drought.
Afterwards, when Petrus Breytenbach was shot dead with his own Mauser by a worker on his farm, Drieka went back to Schweizer-Reneke, leaving the Marico as strangely and as silently as she had come to it.
And it seemed to me that the Marico was a different place because Drieka Breytenbach had gone. And I thought of the moon, and the tricks it plays with your senses, and the stormy witchery that it flings at your soul. And I remembered what Braam Venter had said, that the full moon is like a woman laying green flowers on a grave. And it seemed to me that Braam Venter’s words were not so much nonsense, after all, and that worse things could happen to a man than that he should fall off a lorry on his head.
And I thought of other matters.
‘I saw her again, Oom Schalk,’ he said, ‘I saw her last night. In a surpassing loveliness. Just at midnight. She came softly across the veld towards my tent. The night was warm and lovely, and the stars were mad and singing. And there was low music where her white feet touched the grass. And sometimes her mouth seemed to be laughing, and sometimes it was sad. And her lips were very red, Oom Schalk. And when I reached out with my arms, she went away. She disappeared in the maroelas, like the whispering of the wind. And there was a ringing in my ears. And in my heart there was a green fragrance, and I thought of the pale asphodel that grows in the fields of paradise.’
‘I don’t know about paradise,’ I said, ‘but if a thing like that grew in my mealie-lands, I would pull it up at once. I don’t like this spook nonsense.’
I then gave him some good advice. I told him to beware of the moon, which was almost full at the time. Because the moon can do strange things to you in the Bushveld, especially if you live in a tent and the full moon is overhead, and there are weird shadows among the maroelas.
The berries of the karee-boom (Oom Schalk Lourens said, nodding his head in the direction of the tall tree whose shadows were creeping towards the edge of the stoep) may not make the best kind of mampoer that there is. What I mean is that karee brandy is not as potent as the brandy you distil from moepels or maroelas. Even peach brandy, they say, can make you forget the rust in the corn quicker than the mampoer you make from karee berries.
But karee-mampoer is white and soft to look at, and the smoke that comes from it when you pull the cork out of the bottle is pale and rises up in slow curves. And in time of drought, when you have been standing at the borehole all day, pumping water for the cattle, so that by evening the water has a bitter taste for you, then it is very soothing to sit on the front stoep, like now, and to get somebody to pull the cork out of a bottle of this kind of mampoer. Your hands will be sore and stiff from the pump-handle, so that if you try and pull it out, the cork will seem as deep down in the bottle as the water in the borehole.
Many years ago, when I was a young man, and I sat here, on the front stoep, and I saw that white smoke floating away slowly and gracefully from the mouth of the bottle, and with a far-off fragrance, I used to think that the smoke looked like a young girl walking veiled under the stars. And now that I have grown old, and I look at that white smoke, I imagine that it is a young girl walking under the stars, and still veiled.
I have never found out who she is.
‘Always, on a clear night, when I see those bright stars in a row, I look for a long time at the lowest star, and there seems to be something very friendly about the way it shines. It seems to be my star, and its light is different from the light of the other stars … and you know, Schalk, Annie Steyn had such red lips. And such long, soft hair, Schalk. And there was that smile of hers.’
Afterwards the stars grew pale and we started rounding up the donkeys and got ready to go. And I wondered what Annie Steyn would have thought of it, if she had known that, during all those years, there was this man, looking up at the stars on nights when the sky was clear, and dreaming about her lips and her hair and her smile. But as soon as I reflected about it, I knew what the answer was also. Of course, Annie Steyn would think nothing of Jan Ockerse. Nothing at all.
And, no doubt, Annie Steyn was right.