From ‘Starlight on the Veld’ in Mafeking Road
by Herman Charles Bosman
When the fires were piled high with wood, Jan Ockerse again said that it was a funny night, and once more started talking about the stars.
‘What do you think sailors do at sea, Schalk,’ he said, ‘if they don’t know the way and there aren’t any other ships around from which they can ask?’
‘They’ve got it all written down on a piece of paper with a lot of red and blue on it,’ I answered. ‘And there are black lines that show you the way from Cape Town to St Helena. And figures to tell you how many miles down the ship will go if it sinks. I went to St Helena during the Anglo-Boer War.
‘You can live in a ship just like an ox-waggon. Only, a ship isn’t so comfortable, of course. And it’s further between outspans.’
‘I heard, somewhere, that sailors find their way by the stars,’ Jan Ockerse said. ‘I wonder what people want to tell me things like that for.’
He lay silent for a while, looking up at the stars, and thinking.
‘I remember one night when I stood on Annie Steyn’s stoep, and spoke to her about the stars,’ Jan Ockerse said later. ‘I was going to trek with the cattle to the Limpopo because of the drought. I told Annie that I would be away until the rains came, and I told her that every night when I was gone, she had to look at a certain star and think of me. I showed her which star. Those three stars there, that are close together in a straight line. She had to remember me by the middle one, I said.
‘But Annie explained that Willem Mostert, who had trekked to the Limpopo about a week before, had already picked that middle star for her to remember him by.
‘So I said, all right, the top star would do.
‘But Annie said that one already belonged to Stoffel Brink.
‘In the end I agreed that she could remember me by the bottom star, and Annie was still saying that she would look at the lowest one of those three stars every night and think of me, when her father, who seemed to have been listening behind the door, came onto the stoep and said: “What about cloudy nights?” in what he supposed was a clever sort of way.’
‘What happened then?’ I asked Jan Ockerse.
‘Annie was very annoyed,’ he replied. ‘She told her father that he was always spoiling things. She told him that he wasn’t a bit funny, really, especially as I was the third young man to whom he had said the same thing. She said that no matter how foolish a young man might be, her father had no right to make jokes like that in front of him.
‘It was good to hear the way Annie stood up for me. Anyway, what followed was a long story.
‘I came across Willem Mostert and Stoffel Brink by the Limpopo. And we remained together there for several months. It must have been an unusual sight for a stranger to see three young men sitting around the campfire, every night, looking up at the stars.
‘We got friendly, after a while, and when the rains came the three of us trekked back to the Marico. And I found, then, that Annie’s father had been right. About the cloudy nights, I mean.
‘For I understood that it was on just such a sort of night that Annie had run off to Johannesburg with a bywoner who was going to look for work on the mines.’
Jan Ockerse sighed, and returned to his thinking.
But with all the time that we had spent in talking and sleeping, most of the night had slipped away. We kept only one fire going now, and Jan Ockerse and I took turns in putting on the wood.
It gets very cold just before dawn, and we were both shivering.
‘Anyway,’ Jan Ockerse said after a while, ‘now you know why I am interested in stars. I was a young man when this happened. And I have told very few people about it. About seventeen people, I should say. The others wouldn’t listen.
‘But 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 …’