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.
But all this happened only afterwards.
When I saw Drieka that night, she was leaning against a thorn-tree beside the road where it goes down to the drift. But I didn’t recognise her at first. All I saw was a figure dressed in white, with long hair hanging down loose over its shoulders. It seemed very unusual that a figure should be there like that, at such a time of night. I remembered certain stories I had heard about white ghosts. I also remembered that, a few miles back, I had seen a boulder lying in the middle of the road. It was a fair-sized boulder, and it might be dangerous for passing mule-carts. So I decided to turn back at once, and move it out of the way.
I decided very quickly about the boulder. And I made up my mind so firmly that the saddle-girth broke, from the sudden way in which I jerked my horse back on his haunches. Then the figure came forward and spoke, and I saw that it was Drieka Breytenbach.
‘Good evening,’ I said, in answer to her greeting, ‘I was just going back because I had remembered about something.’
‘About ghosts?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I replied truthfully, ‘about a stone in the road.’
Drieka laughed at that. So I laughed too. And then Drieka laughed again. And then I laughed. In fact, we did quite a lot of laughing between us. I got off my horse, and stood beside Drieka in the moonlight. And if somebody had come along at that moment and said that the predikant’s mule-cart had been capsized by the boulder in the road, I would have laughed still more.
That is the sort of thing the moon in the Marico does to you, when it is full.
I didn’t think of asking Drieka how she came to be there, or why her hair was hanging down loose, or who it was that she had been waiting for under the thorn-tree. It was enough that the moon was there, big and yellow over the veld, and that the wind blew softly through the trees, and across the grass, and against Drieka’s white dress, and against the mad singing of the stars.
Before I knew what was happening, we were seated on the grass under the thorn-tree whose branches leant over the road. And I remember that, for quite a while, we remained there without talking, sitting side by side on the grass with our feet in the soft sand. And Drieka smiled at me, with a misty sort of look in her eyes, and I saw that she was lovely.
I felt that it was not enough that we should go on sitting there in silence. I knew that a woman – even a moon-woman like Drieka – expected a man to be more than just good-humoured and honest. I knew that a woman wanted a man to be an entertaining companion for her. So I beguiled the passing moments for Drieka with interesting conversation.
I explained to her how, a few days before, a pebble had worked itself into my veldskoen, and had rubbed some skin off the top of one of my toes. I took off my veldskoen, and showed her the place. I also told her about the rinderpest, and about the way two of my cows had died of the miltsiekte. I also knew a lot about blue-tongue in sheep, and about gallansiekte and the haarwurm, and I talked to her airily about these things, just as easily as I am talking to you now.
But, of course, it was the moonlight that did it. I never knew before that I was so good in this idle, butterfly kind of talk. And the whole thing was so innocent, too. I felt that if Drieka Breytenbach’s husband, Petrus, were to come along and find us sitting there, side by side, he would not be able to say much about it. At least, not very much.
After a while, I stopped talking.
Drieka put her hand in mine.
‘Oh, Schalk,’ she whispered, and the moon and that misty look were in her blue eyes. ‘Do tell me some more.’
I shook my head.
‘I’m sorry, Drieka,’ I answered. ‘I don’t know any more.’
‘But you must, Schalk,’ she said very softly. ‘Talk to me about – about other things.’
I thought steadily for some moments.
‘Yes, Drieka,’ I said at length. ‘I have remembered something. There is one more thing I haven’t told you about the blue-tongue in sheep …’
‘No, no, not that,’ she interrupted. ‘Talk to me about other things. About the moon, say.’
So I told her two things that Braam Venter had said about the moon. I told her the green flower one, and another one.
‘Braam Venter knows lots more things like that about the moon,’ I explained. ‘You’ll see him next time you go to Zeerust for the Nagmaal. He’s a short fellow with a bump on his head, from where he fell …’
‘Oh, no, Schalk,’ Drieka said again, shaking her head, so that a wisp of her fair hair brushed against my face. ‘I don’t want to know about Braam Venter. Only about you. You think out something on your own about the moon, and tell it to me.’
I understood what she meant.
‘Well, Drieka,’ I said thoughtfully. ‘ The moon – the moon is all right.’
‘Oh, Schalk!’ Drieka cried. ‘That’s much finer than anything Braam Venter could ever say – even with that bump on his head.’
Of course, I told her that it was nothing, and that I could perhaps say something even better if I tried. But I was very proud, all the same. And somehow it seemed that my words brought us close together. I felt that a handful of words, spoken under the full moon, had made a new and witch thing come into the life of Drieka and me.
We were holding hands then, sitting on the grass with our feet in the road, and Drieka lent her head on my shoulder, and her long hair stirred softly against my face, but I looked only at her feet. And I thought for a moment that I loved her. And I did not love her because her body was beautiful, or because she had red lips, or because her eyes were blue. In that moment, I did not understand about her body, or her lips, or her eyes. I loved her for her feet, and because her feet were in the road next to mine.
And yet all the time I felt, far away at the back of my mind, that it was the moon that was doing these things to me.
‘You have got good feet for walking on,’ I said to Drieka.
‘Braam Venter would have said that I have good feet for dancing on,’ Drieka answered, laughing. And I began to grow jealous of Braam Venter.
The next thing I knew was that Drieka had thrown herself into my arms.
‘Do you think I am very beautiful, Schalk?’ Drieka asked.
‘You are very beautiful, Drieka,’ I answered slowly, ‘very beautiful.’
‘Will you do something for me, Schalk?’ Drieka asked again, and her red lips were very close to my cheek. ‘Will you do something for me, if I love you very much?’
‘What do yo want me to do, Drieka?’
She drew my head down to her lips, and whispered hot words in my ear.
And so it came that I thrust her from me, suddenly. I jumped unsteadily to my feet. I found my horse and rode away. I left Drieka Breytenbach where I had found her, under the thorn-tree by the roadside, with her hot whisperings still ringing in my ears, and before I reached home, the moon had set behind the Dwarsberge.
Well, there is not much left for me to tell you. In the days that followed, Drieka Breytenbach was always in my thoughts. Her long, loose hair, and her lips, and her feet that had been in the roadside sand with mine. But if she really was the ghost that I had at first taken her to be, I could not have been more afraid of her.
And it seemed singular that, while it had been my words, spoken in the moonlight, that had helped to bring Drieka and me closer together, it was Drieka’s hot breath, whispering wild words in my ear, that had sent me so suddenly from her side.
Once or twice, I even felt sorry for having left her in that fashion.
And later on, when I heard that Drieka Breytenbach had gone back to Schweizer-Reneke, and that her husband had been shot dead, with his own Mauser, by one of his own farm workers, I was not surprised. In fact, I had expected it. Only it did not seem right, somehow, that Drieka should have got a farm worker to do the thing that I had refused to do.