(Cape Colony, South Africa, 1902) It is a clear day, with few clouds. They have not been on horseback for a long time. The cool morning air is pleasant on Reitz’s cheeks. He is grateful for a chance to get out of camp at last, even for a day or two. The plan is to move in a northwesterly direction for an hour or three before turning sharp west and continuing in that direction until they reach the koppie where they are to wait for Davenport.
They dismount at a clump of trees behind a small stream. They water the horses, rest in the shade. Ben looks around with interest. He points out the kaffir copper butterfly and the scavenger beetle, the sand beetle, the red-breasted jackal buzzard. Somewhere in the distance they hear a quail’s protracted cry: keeoo-keeoo. Gert Smal speaks little. He seems nervous. He chews at his thumbnail and studies the map.
During the course of the day they dismount a few more times, in the vicinity of a spring or a stream, if possible, to water the horses. Preferably in the shade, for the day is growing progressively hotter.
Reitz and Ben show a keen interest in their surroundings. Gert Smal sits on his own, studies the map, scarcely speaks to them. The dog with the yellow eyes lies beside him in the shade. Where he is able, Reitz inspects the successive soil layers in the banks of rivulets or streams. Wherever he goes, he is always on the lookout for an unusual stone, for unusual rock formations, for fossils. During the battle of Allesverloren he caught sight of a well-preserved fossil as he was lying next to an ant hill. He keeps this in his small trunk. He will send it away for identification as soon as the war is over. He is proud of this discovery; it pleased him greatly to pick it up on the battlefield.
They rest for short periods only. Gert Smal is impatient. He has come along to keep an eye on us, Reitz remarks in an undertone. Or we on him, Ben says. He seems ill at ease, says Reitz.
Gradually the landscape changes. It opens up as rocks and low scrub make way for taller grass and thorn trees, interspersed with rocky outcrops. Ben points out an unusual shrub here, a small mammal there. Guinea fowl in the grass, and even the rare Stanley bustard in the distance. Once the spoor of a jackal. Large ant hills. A blackshouldered kite circling overhead.
“Daggabush,” Ben points out, “Gert Smal’s favorite weed.” They laugh.
“Drift,” says Reitz, “place where you cross a river.”
“Dog,” says Ben, “man’s best friend.”
“Dearest,” says Reitz, “most believed person.”
“Dobba,” says Ben, “bitter veld plant.”
“Death,” says Reitz, “the end of life.”
“Death-cup,” says Ben, “a poisonous mushroom.”
“Dead end,” says Reitz, “the end of the road.”
“Deathwatch beetle,” says Ben, “small beetle that lives in old wood.”
“Death shadow,” says Reitz, “shadow cast by death.”
“Goodness, Reitz,” says Ben, “why so somber today?”
“Dead right,” says Reitz, “actually I’m dead right today, Ben.” And, indeed, he seems to have shaken off his unease and heavy-heartedness of the recent pass.
Gert Smal rides ahead, keeping a distance between them. As the day progresses, he grows more restless, consults the map more often.
Toward afternoon they come to a range of low hills that have been lying ahead of them in a semicircle. As soon as they pass through the narrow gap, they find themselves on a vast, magnificent expanse of grassland scattered with small trees. From here they have a view of the first koppie in the distance—a conspicuous landmark in the area.
As the koppie gradually looms larger, they note that the ascent will be easy, and the rocky summit will afford good shelter. Blackpiet had been right. It does not seem as if their assignment will be met by any hindrances.
When they are about a twenty-minute ride from the koppie, they pass a series of low outcrops to their left—some no more than a pile of loose boulders—with a deep donga directly ahead.
As they approach the donga, Gert Smal starts looking over his shoulder every so often. The dog begins to whine softly. Then, without warning, Gert Smal digs his heels into his horse’s flanks. The mare shoots forward; Reitz and Ben have a hard time keeping up—there has been no time for questions.
On the edge of the large donga Gert Smal reins in his horse slightly to negotiate the steep slope. Reitz and Ben are nearly on top of him.
As Gert Smal is about to descend, Reitz hears the first shots. Gert Smal’s horse takes a hit, and so does Gert Smal. The next bullet hits Reitz in the thigh. Desperately he tries to steer his horse down the slope in time. Ben is behind him. He hears more shots.
Ahead of Reitz, Gert Smal falls off his horse. The mare tries to scramble up the opposite bank. Blood is spurting from her flank. Half-way up the slope she keels over.
His own horse neighs and staggers to its feet. There is dust and milling about. Ben’s horse whinnies as it gallops past Reitz and scales the opposite bank of the donga.
When Reitz looks round, he sees Ben lying on his stomach some way behind him. Ahead of him, halfway up the slope, Gert Smal is lying on his back.
Reitz jumps off his horse. The firing has stopped. There is a deathly silence in the direction from which it came. Apart from the buzzing in his ears, it is suddenly unnaturally quiet.
Ducking and limping, he runs to Ben.
Ben! he cries.
A large pool of blood has started spreading under Ben. Reitz rolls him carefully onto his side. Then onto his back. His pulse is feeble, but Ben is alive. He has been severely wounded in the neck and in the shoulder, just below the collarbone.
Ben! he calls softly. Can you hear me?
Ben shows no reaction. Reitz takes off his jacket, puts it under Ben’s head. He takes off his shirt, rips out the sleeves, and tears them into strips. With these bandages he tries his best to stop the bleeding. As Ben is bleeding profusely, it is an almost impossible task. He is pale and cold. At the same time Reitz is trying to staunch the bleeding in his own leg.
For the time being Reitz leaves Gert Smal lying on the opposite slope.
The sun is still hot. He has to get Ben into the shade. Higher up the bank is a ledge, with a few sparse shrubs that will offer some shelter. Carefully Reitz places his hands under Ben’s arms. Slowly, laboriously, he drags him up the bank.
The ledge is wide enough. He makes Ben as comfortable as possible in the meager shade. He wipes Ben’s face with a piece of cloth. He tries to get him to swallow some tepid water from his drinking bottle. He himself takes only a few sips of the precious liquid.
Ben’s eyes are half open. He does not seem to see Reitz. His breathing is shallow and uneven. His brow is cold.
Reitz rips handfuls of dry grass from the tufts that grow on the bank and uses them, along with the bandages torn from his shirt, to try and stop the bleeding.
He watches over Ben. He watches his slightest movement. He talks to him. He tries to make him take some water. From time to time Ben groans softly. The blood is no longer spurting, but the bandages are saturated.
The pain in Reitz’s leg is severe. His horse seems to have wandered off along the donga. He has no time to look for it now.
When the sun begins to set, he moves down the slope with difficulty.
There is nothing he can do for Gert Smal on the opposite bank. There is a round bullet hole in the side of his head. His eyes are open but expressionless. His mouth is fixed in a sneer. His upper lip is withdrawn in a grimace exposing the eye teeth. Blood from his nose and mouth have congealed under his head. Blowflies are caked on his face. The day has been hot.
He takes Gert Smal by the feet and drags him a short distance down the slope. He leaves him lying in a natural inlet in the bank, formed by two vertical earth walls. It takes a great deal of effort to retrieve Gert Smal’s bandolier. He takes the compass, but cannot find the map. He looks for something to cover Gert Smal’s face, for he has nothing with him that he can use. He piles tufts of grass, loose leaves, and twigs on the dead man—uncanny to be covering Gert Smal’s face like that. Using first his hands and later a sizable rock, he scrapes together loose sand and clods and heaps them over Gert Smal. He tries to cover the body as best he can. It is hard work, for the soil is dry, he is in pain and every now and then he pauses to see if Ben is still lying undisturbed on the opposite bank. It takes Reitz a long time to cover the dead man. Then he collects every large stone in the vicinity that he is able to carry, and stacks it on the scant mound. Anything that will stop scavengers from unearthing the body. Pain and exhaustion cause him to rest frequently. At last the task is completed.
Goodbye, Gert, he says. Rest in peace.
There is no sign of the dog with the yellow eyes.
He leaves the dead horse lying further up the slope.
Vultures are circling in the sky overhead and the crows never let up their brazen clamoring: kraa–kraa.
He is anxious to return to Ben.
The sun goes down. Darkness falls. The first stars appear. The moon rises. A plover calls. Later a jackal howls. Scavengers begin to descend on the dead horse. Ben, says Reitz, don’t give up. Ben’s eyes look shallow and glazed.
Reitz props himself on the rocky slope beside Ben. It is cold. Should he build a fire? Devise a shelter from the scant branches? He is numb with pain and cold. He does not sleep, but dozes off for brief periods. There are other night sounds. A major scavenging feast at the horse’s carcass higher up.
Ben’s eyes are half open, but unseeing. His eyeballs gleam white in the moonlight.
The day has been hot; the night is cold. Reitz puts his jacket over Ben. He presses himself up against the earth wall. He hopes the grass clumps will provide some warmth.
The gluttonous scavenger party on the opposite bank carries on all night.
The earth before sunrise is cold and inhospitable. The opposite bank etched darkly against the blanched sky. In the early hours before dawn tears streak Reitz’s cheeks. Damn, he says. Damn it all.
The sun comes up. Ben is restless, delirious. He cannot swallow any water, because of the wound in his neck. Reitz moistens Ben’s lips; he carefully pours a little water into the corner of his mouth. His own leg aches unbearably. The day grows hot. There is a continuous stream of ants.
Reitz speaks to Ben ceaselessly, to stop him from slipping away. Ben, he says, it won’t be long now. He speaks to Ben of rocks. He speaks of mountains. He grasps at any scrap of information presenting itself, often no more than a mere fancy. Ben shows no reaction; his breathing comes shallow and fast.
The day grows hotter. The nocturnal animals have long since scurried into hiding. There are vultures and crows on the carcass on the other side. For brief moments Reitz drifts off in the soaring heat. He has feverish but lucid dreams. A name comes to him—in wonderment he exclaims: Bettie Loots. On the opposite bank he sees a lion with a huge mane.
Ben’s mouth is dry and caked with dust. The bandages are sticky. There are ants and blowflies. Now and then Reitz weeps a little. A few futile, dry tears. Ben, he says.
Reitz thinks he hears Ezekiel’s voice [from the camp]. He is overcome with joy. Do you hear it, Ben, he asks—Ezekiel’s voice? He thinks he hears Ben say: Ezekiel is the angel of death, is he not?
He is instantly awake. He sits up. Ben? he asks anxiously. He feels Ben’s forehead. Ben’s limbs are racked with spasms. His hands are ice-cold and clammy. His eyes threaten to roll back. He convulses as if he is having a fit. Reitz moistens his lips and brow with a piece of cloth.
Ben? he says. Ben seems to be struggling for breath. Reitz tries to lift him into a sitting position. His body is rigid and icy.
Please, Lord, Reitz prays, in God’s name.
Ben is deathly pale. Blue around the eyes and mouth. From time to time his body stiffens, his limbs jerk, a rattle comes to his throat.
Reitz holds him in his arms. Please, he prays, please.
He talks to Ben; he moistens his forehead; he talks incessantly. Don’t give up, Ben, he says, it won’t be long now. We’re only a day’s journey from camp. Ben! he shouts fearfully. Then he prays: Please, God, please. Ben, he says, we’re going back to fetch the journals. Then he prays: God please send someone.
Toward late afternoon Ben is calmer, his breathing less labored. Reitz lays him down carefully, placing the jacket under his head. Reitz dozes off for brief moments. He sees Gert Smal stir in his shallow grave on the opposite slope. The earth and stones move as Gert Smal stirs and turns underneath. Amazed, Reitz says to Ben: I think Gert Smal is trying to tell is us something. I think he’s trying to warn us.
As the sun begins to set, the eager yelps of scavengers fill the air.
Reitz listens attentively, for he thinks he can hear women’s voices.
With great effort, he clambers to the top of the embankment and staggers to his feet.
Some distance away he sees two women sitting in a horse-drawn cart.
He raises his arms and waves. One of the women jumps down, comes running. She shouts something over her shoulder, but her words are lost.
She slithers down the slope on her behind.
With great difficulty Reitz and the two women manage to lift Ben onto the cart. Reitz sits in the front, beside the woman who is holding the reins. In the back of the cart Ben lies with his head in the other woman’s lap. She has removed her bonnet; her hair is red.
The woman next to Reitz does not speak to him. He slumps in the seat beside her. Occasionally she glances at him, concerned, or over her shoulder at Ben.
Reitz cannot utter a word. Now and then he has a shivering fit. The woman says: It’s not far now. What is she saying? He does not know what she means.
Along the way he throws up twice. Nothing comes out. There is nothing in his stomach.
After what feels like hours they cross a wide, shallow drift. There are high banks on either side.
When they arrive at the homestead, an older woman and two young girls come through the back door.
They help Reitz across the cool threshold. His shoulders shake with cold or emotion, he cannot tell which.
He is made to lie down on a cool bed. The red-haired woman cleans the wound on his leg.
Her eyes are cool as grapes, but he notices a great sadness in them.
It’s not my real name, she says, but everyone calls me Niggie.
The two women stopped when they saw the vultures circling.
—Translated by Elsa Silke
And read “Happenstance” by Ingrid Winterbach in Little Star #2
Ingrid Winterbach is an artist and writer living in Durban, South Africa. She is the author of nine novels in Afrikaans, including five published under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen. “Happenstance” is drawn from her novel The Book of Happenstance, to be published by Open Letter later this year. The Book of Happenstance, a deeply internal reflection on love and solitude, on the face of it could not be more different from To Hell with Cronjé, which follows a pair of soldiers through a harrowing encounter with the random nihilations of war, but among their many fascinating consanguinities is a recurrent affection for natural history—as a source of consolation, a form of meditation on the nature of existence, and an expression of love.
Little Star is happy to have, by the way, another opportunity to applaud the work of Open Letter Books, which publishes not only Ingrid Winterbach, but also Juan José Saer, whose story “The Traveler” appears in Little Star #2 in a Sontag-award-winning translation by Roanne Sharp, and Jerzy Pilch, whose ebullient work, “A Thousand Peaceful Cities,” we featured on our web site back in July. See our appreciation on facebook (July 26, 2010).