The drought was grievous. It clung to men’s hearts and hung from their faces. Silence lay heavy. No chirp of crickets. No bird calls. Nothing, nothing at all moved in that heat. The ground baked hard and crusted open like a scabrous sore. No seeds groped down to seek rooting in the red earth changed to sand. The thorns had turned from white to black.
The land was dying.
Soentjie, alone, who lived far beyond the agterdorp, didn’t know it. If you followed the footpath past the last of the salt bushes, there you would find her. There she sat. Not idly, no not idly! She sat with her cat on her lap and her hands were never still. She wove. Her hands reached out to a pile of reeds beside her, prepared and ready. She used them to weave whatever she was making. Hats, and baskets and mats taking care not to disturb her cat. It was a wild black foot bush cat brought her as a clawing, meowing, orphaned, bedraggled fragment.
Nearby a huge spekboom twisted out from under a deep cleft in a high, flat topped rock. From the spekboom over that cleft in the rock and firmly attached, stretched a large reed mat she had woven. It was strong. Its shade sheltered them from the fiercest rays at midday.
Other than the pile of reeds, the clothes on her back and one new blanket, her possessions were an old rusted gogok, the kind that paraffin was once sold in – it now held her drinking water, and a small tot she used to skep the water. She also had a spoon, large and battered. She had two plates, white enamel with navy blue rims, a bit chipped. One plate went back to the handelaar each evening when the other came with food. The handelaar’s ma used to know her ouma and he sent the food to her. The plate was always filled to the brim with pap or whatever else was available, sometimes fat tail, or liver from his skape.
And that was Soentjie’s life. She was happy. Her shack of rusted iron broiled hot in summer and there was no warmth in it in winter so she sat and slept where she worked under the mat stretching from the rock to the spekboom…
She was happy because she did not know about the drought.
She was blind. No, not from birth. When about ten or so and who knows really what year that would have been, she had been beaten. Drunks have no sense of the way things should be done. She had been beaten badly on her head. Somehow she went blind. Her ma went to jail and didn’t come back. Her ouma had always looked after her and her oumagrootjie, so it didn’t matter about her kleurling mother not coming back. She didn’t quite understand what her oumagrootjie meant when she called her mother a kleurling.
There was something else Soentjie did. She sang. Her oumagrootjie had taught her all those old songs of the vlakte people. She sang quietly to herself. The only person who sometimes heard her was the meid the handelaar sent with food for her. But usually she knew when she was coming from a long way off and stopped.
The time she was made blind was in spring. All the old people said that year, never before had they seen the vlakte and randjies so covered in grass. And the flowers! She still saw in her head those flowers. And springbokke pronking in the haze.
Yes, she saw all that. And the vlei near the track was filled with reeds and waterblommetjies. And duck. Yes, she had liked to watch those little black ducks that flew off early with a whistling sound and came back at sunset. She remembered the ripples as their feet landed on the water. She was happy. She saw so much in her head while she sat and wove her things and sang her oumagrootjies songs….
Now though she couldn’t smell the bos anymore. Maybe it was because she was getting older. She smelt dust instead. And when she thought about it she didn’t hear the ganse honking on the vlei.
Soentjie’s cat – the name she called her one cannot write or pronounce because it had funny click sounds – well her cat sometimes brought her presents. A dried locust, a lizard, even a skilpad once quite long ago but it had a vrot smell.
Sometimes she heard the bells from the Sendingkerk across the valley, or trucks rumbling by loaded with oranges from the places where water went where people wanted it to go. The meid brought oranges for her when a bag fell, by accident, off the truck. Tizt! That was good. The handelaar was very careful about Soentjie’s money! Oh yes, she had money! That wasn’t very important to her but someone had to pay for the food she ate. All the baskets and woven things she made saw to that. These went with the agent who came down the white dust road twice a year. He took them to some sea place. Soentjie’s baskets and hats and mats were very sort after there at holiday time.
As I said, Soentjie didn’t know about the drought that was making the land die because she was blind. She did wonder though why the trucks from the planted trees didn’t drive past anymore. She used to scent the coming of those trucks, loaded with oranges or lemons or naartjies, before she heard them. She didn’t have names for those things. The meide who brought her food over the years never talked to her. They spoke different languages. It was difficult. The meide couldn’t speak hers and she kept what she knew of the meid se language to herself.
Now the week a bad smell came on the wind – the smell of dead sheep – and didn’t go away something else happened. She knew it wasn’t Zaaiman’s creaking donkey cart she heard. It was the sound of a truck, she thought.
She had never seen a modern bakkie. The sound came bouncing over the veldt and stopped. A crackly voice called out her real name. The one people who weren’t of her clan couldn’t say. The voice sounded just like the Korhaan.
She hadn’t heard her own speech since her oumagrootjie died. She kept quiet.
Translated from her language into Boer talk for baas Coetzer to understand, the voice said,
‘Soentjie, ek is jou oumagrootjie se neef. My name is Klaas. Ek werk daar onder in die vallei vir baas Coetzer. Hou gaan did met jou Soentjie?’
In English for those who don’t speak Boer, the voice said,
‘‘Soentjie, I am your great grandmother’s nephew. My name is Klaas. I work there below in the valley for baas Coetzer. How does it go with you, Soentjie?’
‘Hy en ek wil met jou praat, Soentjie. Soentjie,’ said Klaas, ‘onthou jou nog die ou liedjies wat oumagrootjie vir jou geleer het toe jou klein was?’
‘He and I want to speak with you, Soentjie. Soentjie, do you still remember the old songs you learned as a young child from great grandmother?’
‘Ja’, she said. The only word she conceded to know in the Boer tongue.
‘Ek het vir Baas Coezer gese daar ‘n lid is, ’n ou liedjie wat die droogte kan breek.’
‘I told baas Coetzer that there is a song, an old song, which can break the drought.’
‘Ken jy so ‘n liedjie?’
‘‘Do you know such a song?’
‘Dis ‘n struwe droogte Soentjie. Die skape vrek almal. Die mense is hartseer en moedeloos. Die lewe is nou bitter. Sing asseblief daardie liedjie, Soentjie?’
‘The drought is serious, Soentjie. All the sheep are dying. The people are heart sore and miserable. Life is now bitter. Please sing that song, Soentjie?’
She poured out in torrents a reply to Klaas but this is all he translated into Boer for Baas Coetzer. In English that bit was,
‘My great grandmother told me that one of those songs she taught me will bring the rain. That one I do not sing. It is not good to be wet and cold. Hot is all right. Cold is all right. Wet and cold is bad!’
So it was from Klaas, her oumagrootjie se neef that Soentjie was told as they talked back and forth and she understood, about the great drought. When they had said all they wanted, baas Coetzer and Klaas drove away over the vlakte churning up more dust clouds.
Soentjie carried on weaving her basket. She had a lot to think about. Klaas said here were no springbokke, no bye even. No voeltjies. Her oumagrootjie had told her what to do if she saw the land begin to die. But she hadn’t seen it. Her head was filled with the things she saw as a little child in the years of the rains.
In the early morning before sun rise with no one there to see her, she clambered cautiously up the rock. Bent knees, hand holds and laboriously lifted feet - the flat top of the rock was reached. Straightening, she stood with her back turned to the heat of the rising sun. She raised her blind blue eyes to the blind blue sky.
Then Soentjie began to sing the rain song.
Unseen by her a little cloud started up in the south west. Grey, soft, small, low in the sky. But she felt it was there. She saw it in her head. She sang to it. She reminded it of the Great Txixo who gave life to everything. She told the little cloud of the troubles of the small creatures because she knew the cloud was still a little cloud. She sang a love song about the things that grow and bloom and dance in the wind and sunlight after it came to visit and how they couldn’t if it stayed away.
Then as she saw in her head the cloud grow bigger, she sang how all creatures missed it.
Near sunset, the air was heavy with the tears of the sky. Soentjie remembered that the meid would be coming with her food. Groping her way, very cautiously, she began to scramble down the rock. She slipped. Her head banged, hard, and she tumbled. Instinctively she folded her small body into a ball and rolled from the rock, her fall broken by the reed mat strung from the spekboom.
Her cat with the unpronounceable name met the meid at the salt bushes. That was unusual. She hurried to where Soentjie usually sat, then turned and ran for help. She reached the sheltering back door of the handelaar se winkel in time to cringe from the first lightning bolt and thunder clap.
It was a tremendous thunder clap. Lightning forked, tore, splintered, split the dusk sky, branched, struck iron stone boulders, shimmered over the dry ground.
At last the furrowed, heavy windblown clouds which usually held back their moisture as they rolled piteously over the parched land, unloaded their burden.
The hard rain drumbeat reached crescendo, ricocheting off tin roofs. Water brommelled and swirled along the sloot, its torrent washing all before it.
It rained and rained and rained.
When Soentjie regained consciousness she saw shapes. Grey, black, white shapes. And it rained and rained and rained. It rained as it had the year her oumagrootjie died. The year Soentjie went blind.
Well into the rain washed season of that year Soentjie’s eyes fully blossomed. Klaas and Baas Coetzee took her to the sea place - where her baskets were sold. There they told her story to a skilled, renowned in fact, specialist, for he had patients from around the world. Working with him was Klaas’ grandson, now an ophthalmologist. They had also grown up in the valley. The Sendingkerk with the bells that rang, was started by the specialist’s great, great grandfather. He had taught the mense to read by carving letters out of bits of wood, rubbing them through charcoal, then printing them out!
When the bandages were taken from her eyes Soentjie could see clearly.
Already very old, she insisted on returning to her rock where her cat waited.
Now, though she found a simple proper dwelling had been built to keep her dry when it rained and warm in that, her last winter, yet she still wove under the spekboom with the cat on her lap.
Her heart felt warm – no, not because of the house. Because she could see far over the oop vlakte and, on clear nights she thought, even into the farthest places of the ruimte with the hemel se shining eyes of light. She sometimes wondered which were her oumagrootjie’s. No, her heart felt warm mostly because the spring under her rock ran again, its moisture oozing and seeping into the surrounding earth. Her drinking water was clear and pure. There was no need to skep a little each day from the gogok.
Her heart felt happy, joyously happy because just as she had kept them in her head for many years there again were all the wild things she had known and loved. And the flowers! Yes, the flowers! – purple, white and every shade of gold, yellow, orange, and red. Birds sipped at her spring and winged over her rock. Steenbokkies poised on the height before suddenly leaping away in skittish fright. The aardvark rooted about at night and the honey bird followed the bye laden with pollen from the citrus orchards in the valley. She saw just as she remembered things from childhood.
She heard once more the loud happy ringing of the Sendingkerk bells and the pickers’ song reached up to her from orchards where water went in pipes. The Big River was full and swelling like no one ever remembered except Soentjie.
It teemed with things that swam and waded and floated. Life and the river was full to over flowing like Soentjie’s old song filled heart. The land smiled again.