In the Withaak’s Shade – Intermediate Level

Leopards? – Oom Schalk Lourens said – Oh, yes, there are two varieties on this side of the Limpopo River. The chief difference between them is that the one kind of leopard has got a few more spots on it than the other kind. But when you meet a leopard in the bush, unexpectedly, you don’t usually take the time to count his spots to find out what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary. Because whatever kind of leopard it is that you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running. And that is the fastest kind.

I remember the occasion that I came across a leopard unexpectedly. And to this day I couldn’t tell you how many spots he had, even though I had all the time I needed for studying him. It happened about mid-day, when I was out on the far end of my farm, behind a small hill, looking for some missing cattle. I thought the cattle might be there because it is shady under some withaak trees, and there is soft grass that is very pleasant to sit on. I looked for the cattle for about an hour, sitting with my back against one of the trees. Then it occurred to me that I could look for them just as well, or perhaps even better, if I lay down flat. For even a child knows that cattle aren’t so small that you have to be in a high place to see them properly.

So I lay on my back with my legs crossed, and set my hat so that it would keep the sun out of my eyes. When I closed my eyes slightly the end of my boot, sticking up into the air, looked just like the top of Abjaterskop hill. In the sky above, a lonely vulture circled slowly without moving its wings. I knew that not even a calf could pass in any part of the sky between the top of my toe and that vulture without my seeing it immediately. What was more, I could go on lying there under the withaak tree looking for the cattle like that all day, if necessary. As you know, I am not the sort of farmer to sit around the house doing nothing when there is a man’s work to be done.

The more I screwed up my eyes and looked at the toe of my boot, the more it looked like Abjaterskop hill. By and by it seemed that it actually was Abjaterskop, and I could see the stones on top of it, and the bush trying to grow up its sides. In my ears there was a soft, low sound, like bees make flying among flowers on a still day. As I have said, it was very pleasant.

Then a strange thing happened. It was as though a huge cloud, shaped like an animal’s head and with spots on it, had settled on top of Abjaterskop. It seemed so funny that I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t. Instead, I opened my eyes a little more and felt glad to think that I was only dreaming. Because otherwise I would have to believe that the spotted cloud on Abjaterskop was actually a leopard, and that he was looking carefully at my boot. Again I wanted to laugh. But then, suddenly, I knew.

And I didn’t feel so glad. For it was a leopard, all right – a large, hungry looking leopard. And he was sniffing my boots as if trying to decide whether they might contain something good to eat. I was uncomfortable. I knew that nothing I could do would ever make that leopard believe that my toe was Abjaterskop. He was not that sort of leopard. I knew that without even counting the number of his spots. Instead, having finished with my boots, he started sniffing higher up. It was the most frightening moment of my life. I wanted to get up and run for it. But I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t work.

Every hunter I have come across has told me the same story about how, at one time or another, he has escaped from lions and other wild beasts. He puts it down to his cleverness in lying down and pretending to be dead, so that the animal loses interest in him and walks off. Now, as I lay there on the grass, with the leopard trying to make up his mind about me, I understood why, in such a situation, the hunter doesn’t move. It’s simply that he can’t move. That’s all. It’s not his cleverness that keeps him down. It’s his legs.

As I was thinking about this, the leopard had got up as far as my knees. He was studying my trousers very carefully, and I started getting embarrassed. My trousers were old and rather unfashionable. Also, at the knee, there was a torn place. It was from where I had climbed through a barbed-wire fence. It was the time I saw the Government tax collector coming over the hill, and had to get into the thick bush before he saw me. The leopard looked at that tear in my trousers for quite a while, and my embarrassment grew. I felt I wanted to explain about the Government tax collector and the barbed-wire. I didn’t want the leopard to think that Schalk Lourens was the sort of man who didn’t care about his personal appearance.

When the leopard got as far as my shirt, however, I felt better. It was a good shirt made of thick blue cloth. I had bought it only a few weeks ago from the Indian store at Ramoutsa, and I didn’t care how many strange leopards saw it. But, I made up my mind that I would dress better the next time I went to lie on the grass under the withaak trees looking for missing cattle. I would first polish up my shoes with sheep’s fat, and put on my black hat that I usually only wear to church. I could not permit the wild animals of the neighborhood to make fun of me.

But when the leopard reached my face I got frightened again. I knew he couldn’t think badly of my shirt. But I wasn’t so sure about my face. Those were terrible moments. I lay very still, afraid to open my eyes and afraid to breathe. Sniff-sniff, the huge creature went, and I could feel his hot breath on my face. You hear of many frightening experiences that a man has in a lifetime. I have also been in quite a few dangerous situations. But if you want something to make you suddenly old and to turn your hair white in a few moments, there is nothing to beat a leopard. Especially when he is standing over you, with his jaws at your throat, trying to find a good place to bite.

The leopard gave a deep growl, stepped right over my body, knocked off my hat, and growled again. I opened my eyes and was happy to see the animal slowly moving away. But my happiness didn’t last long. The leopard didn’t move far. Instead, he turned over and lay down next to me.

Yes, there on the grass, in the shade of the withaak, the leopard and I lay down together. The leopard lay half-curled up, on his side, with his front legs crossed, like a dog. And whenever I tried to move away he growled. I am sure that in the whole history of Groot Marico there have never been two stranger companions working together in the thankless job of looking for missing cattle.

Next day, I told my story to the farmers of the neighborhood. It was in Fanie Snyman’s front room, which was used as a post office. We were all sitting and drinking coffee, waiting for the mail truck from Zeerust.

“And how did you get away from that leopard in the end?” Koos van Tonder asked, trying to be funny. “I suppose you crawled through the grass and frightened the leopard off by pretending to be a snake.”

“No, I just got up and walked home,” I said. “I remembered that the cattle I was looking for might have gone the other way and walked over to your farm. I thought they would be safer with the leopard.”

“Did the leopard tell you what he thought of General Pienaar’s last speech to the Government?” Frans Welman asked, and they all laughed.

I told my story over several times before the truck came with our letters. Although the men present didn’t say much while I was talking, I could see that they listened to me in the same way that they listened when Krisjan Lemmer talked. And everybody knew that Krisjan Lemmer was the biggest liar in town.

To make matters worse, Krisjan Lemmer was there, too. When I got to the part of my story where the leopard lay down beside me, Krisjan Lemmer winked at me. You know that kind of wink. It was to let me know that there was now a new understanding between us, and that we could speak in future as one Marico liar to another.

I didn’t like that.

“I know just what you are thinking,” I said to them all in the end. “You don’t believe me, and you don’t want to say so.”

“But we do believe you,” Krisjan Lemmer said. “Very wonderful things happen around here. I once had a seven meter long tree snake that I named Hans. It was so attached to me that I couldn’t go anywhere without him. He would even follow me to church on Sunday. But because he didn’t care much for some of the the minister’s speeches, he would wait for me outside under a tree. It wasn’t because Hans didn’t believe in God. He had a sensitive nature. The bad things the minister said about the snake in the bible story about the Garden of Eden always made Hans feel uncomfortable. Yet he didn’t go and look for a withaak tree to lie under, like your leopard. The shade of any old tree was good enough for Hans. He knew he was only a snake, and didn’t go around trying to act as if he was someone important.”

I didn’t take notice of Krisjan Lemmer’s stupid lies. But by the end of this discussion I also began to have doubts about the existence of that leopard. I remembered strange stories I had heard of human beings that could turn themselves into animals. I am not a man who believes in such things. However, I could not shake off the feeling that what had happened was not natural.

A few days later, matters took a different turn. A huge leopard had been seen from the roadside near Abjaterskop, and then again by Mtosas on the way to Nietverdiend, and again in the long grass near the river. At first people joked about this leopard. They said it wasn’t a real leopard, but a spotted animal that had walked away out of Schalk Lourens’ dream. They also said that the leopard had come to the town to have a look at Krisjan Lemmer’s seven meter long tree snake. But afterwards, when they had found signs of him at several water holes, they had no more doubt about the leopard.

It was dangerous to walk about in the bush, they said. Exciting times followed. There was a great deal of shooting at the leopard and a great deal of running away from him. The amount of gun fire I heard in the hills reminded me a lot of the First Boer War. And the amount of running away reminded me a lot of the Second Boer War.

But always the leopard escaped unharmed. Somehow, I felt sorry for him. The way he had first sniffed at me and then lain down beside me that day under the withaak tree was a strange thing that I couldn’t understand. I thought of the bible where it is written that the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

But I also wondered if I hadn’t dreamed it all. The way in which those things had happened to me was also unearthly. The leopard began to take up a lot of my thoughts. And there was no man to whom I could talk about it who would be able to help me in any way. Even now, as I am telling you this story, I am expecting you to wink at me, like Krisjan Lemmer did.

Still, I can only tell you the things that happened as I saw them and what the rest was about only Africa knows.

It was some time before I again walked along the path that leads through the bush to where the withaak trees are. But I didn’t lie down on the grass again. Because when I reached the place, I found that the leopard had got there before me. He was lying on the same spot, half-curled up in the withaak’s shade, and his front legs were crossed as a dog’s are sometimes. But he lay very still. And even from the distance where I stood I could see the red mark on his breast where a bullet had gone.