Unto Dust – Intermediate Level
I have noticed that when a young man or woman dies, people get the feeling that there is something beautiful and touching in the event. And that it is different on the death of an old person. The idea, say, of a girl of twenty being lowered into a grave, brings out a sweet thoughtfulness. It makes people say all kinds of romantic words. She died young. She was so full of life and so fair. She was a flower that dried up and died before it bloomed. It all seems so fitting and beautiful. So it is no wonder that people get angry when the police start asking about farm chemicals.
But when you have grown old, nobody is very much interested in the manner of your dying. Nobody except you, that is. And I think that your past life has got a lot to do with the way you feel when you get near the end of your days. I remember Andries Wessels when he was lying on his bed close to death. He kept on telling us how he had lived the good life from his earliest years. It was because of this, he said, that he could calm his mind as the time got nearer for him to leave behind his earthly cares. And I certainly never saw a man breathe his last more peacefully. Right up to the end he kept on talking softly to us about how happy he was. He said he could hear angels singing all around him.
Just before he died, he told us that he could even see the angels. They were average sized, he said, and they had horns and carried long forks. It was obvious that Andries Wessels’s ideas were getting a bit mixed up by then. But all the same I never saw a man die in a more peaceful way.
Once, shortly after the rainy season in the Eastern Transvaal, I was in a high fever. I was so sick that thought I might die. While I was sick I had this bad dream. It seemed that the whole world was a big cemetery. I thought it covered the earth itself, and not just those little family cemeteries you see on farms here and there. This dream worried me a great deal. I was very glad, when I got better, to think that our people had special places on our farms for white people to be laid to rest in a Christian way. This was much better, I thought, than having to be buried just anyhow, along with a dead wild cat, maybe, or a Bushman with a clay pot, and things.
When I mentioned this to my friend, Stoffel Oosthuizen, he fully agreed with me. There were people who talked in a fancy way of death as the great leveller, he said. And those fancy-speaking people went as far as to say that everyone was made of the one family by death. He would like to see those things proved, Stoffel Oosthuizen said. After all, that was one of the reasons why our people came to the Transvaal, he said. It was to get away from the British. They wanted to give the vote to any coloured person walking about with thick curly hair and no shoes on his feet.
The first time he heard that sort of talk about death making us all equal, Stoffel Oosthuizen knew that something was wrong. It sounded like part of a speech made by one of those politicians who want to change things, he said.
I found something very comforting in Stoffel Oosthuizen’s words.
Then, to explain his point, Stoffel Oosthuizen told me a story. It was about something that happened in one of the Transvaal Kafir wars. I don’t know whether he told the story incorrectly, or whether it was just that kind of story. Anyway, by the time he had finished, I still wasn’t sure about it all.
“You can stop at the Welman farm and see Hans Welman’s grave any time you are passing,” Stoffel Oosthuizen said. “The headstone is weathered by now, of course, seeing how long ago it all happened. But you can still read what is written on it.”
“I was with Hans Welman on that morning when he fell. Our army unit had been attacked by a large group of kafirs hiding in some trees. We were trying to get away, and I could do nothing for Hans Welman. Once, when I looked round, I saw a tall kafir bending over him and pushing a spear into him. Shortly afterwards I saw the kafir taking off Hans Welman’s clothes. A yellow kafir dog was barking excitedly around his black owner. I was in great danger myself, with thirty or forty other kafirs making straight for me on foot through the bush. However, the anger I felt at the sight of what that tall kafir was doing made me risk a last shot. Stopping my horse, and taking aim as best I could, I fired at him. My luck was in. I saw the kafir fall forward beside the naked body of Hans Welman. Then I kicked my horse and raced away at full speed, with the closest of the other kafirs already almost upon me. The last I saw was the yellow dog running up to the kafir. I had killed him, as we were to learn later.
“As you know, that kafir war lasted a long time. There were few large battles. Mainly, what took place were fights in the bush between small groups of men, like the one in which Hans Welman lost his life.
“After about six months, quiet of a sort returned to the Marico and Zoutpansberg districts. Then the day came when I went out, in company of a handful of other men, to bring back the remains of Hans Welman. His widow asked us to go so that he could be properly buried in the little cemetery on their farm. We took a coffin with us on a farm cart.
“We located the scene of the attack without difficulty. Indeed, Hans Welman had been killed not very far from his own farm. He and his family, along with others from that part, had to leave their farms during the time that the trouble with the kafirs had lasted. We drove up to the spot where I remembered having seen Hans Welman lying dead on the ground, with the tall kafir next to him. From a distance I again saw that yellow dog. He ran away into the bush at our approach. I couldn’t help admiring the animal’s loyalty. Even though it was given to a dead kafir.
“We now found ourselves in an unusual situation. We saw that all that was left of Hans Welman and the kafir were pieces of sun-dried skin and parts of their skeletons. The sun and wild animals and birds had done their work. There was a pile of human bones, with here and there leathery pieces of blackened skin. But we could not tell which was the white man and which the kafir. To make it still more difficult, a lot of bones were missing. They had no doubt been taken away by wild animals to their hiding places in the bush. Another thing was that Hans Welman and that kafir had been just about the same size.”
Stoffel Oosthuizen stopped speaking for a moment. I tried to imagine the situation. And I realised just how those men must have felt about it. They wanted to bring the remains of a Transvaal burgher home to his widow for Christian burial. But there could have been a lot of kafir bones mixed up with him. And they would have to lie together in the same grave for the rest of time.
“I remember one of our party saying that that was the worst of these kafir wars,” Stoffel Oosthuizen continued. “If it had been a war against the English, it would not have been so much of a problem. It wouldn’t have mattered if part of a dead Englishman had got lifted into that coffin by accident,” he said.
It seemed to me that this was the kind of story you would only find in Africa. Stoffel Oosthuizen said that they spent almost a whole afternoon trying to get the remains of the white man sorted out from the kafir. By the evening they had laid all they could find of what seemed like Hans Welman’s bones in the coffin. The rest of the remains they buried on the spot.
Stoffel Oosthuizen added that it did not matter what the difference in the colour of their skin had been. It was impossible to say that the kafir’s bones were less white than Hans Welman’s. Nor was it possible to say that the kafir’s sun-dried skin was any blacker than the white man’s. Alive, you couldn’t go wrong in telling the difference between a white man and a kafir. Dead, you had great difficulty in telling them apart.
“Naturally, we all felt very bitter,” Stoffel Oosthuizen said. “But our growing anger was something that we couldn’t quite explain. Afterwards, several other men who were there that day told me that they had the same feelings that I did. They wanted somebody – just once – to make a remark such as ‘in death they were not divided’. Then you would have seen a sudden and possibly violent expression of our feelings. Nobody did say anything like that, however. We all knew better. Two days later, a funeral service was held on the Welman farm. Shortly afterwards the headstone was added that you can still see there.”
That was the story Stoffel Oosthuizen told me after I was well again after the fever. It was a story, as I have said, that had in it features you would only find in Africa. But it brought me no peace in my thoughts. Especially when Stoffel Oosthuizen spoke of how he had occasion one night to pass that quiet cemetery on the Welman farm. It was a clear night and the stars were shining. Something jumped up from the pile of earth beside the headstone. It gave him quite a turn, he said. For the third time – and in that way – he came across that yellow kafir dog.