Yellow Moepels – Intermediate Level

If ever you spoke to my father about witch-doctors (Oom Schalk Lourens said) he would always relate one story. And at the end of it he would explain that, while a witch-doctor could tell you what was going to happen to you in the future from the bones, at the same time he could only tell you the things that didn’t matter. My father used to say that the important things were as much hidden from the witch-doctor as from the man who listened to him.

My father said that when he was sixteen he went with his friend Paul, a youth of about his own age, to a black witch-doctor who they had heard was very good at throwing the bones.

This witch-doctor lived alone in a mud hut. While they were still on the way to the hut the two youths laughed and joked, but as soon as they got inside they were deeply affected by feelings of fear and wonder. The man was very old with many lines on his face. He had on a strange head-dress made up from the tails of different wild animals.

You could tell that the boys were frightened as they sat there on the floor in the dark. My father, who had meant to hand the witch-doctor only a small piece of tobacco, gave him a whole roll. And Paul, who had said, when they were outside, that he was going to give him nothing at all, actually handed over his hunting knife.

Then the old man threw the bones. He threw first for my father. He told him many things. He told him that he would grow up to be a good burgher, and that he would one day be very rich and successful. He would have a big farm and many cattle and two wagons.

But what the old man did not tell my father was that in years to come he would have a son, Schalk, who could tell better stories than any man in the Marico District.

Then the old man threw the bones for Paul. For a long while he was silent. He looked from the bones to Paul, and back to the bones, in a strange way. Then he spoke.

“I can see you go far away, young master,” he said, “very far away over the great waters. Away from your own land, young master.”

“And the veld?” Paul asked. “And the mountains and plains?”

“Yes, and away from your own people,” the witch-doctor said.

“And will I . . . will I . . .”

“No, young master,” the old man answered, “you will not come back. You will die there.”

My father said that when they came out of that hut Paul Kruger’s face was very white. That was why my father used to say that, while a witch-doctor could tell you true things, he could not tell you the things that really mattered.

And my father was right.

Take the case of Neels Potgieter and Martha Rossouw, for example. They became engaged to be married just before the big meeting at Paardekraal after Britain took over the Transvaal. Some of those who didn’t want to fight said that we shouldn’t be too upset because now we won’t have to pay taxes. When our leaders pointed out that we would probably go on paying taxes just the same, but this time to Britain, everybody knew that it was war.

Neels Potgieter and I were in the same army unit.

It was arranged that the burghers of the neighbourhood should gather at the lieutenant’s house. Instructions had also been given that no women were to be present. There was much fighting to be done, and this final goodbye was likely to make the men feel uncomfortable.

However, as always, the women came. And among them was Neels’s wife to be, Martha Rossouw. And also there was my sister, Annie.

I shall never forget that scene in front of the lieutenant’s house. It was early morning. There were still shadows on the mountain side, and a thin wind blew through the grass. We had no priest there; but an elder of the church, with two gun belts across his chest, and a rifle in his hand, said a few words. He was a strong and simple man, with no great gifts of public speaking. But when he spoke about the Transvaal we could feel what was in his heart, and we took off our hats in silence.

And it was not long afterwards that I again took off my hat in much the same way. Then it was at Majuba Hill. It was after the battle, and the elder still had his two gun belts around him when we buried him at the foot of the hill.

But what affected me most was the prayer that followed the elder’s brief address. In front of the lieutenant’s house we knelt, each burgher with his rifle at his side. And the women knelt down with us. And the wind seemed very gentle as it slowly moved the tall grass; very gentle as it blew over the heads of the men and lightly moved the hats and skirts of the women; very gentle as it carried the prayers of our nation over the veld.

After that we stood up and sang a hymn. The ceremony was over. The servants brought us our horses. And, dry-eyed and without saying a word, each woman sent her man off to war. There was no crying.

Then, as our soldiers always do when going off to fight, each man fired a shot into the air.

“Forward, burghers,” came the lieutenant’s order, and we rode off quickly down the road in twos. But before we left I had heard Neels Potgieter say something to Martha Rossouw as he leant down off his horse and kissed her. My sister Annie, standing beside my horse, also heard.

“When the moepels are ripe, Martha, I will come to you again.”

Annie and I looked at each other and smiled. It was a pretty thing that Neels had said. But then Martha was also pretty. More pretty than the trees that bore those yellow moepels, I thought – and more wild.

I was still thinking of this when our unit had passed over the hill, in a long line, on our way to the south, where Natal was, and the rest of the army, and Majuba.

This was the war that saw the battles of Bronkhorstspruit and Laing’s Nek. You have no doubt heard many accounts of this war, some of them truthful, perhaps. For it is a strange thing that, as a man grows older, and looks back on fights that he has been in, he keeps on remembering, each year, more and more of the enemy that he has shot.

Klaas Uys was a man like that. Each year, on his birthday, he remembered one or two more British soldiers that he had killed. Then he would get up straight away and put another few V-shaped cuts in the wood part of his rifle, along the barrel. And he said his memory was getting better every year.

All the time I was away at war, I received only one letter. That came from Annie, my sister. She said I was not to take any risks, and that I must keep far away from the English, especially if they had guns. She also said I was to remember that I was a white man, and that if there was any dangerous work to be done, I had to send a black man out to do it.

There were more things like that in Annie’s letter. But I had no need of her advice. Our captain was a God-fearing man who was full of clever tricks to keep us alive. He knew even better ways than Annie did for keeping out of range of the enemy fire.

But Annie also said, at the end of her letter, that she and Martha Rossouw had gone to a witch-doctor. They had gone to find out about Neels Potgieter and me. Now, if I had been at home, I would not have permitted Annie to take part in such foolishness.

Especially as the witch-doctor said to her, “Yes, missus, I can see Mister Schalk. He will come back safe. He is very clever, Mister Schalk. He lies behind a big stone, with a dirty brown blanket pulled over his head. And he stays behind the stone until the fighting is finished – quite finished.”

According to Annie’s letter the witch-doctor told her a few other things about me, too. But I won’t bother to repeat them now. I think I have said enough to show you how evil that old man was. He not only took advantage of the trust of a simple girl, but he also tried to be funny at the expense of a young man who was fighting for his country’s freedom.

What was more, Annie said that she recognised it was me right away, just from the description of that blanket.

To Martha Rossouw the witch-doctor said, “Mister Neels will come back to you, missus, when the moepels are ripe again. As the sun goes down he will come.”

That was all he said about Neels. And there wasn’t very much in that, anyway, seeing that Neels himself – except for the bit about the sun going down – had said the very same thing the day the unit set out for the war. I suppose that the witch-doctor had been too busy thinking up mean and foolish things about me to be able to give any attention to Neels Potgieter’s situation.

But I didn’t mention Annie’s letter to Neels. He might have wanted to know more than I was willing to tell him. More, even, than Martha was willing to tell him – Martha of the wild heart.

Then, at last, the war ended, and over the Transvaal the Vierkleur flag waved again. And the army units went home by their different ways. And our leaders began the old arguments as to who should be president. And, everywhere, except for a number of lonely graves on hillsides and plains, things were as they had been before the British came.

It was getting on towards evening when our small band rode over the hill again, and once more came to a stop at the lieutenant’s house. A message had been sent in advance to announce our coming. From far around women and children and old men had gathered to welcome their victorious burghers back from the war. And there were tears in many eyes when we sang, “Forward, Burghers, Forward”.

And the moepels were ripe and yellow on the trees.

And as the sun was going down Neels Potgieter found Martha Rossouw and kissed her, just as the witch-doctor had said. But there was one important thing that the witch-doctor had not told. It was something that Neels Potgieter did not know, either, just then. And that was that Martha did not want him any more.