Chapter 13: The Water Supply
The Water Supply
“It was during the quietest hours at night that the fierceness of the fight increased in its frenzy. I could distinctly hear the unceasing alarm calls of the soldiers, a sound which aroused, even in me, a feeling of terrible anxiety. My electric searchlight revealed the restless stream constantly passing back and forth; their fate seemed to be inevitable. Nothing could turn them from their purpose, and no external threat could distract them. The death of a thousand individuals made not the least impression on that living stream.I began to realize the full extent of what the struggle for existence really means in nature.”Eugéne Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
I was not the only restless spirit in the campsite that night. As I paced outside of Marais’ hut, waiting for the moment when I might be allowed in, a barefoot Gurdjieff crept outside in his long white
nightshirt. I crouched down next to the hut and
watched him as he scanned the area with his battery torch, casting a light over
the dark campsite, stepping carefully, mindful of his fleshy feet. He seemed to
be looking for something; perhaps Georgette, maybe Marais or perhaps he was
simply confirming his lurid assumptions. Whatever ground he had covered in his
conversations with Maurice masquerading in an interest in Arséne Lupin was
unknown to me or at least it would be better disclosed in the light of day (or
not at all.) For it had only been a ruse to extract Maurice from the area in an
effort to leave Georgette alone with Marais to see what might galvanize in the
alchemy between Georgette and Marais and the fire. Gurdjieff’s light flared in
my face as he discovered me beside the hut. The sudden stream of light in my
eyes jarred me. My retinal reflectors must have reflected back to him for he
seemed momentarily spooked by what must have looked like floating green light
dots in the night.
|G.I. Gurdjieff with animals|
“Ah! You are awake too, eh, mongrel? So the lady is inside with him, huh? No surprise. She dirty lady. You come with me. I let you sleep with me.”
He paused, moving the torch back and forth from me to the path that would take us to what I assumed was the hut where he had been sleeping. After 2 or 3 rounds of this, the light eventually landed on me. I didn’t budge during this annoying flashing of light. Did he think I’d actually go with him? Did he imagine that we would play chess after inviting me to his bed, like so many of the initiates he had coaxed to his room? There was no way I’d even entertain the idea of sleeping with Gurdjieff. As frightened as I was of what might be just beyond the campsite whether snakes, hyenas, wild cats or a vengeful gnu, nothing frightened me more than being left alone with Gurdjieff. Being an intelligent man in his way, he surmised the situation pretty quickly.
“Okay. Suit yourself, mongrel. You stay alone.”
He walked back to the glowing embers of the campfire, searching for something in the area around the log where had sat with Marais, until he found what he was looking for: the bottle of vodka. He shined his light on the bottle, observing what was left. Sighing at the paltry remains, seeing that Georgette had taken more than what he deemed “her share,” he chuckled to himself as he examined the evidence in the area: the bottle, the dirty plates and crumpled napkins stained with lip rouge left behind on the log. He was able to easily reconstruct the events that had taken place on that log.
Then he did an odd thing. He shoveled a bit of the cooled, white ash from the extinguished campfire with his hands into the enamel plate that Marais had served the gnu meat. He then poured vodka into the plate and stirred the mixture with his forefinger until it became a liquid paste and then applied the paste to his face, his arms, and his legs and over any skin that was exposed. With his white ashen skin and dressed in his long white nightshirt and cap, he could have easily been mistaken for a ghost. His dangerous dark eyes were irradiated by the contrast of the pallid white of his face. Those eyes. They were like deep caves that led into a treacherous place. The vision of Gurdjieff was reminiscent of a Dicken’s novel; more specifically, the image of the ghost of Jacob Marley, clanking his chains, bringing a warning of retribution to Ebenezer Scrooge. The sight shook me at my core.
Seeing him so, I was immediately transported back to my own haunting of Maeterlinck at the end of his life when I was Golaud and this all started. I had been shining my own proverbial flashlight in his face by criticizing him and questioning him about his actions. While that was a future for Maeterlinck, for Georgette and the others, it seemed like so long ago to me, back to when I decided to make the journey back to Georgette, to find Marais and now, here I was with this ridiculous ghostly man, covered with the stench of alcohol and Earthy ash, swigging the last of the vodka, examining the bottle with his eye at the top of the bottle, shining his light through the blue glass, disbelieving that it was in fact, empty.
“Insect repellent, mongrel. Leadwood ash and vodka. They repel insects. Good idea, no?”
He dipped his finger in the little bit of the paste left and inserted it in his mouth, rubbing it over his teeth. Had he gone mad? Was he that desperate for vodka? Reading my mind he explained.
“Toothpaste!” Gurdjieff exclaimed. “I scour world and I search for esoteric knowledge. I discover many things. Stick with me, mongrel. You learn much.”
Spitting into the embers of the fire what was left of the ash and vodka paste he had swished in his ghastly mouth, the spittle sizzled in the glowing coals. Self-satisfied, like a boy at a pissing contest, Gurdjieff laughed aloud.
|Alec Guiness as Jacob Marley|
They repel dogs too, Gurdjieff, I wanted to say but of course, I was unable. Instead I stood, turning about, probably looking as if I was trying to find a more comfortable position and eventually I settled down, presenting my hind quarters to Gurdjieff, sending him a message the only way I knew how.
“Chippy, I like you. You good dog. A great beast at that and I know you not mongrel. I am mongrel. I say this. You know this. You no need answer at me. For this I know. I see you exactly as you are. You are breed of high caliber. You not need ridiculous paper to show to you or me or even Georgette and not even that bastard, Marais. You think I don’t know why you’re here? If anybody knows anything, it’s a mongrel, like me. A mongrel know where to find his dinner and other things that the well-bred morons of the world would never need to know. You know the kind that sit in ivory towers. There is nothing to fire them into action. They are impotent and limp. You have work to do, puppy. I know that. I here to annoy and pester so you finish in time. But what am I to say? You’ve been here before. So you know the drill. Stick with me, mongrel. I call you that with great respect. One mongrel… to another. You hate me. It’s okay. Hate me. It’s fuel of life. And know this, Chippy, I’m on your side. Don’t forget it. I’m on your side.”
Gurdjieff stumbled away, not exactly drunk and not exactly sober like a white ghost, rattling his chains in the night, not exactly of this world and not exactly of the next, burping, farting and making guttural sounds as he found his way with his white washed arms held out in front of him, feeling his way in the darkness, forgetting his flashlight on the log, along with his empty bottle and Marais’ unwashed enamel plate and the lipstick stained crumpled napkins that had fallen off the log smelling of perfume and meat drippings.
What could he mean by that, he was on my side? I would never suggest such a thing and would I ever really need Gurdjieff on my side? It was rather a mysterious change of attitude, after being so dismissed by him. That he knew something of my origin intrigued me but not enough to follow him back to his hut.
|Marais (R) with law partner Fanie van Wyk|
Judging by the expression on Marais face he might have been entertaining a similar delusion. As he sat on the ground next to me, he observed Georgette above him on the bed. From my vantage point the bed appeared as if it was a sacrificial altar but perhaps that was just my imagination at work, considering what I believed to have taken place earlier. We both watched her as her breasts rose up and then down again with her breath, beneath the sheer web of netting, strangely at peace in this strange place. The gypsy in Georgette allowed her to acclimate easily and make any place her home. It was enviable.
“What must it be like to sleep so soundly? And why, friend, are you awake at this hour?” Marais whispered to me as he sat cross legged on the floor, petting my head.
For a man so obviously plagued by demons, his voice was calm, even and soothing and I could not keep myself from looking into his eyes. They seemed to go on and on and there was no end to his gaze. They drew me in and I found it quite difficult to look away. At the same time, I suffered no embarrassment for my stare, which was rare for me. I was generally the first to look away.
“How interesting that your name is Chippy. I and my friend, Charlie, once shared a home in Brooklyn, a town not far from Pretoria and we had a dog named Gyppy. She was a clever bitch, a Fox Terrier. I think you might have fancied her had you known her. Oftentimes, I would hide a handkerchief when she was out of the room and wherever I would put it, and without fail, she would always find it when I let her back into the room. Those were wonderful days back in Brooklyn, back when my son, Eugene, would stay with me, and I was finally able be his Father, on occasion. And much like tonight, we’d cook outside, often roasting sweet potatoes under the coals. Our Indian cook would make us curries so strong our eyes would water and we laughed at each other while the tears flowed down our cheeks. We so happy then and we cried with joy. Curries were so important to me with the symptoms I suffered back when I was trying to stop the drug. Now I know trying to stop is pointless.”
I had been so drawn into Marais’ eyes I hadn’t noticed him reaching for a wooden box under the bed where Georgette lay sleeping. Within the box was a syringe wrapped in a worn handkerchief, which he filled with serum and injected into his arm with such finesse and professionalism, I barely noticed him doing it. As the serum entered his veins, the tension in his body began to dissipate. And then Marais smiled with a kind of euphoria and relief like a soldier that had finally returned to his home from war. So alien was the smile on his face, I barely recognized him as Marais any longer.
I have never been fond of the idea of training animals to do parlor tricks for the sole amusement of the Master and their friends. For generally, the human trainer is rewarded for the tricks, and not the performing animal performing because the conceit is that it is difficult to persuade a dumb animal to appear intelligent. I find this rather degrading. Yet hearing Marais speaking of Gyppy and sensing his fascination with her intelligence, in this case I was not insulted in the least. It was as if he devised tricks with Gyppy to understand her more, like he was performing a service specific to Gyppy’s needs. That the tricks were entertaining was of secondary importance to Marais. His experiments with Gyppy, as it seemed with all of his studies of nature, Marais sought only to understand himself better.
|Depiction of Chippy|
That was Marais’ mystique. Like Georgette, I had fallen under his spell and I found myself powerless to protest in his presence. The idea of protesting would not even arise in my mind. I found myself only too happy to oblige whatever it was that he wanted as though I had thought of myself. It wasn’t as if he had said or done anything particularly manipulative. I’m sure people could easily find themselves doing things in his presence and wonder how it was they came to do them, like they had fallen into a trance and woken up to discover that everything had changed and at the same time, they didn’t mind. His intention was that powerful. Yet he was so affable and outwardly harmless that you might assume the entire affair was your own doing and that he had nothing to do with it. There is that possibility, of course, that it was your own doing and it was through Marais that you were able to release that hidden desire. He was simply the catalyst that allowed it, whatever that thing may be, to manifest. I do not know, precisely what I thought Marais might have me do or even if I might want to be on guard for such a thing. It was simply a vague idea thought passed through my mind as I watched the netting over Georgette rise and fall with her breath.
And as I was considering this particular trait of Marais’, the stroking on my head began to lull me into a deep sleep. Before I knew it, I found my head becoming heavy and I was no longer able to keep my eyes open. All thoughts of resisting Marais had dissolved in me as quickly as the morphine that had flowed through Marais’ veins. The anxiety of the road and the apprehension of meeting Marais and the annoyance of Gurdjieff had evaporated from me. That wave of anxiety hung in the air over my head and would only be available to me after I awoke.
With my head on the ground and with my nose just beneath the bed, suddenly I found myself in the presence of a beautiful Fox Terrier named Gyppy. Together we ran across the South African veld ahead of Marais, twining in and out, weaving as we ran with complete abandon, unafraid of the landscape, free as the wind that blew against us that resounded in our pointy ears. Marais had eventually caught up to up to us, walking somewhat stiffly with a carved branch as a walking stick, like the scepter of a king that ruled over the kingdom of the wild and untamed. Breathless and panting we stopped at a river that was full of hippopotamuses; fat and shiny, like submarines submerging their girths in the water which shaded their tender skins from the pelting of the African sun. The
hippos would from time-to-time rise to the surface of the water, spraying from their nostrils in a puff. They seemed to be laughing. At what, I didn’t know.
hippos would from time-to-time rise to the surface of the water, spraying from their nostrils in a puff. They seemed to be laughing. At what, I didn’t know.
Then Marais raised his walking stick and in doing so, commanded the waters to part, a gesture that is evidently a kind of Biblical reference; one that makes absolutely no sense to me as a dog, a dog that never subscribed to any dealings with the church. But no matter. Then the waters parted, exposing the hippos and their under bellies and suddenly, I was aware that they weren’t wearing undergarments beneath the water and I felt embarrassed for them. Gyppy and I were frozen in our stances and unable to move. In this dream world I understood that we were to be witnesses to this event. As the waters continued to be uprooted, they created two walls of water on each side of the bloat of hippopotami and then, a slight panic ensued in the pod. An alarm sounded and to me it sounded as if it were the trumpet of an elephant or perhaps, I thought, maybe it was the horn of the Archangel Gabriel signaling the Day of Judgment, but there was no trace of either. Suddenly I knew the hippos would charge. Gyppy and I ran ahead, leaving Marais standing, motionless on the shore of the river. When we reached the top of a large dry hill we both turned around and saw that Marais had been trampled to death. He was lying in a semi-supine position; his feet entrenched in the sand, his knees adrift to the left and his hands over his heart.
|Bookplate design by Marais, Art by James J. Guthrie|
Her explanation didn’t help me to understand any better. This or Death? Dit of Dood somehow made more sense to me poetically. I had the sense that it had something to do with Marais’ future but was wrapped in a reference from his past. I wanted to know more, as I sought further explanation, Gyppy vanished from sight. And suddenly I felt sad. The longing in my heart created an ache, somehow familiar, painful and pleasurable to me at the same time. The yearning sensation reminded me of who I was for a brief moment and I wanted it to continue so that I could remember once the sensation had passed. But in an instant the sensation was gone.
I must have been running in my sleep when I was awakened by Georgette, redressed in the safari outfit from the day before. Marais was nowhere to be seen.
“Chippy, where are you running off to? Join me for a bit of subterfuge. We have to find our way back to Maurice, without anyone being the wiser, especially Gurdjieff. He doesn’t need to know where I slept, right?”
I stuck close to Georgette’s heel as she poked her head outside the hut, checking to see if anyone was within eyeshot. When the coast was clear, we made our move outside the hut circling behind it in an attempt to not be discovered. I enjoyed this kind of theatrical movement with Georgette, who was unaware of just how very obvious she was. We were on a stage of sorts, without an audience,“Oh Chippy, our little safari has gone awry! You may have to go for help,” announced
but that didn’t stop Georgette from performing. She stomped out a trail for us behind
the hut through the brambles that surrounded the campsite on the outskirts of
the huts, stepping over bushes and flattening tall grasses with her boots. In
her struggle to be inconspicuous, a trait Georgette was rarely able to achieve
for subtlety was not her forte, she managed to create a bigger stir than if she
had not tried so hard to be unnoticed. From the bushes she trod upon, wagtails
and sparrows rushed from their nests, creating disturbances overhead and
beneath her feet, an assortment of bugs and beetles scurried and fled like
Lilliputians from the giant boot of Georgette. It wasn’t long before Georgette got
tangled in a bramble and was unable to dislodge herself from the foliage.
Defeated, she squatted on her boots.
|Georgette with Maeterlinck's gazing ball.|
Then from beyond a large scrub Marais appeared before us, heroic and larger than life from our position on the ground. A tiny wagtail was upon his head taking the place of his hat, which had been draped behind his back with a leather cord. The bird hopped up and down on his head as if on a trampoline in the circus and it pecked at his scalp where Marais had most likely placed a few seeds. The comical sight of Marais’ bemused expression at having his head pecked was made even more surreal with Georgette squatting on the ground in her Safari attire, stuck and unable to move, snagged by a rebellious vine intent on keeping her hostage.
“There’s an easier way out of here. I’ll show you the way. What sort of gentleman would I be had I allowed you to be found out and have your reputation soiled?”
I wondered if Marais was speaking facetiously or had he no knowledge or inkling about Georgette’s character? He tucked his Goethe poetry book into the large pocket of his hunting vest and retrieved a pocketknife, cutting the vines that had entwined Georgette in their grip, freeing her and offering her his hand to help her to her feet. And all the while, the bird remained on Marais’ head, chirping and clicking and hopping, supervising the task of freeing Georgette.
“It seems you’ve disrupted her household. Let us help move her to another dwelling.” The bird hopped onto Marais finger and Marais whispered something in her ear and he placed her very gently onto another bush. It chattered and squawked but eventually she settled herself thanks to Marais’ calming touch. However, the bird did not seem to have forgiven Georgette.
“Do forgive me, birdie, for trampling your home,” Georgette apologized.
“Nothing to worry about with the wagtail, Georgette.”
It was strange to hear Marais refer to her so intimately since they had just met. But considering the events from the previous night, I could accept that they would already be on a first name basis. He went to explain.
“Wagtails have three drops of the devil’s blood in their veins. So it is impossible to kill them.”
“And here I thought you were a man of Science. What might be the origin of that tale?”
“I know it to be true as do the Natives of this land. If you require scientific evidence of the components of their blood, I’d be happy to cut it open and prove it to you.”
Very briefly Marais’ spirit turned dark, and revealed a side that was less the man of nature and perhaps more the man of the needle but he quickly recovered, feigning a crooked smile that Georgette accepted and was none the wiser for his lapse.
As he guided her to a trail he cautioned her, “You should be careful of the wagtail, though. They are the stealer of secrets. Georgette, do you have any secrets by any chance?”
“At the moment, there is a secret I am trying to conceal if I am still able but alas, most of my secrets have been found out. That is my tragedy. How about you, Eugene? You seem to be a man full of secrets.”
“That I am,” was his response. But before Georgette could delve any deeper into Marais and his secrets, we arrived at the backside of the hut belonging to Maurice.
“There will be breakfast soon. I will meet you in a few moments and we can share a meal together with everyone and pretend like nothing happened. Madame LeBlanc, I’ll look forward to that with great anticipation.”
He winked at Georgette and then at me, for I too, had shared a secret with Marais, with Georgette and the wagtail, who for all we knew had already flown over head alerting the campsite of their nighttime indiscretions. However, it was probably an indiscretion that the clever mystery writer, Maurice had already figured out and of course, while I already knew it, Georgette and Marais didn’t realize that like the wagtail, Gurdjieff, too, had stolen their secret. What that rascal might do with his knowledge was anyone’s guess.
Marais disappeared from sight like a phantom once Maurice came out of his hut wearing an undershirt with a towel around his neck. He had finished shaving and smelled of bay rum and soap, looking finely groomed, his mustache clipped to perfection. Georgette, on the other hand was disheveled, smelled of the remnants of the Citronella oil that Marais offered her and by human standards, she was in need of mouthwash, which by the standards of a dog is quite an appealing scent.
“You’ll find a fresh basin of water inside, Georgette. Scrub away the filthy details of the night before you face the others.”
Of the many qualities that I admired about Maurice, his ability to succinctly cut through nonsense, especially where his beloved Georgette was concerned, and to say what must be said while at the same time reserving judgment. This efficiency with dealing with the verbose Georgette was an art that he had no doubt acquired over their many years as siblings. It was surprising to see Georgette obey his order as swiftly as a herding dog to the shepherd’s whistle. He was direct, concise and due to Georgette’s enormous love for her brother she did not pause or question. Maurice tucked inside the hut, finding a fresh white shirt, crisp and laundered and somehow did not seem to require any pressing. How this immaculate man managed in the wilderness without the conveniences of his valet and all of the accoutrements of city life was nothing short of a miracle. He emerged from the hut looking as if he were ready for his afternoon stroll along the Champs-Élysées. A loud gasp came from within the hut.
“Georgette’s found the mirror, Chippy. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. But as for you, I can’t hold back, Chippy. You require a bit of help. Where did she go with you this morning?”
Maurice brought my brush from the hut and sat brushing my fur, deep into the undercoat, pausing from time to time to pull twigs and burrs with his finely manicured hands, careful of his own clothing, not allowing stray hairs or dirt to attach themselves to his clothing. The scratching of the brush was necessarily harsh, for my coat hadn’t been tended to since we arrived in South Africa. Although somewhat painful, it was invigorating. When he reached the lower part of my back just above my tail, the pleasure that the wire brush escalated to such heights I could no longer maintain control. On its own volition, my hind leg pumped. There was little I could or would do to stop it. I felt no shame for the spectacle I created as I pumped my leg with dizzying abandon. For that moment I had completely forgotten about the charge which had brought me here, completely lost in pleasure. Whatever heaven I may have left couldn’t possible measure up to the heaven of a back being scratched. For that I was certain.
When the brushing was complete, Maurice doused me with a flowery cologne not to my liking but it was tolerated. Then from a small tin kept in his pocket, he dipped his forefinger into the tacky substance, most likely intended for the grooming of Maurice’s ample mustache and applied it to my own mutton choppy facial hairs, artistically accentuating my naturally rustic tousled appearance. Just as the hairs were arranged to his liking, Georgette appeared outside the hut, ready for inspection, awaiting approval, dressed in men’s trousers with her pant legs stuffed into her boots, a frilly blouse and a wide brimmed hat that she had tied a white scarf around that was so long, it might put Isadora Duncan to shame.
“Are those my pants?” Maurice asked.
“Why, yes. I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner. They are all the rage in Paris now.”
“You are supposed to share your clothing with your sister, not me.”
“She is not here and she doesn’t own these magnificent pants. A pair of jodhpurs with a pith helmet would have been preferred but I have to work with what is available.”
“Let’s not intimidate the locals with Imperialist gear, sister. And far be it from me to offer you fashion advice but isn’t it a trifle too soon since Isadora’s demise to be wearing such a hazard of a scarf. If you wish to lose your head, I’m sure the native headhunters would be only too willing to comply. You really should credit Isadora, though. It is far more Continental decapitating one’s head in a motorcar on the Riviera than snagging yourself on a bush in the veld.” Maurice chuckled at his own poor form, knowing it was the sort of thing he could share with his sister but no one else. But his voice took on a patriarchal tone as he fussed at Georgette,
“And really sister, I doubt the Prellers would appreciate your outfit. They lean very deeply to the side of the traditional. Madame Preller might take offense. Do keep in mind that she is the one providing the food. I mean… the food that is something other than gnu meat. Remember, you did not get off to a good start with her back there on the road. First, with your obvious overtures to Carl and now, if I am not being too presumptuous in assuming, your dalliance with Marais last night. Was this all part of your plan, sleep with every man across the continent of Africa?”
“Well… I didn’t sleep with Carl. There is time for that later if I choose. I have never been a When in Rome sort of person. I go the beat of my own drum. It is my nature to call attention to myself and that is likely to never change in this lifetime. I couldn’t stop if I tried. It is not my intention to offend. On the contrary…”
The sound of a spoon hitting a tin plate sounded throughout the campsite, interrupting Georgette’s defense of her own judgment, saving her from having to satisfactorily justify her behavior to Maurice. She had in effect, been saved by the bell. In any civilization, regardless of language, it’s the universal call to a meal, be it a gong, a clanging bell or the makeshift pang of a waste bin and stick. However, the call is accomplished, I’ve always understood its meaning and I respond raising my bat-like ears to the air, honing in on the radar.
Such was the excitement from the sound of the dinner bell that I instinctively rounded up Georgette and Maurice and guided them to the table that had been set. Members of the family had gathered around the picnic table with their heads bowed. Being the last to arrive Georgette and Maurice found their way to the end the table to the only vacant seats, sitting in-between Marais and Gurdjieff. On the other side of Marais sat Oswald Frank or Oom Wal as the Preller boys called him. He was the same age as Gustav, yet looked older and lacked his stocky exuberance, probably due to his taste for the Worcester Hock Gustav often brought in from the Cape. Poul Molefe, family friend and organizer of the trip, Piet Lub, Carl’s best friend sat next to Carl, his brother, Bob. The rest of the Preller’s lined the table with Gustav Senior at the head with Hannie at his side. Once Georgette and Maurice sat down, everyone at the table stood, bowing their heads as Gustav Preller spoke.
“Seën Here hierdie voedse en die hande wat dit voorbei het. En maak ons opreg dankbaar daarvoor.”
And everyone at the table excluding Marais, Georgette, Gurdjieff and Maurice resounded, “Amen.”
Very self-consciously, Georgette made a rapid sign of the cross and performed a slight genuflection but was met with cold stares from the Prellers, who probably didn’t want to acknowledge her Papist habits.
“Amen.” Georgette said but it was too late and that again, didn’t help.
I was somewhat embarrassed by Georgette’s lack of decorum and I was ashamed for feeling this way. I had hoped she could set aside her personality if only for the sake of our mission. But I suppose that was too much to expect from Georgette. It was not typical of her to fare so poorly in social situations; quite the contrary. At most gatherings she was the life of the party but in this environment her bon vivant went unappreciated. She was beside herself with frustration, unable to turn the massive ship in the opposite direction. Her cosmopolitan charms had no effect on the Preller family whose Afrikaner Calvinist roots could not comprehend a person such as Georgette. These people lived according to the Bible and believed their very lives were a means to relive the book. They as a group had become even more determined after the struggle and losses from the second Boer War. Frivolity was a luxury they hadn’t afforded themselves in the span of time since the War after so much had been taken away.
Georgette continued to attempt to keep the conversation light, speaking in English, sadly the only language they shared, a language that brought with it the reminder of the Imperialists that had forced them into internment camps, had stolen their valuable mineral wealth of the land and attempted to prohibit their very language and culture. Georgette was not completely ignorant of their struggles but there was a part of her that wished they could see past it and given time, she foolishly thought she might even urge them to move on with their lives. But the solemnity of the Preller camp remained as rigid as the Bubinga wood table they gathered around. It wasn’t that Georgette was insensitive to their perils. She, too, had endured her share of bad luck and difficulties but she also knew it was in their best interest to be wise enough to appreciate the times that were good, like now, gathered around a table with family and friends.
It wasn’t that the Prellers and company weren’t a happy lot. There was evidence of a great amount love at that table although it wasn’t the sort of thing that they spoke of often. They were far too reserved for such soppy overtures. And I’d venture to say that what they might consider fun would probably seem like a nightmare by Georgette’s standards.
A canister of coffee was passed around the table along with a plate of stacked pannekoeken, the Dutch version of a flapjack, but something closer to the French crêpes that Maurice and Georgette knew.
“You are fortunate that beestings were available for the pannekoeken and here’s the treacle for the top.” said Carl sitting opposite of Georgette. I was not at all surprised to see that Georgette had positioned herself across from him, knowing that she could sneak glances or graze her foot over his if she was so moved.
Carl offered her the plate and then, a tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup after he had slathered his stack. On the tin’s label, which had been imported from Australia, was a picture of the rotting carcass of a lion with a swarm of bees surrounding it and beneath it were the following words that Georgette read aloud,
“‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ What does it mean? Is this the syrup from a lion’s hide? I shudder to think!”
Hannie eyes met Georgette’s for the first time since the incident on the road.
“Book of Judges, Chapter 14,” she quoted.
Knowing of his wife’s intolerance for those who had no knowledge of the Bible and those like Marais who simply chose not to acknowledge it, Gustav Senior provided the explanation.
“My wife is referring to a story in the Bible, Miss LeBlanc. Perhaps you know it. Samson had been traveling to the land of the Philistines, looking for a wife as kind and as good as my dear Hannie. During his journey he killed a lion and when he passed the same spot on his return trip he noticed that a swarm of bees had created a honeycomb in its carcass. Later on, at his wedding he turned the scenario into a riddle for his Philistine guests saying, ‘Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’
Georgette turned slightly to her right where Marais sat, at first unable to know what to say since the answer of the riddle had been given before the riddle had been posed. Her struggle did not prevent her from making matters worse.
“I find it’s always best to attend any gathering with an anecdote prepared. Samson was not only very well known for his locks but for his riddles, it seems. That is something I did not know. I only know of him from the point of view from the role of Delilah in Saints-Saëns’ Opera as she sings Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix. During the aria, Delilah tries to seduce the secret of Samson’s strength away from him. Now that I think of it, the image of Delila seducing Samson on a tin would probably sell more syrup, don’t you think? I’m not sure how a rotting carcass might inspire one to eat anything.”
Marais chuckled at her faux pas while Hannie sat inflexibly rigid, staring through Georgette unamused by her casual and ignorant interpretation of the Book of Judges. Maurice sensing disaster intervened.
“Pardon me for not understanding, Madame Preller but the pannekoeken are so delicious and while similar to our French crêpe, it has a different flavor than I am accustomed. I do so enjoy the Earthy flavor of the buckwheat batter. I assume that is the different flavor my palate is picking up. But if you wouldn’t mind explaining to me what beestings are? I thought it might have something to do with bee stings or honey, considering the packaging of treacle. Is it a kind of sweetener?”
“Breast milk,” blurted Gurdjieff bluntly.
Maurice just about spat out his coffee mid sip but unlike his sister, his manners forbade such an honest reaction to his shocking disgust. Instead he immediately calmed himself answering,
“Oh. I see. And where might one find breast milk available in the wilds of the veld?” As soon as the words were released from Maurice’s soured mouth, I could see that he regretted saying them, especially in the company of two women who were most likely beyond their child bearing years and who were probably unlikely to produce breast milk at this particular stage in their lives. Maurice curdled, as he assessed all of this in the span of millisecond. While at the same time he felt relieved that he had not ingested the breast milk of anyone he was dining with at the moment.
“What do you think this is? Do you think they brought a wet nurse along on safari? Gurdjieff guffawed. “Beestings are the first milk of the animal after it has given birth, most likely a cow or a sheep. It is most nutritious. It restores vitality and keeps you young and strong. I have a lifetime of ingesting beestings. Eh, Georgette, you know of what I say?”
Everyone at the table laughed at Maurice’s confusion. They were charmed by his discomfort and how he handled his embarrassment. The mood had lightened and Georgette’s slip of the tongue was suddenly forgotten.
With all of the discussion of colostrum and beestings I fell into a slight reverie and was transported back to the farm at the Prieuré, recalling the days when of awakening in time for the milking of the cows and being offered a squirt of milk from a farmhand with a good sense of aim. I was missing the farm life and the simple days from not so long ago which now seemed like the vacation before this long journey; the days when I lived my life like a grasshopper residing within the confines of my illusory self, running about the farm and pretending I was in charge, sleeping in the lavender fields, intoxicated by all of the scents that enveloped me and then helping out on the farm, guiding the livestock, barking at strangers and harassing the chickens. All of that seemed so far away, like another life, like a dream, much like my life as Golaud but more rustic with my four paws on the ground securely clawing the dirt.
I may have sighed a little too openly for then I felt a hand come down from the table and offer me a half of a bacon pannekoecken with treacle. Melancholy, I suppose, has its rewards. I was quite appreciative of the generous hand. I gobbled the treat up very quickly, and sniffed around for more but the hand did not offer more. Within the residual flavor on my tongue I could recognize the wonderful balance of flavors. However, as a dog my palate is not so refined that I would care much about such things for I will accept just about any treat offered. I do, however, recall that Maeterlinck enjoyed a gourmand lifestyle and as Golaud I had benefitted from his expensive tastes. But even then I wasn’t picky and I never developed a dependence on the high life. Food is only food to me and when it is offered, I eat. I don’t regret eating anything unless that thing causes me to become ill and even then, generally I am unable to make the connection between what I ate and the thing that might have made me ill. So I suffer no remorse for it.
It is much like the hand offering me food. The person that was connected to the hand was of little importance the instant I accepted the food. The hands delivering treats from the table were much like the hands that puppeteered Maeterlinck’s puppet plays, with their faces obscured above the proscenium arch and part of an illusion. The hand bearing food was an omnipotent force, a god that provided me with something from the heavenly table and I did not know or care who was connected to it. I could pray to it or beg but it didn’t guarantee that I’d receive the treat I desired. It worked on its own volition. The hand could belong to anyone and often, I think, acted on a whim. The hand, on this occasion, might belong to Georgette using me as a method of restricting her own diet to maintain her figure.
But this time it wasn’t. It was Marais’ hand.
“Feeling homesick so far from your home, are you?” Marais asked, poking his head under the table.
Another hand, this time the hand of Hannie Preller, provided me with a bowl of water. I hadn’t even asked for it. It just appeared. She brought it quietly, saying nothing, which seemed to be her manner from what I gathered of her on the road. She was the type to remain silent while allowing the men to talk, keeping her thoughts, if she had any, to herself. Georgette didn’t share the same philosophy regarding table conversations or any other forms of communication in mixed company. Quite the contrary. She was a person to be heard and paid attention to and it was her belief that her contributions were as valid as any man’s. Hannie was not cut from that cloth and probably, she found Georgette’s fabric to be cut on the bias as she continually rubbed her the wrong way. Once the conversation turned to things that weighed heavily on the minds of the men at table, of their lives in South Africa for a time, Georgette, sat quietly and listened. Gustav, in particular, spoke to the foreign guests about their language in its infancy, of the importance of Afrikaans and why it was such a great concern in the Boer community.
“If we are to survive as a people, it is most important to have a language we can all agree upon and after many discussions the people of the Transvaal agreed that our language should be something closer to our Dutch roots and less Anglicized. But the people of the Cape don’t necessarily subscribe to that idea. Eugene and I have spoken for hours about providing enough tenses so that our language contains the nuances necessary for proper communication. As farmers we needed little else from a verb other than to say make, do and go but in this new world of industrialization, and if we are to survive, we need a means to express ourselves, in our own language and use it to continue to shape our own cultural identity. In his study of hieroglyphics and the Egyptian language, Eugene theorized that the extinction their language was due to having no indication of time by means of conjugation. Because of this, the language was usurped by the more versatile Greek language. Within a few hundred years, Greek was able to replace a six thousand year old language and all because of tenses. Is that not so, Eugene?”
Marais must not have been paying attention. It wasn’t until he heard his name did it jog him from the thoughts that had taken him away. Being used to Gustav and the general line of conversations he typically veered toward, he replied, “Yes Gustav.”
“In our work at our publication Ons Vaterland, we are doing what we can to uplift and educate the large groups of ignorant farmers who need to be prepared for coming times but that is becoming increasingly difficult as our newspaper has been reduced to being published only two days a week. It had been a tough battle to assert these ideas since the war, as you might imagine the plight of a conquered people. History belongs to the victors and I fear that our portrayal will suffer in the years to come.”
From his seat, Marais looked up dreamily, seemingly bored by most of what Gustav had to say although much of what he was saying had been ascribed to him.
“Pity we cannot communicate like the termites, simply using a signal and a receivers and eliminating language altogether. It is because we have ears and mouths that we are plagued with this issue, miscommunicating with words and disagreeing about how to use them. Sadly we misunderstand, regardless of how many systems for usage we create,” said Marais.
He smirked and gave as slight wink to Georgette as he referred to his termites, the termites that were at the center of this issue with words: the theft of words and the identity of the language of the words he had used. Marais has chosen to write in Afrikaans and it was clear that his decision had been intentional so that he could offer his hand to give his termites their own cultural identity, much like the Boer people who struggled to know who they were in this new hive. And somehow Marais, himself, was able to communicate to Georgette with the tilt of his head and in the transmission of a wink, many things and without the use of or the conjugation of a verb. As I listened to him it was becoming even more apparent that this plagiarism had more to do than just the theft of ideas, of words, of verbs and tenses; it had to do with the people he lived among and the theft of their identity by a man who thought of little else other than preventing his own extinction.
Since we arrived in South Africa, Maeterlinck always loomed in the backdrop of my experience. It was if he was there with us, observing but saying nothing, much like Hannie Preller. His hand might provide a bowl of water but he would never speak up, nor would he dispute or defend his actions. At the heart of it, Maeterlinck was present with us, sitting at the table with everyone, for he was the reason why we had come to this place. For an intangible moment I understood why I had taken this form at this precise time and why I had to be present underneath this table. And I understood why I had come here with Georgette and Maurice and all of their reasons for wanting to see Marais. But something nagged at me. I didn’t understand why Gurdjieff had come and I didn’t understand why he was here. And that thought made all of my revelations dissolve.
|Gurdjieff at Mont Michel|
There was so much about his presence here that bothered me and I hadn’t until this moment fully questioned, nor had anyone else. How had he managed to find his way here on his own and how could even guess that Georgette and Maurice would end up here in this remote place? How was it that this odd Armenian mystic should be permitted to stay with the Prellers, a traditional Boer family so embedded with their own kind and most likely suspicious of outsiders, or Uitlanders, as they called them? That Marais had offered any explanation of Gurdjieff or what had happened when he arrived or what they might have discussed could be perceived as dodgy. And now, with Gurdjieff seated at the table beside Maurice whose ear he had most likely chewed off in his effort to segregate Georgette and Marais from the others, acted as if there was nothing suspicious about his presence. Did they really speak of Arséne Lupin and his exploits and if so, why? Was it merely a diversion and how could Maurice be so gullible? Maurice made no move to distance himself from Gurdjieff this morning, the way one might expect after being trapped in a forced conversation by a person. I had been detained with exotic meats, entranced by the hypnotic eye of Marais and so I had no way of knowing might have transpired between the two. Neither of them had eluded to anything they had discussed the night before. Nor had I been privy to the discussion between Gurdjieff and Marais who had shared the campfire together when we had arrived. What did these two enigmas share besides a night with the infamous Georgette? Frankly from what I know of her reputation, that was nothing exceptional.
These questions brought to mind the anxiety I felt as we approached the Deadbeat campsite and that sense of foreboding that gnu meat had allowed me to push aside. I crawled from underneath the table and watched Gurdjieff who pretended not to notice that I was observing him. He appeared more suspiciously average that I ever recalled him being as he enjoyed his pannekoecken with treacle and listened to the travails of the Boer Nationalists, sipping his strong coffee like an average member of polite society. In the early hours he had cleansed himself of the ash he had applied to himself the night before; no longer ghostlike but more human than a man like Gurdjieff should be ever capable of appearing. I knew something was wrong. I knew it all along. He was acting peculiarly normal and I suspected I was the only one that hadn’t been hypnotized into this false sense of security, that this meeting here in Deadbeat was an event much bigger than we all thought and deep at my coccyx I knew that I was in extreme danger. Unable to sweat, I panted.
It also occurred to me that perhaps I was the only one at the table that didn’t know what was going on, that they had all planned and had conspired something without me knowing, excluding me and keeping me in the dark about something that was meant for me. Gurdjieff had often told his students that if they had not perfected themselves they would die like dogs. And I could not forget all of that nonsense about digging up the dog and not the bone... What seemed like metaphors were suddenly seeming so real and not just instruments of expression. My paranoia, now at its peak made me suspicious of everyone at the table. I was suddenly very afraid.
But mostly, I feared Gurdjieff. In his very own Law of Three, he was the unknown element, the neutralizer, the element that is required in order to enact a phenomenon or an event like the one that I anticipated and feared. I could only await the effect of this catalyst in order to discover how this all fits together, my reason for being and how it is I came to be here as Chippy. I will find out when time allows it and not before. Things would have to play out according to Gurdjieff’s law and not according to my will. And for that reason, I had every right to be fearful of this man.
The humans at the table were unaware of my impending crisis and they carried on about things inconsequential and mundane. Either that or it was a pretense that all was well.
“But Madame LeBlanc, you do know more Afrikaans than you give yourself credit. The English word for aardvark is just that: aardvark,” explained Carl, who had fallen under Georgette’s spell to the displeasure of Hannie.
“Aardvark? I’m afraid I did not come across that word during my stay in the US. How might I know this thing? How do you say this, artverk? Do you mean art work?”
Dumb was not as attractive on Georgette as she imagined but to an untrained male like Carl, he was boosted by a chance to educate.
“The word literally means, Earth pig. You know the thing that has a very long snout which is like a vacuum and it eats the little things like ants and Oom Eugene’s termites.”
“Oh yes. In French we say, oryctérope. Although I have never seen one, I imagine they might be quite useful at a picnic.”
“And the Afrikaans word for journey?” interrupted Gurdjieff.
“Trek is the word most used but for journeys of the spirit, we often use the word Dwaal, like in Oom Eugene’s Dwaalstories, the wandering stories transcribed from the old Bushman, Henrik. Ou Hendrik was known for telling tales when he was on the dagga.”
“Dagga? What do you mean dagga?” asked Georgette.
Carl mimed the universal symbol of inhaling and passing cannabis and then, whispering, in case he was in earshot of Hannie, “The Bushmen and Hottentots have the most potent dagga in the world! Oom Eugene has gone to their rituals as he is one of the few white men they allow. They inhale the dagga and under its influence they begin a free flow of rhymes.”
“Do you partake in the dagga, Monsieur Marais?” asked Georgette.
“Why yes. But I do so only for means of being polite and for inspiring trust with the natives. I find its effects to be mild and probably less dangerous than that of drinking brandy. However, it is frowned upon in the Boer community and not something I yearn for. I yearn for other things.”
Without hesitation Carl covered for Marais, attempting to sway the conversation back.
“Yeah, Oom Eugene is always cooking something up. Remember that story about the mysterious man on horseback that appeared in the middle of the road in Rietfontain when the moon was full? Oom Eugene reported it after some locals had seen it. He wrote a series of articles about the man on horseback for the paper and it was the talk of town for a spell. Well, wouldn’t you know it… it was Oom Eugene pulling a prank the whole time! Stick around and you never know what might happen, Madame Leblanc!”
Carl’s words, although directed at Georgette in some way seemed intended for me personally as my ears pricked up, receiving the words, my body knowing more than my mind what I should pay attention to. As innocent as his words were, their significance throbbed in my ears, repeating in my head over and over again and I couldn’t discern the reason. I suspect that I must be sticking around for something, as Carl put it. Part of me didn’t want to know, for that truth was something I would not be able to escape. But still the question persisted. What had put me on this Dwaal with these people? It is possible that I am but a symbol myself and I have been manifested into this tale and I have been sent here to enact this fable to serve as some kind of lesson for others long after I am gone? If Aesop had been a fly on the wall, would my reality mean nothing more to him than the grasshopper and the ant or in my case The Dog that had been invited to Dinner? The moral of that tale was: Those who enter by the back stairs must not complain if they are thrown out by the window.
And in the midst of my thoughts about story tellers and fables it occurred to me that one might argue that Marais had done a bit of borrowing himself from Old Henrik, who in his cloud of smoke had imparted the folk stories from his indigenous spirit and Marais, through the filter of morphine had transcribed the essence of the stories, transforming them into something of his own making. While there is nothing to prove that, it made me wonder how this was any different than what Maeterlinck
had done to Marais and his termites. The more I was discovering about Marais, the less I understood him. Like the apparition hoax he created, I was never sure what was real or simply a sleight of hand.
had done to Marais and his termites. The more I was discovering about Marais, the less I understood him. Like the apparition hoax he created, I was never sure what was real or simply a sleight of hand.
I looked at my own distorted reflection in my tin water bowl, which had dried. The water that hadn’t been lapped up had evaporated into the ether and now, all that was in my bowl was a shoddy mirrored image of myself. The omnipotent hand of Hannie had vanished from sight and no other hand had come from above to refill it. My thirst for both water and answers enacted my slobber. I lied in my own puddle of drool as a consolation.
Coming soon: Excavating the Termitary, Chapter 14: The First Architects
Coming soon: Excavating the Termitary, Chapter 14: The First Architects
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