In the dying days of our second war of freedom, when that freedom was all but lost, assuredly; and on the eve of one last futile set-piece battle, the wife of our dark general set off alone to confer with the English. She was to regain some last scrap of dignity for our people, and for her husband.
Well not quite alone. She had an agterruiter, a retainer, a riding companion. As a wife of a general must.
Only her escort, in these forlorn times was — had to be, we were so short of steadfast men — another woman.
Neither woman was armed. Though one carried an empty Mauser, long devoid of ammunition. A lead-less stick, as much use as a kierie. Perhaps more use as a symbol.
The dark general’s wife was our natural emissary. The only one we could spare, and the most intelligent of us all. Also, she could speak the language of the invader, suspiciously fluently.
She rode off alone; well would have been alone if it weren’t for the thin stream of deserters taking that path too. Back towards the English. Back towards the lands already burned. Back towards their wives and children in concentration camps. Back towards the corpse of our hopes. Back towards freedom lost. And back, perhaps, to jobs in the city of mines. I am sorely tempted to join them.
We saw her go, the dark general’s wife, with a distant thunderstorm picking her out in silhouette in intermittent lightning. Two small horses, (well, one mule, one horse) two small women. And, further along, another ragged string of deserters. Was our war effort reduced to this?
For now, I had chosen to stay. To dig in.
Was I misguided? Was I mad? Even now, I cannot answer this. But my duties as a scout had, in no small way, led us to this last position. This false stronghold. In land I thought I knew. What was she going to say to the English? There was much speculation in the camp. Were terms to be offered? Was this an attempt to end this? Would we display signs of weakness? Of folly? Of wisdom? Only the dark general and his wife knew the answer to this.
And perhaps her companion, who has my new child with her. Lena, who I must abandon.
It is my other wife who calls, from the concentration camp. She and the one surviving child – they call to me. And the ones dead from disease, too. They call the loudest.
(The general’s wife)
I am alone, except for Lena, my agterruiter. We two women on a sea of moonlit grass, in a world that, tonight, hardly dares to breathe.
The stars glitter in a manner most brittle. They have the look of eyes about to weep. And the single thunder cloud that hid them a while ago recedes, sulking. It lights up only occasionally now, as if it has given up too. It is replaced by the thin light of a fingernail moon. The sky, like all of us, is cut in half.
We left the camp an hour ago, and yet we have ghosts for company. Faceless, spineless men, hensoppers, silently trudging homewards. They radiate over the bleak veld, as if to points of a dysfunctional compass. They are going home, home to deserted farms, empty kraals, women and children taken, houses razed to the ground. Their stock mostly stolen, and those left wandering long ago fallen prey to other inhabitants of this land; this is my reckoning.
Will more disappointment meet them there, than if they remained on this field of dubious valour? What does it mean to have come so far in this war, only to walk away now? What is the ending they are writing for themselves? Is there sanity in any course – that of the hensoppers, or the joiners, or the bittereinders? Oh, the madness of men!
Have a little faith, I want to scream at them, there is hope, always hope, in the night. The words begin to form a melody in my head. This is a malady I have always lived with. Sometimes – most times – it seems this land is not suited to song.
Despite itself, despite myself, this land and I make music, as if we are parts of the same instrument. This music is sweeping, slow, mournful, infinitely beautiful – so unlike the music of men, the desperate jigs we do dance.
The land and I, we commune within the subtlety of near-silence, within the sweep of stars, the sushh of wind in tall grass, or the soft rattle of seed pods in the moon’s breeze. Of course, there are no words in this music we make.
My servant Lena, usually so opinionated, has no words either tonight.
A daughter. A tiny girl.
Do I think of my child? Or do I pace out the trench lines, and order more digging here, or clear a line of fire there?
Do I saddle up, and ride out as a scout must, and shadow instead two familiar figures?
Or do I leave them, dismiss them from my mind, knowing that tonight – tomorrow – they may be safer where they are going?
Do I dare think there is a tomorrow? Will there be a space in the aftermath for we three? Space for her words?
(The general’s wife)
My horse stops, pulls up gently; ears rotate and focus forward. A serval steps out in front, a lithe, long-legged cat. It looks at us as if it expects us to stop, to give it due respect, and then moves off unhurriedly. Its near-silent footfall adds to the music of this night, as does the moonlight on its back as it trots off, oblique to our course. Lena murmurs an incantation to the cat: she has always had some superstition about the serval. Me too: I remember our chickens always at risk to them, and the host of other predators this land offers up.
There are also people out there, other people, determinedly disinterested people, whole tribes skulking in hidden valleys, doing what they can to stay clear of our war.
What an irony it would be if these great white tribes, being so nearly equal in the scope of our stubbornness, would destroy each other completely, and leave the land to the children of Ham. Is there any lesson in that? I wonder, and remembering, look sharply around to see if Lena is still there, faithfully following. I catch myself realising how dependent on her I am. And so she is right there, two lengths behind, loping easily astride her mule. Her rueful smile looms in the night; she cannot camouflage her teeth.
Her cloak around the crook of her elbow shields the child at her breast, a baster girl from one of our men. I suspect I know the father – that bold young man of the Ermelo commando. The scout who fetched us to this place, this last climactic outspan. This place, Berg en Dal is almost within his home territory. What will it be tomorrow?
Do I have a voice in this? Or am I the eternally invisible retainer – that footnote to history who has no story, no recorded tale?
Am I simply a shadow darker than the night; the sacrificial tender of the spare horse, and of the next generation?
(The general’s wife)
I squirm uncomfortably on my saddle. I have the blood. My companion is in milk. We have a child. Such are our elemental offerings to the invader. Will they see any of this? And if they do, what will they make of it? Or will they simply see two tired and dirty women?
What will I say? Louis has given me the briefest of instructions. We both know where we stand as a volk. We both know, as deepest instinct, where our line holds. We both know where we will go, and no further. We both appreciate, in painful, precise terms, where this great misadventure of war has led us. And I think we both know, in a deep and dark and secret place, where inevitably it will end.
Perhaps I am on a futile mission. I suppose my husband simply trusts me to say what I must, listen, and then report faithfully back. If I can.
But I think this one last battle will happen anyway.
(Scout; and now a deserter)
Damn the lateness of my decision! I should have left this forlorn enterprise a year ago, when we untied the noose around Ladysmith. I should have left when Bloemfontein fell. I should have left when my children were taken. I should have gone to find them, to save them from the camp. I should have left when Pretoria was lost. I should have left along with Oom Paul Kruger – wherever he is now.
I have dug the trenches for this last battle. I have supervised the building of breastworks from the stones scattered across these low kopjes. I know the lie of the land. This land that lied to us. I am the dark general’s scout. I know where to point our futile weapons.
I was the dark general’s scout. And now I am walking, joining the dark stream of those leaving. Late, but still leaving, yes.
Where am I going? I don’t know.
All I know is I must leave this dance now, this dance of cordite and dust and the smell of blood and bloated bodies. For I know tomorrow it will offer us more. And all for reasons long since forgotten in this war, this ungodly inversion of logic and emotion.
I had the trenches dug. Perhaps all I was doing was digging more graves. I turn my back on them. Who am I going to? I don’t know.
Have the camps claimed my wife, my last child? I don’t know.
Will the English claim Lena, and my other child? I don’t know. What will I eat? I don’t know.
At least I can use my rifle for hunting. I have a few bullets left.
Damn the lateness of my decision! May God forgive me.
If he ever finds me.
We must ride without stopping; we must meet this man before the day.
Can we stop anything now? I wonder. What can we two poor emissaries do to salvage honour for our side?
Will history thank us for one less battle?
Our mounts sense better food ahead. They walk stolidly on, into the night, under this blanket of so many bright holes. We follow the stars, follow a broad direction of instinct. We will find this camp. The English are always so brash upon this land. We will hone in on the creaking and crashing of their equipment, the loud fluency of their cursing, their carping tongue.
Meanwhile, the baby suckles. She is tomorrow, all of our tomorrows.
(The general’s wife)
What is this man I must meet? I have his name, so I am aware of the who of him. But what of the him of him? I mean the essence of his self. What is his motivation, what is his obsession with us? He fights for a land that will never be his, for a queen, an old and lonely cloistered woman half a world away.
Does he answer to a God who bothers more for his people? Or is he merely caught in the sweeping flood of fortune, as a leguaan might ride a log in a swollen river, not knowing entirely his direction, or his fate, spinning as the stars do this night, and hoping only to find some firm ground in the future?
Or has he already commandeered the finest farm he has seen, and ordered its houses not to be burned, and dispatched their people with the justice of lead on the edge of a donga? Has he already taken too much?
Despite my diplomatic mission, I prepare to dislike him intensely.
Damn the lateness of my decision! I should have sent her yesterday. We might have avoided this battle. I am tired of fighting. I am tired of the death of men.
(The general’s wife)
In an instant, I absorb the interior of the tent: the revolver hanging dully from the pole, the golden pall of two lamp lights, the leather satchel spilling paper, the glasses on a table, brandy, men, one man in particular.
He rises to meet me, in a fake display of gallantry. I know this is the man who has already burned farmhouses, moved mothers and children to the concentration camps.
He is startlingly white. Somehow – perhaps by the same fastidiousness bordering on vanity evident in his waxed moustache – he has avoided the African sun.
I have recently learned a new word in his language: foppishness. Now I see it demonstrated before me: this man has a foppish manner – no other word for it. But he also exudes an inviolate arrogance.
Now my husband is dark of skin, but he has the manners of a true civilised gentleman; and a humility, a respect for his elders, and for the veld too. This man gives me the immediate impression he has none of these qualities. But, I allow, I had already prepared to dismiss him thus.
He offers his hand to me. He has the same eyes as my husband, only they glow from a face the colour of the moon. I hesitate.
It is instantly apparent he is not a native of this land. Never will be. He is alien, and this, my first contact with him, repels me. Our eyes meet for only a second. The effect is unnerving.
There are other men in the tent I am dimly aware of. They shuffle silently. I know I will only remember one.
The hand he offers, I see, is limp, and hangs from a withered arm. What is this rank symbolism that assails me now? Am I, as emissary to the few proud Boers left, to take this miserable offering from the enemy? Is this my mark on the hardscrabble slate of history?
I feel the earth contract in the pinch of the pre-dawn cold. I offer a brief and silent prayer. To my surprise, it forms in my head in the language of the English.
And so an unravelling begins.
It is true that in the closing stages of the second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, that the wife of a prominent Boer general went alone (well, almost) to parlay with the English.