Ancient Paths Online

by Judith Joubert

Isn’t it strange that women all over the world are always left behind while the men play their little war games, Elizabeth thought as she glanced out of the window at the sheep, and at old John lounging under a tree close by. They had been lucky so far. Very lucky. The neighbors’ house had been burnt down three weeks ago. Thank the Lord, at least the children escaped–if only the Steyens heeded the warnings, they would have been better prepared. Their house was built so close to the dirt road too...

Her own husband, Willem, had built his house a long way off from the dirt road, and once the war started, he moved the gates to the back of the farm. When the English came, they thought that this farm was still part of the Steyens’s property.  

She smoothed her skirt and went to the stoep. Sannie was outside, watering the tomatoes.  And without her bonnet! Elizabeth hurried down the stairs, to tell Sannie that she was going to get freckles on her nose from the sun.

Sannie straightened her aching back. She wondered where Adriaan could be. An avenue of trees lined the dirt road leading to the gate; she knew he would not be there as she instinctively looked in that direction. He had not written even one letter since he left four months ago. Had the English caught him? Was he dead? The baby quickened in her stomach.  She sighed resignedly. Soon she would have to tell her mother.                                                                                                   

“Sannie, where is your bonnet? I have told you many times about the sun on your face!” Elizabeth scolded.

“Yes, mother.” Sannie fumbled with the strings around her neck.

“What’s the matter, you look pale,” Elizabeth looked sharply at Sannie.

“It’s the sun, mother,” Sannie picked up the watering can and headed in the direction of the kraal where the cows waited to be milked.

Elizabeth watched her leave hurriedly, a faint smile on her lips. Stupid girl! Does she take me for an idiot? She and Adriaan had supposedly run off after dinner every night to watch the moon rise! Elizabeth wanted to put a stop to the scandalous behavior, but Willem checked her by talking some nonsense about love and war.

Elizabeth went back inside to mind her own chores around the house.

The chores seemed endless, and the days melted into nights to become more days of chores and worries. Elizabeth searched among the pots and pans for the right sized pot to boil five eggs–just enough for the number of souls on the farm. Still, she counted her blessings–so many people had much more to contend with than a lack of eggs.

Elizabeth glimpsed through the lace curtains to see John leave in the direction of the ridge. At first she had not been pleased that he took the goats so far out to graze but he was adamant that the stock would be safer up there, besides, he argued–he had a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside.

Well, she could not dispute that, and the goats they had were for the pot, for their own bellies; not for that of some rooinek* Englishman.

Miesies, miesies Elizabeth!”

The undertones of panic in John’s voice jerked her upright and she rushed to the stoep. “What is it?”

“Rider... miesies,” John was gasping for air. He pointed in the direction where the setting sun finds itself on the skyline at the end of every day.

“We will wait,” Elizabeth said.

All their valuables had already been hidden where tongues of fire could not lick at them.

John sat under the wild fig tree and started carving at a stick with his pocket knife. 

Sannie whispered prayers as she stood next to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth peered into the distance as a thin trail of dust rose lazily in the winter air.

“Willem!” Elizabeth lifted her skirts and started running towards the rider when he was still nothing but a black ant swimming in the distance.

“Mother, wait!” Sannie grabbed her wrist but Elizabeth tore herself away.

“John, do something! It might be an Englishman or a hensopper**!”

John shook his head with all the patience of his race, “Nee, my nonna***. It is one of those things between a husband and a wife–the one knows the other ....”

Sannie sank to her knees in the dust, “He is alone ... where’s Adriaan?”

John let her be. It was not his place to offer comfort to the nonna. He, for one, was not surprised that Adriaan had not returned. John instinctively touched the scar on his forehead-that one had a very short and violent temper. An ox was taking shape in his hands by the time the rider and Elizabeth approached the yard, hand-in-hand.

Sannie’s tears had dried up for the moment. She squinted up at the two figures who towered above and before her. “Pappa, I’m pregnant!”

Willem’s eyes softened, “Nothing can be done about it,” he said.

Elizabeth helped her to her feet and walked her to the bedroom. She covered Sannie with a shawl and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.

Willem was busy stuffing his pipe with the usual ceremony.

Elizabeth smiled as she stood in the doorway, “It’s as if you never left!” Then she began to cry.

He put the pipe down and held her. He kissed her and her hair came undone in his hands.  A wheat field, Willem thought; her hair was the color of a wheat field ready for harvest, and it smelt like rose water. “I was afraid you’d change,” he whispered, “but you’re still the same.” He picked her up, and carried her to the bed as he had on their wedding night.

The last rays of the sun were reflecting shades of ochre from a distant land when Elizabeth finally took the cup of coffee to Sannie.

She had fallen asleep with her hands folded under her face as if in prayer. Sannie had always slept like that when she was a child, Elizabeth remembered.

The meal of goat liver and pap was simmering on the coal stove and Willem was seated at the kitchen table, smoking his pipe.

 “I’m not going back, you know,” he said.

“I know; otherwise you would not have come.” Elizabeth sat next to him. She did not ask any questions.

“This war ...,” he shook his head, “it’s not what I thought it was about. It’s not about defending your country or your people. It’s about bitterness, and revenge, and hatred!” he looked at Elizabeth, “I’ll have no part in it. The people are not seeking after the will of God; they are following their own selfish desires. You cannot win a war fuelled by revenge ... These young ones, like Adriaan, they let their emotions get the better of them ...”

“I’m glad, and I feel so ashamed that I’m glad, but we need you here. I need you here.”  Elizabeth clutched his hand.

“Then I will stay. It is my duty to protect my family. God will protect the country.”  Willem said grace and they spent the rest of the evening in silence, in deep appreciation of the other’s presence.

Things were better with Willem back on the farm, Elizabeth thought as she knit a jersey for the baby. Strange, but despite all the effort Sannie and John had put in everyday, they could not fill the shoes of the man of the house. Willem hunted once or twice a month and the goats were fatter just because he counted them in the evenings. They used the horse to till the field for a patch of maize and Sannie was free from the chores outside to churn butter and make cheese.

Sannie ...

Elizabeth was worried about her. She had changed. When Willem had come home, he spoke of the bitterness in the hearts of the people. At the time, Elizabeth did not understand what he meant, but as the weeks passed by and the time for Sannie’s baby came closer, her words were like gall whenever she spoke of the English.

“Sannie! That is not how we raised you,” Elizabeth was shocked after Sannie had made some utterance that England should sink into the sea.

“It’s easy for you to talk–your husband came home!” and she smashed the plate she was drying.

Late one afternoon, Willem returned from a hunt with an injured man straddled across the horse’s back.

He was unconscious and had suffered severe sunburn. A bullet had skimmed his neck and he lost a great deal of blood.

 “A Boer troop,” Willem stated the obvious.

The women did not ask any questions, they bathed him and let him rest. Sannie sat by his bedside and crocheted a blanket while she waited for the boy to awake.

“Water ...,” he croaked as Sannie was about to leave late that evening.

“What’s your name?” she asked as she poured water into a glass.

“Lukas,” he said. He fell into a deep sleep after he had almost emptied the pail and did not open his eyes again until the afternoon of the next day.

Sannie and Elizabeth would not let Lukas get out of bed for the next two days, much to his frustration. On the third day, he was permitted to join them at the table for supper.

“What’s on your heart, son?” Willem asked after having to endure distrustful stares from Lukas all through dinner.

“Are you a hensopper?”

Willem laughed, “You don’t beat about the bush, do you?”

 “No!” Lukas answered.

“I don’t know ...” Willem sighed. “I don’t know what I am, but I can tell you what I am not, if that will satisfy you...”


Willem leaned forward, “I am not a hater: I hate no man–Brit or Boer.”

“So, you are a fence sitter?” Lukas asked after he mulled over Willem’s statement.

“Perhaps,” Willem laid his tobacco, flint and pipe cleaner in front of him on the table.

“You’re a coward!” the youth suddenly sneered, “While our people are paying for freedom with their blood, you are-”

“I’m protecting my family!” Willem suddenly brought his fist down on the table. “While the rest of you are running across the country and shooting your rifles, your women and children are being herded into slaughtering kraals like cattle!”

Lukas jumped to his feet, “That’s exactly why we shoot and we fight–for the women and the children, and their children!”

“Bah!” Willem angrily stuffed his pipe. “We can argue all night. Does it mean that you are right and I am wrong, or that you are wrong and I am right?”

Lukas clenched his teeth and cast his eyes somewhere between the floor and the wall.

“To each his own, son.” Willem lit the pipe. “Let each man do what he believes in his heart is right.”

Lukas left at the end of the week, fully recuperated and with a knapsack filled with rusks, biltong and a bit of coffee.

Willem was watching him from the stoep when Elizabeth suddenly spoke behind him.

“Off to win the war, is he?”

Willem grunted, not at the ignorant passion of youth, but at the lack of understanding women display in the art of war.

Sannie’s baby came on a particularly cold night.

Elizabeth wrapped her up and handed the bundle to Sannie, “It’s a girl!”

“A girl? But I was going to name him after his father,” Sannie said.

“He didn’t even have the decency to marry you! Anyway, now it’s a girl and you’re going to have to think of another name.” Elizabeth went to the kitchen to fetch more hot water.

Sannie named the baby Minette. She was like a breath of fresh air to the whole household.  In Sannie’s own heart, some of the bitterness had to make way for the love and responsibility which governed her daily existence ever since Minette had entered the world. To Elizabeth and Willem, Minette reminded them of what it was like for them to become parents when they were Sannie’s age.

It was not a windy day, though the air had a bite to it when Sannie and Minette were playing on the stoep. She did not see the rider until the horse stopped short in front of the steps leading up to the stoep.

The sun was behind him and Sannie felt ambushed, especially because she could not see the expression on his face.

She held Minette tightly against her bosom. “Ma!

“Good day, madam,”

As the rider dismounted, Elizabeth appeared from within the house with an apron on and Willem came around the corner of the house with a rifle.

“I saw the homestead and ...well, I thought I could find some water for my horse,” the soldier stammered. “I seem to have gotten separated from my unit,” he explained when he noticed Willem scouting for more soldiers behind him.

“Lost?” Willem lowered the rifle. “You’re lost?” he threw his head back and the purest laughter erupted from his diaphragm.

“The water is that side,” Elizabeth indicated in the direction of the kraal. “You are welcome to join us for lunch if you would like to rest your animal.”

Ma!” Sannie said between clenched teeth.

Lunch had already been prepared and Sannie had only to lay an extra place at the table, which she sulkily did by banging the cutlery on the wooden top.

“You have a beautiful home,” the soldier said to Elizabeth at the table.

She acknowledged the compliment with a slight nod.

“You seem to be quite self-sufficient here ....” he addressed Willem.

“We have to be!”

He lay down his cutlery and cleared his throat. “I do not agree with Kitchener’s policies, and I’m starting to have serious doubts regarding my people’s motives with this war. I am not lost, I am a deserter, and if I run into English soldiers out there,” he pointed to the window, “they will probably shoot me as a traitor!” He took up his knife and fork again.

 “Me too,” Willem said.

The baby started crying.

The soldier extended his arms towards Sannie, who had been holding Minette tightly ever since he set foot in the house.

Sannie’s eyes were like sabers, but love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. \

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1 Cor. 13:7


End Notes:

* Rooinek: The name literally means “red neck” and comes from the sunburnt necks of the British Army soldiers who wore pith helmets on campaign in South Africa. The helmets did not afford enough protection from the sun which resulted in sunburn. The term is usually meant as an insult.

**   Hensopper: A soldier who voluntarily gives in to the enemy               

*** Nonna: From njonja which is ‘Miss’ in Malay                

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