Michael K Phillips
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. " Pablo Picasso.
The Art of Story Telling
Cheese is a vital part of the intellect of dinner time chat. It ranks as an equal with wine as a generator of intellectual rubbish as we seek to impress our fellow imbibers with our knowledge of these sacred foods. As a student in France in the late 1970s, I honed my skills in the expression of such knowledge. A group of ex pats and local Angevines would meet in a country cottage on the banks of the river Maine, every Friday night at 7pm. Each couple would take turns to go to the kitchen and prepare a course of their choice. The evening would comprise of much talking interspersed with 7 courses stretching over a time scale of 5-6 hours. In there somewhere would be the virtues of wine and cheese.
After each course, our French host would bid us stand and raise a toast to the President of the Republic, Giscard D’Estain. Our host, an industrial air-conditioning expert working on a new factory for the manufacture of Mont Blanc pens, hailed from Rouen and it was not surprising therefore, that the toast would be the Norman tipple Calvados. Normans call this the “trou Normande” or the Norman hole probably, although not convincingly, because after having downed the “trou” 7 times along with the wine and cheese, most guests were looking desperately for a hole to crawl into.
Back in my school days at Somerset House, the Calvados was in absentia but cheese featured in the form of processed cheddar in wedges wrapped and sealed in foil wrappers with “ la vache qui rit” emblazoned on the leading side.
The significance of this delicacy rests with the art of story telling, so bear with me.
The sole source of heat in the boarding house against the cold of a Cape winter’s night, was a free standing drum like electric heater with a moulded grid on top divided into 10 wedge like shapes, which were exactly the right size to take one cheese wedge in its silver foil wrap. As the heat convected upwards, it would heat and melt the cheese, making the foil wrapper swell to bursting point, at which time a small hole could be made in the tip which would immediately release a thin stream of
melted cheese, rather like the emission from one of those boils that teenagers are often afflicted with in the general cause of acne. How we endured the searing heat of this viscous substance, I do not know?Nevertheless, it remained a popular pastime, especially with the introduction of the night time “Ghost story”.
This tradition was started by a student assistant housemaster and was soon adopted by the Headmaster as an incentive for the timely completion of ablutions and tidying up on the part of the boarders in time for lights out. We would huddle around the aforementioned heater, enveloped in our blankets like Sotho herdsmen, gingerly handling searingly hot sliver wedges and eagerly awaiting the chilling words of the story teller as the lights were turned out.
The Path of the Mantis
It was one of those nights at the Castle in Cape Town when the wind blew in from the sea and the white down blanket flowed viscously over the edge of Table Mountain and left the soldiers of the guard clinging to their cloaks against the rain and the driving wind.
The “Roaring Forties” were in full thrust to the song of the elephant, as the Khoi called it, as 40 mile per hour gales caressed and stroked towering gum and oak trees and collided with the walls of the defensive structure of the fort.
The “white horses” of the southern Atlantic Ocean were visible even through the gloom of the approaching night and out in the bay the bells tolled as ships hoved too against the approaching storm.
Inside the sheltered walls of the fort, military families bolted the shutters to the cold night air and rooms glowed with the light of oil lamps and the haze of wood smoke and the smell of cooking. A sense of security permeated amongst the inhabitants fortified by Cape brandy and the confidence that if there be a threat, it would be from without and not from within.
In Hamlet style compliance, one guard replaced another with mottled reference to the hardships of the fighting man but none feared the appearance of the dead King of Denmark! Rather they were fearful of Adamastor! He who for centuries plagued Portuguese seafarers who braved the tempestuous waters of the Cape.
"Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay." — Camões, The Lusiads Canto V.
It was not the wrath of a deposed Greek God that the people of the castle should have feared, but rather the unsettled spirits of the ancestors of the ancient people, the Hottentots who had long since sought refuge in the environs of Granadendale and Swellendam, away from the white giants at the Cape. Even their name, Hottentot was given to them by those who thought they knew better based on the sound of their tonal language of clicks and nasal tones as perceived by the colonialists. What they could not know was that these proud ancient inhabitants of Africa had no bodily resistance to the diseases of the western world. Small pox, although not intended, reduced their numbers to near extinction.
Yet upon this hallowed ground was built the settlement of the Cape and its Castle. Built to defend against cannon and powder, it offered little defence to the unsettled nature of a deposed presence.The Khoi too featured not in the understanding of the inhabitants of the Castle. Their name having come from the early Dutch settlers who called them “Boessiemans” meaning renegades, thieves and robbers. The Khoi themselves did not respond to the greeting “Bushman”!
Their understanding of God was the God that brought light to the darkness and the day and the lesser Gods and in particular Hi’itsi Ibib who in fiendish fashion took the form of an Eland, a snake or in a familiar role as a praying mantis. The ever present changing God of the hunter gatherer people.
The Praying Mantis points the way of the lost soul in this religious belief as it does in many others and where a person has died, the Khoi do not settle and they move on.
The White giants had no respect for sacred places. They settled and moved not. They built with stone and stone does not move like the mountain cannot move. When the spirit is covered with stone it cannot obey the way of the Mantis. When the wind rises from the South and the cloud settles on the Mountain, the sole becomes restless, seeking the Mantis, not malicious, not
in anger, but lost, without hope...constantly seeking.
The nature of Hi’tsi is impish, challenging, seeking to play games with the living and in so doing, bring their deviance into line with nature. The khoi are aware of his cunning but in reverence to his wisdom. Such is the way of the Khoi.
Here in this far off corner of Africa, people took turn to fear their Gods and as the wind and rain drove down relentlessly on the thatch roofing of the billets, families huddled around fires and told each other stories of the sea, far off lands they called home and prayed to the God of Abraham, to Jesus for the comfort of coming through the night into the light of day. Close by slaves prayed to the prophet and Allah to bring relief to their toil. The Khoi observed all from the caves high up on Devil’s Peak and the Lion’s Head. Such mountains had been their vantage point for times past, too numerous to remember.
The baby had been suckled and despite the rousing noise of wind and rain from without, it slept a sleep of contentment in its mother’s arms. When confident of the infant’s slumber, she rose, proffered the child to its father for a last admiring glance and a light kiss, and then entered the small room bedecked by furniture, the Dutch were skilled to mould to the needs of the nursery. There in the corner stood the high sided cot that could rock and support the young life without the fear that it could fall or climb out, thus tumbling to the floor. An heirloom, undoubtedly, that had seen generations of babies through the early days of their development in complete safety and confidence.
By now all speech was reduced to sharp shrieked commands as the roar of the wind drowned out lesser sounds and shutters rattled in rhythm with the ruminating creek and groan of roof timbers and rafters.
The families of the billets remained calm as they went about their tidying as this was nothing new. Tomorrow would bring a crisp clarity to the air and a knowledge that with the dust, leaves and detritus of port life, the germs that hovered around people, would have blown away towards the Indian Ocean. It was not for nothing that locals referred to the wind as the “Cape Doctor”.
The chores completed, the last dram of brandy drunk, the fire dowsed and the baby checked, the weary couple moved to their room to melt below feather down and intertwine like the roots of trees against the forces of nature without. Soon the roar of the wind permeated all and the house fell to dreaming.
The Koi knew all about dreaming. Dreaming was never about words. Dreaming brought the imagery of the day and moulded it with a reality, the Koi knew exists, but cannot experience, until death opens the pathway to the spirits. It is a view of a dimension where the soul of every creature that ever lived, seek out eternity as equals in creation.
That is why the prey of the Bushmen occupy pride of place in a Bushman painting on an ancient rock face.
The slain animal is not diminished by its death but honoured for the fight and skill of its attempt to survive. It is honoured too for its gift to humanity of its flesh, its skin, its bones and every part of its body that will be used by the Khoi.
There is only one soul. No living thing is duplicated. Everything in creation is unique. In Khoi tradition there could be no such thing as a twin and where on rare occasions, Nature sought to dishonour people in the birth of two instead of one, the weaker sibling would be dispatched by the pouring of sand into the nostrils and mouth. There in an anthill the body would be buried and the Khoi do not rest where one is buried. They move on. That has always been the way of the Khoi.
A mother does not sleep deep when in proximity to her baby. A murmur, a cry will jolt the senses from sleep to wake with urgency to tend to the demands of the young.
The cry was not a cry but it woke none the less. The unmistakeable sound of an infant gurgling with pleasure and mirth defeated even the roar of the wind in disguising its message to the ear of its mother. She arose, wrapping her shawl against the cold of the air and walked with the lamp to the baby’s room adjacent. There the baby kicked and wriggled and whined as if entertained as it lay on the sheep skin covering on the floor.
With deep intake of breath and an anguished cry, she rushed to her baby’s aid, her mind reasoning a fashion to explain the baby’s route from cot to floor. Her husband came running and together they checked the infant for injury and found none. He checked the cot for strength and wear and found it as sound as the day it had been fashioned from oak.
The mind always looks to reason to explain what cannot be explained. And after tortuous argument, mother and father assumed error on their part to put the baby to bed. Maybe it was the concern for the storm or maybe it was the Cape Brandy.
They watched over the infant swaddled in the confines of the cot and soon it was deep in slumber, content as ever. Sleep too, overcame its parents and they retired to the soft down covering of the bed next door. The house took to dreaming again.
The San knew all about dreaming. The night held a special place in the cycle of life for while darkness protected evil, the moon shone down on the San and they were at peace with the succour of God the creator. The fire dance was their prayer to God. In trance like movement the men circled the burning pyre until dazed, they fell into the fire to be pulled clear by the chanting women.
The ‘Fire Dance’ was their prayer to God.”
The shrill ululation crescendo to the climax of the dance beckoned to the spirits of the departed to enter their dreams. And so to collapsed sleep the San would go with visions of the world beyond to accompany them to the break of day.
The excited baby shrieked in delight, its eyes alight and mouth spread in a toothless smile. It feared not what it did not understand. The high pitched shriek of the wind through the rafters made merry harmony with the baby’s cries and the unearthly choir rent forth its overture to the chorus of groans and vibrations of the structures around.
The mother stirred, this time not to awaken, but to writhe and toss in anguish and panic as in her dream she fought sand and breath in her mouth and nose and clasped clawed fingers at air and for life. Then she shook first by prod and then by the shoulders until she slept no more and gazed wide and fiery eyed into the fear laden features of her husband. “My baby”, she mouthed with no sound emitted. They both struggled to the door with the lamp barely lit. They entered the room and there on the sheep skin rug on the floor the baby lay on its front, gurgling in contentment and shrieking with some incomprehensible joy.
The mother again snatched her offspring, fearful of some dire injury while father checked and rechecked the cot. All was as before, nothing had changed but reason could no longer deceive what was plain to conclude
With blanket and cover, the three left the house through the rain and wind to take refuge in the chapel and there they remained to the break of day.
The next morning the “fourties” had roared their last. The ships in the bay returned to anchor to inspect their damage and soldiers and wives emerged from billets to shake out the night’s dust and prepare for a glorious day. Up on the mountain the San and Khoi observed the settlement from their vantage point as they had done for as long as they could remember.
The baby, suckled the breast of the worn out mother in contentment and the father reflected on the events of the night with bewilderment. The priest prayed for them all and wondered if some lost soul would need to be encouraged to leave the billet by some ritual and some lament.
As the baby laid on the bench to be changed, it was then that the mother noticed the shape on its side where the warmth of one body drew the blood of another through capillaries to the surface and left a feint change of hue in the shape of a hand!
A silence ensued in the dark. Nothing moved. Only the deep breathing of frightened minds could be discerned from the stillness of the night. Suddenly, with a click, the room was dazzled by light. Bleary eyes blinked against the rude intrusion and the voice boomed:
“Ok then. 5 minutes to lights out. Make sure you brush your teeth! Oh and clean up that mess of silver wrappers from the cheese will you. When I come back in to switch off the lights, I want this place spotless. Got it?”
Yes sir.” Came the chorus and boys moved to prepare for bed. I understood then why Zulus place their beds on columns of bricks. The Tockoloshi man comes in the night to steal the soul but he is very short and provided the bed is above his height, he can do no harm. Hitsi Ibib can transform to many shapes...the eland, the snake, the mantis....