The horse and the lost boys

2014-01-22 07:46

The sun is higher here than any place I’ve ever been to. The heat suffocates you. It staggers your movement and changes your skin colour. The light is as sharp as the smell of emptiness. Tenderness roams nowhere near and the tourniquet of interaction remains buried in the vast open spaces of solitude. When the treacherous heat subsides after sunset and cools down the lost landscape, an air of forgiveness and justice moves through the spaces in time forgotten.

The farm was only 40 kilometres outside of the sandy intolerant town of Colesberg. The typical Karoo topography demanded victims of the inhabitants of its landscape. I was seeking a rebirth of sorts. I was seeking acceptance; and in an anachronistic change I retreated from the city to the home of horses, sheep and herbed bush.

“Yes, you can come.”

These words I longed to hear from my uncle. I begged him for weeks before he let me assist him in starting a new thoroughbred horse stud farm in this remote district.

Long hard days with no money but plenty of reward awaited me.

The dusty roads paralleled the borders of magnificence. Shallow graves of sweat soaked the soil and reminded me that here, you are who you are and nothing is going to change that.

I was lunging a horse. A wild one. Dubbed the“blue horse”because of his colour, a grey with a slight blue tinge to him. Born in the veld by a released mare, this horse had lived on our neighbours 10 000 hectare farm for more than ten years, forgotten. It had never come in contact with humans. It survived by grazing on the irrigated lands and shared the water pumped for the sheep.

Short of working horses, our neighbours decided to retrieve the blue horse from the open spaces and school him. Sheep farmers by trade, they turned to my uncle and me. Fascinated with cowboy culture at the time, embarrassingly enough, myself and two other farm workers rode off into the veld in search of the blue horse. Like Wyatt Earp and his deputies. Several hours later with bodies drained and thirsty horses we managed to steer the fascinating wild horse into a paddock on our farm.

The heat had sapped my energy and the blue horse seemed to have it boundlessly. Taking a short rest and letting my trusted assistant Vlooi – Afrikaans for flea – take over while I sought refreshment and rest at the borehole dam. Drowning my head in the icy water pumped from the driest sand I had ever come across was an anomaly I often tried to grasp.

I loved the pure water draining down my face. My eyes regained focus and in the distance I saw a figure. A small figure. A little boy walking down the infinite dusty entrance path toward me. The farm must’ve been 30 kilometres from the main road and we never saw anybody walking on the road leading to us. Intrigued I walked my water drenched clothes toward this ghostly child.

What are you doing here I asked, are you looking for someone? The little kid couldn’t have been older than eight or nine. Dressed in a tattered pink pyjama onesie, made for a toddler, his arms and legs stuck out of the torn stretched sleeves like a primitive caveman trying to break free from the confines of clothing.

He shyly smiled but didn’t say anything. Out of a tiny pocket he took a small rectangle piece of newspaper, a smidge of tobacco and rolled the most perfect cigarette I had ever seen. Like second nature he lit up in front of me with his last match and just smiled, still saying nothing.

“Wat is jou naam?” (What is your name?) I asked passively.

Kwekwe.” (Kwekwe)

inkwenkwe means uncircumcised boy in Xhosa. I assume the little guy’s name is a derivative from this.

He looked up at me with a smile. Puffing away.

“Jy is te klein om daai ding te rook.” (You are too young to smoke that.)

He chuckled, but still no answer.

“Hoe oud is jy?” (How old are you?)

With his tiny hands he first showed ten fingers and then two. Twelve? This child can’t be twelve, he’s tiny.

I continued to question him. Where he lived? Why he was here? The young boy broke his silence and spoke.

He’d been going from farm to farm for a “long time”, in his words, and didn’t have any parents. I later heard from the locals that Kwekwe was a well-known figure in the Colesberg farming community. Apparently the young boy set out into the harsh abyss of these areas when his mother died. He was so distraught he refused the care of any of the other families living on the farm and braved the world in the only clothes he had, a pink onesie. He made his way to a new farm every so often and relied on the farm workers’ hospitality. If they had nothing, they had nothing to offer, and Kwekwe would try and find welcome somewhere else.

With the unforgiving heat still beating down on us I walked back toward the blue horse. Kwekwe followed. Both the boy and the horse intrigued and saddened me equally – forgotten by society and wild.

The blue horse was sweating and tired. It was time to try and strap the girth to the horses back. Vlooi acknowledged Kwekwe but there was no time for chit-chat, this was dangerous business. The boy climbed onto the highest pole of the lunging ring and admired our work. Vlooi had a special way with horses. He slowly approached the untamed beast. Each step of his rubber boot edging closer in the powder dry sand. In the slowest of motion he lifted his hand and tried to stroke the colt’s back. The horse leaned back into its hind legs and pulled its ears back in anger. It did not want to be touched, but the horse whisperer Vlooi didn’t care. Vlooi was a master of his trade. Kwekwe, astonished and leaning all the way forward, absorbed this moment of beauty. Vlooi was stroking the striking blue horse, gaining the animal’s trust with every movement of his hand against the horse’s perspired body. A respect between the blue horse and Vlooi was developing and the wild boy was there to see it.

Later that afternoon when work was all over I made my way to the houses of the farm workers. We had five employees; Vlooi and his wife Dora, Eric, Hondjies and his wife Tana. Because there was so few of them they would cook together every night. Outside their little homes with a fire and a pot they would sit around smoking cheap tobacco and talk, like family. I would often join in. I remember it as some of the greatest moments of my life.

From far away I could see Kwekwe sitting with them as Eric started the fire.I greeted everybody. They enjoyed me joining them. They were my friends. My uncle was off somewhere most of the time, travelling to the city to his girlfriend. That meant I was this kid, lost on a farm, alone.

Kwekwe was having the time of his life. Sitting next to the fire while Vlooi regaled us with the day’s fun. He boasted of how he triumphantly broke the horse’s first and most important barrier. There we were, sitting in one of the most remote areas of South Africa under the clearest sky enjoying each other’s company. Me, the white boy from the city lost on the farm, Kwekwe, the Xhosa boy from the farm lost on the farm and the blue horse that was once lost and free but unfortunately had been found.

Kwekwe spent a few more days with us. I taught him how to saddle a horse while he puffed away at his cigarette. I tried to get him to stop. He refused. I showed how to feed my uncle’s racing pigeons. We gave him a new outfit. I’d never seen a smile that big.

On the morning I had decided to ask Kwekwe to stay, and hopefully help find him a home, he had left. As quickly as he had entered our lives, he left.

I blame myself for not helping sooner, for not finding him a place of safety. I was a boy myself, young and ignorant. Much like the blue horse I think Kwekwe didn’t want to be found, deep down I think the lost boy wanted to stay lost. I will never know, I never heard or saw of him again.

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