From Unto Dust
by Herman Charles Bosman
The way Ben Myburg lost his memory (Oom Schalk Lourens said) made a deep impression on all of us. We reasoned that that was the sort of thing that a sudden shock could do to you. There were those in our small seksie of General Du Toit’s commando who could recall similar stories of how people, in a moment, could forget everything about the past, just because of a single dreadful happening.
A shock like that can have the same effect on you even if you are prepared for it. Maybe it can be worse, even. And in this connection I often think of what it says in the Good Book, about that which you most feared having now at last caught up with you.
Our commando went as far as the border by train. And when the engine came to a stop on a piece of open veld, and it wasn’t for water, this time, and the engine-driver and fireman didn’t step down with spanners and use bad language, then we understood that the train stopping there was the beginning of the Second Boer War.
We were wearing new clothes and we had new equipment, and the sun was shining on the barrels of our Mausers. Our new clothes had been requisitioned for us by our veldkornets at stores along the way. All the veldkornet had to do was to sign his name on a piece of paper for whatever his men purchased.
In most cases, after we had patronised a store in that manner, the shopkeeper would close his shutters for the day. And three years would pass, and the Boer War would be over, before the shopkeeper would display any sort of inclination to open his shutters again.
Maybe he should have closed them before we came.
Only one seksie of General Du Toit’s commando entered Natal looking considerably dilapidated. This seksie looked as though it was already the end of the Boer War, and not just the beginning. Afterwards we found out that their veldkornet had never learnt to write his name.
‘You don’t seem to remember me, Schalk,’ a young fellow came up and said to me. I admitted that I didn’t recognise him, straight away, as Ben Myburg. He did look different in those smart light-green riding pants and that new hat with the ostrich feather stuck in it. You could see that he had patronised some mine concession store before the owner had closed his shutters.
‘But I would know you anywhere, Schalk,’ Ben Myburg went on. ‘Just from the quick way you hid that soap under your saddle a couple of minutes ago. I remembered where I had last seen something so quick. It was two years ago, at the nagmaal in Nylstroom.’
I told Ben Myburg that if it was that jar of brandy he meant, then he must realise that there had also been a good deal of misunderstanding about it. Moreover, it was not even a full jar, I said.
But I congratulated him on his powers of memory, which I said I was sure would yet stand the Republic in good stead.
And I was right. For afterwards, when the war of the big commandos was over, and we were in constant retreat, it would be Ben Myburg who, next day, would lead us back to the donga in which we had hidden some mielie-meal and a tin of cooking fat. And if the tin of cooking fat was empty, he would be able to tell us right away if it was humans or baboons. A human had a different way of eating cooking fat out of a tin from a baboon, Ben Myburg had said.
Ben Myburg had been recently married to Mimi van Blerk, who came from Schweitzer-Reneke, a district that was known as far as the Limpopo for its attractive girls. I remembered Mimi van Blerk well. She had full red lips and thick yellow hair. Ben Myburg always looked forward very eagerly to getting letters from his pretty young wife. He would also read out to us extracts from her letters, in which she encouraged us to drive the English into the blue grass – which was the name we gave to the sea in those days. For the English, we had other names.
Eighteen months later saw the armed forces of the Republic in a worse case than I should imagine any army has ever been in, and that army still fighting. We were spread all over the country in small groups. We were in rags.
Many burghers had been taken prisoner. Others had yielded themselves up to British magistrates, holding not their rifles in their hands but their hats. There were a number of Boers, also, who had gone over and joined the English.
For the Transvaal Republic it was near the end of a tale that you tell, sitting around the kitchen fire on a cold night. The story of the Transvaal Republic was at that place where you clear your throat before saying which of the two men the girl finally married. Or whether it was the cattle-smuggler or the Sunday school superintendant who stole the money. Or whether it was a real ghost or just her uncle with a sheet around him that Lettie van Zyl saw at the drift.
By the following evening we had crossed the rant and arrived at Ben Myburg’s farm. We camped among the smoke-blackened walls of his former homestead, erecting a rough shelter with some sheets of corrugated iron that we could still use. And although he must have known only too well what to expect, what Ben Myburg saw there came as so much of a shock to his senses that, from that moment on, all he could remember from the past vanished forever.
It was pitiful to see the change that came over him. If his farm had been laid to ruins, the devastation that took place in Ben Myburg’s mind was no less dreadful.
Perhaps it was that, in truth, there was nothing more left in the past to remember.
We noticed, also, that in singular ways, certain fragments of the by-gone would come into Ben Myburg’s mind; and that he would almost – but not quite – succeed in fitting these pieces together.
We observed that almost immediately. For instance, we remained camped on his farm for several days. And one morning, when the fire for our mielie-pap was crackling under one of the few remaining fruit-trees that had once been an orchard, Ben Myburg reached up and picked a peach that was, in advance of its season, ripe and yellow.
‘It’s funny,’ Ben Myburg said, ‘but I seem to remember, from long ago, reaching up and picking a yellow peach, just like this one. I don’t quite remember where.’
We did not tell him.
Some time later our seksie was captured in a night attack.
For us the Boer War was over. We were going to St Helena. We were driven to Nylstroom, the nearest railhead, in a mule-wagon. It was a strange experience for us to be driving along the main road, in broad daylight, for all the world to see us. From years of wartime habit, our eyes still went to the horison. A bitter thing about our captivity was that among our guards were men of our own people.
Outside Nylstroom we alighted from the mule-wagon and the English sergeant in charge of our escort got us to form fours by the roadside. It was queer – our having to learn to be soldiers at the end of a war instead of at the beginning.
Eventually we got into some sort of formation, the veldkornet, Jurie Bekker, Ben Myburg and I making up the first four. It was already evening. From a distance we could see the lights in the town. The way to the main street of Nylstroom led by the cemetery. Although it was dark, we could yet distinguish several rows of newly made mounds. We did not need to be told that they were concentration camp graves. We took off our battered hats and tramped on in a great silence.
Soon we were in the main street. We saw, then, what those lights were. There was a dance at the hotel. Paraffin lamps were hanging under the hotel’s low, wide verandah. There was much laughter. We saw girls and English officers. In our unaccustomed fours, we slouched past in the dark.
Several of the girls went inside then. But a few of the women-folk remained on the verandah, not looking in our direction. Among them I noticed in particular a girl leaning on an English officer’s shoulder. She looked very pretty, with the light from a paraffin lamp shining on her full lips and yellow hair.
When we had turned the corner, and the darkness was wrapping us round again, I heard Ben Myburg speak.
‘It’s funny,’ I heard Ben Myburg say, ‘but I seem to remember, from long ago, a girl with yellow hair, just like that one. I don’t quite remember where.’
And this time, too, we did not tell him.