High on the koppie the old woman tends the fire again. Throwing the final fistful of grey-green herbs over the unfurling flames, she melts into the silence of the pre-dawn shadows.
The once-maiden draws her lover close. He sleeps and she rises again, the child of the new dawn.
She stands gazing over the veld to where the smudge-blue mountains melt into the velvet-black of the burgeoning storm. Earth tremors ripple over the veld, rousing her waiting feet. She grows taller, a giantess, who strides across the yellowed grasses towards the beckoning finger of lightning.
The rain-bull kneels. In a single fluid movement, the San Man straddles the great beast’s back. The rain-bull rises. Thunder erupts from his nostrils and he charges down the mountain-side, scattering huge boulders before him. The men stagger in his wake as the storm clouds unleash their fury. Flood water surges down the slopes and blankets of rain sweep the over the veld to greet the distant sea.
The storm seethes on and the parched earth groans and shudders under its weight. The two men are gathered up in the deluge, spinning in a howling whirlpool across the veld and coming to rest on the cloud-cloaked koppie.
Later, the men awake to find their companion staring into the dying fire. They rouse themselves from their herb-induced dream-time and trudge down from the koppie.
They know that soon the once-maiden will return leading a long-legged rain-cow to bring soft raindrops which will last a whole season.
Bright moonlight reflects off the rain-bull’s back, casting a myriad of shadows across the barren landscape. His body strains against invisible shackles. At last, pulling free of his bonds, he throws his head back and roars.
The two men watch as the San Man raises the point of his spear-stick skyward, lifting his face to the still-clear sky where Orion with his belt of three she-tortoises guards the night and shooting stars carve graceful arcs across the heavens, measuring out the width of the veld below.
The rain-bull bellows again and the mountains ripple beneath the watchers’ feet. The great beast paws at the rock, displacing an avalanche of stones which trickle down the drought-cursed ravines. Dark clouds gather, veiling the silver moon. The two men stand silent at the San Man’s side, streams of pebbles cascading past their planted feet.
Back on the koppie the young man stands hand-in-hand with the once-maiden. Already there is a quickening in her belly. They raise their glowing faces towards the mountains.
The rain-bull roars again. Thunder rolls around the wide bowl of the veld. The San Man casts his spear-stick in a slow arc around his head. Thunder booms. The mountains roll and pitch under the heavy footfalls of the great beast.
The rain-bull is almost upon them. The two men cower, but the San Man stands firm. The rain-bull pauses and the San Man raises his spear-stick once more. Lightning issues from its point and the rain-bull lowers his great head.
Evening swells across the veld. Invigorated by its welcome sustenance, the two men rise to follow the San Man. Beneath their feet the dusty soil gives way to barren rock as they silently traverse the wide and empty landscape. With the last of the daylight, the breeze quickens. Gusts of scorched sun-baked air swirl down from the smudge-blue mountains and roll away across the veld towards the faraway koppie.
The ground is steeper now. Step after step the San Man leads them onwards. Walking among the ghostly moonbeams, their feet trace the tracks of long-ago water-carved pathways. Memories of gushing streams and bubbling springs are gouged into the parched rock. The foothills are aching for the water’s soft caress.
Back on the koppie the mountain breeze plays over the mouth of the cave. The maiden lifts her head and breathes the scent of the returning soul. The young man stirs, eyelid fluttering, his mind bursting with the memory of his long flight home.
He raises his head as the maiden kneels at his side. She offers herself to him and under the eyes of the ancestors they become one.
The maiden cries out, her triumphant ululation echoes across the empty veld; high up, among the lonely peaks of smudge-blue mountains, a force awakens. A rock splits, then another. Fragments fall, spilling and spiralling downwards. The San Man raises his spear-stick in salute and the rain-bull, glimmering in the moon-bright night, rises from his slumber and lifts his great head heavenward.
The breeze-caressed veld sways, sending parched waves to break on a distant shore. The two men sleep on. Under the gaze of their eagle totem, they dream of the great herds of springbok, eland and kudu which once stalked the land; and of the zebra and wildebeest, hunted by prides and tribes.
Back on the koppie, strong arms carry the young man’s trance-cast body into the cool darkness of the cave, where the ancestor paintings will watch over him. The new maiden emerges to stand on the threshold, proud and tall in that powerful place between hearth and wilderness.
Everywhere between, the veld bakes. Shimmers of hot air rise above the rocks and whirlwind dust-devils dance over bare earth, rising up to be scorched into stillness.
Later, as the tendril fingers of the thorn-tree’s shadow reach out towards the smudge-blue mountains, the San Man appears out of the jagged heat haze. A hide pouch is slung across his bony barrel chest; he carries the carcass of a small, furred animal. At his approach, the two men stir. The eagle bows, locking its keen eye with that of the returned hunter, before taking flight on strong, silent wings which will carry him back to the beckoning maiden who stands on the threshold of the night.
Still entranced by the dream-world of the ancestors, the two men look on as the San Man conjures fire. As the thin flames crackle, he offers them water which is cool, sweet and laced with magic.
The curve of his beak parts the dawn sky as he spirals upwards from where his man-body lies inert on the koppie. A wisp of fragrant smoke from the flickering embers of the camp fire floats upwards in his wake. Then the last remaining log splits asunder and explodes in a shower of pin-prick scarlet sparks.
He soars on the thermals; the warm air fills his wings and transports him over the purple veld. He flies east, as the new day’s pink-gold sun emerges and spills over the purple mountains. Below him, he watches his own shadow running beside a long ribbon of eland as they follow-my-leader across the parched earth.
His keen eye discerns the path his companions have taken and he smells their scent which lingers in the breeze.
The song of the San Man reaches out to him across the sapphire sky.
Soon he alights on a branch of the solitary thorn tree. His companions are resting in the still-silence; neither awake nor asleep, drifting in the half-light of the awakening veld. Now, with his arrival, they let go and he watches over them as they sleep.
The San Man picks up his spear-stick and walks silently off into the veld.
Back on the koppie a slender figure emerges from the cave. She kneels down by the man who lies by the dying fire. He stirs, staring up at her with unseeing eyes. She shakes her head. He sleeps on.
The San Man unties a small skin bag from the beaded thong which he wears around his waist. He shakes the contents onto the fire which sputters and sends up a shower of silver sparks. Scented smoke descends. The younger man slumbers on, his eyes moving restlessly under sleep-closed lids.
The San Man turns around. He leads the waiting men down the narrow path into the veld where the blue-black landscape is alive with the sound of night-time creatures. The three walk on, following the moon-bright swathe cut into the pungent African night. Up ahead, a long ribbon of eland trek across the land, curving away to be swallowed up by the night.
The grass sings and the men walk, one foot in front of the other, a rhythm like a heartbeat, walking on through the night-time veld.
A sliver of sunlight breaks free from the purple mountains, but still they walk on.
Back on the koppie, the young man lies motionless. Free of his body, he soars towards the summit of the heavens on dawn-warmed wings, flexing his cruel curved talons as, keen-eyed, he scours the waking veld below.
A solitary thorn tree reaches out long shadow-fingers, drawing the heartbeat walkers closer. They plough on, footfall after footfall, their footprints erased behind them by the gentle berg breeze.
The sun climbs and the veld bakes, but now the men rest silently in its shade. An eagle wheels high above. The San Man beckons and slowly it begins its descent.
Air, thick with cicada-song, rises from the veld. The three men recline on the sun-heated rocks, staring into the fire. Herb-scented smoke hangs heavily in the purple dusk. They are the tiniest specks in the timeless universe, each smaller than a newly-hatched mantis, in this, the place of the ancient ones.
Darkness closes in and the great African she-moon rises; pin-prick stars stab the violet-thick night. Still no one speaks. The older brown-skinned man carefully feeds the fire which crackles in the desiccated air.
A night-bird shrieks and, on the other side of the koppie, a hyena cackles. The young man, still fresh from the sprawling city, stares around warily. His companion turns from the fire: ‘Be still, my brother.’ The young man settles back.
The night wears on. Trance-like they stare into the fire. The young man’s eyes are heavy; he closes his eyes and tries to imagine an ancestor he’s never known.
A shadow appears on the far side of the fire. The two older men sit up, their faces bright in the firelight. The San Man has come. He lays his stick aside and squats by the fire, resting his chin on his folded hands, staring onto the flames. Still without acknowledging them, he starts to hum. The sound swells, its vibration filling the air.
Abruptly it stops.
The figure stands, takes up his stick, and beckons to them. They try to rouse their young companion, but he sleeps on.