APPLE BLOSSOM (PART 2)
Arriving back at camp he could smell that she was there, her perfume still hung about. There was no wind at all and he could detect the apple blossom from her hair mingling with the smells of the bush, lingering between acacia leaves and the twirling smoke from the smouldering fire. Subtle, the way he liked it, you had to stand real close to smell the faintest whiff. Funny how your senses sharpen in the bush he thought, he had missed her by an hour. But still, she was there, by the smell of her hair and the warm kettle and the muffins on his chair.
The dog had crawled into the shade beneath the bakkie; it was the coolest place that she could find. He rinsed her bowl to get rid of the bees and filled it with fresh water. She was exhausted, panting heavily; it’s been a long morning. They had left when the first crested francolins cracked the morning and it took a long hour’s walk before they found the birds. By seven it was clear it was going to be hot again. The spaniel soon found a cattle trough and jumping in she quenched her thirst and cooled down, submerged up to her neck. They love water – cold and wet weather dogs they are, the book says... dogs that battle in the heat. With enough water they can run all day long, but they must cool down regularly. Which is perhaps true of most gundogs. Heat stroke can be a real danger, they don’t know when to quit.
She was good that morning; the man thought as he made coffee and selected a buttered muffin. The dry veld held as many Swainson’s as he had ever seen. The little spaniel had learnt to avoid the sharply hooked thorns, she paced herself, with careful restraint skirting or jumping over the raking branches. And she found them all, pushed them squawking into the air and up in front of his gun. Her retrieving too was excellent, finding small openings she cautiously pulled the birds free, almost delicately so. After a while they just walked, enjoying nature, reading the Great Book, finding odd little things; the shining elytra of a buprestid beetle, alien looking marula nuts with the kernels gnawed out, freshly dropped porcupine quills, the brilliant feather of a hadeda – all jewels of the veld. They found a patch of bush with the remains of a thousand red-billed quelea nests, warthog burrows... why would she come out to the camp when they agreed he would only be back home late the following day?
The little dog lifted her head and her gaze followed him when he picked up the birds and walked to a nearby aardvark hollow he remembered from that morning. He would draw the birds and drop the guts in the hole, whatever lurked down there would be happy and make a quick meal of it. He hung the birds in the deep shade of a ghwarrie, to cool down and dry as soon as possible. In the morning he would pack them in the cooler, almost frozen from the night. It was like that on the flats, hot and dusty during the day, bitingly cold at night. He would breast two Swainson’s and simmer them with big white beans and spicy sausages, a cassoulet his friend had taught him to make. She said she liked it the last time he tried the recipe. It was nice to hear, even though he knew she just pretended, trying not to hurt his feelings. Soft and tender in the morning it would be good for breakfast, with sweet black coffee. The dog too loved being spoilt like that.
It was mid-day by the time he had finished the birds. With preciously little shade under the bare umbrella thorns he decided to take a dip in the cement tank at the kraal. A few cows sauntered over and watched him as he stripped down and placed his clothes on a corner pole. The water was cool and inviting, refreshing despite the green sludge on top. Sitting in the dam it reminded him of many years ago when they still enjoyed the intimacy of bathing together, when all was still new and unexplored. A couple of larks came to drink where the water splashed over the top. He sat dead still, only his head sticking out, watching them dipping their beaks deep into the water, then throwing back their heads, eagerly swallowing the moisture. Water means life in the veld. Without water everything would wither and eventually die. The sun was just too hot, you had to know where to find water and shade and manage to survive the heat. To sit out the midday heat and be active when it is cool... early mornings or at night.
When he got out of the dam he felt all shrivelled up, almost cold, so he dried himself in the sun. The spaniel watched from the shade of a thorn tree, still panting from the heat. She too knew how to preserve her energy. They would take a long nap now, till four or five in the afternoon. Perhaps he would read, take his mind off the memory of apple blossoms and muffins on his chair. Perhaps he should go home tonight after all, he thought. But if there was trouble she would have left a message and there was nothing on his phone.
With his mind wondering between coveys of crested francolin and his wife’s unusual visit he dosed off. The dog-eared copy of Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy folded on his chest. The dog lay in the dust, perhaps she was dreaming too.
That morning the little dog had found the first scent of the covey at the edge of the bush next to an old sunflower field and worked it out to where the birds had taken cover in a patch of densely packed cockle burrs. The flushed covey split in two, the smaller hens veered off to the right, keeping low and hidden behind the trees and shrubs. The cock broke to the left, climbing steeply to clear an
umbrella thorn, then banked back towards the bush high over the man who covered the bird with his barrel and fired, dropping it into a tangled mess of asparagus creepers. It sort of made his morning, that beautiful little crested francolin with his immaculate spurs and unruffled chest of brown teardrop feathers. When the spaniel delivered the bird hardly a feather was ruffled, no blood or broken wings or legs, perfect in every way. It looked like it could sit up and take off at any moment, and the man wished it would. Like catch and release, to swim away and grow bigger and better and more cautious in the future. How he would love to see that happen, a bird to take off and fly, released, unharmed.
It was quite a job to rid the spaniel of the cockle burrs. The only way was to get down on his knees and haul out the scissors. She was never relaxed when he used the scissors, nipped too often he guessed. But he had to cut them free, if not she would slow down to a halt and chafe till bleeding between the legs. But she knew he was helping her, and nervously remained still.
When he woke up, the sun was almost down and it had cooled down considerably. Cool enough to don his shooting jacket. He loved that worn jacket. It bore the battle scars of many hunts, in many places thorns and barbed wire had ripped the fabric. He enjoyed going through the pockets to see what was left from previous shoots. Mostly feathers, but enough to jolt the memory of where and when he bagged that particular Swainson’s or guineafowl. Perhaps there would be some rocky feathers from the last shoot on the Springbok Flats, or a few feathers from the yellow bill he shot at Chrissiesmeer. But they don’t drop feathers easily; they’re good for dogs to learn the trade. Doves are too messy, especially in hot weather too many feathers get stuck to the dogs’ mouth.
Having cleared one pocket of all evidence from previous shoots he put a muffin into it, ate another and gave the last one to the dog. They were great; his wife really knows how to make a good muffin. He couldn’t think of anything better to have at that moment in the bush. A fresh muffin with genuine but- ter and grated cheese. It was like sitting on the stoep of The Rose Cottage, having tea with her and watching wide-eyed tourists filing past. Yes, the muffins always tasted great, perhaps even better here in the bush without the tourists, but not without her. Having muffins with her was always better than having them alone. He knew nothing about muffins and tea before they got married. Female stuff, tea and scones and such, but easy to get used to. Scones with real cream and strawberry jam. That was good, few things could be better than warm scones on the stoep of The Rose Cottage.
It was a long walk to the shallow irrigation dam on the other side of the farm. Sometimes a few ducks would appear towards evening. It was really only a puddle, a few inches deep, more grass than water, but it was green and magic to sit next to and listen to the day coming to an end and the night starting up. A few frogs would start the chorus, big toads with guttural voices; sometimes an early night jar would join in the choir. Doves would fly in and waddle to the edge of the water and take small and delicate sips. Once he heard a few sandgrouse sweeping in, their beautiful melodious calls unmistakable. Once you’ve heard them you will never forget the sound. The shrill noise of the cicadas would slowly die away and the crickets would take over. Overhead a few opportunistic bats were hungry for an early snack. He almost missed the yellow bills swooping in through the dying sun. Dark silhouettes against the crimson sky, they swept passed him, banked in a perfect curve and pushed their breaks out to land on the far side of the pond. Now below the red rim their yellow beaks shone like gold in the last light of the day.
He sat and watched, the dog tight against his side, also intensely watching the ducks wading through the inch-deep water, waiting for a command from her boss. When a second flight of yellow bills flew in he shot the trailing bird and when the group on the water took off he swung the shotgun onto them and downed the last bird as it cleared the dam. Both birds dropped in the open water, in full view. The spaniel was already on her way to retrieve the first duck and coming back it was easy to direct her to the second one. That was more than he had hoped for and he stowed the two yellow bills in the bird pouch of his jacket.
Completely content he and the spaniel walked back in the cool of the evening, his gun broken over his shoulder and the dog busily investigating everything she didn’t have the time to look at during the day.
This was the time of the day that he wanted to be with his wife, to sit and have a quiet chat. How it went at work, small talk, important talk, although he didn’t always know what to say. He mostly listened, but he liked that too. He could sometimes, without her knowing, dream away. But he liked her voice, as he liked the nightjars calling on a moonlit night. Their songs were beautiful, her voice was beautiful too. He missed her then, walking back to camp.
I’ll go home after all, he thought, perhaps there was something wrong.
The spaniel was already on her way to retrieve the first duck and coming back it was easy to direct her to the second one.