Marjorie sprang up and mounted all in one flow of movement, then waited for me to sort myself out and follow.
Several hundred yards up the hill we came to a trampled grassy area below a steep rock face. Maybe ten or twelve people were standing in the hot sunlight, the men wearing white shirts and ties with grey or dark blue trousers and shiny black shoes. The women wore calf length dresses buttoned to the throat. All of them wore long blue cloaks with white embroidered crosses over their normal Mission style Sunday clothes.
They’d finished their service, and now they set off in procession back down the path. “We are going to the river now, to baptise some new believers,” said the bearded man in front. “Follow if you believe, and would be saved.”
Marjorie and I waited beside the path as the worshippers filed away downhill, and then we left the horses in the shade and walked slowly into the clearing.
“Look at that, Pete, the paintings under the overhang. Those must be Bushman rock art.”
“That means this was a sacred place before they started to use it for Christian services. Those paintings are more than just idle scribbles on the rock.”
This was stuff I knew about, from my Gran and her sister, my Great-aunt Sarah. “The San, the Bushmen that is, believed that there’s another world, a spirit place, that you can enter to seek power for healing and protection. They said you enter it just like a frog passes into water through the surface of a pond. They’d dance for hours, and then go into that other place. They thought of themselves as transformed into spirit beings when they danced, mostly in the form of eland. They thought eland were always partly in this world and partly elsewhere, with a sort of permanent link.”
Marjorie listened, standing close, so I carried on, “When the early colonists asked about religion, their questions and the answers weren't easily translatable. One way they often replied to questions about spirituality and belief in Higher Powers, as the missionaries phrased it, was to say, ‘We Dance the Eland’.”
“How did they dance, then? With music and costumes and a big ceremony, or what?”
I looked up at the top of the great rock, sharp against the sky, as I tried to remember what Aunt Sarah said about those dancers. There was a bird high up, almost too high to see, just a black speck against the blue. A dassie, a rock-rabbit, barked its sharp alarm call twice, and then the soft waiting silence fell again. I could hear Marjorie breathe beside me.
“My old Aunt told me they’d just dance for hours, and keep going until their stomachs cramped up, and then they’d keep going around, crouched over with the pain. Their noses bled, and finally they lost touch with this place. They were somewhere else, in a different world. They didn’t have stuff like special costumes or fancy musical instruments. Just maybe rattles for rhythm, and people might sing and clap their hands. I think she said they might use a walking stick like a third leg, to take some of the strain off their back, you know, from leaning forwards.
“Nose bleeds and stomach cramps doesn’t sound very magical to me. How did that help with anything?”
“They’d keep their particular problem in mind, what they had to fix, like helping a sick person, or getting rid of nuisance lions, or whatever. When they came out of it, they’d be better able to deal with things. They thought they brought back power, some kind of magic, from the other world. Auntie said she thought they went into their own subconscious, and found their answer inside themselves.”
I kept talking as we walked under the overhang, into the rock shelter, glad to show her I wasn't just a fool, that I knew stuff, even though I couldn't ride a horse. “We should be able to see an eland somewhere here. They were a link to the spirits, after all. Their fat was often used in medicines and to mix the paint for these drawings.”
The back wall, away from direct sunlight and sheltered from the rain by the overhang, was almost totally covered by a jumble of overlapping images.
“Aunt Sarah knows about all this stuff, she sorta studies it. She never went to university or anything like that, she just knows a lot from old stories, and she reads a lot. She said, when she was a child there was a really old man on the farm who told stories from his own childhood. Now that would have been a long time ago, maybe back to around Eighteen Thirty or so, when there were still Bushmen, San I should say, living in the old way around the Cape, and probably up here too.”
“Actually, I can see right away these drawings are different to those down South. The colours aren’t the same, with much more black, and they show more elephants than anything else. There are only a few eland, so probably these people didn’t think of them in the same way, as the most powerful animal. But it’s likely they thought them specially magical.”
There were several eland among the various animals depicted in faded black and shades of red, white, and yellow on the rock face. “Aunt Sarah told me the eland is found more often than any other animal in rock art. They were closely linked to the creative and protective forces of the universe. They opposed the negative destructive powers, which were seen as predators. Leopards, hyenas, and especially lions. Sometimes evil shamans would be possessed by a lion spirit, and cause great misery.”
I looked at Marjorie, to see if all this was boring her, or if the stuff about shamans and evil spirits might have hit some religious nerve, but she looked right at me, and smiled. The pupils of her eyes were enormous, dark pools that drew me in.
I turned my eyes away with an effort, in case she thought I was getting too pushy, and went on. “Real lions ruled almost unchallenged in the old times, when poisoned arrows and thrown rocks were all they could use to defend their families. Eland actively protect their young against lions, and they sometimes even chase and kill them. With their strong horns and their size, they’re not like most other grazers, which abandon their herd mates when they’re attacked, so people just naturally thought of them as being, I dunno, allies, I suppose.”
“That one looks like he has only one horn.” Marjorie pointed to a large eland, shown in mid leap, stretched out with legs extended front and back.
“Probably some of the paint has worn away there. That must be an old image. Look at that big elephant above it, there's just a hint of legs, done in ochre red, that seem to be growing out of the eland, and then a solid black body. Almost looks as if the elephant and the eland are connected, probably because one was painted on top of the other years later.”
Marjorie smiled. “Or maybe they’re meant to be together in some way. Maybe there’s some kind of spiritual connection, or some legend about them both.” She looked at me. “The artist could’ve meant to paint one horn. Maybe that rock eland is a unicorn. A magical animal, born with one horn. We should ask it to help us, to bring peace and stop all this fighting and killing.”
“Oh don't be silly, how can a painting of an animal do that? Do you really think even a live animal could do anything except try to keep itself alive? If there was anything to it, where are all the Bushmen now? Seems like the power of the spear and the gun did for them long ago.”
“Well, I suppose. But I still think that’s meant to show a special creature with one horn. I happen to know there is such an animal. An eland sure enough, but also a real live unicorn. In fact, all you've told me about the old beliefs, about the eland and its powers, sounds very like some of the stuff they say about unicorns.”
“How do you mean? I mean what stuff? Like being able to counteract poison by drinking its horn ground up in wine, or what?”
“Not exactly, but they both have healing magic, and they both fight lions, with a good chance of winning, and they're both peaceful by nature, but quite dangerous to the bad guys, right?”
“Okay, if you put it like that. But that doesn't mean they wanted to show an animal with one horn up there. Those are really old paintings, and everything is all jumbled up, done by different people over a long time. Look over there, some are so faded you can only see them at all when you look the right way.”
Marjorie didn’t seem convinced, but she shrugged and smiled. “Okay, Pete.” She looked at me. “You know, sometime you should come down to our farm. We’ve some really cool animals there. Apart from horses and cows I mean.”
We collected the horses and rode slowly back to the farmyard, where Issy, Mary, and Jen were sitting in the hay loft with a transistor radio cranked loud.
“All you need is Love,” sang the Beatles, while the girls swung their legs and chattered.
Back in the house on Cedar Road that night I just couldn't get to sleep. I went over the past several days, all that had happened since leaving England, the turmoil and lawlessness I’d encountered in the Congo. What must life be like for ordinary people under those conditions? At the mercy of whichever army or gang ruled for that day in that patch of territory.
I wondered about this new job I was starting next morning. That was going to be productive, and help people to a better life. I was going to be a part of the Green Revolution.
Eventually I began to drift off, and my thoughts turned from all the conflicts going on, to Marjorie. I remembered how she smiled when we met, how her hair moved on her shoulders as she rode ahead, and then how good it had felt to talk to her. To talk through the trauma of the Congo business, and unburden myself of how I felt about Mum’s illness and death. She listened as I told her all that stuff about the Bushmen and their beliefs, even. But then a very old memory surfaced, as vivid as if it were yesterday, and I laid there and remembered a day, way back when I was eight years old, in Capetown.