“I was more mature when I left the army than I was when I began my basic training.” Werner turned his wrinkled, sunburned face towards the young man sitting on a rock slightly below him.
“Does that have anything to do with the way you have lived since then?” Ray squinted up to see his companion.
“Working in the wild you mean?” Werner smilingly gestured towards the bushveld spreading out below them. “I came across a virtually abandoned zoo in Angola. Something snapped inside me then: I knew I couldn’t help those poor animals, but determined even then that I would devote my life to caring for the rest.”
“I have read descriptions of you being a particularly compassionate kind of scientist. That’s why I wanted to work-shadow you. I want to learn more than simply applying the factual knowledge I have gained about the environment: you seem to have developed a deep understanding of where you are.”
Werner picked up a dusty stone and rolled it about in his large hands before answering. “Would you believe that I used to write poetry at school? Nonsense, I know that now, but expressive. We had different issues to deal with in those days.”
Ray lifted his water bottle to his mouth, some drops of cool water trickled down his chin. He twisted the lid closed before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Do you still write poetry?” He felt unsure of the boundaries he was crossing for the older man looked away for a moment before rising.
“We still have a long way to cover. Keep a sharp look out for any unusual signs along the way and we might make a tracker of you yet.” Werner’s voice sounded gruff.
That evening Ray was struck anew by the simplicity of the small home Werner occupied. He had built it himself, nestled within a grove of bushveld trees near an enormous rock dome. Material wealth was clearly not a factor in Werner’s life, he thought as the two men sipped their coffee after a light supper.
Werner settled into his chair and spoke quietly in the darkness of the veranda. “Writing poetry kept me sane in the army. It was raw though – not the kind of verses anyone would care to read now. No-one really wants to know how unglamorous and unheroic human conflict can be. The tension, fear, blood and guts are too real. For some people it is the uniforms and equipment that make them think its all about cowboys and Indians; about rooting for black hat or white hat.”
“What’s that?” Ray ventured into the dark silence.
“You wouldn’t know. My generation grew up on cowboy films. Not to worry. I write poems now about the veld, the animals, and the birds I see – even insects. Years spent in the bush makes one appreciate how nature works best.”
Werner gathered their plates and mugs. Ray washed up and then yawned loudly. They had spent the day on their feet with another long walk awaiting them in the morning. They set off so early that it was only just light enough to see birds rising from the surface of the river. Morning mist covered the low-lying area, so thick in places that Ray kept his eyes on the heels of Werner’s military-style boots ahead of him until they had risen high enough to be bathed in the sunlight.
He noticed the broad gold ring glistening on Werner’s left hand. His own fingers were bare since he had removed the elephant hair ring shortly after Werner had teased him about it during their first day in the veld. “You don’t need such rings, brass or copper bangles, leather straps or gaudy beads to make you a man. You need a good heart, a steady eye and a level head. Learn to trust and to be trustworthy,” he had laughed.
It was after a long silence on their third evening together that Werner confided “Katharine was my soul mate. She was the ‘people-person’ who sang songs and who made us a home out of tents, a caravan or two, and even the smallest of houses. She took the arrival of Desmond in her stride and helped bring him up in the best possible way.”
“Where is he now?” Ray spoke tentatively, feeling unsettled by this unexpected glimpse into Werner’s private world.
“Desmond makes big bucks as a wildlife vet. You may have read about the work he does with large antelope and especially with rhinos left for dead by poachers.” There was an undeniable note of pride in his voice. “Joseph captains merchant ships and Hugh is an established author specialising in ornithology. Katharine taught all our boys to dance – probably to make up for my clumsiness.”
On the last morning of his work-shadow experience, Ray reflected on the possible topics he might explore for his Master’s degree which they had discussed the night before. His father was pressuring him to rather start earning a living. With various ideas swirling about in his head, his eye fell on an anthology of poetry lying on a narrow shelf in the kitchen-cum-dining area. As Werner was cooking bacon and eggs for their breakfast, he opened the book and was immediately entranced by the beautifully detailed drawings and paintings that illustrated each of Werner’s poems. In every picture the name Katharine hid in the grass, or ran up against a tree trunk, or slid down a creeper.
Werner watched him from the stove. “Katharine was the best, Ray. The absolute best.” He set their plates on the bare wooden table. “She’s here, there, and everywhere and comes to me all the time. It’s her spirit that sustains me.”
As Ray reluctantly headed home, Werner’s final words played over in his mind. “Choose a field you are truly interested in Ray. Money isn’t everything, but leading a full life is. And, when you meet a good woman do your best to love and protect her to the end. That way you’ll have her forever.”