A Bushmen woman holds her son up to the stars in the pitch black night. "The stars there have heart in plenty and are great hunters. She is asking them to take from her little child his little heart and to give him the heart of a hunter."
January 7, 1961
The Heart of the Hunter
Laurens Van Der Post
Out there between our camp and their shelters the desert was as dark and still as I have ever known it. The only other living things capable of uttering a sound were snakes, and no serpent would have been so foolish as to hiss while about his business on a night so profound. There was no fitful air of summer even, no heat eddy of the frightful day spinning about to rustle what was left of leaf and grass on the scorched earth. But there was this intense electric murmur of the stars at one’s ears.
Then suddenly, ahead in a band of absolute black with no fire or reflection of fire to pale it down, I thought I heard the sound of a human voice. I stopped at once and listened carefully. The sound came again more distant, like the voice of a woman crooning over a cradle. I stood with my back to the horizon bright with portents of lightning, waiting for my eyes to recover from the glare of our great camp-fire. Slowly, against the water-light of the stars lapping briskly among the breakers of thorn and hardwood around us, emerged the outline of a woman holding out a child in both her hands, high above her head, and singing something with her own face lifted to the sky. Her attitude and the reverence trembling in her voice, moved me so that the hair at the back of my neck stood on end.
‘What’s she doing?’ I whispered to Dabé, who had halted without a sound, like my own star-shadow beside me.
‘She’s asking the stars up there,’ he whispered, like a man requested in the temple of his people to explain to a stranger a most solemn moment of their ritual.
‘She’s asking the stars to take the little heart of her child and to give him something of the heart of a star in return.’
‘But why the stars?’ I asked.
‘Because, Moren,’ he said in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘the stars there have heart in plenty and are great hunters. She is asking them to take from her little child his little heart and to give him the heart of a hunter.’
The explanation moved me to a silence which Dabé mistook. Afraid, I suspect, that like most of the people he knew in his life of exile I would scorn a Bushman’s belief, he wanted reassurance immediately.
‘But why don’t you say something, Moren?’ he asked, almost like an anxious child. ‘Surely you must know that the stars are great hunters? Can’t you hear them? Do listen to what they are crying! Come on! Moren! You are not so deaf that you cannot hear them.’
I have slept out under the stars in Africa for too many years not to know that they sound and resound in the sky. From the time I was born until I first went to school, I slept outside a house every night except when it was raining – and that was seldom. My first memories are of the incomparable starlight of the high veld of Southern Africa and the far sea-sound that goes with it.
I hastened to say, ‘Yes, Dabé, of course I hear them!’ But then I was forced to add, ‘Only I do not know what they are saying. Do you know?’
Reassured, he stood for a moment head on one side, while the light of another flash from the horizon flew like a ghost moth by us. Then, with the note of indulgence he could not resist using on me when he felt his authority not in doubt, he said, ‘They are very busy hunting tonight and all I hear are their hunting cries: “Tssik!” and “Tsá!”’
Had it not been for the darkness between us he would have seen, I am sure, the shock of amazement on my face. I had known those sounds all my life. Ever since I can remember we ourselves had used them out hunting with our dogs. ‘Tssik!’ repeated sharply thrice was the sound we used to alert our dogs when we were at the cover of bush, grass, cave, or donga in which we suspected our quarry to be hiding. Hearing it, the ears of our dogs would immediately prick up, their eyes shine with excitement and their noses sniff the air diligently for scent. Another ‘Tssik’ would send them to search the cover. ‘Tsá’ was the final imperative note which released them from all restraint and launched them after our chosen quarry when it was flushed.
I had always wondered about the origin of these sounds. Neither of them had ever seemed European to me. I had asked the oldest of the old people of all races and colours. I asked one of the greatest of all African hunters, too. They could only say that, like me, they had been born into a world in which they were already in long-established use. Stranger still, wherever I went in the world I found that, although hunters outside Africa did not know the sounds and therefore did not use them with their dogs, if I tried them out many of the dogs responded. They would start searching with all their senses: if I kept up the sounds for long, they became exceedingly restless, in the end letting out that involuntary and nostalgic whimper normally provoked in them only by the moon. That had deepened the mystery for me, but now I thought I knew: we had the sounds from the Bushman, and he and the dogs had them straight from the stars. The revelation filled me with awe. I felt as if I had been allowed to witness the coming of the word in the darkness before time. I thought this was enough of magic in a day which in my encounter with the little steenbuck had begun with magic.