The Bushmen: "I gathered that the magic of the steenbuck(small deer) was that of the innocent, the gentle and the beautiful combined in one. It was a creature – or a person, as he called it – too beautiful to be aware of imperfection, too innocent to know fear, too gentle to suspect violence."
January 10, 1961
The Heart of the Hunter
Laurens Van Der Post
I took the hint and changed the subject. I reminded him of my question about the steenbuck and its magic. He sat up and beat the sand with the side of his hand for emphasis. Of course the steenbuck had magic, great magic! Surely everyone knew that; even the children, like his grandsons there, knew it.
‘But, old father,’ I insisted, ‘I do not know it. What sort of magic is it? What does it do?’
He answered readily enough. But the subject now was far more complicated than that of the stars as hunters. The assumptions on which his explanations were based had no parallel in our own thinking. Dabé, who always had his difficulties with the dialect not quite his own, struggled valiantly to find equivalents in either Sechuana or Afrikaans for me, but I suspect often failed. For the first time I wished I had brought Ben too, because I had found in such encounters that, with his knowledge of the Bushman tongue and complete mastery of Sechuana, he could help Dabé fill the more important gaps in his interpretation. But I dared not interrupt the old father’s flow while I went to fetch Ben, in case it stopped altogether. So I watched his eloquent face and gestures, listening more carefully than ever to his words, for Bushman is so onomatopoeic, so directly related to its meaning, that if taken in as a kind of music it makes some general sense even when the words individually do not. At the Sip Wells, for instance, I had listened to many a story and discovered that often the sound had conveyed the rough sense to me before Dabé interpreted the actual words.
Subject to these qualifications the old father’s drift seemed plain enough to me. I gathered that the magic of the steenbuck was that of the innocent, the gentle and the beautiful combined in one. It was a creature – or a person, as he called it – too beautiful to be aware of imperfection, too innocent to know fear, too gentle to suspect violence. How it differed from the duiker! Had I not noticed that the heart of the duiker was full of suspicion and fear? At the first strange sound it assumed the worst and bounded away as fast as it could without a backward glance. The steenbuck, however, when disturbed would stand up and slip out quietly from its ‘place which it made more prettily than any other animal in the veld and wherein it always feels itself to be lying so nicely’. It would stand quietly beside ‘its place’ and look without fear out of its great eyes, its ‘little ears trembling and nicely pointed’ to see what the wonderful noise could be about. The old father’s eyes as he spoke seemed to become young and eager like the steenbuck’s, his own pan-like ear to point and tremble with innocent curiosity. The steenbuck, he said, would stand there all the time ‘looking so nicely and acting so prettily’ that the person who had come hunting it would begin to feel ‘he must look nicely at the steenbuck and act prettily too’. The person who stood watching would suddenly find there was ‘a steenbuck person’ behind him who ‘feeling he was looking nicely at the little buck, wanted him to act nicely and prettily too’. When the person who had come to kill the steenbuck fitted the arrow to his bow and aimed to shoot, the steenbuck person behind him ‘pulled at his arm and made him miss’. Yes, that was the magic of the steenbuck; it had a steenbuck person to protect it.
I should perhaps have left the matter there, but I could not resist an obvious question. Why if that were so, I asked, was the steenbuck ever killed? He looked at me almost in pity, as if I needed a reminder of the New Testament injunction that ‘it may be true that evil comes but woe to him by whom it comes’. Yes, he agreed in the end, steenbuck were killed despite their magic, just as the duiker was killed in spite of its speed and suspiciousness. Yet more steenbuck survived than were killed. Certainly in all his long years its numbers had never become less. How could so small and defenceless an animal have survived in a world full of powerful enemies without great magic? His old eyes here were suddenly child-like with mischief and he looked past me, as if he saw ‘a steenbuck person’ standing beside me, to say he had been told I had tried hard that very morning to kill a little steenbuck and failed. Perhaps he had been misinformed, but if not . . .
That wonderful laugh of the Bushman broke from Dabé. The old lady, the children, the old man, and I myself joined in: we made such a noise that the people from the nearby fires and the men at work in the dark all came running over to find out what the fun was about.