The Bushmen talk about the star in the Great Dipper "that star, he said, was a great hunter who hunted in far away dangerous places in the shape of a lion." Whereas upon Sirius "Could I not see how fat it was, how heavily it sat there in the midst of plenty in the sky?"
January 9, 1961
The Heart of the Hunter
Laurens Van Der Post
Dabé and I sat down near them. The children looked up at me out of their slanted eyes, examining my face without fear, as I told him I too would be grateful for ‘some man’s talk’ with him.
For example, was it true that the stars were hunters? Did the little steenbuck really possess great magic, and if so, what sort of magic? Dabé, I think rather indignant that his word on the subject had not been enough for me, put the questions perfunctorily. A long silence met them. The old lady again stopped pounding. The old man gave me a steady look out of his wide eyes, oddly hypnotic in the firelight flicking on his face. My heart sank. I feared a repetition of my experience with the Bushmen at the Sip Wells. There all my first questions had been met with a similar silence. I had to wait until we had proved over the days that we could be trusted before they would talk to me about the things of their spirit. I began to feel almost culpably naïve for assuming that such bold questions could draw an answer from a member of a race which for thousands of years has been so despised and hunted down by all other men. My only hope, I thought, was to remind him that we were friends of his friends at the Sip Wells and let the fact that they had freely spoken of these things plead for me.
‘Tell him,’ I asked Dabé, my voice sounding ineffectual in my own ears in the tense silence between us, ‘tell him that his people at the Sip Wells told me about the first of all the Bushmen, Oeng-Oeng and his wives who would not put out the fire, about the little Oeng-Oengs and the elephants, the ostrich, and the finding of the first fire; Mantis and the resurrection of the dead Eland; the turtledove and the honey and many other things; but they never told me these things about which I have just asked him. Surely so old and wise a father as he knows the answers and can help me.’
At the mention of the Sip Wells, the magic name of OengOeng and this brief recapitulation of some of the great themes of the imagination of his race, the tension between us snapped. His eyes brightened, the old lady began to pound with vigour again, and said:
‘Yes. Oh, yes! Yes! Yes! It is true: the stars are hunters.’
‘All the stars?’ I asked, my heart beating faster.
He paused for just a second, then it all came out at length. Yes! They were all hunters, great hunters, but some were greater than others. For instance there was that star there! He raised his thin old arm to point with a long finger at the brightest star in the Great Dipper. It just cleared the fringe of a camel-thorn tree and in the dry air was bright enough to lay a water-sheen on the topmost leaves. That star, he said, was a great hunter who hunted in far away dangerous places in the shape of a lion. Could I not see how fierce its eye shone and hear the distant murmur of its roar? And there was one even greater! He pointed at Sirius, the star of thedog, at the head of the belted and nimble Orion. It was so full and overflowing with light that it was almost shapeless – a sort of careless gash in the night through which the brightness of the day beyond was leaking like clear water from a broken tap. As fast as the great drops of light fell, others swelled in their place to fall with a silky sort of swish on the bush around us. Yes! You only had to look at it once, the old father said, to see what a great hunter it was. Could I not see how fat it was, how heavily it sat there in the midst of plenty in the sky? He paused and I hastened to ask, afraid that silence might cool the subject: ‘Is it the greatest of all the hunters up there?’
From the delight that shone in his eyes, I realized the pause had been a trap set to catch just that question. He shook his head vigorously. The greatest hunter was not there yet. It hunted in the darkest and most dangerous places of all, so far away that we could not see it yet. We could see it only in the early morning when it came nearer on its way home. There, there was a hunter for you! The old father made a lively whistling sound of wonder at the greatness of the hunter. Yes, just before the dawn one could see him striding over the horizon, his eye bold and shining, an arrow ready in his bow. When he appeared, the night whisked around to make way for him, the red dust spurting at its black heels. He broke off and shook his grey old head, as he once more uttered that sound of wonder, before asking as if the thought had just come to him: ‘But can’t you hear for yourself the cries of the hunt going on up there?’ I assured him I could. He gave a grunt of satisfaction and leaned back on both his elbows with a look on his face as if to say, ‘Well, then! There is nothing more to be said about it.’