An African encounter remembered
The boy emerged from the trees moments after the red dog. He stood for a while, taking in the soft heat of the open, the long grass concealing the dry gulch before the railway line a hundred yards ahead. The dog was already up there, trotting along the lines and then diving off into the grass on the other side, after a rabbit perhaps. In that direction lay the river but the boy did not move yet. Instead he waited, the thought of tricking the dog by taking a different route flitting through his mind.
They did this often, the boy and the dog, taking mutual pleasure in the frantic games of hide and seek that resulted. The dog understood the game perfectly, pretending to be too panicked by the disappearance to use his natural advantage, his sense of smell, to find the boy immediately. Instead, he would chase up and down with head held high, enjoying the desperate race to find his master, bounding up at times to see above the grass. From a distance the boy would call and then, as the dog came hurrying back in his direction, he would crouch down and go quiet again.
Sometimes the game would go on for a good half hour but always, in the end, the dog would get too close and the boy would be forced to break cover. Then would come the joyful moment of discovery, the dog leaping around his master, great bull terrier grin splitting his face from ear to ear, and the boy laughing and running in play.
Yes, this would be a good opportunity to hide, somewhere in the gulch maybe, while the dog was distracted. The boy took a step forward and then froze.
A piercing whistle split the silence of the hot African afternoon.
It came from the field on the boy's right, the field where he and the dog rarely went, for there was little to see there but grass. Once the boy had heard the distinctive "chink chink chink" of guinea fowl in that field and had crept through the long grass for an hour, looking for them. Of course, he saw nothing; guinea fowl play hide and seek very well too.
The boy turned and looked for the source of the whistle but could see nothing. Then it came again, long and sharp, like a man whistling to attract attention. And now the boy saw him.
There was a man standing off in the middle of the field, only his head and shoulders visible above the grass. The boy wondered why the man was whistling at him. But he did not move towards the man, unsure in that moment that it was his attention the man was trying to attract. Perhaps there was someone else nearby that the man could see.
Yet the man seemed to be looking directly at him. And, when the whistle cut the dry air a third time, the boy finally began to walk towards him.
It was unusual to see anyone out here in the open veld behind the boy's home. But he was not afraid, aware that Rufus, the red dog, would have heard the whistle and would be racing now at full tilt towards the sound. The boy pushed his way through the grass, watching the man as he approached.
There was something slightly odd about the set of the man's shoulders. And he made no move to come towards the boy. He had stopped whistling now and was just watching as the boy came closer.
Then, as the boy came to within a few yards of the man, it happened. Suddenly the vision of a man moved and melted into the reality of an antelope turning sideways. It turned and made off, unhurried, and the boy, surprised and shocked at the sudden transformation, saw the telltale white circle around the animal's tail.
In a moment the buck had disappeared into the long grass but the boy was exultant. He had seen a waterbuck! That animal you never see for it is shy and adept at staying perfectly still, blending into its surroundings. He had read of it, the distinctive circle of white on its rump and the strange humanlike whistle of its call.
But nothing had prepared him for the actual sighting or for the way in which his eyes had deceived him into believing the buck's whistle. This, too the boy had read; that waterbuck are often mistaken for men, for they will stand face on to the watcher, only head and shoulders visible above the reeds or grass. The boy stood immobile, lost in the moment, the encounter.
Then the dog arrived, tearing through the grass in haste and bounding with joy at sight of the boy.
The magic of that moment was broken but would live forever in the boy's memory. He had seen a waterbuck; no, for an instant, he had been one with a waterbuck.
These things are not forgotten.
Word Count: 866