Clara sat lost in thought at the fountain in the inner courtyard at the Trans Karoo Lodge, trailing her fingers through the tepid water. Her knee-length, sleeveless white cotton dress felt superfluous on her body and her sandaled feet chafed to be free of the confines of the ankle straps. If she were home right now, she would have stripped naked and dove into her Olympic size swimming pool. But she was not at home, and decorum dictated that she dressed appropriately in this conservative town. She was grateful that she had her natural red hair cropped short before this trip; it framed her elfin face and accentuated her green eyes. Her hair was now drying after the welcome cold shower she had after she had risen from a restless sleep, partly brought on by the close air in the room, despite the air-conditioning in the room having been set at 16°C. It was the fourth day in a row that the quicksilver had climbed to nearly 50°C—due to the El Niño weather phenomenon over South Africa that October in 2015. She was sure that if there were space to expand, it would have risen past the fifty degrees mark on the barometer hanging on the cream coloured wall in the shade under the candy stripe awning.
Sipping the glass of honey and warm water which the waitress had brought her, it took her back to her childhood years. Clara liked the taste of it and it had become part of her morning ritual, like her mother before her, to drink a glass of honeyed water before breakfast. Her mother had suffered from high blood pressure during the latter part of her life, but had eschewed the pills that Dr Clark had prescribed for her, swearing by the natural properties of honey.
Clara’s parents had died two years earlier in a car accident. Her mother had often jested that if it were not for the bees Clara would not have been born. Like many other things pertaining to their relationship, Clara regretted not having asked her mother what she had meant by that remark. She regretted that she did not learn more about beekeeping first hand when she had the opportunity to do so. But then again, most of us seem to reckon that we have all the time in the world at our disposal. Her thoughts turned to the current media hype surrounding bees which are dying off in droves due to the irresponsible use of pesticides and other factors. Albert Einstein’s earnest warning seems to echo down the ages: ‘If the bee disappeared from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.’
Clara had always instinctively gravitated towards her roots when she was, as now, feeling troubled. She had grown up on a sheep farm not far from Britstown. Her parents had been fourth-generation sheep farmers in the district; fairly successful and well respected in the farming community. Her mother had kept beehives in a row of hollowed-out logs on their farm. During her youth on the farm, the honey enterprise was quite a lucrative business. Stienie, who had run the farm kitchen with her mother’s blessing, oversaw the periodic harvesting of the honey which the wild African bees produced. The small farm stall, Honey Log, on the farm had brought in extra cash for the ladies; more than mere pin-money. The shop owners from the nearby little towns would often buy up Honey Log’s complete stock as soon as Stienie had finished bottling the golden liquid in sterilized jars. People would swear that they could discern the fragrance of the plants endemic to the Karoo in the product.
Clara knew the new owners, the Govenders, who had bought the farm, Honey Blessings, from the deceased estate. The Govenders were initially subsidy farmers in the district who had gotten ahead by sheer hard work the preceding twenty years. As an only child and the sole heir of the estate, Clara had given the executors instruction to sell off all the immovable assets. Being married to a charted accountant who had been living his whole life in Cape Town, they did not see any point in hanging onto a farm in the middle of nowhere (as her husband, Jim, referred to it); she was in agreement with this description of the desolate farming enterprise. Her father, Theron (named after the male lineage of his previously illustrious family), had in later years sold off most of the sheep, just keeping out a couple for their own consumption. But, he had kept Rudolph, the champion ram—it was his pride and joy and he would not part with it for any amount of money. Rudolph had died of natural causes the day after her parents’ death.
‘There is a phone call for you, Mrs Kriek. You may take it in the office, or do you wish me to take a message?’ The concierge, one of the few permanent staff members, stood patiently waiting for instructions from Clara.
‘I’m coming.’ Clara drained the last of the contents in the glass and followed the young woman to the office situated next to the reception area.
It was pleasantly cool in the office; an air-conditioner was working at full capacity in the corner of the room. Taking a seat on the comfortable brown genuine leather couch in the corner of the office, she picked up the phone.
‘Thank you for returning my call, Mrs Govender. I was pleasantly surprised when the staff here told me that Stienie was still alive—she must be well over a hundred years old by now. I would like to visit with her on the farm, if that is in order with you.’
‘Sure. Stienie still runs the Honey Log shop on the farm; we decided to keep the shop open when we bought the farm—it gives her something to do. You may call whenever it suits you.’
‘Thank you. I will drive out after breakfast. It has been ages since I have had Karoo lamb chops for breakfast and I can hear them setting the tables in the dining room. I don’t want to miss out on this treat. If I leave in an hour’s time, I should be at Honey Blessings at ten o’clock. Would you please tell Stienie to expect me at that time? A tour of the old place would also be appreciated. Do the honey logs, after which the shop is named, still exist? Never mind; my questions can wait for later.’
‘I should be here and will gladly show you around. I am still the only registered midwife in the area, but there are no births due this month; we may take our time to explore the place together.’
‘Thank you. See you later.’ Clara sat for a while before going into the dining room and taking her seat at the reserved table. Placing the linen napkin on her lap, she looked with satisfaction at her well-manicured nails, painted a fashionable rose gold today.
‘I thought that I recognised the voice. How are you Clara?’
‘Hallo, Aunt Martha. I am well, thank you. How are you? Business seems quiet for this time of year.’
‘We were fully booked during the winter hunting season and the Hunting Ball on the last Saturday of June was a huge success. We have made enough profit to last us until the busy season in December, when the townies flee the hustle and bustle of the cities. What brings you to Britstown? We have not seen you since your parents’ tragic demise.’
‘I’m here for a short visit to clear my mind. I have some important personal decisions to make and need the time alone,’ said Clara, stressing the word ‘personal’. As much as she loved people, she jealously guarded her personal life.
‘No children yet, or is Jim looking after the little ones?’
‘No, no children as yet. We are still thinking about whether we would want to bring up a family in today’s uncertain times.’
‘It is none of my business, but if you have to wait for the world to be at peace before starting a family, you would wait until hell freezes over!’
‘Aunt Martha! That is not it …’
‘I can see that you don’t want to talk about it. If you change your mind, I am here for you now that my dear sister is no longer with us. Enjoy your breakfast; the best Karoo lamb chops you would ever taste. The Karoo farmers don’t need to spray the veld with poisons and the sheep are much healthier as a result and, obviously, the renowned flavour of the meat is due to the Karoobossies the sheep graze on,’ Martha rattled off her well-rehearsed refrain aimed at the tourists. ‘Sorry, your food is getting cold.’
After her breakfast, Clara declined the coffee, not wishing to waste any time in getting on her way to Honey Blessings. At times like these, she was grateful for the excellent air-conditioning in her brand new Mercedes Benz. She is glad that she resisted Jim’s pressure to choose the black model and have chosen the white model instead. She passed a donkey cart laden with household goods as she was leaving the town. Turning onto the N10 in the direction of De Aar, she relaxed as she kept the speed at the prescribed 120km/h and enjoyed the scenery as it flashed past in her peripheral vision. A meerkat with its family of three little ones in tow darted across the road. This time of the morning during the week, the road was quiet as usual and there was no concern that they would encounter danger from traffic. She noticed a number of disused anthills close the farm fence and knew from past experience that the meerkat gangs in the area would utilise these readily available structures sooner or later for their burrows. They are territorial creatures and would fiercely defend their hunting ground; hence, you can safely assume that the group of meerkat that you spot belongs to the same family.
When she reached the gate to the turnoff to the farm, she got out of her car to open the gate. A kestrel was sitting on the gatepost and did not bother to fly off when she approached; only taking flight after she had driven through, and had closed the gate behind her.
Clara hardly had the chance to put her automatic car into ‘park’, before someone rounded the corner of the homestead and upon seeing her, came hobbling at some speed towards the car, holding her long cotton skirt bundled up in her left hand as she was supporting her balance with a cane in her right hand. ‘Miss Clara!’
‘Stienie!’ Clara was as surprised to see Stienie still alive and well, as she was at her obvious agility.
‘I have been keeping a lookout for you since Mrs Govender told me that you were coming. Come! I want to show you something.’ Not waiting for a reply, Stienie returned in the direction that she had come from. Rounding the corner of the homestead, Clara was happy to see that the row of honey logs was still under the shade of the Karoo thorn tree in the back yard. The bark on the new growth of the thorn tree was tinged a bright red, a perfect foil for the green leaves. She missed the winter season when the old tree would be covered in a profusion of yellow flowers.
Stienie was waiting for her in the doorway to the Honey Log shop. Entering, it took Clara’s eyes a while to adjust to the dimly lit interior. Despite the heat outside, it was refreshingly cool inside the one-roomed structure, albeit the traditional corrugated iron roofing. She noticed the familiar rows of products on the shelves along the walls: hair shampoo, lip balm, soap, ointments for various ailments—all containing nectar honey. Stienie had placed a small table at the entrance where she took the cash from the sales. Her sales philosophy had always been that customers should be allowed to browse unhindered. She made herself available for questions, but she never attempted to pressure a person into buying an item. Stienie was an invariable encyclopaedia when it came to the harvesting and the various applications of honey. That way, she argued, you always had satisfied customers who went away with a sense of having experienced the wonders of honey.
‘Have you not had any trouble with the medical fraternity to date? This is some wild claim,’ Clara said, picking up the jar with the compound that promised to melt lymphomas.
‘I’m waiting for medical science to catch up with my knowledge,’ Stienie said, chuckling good-naturedly.
An idea was taking form in Clara’s mind. Her subconscious mind must have already formulated the plan when she had decided to come to Britstown; before she had heard that Stienie was still alive. If anyone should know how to possibly solve her dilemma, Stienie would be the one. It was worth a shot.
‘Stienie, does honey solve problems of a personal nature?’
‘What form of personal nature are you referring to, Miss Clara? Honey has many applications, as you well know. I have even found a few new uses for honey which you won’t find in any book written on the subject—not that I can read a word. I just copy the colour coded labels from the ones on the previous batches—they are still my dear Mother’s wording.’
‘Well …’ Clara blushed crimson.
‘Spit it out, Miss Clara. We are alone here, and your secret is safe with me.’
‘You are like a witchdoctor or a sangoma, Stienie. You know all the magic potions.’
‘No, I am neither. I work with the knowledge that had been passed down to me, and I don’t call on the help of the ancestors. My mother had taught me all I know about the honey trade as her mother before her had taught her. I don’t think that there is an ailment of mankind that the bees cannot solve for us humans, if only we were to open our minds to its secrets. A witchdoctor or sangoma, indeed?’ Stienie snorted. ‘My late mother had taught me that some doors must remain shut; once opened, it is impossible to close them again. The young ones of today are dabbling in matters where they don’t have the maturity to handle the responsibility that comes with the dark forces.’
‘I did not wish to offend you, Stienie. Your mother had passed away soon after the Anglo-Boer War had ended, and during her time, people viewed traditional medicine differently to how they do now. Nowadays, people have come to distrust chemically-laden medicines and are returning to natural remedies; we have come full circle. It has worked for my late mother, as you might recall.’
‘It must have been a shock to you to lose both your parents in the tragic accident. I am sorry, Miss Clara.’
‘Yes, it was quite a traumatic time for me.’
‘And for Mr Kriek?’ Stienie asked, getting to the core of Clara’s concern without her having to say a word about it.
‘Since we don’t seem to be able to have children, and Mr Kriek refuses point blank to see an urologist to confirm his ability to father children, we are in a stalemate situation. He is even more reluctant to talk about it since my parents passed away.’
‘Is this the matter that you wished to talk to me about?’
‘In a way it is; yes.’
‘Spit it out, child! I can do magic with honey, but I cannot read minds,’ said Stienie in an attempt to lighten the mood which has become rather sombre.
‘I can’t fall pregnant.’
‘Your mother had the same problem, but I happily could help her.’
‘Is that what Mother meant when she had said that if it were not for the bees, I would not have been here? Was she stung or did my dad rub it in for her?’
Stienie laughed and rubbed her ample bosom. ‘You could say that. Come, I will make us some honey-infused tea and I will explain to you what I have found works every time.’
Clara followed Stienie to her humble abode next door to the shop. She recognised the furniture from her childhood days on the farm, and could not believe that the woodwork still looked as good as new. She bent down and unashamedly sniffed the dining room table which took pride of place in the centre of the living room area. ‘Beeswax—you would find no better preservative for wood anywhere in the world, I dare say.’
‘If you take care of nature, nature takes care of you,’ Stienie said, nodding sagely. She disappeared into the small kitchen adjacent to the lounge and Clara could hear her filling a kettle at the kitchen tap.
‘How old are you, if I may ask, Stienie?’
Stienie came as far as the doorway to the kitchen and looked with displeasure at Clara. ‘It is a habit I could not break in your mother as well.’
‘What habit is that?’
‘The habit of talking to someone when they are not in the room. To answer your question: I’m old enough to be your great-great-grandmother. I don’t count the years anymore, only the blessing of each day as it is revealed to me.’
‘I did not mean to get personal. ’
Stienie returned to the kitchen and finished laying the tea tray. She called to Clara to carry it to the lounge as her balance was no longer what it used to be. After Stienie poured the tea, the two women sat in comfortable silence; each with her own thoughts.
‘May I come in?’ Mrs Govender’s voice interrupted the reverie.
‘Yes,’ the two women said in unison, but each felt irritated by the intrusion.
‘Oh, you already have been served tea. I have laid a tea table for us at the homestead. Come over when you have finished here, Clara.’ It was obvious that Stienie was not included in the invitation.
‘Nothing has changed—only the chequebook has changed hands.’
Clara ignored Stienie’s remark as she had heard it before, and did not put much stock by it—just Stienie letting off steam when upset by perceived injustice. She checked her makeup in her vanity mirror, and applied fresh lipstick.
Stienie nipped next door to the shop, and returned with a teacup-sized earthenware pot. ‘Here, take this. Apply it as directed on the label.’
‘I had better go over to the homestead. I do not wish to keep Mrs Govender waiting. Thank you, Stienie. I will keep in touch.’ Clara hugged Stienie and both let go of the other at the same moment; an uncomfortable silence ensued. Both wondered whether promises made, were ever kept.
After the delicious, freshly baked scones and Ceylon tea served in fine bone china, Clara made her excuses and left, foregoing a tour of the house.
Back at the hotel, Clara put a call through to Jim, and while waiting for him to pick up, she took the container that Stienie had given her, out of her handbag.
‘Hallo! This is Jim.’
‘Hi, Jim. I am coming home.’
‘Just like that? You have left with a cloud hanging over our future. Now you call me and announce that you are returning. No apology or an explanation.’
‘Jim! I went to see Stienie. Remember me telling you about her? She is the lady who, for generations, had raised all the children in our family.’
‘Now what has that got to do with the price of eggs? Where is your cellphone? Did you not take it with you?’
On the spur of the moment, Clara read the label on the pot that Stienie had given her, out loud:
Fit for human consumption. Warm in jar to body temperature. Apply
everywhere on the woman’s body, except on her tonteldoos.
‘Excepts where? What are you talking about, Clara?’
‘You know: a woman’s private part; honey for my honey …’
‘OK! I get it.’
‘I’m reading from the prescription label on the pot of honey that Stienie had given me for infertility.’
‘Not that old hobbyhorse of yours again, Clara? Please!’
‘Please. Let’s give this a try. What harm can it do? It was given to me in good faith. We can certainly learn to relax; add some playfulness to our sex life.’
The line went silent for a while, but Clara could hear Jim’s breathing on the other end of the line.
‘When are you coming home? I miss you.’
Clara punched the air in an uncharacteristic gesture after she had put the phone down.
‘Is everything OK?’
‘Yes, thank you, Aunt Martha. It could not have been better.’
Clara quickly showered and changed into a comfortable white cotton ensemble. When she finished packing, she settled her bill and cancelled her evening dinner reservation. Feeling rather generous, she left a hefty tip for the chambermaid.
Exiting the hotel’s secure parking area she pushed ‘play’ on her car CD player, and turned left into the main road. When the opening bars of Because we Believe, by Andrea Bocelli, filled the air, she settled back into the comfortable driver’s seat. She accelerated to 120km/h as soon as she was clear of the town; planning on making Victoria West the first pit stop on the 800km trip back to Cape Town. Looking at the clock on the dashboard, it showed little after two and she calculated that she would comfortably make the four-hour drive to Lydenburg before nightfall; where she planned to overnight.
Nearly nine months to the day that Clara had arrived back in Cape Town, a girl with a shock of red hair, and blue eyes (for now), was born to the Kriek couple at the farm, Honey Blessings, where Clara had spent the last month of her pregnancy. Mrs Govender had acted as midwife at the confinement.
Upon inquiry, Stienie, the now proud owner of the Honey Log shop, assured everyone that mother and baby were doing fine. Mr Kriek could not be reached for comment as he was on a business trip overseas.