The shadow of the mountain edged across the veld, forcing the last of the sunlight from the Acacia thorn. I watched the daylight seep away before my eyes, the mauve flanks of clouds fading into a widening band of Prussian blue. Dry gold grasses drained to field gray. The blades of the wind pump rasped and shuddered in the evening wind and the shaft tremored beside me, crouching high in my corrugated blind. In deepening twilight a crimson moon rose hot and full from the bush, bathing the rifle in my hands in gunmetal blue.
It was my fourth night spent alone in my metallic perch. When I had asked old Yup Welsig, the Wehrmacht veteran who hunted meat for the children at the Mission, if I could accompany him on his journeys into the bush when the moon gave sufficient light for shooting, he mistook my interest for full participation and handed me a .303 Mauser manufactured in Bloemfontein and a pair of old field glasses. For the son of pacifists and unfamiliar with hunting, it was a moment of cross-cultural confusion that I decided to cross as part of the new life I was living in Africa, and to feed my students something with more protein than porridge.
Yup Welsig had been seventeen in 1939, a Sudetenland German whose keen eyesight qualified him as a sharpshooter in Hitler's Wehrmacht. He survived a bullet in the head on the Eastern Front, another in the leg with the Chetniks in Yugoslavia, was captured by Ghurkas in the ruins of Monte Casino and sat out the rest of the war in a British POW camp in Khartoum. He stayed in Africa after the war running construction teams crewed by his former enemies and later moved to Southwest Africa where I first met him in 1991. Yup had an extremely limited English vocabulary and my German was hardly better, so we spoke a patois of these tongues and Afrikaans. He made me think of my grandfather with his ready smile and bushy eyebrows: the grandfather who had just died after a decade long struggle with Alzheimer's and cancer.
My instructions with the weapon were rudimentary at best. "Tim, jou skeet him in die heart or the kop" said Yup, tapping his forehead for emphasis. I gathered the technique was to drive out in the bush to a wind pump and water trough and ascend to a metal blind with a narrow bench beneath the blades and wait for game to come to drink. A warthog or a Greater Kudu antelope was preferable, and because we lacked night scopes and the range was about 90 meters, binoculars and the moonlight were all that was available to line up the shot. That first night, I was greatly surprised to have Yup wave good-bye and head off to another perch several kilometers away with promises to return in a few hours. I sat with my thoughts and the gun and watched the night come in.
For three nights I waited, not trusting myself to make a clean shot even when the opportunity presented itself. Through the narrow slit of the blind, my other senses sharpened. I saw a Red Lynx, a Caracal, stalking the swirling doves at the trough, and realized why they were always in motion when they descended en masse to drink. I saw a pair of Ratel, the fierce honey badgers, and the timid Steenbok and Duiker. I heard the hunting call of the Giant Eagle Owl. But still I waited.
A product of another place and upbringing, I found myself in the world of the colonial hunter, with the traditional greeting of "White man heil" and "White man Danke" resting uncomfortably on my tongue. I resolved that if I ever managed to bring down an animal, I would not then hand it over to the African farmworkers to butcher but would wade in and hold a leg. My greatest fear was not taking the life of an animal but botching the shot, causing needless trauma.
The Southern Cross twisted in the crossbeams of the wind pump as the red moon bleached to yellowed bone. The moonlight in the trough shimmered like quicksilver. Tensing with each rustle in the darkness, I peered through the slit in vain to find its source. It was cold at the end of May on the cusp of the southern winter. I carefully shifted my weight, lifting my foot to ease the pressure on my thighs, grimacing as I scraped the metal wall. Still, the night revealed no prey and I settled into the folds of my coat.
My thoughts wandered, to absent friends and family and the life I had left behind. Three hours had passed since I entered the blind, with two more to go before the low growl of Yup's land cruiser announced the old man's return.
Looking up, I saw that something had landed in the grass by the trough, a great shadow where none had been before. It was too large for a Warthog, and on the wrong side of the fence for cattle. I lifted the glasses and saw the image of a great Kudu Bull, its spiraling horns held motionless above the great antelope. My heart in my throat, I reached for the Mauser, willing myself to silence. Slowing I lifted the rifle, but the wind pump shaft blocked my aim. I am right handed but perhaps only by training, as I do many things well with my left, including draw a bowstring. I shifted hands and the rifle tucked neatly between my neck and shoulder. I couldn't see the head or the heart, so split the difference and took my shot at the center of the neck.
There was a crash of light and the horned head fell. I remembered to eject the shell and disengaged the chamber as I clambered down to the grass and plunged through the thorn and fencing around the trough. I turned on my flashlight, hoping and also afraid of what I would find.
It lay where it had stood just moments before, fallen toward the shot in the tall grass. As large as an elk, the Kudu was lined with soft white stripes on its flank and whithers with another band across the muzzle. I touched its side and felt the warmth beneath the skin. There was a slight twitch and I jerked back, suddenly fearful that I would have to shoot again and find myself unable to finish the job like Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. But I later learned it was a thousand to one shot clean between two vertebrae, the bullet unblemished when cut from the neck. The eyes dulled in the moonlight, and I stood with my quarry and waited for Yup.
"White man heil, Amerika!" called the old hunter when he rattled up to the dam an hour later. I could see the legs of another Kudu in the back. "White Man Danke, Deutschland!" I replied. "Come and see." The farm workers who rode with Yup jumped from the the truck and we all stood around the Kudu. There were brandy and smiles all around and my choice to help with the slaughter proved a breakthrough in my relationship with Dawid and the other men who were used to hunters in different roles.
For a few months that winter, I was no longer just the American teacher, but a provider. My students greeted me with "Master Tims, shoot us a Kudu!" for weeks afterward, and in the course of my time there I brought in another Kudu and two warthogs. Then I moved on to another community in Namibia and I have not hunted since then. There has been no need, nor a justification, for me to do so. There was a powerful bond, though, between me and that old German, and the farmhands, and the creatures of the veld that fed the children, that reached across language and class and culture to something far older, and not altogether comfortable, from our shared origins.