Modern Tao Stories
(for the young and young at heart)

By Jos Slabbert

This section contains short stories which are concrete illustrations of themes that are central to life. They are meant to be read and discussed, preferably in groups. They are suitable for K9 to K12 students, but they have also been effectively used in discussion groups by adults.

Contents


The Ugly Duckling

The comparative perception of beauty
is essentially cruel.
The Taoist sage does not differentiate
between the beautiful and the ugly.
Beauty is beautiful
when it emanates from
emptiness.
("The Tao is Tao", 110)

We used to call my cousin Veronica "Baby", because she was a bit neurotic, or so we thought. Even though she was fourteen years old, she was always crying. The only thing she seemed to be good at was eating a lot, for she was really very fat, almost completely round, with pimples.

Baby was treated by everyone the way all fat and meek girls with pimples are mostly treated. So she probably had enough reason to cry a lot. She always spoke too softly, almost as if she were afraid someone might just hear her. And she could not stand being teased or jokes being played on her. She would sulk and cry, but she would never hit back. She was simply too gentle to become mean herself. Maybe that was why all the children loved to play jokes on her, and why I felt so sorry for her.

When we were alone on a summer’s evening, someone was sure to suggest, "Let’s make a sucker of Baby." The lovely summer’s evening would then end with Baby falling over, under or into something and crying, and everybody else choking with hilarity.

I can remember I was often a bit embarrassed to go out anywhere with Baby (my mother blackmailed me to). I was afraid somebody might think the fat girl with the pimples was my girl-friend. Everybody stared at her. Girls who were supposed to know her were rude to her. Somewhere, somehow, someone would laugh at Baby, or be insulting to her, and my day would be spoilt by Baby’s crying and my having to take her home.

It was not that I did not like Baby. When we were alone together, Baby was sweet and intelligent. Her dark eyes sparkled and she was witty and laughed a lot. I could forget how fat she was, and she became beautiful to me then. It was then that I was ashamed that I was sometimes ashamed to be seen with Baby. Baby absolutely adored me. She knew I understood her, and she was not afraid to tell me what she really felt.

"Everybody hates me!" she used to say when we were alone together under the lapa after a swim in our pool.

"Nonsense!" I would answer, trying to sound convincing.

"Now don’t lie to me, Jonathan," she would say. Then she used to smile at me in the most enchanting way, and her face would miraculously change into something gorgeous. "But you like me, don’t you, Jonathan?"

"Of course, Baby, now don’t be silly," I would answer, and I would look around me quickly in the hope that nobody had overheard us talking to each other almost like lovers.

My uncle John, who was an engineer, got a job with a firm in Australia to go and build roads and bridges there, and so the family left Windhoek for Australia shortly before Baby’s fifteenth birthday, and the last thing I saw of Baby when we left them at the airport was Baby crying as usual. I was really relieved, I must admit, to see Baby go, and like everybody else, I had soon forgotten about her.

My uncle and his family returned to Namibia three and a half years later. I was almost twenty then, and I was studying at UNAM, but living with my parents. It was towards evening, and I returned home from somewhere to find my uncle with my parents in the garden, enjoying the cooler air outside, preparing for a braai. It was then for the first time that I again thought of Baby.

"So how’s Baby?" I asked after the greetings.

"Baby? Oh, you mean Veronica," my aunt said, a hint of pride in her voice. "She’s in the kitchen fetching us something cold to drink."

Just then a young woman came into the garden. I had never in my whole life seen such an exquisite, beautiful creature. This was not just another pretty girl. The woman standing before me was out of this world. Then this woman smiled at me stunningly, and I recognized her.

It was Baby.

I was speechless.

"Now Jonathan," my uncle proudly said, "can’t you remember your cousin?"

Veronica came up to me, a bit shyly at first, and her beautiful eyes looked into mine. "Hello, Jonathan," she said. Then she flung her arms around me and kissed me. I could hear bells ringing. It was love at first sight for me, like for most men laying their eyes on her.

Veronica was the absolute hit of the town. The young men were besotted with her. They were lying at her feet and she could pick and choose whomever she wanted to go out with.

To my delight, Veronica still liked me a lot, but my disappointment was great when I realized she liked me the way girls like their cousins. I was very careful to hide my feelings from her. Veronica would still sometimes come over to me and we would sit under the lapa, like we used to when she was still Baby. She was still as sweet and witty as she had been in the early days. She sometimes went out with me, but my mom had nothing to do with my taking her out. I was filled with pride to be seen walking into a club with such a beauty on my arm. All the guys would look at me with real envy.

Then Veronica met Peter Miles, the handsome son of a millionaire, and I saw very little of her. I would sometimes see them drive by in his sports car, and I would feel very jealous. She had become too classy for me. I was just a poor student with a bicycle.

"I love him, Jonathan, I really love him," Veronica told me one afternoon as we were sitting in the winter sun, trying to warm ourselves, for it was becoming very cold, and the leaves of the fruit trees had fallen, so that they looked bare and desolate.

It soon turned out that Miles was really in love with Veronica. He stopped going out with other girls and soon they got engaged.

Everybody said it was the perfect match. Beauty, money, brains, everything was there, everybody enthused. It could not go wrong. It really was like a fairy tale, everybody thought.

I sometimes saw Miles and Veronica drive past in his new sports car, and I had to admit that they were a beautiful match.

It was six months after they had got engaged, exactly eight days before they were to get married, that it happened. Miles and Veronica were on their way from a party late at night, and Miles had drunk too much. Miles was driving too fast and his sports car left the Okahandja road and turned over twice before it came to a stop.

Everybody said it was a miracle that they had survived. The greatest miracle was that Miles escaped unhurt. What a pity it was about Veronica, though, everyone said, what a pity. The poor girl had been so beautiful.

Veronica had also survived, and she was still as beautiful as she had been before. Except for her right leg, which had to be amputated just above the knee.

Peter Miles, of course, did not marry Veronica. He bought her flowers and sat next to her a lot at first, but his visits became rarer. He nobly told Veronica he was still "willing" to marry her, but Veronica made it easy for him and broke the engagement herself.

From the moment of the accident, there was not a single man in town still interested in Veronica.

I will never forget when I first visited Veronica after she had left hospital. She was sitting in a wheel chair outside in the garden, holding a book as if she were reading. But she was not reading. She was just sitting there, her beautiful face pale and drawn.

"Hi, Veronica!" I said, trying to sound cheerful.

She slowly looked up at me and her beautiful eyes looked even darker than usual against the paleness of her face.

"Don’t call me Veronica, Jonathan," she said, and her voice was so soft I could hardly hear her.

"I’m not Veronica ...," she said. "I’m Baby again ..."

"You’re not," I answered, and things became very clear to me then. "You’re not Baby."

Veronica stared at me, baffled.

"You’ve never been Veronica either," I heard myself say. "It was all illusion."

Veronica, the real Veronica, looked at me and I could see she didn’t understand, but I did, with acute clarity.

Looking at the story

  1. Read the poem introducing the story. Discuss in a group how this story is an illustration of the poem.
  2. Who is the "real Veronica" referred to by Jonathan, in the last line?
  3. What is it he understood "with acute clarity"?

The Liberation of Ixa of Usakos

When I strike you,
your blood will certainly flow from my veins.
When you are starving,
your bloated belly is gnawing into my flesh.
The laughter in your eyes
lights up mine.
I can see my face in yours.
Can you see yours in mine?
("The Tao is Tao", 97)

I see my reflection
in
every particle of dust.
Even the mountain has my face.
The bird ruffles my feathers
and the spider spins my web.
Who can sense the loneliness of a parrot in a cage?
Who can feel the slow passion of a snail?
Only the true sage in total harmony with the Tao.
("The Tao is Tao", 96)

When Boy appeared for the first time to come and live with his mother, Liena, in their small room without a tap or a stove in our backyard, I met what can only be described as my first soul partner. Although Boy could speak little English or Afrikaans, and my Nama was non-existent, Boy and I soon realised that kindred souls do not need something so cumbersome as language to communicate.

Boy was a small, frail, dapper little Nama boy with lively, innocent eyes, forever greasy hands and small yellow feet toughened by facing bare the hazards of veld-paths and duwweltjies.

Boy and I were often left to our own devices. We were six years old and there were no other boys of our age in the neighbourhood, which, after all, consisted only of five red-brick railway houses out in the veld and next to the railway tracks, a mile or two outside Usakos in the days when the veld around Usakos was not quite as bare as it is today.

Our backyard was fenced off from the tracks, and Boy and I would often sit on my grandfather's compost heap and watch the steam engines thundering past in magic moments that would turn me into a renegade forever.

It was the liberation of Ixa that brought Boy and me close together.

Our neighbour, Niewoudt, had a young swine that he kept in a narrow pen directly bordering our yard, in the corner just behind the compost heap. Even before Boy appeared on the scene, I always went to the back to observe the young boar, and as I soon noticed, his intelligent eyes were observing me with equal interest.

I was the lonely animal's only companion in his narrow, dirty confines, the only variety in his dull life in a small cage. He actually grunted with joy when I approached, and it was a moment of magic when he first touched me apprehensively, then tenderly, with his pink, soft, intelligent snout.

Niewoudt was a fat, cruel man, who castrated his dogs by tying elastic bands around their testicles so tightly that they actually rotted off. I always watched in stunned horror at the way he slaughtered his chickens. He did not cut off their heads in a swift, instant kill; no, he just casually grabbed two chickens, one in each hand, and then he would sit on his haunches and commence to swing them simultaneously in tight, fast circles, chickens screaming, poultry eyes popping, literally wringing their necks for them.

When the young swine touched me tenderly, and his lively eyes met mine in friendly communication, Niewoudt acquired the status of a cannibal, for I had learnt that he was planning to slaughter my friend just before Christmas. I was determined to liberate the young swine, but I did not know how.

In the meantime, Boy had arrived on the scene and he showed his real mettle. Even though our communication was at first mostly of a non-verbal nature, we effortlessly reached full accord regarding the liberation of Ixa. Boy baptised the young pig Ixa (pronounced "inga", with the "g" a rough one like in Afrikaans), Nama for "the beautiful one", and I could not agree more with him.

Boy masterminded the liberation of Ixa. He noticed that Niewoudt always went to church on Saturdays instead of Sundays. His yard was practically deserted on Saturday afternoons. The only hitch was his two pit-bullterriers, which ripped apart anything that moved. Usually Niewoudt kept the two animals in a small pen, but on Saturday afternoons he let them out to patrol the yard in his absence.

Boy came across a simple but effective plan of how we could liberate Ixa from being devoured by Niewoudt and his ugly squad.

Summer had already progressed to an intolerably hot stage, even by Usakos standards, and Ixa, who had no protection or shade, would sometimes gasp and hyperventilate asthmatically in the heat. Boy and I approached the pen with a pick and a spade. Ixa snorted a greeting when he saw us approaching. The idea was to dig from our side of the fence a hole beneath the fence large enough for Ixa to crawl through, in this way elegantly avoiding a confrontation with the pit-bullterriers, or so we thought.

We had to wait until the adults retired for their customary Saturday afternoon naps before we could start digging. We were, after all, only six years old, and we found digging a tough assignment. Our tiny muscles lacked the strength, and in the searing heat we were soon perspiring and aching without making much progress. We also had to be careful not to make too much noise. But we got assistance from an unexpected quarter: Ixa, immediately grasping what was happening, started digging energetically from his side. As if realising that it was a matter of life and death, he dug with tremendous enthusiasm, squealing and grunting with exertion and excitement. He was so excited that we had to admonish him to be less noisy about it.

"Shhh, Ixa, shhhh!" Boy whispered, and Ixa quietened down obediently, but he still snorted in suppressed excitement, his pink snout grimy with mud as he grovelled away on his side of the fence. Boy and I also gained momentum as we reached the damper earth, and the hole started growing in size, but it still was not big enough to allow Ixa, who had expanded tremendously in the previous two months, to crawl through.

Then the pit-bullterriers came. They charged at us, smashing against the fence, growling and foaming, their stupid little eyes gleaming menacingly at us.

"Voertsek," Boy hissed at them in a vain effort to quieten them down, but this only infuriated them more.

They were making so much noise that they could wake our parents any moment. We nearly lost our nerve for a moment, but the sight of poor Ixa digging desperately on his side of the fence gave us fresh courage as we dug frenziedly until we were close to collapse.

Just as it seemed we were bound to fail, events accelerated at a furious speed.

"Jacob!" I could hear my father calling from somewhere.

Ixa panicked and with incredible strength ripped a hole through the fence, powering his way through to our side. Boy and I had no time to rejoice, for simultaneously with Ixa's escape, one of the pit- bullterriers writhed his way through underneath the fence, and charged straight for us. Boy and I froze, anticipating death, but the bullterrier stormed past us straight at Ixa.

I learnt much about the pride of a boar that afternoon, and I learnt why some European knights carried the sign of the Wild Boar on their banners. They might just as well have carried the sign of the common domesticated pig, for in terms of courage and fighting prowess, it can equal its wild cousin any day, and cornered and fighting for its own dignity and freedom, it is the most formidable of foes.

Even before the pit-bullterrier could touch it, Ixa, in a single movement and with lightning speed, ripped open the bullterrier so that its guts spilled out. The pit-bullterrier whined in shock as the young warrior, emitting an ancient war cry, grabbed it by its throat and in a whipping movement broke its neck.

It was all over in a flash, and Boy and I were still riveted in amazement when my father suddenly appeared from behind the compost heap. The pandemonium had him trotting towards us with only his underpants on.

"What the hell!" he muttered and staggered back as Ixa, who knew an enemy when he saw one, feigned a short charge, growling at my father, who almost fell across the compost heap in hasty retreat.

"Away!" he screamed, pausing quite bravely for a split second, gesticulating at us, but when Ixa, lowering his head, charged him a second time with a high pitched battle cry, he spun around and deserted us, scrambling for his life, arms flapping, screaming hoarsely, "The gun, the gun, get my gun!"

The three of us realised that we would have to move fast. Boy and I sprinted for the back gate leading onto the path bordering the railroad tracks, with Ixa snorting apprehensively as he followed us at a gallop. We threw open the gate, and Ixa shot past us, galloping across the tracks and disappearing into the heat waves and towards the mountains encircling us, never to be seen again.

Boy and I quickly shut the gate and dashed back to the compost heap just in time to witness my father, still in underpants, crouching, cautiously sneaking up on the compost heap from the other side, possibly searching for our remains.

He jumped in fright when he saw us. He stared stupidly at us for a moment, trying to assess the situation. Boy and I could hear our mothers wailing from the kitchen.

"Where's the pig?" my father whispered, wiping sweat from his brow, still gazing at us as if he were seeing ghosts.

"He went thataway," Boy lied, pointing behind my father, who leapt around in fright, anticipating an attack from behind.

"Now you two go into the house immediately," he hissed at us, and started slinking towards the house, gun ready for the kill.

Niewoudt was infuriated. He demanded instant reparation for the loss of a pig and a bullterrier, but my father pointed out that the pig had liberated itself and Niewoudt's pit-bullterrier had been killed by his own swine. So Niewoudt should demand damages from himself. What my father did not divulge to Niewoudt was that he had discovered the telltale evidence of a spade and a pick incriminating Boy and me. The fact that this was a family matter did not save Boy and me from a severe hiding and detention in solitary confinement.

Punishment, though, has little or no effect when its negatives are far outweighed by the reward reaped from the crime committed.

Even now, though I am an old man, and all of this happened long ago, I still dream of Ixa, the beautiful one; I can still feel the tender touch of his soft, pink snout and I can still see him disappear into the veld.

Looking at the story

Read the two poems preceding the story and discuss in a group how this story illustrates these poems?


Eddie

The Taoist sage
is a sincere teacher,
for he does not betray his true self.
He can be trusted completely,
for he neither loves nor hates.
He seems distant and without pity,
yet his silence
points at the Tao.
("The Tao is Tao", 145)

My first rugby coach was my history teacher, Eddie Dorey, all 125 kilograms of him. He was massive. To our motley gathering of fourteen year old school boys (average weight: 48 kilograms), he was a veritable mountain of muscle and brawn, made even more intimidating by his huge walrus moustache which emphasized the warrior lines of his face. This man, we swore, had muscles on his forehead. His eyes, though, were soft and friendly, and his voice surprisingly, reassuringly gentle.

Eddie had to teach the rudiments of this dangerous game to juniors who came from primary schools that did not coach rugby, which he did with dedication. He had to teach us to fall without hurting ourselves. We had to learn how to tackle the opponent ferociously and bring him to the ground. He had to instill in us the courage to take up the ball and carry it, even though we knew fifteen opponents would be out to flatten us. We had to acquire the instincts to sidestep limb threatening situations, and to react correctly when scrums collapsed and we were buried below a pile of writhing bodies. Above all, we had to learn that you were strong only as a team. We were going to taste the bond and camaraderie of warriors. First, however, we were about to learn how to lose. That was exactly what our team of beginners were going to do the first few months of our existence. Lose. Get clobbered. Hear the other team cheer. Tread from the veld dejectedly, wet, cold and miserable.

Standing there and facing Eddie Dorey for the first time in all my 38 kilograms of glory, I was afraid. Not that I did not want to play rugby. I longed to prove that I had courage, even when I doubted at that moment that I had any. I felt frail and out of place.

"Boys," Eddie said, "I hate speeches, let’s start!"

And start we did. Eddie took us through a routine that was demanding by any standard. His voice was booming across the veld all the time. "Pick up those feet, guys, pick up those feet, you can’t be tired yet!" We obeyed as if our lives depended on it.

When I came home that afternoon, I was bursting to tell my mom everything. I was glowing with pride that I had survived the first rugby practice of my life without losing face. When I rushed into the kitchen and threw down my bags, she was busy preparing food. I opened the fridge and recklessly gulped down mouthfuls of ice-cold milk, spilling some on the floor.

My mom did not complain and I turned to scrutinize her, sensing something was wrong. I observed that her eyes and nose were red from weeping. The joy of the practice session was replaced by gloom as I realized that she and my dad must have been fighting again. They sure had the previous evening. They had difficulty keeping their voices down. Doors slammed and crockery smashed.

I knew that my mom would hardly be interested in me, and I had lost the urge to tell her about my experiences.

My dad did not turn up that night and the atmosphere was somber. My two year old sister, Estelle, did not really notice anything, but my eight year old sister, Inez, and I could feel it.

"Where is Daddy?" Inez asked my mother.

"He’s working late, honey," my mom answered, but we knew she was lying. The way my parents had been lying to us about their fighting, trying to make us believe everything was still okay.

"My mom says your dad’s grazing in greener pastures in Klein Windhoek," Danie du Toit jeered at me. This was just before the rugby practice was about to start. Danie was a year older than us, and took every opportunity to try and bully us smaller guys when he thought the coast was clear. But the coast was not clear, for Eddie’s shadow fell across him.

"Aaaah, Danie," Eddie smiled at him. "I see you’re busy looking after the younger gentlemen here." He laid his huge hand on Danie’s shoulder and squeezed him so that he winced. "Now that you’re here, I’d like to use the opportunity to demonstrate to these young blokes how fit our more senior players are." Eddie looked at him with a light of pure innocence in his eyes, as if he had not overheard the conversation and had not noticed Danie’s sinister motives. "Now before we start our training session, I suggest you show us your fitness by performing for us a hundred pushups."

Danie’s face fell, but he obeyed and we all watched in amusement, hardly able to hide our delight, how Danie, who was actually a lazy specimen, groaned laboriously through his hundred pushups. Eddie knew how to teach without excessive use of words. For some reason or other, Danie kept his distance from me after this incident.

Eddie Dorey decided I would make a scrum-half, a position often taken by smaller, nimble players. I was proud as a peacock. Our team were beginning to feel confident as Eddie coached us with tremendous patience combined with forms of gentle and less gentle coercion.

His speeches were short and memorable. "Courage is a habit," he would tell us. "Everybody’s afraid. Even I’m afraid."

We were immeasurably impressed. Eddie Dorey scared! Then we needn’t be afraid if we were scared ourselves.

"No matter what you feel, just do what you have to do," he told us. "Concentrate on the game." We would have jumped off a cliff for Eddie.

The situation at home became even worse. My father returned home. He had changed a lot. He was suddenly trying to look younger. He had grown his hair into a pony tail and he was wearing jeans tight across his rather broad behind, and he said something about buying a motorbike. My mother answered bitterly that you could not have expensive motorbikes and education for your children. For the first time, my parents could not wait until they thought we were asleep.

My two sisters and I fled to my room, where we sat, huddled together, listening to the screaming of my parents. Then we heard a door slam as my father left, and we could hear his car driving off. It became quiet, but it was a silence pregnant with fear.

That Saturday was our big day: our first match. Mercifully, the other team had a few beginners in their team too. This provided us with the opportunity to lose with some dignity. To be honest, they trounced us, but I am not going to tell you the score. I would like to emphasize, though, that we nevertheless nearly scored on two occasions.

We congratulated our opponents, as was proper for gentlemen, on beating us fair and square, and then we marched off the field to where Eddie was waiting for us.

"Men," Eddie started (he actually called us men!), "I’m proud of you. Of course we did not win, and we have a lot to work on, but I see you have potential, and in the not too distant future, I’m sure, we will even score a try against our opponents. Don’t worry about losing. You lost like men."

We looked at him silently, gratefully.

"Remember," he smiled at us, and his voice was gentle, and I could swear he was looking at me when he spoke. "You win some, you lose some. The trick lies in getting up and trying again. That’s what separates the men from the boys."

When I returned home around noon that Saturday, I was just in time to see my father, with a new leather jacket on, carrying his bags into the car, where a young blonde girl was waiting for him. Oh, so that’s what Danie meant by "greener pastures", I thought.

He did not even apologize for not coming to the rugby match, as he had promised to. I don’t think he even remembered this important event in my life. "Goodbye, Peter," he said, and he looked uncomfortable. "You’ll understand when you’re older."

How wrong he was. I understood. Perfectly. You are never too young to understand desertion.

I did not wait for them to leave and I did not return the young girl’s wave.

I turned away and went into the house searching for my mom. I found her where I knew she would be. She was on the back verandah, trying to keep her composure.

I went up to her and put my arms around her shoulders. "Don’t worry, Mom," I said. "You win some, you lose some."

Looking at the story

Read the poem which describes a good teacher. How does Eddie Dorey conform to this ideal of a good teacher. Are there more qualities you would like to add to the qualities described in the poem? Who are the best teachers you have encountered, and explain why they have been good teachers.


Renewal

People who manipulate
turn love into bitterness.
They are like a scourge
for they destroy compassion
and leave only destruction.

The moment my father entered, I knew he had failed the test. Like Mary’s father the previous week. The men usually fail first. The women usually last a little longer. Genetic predisposition, they call it.

We sat in silence around the table. This happens almost everyday to someone, but you never know what it feels like until it hits you.

"They gave me no choice. Renewal tomorrow."

My mother wept silently. She was a brave woman. This was her fourth husband she was going to lose this way. She had already had three renewals. "But," she always assured me, "next time I choose extinction."

Isn’t it strange, the way we cling to life, even if it has long since ceased to be worth living? My grandfather has lived five lives already, and he still keeps coming back for more. Or so rumours tell us. But we’ve got no choice. We cannot choose the natural way of death. Civilization has removed itself so far from nature that it now controls nature.

The other day a young boy came past me and smiled at me. I could swear he had the same glint in his eye as my grandpa. My mother always warned me against these thoughts.

I wept bitterly. I swore at fate which allowed me to be born into a time when man could live forever. I was now about to lose my father. The result of the test was final, some polite scientist told him. He had lost too much productivity to continue in his present form.

He had no choice. He had to take on a new, productive form and leave us forever.

We children are only tolerated as unproductive units to refresh the genes of the species. And even then, our growth is hormonally accelerated to cut down on the unproductive period.

My dad left us during the night, after they had drugged us to sleep, just in case we did something silly. We never saw him again, nor would we recognize him when he walked past us ever again.

My mother did something shocking. A few days after we children were taken away from her to begin our productive period, she did the unthinkable. She set herself aflame and jumped from a building so high that when she hit the ground, she was so damaged that they couldn’t put her together again.

They tried. In their fury, they desperately searched for unscorched DNA particles. In vain. My mom showed them. We are still able to die when we choose to.

I went one night and sprayed on the building of the "Centre for Death Control" an ancient poem from a primitive period when human beings were still allowed to die, ate flesh and made war, and actually had sex to get children. It was one of my favourite poems (even though it was only about an egg):

Humpty Dumpty sat on the Wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
And all the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty
Together again.

The graffiti was already gone the next day, and all poetry was subsequently banned. But it was worth it.

My mom and I have shown them. They are not God. Not yet.

Looking at the story

This science fiction story represents a terrible vision of the future. What is this vision? Discuss it as group and link it to the poem preceding it.