I stumbled across a lonesome grave
On a hot, clammy day;
Overspread with clutching weed
And grass gone to seed.
The neglected grave tore at my heart,
And initiated speculation into the life and times
Of the occupant; an English lass,
Who passed at the age of twenty-four.
The carved words on her headstone
I quote: ‘Affectionate memory
Of Bertha Elizabeth Nurse Knight’;
A medieval English name –
Would London, Cambridge, Cornwall
Or a ‘shire’ be the distant place
From whence she came.
When and why did Bertha land
On wild South African shores.
She set upon an arduous journey
Through the Lowveld country,
Towards Kaapmuiden, her new hometown.
There where the gracious eagle soars,
And fleet-footed impalas graze on sun-bleached grass.
A wild, hot, and dusty land,
Glorious in its textures and contrasts.
She travelled inland on rutted roads,
To an unknown destination teeming
With lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino.
Excitement and consternation churning in her head,
Accompanied by relentless heat,
With maybe a cool shower for relief.
Majestic blue mountains, her distant view;
Through bush trails and rivers
Her journey progressed,
Refreshing herself with flasks of tea,
Biltong and sweetmeats.
Her epitaph lovingly states:
‘She lived only to love and to serve’.
Was she a homemaker, botanist,
Missionary or a compassionate nurse.
A loving wife, mother, and daughter – I’m assured,
Once brimming with life and purpose.
A woman of substance –
Clothed in cool garments for sensible use.
Married she was, to a local, Mr Friedrich Steyn;
Was he a farmer, pastor, soldier,
Perhaps a game warden or a magistrate;
Was he agreeable or mundane.
Was it raining or sunny that fateful day;
Did she set out to visit a friend for
Koeksisters and rooibos tea.
Was she watching her child at play
Or was she returning from the store,
Her arms laden with dried produce and candy.
Was she on a mission of mercy,
Or just sitting under a tree, catching the breeze,
Sipping homemade lemonade.
Was she tending her horse in the stable,
Or sprinkling seed for the chickens and geese;
Was she arranging wildflowers
On the cast-iron garden table.
Perhaps she was crossing the yard after hanging the wash,
Or going for a stroll with her beloved dog –
Did she stop to study a gazelle or an acacia tree.
What was it she was doing that day,
Unmindful of the hungry lion,
Camouflaged as it lay in the long, dry grass.
The predator’s padded paws
She could not have heard.
As it swiftly attacked and mauled her;
Bertha was no match for its strength, teeth, and claws.
The precious young life of Bertha Knight
Seeped into the sun-baked, dusty ground.
Urgently, yet gently transported she was,
To the hospital at Barberton, a gold-mining town,
A painstaking, thirty-four miles away.
Her family must have prayed earnestly that day.
Time was of the essence:
Was she transported by vintage car or rail,
Was a train even scheduled that day.
Time was not on her side;
In her painful haze, she must have tried.
Did she die that fateful day,
Or linger for a day or two more.
The date of her death is sure,
Wednesday, the twenty-second of October 1930.
She was laid to rest in Barberton,
The place she took her last breath;
An unusual tombstone marks her infinite rest.
The stonemason artistically created
The stump of a tree, with peeling bark
And three cut branches;
A clue to her passion, the African bushveld.
It was here she took her chances,
The flora and flora ingrained on her departed soul,
A love I share, have painted and often told.
The twist to this tale is Bertha’s affinity with nature
Caused her untimely death, her last breath!
R.I.P. Bertha Elizabeth Nurse Knight.❤
WHY I WROTE THE POEM:-
This poem is pure speculation on the life of Bertha Knight. I have been unable to find out more about her, other than the gravestone, but at the same time I felt this young lady needed a story. Bertha settled in Kaapmuiden (a farming town), thirty minutes away from the Kruger National Park. Her home was in the vicinity of the park and in the 1930’s it was quite possible for game to be wandering free as boundaries were still been erected. Bertha was in close contact with the wildlife and this is possibly also the reason for the lion attack which led to her death. I feel justified in writing this poem as I also grew up next to the Kruger Park, only further north. I have experienced the bushveld and wildlife of Kruger, which I have an affinity with. I understand the culture of the Afrikaans (Dutch) and English speaking people of this country, having grown up in both. I have painted the wildlife and landscapes of South Africa and have written poetry about this beautiful country as well.