A Short Story
By Marguerite Ward
“I want a dog”
“We have five dogs already”
“No. You have five dogs. I want a dog that’s mine”
Scary. Scary and grumpy. Those are the words most typically used by strangers upon meeting my beloved St Anger. I teased him once about his first impression, describing him as ‘The Frown in the Dagga Smoke’ He laughed and said he was born angry. There are only two photographs of baby St Anger, and he is frowning in both. I think its more than just the frown though, he has a presence. We’ve all met those tough guys; the one’s with the giant testicles that make them strut like a constipated school principal. The guy with the barely contained aggression, that says “Ek kan jou deur die muur blikksem met net my pinkie”
He’s not one of those, I think he scares people because he really is a tough guy. He won’t ‘blikksem’ someone with just a pinkie. If you’re fighting for your life, cocky bravado will see you dead. Everything becomes a weapon. Hit hard, fast and dirty. It takes real grit to survive three prison wars, his elevated rank making him a target for rival gangs and wardens alike. To have been on two hunger strikes. Protesting for better conditions for inmates, so true to his cause. Risking his life and spending months in the hospital wing to recover. Not relenting until he was heard.
After the passing of Winnie Mandela, I was commenting on an article I had read and said “Did you know she’d spent thirteen months in solitary confinement? Can you even imagine what that’s like?” The question asked before I could think. He simply said “Yes”
He has an intensity. The kind that speaks to that small portion of our brains that still remembers a time when we were swinging on branches in the treetops. That prickles the senses and tells us a leopard has just entered the forest.
Place a puppy in his arms though, and all the hard etched lines melt off his face. Those little boy dimples sink deep from the grinning. A different world exists between them, I feel like David Attenborough, just an observer. A hole I didn’t realise was there, has been filled.
“I had a fox-terrier once, her name was Lady”
He’s looking down at the momentarily passed out puppy. I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or to her.
“When I went to live the Bothas, they had a red fox-terrier. She just decided that I was hers and where ever I went she followed me.”
As a young boy he’d been bounced around between family members and boarding schools, but at one point the decision was made that another family would adopt him. A farming family, most of their own children grown already, but kind enough to see a child in need of a home. Having never had a conventional family before, adjusting to this dynamic was hard. So he sought solace in the company of his dog.
“She had puppies in my cupboard. I’d never seen newborn puppies before. I didn’t tell anyone because I was scared they’d take them” he gives a snort, “But you can’t hide that a dog is feeding puppies, its kind of obvious”
His puppy stretches and yawns, his gaze never leaving her.
“When I got home from school they were gone, I asked and nobody would tell me. Eventually, their youngest daughter explained to me what happens to unwanted puppies and kittens on a rural farm. They get drowned in a bucket.
“I was so angry sweetie, I went to the Old Man and cried and raged. I didn’t care if he hit me, I didn’t care if I got into trouble. My heart was broken. And he sat there and heard me out. He took my hands and patiently explained to me why they couldn’t keep the puppies. That they didn’t have enough money to feed and care for so many dogs. And that it was kinder to drown the puppies while they were still little than to have them suffer from poverty and illness. Then he went to show me where they’d been buried. He let me put up a little wooden cross to mark their grave”
He takes a deep breath to dissipate the tension in his chest
“No one had ever taken the time to explain things to me before.”
“Lady saved my life, have I told you this?”
“ I was stomping through the long grass. Caught up in my own thoughts, not paying attention to where I was going. Lady was getting more and more excited, running in front of me, jumping up against me and barking. I didn’t know. She launched herself into the scrub just a meter ahead of me, growling, barking and yelping. When I figured out what was happening, she had already killed the snake, but it had gotten her too.”
He gingerly stands up, you’d think he was cradling a bomb. Passing the sleeping puppy to me with his scarred and battle-worn hands. Every knuckle on his fists has been crushed and compacted from years of brawling, a deep gouge in his right hand has left three fingers numb and inflexible. His upraised hand, the only shield he had against a crude blade.
He picks up his pipe and starts filling the bowl with mix. He lights and takes a long pull, pressing the glowing coals with his bare finger and lights again. Pull, exhale. Tock. Tock. He taps the pipe against the ceramic ashtray, the small, smouldering nugget falls out. He starts to fill the bowl again. His signature cloud of dagga smoke, like a blanket over his hunched shoulders.
“I went and buried her next to her puppies.” His eyes are glistening, perhaps its just the smoke.
“Shortly after that I saw the old man walking down the grondpad, he was wearing his best Sunday suit, he turned and waved to me. I told the family that I had seen him walking down the road and they laughed at me because he had been in bed all day. His heart wasn’t good. So he spent a lot of time in his room. Two weeks later he died. They buried him in his best Sunday suit. They didn’t look at me the same after that. I became angry and destructive again. I took a rifle from the house and shot out every window and wind-shield on the cars they kept for parts. That’s when they sent me back to my Dad.”
“Within a month he’d broken my arm and my nose.” he snorts with grim humour “That was the first time he broke my nose, he did it two more times before he also learned to fear me.”
“After that, he stopped trying to hurt me and tried to kill me instead”