A Red-brown Dog Stands His Ground

by Frank Meintjies

Even if you don’t like dogs, you would soon or eventually warm to Jack. With his distinctive colour, Jack stood out among neighbourhood dogs; his coat was reddish brown and the pupils of his eyes, though a deeper brown, had the same red tint.

Jack never came into the house; his kennel was located close to the large rubber bin on one side and to the outside drain on the other. This was convenient – when scraping waste into the bin, one could pick out leftovers and immediately toss them into the bowl. Township dogs subsist mainly on leftovers from plates and pots. For the rest, they were expected to hunt for moles, field mice or other rodents in the field behind the rows of council-built houses. My dad, however, a real lover of animals, made a point of buying bones from the butchery especially for Jack. He’d boil up the bones, creating a soup or a broth to be combined with thick bread slices to be served up as dog food. An arrangement that suited Jack – or so it seemed, judging from the slurping sounds as he wolfed down such a meal.

He wagged his tail, looking up briefly when I and two of my brothers returned from school. Some days he would wait for us at the top end of Almond Road, there where it joined Cedar Road. With the tail swaying, he’d look at each of us and then turn on his heel to start the homeward walk along the dusty pavement. At every other house, he growled at other dogs, often pressing up against a fence or a closed gate. Rebel without a cause, I thought. Jack’s gentleness towards humans and especially children was matched by belligerence towards other dogs. He boasted scars from fights with others of his species and kids along the road generally held their dogs back as Jack passed. Needless to say, Jack gave my brothers and I street cred. It didn’t matter that he was a mongrel – taller than a Jack Russel, smaller and less hairy than an Alsatian and with strong resemblance to the Africanis dog.

My last year of school passed and I progressed to first-year university studies. Jack no longer waited for me and my siblings at the top of the street in the mid-afternoons. Now he accompanied me as I set off for Friday-night Youth Club meetings, but only up to the Cedar Road junction. Then he knew to turn and head back home.

At university I had quickly become involved in anti-apartheid activities, mainly through the work of the Black Student Society. I didn’t occupy a prominent role. But I did become a point person for the layout and printing of pamphlets. We had a small printing room downtown behind a row of shops and I sometimes worked there alone, making plates and then watching as the second-hand machine spat out the pages. One afternoon, during a police crackdown and when student protests had brought the university to a standstill, I heard insistent knocking on the door of our one-room printing centre. I turned the machine off. Fortunately, I had remembered to lock the door. “It’s captain Mostert. Open up!” Mostert was a well-known security policeman. Mustachioed and otherwise clean-shaven, he had a nice-guy manner. He had also taken student leaders in for questioning and been part of a pair that, it was said, detained young activists for weeks or longer at a time. Mostert was as unsmiling and relentless as any other officer during such interrogation, seeking to extract as much information – about student leaders and the planning of events – before the captured activist was sent to an out-of-town prison for what the government called ‘preventative’ detention. Moving quietly, I opened a back window, a small one high up mainly to let in light; standing on a chair, squeezed myself through the frame. For the next few days, I avoided the out-house print room. I laid out leaflets on campus and passed the master copies to another student to have them secretly printed at her uncle’s print shop.

I was not home when Mostert and his partner, Van Zyl, arrived there, accompanied by a police dog. Jack rose from a snooze on the grass in the front of our house and immediately growled, baring his teeth. His gaze was less on the strange men entering the yard and more on the Alsatian. Soon the two dogs were entangled in combat. Snapping and biting, then stepping back. They rushed forward again, the dust rising as the animals’ feet scramble for leverage. Mostert let go of the leash. As the dogs broke off once more and as onlookers moved closer, Van Zyl drew his firearm and, within seconds, fired. Jack’s legs crumpled under him and he fell to one side.

I arrived home around mid-morning the next day. Looking along the side of the house, I could see that my brother was digging a hole in the back garden. “What?” I stammered as he recounted what had happened the previous late-afternoon. My brother said: “They were looking for you.” I nodded, ever so slightly. I reached for the brown hessian bag that lay near the digging spot. Bending, I opened it for a last look at Jack. Despite some dust, his reddish coat was sleek, as usual. There was blood on the side of his head. Someone had closed his eyes.

I felt tears building up, a prickly warmth in my eyes. I blinked and quickly pressed my sleeve to my eyes. “That was Jack’s last fight,” my brother said, leaning on the spade. Still unable to speak, I looked at him. “This time it was for a good cause,” he said.