Whine of a Dog

Rory Kilalea

A yellow haze hid the kopjes. A lonely farmhouse on the arid veldt.

Madge sighed. Too hot and still, as hours gnawed away at the blistering ranch.

She could smell the dust.

No rain. Another drought.

Too familiar, the ground was cracked, the sad garden insulted her, breathed dry futility. She tried to wait patiently, to force coolness over her, to wait for Ted, to relax with him on the veranda, to have their drink.

Just to sit. There would be very little to say. The air was too heavy, like the day.

Shadows grew across her, a dumpy woman leaning against the door, in a thin cotton shift

clinging to her shape. Attempts at freshness, of trying to be attractive for Ted, never worked.

The heat had drained out her vanity, demanded comfort, survival, instead. She loosened the

sash around her waist and watched the light grow low. A scratch behind her. The dogs

whined at the door, trying to get through to the kitchen. She trusted Ridgebacks. Good guard

dogs.

What is it, boy? What’s wrong?’

The hair on Sheba’s back was raised, angry.

O.K. boy, let’s see.’

She pushed the door open. A burly black man. Startled, she stood still.

What do you want?’

He walked in. The two dogs snarled low beside her. She just had to give them the command.

You can’t come in!’ Her sternest voice, trying to cover confusion.

Ted’s boss boy, he had no right to be in her kitchen. Her cook was behind, signalled a

warning. ‘He wants the boss.’ Ellis said.

The black man was rigid, immovable in her kitchen.

The Boss?’

The intruder stared at her. She felt physically weak, threatened.

He isn’t here. Show him out Ellis.’ Voice cracked.

He dominated, mocked her pretense. Her eyes appealed to the cook.

Ellis opened the door, but the intruder didn’t move.

He stood and smirked. ‘I will wait.’

He talked directly to her, at her. Brazen. Blacks shouldn’t do that.

Get out or I’ll set the dogs on you.’

The boss boy’s smirk deepened. Anger flickered in her, frustrated a black wouldn’t do as she

told him.

Watch the Kaffir, Sheba.’ She snapped at the dog. ‘Stay with him, Ellis!’

That would teach him a lesson, make him stand there until Ted got home. She half turned to

say something else, recoiled at his leering challenge.

I will wait,’ he said.

Ellis averted his eyes.

She went through to the veranda, leaving the growling dogs behind her. She was shaking. She

should have been sterner. She should have forced him to leave the kitchen, told him to wait

on the back step.

In the back of her mind, she found trembling excuses, but his words haunted her. ‘I will

wait’. When Ted came back from the lands, she would feel safe again, remove the taste of

fear.

Ellis was busy again in the kitchen. The sound of ice crackling made her feel better. Perhaps

the Boss boy had gone.

Ellis. Bring the drinks.’

Yes, Medemh.’

At least he was a good boy; she did not feel threatened by him. He was a picannin when she

taught him cooking and housework. Years ago. His wife lived with him at the compound and

one child attended the farm school. She had seen the family once. A shy young woman

at the back door, a snotty nosed child wrapped to her back in a towel.

The tray of drinks clinked past, as evening light picked up the trail of Ted’s truck. Swirling,

settling like a blanket over the scrub, the only movement in the veldt

Madge pushed her hair back into place, a usual tired gesture.

Baas is too late tonight, Medemh.’

His dark face was tight.

Is Boss boy still there?’ Blurted, trying to be offhand, she threw the question at him.

Yes Medemh.’

Her chest tightened.

But I get dogs to take him outside.’

She breathed easier. He was out of her house, at least.

You got the dogs to take him out?’ A flash of irritation.

Yes Medemh.’

Why does he want the boss?’

Ellis shuffled his feet, avoided eye contact.

He drink too much, not come to work. ‘

Ted’s truck shot around the house, pulling up at the back door. The wait was over; tension

slid from her shoulders. The dogs barked, echoed through the house. The master was home.

They had protected the homestead.

Quiet Sheba, quiet!’

A momentary check at the sound of her voice, the dogs wagged their tails, and continued

barking through the gauze door. They wanted to get to the intruder standing on the step,

squaring up to their master.

Hsst.’

The dogs turned to Ellis, immediately obedient.

Madge felt defeated. She could not even control her dogs.

Sagging into the wicker chair, she knew it would be ugly outside, boss boy would be beaten.

He frightened her. This one was different. Something in his eyes.

She was halfway through her gin when Ted stalked through, burnt and hot.

Bloody Kaffirs. Get more cheeky every day.’

He wiped the sweat off his brow with his hat.

Didn’t show up for work again today.

Ted poured his beer, watched the foam rise to the top, dissolving the glass to gold.

Bloody cheek. Soon knocked that out of him. Paid his wages–minus time off.’ He chuckled.

Wasn’t much left after that.’

Ted was in control again. The black man was gone.

Sheba. Come!’ Ted’s voice was gruff. Low.

The dogs came belting through, nuzzling Ted, vying for attention. He played with them

roughly, pulling, squeezing their ears, gouging his large hands through their coat until they

whined in pain.

Dinner Medemh.’ Ellis was behind them, a shadow in the dusk.

The dogs yelped away from Ted, tails shivering.

They headed for Ellis, dog tails thumping against the concrete floor. Madge felt defeat prick

at her again.

They ate in silence until she told Ted that Ellis could control the dogs. ‘What good are the

dogs as guards?’ She said.

Ellis! ‘He bellowed.

Ellis’s eyes stabbed at her, hurt, bewildered.

Leave those bloody dogs alone. They are white dogs, not bloody Kaffir dogs.’

Madge prayed he would not hit him.

He threw back his chair, strode from the table to the drinks cabinet.

Bloody Kaffirs. Give them an inch and they take a bloody mile.’ He downed a whisky.

The night was ruined. She went to the kitchen, stacked the dishes.

Ellis glided through the house, shutting the windows, drawing the curtains.

Ted shouldered his rifle, waited for Ellis to finish so he could lock the security gate behind

him. ‘Hurry up. I’m not here all bloody night.’

He watched the stooped shoulders slouch past him. All blacks were alike. He bolted the gate and with a final click fastened the padlock.

Ellis heard Ted pocket the key and shout at the dogs muzzling him, knocking the rifle off his

shoulder. Saw him kick them out of his way. They always returned to him, always mistook

his anger for attention, always followed him, cowed by his blows.

As he approached the compound, the farm generator died down, the lights in the bedroom

faded, flickered, and went out.

Ellis loved the smell of the compound. It was home. Maize meal cooking, sweet smoke from

the fire.

Here is the white man’s cook boy. ‘

Boss boy’s face leered through the flames.

I am not the white man’s boy,’ Ellis said.

The guffaw was loud.

Ellis stared at Hondo. He brought trouble to their compound.

Hondo boasted and drank. How he and his comrades were going to get rid of the whites, the

remaining colonial oppressors. The ones occupying their land. Ellis felt the words were thrown at him. He felt jeering eyes. and saw how the young men of the village were seduced by promises of houses, cars for everyone.

The white man was boss during the day, Hondo at night.

After eating, Ellis stood up, dusted off his clothes, and ushered his wife away.

White boy, I have a job for you.’

The muscles in Ellis’ shoulders tensed, but he continued walking.

A metallic click.

Turn around, houseboy.’

The voice was harsh, sharp.

Ellis pushed his wife ahead of him, towards the hut. Then he turned. The gun was no surprise.

His young son peered over Hondo’s shoulder at the weapons laid out on the ground.

Get away from i-parasite!’ Ellis spat.

The child took fright and ran to his mother. The weapon moulded to Hondo’s hands, aimed at

Ellis’ head.

You have a pretty young wife.’ A murmur from the crowd. ‘I have been without a woman

for some time.’

Wena ma Inja! I curse you!’ Ellis snapped. ‘Son of a dog!’

A whispered intake.

Hondo’s chest heaved. He would not kill the cook boy now, the farmer would hear, his plans

would be ruined.

Ellis felt the gun press against his head, could smell the beer on Hondo’s breath.

Hondo’s voice was tight, like a rasp. ‘Those whites have stolen our land. We will take this

farm. It is ours.’

Then we won’t have jobs. You are just doing it for money.’

The workers went silent.

Hondo laughed. ‘You can farm this place! It will be yours. You do not need a white boss.’

Yebo,’ said a young man, fired up with hope.

Hondo stalked back and forth in front of the workers.

Tomorrow night, cook boy, you will tie up the dogs.’

Ellis remembered. ‘They’re not bloody Kaffir dogs. They’re white dogs.’

You will steal the key to the gate.’

I will not.’

Ellis heard the crack and tasted the blood in his mouth. He rolled the tongue around the inside

of his teeth. His scorn laughed at Hondo.

Another crack, this time to the back of his neck, and he sprawled in the dust. He turned over,

the automatic rifle aimed at his groin.

You want to play with your young wife again, white man’s boy?’

The crowd was silent.

The rifle butt crushed into him, cracked a hollow pain in the pit of his stomach.

The crowd laughed now, raw, and cruel in their power.

The cry of his child tugged him back, he saw his wife crying at the hut.

Hondo’s harsh voice imitated the white madam. ‘Go home now, cook boy, play with your

wife.’

Long into the night, drunken voices of the men droned, rising to laughter, drifting into the

blackness of his hut.

Those whites will see what we suffer without freedom. This land is ours.’

Hondo sprawled, pushed towards the dying embers of heat, his last night at this compound;

tomorrow he would join the comrades for an invasion of the neighboring farms in the area.

Leave the gate open, cook boy. Tonight, I will have my revenge.’

Hondo laughed. ‘Don’t tell your boss, Ellis. You will find your family dead if you do!’

He looked at the villagers.

We’ll have plenty of cattle,’ he said to the village. ‘And it will be ours.’

Ellis reached out to his wife. He traced the features of her face tenderly with his hands.

We will leave. Meet me at the house. Five o’clock. Tomorrow. Let no one see you come.’

Her face softened, reassured.

Early morning seemed reluctant to lighten the sky, and Ellis felt the path longer and steeper.

He paused to ease the pain in his groin from where Hondo had hit him, looked at the farmhouse where he had worked for most of his life.

The rusted tin roof fitted into the bush, no longer new and strange. A tangle of creepers and

brown metal gauze hid yellowed walls of the veranda. Madam insisted on neatness and

tidiness in the early years.

No longer.

He trudged on. He would work slowly, he would not clean out the stove, the bending would hurt.

The gate was still locked. He slumped to the rock beside the gate—the path had been painful.

He could smell the flowers of a tree she had planted. She called it a Temple Flower. It

reminded him of death, of burning bodies. Sweet and sick.

Bloody Kaffir dogs.’

With a crash the dogs came pelting from the kitchen, lumbered to the gate, tails wagging

furiously. They whined at Ellis, and he reached out to pat them, as he normally did, then his

hand faltered, returned to his pocket.

Come here!’

The door of the kitchen creaked. Ted stepped down heavily and aimed a kick at the nearest

dog, sending it yelping away.

Kaffir lover.’

Ellis watched the thick stubby fingers, clumsy with the small key, as he had watched him

many times before. This man was always the same, not like some whites, who would turn on

you like a snake; this man hated him. Ellis felt safe in the knowledge.

The gate screeched open, and Ellis limped through.

Morning Baas.’

The key, wired to a worn piece of wood, clattered against the padlock.

Ellis heard him click the padlock over the mesh. He would keep the key in his pocket the rest

of the day. Madam had the other on her bunch of keys.

Ted watched the cook struggle up the steps and flicked the cigarette into the grass.

He was a large-framed man, a sweat-stained hat as much part of him as his paunch, his baggy

khaki trousers, and the lips burnt into his face. Blue eyes, cold, almost lashless, in a tired

face, forced red by a harsh shave.

The sun had come up, shooting horizontal rays across the scrub, and Ted wondered how long

they could hold out on the farm. He had lost three hundred cattle from rustling. He kicked the

gate, sending a chain effect shivering down the mesh. Security fencing, screens against the

windows, the costs weighed heavier and heavier. To protect what? Not what they hoped. He

cursed the country for what it had done to him. He was now too old to recover any money,

and even if he sold up, they had nowhere to go. They were both born in Africa. This was their

home. And now you had government thugs, paid by corrupt politicians to force farmers off

their land to share money from the sale of equipment.

He clicked the weapon to safety, creaked open the door to the kitchen and picked up the tray

of tea things.

Tea’s ready,’ he called to her. He bumped his elbow on the door to the veranda. ‘Fuck!’ as

hot tea burnt his legs.

His hands shook as he poured into flowered cups. ‘Too many dops, last night,’ he thought.

Ellis watched him, sipping his tea, as the slow trickle of labourers spread out in a fan from the

compound.

Ellis knew this was the time to betray Hondo, when the farmer was alone, before she came

through. He started forward, then stopped. He wanted to tell them he was honest, that he’d

worked with them for a long time, he would never lie. He was loyal. They should help him.

The farmer turned and stared past him. Did not notice him. Did not even see him.

The distance between them was too far.

Madge bustled through, hand neatening the back of her hair, the other smoothing down her

frock the way she had done every day for years.

Bacon and egg, Ellis.’

Madge grasped her cup of tea. The mood of the night had lifted somewhat. She felt today

would be better.

He was looking at the fields, watching the last workers join the others.

More tea?’

She took the cup from him, touched his fingers for a moment.

Bloody laugh. Army says the place is clear, then ten more bloody mombies disappeared

yesterday. They are all in it- army, police, politicians. Steal our mombies then sell them.’

He drained his tea on the way out.

No lunch. I’ll meet the other farmers. We will put a stop to this rustling. With guns. These bastards won’t get away with this. We have to take matters into our own hands.’

Madge picked at breakfast, her mood down again. She scraped her chair back.

Clean those, Ellis.’ She lumped the dishes on to the sink and fumbled for her bunch of keys.

The Yale lock clicked, as she opened the door to the dark pantry. It smelled of cloves and Allspice. Madge squinted at the wooden shelves. She pulled down ingredients, glad to find them full, without weevils, and carried them out to the dresser.

Ellis cut up some pumpkin for me. Nice and small.’

Ellis stacked up the plates, hands shaking. A stab of pain in his groin suddenly shot through

him, and they crashed to the floor.

Madge wheeled around, saw the shattered crockery. It was useless to shout, they were

broken, but she was frightened for Ellis, leaning against the wall, trembling.

What is it, Ellis?’ He clutched his stomach in agony.

She marched down the passage to the medicine cabinet.

Ellis swallowed the growing rush of nausea; he could not give in now; he must escape with

his family. He had to save them. He braced himself against the sink, reached for the keys in

the pantry door.

Madge headed for the kitchen, half a dozen aspirin in her hand. She paused when she saw

Ellis at the sink near the pantry. Why did he move?

I needed to wet my face, Medemh.’

You should have used the outside tap. Not my sink!’

She placed the painkillers into his cupped hands, ‘Take these Ellis. Two.’

He headed towards the outside tap with his cup. The dogs lying in the shade wagged their

tails at him as he drank. Then he limped to the fence. He hid the key near the gate near

madam’s tree.

Madge cut up the pumpkin, baked the pie, and sprinkled cinnamon on the top. The smell put

her in a lighter mood.

The swinging bunch of keys caught her attention, and she relocked the pantry.

When she sat down for her afternoon tea, she felt she had accomplished something. She

examined the room over the edge of the cup, the gun cabinet bolted to the wall, the faded

photographs of their first day on the farm. Their dreams. Her hope died when she saw the

pole and dagga hut, their first home in the heat. Ted blustered it was only temporary, but it

wasn’t. They were always struggling for dreams, for hope. But she knew Ted’s purpose , felt

part of him, part of the challenge of something new. That kept her alive.

She swallowed the last of her tea and wandered over to the photographs, their glass filmed in

dust. There was a musty smell. She must get Ellis to clean properly. The wedding photo,

wiped with a flick of her smock, made her smile – the two of them sitting in formal pose,

pretending to be what they weren’t. No recent photos. No need. They had grown older,

weathered together—Ted had thrived in the heat, she hadn’t. Now, failure had become a

habit.

Excuse Medemh.’ An involuntary shiver.

Are you better?’

He was not shaking, but he was uneasy.

Supper Medemh?’

The day had sauntered by. She got up from the chair.

Cut up the potatoes and the carrots, Ellis. Chicken tonight.’

She cracked out the ice into a cut glass bowl, next to the gin. Ted would like the pumpkin pie.

Ellis watched her go to the veranda. He looked at the kitchen clock. It was time to meet his

wife.

A noise outside, and Ellis stopped, peered through the gauze, thought he saw a bulky figure

bend over the stone by the gate.

He pushed open the door, and the dogs lumbered in, wagging their backs at him. Ellis bent

down automatically, stroked them both, and they charged through the house, delirious at

being inside again. He sat down on the step and watched, waiting for his family to arrive at the gate. The smell of the compound fire blew up to the farmhouse, familiar and sad.

The gate of the fence looked like a shadow underneath the tree. Not real.

The dusk crept up into early night. He started at a low cry, listened, too late to see his wife

and children forced back to the compound by a large man.

Madge watched the dusk creep into the hills, and patted the dogs idly, wondered where Ted

was. Cradling her gin, she stepped into the memory of her garden and watched the restless

dogs whining, playing with shadows, rolling in the khaki weed. She taught Ellis to crush the

leaves and mix it with floor polish to keep away the fleas. A long time ago.

The darkness suddenly frightened her, tightened the knot to run inside.

Ted was late.

She worried about him. The strain of the ranch, no money, had scarred him, extra gin in his

drink did not help.

When she saw the faint yellow eyes of the truck prick through the darkness, she poured

herself another gin.

The truck swept past the trees and lurched to a halt. Madge began to smile, was cut short.

Is the alert on?’ Ted stalked to the alarm set. He pressed the red button, signalling all farms

And the police on the circuit, ‘Ted Coetzee, Impala Range.’

The seconds delayed, freezing them.

Anytime something real comes up, they take bloody hours.’ Madge knew the drill, went to

the gun cabinet, as he shouted his call sign through again, watched him stamp his feet

restlessly.

Charlie Tangos sighted! Heading towards my farm. A large bunch of them. Armed.’

His tone was brutal, hard.

Sighting. About 10, maybe more. Assemble at my compound. It’s time we showed these guys…’

She reached for the shotgun off the rack. Ted’s thick hands checked it over for her,

automatic, brusque.

I’ve alerted the army as well. Not that those bastards will come. They’re in it for the money as well.’

The air felt heavy, suffocating. Madge covered Ted with her shotgun as he went to the gate.

She thought about the roast; she must take it out before it was burnt.

Ted loomed up out of the gloom. He chucked her under the chin. She was pale.

O.K. It will be fine.’

He bent down and squeezed her, and she leant against him, drawing strength.

Government terrorists had come to her home. There was no one to turn to.

Medemh.’ The knocking on the kitchen door was urgent.

The Baas. He’s locked the gate; I must go home.’ The appeal in his face was painful. She

looked to Ted for an answer.

He’ll have to stay. There will be shooting at the compound. He’ll be safer here.’

He pressed the spring on his magazine, belted on his pouches, turned to Madge with his gin.

He felt a stab of guilt. They should have had a vigilante on the farm as protection for her. He

shrugged. The expense was not worth it.

Madge watched him pull away in a choking billow of dust, the dogs whining as he locked the gate behind him. She could smell the roast. She must take it out.

Cut some bread, Ellis, and make your tea.’ She said.

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t; his wife had not arrived. As he boiled the kettle, droplets

glistened in the furrows of his face.

The key was under a stone outside the gate; he could not get out. Only the farmer and Hondo

could get in.

He clicked for the dogs; they came to him, eager for attention, licking at his face. He tied

them to a post at the corner of the house with food. They whined as he melted into the

shadows, hugging the wall, out of sight, waiting for his family.

The stars arched over the farmhouse, sprinkling shadows under the trees, softening the edges.

of despair and age. Ellis did not hear the gate open. He did not see the fence shivering.

Madge sat in the dining room, shotgun cradled tightly against her, alone with the house they

had built together.

She listened to the door creaking restlessly, heard the dogs barking. They were wild. Barking

and whining as if they were tied up. She did not have time to notice the bulky shadow slip

through the open door and blot out the night. Hondo wrenched the gun from her, kicked it

into the kitchen and threw her to the ground.

She felt the pain of her head cracking, looked up dazed, trying to understand why she was on

the floor. Finally, she smelt the shadow in front of her him, recognized his shape, and fear

killed the scream in her throat.

Hondo laughed at the woman whimpering, trying to edge away into the corner.

I told you I would wait.’

His hand opened his trousers. She tried to clamber away. He crashed his foot on her leg, the

excitement pushing through him as she clawed wildly, a desperate animal, whimpering.

Ellis heard the woman in pain, groans as her body was beaten and crushed. He stumbled

inside, found Hondo astride her.

Too late.

Ellis limped past the barking dogs, through the open gate with the padlock still swinging. The

path down towards the kraal was painful, every jolt clutching at guilt, fear for his family.

He saw the compound alight, the huts in flames, and explosions of bullets in the burning

thatch.

He staggered to the back of the compound, calling for her, for the children. He smelt the sickly sweet smell of cooking bodies. The smoke from his hut sent him choking back, stumbling through pots and stools, tripping over a soft pile, charred and inert. His streaming eyes focused, and despair spewed from him.

Ted stood with armed farmers in the middle of the burning compound. The raid had been a

success, the thugs killed. The army had not arrived.

They won’t kill their comrades.” Spat Ted.

The villagers stood in groups watching their homes light the sky.

Ted caught a movement, wheeled his weapon, levelled at a man standing over three bodies.

He fired over his head.

Ted heard a single name, ‘Medemh’.

Madge was in the house alone with an open gate.

He threw Ellis into the truck and skidded off, crashed the gears through the half open gates,

breaking the hinges. He fought through the dogs, straining at the door, ran into the darkness.

The shadows cut the corners of the kitchen. His foot tapped something on the floor,

something solid. He looked down. Her rifle. Ted felt a terrible silence, felt a stranger.

He edged into the gloom, no movement, no noise.

Hssst!’

The dogs stopped barking.

He looked over to the window, into the shadows. Swept his eyes across the dining room table

and froze. A figure slumped over in the chair, head drooping. Frightened to believe, he

strained forward, and touched her, tenderly lifted her heavy head. A slow trickle of blood

oozed from her mouth, dripped from her chin. He hugged the inert form, calling out her name in terse whispers, unbelieving.

The first shot exploded, hit the back of his leg, crumpling him against the table. Grasping for

his rifle, the next shot took away his arm, knocking the rifle against her broken foot.

Try to hit me now.’

Hondo walked out of the shadows.

He laughed, pushed at the stump of the farmer’s arm. He flipped up the corner of the dead

woman’s dress.

She was good.’

Ted lunged, to get at the devil’s throat, and fell to the floor. Hondo’s rifle aimed at Ted’s

groin.

Get it over with,’ a pinched voice, taut with pain.

Then Ted saw a look of bewilderment flash across Hondo’s face as his chest collapsed in

blood and bone. The cordite of the shotgun hung in the air.

Ellis lifted the gun again and blew Hondo’s body to shreds.

Tears creased the ashes on his cheeks.

Ellis heard his name weakly from the floor. The big man was down, pumping blood across

the red carpet.

The dogs whined to get inside.

Ellis lifted the rifle to the man’s closing eyes.

The temple flower breathed a sick sweet smell near the gate.

A soft wind blew up, crackling the leaves, breaking up shadows creeping on the house,

blowing against the open back door.

Then silence.

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