Zulu Dog

Anton Ferreira

Frances Foster Books

Zulu Dog
CHAPTER 1
THERE IS NO BETTER TIME to be alive than in the hour before dawn in Msinga, when a full moon lights the raw African landscape of craggy hills, flat-topped thorn trees, and flowing water in the heart of ancient Zululand. Later the fierce midday sun of early January will bake the rocks here along the banks of the Tugela River, driving man and beast into the shade of the acacia trees, but now the air is cool and invigorating. The star-filled southern sky dazzles this part of the earth where no city lights cast their glare. The night pulses with the lives of nocturnal creatures--a giant eagle owl hoots from the tall trees along the river, and a sudden bawl of alarm echoesacross the valley from a distant tribe of baboons woken by a prowling leopard.
A dozen mud-and-thatch huts are grouped on the bank of the river, the kraal of the Ngugu clan, who trace their roots back to Shaka, the legendary warrior king who forged the Zulu nation in eastern South Africa nearly two centuries ago. Clan patriarch Walter Ngugu is snoring, his two-hundred-twenty-pound frame rising and falling gently under the blankets. The whole family is still asleep, but outside, just beyond the treeline at the edge of the kraal clearing, something is stirring in a burrow dug years ago by a porcupine and then abandoned.
Sheba, one of the kraal dogs, crept into the hole the previous evening, heavily pregnant and driven by instinct to find a safe, isolated lair. All night she circled and turned impatiently in the confines of the burrow, scrabbling at the walls to make more room and spreading the sand to form a bed. Now, with the sky lightening in the east, she is ready.
 
TEN DAYS AFTER THE BIRTH of the puppies, Walter Ngugu's eleven-year-old son, Vusi, is putting the finishing touches to a toy he is making for himself. His brow is furrowed in concentration as he bends bits of discarded wire coat hangers this way and that. He hasbeen working on it for days, and now the toy is all but complete: a scaled-down version of the taxi van his father drives every day to earn a living for the family, about twenty inches long and half as wide. Vusi has shaped wire strands to define the boxy shape of the van, securely fastening the framework to axles fixed to the metal lids of old jars that spin like real wheels. Each joint in the wire skeleton has been painstakingly made so the toy is sturdy enough to withstand the bumps and ruts of the kraal clearing. The final touch is a long piece of wire that stretches from the driver's position and ends in a circle--the steering wheel. Vusi grasps the wheel and triumphantly runs around the kraal, pushing the toy taxi before him as he yells at the top of his lungs.
"Coming through! Coming through! Brrrrrrm brrrrrrm, wake up, old man! We haven't got all day! Out my way, out my way! Beeeeep, beeeeeep!"
Vusi makes a turn at the edge of the clearing, then catches sight of a movement in the bush. He drops the steering wheel and goes to investigate, moving carefully because the long grass is full of snakes and other lurking dangers. The spot where he saw the movement is empty, but he notices tracks in the sand. He snorts in disappointment--just a dog. He follows the track anyway, practicing what his father has taught him inpreparation for the day when he becomes a man and must prove himself as a hunter.
Within fifteen yards Vusi comes upon a porcupine burrow, with a series of dog tracks leading in and out. He sinks to his hands and knees and listens with his ear at the opening. He hears the low murmuring squeal of the puppies as they jostle each other, waiting hungrily for the return of their mother. Vusi lies on his stomach and stretches his arm into the hole as far as it will go until his fingers connect with soft fur. He grabs the squirming bundle and pulls it out.
Half a dozen dogs live in and around the kraal, but this is the first time Vusi has seen a newborn puppy. Its eyes are barely open, and its fawn skin seems far too loose for its pudgy body. It grabs Vusi's finger in its tiny mouth and sucks, hoping it has found a teat. Vusi shrieks with joy and runs back to the clearing with the puppy, his toy taxi temporarily forgotten. He puts the puppy down and watches it struggle to its feet, then stagger toward him. He steps backward, and the puppy lurches after him. Vusi picks the puppy up again, cradling it in his arms.
"Vusi!" There is an impatient edge to his mother's voice as it echoes across the clearing, an edge that means there are many chores that need doing. Vusigrabs the puppy in both hands and runs to where his mother is preparing the midday meal.
"Mama, Mama, look what I found!"
Prudence Ngugu's eyes open wide in horror as she sees what her son is thrusting up at her.
"Rubbish! Throw it in the bush! Those things are dirty, Vusi, full of germs, and you want to bring it here where we are making food! Where do you learn such nonsense? Never touch a dog! Take it away, then come back here and eat. But wash yourself first, very carefully."
Abashed, Vusi walks away with the puppy, back to the hole where he found it. He leaves it at the edge of the burrow, then backs off a few paces to see what it will do. The puppy sits down and squeals in despair, thrusting its nose in the air to try to find a familiar smell. As Vusi watches, Sheba emerges from the burrow, throws the boy a quick look, seizes the puppy in her jaws, and returns with it into the den.
 
CHASTENED BY HIS MOTHER'S DISDAIN for the puppy, Vusi initially resists the temptation to go back to the burrow to play with it again, to feel its soft fur under his hands and offer it a finger to suck on as it squirms in his grasp. His mother's anger is a powerful force,and he has no wish to provoke it. But as the days pass, Vusi's curiosity about Sheba's den grows stronger. His mind wanders off during his school lessons, and when he is home, his games seem to take him closer and closer to the burrow. At last, he can no longer resist the urge to play with them again. If I just go over and take one quick look, it can't do any harm, he tells himself.
So one day when his mother is out collecting firewood, Vusi saunters out of the clearing and into the bush, whistling casually in a way that he hopes will give anyone watching him the impression he has nothing at all on his mind. Once in the cover of the trees, he stealthily works his way around to where the puppies are. Arriving at the hole, he lies down to reach into the den. But as he does so, Sheba gives a low warning growl from the depths. Vusi sits back and considers this. He hadn't thought she might be there, and he doesn't want to have his hand bitten. His mother has warned him that a dog bite means certain death from rabies.
A solution occurs to him. He runs to the kitchen hut, checks to be sure no one is around, and opens the black cast-iron pot full of the stiff corn porridge that is the Zulu staple food. He digs out a handful, dips it in a pan of meat gravy standing nearby, and dashes backto the burrow. Squatting at the entrance, he waves the food around to tempt Sheba with the smell. She quickly slinks out of the hole, her caution overcome by an empty stomach, holding her head low in submission, her tail curled between her legs. Vusi scatters the porridge on the ground, and the dog snatches up the lumps as if she has not eaten for a week. She hardly bothers to chew the pieces before swallowing.
Vusi sees her hunger, and the way her ribs push through her skin, but thinks nothing of it. Kraal dogs are always hungry.
Sheba, one of the best hunters among the Ngugu family's dogs, sniffs the ground for any remaining crumbs of porridge. While she is preoccupied with scavenging, Vusi turns to the porcupine burrow to pull out the puppy. But there is no need--the four puppies have scrambled by themselves up to the lip of the burrow, where they peer around for their mother. Vusi recognizes the one he played with before because it is the only brown one. Two are brindle, and one is white with large brown patches. He lifts his puppy up to his chest to cradle it as he has seen the women do with their babies. Then he holds the puppy at eye level and gazes at it.
"What are you called?" he asks it. The puppy wrigglesand licks at Vusi's hands. Tiny teeth emerge from its gums like ivory needle points, and Vusi eases his little finger into the puppy's mouth to feel how sharp they are. The puppy closes its mouth on his finger, and Vusi gasps in surprise at the pain.
As he sucks at the pinprick of blood, Vusi recalls the last time he tested something for sharpness, when he ran a finger across his father's razor blade. He cut himself that time, too.
"Gillette," he announces. "That is your name. Gillette."
Over the next weeks Vusi plays with Gillette every day, being careful not to let the adults see him. The puppies are increasingly independent of their mother, and Sheba quickly comes to accept Vusi's presence at the den. The boy still brings her food, though, because he realizes she needs to keep her strength up while nursing the litter. He cuts reeds down at the river, then weaves them into a seat in his toy taxi so he can put the puppy in the toy and push it up and down the paths through the bush. Twice a day he searches Gillette for ticks, which infest all the kraal dogs. He gently rolls the puppy on its back, carefully pulling off the parasites so their heads do not remain embedded in the skin to fester and spread infection. To end the grooming session,Vusi sends Gillette into a blissful doze by softly rubbing the puppy's tummy.
 
LIFE UNFOLDS SLOWLY on a Sunday in the Ngugu kraal. As the first soft yellow light brightens the treetops, the rooster that ranges freely around the yard during the day with his harem of hens lifts his head and crows, but uncertainly, as if he is not sure that dawn really has broken or if he is just dreaming it. His call quickly fades to a volley of bad-tempered clucking, then he puts his head under his wing and goes back to sleep. The hens around him ruffle their feathers and shift their weight from foot to foot on their perches, but they don't bother to wake up.
The rooster's gargling call stirs Beauty, a young female dog stretched out on her side on the hard-packed dirt of the kraal clearing. She opens an eye, notices light in the sky above, and slowly rises to her feet, the stiffness of the night still tight in her joints. She yawns, looks around, sees that nothing is moving, then stretches long and slowly, her front paws pushed straight out in front, her haunches up in the air. She holds the stretch, then reverses it, pushing her front legs vertical, craning her twitching nostrils toward the smells of the bush and flexing her rump down toward the ground. Beauty gives afinal shake and pads over to where one of the other dogs, Lightning, is lying and collapses on the ground next to him. Lightning, a lithe, brown male dog, twitches in his sleep but does not wake.
The other male dog of the pack, Spear, is curled up some distance away. Spear, Lightning, and Beauty all resemble Sheba with their slim, whippetlike builds, but the fourth dog, Charcoal, sleeping now with one paw over her nose, is smaller and stockier. Pitch-black but for a white blaze on her throat, she is barrel-chested with a blunt muzzle, as if she had Staffordshire terrier blood in her.
Charcoal lifts her nose and sniffs the wind, catching the faint scent of antelope moving through the bush. But her senses tell her the impalas are far off and moving away. They never come close enough to the kraal to make it worthwhile for the dogs to try to catch them. She gets to her feet, shakes herself, and walks over to the remains of last night's fire.
When the weather is clear, the Ngugus eat dinner outdoors, under the stars, sitting on thick tree trunks around the cooking fire. Charcoal sniffs around the tree trunks for dropped food and finds nothing. But closer to the cold ashes, she is rewarded with a charred bone. She grabs it and trots off to a spot far from the other dogs, so they will not try to take it from her.She's not afraid of Spear or Beauty, but Lightning would challenge her for the bone and attack her if she refused to give it up.
Charcoal chooses to lie with her bone behind a hut at one side of the clearing, near the trees ringing the perimeter of the kraal and some way from the other huts that circle the cooking fire. This is the hut of Grandmother Ngugu. If she has another name, no one ever uses it; she is always "Granny" or "the old woman," uttered in tones of solemn respect.
She is the first of the Ngugus awake this morning, as usual. For her, there is no difference between Sunday and any other day of the week. She has a routine, and she likes to stick to it.
She leans on a stick as she hobbles to the kitchen hut, then bangs pots and pans as she rummages for the kettle. She takes the remaining five pieces of wood from a pile near the door, stacks them in the wood stove, and lights them with trembling fingers. She fills the kettle with water and puts it on the cast-iron stove, grumbling all the while that there is probably not enough wood in the firebox to boil the water for her coffee. Her eyes are no longer sharp, and the dark interior of the kitchen hut makes it hard for her to see. She peers around carefully, to check if there is a stash of firewood that she has missed. But there is none. It was all burned onthe fire last night, and no one bothered to cut more.
The old woman picks up a long metal spoon and a frying pan and makes her way stiffly to the hut Vusi and his three sisters share. She pushes open the door, made from salvaged planks of different shapes and sizes, leans against the doorway for support, and clangs the spoon against the frying pan.
"Wake up! Wake up!" the old woman says. "It's late! Why are you all still in bed?" Cries of protest greet the racket.
"Granny, it's Sunday," says Lindiwe, Vusi's sister, who is thirteen and two years older than he. Vusi and Lindiwe share the hut with their twin sisters, Mandisa and Tendeka, who are eight. "We don't go to school today," Mandisa mumbles groggily. "We can sleep late."
"No, no, you must get up. Come on. There is no firewood. You must go and get some. Come, come, quickly." Grandmother Ngugu clangs the frying pan again for emphasis.
The children mutter and groan, but it's no use trying to go back to sleep. Reluctantly they climb out of their beds, their eyes still heavy with sleep, and pull on their clothes.
 
BY THE TIME THEY RETURN to the kraal, loaded down with dead branches they have found in the bush, therest of the family is stirring. Their elder brother, Petrus, who is nineteen, is doing stretching exercises, barefoot and dressed only in shorts. Because he has entered manhood and will soon be looking for a wife, he has a hut to himself.
With his limbs sufficiently loose, Petrus picks up his kierie--a stick about four feet long, with a knob carved at one end--and starts practicing his stick-fighting moves. He raises his right foot straight out in front of him so his leg is almost parallel with the ground, then swings it in fast and stamps it in the dirt, sending a tremor through the ground that the children can feel where they stand twenty yards away. He grunts a challenge to an imaginary opponent and repeats the kick with his left foot, scattering dust. The shock waves from the impact of his feet slamming into the ground travel up his body and send quivers across his flat abdomen and the muscles of his broad chest. Sweat glints on his black skin.
The younger children watch in awe as Petrus jumps, somersaults, and strikes his invisible rival with his kierie. He is performing a stylized dance derived from the way the ancient Zulus used to settle their differences: by fighting it out with sticks.
"Harder! Faster! Higher!" Walter Ngugu shouts encouragement from the doorway of his hut, where hestands bare-chested, contentedly rubbing his vast paunch, contemplating the morning and his son's stick-fighting skills.
"Lindiwe! Vusi!" The voice of their mother echoes across the clearing from the kitchen hut. "Where's that wood? Come, come, bring it here now! We must cook."
 
BY THE TIME THE SUN has risen above the trees, thick corn porridge is bubbling in an iron pot set on three legs directly over the coals of the open-air fireplace. Sausages are sizzling on a grill nearby. Walter Ngugu is sparring with Petrus, feinting with his stick, exclaiming in triumph when he catches his son off balance. Each holds an ox-hide shield on his left arm, using it to parry the blows of the other. The clearing rings with their grunts of exertion and the thump of stick on shield as the combatants circle each other, sweat pouring off them as they maneuver for advantage under a cloudless sky.
"Warriors! Good day to you!"
Walter and Petrus let their sticks and shields fall to their sides as they turn to greet the visitor, a tall, thin man with a wispy gray beard who leans on a staff cut from an acacia tree.
"Shakes! Welcome my friend!" Walter steps forwardto greet his visitor. "Just in time for brunch. Come and sit down here by the fire. Lindiwe! Bring us beer!"
Shakes eases himself down onto one of the logs and turns to Petrus. "I see you are a promising stick fighter. Maybe one day you will be as good as your father. He was the best in Msinga, when he was a young man."
"I still am! I still am! Here, have some beer." Walter hands his guest a mug of homemade sorghum beer, thick and sour, that Lindiwe has brought in a hollowed out calabash.
"So, Shakes, we haven't seen you in months. How have you been?"
"I am well, I am well. Still living here." He gestures downriver.
"How is the hunting?" Walter asks, and adds in an aside to Petrus: "Shakes is the best hunter in Msinga."
Petrus nods and smiles. "Yes, that's what everyone says."
"Well, I had bad luck with my dogs."
"What bad luck, Shakes?"
"You know I had four dogs, very good dogs. But two months ago they all got sick. They were vomiting, they had diarrhea. Two of them were very ill, they were trembling, then they died."
"This is bad," says Walter, shaking his head in sympathy. "And the other two?"
"They're still weak. They get tired very easily. I don't know, maybe they will also die soon. I think they ate poisoned meat somewhere. Some of the farmers around here are putting out poison--you know they hate our dogs."
Shakes's face is tired, sad. "So that's why I've come today, Walter. I need a new dog, and they say one of your dogs is pregnant."
"Yes, that's right. Sheba. She's an excellent hunter, and her puppies will be good dogs, too. They must have been born by now. Petrus, have you seen them?"
"No, Father. Sheba is still in the bush somewhere. She came to the kraal last week for food, but I haven't seen her again."
Walter turns to Shakes. "The puppies will be ready to sell in, oh, about two months, say, early in April."
"Well, if they are good dogs, I will buy two."
"Sheba is a clever hunter. Her puppies will be a hundred rand each."
"I will give you a hundred and sixty rand for two."
Walter takes a gulp of beer.
"A hundred and eighty rand, because we are friends."
"A hundred and seventy-five."
The two men shake hands on the deal.
"You should sell all the puppies." Prudence Ngugu, arriving with plates and forks for the meal, sounds cross. "And if you got rid of all the dogs, it would be even better."
"Oh, Prudence, leave the dogs alone."
"No really, Walter, you know I don't like those animals. Look at them!" She gestures to where Lightning, Beauty, and Spear are sleeping on the edge of the clearing, stretched out in the sun. "Dirty! Full of disease. If you want them, Shakes, you can take them."
Walter turns to Shakes. "We never talk about dogs here. It always starts an argument."
"Dogs are useful, Ma Ngugu," says Shakes, embarrassed to feel he has somehow been the cause of Prudence's anger. "They help us catch food, they chase away robbers--"
"There is no game left around here for them to catch. And what do we have for anyone to steal? A transistor radio with flat batteries. That's all! The chickens are more useful--they give us eggs, and they eat the insects and slugs in the vegetable garden. We should have more chickens and fewer dogs."
"But the dogs don't come near you, Prudence. Justignore them." Walter eats his sausage and porridge with gusto. "Also, they eat all the leftover food. They help keep the place clean."
Prudence says no more about the dogs, but as Shakes is leaving two hours later, she tells him: "Shakes, let everyone know that we have lots of dogs for sale. We will even give them away for free."
Vusi almost bursts into tears when he hears this. The younger children have sat silently through the meal, too respectful to interrupt the adults. They have heard the argument about dogs between their parents many times; Vusi knows his mother hates them and his father likes them. He has been hoping that when the time comes, when the future of Sheba's litter is decided, he will be able to talk his father into letting him keep Gillette. Only his father could overrule his mother about the puppies.
But from the angry sound of his mother's voice now, Vusi fears that Gillette might soon be taken from him.
 
SOMETIME PAST MIDNIGHT on a Saturday night six weeks after he found Gillette, Vusi is woken by a piercing howl, ending abruptly in midnote. It comes from the trees just beyond the kraal clearing, the direction of Sheba's den. It is followed by scuffling sounds, asthough the spirits of the bush are fighting. All the dogs join in with a frantic chorus of barking. From his parents' hut, Walter's voice pierces the cacophony, angrily shouting at the dogs to shut up, then muttering as he goes back to bed. Vusi himself is too scared to stir--his grandmother has fed him dozens of tales of the dangers, seen and unseen, that lurk in the bush at night. The howl sounded like an anguished dog, but it could also have been one of the ghosts his grandmother described. Vusi rolls over, too nervous and worried to go back to sleep.
In the morning he is up before anyone else, his bare feet kicking up sand as he runs across the dew-damp dirt of the clearing to the big yellow-wood tree that stands over the porcupine burrow. He halts in horror at the den. The long grass and bushes have been torn and flattened, as if by a whirlwind. The ground is scuffed, scraped, ripped. Drag marks lead off deeper into the trees. Worse, the earth is stained black with a dark, viscous gel. Blood.
Vusi turns and runs back to the kraal, tears brimming in his eyes.
"Daddy! Daddy!" he yells, bursting into the kitchen hut where his father is cradling the day's first mug of coffee in his callused hands. "Something has happened to Sheba. Something bad, I think."
"What? What are you saying?"
"Come and look. That noise last night--it came from the hole where Sheba was living with her puppies. Something bad has happened there."
Prudence, cooking over the stove, raises her eyebrows but says nothing. Walter frowns, puts down his coffee, and follows Vusi across the clearing and into the trees. When they come to the entrance of the burrow, Walter gives a low whistle. Fresh scars in the earth show where a beast's claws have torn at the entrance.
"Sheba was hiding her puppies here? How do you know?"
"I saw her once. And the puppies, too. There were four of them."
"And you didn't say anything to anyone?"
"I showed one of the puppies to Mother, but she was very angry."
Walter looks around at the signs of struggle in the bush. He sees what looks like a bloody rag on the ground and bends down to pick it up. He studies it quickly, then throws it away into the thicket with a muttered curse. A piece of torn dog skin.
"Leopard. They like to eat dogs." He shakes his head sorrowfully and kneels down next to the hole, listening. He cautiously extends his arm into the burrowand feels around. When he stands again, his mouth is set in a grim line.
"The leopard ate everything. Even the puppies. The hole is empty."
Vusi bows his head. He doesn't want his father to see his tears.
"It's too bad," says Walter. "Sheba was a very good dog, very clever. Her puppies would have been good hunters." He sighs. "There goes my hundred and seventy-five rand from Shakes."
When his father has gone, Vusi falls to the ground at the entrance to the burrow. The boy stretches his hand down the hole and feels nothing but sand. He wants to cry, but he refuses to give up hope. He pushes his shoulder as far as it will go, trying to reach deeper, imagining his arm is an elastic band as he stretches, stretches, stretches. His fingers scrabble furiously in the dirt at the bottom of the hole, hoping for the touch of warm puppy fur. Nothing.
Vusi lets his hand go limp there and surrenders to his sorrow. But as the first deep sobs shake his body, a spark of electricity seems to shoot up his arm from his little finger. He wiggles the finger. It touches something sharp, like a needle. Then something soft, wet, and warm, like the tongue of a puppy.
"Gillette! Gillette!" Joy floods Vusi's being. Thepuppy is still too far down the burrow for him to grab it, so he withdraws his hand an inch and wiggles his fingers. The puppy crawls forward and fixes its mouth to a finger. The sharp grip of the puppy's teeth makes Vusi smile.
"Come, Gillette, come," he whispers down the hole. He lures the puppy inch by inch toward the surface, until he can get a grip around its body and pull it up and out of the hole.
Vusi lifts Gillette triumphantly into the air, then freezes. The puppy's right back leg is a mangled, bloody mess, the bottom half hanging by a thread of skin from the thigh. The leopard that carried off Sheba and the other puppies inflicted this terrible wound, too, catching Gillette with a sharp claw as he cowered at the bottom of the burrow. Vusi realizes Gillette will die if he doesn't do something quickly.
When he cuts himself, he goes to his mother, who washes the wound and bandages it. But it is out of the question to take the puppy to her. Clutching Gillette firmly to his chest, Vusi runs to the small hut standing away from the others at the edge of the clearing, under the shade of the forest trees, and kneels at the low doorway.
"Granny?" he asks urgently. "Granny? Are you here?" Vusi's voice catches as he battles to halt the sobsthat want to bubble up from his throat. Blood from Gillette's leg is soaking his clothes. If his grandmother cannot help, the puppy will surely bleed to death.
A bony, withered hand grasps the curtain hanging at the hut entrance and pulls it aside. A thin, high voice greets him: "Vusi, what do you want, boy?"
Granny Ngugu, her eyes covered by cataracts, shields her wrinkled face from the glare of the sun as she peers at her visitor and his bloody load. "Come inside, boy, come inside, it's too bright out here."
Vusi seldom visits his grandmother in her hut, not because the old woman does not like visitors, but because the hut sends chills down his spine.
As he enters, he ducks his head to avoid brushing against the objects hanging from the thatched roof. He doesn't mind the bunches of dried herbs and plants, but there are other things, some recognizable, some not, that he doesn't want scraping across his skull as they dangle in the air. There is a shriveled ground squirrel covered in the dust of decades, the sharp tail of a scaly anteater, a set of gray bones clinking softly together like wind chimes, some other creature with moldy whiskers and empty eye sockets, strips of dried animal skin curling in weird spirals, and a baby crocodile whose rows of teeth grimace in a wide, mirthless smile. The walls of the hut are worse: rows of shelvesare packed with jars and bottles, many containing slowly disintegrating animal parts. Cold coils of deadly cobras, tree snakes, pythons, and adders float in murky preserving liquid. The lintel above the doorway supports an array of monkey skulls.
Granny Ngugu motions Vusi to sit on her bed, which is raised on bricks to put it above the reach of the evil dwarves that the old woman knows visit her hut when she is asleep. A shy young woman is already sitting there.
"This is Lucy. She has come very far today, many miles. She needs something special to keep her husband close. He likes to roam, that one." Vusi's granny cackles, her mouth wide, showing the only two teeth she has left. "Men! There is always something new to take their fancy. But I am making Lucy a very strong mixture to put in her husband's food. Then he will never look at any other woman ever again. He will only have eyes for her."
Lucy blushes and remains silent, head bowed.
"Granny, please, can you help me? Can you save my puppy?"
He holds out Gillette, who whimpers as the torn stump drips blood onto the dirt floor of the hut. The severed foot still hangs loosely from the thigh by a piece of skin.
The old woman quickly holds out a tin cup to catch the drops. "Young dog's blood, very good, very good," she mutters.
Putting the cup aside, she looks at the puppy, thinks for a minute, and gazes up at her hanging collection of healing and hexing materials. Straightening her crooked back, she stretches up and plucks a selection of dried leaves and herbs. Taking Gillette from Vusi, she quickly slices off the hanging foot with a rusty knife and carefully places it on a shelf behind her. The boy tries not to think what his grandmother is going to use it for later. The old woman binds the herbs and leaves to the stump with a bandage, then dips a finger into a vial of pungent oil. She thrusts the finger into the puppy's mouth and holds it closed so Gillette is forced to swallow. She hands the puppy back to Vusi.
"There. He will be fine."
"Thank you, Granny, thank you." Vusi strokes Gillette's head, careful as he cradles the puppy not to touch the injured leg. "You will not tell my mother, will you? She doesn't like this puppy."
"Don't worry, boy, this puppy is a secret."
 
FROM HIS GRANNY'S HUT, Vusi dashes to the kitchen. He wants to feed the puppy, but his mother is still standing at the stove. He looks around for a place tohide the whimpering creature and finds a bucket, with sides too high for Gillette to climb. He pulls off his bloodstained shirt and pushes it into the bottom of the bucket. Carefully laying the puppy on this nest, Vusi then grabs a handful of dirt and rubs it into the bloodstains on his shorts, so they look like fresh smears of mud. Some blood has soaked through his shirt onto his torso; he gives it the same camouflage treatment. He enters the kitchen and forces himself to look casual.
"Can I have some breakfast, please, Mother?"
Prudence ladles porridge into a dish for him. "That puppy you showed me. Didn't I tell you to throw it away?"
"I put it back where I found it, Mother, in the bush."
"Well, I'm glad the leopard got it. If the leopard hadn't killed those puppies, I would have killed them myself. We don't need more dogs around here. Smelly, dirty animals, they leave their hair everywhere, they eat too much. They are dangerous. Your father is too kind to them. You must not be like him, Vusi, with dogs. You must leave those things alone."
"Yes, Mother."
For each spoonful of porridge he puts in his mouth, Vusi surreptitiously sneaks a piece into his pocket.When his plate is clean, he gets up and goes out the door. "I'm going down to the river to fetch water, Mother."
"Good boy. While you're there, give yourself a wash. You've got mud all over you," Prudence says. His offer to fetch water disarms her. She had been thinking there was something suspicious about his meek acceptance of her order to have nothing to do with dogs. But as she watches Vusi walk down toward the river with the bucket, she puts her suspicions out of her mind. He's an obedient boy, she tells herself.
As soon as he gets to the river, concealed from view, Vusi lifts Gillette from the bucket and cradles him to his chest. He breaks off pea-size bits from the lumps of porridge in his pocket and feeds them to the shivering puppy, who is so weak he has to be coaxed to accept them. When the porridge is finished and the puppy's belly is full, his shaking eases, and he falls asleep against Vusi's body.
There is no question now of leaving Gillette by himself in the porcupine burrow at night--but what is he to do with the puppy? His mother would be furious if she learned that Vusi has ignored her orders to get rid of his pet.
Vusi carries Gillette to the hut he shares withhis sisters. All three are inside, doing their homework.
"Sisters, look what I have here."
He lays Gillette on his bed, putting a towel down first in case more blood oozes from the wound.
The girls gather around the bed and squeal in delight. "Where did you find him?" "What's his name?" "Look, he's hurt." "What happened to his leg?"
"Don't pick him up, Tendeka, he's sick. When he's better, you can hold him. He was attacked by a leopard."
His sisters gasp in unison.
"You heard the noise in the bush last night?" The girls nod. "That was the leopard killing his mother and his brothers and sisters."
"Oh, no," the twins gasp. "Poor thing," says Lindiwe. "What are you going to do with him?"
"He is my best friend. I'm going to keep him always. But you must all help me, please."
"If you let me hold him," says Tendeka.
"Yes, but not yet. When he is strong again."
"What do you want us to do?" asks Mandisa.
"Don't tell Mother about him, please, please. That's all. I will keep him here in the hut at night, then every day, first thing in the morning before Mother comes over here, I'll take him out into the bush and hide him. Mother mustn't know about him."
His sisters look aghast, but they promise to keep his secret.
 
VUSI GOES to sleep that night with Gillette curled up against his stomach. He is woken early the next morning by the puppy sucking on his finger, whining softly for food. The boy dresses quickly, gathers up Gillette, and walks through the dawn light to the porcupine burrow. He puts a big lump of porridge softened with milk into the burrow, then eases the puppy into the hole, too. Next he goes over to a heavy rock lying some yards away and heaves it across to the burrow, blocking the entrance so the puppy is trapped inside.
"This is for your own good," he whispers to Gillette. "So you will be safe. I'll be back soon with more food, after school. Goodbye, be well."
Vusi turns and runs back to the kraal for breakfast and to get ready for school.
 
THE STUMP of the puppy's hind leg heals well. Gillette tears off the bandage and herbal poultice while he is alone in the burrow and spends hours licking the wound clean, the antiseptic action of his own saliva helping his recovery.
Vusi's heart goes out to Gillette as he watches the puppy struggle to learn to walk all over again. Gillettepushes himself upright, then immediately falls over with a yelp of surprise when he tries to put weight on his nonexistent back leg. But within two or three days, the pup masters the art of walking and running on three legs, although Vusi realizes Gillette will never outsprint the other kraal dogs.
"Never mind, Gillette. You are not so fast, but you will be clever, you will be wise." For Vusi has decided that Gillette is going to be the best hunting dog ever seen in Zululand, one of the rare dogs that are remembered long after they die, that become the hero of tales told by the men of the kraal around the fire at night.
All Vusi knows of dog training is what he has learned from watching his father and Petrus with the other dogs. They whistle in a special way and hold out a piece of meat, so the dogs learn to run to the men when they hear that whistle. Apart from that, as far as Vusi can tell, the dogs rely on their own instincts during a hunt. They respond very keenly to his father and brother; if the men shout at them in angry voices, the dogs cower and look miserable; if the men praise them, they wag their tails shyly and pant with their tongues hanging out, looking for all the world as if they are smiling.
Vusi thinks about asking his father and Petrus for advice on training. But he has not told them aboutGillette, fearing that if his father knew one of Sheba's puppies had survived the leopard attack, he might want to sell it to his friend Shakes.
No, Gillette must be my secret. I will train him myself, he decides.
He conducts Gillette's education by relying on his instincts and doing what feels right. The first thing he must teach the dog is to stay in one place. The other kraal dogs can come and go more or less as they please, but because his mother has taken a dislike to this puppy, Gillette has to stay in the bush without running off and getting lost or, just as bad, following Vusi into the kraal and being seen. Until now, the puppy has been content to spend hours on end sleeping in the porcupine burrow while Vusi is at school or doing chores around the kraal, but the boy knows that as Gillette grows more active they will need a new system.
Vusi starts by making Gillette a rope collar, then tying him to a tree near the porcupine burrow. He turns and walks away, wondering what the puppy will do. He quickly finds out: as soon as he disappears from the puppy's sight, Gillette starts howling. Vusi carries on walking for a few minutes, hoping the howling will die down if he ignores it. It doesn't--if anything, it grows louder. He stops, frowning. The howls are sopiercing, his mother might hear them and come to investigate. That would be the end of Gillette. Vusi turns and hurries back to where he has tied the puppy. He has barely taken ten paces when suddenly the howling stops. The silence alarms Vusi more than the howling. What has happened? Did the leopard hear the noise, come to investigate, and find the puppy? Vusi starts sprinting back toward the place where he tied Gillette.
As he runs, he hears the sound of something breaking through the undergrowth toward him, but it's too small to be a leopard. Then the bounding puppy, free from his tether, throws himself against Vusi's legs, his tail whipping in delight that he has found Vusi. The boy looks at the rope trailing from Gillette's collar--it has been chewed clean through.
A different approach is needed, Vusi realizes. I must get Gillette to be comfortable staying in one place, convinced that he has not been abandoned, trusting that I will return to him at any moment.
"Lie down," he tells Gillette firmly, holding a piece of porridge on the ground. The puppy drops onto his stomach and nuzzles the hand holding the food. Vusi puts down another piece of porridge, saying, "Stay here," and backs away a couple of paces. Then he immediately returns and places another morsel on the ground in front of Gillette's nose.
Gradually, over days and weeks, Vusi extends the time and the distance before returning with food, until one day he can hide behind a tree for thirty minutes without Gillette budging from the spot where he has been told to stay. Sometimes Gillette sits up and scratches himself, sometimes he stands, yawns, and makes a small circle before lying down again, but he always stays in the same place.
In the months that follow, Vusi spends every free moment with his dog. He watches the puppy closely, trying to figure out ways of communicating to him what he wants him to learn. He sees how quickly Gillette reacts to movement, how excited he gets when the wind blows a fluttering leaf across his path, how he loves to chase and pounce.
Vusi talks to Gillette all the time.
"You're a natural hunter, aren't you, puppy? You know how to chase, how to bite, how to sniff the world around you to find where your prey is. There's nothing I can teach you about that."
Vusi rubs Gillette's loose coat vigorously, ruffling up the short, coarse hairs.
"But you must learn to hunt in a team with me. You must be watching me when we hunt, listening to me. Otherwise you will just be another wild animal."
Vusi's hand closes on a river pebble, roundedsmooth by the action of water. He picks it up, holds it in front of Gillette's face.
"Look!"
Vusi flicks the pebble along the ground, so it rolls through the carpet of noisy dry leaves like a live thing. Gillette leaps after it, lacking coordination still but firmly fixed on the moving pebble. He grasps it in his mouth, finds the hard cold surface unappetizing, and quickly drops it. The puppy looks up at Vusi expectantly.
"You like that game? But a pebble is not nice to bite, is it?" Vusi thinks. His face brightens as the solution occurs to him. "Stay here," he tells the puppy, then runs back to the kraal.
 
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER he returns, smiling broadly. Gillette is accustomed to being given food at the end of a stay, so his tail beats in anticipation. But this time it's not food that Vusi is holding in his hand--it's a foot-long piece of antelope hide, an offcut from a belt his father is making.
"Okay," Vusi shouts, issuing the command that releases the puppy from his stay. Vusi waggles the hide in front of Gillette, who lunges at it with flashing teeth but misses. Vusi shakes it on the ground, making it writhe like an angry snake, and Gillette pounces again,trapping an end under his paws. He grabs the skin in his jaws and shakes it, dashes off a few yards, shakes it some more, chews it, then runs around Vusi in circles, stiff-legged, head high, triumphantly dangling his prize from his mouth.
Vusi grabs one end of the hide thong and plays tug-of-war with Gillette. The puppy sets his front paws firmly in the dirt, growls, clamps his teeth tighter, and thrusts backward with his one hind leg. Vusi resists for a couple of minutes, then releases his end of the thong and grins as Gillette carries it off and worries it on the ground as though it were a live creature he has just caught. Vusi lets the puppy play with the thong a bit longer, then pries Gillette's jaw open and takes back the well-chewed hide. He conceals it in his pocket, pleased at how Gillette, his tail wagging vigorously, watches like a hawk to see if the wonderful-smelling prey that feels so good between his teeth will reappear.
"You like that, don't you? You would do anything to get that piece of skin in your mouth, right? I've found the way to train you, and you won't even know you're being trained. It won't be anything like going to school. You'll think you're just having fun!" Vusi tousles Gillette's rough coat. "Okay, a few minutes more playtime."
Vusi takes the thong from his pocket, and thepuppy tenses, eyes wide. The boy tantalizes him, dangling the hide just out of reach.
"Geddit!" he shouts, bringing the thong down low, and Gillette leaps forward, latching onto the hide once more and throwing himself into a new game of tug-of-war.
 
GILLETTE COMES TO REGARD the strip of hide as the most desirable object under the sun, pawing the ground in excitement and prancing with joy whenever Vusi puts his hand in his pocket. This is the signal that the thong is about to appear and it's time to resume their games. Vusi keeps the games with the thong short, no more than thirty minutes each time, and when they are not playing, he hides the piece of skin from Gillette, so the puppy never begins to get bored with it.
Gradually he develops their games into training exercises. Vusi makes Gillette lie down and wait behind a tree, then he runs off, dragging the skin on the ground, and conceals it in a burrow or in a bush. He runs back to Gillette, tells him "Geddit," and the dog dashes off to find the prize. Sometimes his nose skims along the ground, like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the scent. Other times Gillette pauses, his head high, sniffing the air. He always finds the skin, even when Vusi increases the distance to more than a hundred yards.
Vusi teaches Gillette everything he thinks will be useful on a hunt--how to be silent, how to run in a straight line following the boy's pointing arm, how to hang on to the piece of skin and not let go, even if Vusi swings him off his legs and into the air. Gillette learns to freeze if Vusi whistles one way, and to run back to him if he whistles a different note. Above all he learns to watch Vusi all the time, to read his body language, to know what the boy wants him to do almost before the boy knows himself.
Vusi knows the story of a hunt that failed because the prey jumped into the river and the dogs refused to swim after it. So he plays with Gillette with a stick, getting the dog to chase it and bring it back. Then he throws the stick into a rock pool by the side of the river--and watches Gillette plunge into the water without hesitation. When he is sure Gillette has no fear of water, Vusi throws the stick into the fast-flowing river itself. Gillette jumps in after it, swimming strongly with his three legs, and snatches the stick from the current. He drags himself onto the bank, gives a shake that sends drops of water flying, and leaps into Vusi's waiting arms.
"Best dog in the world," Vusi tells him. "Best dog in the world."
Copyright © 2002 by Anton Ferreira All rights reserved