Charlie’s garden

2010-12-16 00:00

CHARLIE’S Garden is situated on a beautiful hillside shaded by ancient blue gums, sprinkled with hundreds of clivia and facing westwards over the waters of Albert Falls Dam.

We first met Charlie at the Eston show in late August 2005. We needed a male puppy since our current male, King, was becoming quite old. It was announced over the loudspeaker that there were bull mastiff cross boerbul puppies for sale and at the appointed stand we found a young boy of about 11 with a box in which were three adorable puppies. One of them was a bright-eyed, large-pawed, perky little male, reddish tan in colour with the typical black “mask” of a bull mastiff, hanging over the edge of the box, ears pricked up and a large pink tongue hanging out of his mouth. We decided there and then to take him.

He travelled back to our home, sitting quite contentedly on my lap, inquisitive about his new surroundings and the new humans in his life, but otherwise quite undistressed by all these sudden and profound changes in his life. At home he was introduced to our pack of dogs. King started to deflea him, while our three bitches, after a curious sniffing and inspection, decided he was to be avoided at all costs. However, his bold and cheerful disposition soon ensured that he was accepted into the pack.

Charlie grew up to be a magnificent specimen of a dog, with an enormous head and barrel chest and a wonderful nature, gentle, friendly, fiercely protective of the family, cheerful, confident and intelligent — a real gentle giant. He was always the first of our dogs to greet me at the kitchen door each morning and if I delayed opening the door to let him in, a short, curt bark would notify me of his presence. Then he would sit in the corner of the kitchen and we would talk to him. In response, Charlie would open and close his mouth as though he was sure that one day words would magically flow from his lips and he would be able to converse with us, and in fact, I don’t think any of us would have been surprised if they had.

Then one day he broke out of the yard. He wasn’t away long, but I severely chided him, knowing the danger of getting caught in the snares that abound in our area. We had the fence perimeter checked and the hole he had made, as well as any other weak spots, repaired. That worked for a while and then he broke out again. We decided to construct a new fence. We would phone for quotes the following Monday.

That Friday was a cold, wet, drizzly day in September. We arrived home late after attending a show at the Hilton Arts Festival, just as the clouds cleared to reveal a clean, sparkling sky. Charlie wasn’t at the gate to greet us. That was strange. I prepared the dogs’ night meal, thinking that would surely attract Charlie back: he never stayed away for long. But still he didn’t return. We scoured the fence perimeter for about an hour, shining our torches into the dark, calling his name. We were up early the next morning, but Charlie wasn’t at the door to greet me. A cold shiver went down my spine.

I set off with Bruni, one of our other dogs, to search for Charlie. We walked miles in all directions calling his name, picking up his spoor going off in one direction and then turning back again. We took monkey paths through thick bush, we became sodden and muddy, opportunistic ticks latched onto us. We backtracked, picked up his spoor again, now going in another direction. The sun rose, warm and glorious after a few days of rain and wherever the first rays of sunshine fell, vapour would rise mysteriously and ghostly. I heard a noise and stopped. Bruni had heard it too. Was it a dog or was it just a hadedah? We went on further, with me calling and whistling for Charlie. No reply. Eventually it became hotter and we had come such a long way, surely Charlie wouldn’t have come this far. I had lost the spoor. I called again. No response. Instinct said “go on”, but reason told me it was hopeless. I gave up on Charlie and set off home again.

Graeme, my husband, planned to come back from work early so we could search the plantations together, but a labourer, embroiled in a messy love triangle, had consumed weedicide in some pathetic attempt at gaining attention, so the morning was spent racing her to a doctor. Graeme didn’t get home until lunch time. We offered a R1 000 reward and had half our labour force scouring the plantations. We received news that a dog had been heard barking across a valley close to our western boundary so we all set out in that direction.

Graeme and I drove to the valley and parked deep within the plantation. “Let’s go this way,” he said. We walked about half a kilometre, calling and whistling. Nothing. We came to a fork in the road. “Which way now?” I said. “Take the lower road.” Graeme walked ahead of me and after only about 50 metres stopped: “Oh, I’ve found him.” There he lay in the middle of the road, a noose around his grotesquely swollen head, deeply imbedded in the skin of his throat, the noose tied tautly to a branch above. I collapsed in a heap. “He’s still warm,” Graeme lifted him up relieving the weight on the noose and shook him, “Charlie, come on Charlie, we’re here now. Come on boy.”

His tongue was swollen and blue, protruding from the side of his mouth, his big beautiful eyes glazed over. Surely, he couldn’t look like that and still be alive, surely not, but hope swelled in my heart. “Oh Charlie, please, please.” And then something flickered in those big brown eyes, for a few seconds the glaze disappeared and he looked into our eyes. His eyes connected with ours. It seemed to me as though he was putting all his trust in us: “You’re here at last. You will sort it out now.” We couldn’t get the wire off from around his neck. Graeme passed him into my arms and took over trying to loosen the steel wire. We both tried, but it was no good. We broke our fingernails, we cut our hands. “Oh hurry, please hurry. Oh God, we have to get it off.”

“I’ll go back to the truck for the pliers. Will you be able to continue holding him?” Graeme set off, leaving me suspending Charlie’s large, warm body in my arms. “Please Charlie, please don’t leave, hang on, please,” but the eyes had glazed over again. I screamed for Graeme, imploring him to hurry, I urged Charlie to stay with me. It took forever for Graeme to return. The wire was too strong, the pliers were too small. I was crying now. Then Sithole, our mechanic, arrived, alerted to our whereabouts by my calls to Graeme. With the added help of his strong mechanic’s hands, we loosened the slip knot and eased the wire out of the flesh of Charlie’s neck. Free at last, but too late. Still we tried. We beat his chest, we smacked his cheeks, we implored him to live, Graeme tried kicking his chest, I tried to blow air into his lungs past that distorted, swollen blue tongue. I don’t know how long we tried, but at last we gave up. We knew he was gone and couldn’t be brought back. I sat in the dirt, his head on my lap and his large, strong, warm body between my legs. I stroked his ears and the indentation between his eyes. He always liked that. I rubbed his big barrel chest, just like I used to do when he rolled over on the floor. I said my final goodbye.

We loaded Charlie’s warm, but lifeless body onto the back of the bakkie and took him home. All the “what ifs” flooded out. What if we had got there sooner? What if we had received the news of the barking dog earlier? What if I had followed instinct and not reason and had carried on in that direction? What if …?” It was too late. My beautiful, gentle giant was gone. Why did he roam, why did he go so far away from home? But then why shouldn’t he roam his domain, free from the danger of such a callous, cruel method of hunting? Why shouldn’t all our wildlife be free from such an evil, diabolical type of hunting?

We buried Charlie that same evening on a beautiful hillside shaded by ancient blue gums, sprinkled with hundreds of clivia and facing westwards over the waters of Albert Falls Dam: the fiery orange clivia in full bloom, a bright crimson sunset lighting up the sky and the water. We buried him in Charlie’s Garden.

SUE Freese lives with her husband, Graeme, on a timber farm in the Cramond area. “We like to have at least three or four large dogs for security purposes, but they are in reality family pets,” she writes. “Every now and again a special dog comes along and Charlie was without doubt one of those unique canine characters who stands out from the rest.”

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