The intruder with bright green eyes

2011-08-18 00:00

IT’S winter. Even though the dogs’ water bowl is totally frozen in the mornings, the midday sun still spoils us, baking down through our T-shirts. The harvest is over and trucks laden with mielies slug their way to the silos nearby. We can hear their brakes slowing down their heavy load just in front of the farm gate.

It’s winter and this year it brings with it a creature from the outers. We have never seen her here before. We have never seen anyone here before actually. Not anyone that we haven’t invited anyway. When I first got here I asked Renette, who also lives on this road, whether they had ever had intruders. “No,” she answered. “We have been here four years and in all that time someone has only ever come to the farm once.”

“And they were just taking a chance and looking for any trouble they could make?” I asked.

“Oh no!” she was slightly shocked. “He just wanted some water.”

This intruder also wanted water. I gave it to her. I also gave her food. She was skin and bones and danced on her paws — a death dance. It was as though she was too scared to touch the Earth, or as though a greater force was lifting her off it, playing with whether her next step should be her last.

When we approached her, she did nothing until she heard our voices. Then she would lope off. Always scared, always hiding, always scavenging.

We moved the food we had set out for her closer to the house. It took her an extra day to find it. Until then she had feasted on the faeces of our healthy dogs.

Then this morning, Herman sat on the log under the tree in the still-cold morning sun with his coffee. He saw her lying beyond the outhouses. Like a weather vane her head swung round from side to side taking in the smells that the wind brought of the house. Herman moved to get her attention. She did not react. He whistled. Startled, she started up and danced her dance back out of sight through the long yellow grass. But not before raising two bright emerald eyes in his direction.

Bright eyes, green eyes, burnt eyes. Eyes that reflect everything, but see nothing. She lives on the outers with only her smell and her hearing.

Then this morning: “The big dog is dead! The big dog is dead!” Pippa chants, enjoying the alliteration.

Somehow she had crept into the yard in the early hours of this morning. She must have been trying to get in all night, as our dogs barked ceaselessly until Herman did what he vowed never to do in this cut-throat land of ours. He got out of bed at 4 o’clock and went outside with a torch to see what the fuss was about.

He walked out of the garden and up to the graveyard finding nothing. When he came back, he saw a big black shadow creeping around in the garden. It was the dog who lived on the outers.

Our domesticated dogs grew used to her within minutes. Her collapsing form was no threat. We went back to sleep, and she started her final pilgrimage.

When we woke, and the sun warmed her up, her body started shaking as dogs do when they dream. She barked several times, a joyful throaty bark. A bark that belied her aged body. She tried to get up to chase whatever it was that she was pursuing in her dementia. But her body was older, much, much older than her dreaming form, and she fell to the ground again.

None of us could get on with our work for the day. Intermittently, all of us, children, adults and dogs, would go and look at her. On all fours, she had been so big that Tant Sarie had thought from a distance that we had bought a calf. Now, in her collapsed form I could barely see her outline above the short wild grass. I had to control the gag that would well up if I studied her emaciation too closely.

And then she went.

And she took with her all the love that we had wanted to pour into her. The love that we hoped would fill out her body, and bring her wild self just a little bit closer to us, for just a few more years.

We had sight of her for only a week, yet we are lost without her.

• Catherine Smetherham is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West Province. Contact her at Catherine@holtzhausen.com

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