© Keith Willey
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THIS IS SHORT STORY set in Africa. It is market day in a small town on the edge of the Savannah. The school is closed and a game of stones between two friends turns into a story of one boy's compassion.
by Keith Willey
In our small town, things happened slowly or not at all. Pot-hole riddled dirt tracks connected us to the big town on the river. It was a winding two hour bus ride away, through scrub and small farms, when there was a driver, that is. You see, there were never enough of the right sort of people, whether it were bus-drivers, doctors, nurses, teachers or builders. This is what it was like living on the edge of the savannah.
We should have been at school today, but it was closed again. It happened a lot. Sometimes there was no electricity. Sometimes there was no water. This time there was a big notice on the school gate, saying "closed due to shortage of teachers".
I played stones with Kobi that morning, outside his father's butchers shop. It was Wednesday, dead-day Kobi called it, right in the middle of the week. Hardly anyone had been in all morning. Most days, if business picked up, Kobi's dad would ask us to go inside and help. Lucky us, to be off school on dead-day, because I hated his father's shop. I couldn't stand the smells of fresh blood and rotting meat, the swarms of flies and the squelchy mud that stuck to your feet. The battered old fridge might have helped, but the electricity was more off than on. Still, he was my best friend and I was prepared to put up with most things for our game of stones.
Kobi was very good at stones and I hardly ever beat him. Today was no different. I wouldn't have minded if he at least looked as though he was making an effort, but half the time he hardly seemed to be paying attention. He just had a natural ability. His hand would whirr from place to place, as though he knew where the stones would fall without even looking, and the back of his hand always seemed to be coated with invisible glue. I still played though, and today it looked like I was going to win for the first time in ages.
'Mandazi time later,' said Kobi.
'Stop trying to put me off'.
'I'm not. It's market day. We must get there before lunchtime or we'll miss out.'
I hadn't realised. We're always at school on market days. The thought of those sugar-coated doughnuts made me lick my lips. 'You're buying if I win.' I said.
Kobi stuck his tongue out at me. I ignored him and prepared for my last throw. That was why I didn’t see what happened that morning. I was concentrating really hard, then just as I was about to catch my last stone, he called out.
‘Did you see that? It must have gone ten feet in the air.’
'See what?' The stone fell to the ground. I glared at Kobi. I was sure he must have done it deliberately, just so he didn't have to pay. I was so angry that I hadn't really taken in what he said.
‘I’m having my go again,’ I said and began to pick up the stones.
I had expected an argument, but he was pointing towards the road. I followed the line of his grubby finger, across the building site that stood empty and abandoned in front of our row of tumbledown shops, and on to the dirt track that people called Main street.
Before I could work out what was happening, he was off, running across this wasteland. In the centre of all the rubble and rubbish, an advertising board was held up by two iron poles, proudly displaying a picture of the playground they were going to build. But no equipment had ever been delivered and no builders had ever come. It was a playground for the wild cats that lived there, but not for us. I remember my Dad complaining. 'You know, Chike, nothing ever gets done in this place, Promises, that's all we get, promises and more promises.' The advertising board had been up for so long, that even in our dry heat, the poles were rusting. Kobi ran right under it.
I hurried after him By the time I was halfway across the wasteland, I could see and hear what had happened. A dog, the colour of sand, was writhing on the ground in the middle of the road. Its long front legs were stuck up in the air, twisting this way and that as it tried to right itself. It was yelping and whining. It was such a terrible sound that I could feel its pain in my bones.
A crowd of onlookers had gathered by the side of the road, obscuring our view. It was the busiest day of the month. The side streets were filled with stalls and the air was filled with haggling voices. Families from all the local villages descended on our little town; even a few foreigners, thanks to the nearby game reserve.
We squeezed through to the front. Frustrated traders were shouting at people to move on, as bicycles and beaten up trucks dodged the injured dog as if it was just a log in the road. People were keeping their distance. Even a badly injured dog could still bite. As we stood watching, everyone had an opinion, everyone knew whose fault it was and their raised voices came at me from all sides.
'Stupid animal ran straight in front of it... You see how fast he was going... They spread disease... All these pot-holes... Filthy animals... He didn't even stop... Should all be shot... It's the heat, makes them crazy.'
All this noise, all this senseless babble. Yak, yak, yak. Yak, yak, yak. No one raised a finger to help that poor animal. Why were they just watching? Why were they even there? They weren't doing anything. They weren't helping. This whole scene made me want to turn round and scream at them all.
I told Kobi, ‘we have to do something.’ I shook his shoulder to make him listen. ‘We have to help it.'
If it had been a child lying there, I thought, everyone would be gathering round, making suggestions, calling the doctor, wanting to help.
‘What can we do?’ Kobi replied with a shrug. ‘We can’t make it better and I’m not going anywhere near those teeth. It’s only a stray, anyway.’
A neighbour's dog bit Kobi once, for no reason, so he said, although I expect he was teasing it. Kobi just did stuff. He didn't think about the consequences. The doctor had been on his rounds, amongst the outlying villages. We couldn't reach him and no nurse came for ages. I can remember the noise he made, such a baby. The shock had made him sick. I'm sure he thought he was going to lose an arm.
The dog was yowling now. It was twisting and turning as though it thought such violent movement would send the pain away.
‘The noise,' I said to Kobi, putting my hands over my ears. 'I can't stand it.'
‘Maybe the police will come and shoot it, put it out of its misery,' said Kobi, stuffing his hands into torn pockets.
I thought Kobi was being heartless. I would have told him so, but he’d been distracted again. It didn’t take much with Kobi.
‘Look over there,’ he said, nudging me and pointing. ‘Some kids have let those hens loose.’
Sure enough, a number of hens, including a mean looking cockerel, had wandered through the crowd on to the road. I could see the cockerel was eyeing up the dog, wondering if it was weak enough to have a peck at. That was the last straw. I wasn't going to let that happen. I ran at them, screaming abuse. With a flurry of feathers, furiously clucking hens retreated into the crowd. The cockerel stood at the edge of the road and crowed, showing its defiance.
Ignoring the stupid bird and the onlookers, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled towards the dog. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had a faint awareness of voices giving me advice and generally thinking they knew best, but it was easy to ignore them and focus on the suffering animal. I starting talking to it in my softest voice, almost a whisper. I didn’t want to frighten it; those teeth really did look sharp. With a tremendous effort it raised its head to look at me. I could see the pain in its eyes, and something else, a plea. I knew then I was in no danger.
When I reached it, I very slowly stretched out my hand and placed it on its head. Almost immediately the yowling turned into a plaintive whine. Without removing my hand, I twisted round until I sat next to it, right up close. Then I very carefully raised its head, shuffling my legs underneath. With the dog’s head resting on my tattered shorts, I stroked it until the whining stopped and its breathing calmed. I was no longer aware of the busy sounds around me, nor the smells of the market stalls. Mandazi was long forgotten. I sat completely still, apart from the hand which very gently stroked the dog's neck. It never occurred to me that there might be someone who could save the its life. I just wanted it to be at peace and was prepared to stay there, with its head resting on my lap, for as long as it remained calm.
I think I must have drifted into sleep, because it felt as though the hand on my shoulder was part of a dream. It wasn't until someone called my name, that I looked up. The man wore working boots, khaki shorts and shirt, and a wide brimmed hat. He carried a bag, like the one the nurse had had when Kobi's bite was stitched up. It took me a few seconds to realise who he was.
'Have you come to save him?' I asked.
'He's a she', the vet said. 'I was on my way to the reserve. They said you've been sitting here for over two hours. They said they've never seen anything like it. It was as if you and the dog were enshrined within your own little world. A peaceful bubble, someone called it.'
He waved his hand to show me the few people milling around. They had formed a loose cordon, sheltering me from the traffic.
'Can you save her?' I asked.
'No, I'm sorry. I have to give her an injection to put her to sleep. I can do it while you hold her, if you like. She won't feel anything.'
The vet gave the dog its injection. Apart from a brief twitch, she didn't stir.
He pointed to a small cafe by the side of the road. 'I'll be over there,' he said. 'It won't take long.'
He picked up his bag and walked away.
And within that peaceful bubble, as I continued to caress its beautiful head, my street dog quietly died.
The following lines have been removed from the end, because I think the story is stronger (the ending has more impact) without them. I would appreciate your view. Thanks.
I raised my head then and looked towards the cafe. I was close to tears. The vet nodded, got up and went over to his truck. He came back carrying a stretcher and two of the men in the cordon helped him to carefully lift the dog on to it. Then he squatted in front of me.
'If you can come to the Reserve at the weekend, you can help me give her a proper burial.'
The tears came now. 'She's just a street dog,' I said.