Luke Hurley was his name. I remember him well though he was only around for a few months. He was the new boy at school – pale, freckled, with straight, greasy-black hair falling into his blue eyes that flitted about like a bouncy ball. A head smaller than me he looked too young to be in 7th grade. He’d come to Zululand all the way from New Zealand. Originally he was from England. My parents told me that he’d also lived in one of the war torn African countries up north, I forget which, where, as a five year old, he’d witnessed people getting shot in the streets. They spoke about it in hushed tones, adding that the incident had traumatized him. I didn’t know what traumatized meant, though I gathered it was something serious, like a disease. For me Luke was just a friend I went to visit on occasion.
Most of the time he just liked to hang out in his room, play board games or cards. In between his mother served us tea and biscuits. One day he came to school all excited. “Guess what?” He had a slight lisp. “I got a puppy today. It’s so small and cuddly.”
“Chihuahua. They’re really tiny, and they come from China, but I got mine from my neighbor. They’ve had the puppies for a while, but now it’s old enough to be with me. Do you want to come over to my place this afternoon, and have a look at it?” I did.
It was cute. It licked my hand and nuzzled its soft head into my cupped palms. He’d named it Noddy and it was untiringly friendly, running up and down the hallway between Luke and me, whenever it was called. After a while I suggested we go play outside. It was a warm, slightly muggy, afternoon.
Luke’s mother was doubled over in the backyard getting it ready to plant grass. She asked us to help clear the ground of stones and clods. We agreed and she went inside to prepare afternoon tea and take a nap. As we worked we started throwing clods at one another, just one or two, for the fun of it. The friendly back and forth escalated and soon we marked off our respective territories, beyond which we dared not step. A battle royale ensued, accompanied by sounds of rifles, machine guns and grenades, reenacting multiple agonizing death throes, prolonged with grunts and shrieks. Between the killings we laughed, cursed and ducked each other’s missiles. Luke’s laughter soared close to hysteria. His aim was pathetic, but he threw the clods with a vengeance, as if he meant to hurt me. I’d never seen him like this before. It was uncannily thrilling and made me laugh all the more. After about fifteen minutes of intense warfare we collapsed, panting – sweaty, bruised and dirty.
“Come here, Noddy,” Luke called over to his new puppy that was sleeping in the sun just behind him. “How do you like his name?”
“I like it.”
“Noddy – over here, boy.” It kept on sleeping. “Come on, Noddy,” and he clucked his tongue, snapped his fingers. It didn’t budge. He got up and walked over to the stretched-out dog and stroked it. “Hey, Eric, it won’t wake up.” I ran over to Luke and his puppy. At once I noticed some ants crawling over the dog’s pink belly. I knew it was dead, but I didn’t say anything. “Do you think it’s sick?” I didn’t answer. “Little puppies sleep a lot, don’t they,” he said, petting it and lifting its floppy head. The protruding eyes were slightly open, covered with a misty film that reflected the sun.
“Something’s wrong,” I muttered.
“We’ll bring it over to the neighbors. They’ll know what to do.” He looked pale and puzzled. His freckles swelled. I watched him gently lift the little Chihuahua into his arms – how white the slender fingers looked against the brown, soft fur. Even though I knew it was dead, I hoped and believed that the neighbors would do something. As we walked along Luke murmured, “Don’t worry, little Noddy, they’ll make you better. Don’t you fret.” The word “fret” stuck in my mind. Luke swallowed as he spoke, and his eyes and mouth twitched. I’d never seen his face twitch before.
We knocked on the door and after a long, silent wait a stout woman with a head full of rollers and hairpins opened up and looked down at us. Almost at once her eyes focused on the inert animal nestled in Luke’s arms. “Something’s wrong with the puppy,” Luke said, his voice wobbling like the thin blade of a crosscut saw. He peered up at the woman pleadingly.
She bent over, lifted the dog’s head and eyelids. “Sorry Luke, it’s dead.”
“What do you mean, dead?”
“No longer alive.”
“Can’t you fix it,” Luke asked in a whimper.”
“Sorry, I can’t fix it. Nobody can.”
“Is there nothing we can do?”
“Nothing. Sorry.” Some of the hairpins around her temples stuck out like porcupine needles. A tear from Luke’s cheek fell on the dog’s head. It rolled off its soft fur onto his white, freckled wrist. His mouth opened, slowly, as if he was about to yawn. His lips stretched taut, his face distorted into a grimace, but no sound was uttered. For a few sheer seconds he held the pose before he turned and ran off home, pulled along by the distended, silent howl.
Dejected and at a distance I followed him back to his room. I found him sitting cross-legged on his bed, hugging the lump of fur, sobbing quietly. His barely audible snivels seeped through, his shoulders heaved, and he rolled his torso back and forth. A tray of tea and biscuits lay on the chair by the window – untouched. I tried to comfort him, but my words had no effect, so I slumped down on the green futon in the corner and waited, paging listlessly through a pile of comics, looking up occasionally. Luke kept on rocking back and forth, moaning softly. I wondered if this was what my parents meant when they thought he might still be traumatized.
Later that afternoon we buried his Chihuahua under a guava tree near to where we’d found him sleeping. We nailed two pieces of scrap wood together and wrote Noddy on the flimsy cross with a red crayon.
I knew it was one of my earth clods that had killed the dog. I’d known it from the moment I saw the ants crawling over its soft, fragile belly.