We are still slightly spooked from Wednesday which was the opening night of the 12th South African Horrorfest. The festivities continue with gruesome live musical performances, chilling film screenings and readings. Nerine Dorman curates the Horrorfest and its short story competition and anthology - Bloody Parchment. For Halloween weekend, here is an excerpt from her story of wild curs and barren landscapes.
“It’s a dead dog, for Christ’s sake, Thulani. I don’t know why –”
Thulani brings the car to a halt far too fast for the gravel road, and we slew sideways as we come to a standstill. I can tell he’s being stubborn from the way he juts out his chin. Mulish, I’ve called him, but I know better than to try engage him when he’s got his mind set on something.
With a sigh I follow him out of the car. I’ll get into worse shit if I don’t at least show that I’m making an effort to be supportive. And, ugh, I don’t want to handle a dead anything. I’ve seen enough roadkill at close quarters during the two years I’ve been dating Thulani. Every bloody time he encounters some unfortunate next to the side of any road, he insists we do the honourable thing and move the creature to the side so the cars don’t drive over it repeatedly.
You can tell a lot about people from how they treat their dead.
How about having some concern for the living first? I’ve retorted, only to be met by a scowl.
But in a way I have to admit he’s right. That dead cat or dog must’ve been someone’s cherished pet that would be missed.
The sun’s just past noon and beats down on us on this dirt road branching off the N1. Pienaarsvlakte is halfway between Hanover and Beaufort West, about sixty kilometres into the Great Karoo, and this time of day nothing living wants to venture out from the shade. The life has been bleached from what scrub remains.
No sheep in sight, though. Only this dog Thulani’s examining. What the hell is a dog doing out here? This couldn’t possibly be someone’s pet.
“It’s still alive,” Thulani says.
A sick feeling wriggles in my stomach and I allow myself to look closer.
It’s a typical hound, a township special, all long limbs, pointed muzzle and short tan coat. The creature’s lying on its side, one eye socket pecked clean and teeth pulled back in silent snarl. But it’s twitching, the ribcage shuddering with sporadic breaths. As my shadow slides over it, the dog emits a faint growl.
“What the fuck?” I step back.
Thulani crouches, reaching out.
“Don’t touch it!” I tell him.
He’s already resting his big hand on the animal’s head. The compassion in his gaze undoes me. Every time. He mutters some benediction in Zulu and carefully picks up the dog. I can’t help but notice how its hindquarters seem curiously detached as the body flops. Thulani places the animal down in the shadow of a small thorn bush and remains crouched next to it.
“We can’t leave it like this,” he says.
“It’s dying anyway.” Already I can feel my too-pale skin reddening in the glare. My lips are parched and even a mouthful of the tepid spring water I’ve left in the bottle in the car won’t do much to remove the traces of dust from the back of my throat. I bat helplessly at the flies that buzz around my head. There are always flies out here that tickle over lips or obscure vision.
When Thulani reaches for a rock the size of his fist, I know immediately what he means to do – a coup de grâce. Left hand on the animal’s flank, he raises his makeshift weapon in his right, and I hide my face in my hands and half-turn away. This is not the first time he’s had to offer mercy by dashing out some unfortunate critter’s brains; I know what to expect. But the sickening thud of stone on flesh doesn’t come.
The dog growls, Thulani swears, and I dare to peek between my fingers.
He’s jumped back, the rock discarded as he clutches his left hand to his stomach. Bright blood blossoms on his white t-shirt.
“What happened?” I ask though I know it’s not necessary.
“Damn bastard’s bit me.”
Thulani glares at the dog, but the thing lies completely still, as if this last action on its part pushed it past its limits. Not even the slightest movement of the ribs betrays life. Odd that no flies are buzzing around it – I’d have thought that they’d find the dog far tastier than me.
Now’s not the time to worry about that. Thulani’s been hurt and all the determination to do the right thing has left him; he allows me to lead him back to the car where I dig in my bag for a plaster.
“Ma’ll have antiseptic,” I tell him, but I don’t like the look of the wound. A canine sank into the soft flesh of the ball of this thumb. Not quite a case for stitches, but he’ll definitely have to go for a rabies shot. And soon. I want to groan and curse, but bite my tongue. There’s no way we’re going to find a doctor open in Pienaarsvlakte on a Saturday afternoon. That’s if they even still have a doctor I can drag away from the rugby on TV. I don’t even know if the neighbouring township has a clinic.
“I honestly didn’t expect it had the strength to bite me.” Thulani glances warily over my shoulder at the still dog.
“Leave it now,” I warn him. I don’t want to remind him of the half dozen other times he’s been bitten before. Thulani has a simple faith that it won’t happen again, that he’ll be fast enough the next time he plays Good Samaritan.
Nerine Dorman is a Cape Town-based creative, who specialises in design, editing and writing. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Tor Books, Apex Publications, Fox Spirit and Immanion Press, among others, and she even has a few novels to her name. In addition, she is the curator of the South African HorrorFest's annual short story competition, anthology, and literary event, and is a founder member of Skolion, a SFF authors' co-operative. She can be found lurking on Twitter @nerinedorman