The dog spun round at the sound of his name. The others in the pack took a moment to turn on him and nip his flanks.
“Oy!” the man shouted, coming, running and stumbling over the piles of trash, waving. The dogs scattered and then returned to their business, mauling some scrap in amongst the debris.
“Oh, Jesus,” the man cried, “what is that? Is that a dead baby?”
The dog turned and turned, confused.
“Roja, Roja,” the man said, “Come, you know me, it’s Jessie.” The voice was friendly, it was familiar to a degree; the dog pricked his ears and sniffed warily, the man’s scent barely discernible from the reek of smoke that billowed around them. The man knelt and called again, and Roja moved forward. “Come boy, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at home? Where’s Rebecca?”
The dog’s ears worked, trying to parse urgency from friendliness in the voice.
“Let’s look at you, oh Lord, you’ve been bitten, haven’t you? What a mess you’re in.” Roja winced as the man took the burned pads of a forepaw in his hand. “Come on, let’s get you home, I can’t imagine how you got into this hellhole.” The man shucked his backpack and took out a length of thin rope. “At least you still have your collar, there we are, come with me now.” From the pack a thin yowl rose. “No, that’s my kitten, not edible.” He tugged on the rope. “Let’s go now.”
But there were other shapes emerging through the acrid drifting smoke, lean and threatening. Feeling tied down and vulnerable, the dog was torn between plunging away and pushing up against Jessie’s leg for support.
“Ay, mlungu!” a voice rasped out.
“Molweni, injani,” Jessie replied evenly. The figures circled, like dogs themselves, hungry-looking, ragged as the dumpsite they seemed to have been born out of.
“What you want here? This is our place,” the lead youth said.
“I just came to see what all the smoke was about. Amazing, even after all that rain, things dry out and these fires start up again.”
“We want that fat dog,” the youth said.
Jessie laughed shortly. “What, to eat? No chance, this dog belongs to someone else. You can have one of those ones.” He had unslung his long stick from his shoulders and waved it at the pack, which was itself wary of these two-legged strangers, lunging in opportunistically to snatch at the bundle they had been ravaging.
The youths shifted warily from side to side, foot to foot.
“We want your gun,” the leader said, though less certainly than before. Roja sensed Jessie’s unease and whined.
“Sorry, no can do.” Jessie started backing away up the slope of the dumpsite; the youths spread a little and made threatening gestures, though the dog could sense that they were afraid, too.
“You want one of those dogs?” Jessie said his voice cracking a little. Roja dragged at the rope, and Jessie tugged, “C’mon, boy, it’s okay. I shoot one for you,” he called out.
The youths shrugged and stared, non-committal. Jessie and Roja lurched and stumbled backwards up the slope towards the top edge of the dump. Jessie was coughing in the pungent smoke, Roja felt his eyes smarting, his tongue desperately dry.
“You go, mlungu!” the lead youth yelled, “This is our place!”
“You can have it,” Jessie yelled back. They reached the dump’s edge, negotiated a half-fallen fence of barbed wire snaggle-toothed with streamers of rotting plastic, then they could cross a strip of old bush and break out onto a road.
“Whew, that was a bit unnerving, hey,” said Jessie. Roja sensed the relief and even a promise of safety, and limped more readily alongside the hurrying man. “Shame, boy, your feet are sore, hey? It’s not far to get home, though, you can do it. Hell’s teeth, what a dump, literally! I haven’t been there for years, I can’t believe those fires have got going again, probably one of those idiots lit a cooking fire or something. I tell you, if we don’t die of thirst or get blown away by a cyclone, we’ll choke ourselves to death on plastic, hey boy?”
Roja pricked his ears momentarily, felt how the man was gabbling away his fear, as walking along the road became a little easier, and breathing slowed. Jessie glanced behind, no one seemed to be following, except long flurries of smoke. He pulled up and dropped the pack. “Here, boy, I’ve got some water, you want some water? Course you do.” From a bottle he poured water into the cupped palm of his hand; Roja slabbered it up. From the pack the cat was mewling, and Jessie extracted it, so small it almost disappeared in his hand. He dabbed water into its pink mouth.
“Roja, this is Siberia, the tiger who came in from the cold. Not that it’s been that cold, global warming and all that.” Jessie showed Roja the kitten, which flare and hissed and took a swipe at Roja’s curious nose with a fistful of tiny claws. Roja jerked back, almost lifted a lip. “No, Roja, she’s not for lunch. Be friends, okay! Come on, let’s go, maybe Rebecca will spare some of your biscuits for Siberia, if she has any.” He stuffed the kitten back in the pack, and coaxed Roja back into walking.
The wind shifted and swathes of thicker smoke descended on them, and Jessie tried to hurry a little more.
“Come on, we can take a shortcut through these old factory grounds,” he said. They twisted through a gap in a fence, skirted some buildings grey with abandonment, though suddenly a voice hailed them. “Oops, a guard, imagine that,” Jessie muttered, and he called out, bright with friendliness, “It’s okay, we’re just cutting through to Hill 60, sorry, no problem!”
They hurried on, ducked under another fence, crossed another strip of thin and ragged bush. “Yuss, this bush is sad, hey,” Jessie said. “First it shrivels in the drought, then its roots get washed away by the storms. Nothing even for the birds left. Thought I might shoot you a hare or something, Roj, but nothing left here, hey.”
They emerged onto a street that Roja recognised now, he had walked here before, and he began to whine and pull on the rope, sniffing for familiar sign.
“Ah, now you know where you are, hey boy! Almost there, easy now.”
The houses, most evidently empty, were gloomy and ethereal behind the blanket of blue smoke that drifted and stung the nostrils. Round a corner they spotted a bulky figure hurrying away, a smaller figure alongside. Jessie said, “Hey, isn’t that – ?” He called out, “Ai, Sis’! Sisi Mpum’!” But the woman just sped up, only the child dragging at her hand looked back, seeing them, or seeing the dog, and screamed, and Roja too squirmed and bristled and growled. Then the two turned the corner and vanished.
“Wow, that was weird, is there a history between you guys? I don’t like the feel of this, Roj, I don’t like it at all. They were friendly enough last time we met, why are they running off like that? Shit, I hope nothing’s happened.”
Roja detected the rising anxiety in the man and looked up and whimpered.
“Well, on we go, nearly there, one more street down. I think. Why the devil would anyone go off with all the street signs, anyway, huh?”
As they turned another corner at the beginning of Roja’s street, and the dog began to strain and cough on the rope, a vehicle approached, lurching through potholes, its headlights strangely orange and wavering in the blue-grey smoke.
“Ah, a cop car,” said Jessie, “that’s all right.”
The bakkie drew alongside, and a brawny brown arm crooked out of the driver’s window.
“Well, well,” said the policeman, “Mister Man with the Gun again! Johannes, yes?”
“Jessie, actually, hi.”
“Everything all right, Mister Gun?”
“Ah, no, I’m not sure, actually. I just found this dog on the rubbish dumps, it belongs to Mrs Cochrane, it’s weird, and someone, this woman who normally stays with her, or has been for a week or two anyway, I’m sure I saw heading off, but she wouldn’t stop.”
The cop frowned. “You mean Sis’ Mpumelelo? I also saw her, you’re right, she didn’t want to stop and chat, that’s for sure.”
“I was just going to Rebecca – Mrs Cochrane’s house. D’you wanna come and check it out with me, it’s weird.”
“Sure.” They eased along the road together.
“How’s it going with you guys?” Jessie asked.
“Hm, hmpf! What a mess, ay. At least since the rain stopped this week we’re getting some more supplies through, it’s taken the heat out of things a little bit. But people are stressed, ay, they get het up over nothing, take it out on the foreigners, or on their wives and I don’t know what. And yesterday it was people poaching giraffe for nyama, can you believe it? Giraffe! Here we are, isn’t it?”
They stopped at Rebecca’s sliding gate. It was securely chained and locked, from the outside. Roja scratched at the bottom of the gatepost and whined. Through the haze of blue smoke they bobbed and peered. The car was still parked in the driveway. And half hidden behind the front wheels they could see the hem of a dress, a shoe, the paleness of a fallen ankle.
“Oh, Jesus,” said Jessie. “That’s Rebecca. Rebecca!” He rattled the gate. The foot did not move. “Rebecca!”
Roja sat back on his heels and raised his nose and began to howl.