Our Dog Toby

We had a big handsome Rhodesian Ridgeback Cross, he was brindled, had a big head, and a big mohawk down his big strong back.   His name was Toby, and despite his size, a gentle creature.   Everybody had big dogs, often several, in Northern Rhodesia, they were protection from intruders.   Toby adored my mother, she was - as most mothers are - his carer, and he knew where his next meal was coming from. 

On occasion, Toby would go missing, and the garden boy and the house boy would be sent off to search surrounding bush, and all the family would be out clapping our hands, and calling "Toby!  Toby!".   He always returned, looking satisfied.   My Mom thought he had a girlfriend.

Then one night Toby failed to return by bed time, and my mother was distraught.   She uncharacteristically went to bed late and left the light on outside the front door so he could find his way home.   She told us the next day that she heard him whimpering around 3 am, and got up to find Toby lying in a pool of blood on the front verandah, with his intestines splayed across the floor, his body covered with a million flying ants sucking at his flesh.

Flying ants were a delicacy to the local people, and they fried them till they were crunchy, they said they were delicious and tasted like peanuts.   I never tried them.   So it must have been flying ant season, which was rainy season, so it would have been November or afterwards.

This was 1959, and my mother had learned - and by now adjusted - from being a nice English girl to a sturdy African woman, a mother of three, with an ability to handle many crises.  I was asleep that night, so I don't know exactly what happened, but I can imagine.  She was always capable, if not always calm, and she no doubt handled this situation similarly.   She definitely did not wake my father, who worked shift work down the mine, and was a tyrant when denied his sleep.   She handled this, as she did so many other challenging situaitons in her life, on her own.   She scooped Toby's entrails onto a blanket and dragged him by his paws alongside of them. That in itself, is a remarkable accomplishment,  he was a big dog, and my mother was a small woman, maybe 110 lbs.  I have never scooped entrails nor waved off a million flying ants, but I can appreciate the effort.  She then dragged him through the entrance hall and into the kitchen, leaving a smear of blood across the tiled floor.   She pushed his insides back where they belonged, bathed his wounds in salt water, and fed him warm milk and egg, and he allowed her to treat him without a whine or a nip.  At 5.30 am when the houseboy arrived, she sent him running for the vet.

The vet said that Toby had been in an altercation with a 'big cat', possibly a leopard, judging by the claw marks and wounds, he wondered how the cat had fared, and said it was truly remarkable he was alive - how had he gotten himself home, he wondered?   (I knew.  Toby would always return to our mother).   How far had he travelled, and how far away was the big cat?   (True, we lived right on the edge of vast bushland, but there were many houses around us, it made me feel uneasy.   The bush was our playground every day - like children today might visit a park.  What if a Big Cat was waiting for me?). The vet put in around 300 stitches, and my father good naturedly complained about the bill, privately proud of his brave dog.

Over the next weeks, my Mother loved and fed our dog back to life, as he lay under the kitchen table on a grey blanket, and she handfed him till he was strong enough to eat alone, bathing his wounds daily and coaxing him to his feet.   She fondled his ears, speaking to him quietly and clucking her tongue the way she did, encouraging him to get down the back steps into the garden to do his business.

It was a miracle said our friends, and the vet. 

And then one day, about three months later, Toby disappeared once more, and we never saw him again.  My Mother sent out search parties and clapped her hands and we all called his name for many days, but he never came home.  And she cried.

She always left the outside light on to guide him home.

It's something I did for a long time after I was married.