His Opus

I was sitting at home one night and a friend of ours—a Pom, working at Blue Circle cement factory—phoned me and said “Dorrian, I’m in big trouble. This dog arrived on our doorstep in town and we made the huge mistake of giving him some food. Now the dog refuses to leave. My wife’s gone to Johannesburg and she said that if the dog’s still here when she gets back, she’s moving into the hotel.”  And he asked “Can’t you take the dog. He is a St Bernard, but he must be a brak because he has short hair.”

So I said “Ja, bring him. We need a big dog.”

On the way out to the farm he put the dog in the back of the car—an old Ford Escort—and the dog chewed, bit a big piece out of the seat. He didn’t have a name, and they didn’t know his name, so one day when he made a big piss, they said “Oh! Piss!” and the dog picked up his ears, so they called him Opus. I think that his name was probably Ou Baas and that some farmer had just had enough, abandoned him. He used to eat like crazy but, yussie, he was a brilliant dog.

He was quite young when we got him; I think he was about a year old at most. He lived until he was twelve or thirteen. Opus was fantastic. You guys used to stick your fingers in his ears and his eyes and down his throat and never a growl, never an anything. He was vicious, ja. He was a good guard dog, purely by his massive size. He had a huge head. People were scared of him. But he was brilliant. He was brilliant.

There was a poor little guy who worked for us. A young black guy; he was probably 18 or 19 years old. It was Saturday and we had gone into town—the whole family. Eugene, our farm manager, was on duty and looking after the chicken in the chicken houses. He saw this young guy climbing up our peach trees, stealing peaches. It made us angry because we had said to all the staff “Don’t climb into the trees. Don’t steel the peaches. We share them out. We’ll give them to all of you.” Because in those days we would spray the trees for flys and that sort of thing. So that the peaches didn’t have worms. The peaches were beautiful.

Here’s this little guy, climbing in the trees. Climbing in the trees and breaking the branches—a big waste. Eugene tried to catch him but he ran away. He didn’t come to work that weekend or the following week. A week later it was payday and here’s the guy standing in the queue for his pay.

We used to pay the staff in those days, part in money and part in food. It just worked out better. If you had a wife and two kids you got a bag of mielie meel. If it was just you and a wife you got half a bag. If it was just you, living alone, a quarter bag of mielie meel. And then you got so much sugar, so much coffee and so much tea. We got all of that info, those quantities, from your Aunty Judy. Everything was stacked up and there would be one guy giving it out; each guy gets this and that.

And then here’s the little guy standing in the queue.

That office used to be where the main bedroom’s courtyard is now. It used to be a stoep that was closed in. Some of it also incorporated into where our main ensuite bathroom was added on. But then it was a closed stoep with a desk and a chair, and we’d pay them out of the office. Opus used to lie next to my desk and I used to have all the money in the drawer, paying the guys out and giving them their “rations” as we called it. I was waiting for this little guy because I wanted to give him a smack—we were wild in those days if you think about it now. I was the donner-in with him.

When he got close to me I jumped up to give him a smack and he ran out the door. Opus took off after him. Well, he only got about 15 meters and Opus was on his back. I was running behind Opus because I knew what Opus could do; Opus would kill him. And as Opus was going for the back of his neck—his jaws going around it to crush him—I put my hand in his mouth and said “No, Opus. No, no my boy. Leave, leave. Come off, leave.” And Opus backed off. I had Opus by his collar and moved him back. The guy jumped up there and ran down the driveway screaming. Sounded like the siren of a police car.  All the way to the end of the driveway, all the way along the bottom boundary towards town. Shouting. He never, ever came back. Never. Nothing. Never saw him again.

Opus was an amazing dog like that. He loved coming with me to see the cattle. He knew when I was going to the farm; when I didn’t have a briefcase in my hand then he’d be on the back of the bakkie. But if I had a briefcase in my hand he wouldn’t get on the bakkie; he knew I was going to work. Such a clever dog. We’d get to the farm, amongst the cattle and he’d be off, chasing them. Barking. Grarrw, grrrarww. And they’d all sprint away, cows and calves and all of them. Then he’d come stand next to me—he’d be looking up at me—as if to say “I’ve done a moer of a good job, hey? I’ve done a brilliant job.” I’d say no, you’ve caused shit here. They’re going to come back and they’re going to donner you. And they would. They’d turn around and start coming closer. They would want to poke him with their horns. He’d be pushing against my legs, as if to say “Help me, help me” and I used to talk to him. “No, you caused this shit now. You’d better get on the back of the bakkie, boy. They’re coming for you. They’re really going to skudt you. You’d better get on the back of the bakkie.” And he’d go and jump on the back of the bakkie—one shot, over the sides like that—and stand on the top of the bakkie. Grarrff, grrraarff. He’d like brag. And the cattle would come up to the bakkie, but he’d stand in the middle of the bakkie so that they couldn’t get to him.  Ggrraaarff, grraaaarff. Bark at them. The cattle didn’t worry me at all, not at all. They just wanted the dog because he’d caused kak with them.  I’d get into the bakkie eventually and come home. And he’d had a great day.  He was happy as a… You could just see… He was glowing. He’d done it all. [Laughs] Old Opus.

And then he got cancer. We took him to the vet because he got a lump on his front leg. He wouldn’t walk on that leg; limping, limping. A lump. We took him to the vet and asked what was wrong with his leg. They drew blood and checked the blood and came back and said that he’s got cancer. We said “Well, can’t you cut the cancer out.” And they said “No ways, its right through his whole body already. It’s just coming out there but he’s riddled with cancer.”  And so we said “Can’t you amputate that leg?” And they said “No, no chance. With a big dog like that we can’t amputate his leg.”

I used to carry him in and out the house: he used to sleep inside, in the scullery when he was sick. I would carry him outside to have a wee or that. He was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. He wasn’t eating, barely drinking.

One day I said to Mom: “Opus is really suffering.” I told her that she must take him and she said no, not a donner. She said that I must take him to the vet to be put down. So I took him to Deon Schaap at the Dierehospitaal. I carried him in there, carried him in my arms—he was just skin and bones—and put him on the stainless steel table. I’d phoned Deon before the time and he knew what it was about. And Deon gave him a lethal injection.

Opus looked at me the last time. His eyes used to crease in the middle, like St Bernhards do. He sort of… He knew, I think, what was coming.

Yussie, I cried. Yoh.

But we still had his sons. We had Fangus and Brutus. Until they started eating sheep. The neighbor shot Fangus and we gave Brutus away to someone; I think we gave him to Old Gran. We tried to cure them from killing sheep, because they killed a couple of our lambs too. We had sheep on our farm at that time. About 20 or so. They killed some of the lambs. Somebody told us that you tie the dead lamb onto their neck with rope or wire, so that they can’t get it off. And let the lamb go vrot on their neck. Then you must tie the dog up and donner him every day. You guys would be the moer-in with me for donnering them. You were. You used to cut the sjambuck up to pieces, you did. Highly the moer-in with me. [Laughs]

– Dorrian Parker