By Denver Ejem Torres
I WAS in Hong Kong and Macau last March. Aside from their food and marvelous architecture, I came, to see a dear friend. Her name is Joanna Mok.
Before the actual workshop started we were given a few hours to read the works to be workshopped. That morning, in Malasag Gardens, I fell in love with her fiction. Her works have characters and settings that are both familiar and foreign. Her fiction is natural and universal and therefore relatable. I swooned when I read her short story, The Heart Jar (which was later published by Kinaadman, a journal founded by the incomparable Fr. Miguel A. Bernad SJ to give Mindanao a space and voice in the field of scholarship).
The Heart Jar is a simple but not a simplistic story of a group of friends who set out to travel the countryside to relieve themselves (though unconsciously) of the stress brought about by their city of cement and steel. The story also proposes that nature is the pill that cures the sadness caused by the kind of existence humans in the city have.
In the story, as in most of her stories, dogs are ubiquitous. Mok’s universe — whether in real life or in the lives of her fiction, is filled with dogs. My visits to her houses, both in Cagayan de Oro and Tagbilaran, were filled with anxiety because of her huge dogs.
Writing and dogs — these two have been the constant elements in our friendship.
I hate dogs in general. My childhood was filled with dogs. They were mostly the mafia dogs in the rich village that I had to pass through to get home. I had been bullied by dogs as a child.
Except Bentoy, our family dog. He was the pet of my yayo who was from Bohol. When he left, we named the dog after him. Bentoy was the most polite of dogs (probably because she was a Bol-anon). She was always quiet, hanging out in corners of our house, as if observing everyone. I don’t remember her barking. She was that type of dog.
When I grew older, and after Papa passed away, Bentoy’s images started to haunt me. I am bothered because they are memories of cruelty. I kicked her all the time when I was pissed with something or someone. And like me as a child, she was helpless. She just took everything. I am ashamed of that aspect of my old self.
Joanna and her boyfriend, Alex, adopted a dog two years ago. Her name is the most poetic of all the dog names I have come across with. She is a black Labrador and she is named Lily White. I was co-dog-walking Lily with Joanna and Alex every time I got the chance.
During my stay in Hong Kong I was invited by Joanna’s family to their weekend dinner in Causeway Bay. On our way home, we walked Lily by the bay back to North Point where Joanna and Alex reside. That Sunday walk was the most special of the all walks we’ve taken. The Kowloon District was now visible. The fogs were gone. And then memory took over. Memory after all comes out at the slightest of provocation – a bark, dog hair on white pants, a tail wagging. Because the truth is, we, humans, are perpetually leashed to our past, our memories.
Once again, I saw Bentoy in my mind. While I was being photographed with Lily at my feet, I whispered to the wind one of my many apologies to Bentoy. When I touched Lily’s neck she looked at me in a way, as if, she could read my mind. Lily’s eyes were like portals to dog heaven. Her eyes said something comforting, that made me decide to unburden myself of the shame. Her eyes, so gentle and kind, reassured me of the truth about Bentoy – that she’s happily lounging in a corner somewhere in dog heaven and has completely forgiven me. And that it is time to let go.
Thank you, Lily.
* Denver is a poet and essayist. For comments and suggestions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.