“Hindi natin alam, anak, says Papa, don’t worry, we’ll find out soon”: a short story by Filipino-New Zealand writer Mikee Sto Domingo.
If it were not for the rain, the child may have lived. It had been abandoned one evening in the church graveyard where the yellow grass sprouts long and sharp. On his way out to the palenke the next morning, Fr Benitez found it there submerged in a puddle among the weeds, a tangle of limbs and gore. The full meaty afterbirth, warm from the humidity and covered in flies, was still plugged deep into its little belly. All over, the infant was blue and purple piebald, but its soft cheeks – still pink. Fr Benitez could not forget that pinkness. Over and over in the coming months, he would say, kung hindi para sa ulan, maaring nabuhay ang bata – if it were not for the rain, I would have heard it crying.
The baby is laid to rest in the same place it was discovered, cornered by the brick wall of the church and a stout bush. At first there is a flood of flowers, and throughout the country acts of uncommon compassion spike in number. Social media campaigns of middling virality call for harsher punitive laws against infanticide and increased support for pro-life messaging at high schools. Come spring, the outrage tapers until it is too narrow a culvert for justice, and the flowers on the grave dwindle to just one bouquet a week.
It is the Mendoza family dog, Liza, that tries to bring the baby back. She escapes the family yard by gnawing free from her rope and burrowing under the chain-link fence. For her, the three blocks to the church is a pleasant and familiar route, lined by bushes of pink oleander and frangipani. Here and there the concrete of the road is cracked open like a sore by the roots of diseased banyan trees. On the way, Liza encounters an elderly man smoking beneath the makeshift awnings of his home. He greets her, but she snubs him. At the church grounds, she sniffs out the grave.
Fr Benitez is sitting in the dining room reading the news on his phone when he hears, above the rain, a rhythmic scraping outside. He leaves the chair and pads over, squinting at the scene below, but can discern nothing past the black iron bars that guard the church windows from robbers. He makes his way beyond the white room where the children do their Bible study, and steps through the back entrance. Outside, he spies the dog digging.
Tumigil ka! he yells. Stop it!
Liza does not stop for anything. Fr Benitez must stride over and grab her by the collar, yanking her back with such force that she lets out a strangled whimper, her paws still paddling at the air.
Fr Benitez calls the Mendoza family to the church – father, mother and six-year-old daughter Joy – and they apologise for the dog’s behaviour. Benitez does not have the talent for reprimand or negotiation. He is thinking of Liza choking in his grip, more unsettled by this violence than he is by the grave digging.
But the next week it happens again, this time by two other dogs. In the same week, several cats are discovered eating grass around the grave. They claw at the earth softened by rain and bile. Starlings and sparrows risk predation, swooping down from the trees to peck daily at the foot of the unnamed headstone. After dark, excavating rats and snakes must be chased off.
As another week passes, stray dogs arrive from all parts of the neighbourhood to try their luck. Despite his distress, Fr Benitez does not report any of this to PSPCA, fearing bad press for the church. A couple of local drunkards are contracted to install railings around the baby’s grave.
It is noon on a Saturday, and Joy Mendoza and her parents visit Tito Lou’s farm in Bulacan. Papa is a veterinarian and often attends to sick livestock in the province.
The family enters a barn with cement flooring and a roof of aluminium. Joy thinks this must be what a whale’s mouth looks like. The rain bulleting across the earth and the metal makes her feel restless and uneasy. She swings her arms, tries to sing “Ako ay May Lobo” over the sound. Mama does not pay attention. She does not show anything, not amusement or disapproval, even when Joy splashes her feet into muddy water collected on the floor. For the last month Mama has been unhappy. She has grown gaunt and lost her appetite for everything, even affection.
Liza had been pregnant. The family did not know who the father of her litter was, but were not concerned. They loved animals, and puppies most of all. But Liza’s health declined. She grew listless and refused to eat anything but fresh meat. One day, on the porch, before Joy left for school, Papa said that Liza was just reacting to the stress in the house.
What happened next was that Liza ate her puppies. She devoured them all on the night of their birth, persevering through her own exhaustion to take each one’s tiny golf ball-sized skull between her teeth to wrench it clean off, the pink flesh as frail as toilet paper. In the morning, Papa found Liza drenched with blood. He had been worried that something terrible had happened to her but, after searching her and all around the shed, he realised what she had done.
And no one scolded Liza! To Joy’s demands for retribution, Papa and Mama responded that Liza had reasons that only a mother dog could totally comprehend. What were the reasons? Well, Mama said, Liza might not have recognised her children, or she had been overcome with fear. Mother dogs will sometimes eat their own children when they are afraid. Afraid of what? Mama was at the sink, scraping away at rice burned to the inside of a pot. There are many things to be afraid of, she said.
In the barn Tito Lou tells them the sows have been rejecting their young. He and Papa halt before a sow lying on the concrete beneath some metal grating. Her rows of pink nipples are grotesquely swollen. Seeing them makes Joy’s teeth ache. Papa squats down to inspect the sow, reaching out a hand and squeezing one of her nipples to test for a reaction. The pig opens its eyes. Well, Papa says, getting up, it’s not mastitis.
A boy runs in from outside. Tito, quick, Mimi is in labour! Tito Lou apologises and follows, calling from the door for Papa to come. Joy runs after them. She stumbles several times on the slippery, uneven path, turning each time to check Mama’s reaction. Mama stands just outside the barn in the lengthening distance, her hands plunged in the pockets of her lime-green raincoat, her hair stirring in the wind, whipping her starved cheek. Joy cannot understand her expression.
Papa disappears into a wooden shed. Joy follows. The smell of blood and faeces – decades of life and death – is steeped into the grain. Three men are crowded around something, and Joy gets on all fours to peer through the gap between Papa’s legs. A sow, thin, with ribs that ripple with each breath, is giving birth. Her black eyes travel lazily over the men and stop at Joy. She blinks and seems to sigh. A piglet slides out of her indifferent body. It is pink and covered in yellowish goo, and several flies buzz down to lick at its unmoving snout. Tito Lou stoops over and prods the piglet with his finger, muttering, Patay, see, dead, dead, dead. Another piglet comes, and then another and another and another, each as dead as the last.
At dinner, Joy asks Papa why the piglets are dying. Hindi natin alam, anak, says Papa, don’t worry, we’ll find out soon. Maybe the rain, or some change in the environment has made them weak. Maybe there is a disease in the barn, maybe even a new disease that we’ve never heard of. Joy watches Mama while Papa speaks. She is hunched over her plate, staring at the grey-brown squares of pork floating in the clear, yellow sabaw, golden circles of oil around the meat. Outside, the rain grows heavy and loud, Papa’s voice coming to Joy as though through bad reception, Maybe it’s that a famine is coming, maybe it’s God’s work, sometimes we don’t know. But animals know, which is why they are the first to react before disaster.
In bed, Joy strains to hear what Mama and Papa are watching on the television, but she can only discern murmurs and the jingles of familiar adverts. Joy must try to hear over the rain, over Liza’s skitter of paws and nails. Lately they have taken to locking Liza in the house before bed to prevent her escaping. Liza scrambles around in circles, sniffing at corners, pawing at gaps under doors. Some mornings they awake to find a hole clawed through the mosquito netting of the front window, and dozens of extra geckos and skinks tenanting the ceiling. Joy begins to drift to sleep, thinking about these new geckos and skinks. They are not as quick as geckos and skinks usually are. They are sluggish, fatalistic, put up no fight.
It is the silence that startles Joy from her gecko dreams. The absence of rain sound, of street voices and television music is heavy like a weight without water to buoy it. Joy opens her eyes to find Liza sitting there, just beside the bed. The light from the hall means Joy can only make out her silhouette and the glint of her eyes. For the first time Joy thinks how large Liza is. She had not thought about Liza’s canine teeth, the muscles beneath the coat of black fur, the lineage from wolves. Liza’s ears, pointed upwards like spears, twitch each time Joy exhales.
In the hall, there is a creak. Joy looks up. Behind Liza, in the open doorway, Mama has stopped. She turns her head and stares at Joy as though she doesn’t recognise her.
“If it were not for the rain” is the third and final short story to appear in ReadingRoom taken from the superb anthology A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices in Aoetearoa New Zealand edited by Alison Wong and Paula Morris (Auckland University Press, $50), available in selected bookstores nationwide. The first two stories were “XXX” by Emma Sidnam and “A thousand toilet ladies” by Wai Ho. Our thanks to the authors and editors for their permission.