By Esther Vincent Xueming
She was a white Maltese mix. Small now when I look back on a childhood memory with grown-up eyes, but big for a 10-year-old who struggled to carry the dog from room to room in a childish display of affection. Her ringlets of dense fur, her wet, dark nose, her little pink tongue. One image remains clear in my mind: Carrying Candy with one protective arm across her chest, another supporting her bum, I press her close to my body (I had read in one of my dog books that this would give animals a sense of security) and walk towards the bedroom mirror. What I try to do next is to tell her to look, see herself in the glass, see me holding her. In hindsight, I must have been desperate to capture that precious moment when I held an animal in my arms. Like those yellow chicks, in the zoo at the children's station, whose soft yellow down I cupped in my palms, feeling their tremulating heartbeats, their curious, suppliant cheep cheep seemingly saying, cheep cheep, we too want to live, cheep cheep, hold us gently, cheep cheep, put us down and be on your way.
What was Candy feeling when I carried her towards her reflection, my palms sweating from the warmth of her body? Tongue out, she was panting and panting.
After my parents returned Candy, I would write her letters in English with a pencil, throwing them out the bedroom window in a naïve hope that my words would somehow find their way to the dog, wherever she was. Children have the strangest notions. I thought that if my words and feelings were sincere, the wind would surely carry them to Candy, and she too would feel my sorrow and regret that she was taken from us. Writing as an adult now, I know it was for the best that Candy was sent back, as she had not adjusted well to her new home. Signs like constipation, not wanting to eat, the inexplicable shivering – these were indications that she was not accustomed to her new environment, and was likely confused, anxious and even fearful.
My murky memory tells me that Candy was around two when she came to live with us more than two decades ago. If so, she would have been dead for at least five years now.
To write about Candy, my childhood dog of all but three days, I have to write about the women in my family. My mother, my sisters.
An unflinching matriarch with an iron hand, my mother – or mummy, as I still call her – did not like animals. Growing up in a kampung, being the youngest, she was alone at home most of the time. When she was not drawing water from the well or attending school, she was helping out with household chores, or following her washerwoman mother from house to house to work. I suppose a hard life does not leave much space for sentiment. There were the encounters with cats, dogs and even snakes. She would recount how stray cats would sneak into the kitchen and steal their fish. This called for a broom and some yelling to discourage the unwelcomed felines. Neighbours' dogs, likely feral, would bark, growl and even chase my mother and her siblings with the intention of inflicting real damage, despite them using the same route to and fro every day. A gigantic python that lived in the swamp behind their kampung would reveal its thick heft as it rolled among the marshes. Another one weighing 10kg, which ate the family's chickens, was killed by my grandfather and granduncle. Once, there was a close call with a black cobra in my mother's bedroom, where she was sitting with her legs dangling over the bed. My father, then a young man still in the army, heard thrashing and spitting within close range. He spotted the cobra, which somehow got itself entangled to the bed, and my mother swung her legs up, unharmed.
So yes, my mother never liked animals, and growing up, I was resigned to living without their company. What I had to make up for this lack was the companionship of two younger sisters, two and five years my junior. Playmates who were up for any adventure that each new day called for. Most of the time, it was I who would initiate the next great treasure hunt, or an expedition into the Arctic winter. Books about travel, exploration, adventure and the wilderness filled my every waking moment and I longed to recreate scenes from these distant, alluring worlds. And who better than my two loyal sisters to embark on these terrible journeys into the unknown? How we would pretend to enter dark, dank dungeons by crawling into cupboard recesses. We knocked on walls around the house to find a hollow sound. We dived into endless oceans by strapping pillows to our backs, falling backwards from an armchair into sprawling bean bags.
I would lead, and my sisters followed. That was the natural order. Natural, too, was a pettiness that accompanied a self-seeking heart. A half-formed love that hurt the ones you loved. This is what I remember. We had fashioned a rudimentary hammock by tying our blankets to the bed frame at the top of our double-decker. We took turns swinging on it. My second sister Fay wanted me to hold the blanket in place so that she could swing on it. I am not sure at which point my joy turned to spite, but I let go of the blanket, knowing my sister would fall.
Guilt. It stays with you no matter how you try to make up for it afterwards. I confessed to Fay years later, when we were no longer children, but it was too late. Like most of her childhood memories, she had forgotten this one, although she complained upon my recollection that I was cruel. A few years back, I read And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, which tells the story of two siblings, Abdullah and Pari, who are separated by circumstances beyond their control. Their relationship contrasts with the story of two other sisters in the novel, where a jealous sister Parwana pushes her beautiful twin Masooma off a tree, paralysing her. Reading this book, I came face to face with different versions of myself, travelling across Afghanistan, France, the United States, and back to Afghanistan with these characters through time. Sorrow filled my heart when I arrived at Abdullah's letter to Pari towards the end of the novel:
Abdullah, who raised Pari till she was three before she was sold off by their father to a childless couple, can no longer remember his sister, as he suffers from Alzheimer's by the time they are reunited 50 years later. The words he wrote when he was still cognisant have become meaningless for him now, and their hapless reunion is too painful for me to bear. I think of my sisters, Fay and Pearl, sharing the same room as me, how I was sleeping with my head on Pearl's pillow, sending letters through the top deck to Fay who slept down below. We bathed together as children into adulthood. We shared our teenage heartbreaks, we fought. We feared our mother, and we rebelled in different ways, sneaking into clubs underage, getting tattoos secretly, dating illicitly. I think of my sisters and my love for them swells and crashes against my chest. I feel as guilty as the jealous sister, but I am also Abdullah who is torn from the sister he loves.
Five years ago, I packed up my books, clothes and other assorted belongings into 20 cardboard boxes. I would also take the piano. I was moving out after 27 years of living with my family into a place of my own, leaving my sisters behind to start a new life with a man I love. Although we would only be a 40-minute bus ride away, the distance seemed insurmountable. We were slipping from one another, like Abdullah from Pari, and wading into waters where we would one day drown. Would they know what was in my heart as I went under?
For the three days that Candy was living with us, my sisters did not matter. Candy was my world; she was all I could see. The memory of a child is a curious thing. As I think back now, the details of adopting the dog remain unclear. One moment we were a family unwelcoming of animals, largely due to my mother, the next we were in the apartment of a stranger who must have been a friend of my parents. It was late in the evening and her apartment was air-conditioned. I recall her furniture was mostly dark, with accents of grey. There were two dogs: a black poodle she wanted to keep, and a white Maltese mix she was giving up. The dogs played together. They were happy together. But as a child, all I cared about was Candy growing up with us back home in Tampines. Finally, all the time spent reading and memorising dog breeds, behaviours and training tips could be put into good use.
Perhaps, as a child, I knew all along that our home would not allow Candy to thrive. First, there was always noise. Dogs are especially sensitive to the sounds and moods within their lived environments, so a sudden transplant from a quiet, soothing space with a playmate, to this grating chaos must have been overwhelming. Bursting with too much energy, we screamed and ran around the house. My mother must have yelled. My parents might have fought. Whatever the case, it was all too much for Candy. She was constipated. She would not eat. She might have been loved by me, but that was not enough. She was like a lily frond plucked out of a quiet lake and tossed into the middle of a boxing ring.
Trauma can be defined as being put in a situation whereby one's senses are overwhelmed, above and beyond one's normal capacity to cope or deal with stress. Our bodies retain our traumas, even if we may or may not be conscious of their persistence. If I am honest with myself, I will say that Candy was traumatised from her stay with us. Our hearts were not ready to include her, and we were not ready to make changes to our lives. Then again, we were mere children who did not know better, and the adults were not prepared to change for her.
Let me tell you a story of a childhood trauma. You and your eldest sister argue, like on any other day. This time, there is a dog in the house. Your eldest sister is angry. She is a child. You are five. She does not think, because that is what angry children do; instead, she shouts at the dog to attack. Of course the dog listens. The dog has been close to her, and she has been carrying her around the house from room to room, as though afraid she might vanish, dissipate like steam, leaving the house a feverish mess without the comfort of an animal's steady beating heart pressed close to the chest. The dog is eager to please, but also confused, anxious and maybe afraid. Perhaps she means no harm. But she is not herself, disoriented from the turbulence bombarding her senses in the two days since the move. She cannot fully grasp the gravity of her actions, as she charges towards you, canines showing, white fur flying. Your father catches the little terror in time, but the image of a salivating dog lunging at you is seared into your consciousness.
Yes, I set Candy on my youngest sister Pearl. My parents returned her after this.
Maybe this memory is what makes me believe Susan Hill's depiction of extreme childhood cruelty in I'm the King of the Castle, which I read as a 15-year-old for my literature class. Two boys from previous marriages are now siblings. One bullies the other, entrapping him in a psychological nightmare where even the adults are manipulated to take the bully's side, and the only way out for the victim is death. The accounts in the novel are harrowing, scarring my adolescent psyche, and although I could write a decent essay about it then, I wish the teacher had dealt with these troubling themes in a more sympathetic way. After all, we were teenagers, and bullying and suicide are dark themes, even for grown-ups.
People often ask, how can a child drive another to take his own life? Can children be cruel? Does innocence exist? Consider this. The origin of the word "innocence" can be traced back to the Latin in-nocere, which denotes "not to hurt". At the heart of innocence then is the relationship linking pain, compassion and choice. In order "not to hurt" another, one would have to make a conscious decision to choose to be compassionate, thinking of the other. In contrast, when one chooses "to hurt", one inflicts pain upon another over kindness. If children are born innocent, why then do they hurt their mothers the very moment they leave their wombs? Birth is a violent and painful process which tears at a mother's body in order for the survival of new life. Why is a child's first encounter with another person, one who has been housing, feeding and protecting her, that of irrevocable pain?
A child is born, a child grows up, a child leaves home to create a home away from home. This is the familiar story we read in books until we ourselves become the very characters of our own stories. A few days before I moved out of my family home in Tampines, I wrote everyone goodbye letters. I wept, feeling a deep, reverberating pain each time I wrote Dear…
Sleeping in a room with your sisters for 15 years of your life does something to you, makes it hard to leave. When we moved out of our childhood home in another part of Tampines, I was ecstatic that we were shifting, the move coinciding with the shedding of my childhood and entering secondary school. A time of change, of growing up and out of running in the fields, playing with tiger moths, to relationships with boys and petty friendships. In my youth, I never missed my childhood home, so eager was I to grow up. The irony is that this very childhood home, with its grassy field beyond, its wildflowers and tiger moths, has been appearing in my dreams lately. The wildflowers I would pluck and bring home to my mother as a gift, which she would sometimes display in a vase on the dining table. The tiger moths I would watch and hold with a twig or my finger, wistful and fascinated by their fleeting yet constant presence, as I imagined a world of my own on the expanse of the field I roamed, while my mother prepared dinner in the kitchen one block and three storeys away. How I would run down to the void deck with my father after he came home from work; I would be rollerblading from the wall to his arms, then from wall to wall, freed from the monotony of boring afternoons.
As I was moving out, this three-room flat, with its pink tiles and green doors, two bedrooms and crowded hall, that I had never been proud of when I was living there, began to possess a nostalgic and magical quality. The tacky plastic toilet mirrors and the white kitchen tiles with the occasional bird and flower motifs. A place takes on meaning when you live in it, and when memories are formed within its walls. I found that, just as my childhood home and its field, void decks and playgrounds were stitched into the fabric of my being, this flat too has formed a part of my identity that I could not ignore or deny. We were a working-class family in a working-class home. We loved and fought and lived together for 15 years in these 70-odd square metres.
After moving out, I experience a sensation of fragmentation that I have never felt before. An unreal sense of existing in two separate places at once, of belonging and not belonging wholly to each space. It is something I find hard to put into words, this sense of being split up into two selves, belonging at once to two distinct places. And then, knowing that these two places exist for you, and in spite of you. I guess you could describe this feeling as being displaced from home. Home as a blurry, undefined region.
As I grapple with this tension, I share this odd feeling with my father over homebrewed two-in-one coffee. Over the years, we developed an unspoken ritual at dinnertime. On weekdays, he would come back from work, unpack his economic rice meal at the dining table in the kitchen, and I would join him in the corner seat, asking him about his day and telling him about mine. This was how I could feel close to my father, and I imagine there would no longer be these talks to bind us to one another, with me living somewhere else. I have had to haul up my anchor and set sail into waters of my own, carrying with me only images and memories, words, scents and sounds. A blue anchor, self-drawn, moored between his thumb and forefinger. On my right thigh, a seafoam green anchor with the Latin insignia flvctvat nec mergitvr granting me peace and strength for the voyages to come. As I speak, my vision blurs and ripples like the sea. He listens quietly.
Working through my displacement, it takes time for me to learn to occupy both places in an authentic, fluid way, one that does not require an erasure or surrender of the other. I begin to acknowledge and honour both places and the memories I hold in them. I discover that it is possible to belong to two places at once, that I do not have to define home in mutually exclusive terms, that my family home would still be my home, just as this new home in Buangkok is also my home.
I carry my home within my consciousness and in my body.
The well-known metaphor of life as a wheel points to the circularity of time. If we pay close enough attention, events have a way of repeating themselves in varying guises. The past unfolding and emerging over and again, familiar and new, healing if you embrace it. This circling brings me back to Candy, my childhood dog that came to us at a time when we were not ready for her.
Two years ago, after living together in our new home for two years, my husband and I felt it was a good time to consider a furry addition to our home. We did not want children, but I have always loved animals, and while we were dating, I mentioned that in future, once we had a home of our own, I wanted a dog. Two years into cohabiting, we knew the time was right. We were well-adjusted into our routines, and prepared to commit to a dog. After briefly considering buying a Sheltie pup (a breed I have loved as a child), we realised we could instead adopt a dog in need of a home. So began the search and visits to dog shelters. In the end, we adopted a street dog formerly named Twinkle, now renamed Ealga, with an independent streak, and a black diamond on her head. With a name that is Irish for "noble" and "brave", Ealga is wolfish and strong. I love the way her shoulders shift when she walks, in the manner of great cats when they slow down for a hunt. With her weight at 19kg, I struggle to carry her every time it is my turn to bathe her or clean her ears. Deep breath in, body low, legs braced, two arms scoop and tuck her body sideways to my chest. I tighten my core and push into my right foot, heaving the muscles in both thighs, as I lift her from the ground and into my arms.
Now, the dog sleeps behind me as I work in my living room, sated from a long walk and a full meal, dreaming. First the sound akin to gargling underwater, then a growling from deep within her belly, her body twitching and her paws quivering. She sleeps on her side, open and trusting, and sometimes, if we are lucky, we witness a moment of pure bliss. Twisting her upper body, she curls her front paws into her chest, her head rotates and her chin faces the ceiling, diamond pressing into her bed. These precious seconds are few and fleeting, and we have since learnt that there are lines one cannot cross, there are boundaries worthy of respect, there are sacred spaces one cannot dare to enter, when an animal agrees to live in communion with you. Especially when she gives up her life in the streets in exchange for a domesticated one. And all I can think of, in trying to comprehend this enigma, are questions she can never answer. What does she dream? What does she remember?
I believe the right dog finds you when you are ready. I believe in free will, and yet there is an element of the divine in the timing with which Ealga came into our lives, at a time where we were ready to learn, heal and grow. As individuals, as a couple, as a family. I remember sitting in our study, listing out the pros and cons of adopting Ealga and another potential candidate Chestnut. Ealga scored lower overall, unsurprisingly, as she was a rescue dog with health complications that arose from living a harsh life out on the streets. Yet, I felt that we could not abandon her. It was unspeakable, but I had a knowing the moment I saw her adoption photographs on Facebook, even before we met. I knew that she was the one. Those letters, dispersed to the wind by a hurting child through her bedroom window, have taken 20 long years to seek the spirit of a dog whose soul, I now see, has always been entwined with mine.
A short excerpt of this essay was first published in Journal.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020