New Voices: “Dog’s Death” by Clara Kiat

May 6, 2024

In Clara Kiat’s “Dog’s Death,” Delfina, a laundrywoman at the Hotel Oriental, and her daughter Sinta assist a French botanist in the collection of plant specimens from the forest in 19th century Manila. Tensions are high from the outset in Kiat’s story, as Delfina realizes exactly where the botanist’s gaze lies.


Manila, October 1820

As the carriage rolled to a stop at the edge of the forest, Poitrenaud got out and offered me his hand. I was not accustomed to a white man helping me, a servant, out of carriages. Timidly, I put my hand in his.

Behind me, Sinta gasped as she stepped out of the carriage, and in her excitement, she nearly dropped the basket that contained our provisions. I murmured an apology to Poitrenaud for my daughter’s behavior—she had always been an excitable girl. Since August, I had been helping Poitrenaud gather plant specimens in the forest once or twice a week. He was a French botanist, and a guest at the Hotel Oriental where I worked as a laundrywoman. I had promised Sinta that I would take her with me on this excursion, and I was hoping that her presence would not bother the Frenchman.

To my relief, Poitrenaud smiled. He leaned against a gum tree and absently traced slow circles on the colorful bark. His fingers were long, elegant, mesmerizing, and I could not help but wonder what he thought of the rough calluses on my hands. I looked away in embarrassment.

“Delfina,” he said. “Don’t these colors remind you of a painting?”

At the Hotel Oriental, the guests hardly noticed when I came to their rooms to collect their linen, much less ask my opinion about anything. Not Poitrenaud. Every week, I eagerly looked forward to his gentle inquiries. I gave him a shy nod and turned to Sinta.

“Get the fire going, darling. It’s almost noon and the señor must be hungry.”

Sinta strained tamarind into a pot and threw in the milkfish we had bought from a passing fisherman. Poitrenaud glanced up from his heavy leather book when Sinta served him a bowl of broth. He looked at her the way Chinamen examine fish before purchase.

A knot formed in my stomach.

Sinta returned his gaze with twinkling eyes. She was fourteen, and her body was beginning to assert itself, often drawing attention from men. As I led her away to shield her from the Frenchman’s gaze, I glanced at him over my shoulder. I wanted to look him in the eye, but by then he was absorbed in his book, sketching a hibiscus flower on the blank page.

* * *

On a damp, gray morning, Damian arrived at the Hotel Oriental to deliver Señor Kühnel’s water. Like most foreigners living in the city, Kühnel, the German owner of the Oriental, would not touch water from the Pasig River and drank only water from the springs of San Juan. After concluding his business with Kühnel, Damian went to the backyard where I was sorting the hotel linens for the laundry. He looked up at the dark, heavy clouds and frowned.

“Best to put that off for another day, don’t you think?”

“Ay, Damian. Do your job and I’ll do mine.”

“How goes it with your guests?”

Of late, my brother began his greetings by asking after the hotel’s residents. I tried to mask my annoyance, reminding myself that despite his regrettable deficit in social graces, Damian meant well. When he learned about the other women, Damian had threatened my husband with a bolo and demanded that he restore my honor. After my husband died of consumption five months ago, Damian kept a protective eye on me and Sinta.

“Well, Damian. As you can see, the guests are keeping us very busy.”

“You have quite a company of Frenchmen these days. Any Englishmen around?”

“The Englishmen who disembarked yesterday have lodged at San Miguel. What’s with these questions, Damian?”

He led me to the farthest corner of the yard and spoke quietly. “Several merchantmen have dropped anchor at the bay. Way more than usual, and I don’t like the look of it. Word is that the Ilocanos in the north are in secret talks with the English. The Castilians may have suppressed the Ilocano insurrection but the English are looking for opportunities.”

Foreigners arrived on our shores almost daily, but I did not consider that to be cause for alarm. They came to our islands to partake in the brisk trade in sugar, hemp, and cotton. They gave the Hotel Oriental good business. But Damian was suspicious of Englishmen, a distrust that was sown early on by our father, whose own father was killed when the English invaded Manila some sixty years ago. In fact, my brother regarded all white men with suspicion, and he chided me for my loyalty to Señor Kühnel.

“Not all the whites are alike, Damian. Even if Kühnel were English I’d still have his back. I don’t choose sides, I choose those who are kind.”

My brother grunted. “A white man’s kindness is always suspect. Kühnel is friends with a lot of English traders and he must know something. Keep your eyes and ears open.”

* * *

By the time I arrived home, the sky tore open and unleashed torrents upon the city. Poitrenaud’s next excursion was tomorrow. The roads would be whipped into a muddy froth that not even the most resolute carabao would dare cross. Poitrenaud must have already concluded that the trip was going to be postponed, but I wanted to inform him in person.

With my bolo I hacked off the largest leaf from the banana tree in my yard and set it over my head. As I turned to leave, I saw a red hibiscus flower in full bloom, unbowed by the fat raindrops on its velvet petals. I crushed the petals between my fingers and dabbed the stain against my cheeks to brighten my complexion.

Sitting in the salon of the Oriental, Poitrenaud was surprised to see me. I, too, was astonished by the Frenchman’s appearance. Instead of his usual attire of breeches and a jacket, he had on a loose cotton shirt and trousers. No white man would deign to wear indio clothing, but Poitrenaud wore it with ease. I supposed that his openness and curiosity were prerequisites in his profession. He advised a delegation of French merchants who were cultivating hemp in our islands, and in his spare moments, he devoted himself to the study of tropical hardwoods. Because I knew the countryside quite well, Señor Kühnel paid me a few additional reales per week to accompany Poitrenaud to his excursions. I was grateful to Kühnel since I had used up all my coin to bury my husband.

Señor Poitrenaud, if it pleases you, we must postpone the trip tomorrow. The roads will be impassable for the next few days.”

“You walked all the way in this dreadful weather to tell me that?”

I nodded and looked down so that he would not see the warmth flooding my face.

He studied my dripping skirt and the banana leaf, now torn from the rain. The rain must have also washed off the hibiscus stain from my cheeks. But why would he care—why would that matter to him?

“I admire your dedication, Delfina.”

I could not tell if his smile was of amusement or mockery. I did not want to seem rude by leaving abruptly, so I asked, “Will there be anything else, señor?”

His eyes lit up. “Yes. This way, please.”

Cautiously, I followed him up a flight of stairs that led to the second floor of the hotel where all the rooms were situated. There were certain houses in the city that the English and the French liked to frequent, and I did not want Poitrenaud to think that the Hotel Oriental was one of them. He must have sensed my hesitation, because he left the door to his room wide open and gave me a reassuring nod. He led me to a chair and draped a blanket over my shoulders, pausing to sweep my wet hair away from my neck. I froze, startled by the intimacy of his gesture. He poured me a cup of aromatic tea. A servant like me had no business in these private quarters. I thanked him for the tea and I rose to my feet, but he laid a hand on my arm.

God forbid that the señor take offense. I needed Poitrenaud’s coin, I needed to stay in his good graces. I thought of the debts that I still owed: to the vendor who supplied hens for my husband’s funeral feast, to the old women who made their living praying for the dead, to Damian who grudgingly paid for the coffin. My brother had always believed that my husband, in life and in death, was undeserving of my care and attention. What Damian could not understand was my satisfaction. No one would ever say that I abandoned my husband when he fell ill, or that I let him rest in a common grave.

Poitrenaud took out his big leather book and pulled up a chair next to mine. Smiling, he said, “I’m afraid you’re not going out in this rain.”

The pages of the book were filled with elegantly drawn leaves, branches and fruit. I could not help but admire Poitrenaud’s handiwork. Even to my untrained eyes his patience and precision were evident. He moved his chair closer so that I could get a better glimpse of the book. He gave off an aroma of clean, crushed herb.

“If hibiscus were to have a scent, what would it be like?” he asked.

“A flower as beautiful as the gumamela has no need for any fragrance.”

When Poitrenaud turned to look at me, his gray eyes switched hues with the vagaries of light. No one, not even my husband, had looked at me with such intensity. I did not even know if my husband had ever genuinely desired me; I had always sensed an obligatory quality to his ardor. Now I found myself in the company of this white man, close enough to see the tuft of hair that nestled at the base of his throat, and I yearned to smell his skin beneath the herbal cloud that enveloped him.

And then, I remembered the way he had looked at my daughter. I wanted to believe that his scrutiny of Sinta was simply his frank curiosity, the same that he would have for a plant whose secrets he wanted to discover. I got up and rushed to the door.

“Must you go now?” he said. “I can’t let you walk home in this rain. Please allow me to order a carriage for you.”

“No, no, señor, I don’t want to be a bother.” I had never heard of white men ordering carriages for servants, and I wondered if his offer was mere courtesy, kindness, or something else.

“When will I see you again, Delfina?”

Without a word, I closed the door behind me.

* * *

The next day, the skies cleared and the waters of the Pasig turned the color of milk. The fragrance of yesterday’s thunderstorm lingered in the early morning air. From my window I could see the waters of the Pasig rising and ebbing with the rhythm of a breath. A squabble of laundrywomen staked out their spots by the banks and subjected their wash to the roiling waters. Small children splashed happily along the river’s edge, the early morning sun glinting off their shiny, naked bodies.

Sinta asked for permission to bathe in the river. “I’ve never seen the water this white,” she exclaimed.

“That happens after a storm, love. I don’t think you should be in the river. Not today.”

She turned to me with pleading eyes. “We shall not be long, I promise. It’ll just be a quick dip.”

“Ay, I don’t know. The river looks a bit unsettled.”

“But the girls are going to be there, Mother. And we’ll stay close to the banks. Please?” Sinta took my hand and pressed it to her cheek, like she used to do when she was little and she wanted something from me. I couldn’t resist.

“Who’s going with you?”

“Miray and Anita. Oh, and Lupe, too. With that laugh of hers she’ll scare off the crocodiles.”

Having sensed victory, Sinta grabbed a small basket filled with red hibiscus that she had gathered from the yard earlier that morning. She liked to anoint her hair with a mixture of crushed hibiscus and coconut oil.

Her friends were already waiting outside. Linking arms with each other, they picked their way through the muddy streets. Perhaps I was imagining it, but I thought that there was a bounce to Sinta’s gait, a subtle wiggle to the hip. I saw her reach into her basket for a hibiscus. She pressed the petals between her lips and puckered a coquettish mouth as her friends laughed.

I, too, had made a flower bleed against my own skin. Now, with the laughter of Sinta’s friends ringing in my ears, the memory of it made my face burn. How juvenile of me, how clownish.

I was eighteen when I had Sinta, and I shuddered to think that a young man would soon come to seek her hand in marriage. I could not imagine giving away my bright-eyed girl who still slept by my side every night. I felt colder still at the thought, unbidden, of Poitrenaud showing up at our hut to ask for Sinta’s hand.

* * *

Sinta stayed in bed all morning. I thought that she was merely tired from yesterday’s swim in the river, and when I came to check on her, I saw a large wet patch on the back of her skirt. Something that resembled rice water gushed out of her mouth. Her forehead felt cold to the touch.

“Darling, what’s wrong?”

“I’m thirsty,” she mumbled.

I dipped a coconut shell in the jar of spring water that Damian had given me. Sinta drained the shell and demanded more. After she drank a third time, she vomited with such vehemence that I recoiled from her. A pool of murky liquid began to gather from under her bottom and soaked her skirt. She was ejecting fluid from both ends, and she was shivering like one possessed. This was no ordinary flux. I tucked my child in a blanket and ran outside. Tatang lived at the end of our street. He had known Sinta since she was born and he attended to all of her illnesses. I willed myself to remain calm. Whatever it is that Sinta had, Tatang would know what to do.

The sun glowered at the streets. Blinding white glare of pure noon. As I hurried up the steps to Tatang’s hut a shrill keen pierced the air. I saw women weeping and kneeling around a figure lying prone on a mat. I caught a glimpse of Tatang’s lifeless face. It was not so much a face as bone clothed only in skin.

I went back out to the street to find a man coming from the direction of the river. He carried a child’s lifeless body in his arms. Another man yelled and unsheathed his bolo as he ran down the street. Cries erupted from the surrounding houses. A woman stumbled out from one of the huts: it was the mother of Lupe, one of Sinta’s friends. The anguish on her face sent a chill sweeping through me.

Something seething with menace was hovering in the air.

I retraced my steps and rushed home to see my brother running along the path to my hut. My relief at seeing Damian was short-lived, for he had a crazed look that frightened me even more.

“What’s happening, Damian?”

“The merchantmen must have brought it with them. The English say that they’ve seen a similar illness in Bengal. The surgeons from the English and French ships have gone all over the city to help the sick—”

“Thank God.”

“Don’t be a fool, Delfina! I’ve come here to tell you this. Stay away from the foreigners. Can’t you see? It broke out after the merchantmen arrived. They brought it upon us.” He bent forward to catch his breath and his sweat trickled to the ground.

“Damian, Sinta has fallen ill.”

My brother looked up, ashen faced. After a long silence he said, “If you want her to live, keep her away from the white doctors.”

* * *

An ominous silence descended upon the city, punctuated by the toll of the church bells and by the creaking of the carts laden with the dead. I placed a scapular of the Virgin Mary around Sinta’s neck, hoping that it would drive away the malevolent being that had taken possession of her body. I was loath to admit it, but I was terrified of the shriveled creature writhing on the mat. She bore no resemblance to my daughter. Within just a few hours, Sinta’s skin had acquired a blue tinge and was pulled taut over the bones of her face. I gave her roasted coconut root to calm her bowels, but the flux kept streaming out of her. When her spasms quieted, she complained of a fire in her insides. I applied every remedy that I could think of—borage root, bark of Spanish plum—none of which relieved her agony.

I went to fetch clean clothing for my daughter, and as I rummaged around her trunk my fingers brushed against a piece of paper. I drew it out and recognized the intricate lines drawn by a familiar hand. It was a drawing of a hibiscus flower. A thing of delicate beauty that made my stomach turn, and for a moment, I thought that I had picked up the same disquiet in the bowels that Sinta was suffering from. But it was bile, rising from my belly to my throat.

I held up the drawing for Sinta to see. “What is this?”

Her eyes were sunken and dull, but I thought that I detected a flicker in them.

“It was a gift.”

I could barely hear my daughter.

“Why would he give you a gift, Sinta? When did he give it to you?”

“It’s just a drawing, Mother. Now please let me rest. I’m tired.”

A drawing that she kept hidden in the bottom of her trunk. She and Poitrenaud must have met somewhere while I was at work at the Oriental.

“Sinta. Has he done something to you?”

She shook her head and closed her eyes. It pained me to hear her shallow breathing, and I felt wounded, too, by the sense of a rift between me and my daughter. My girl who would tell me everything—the gossip she picked up from the market, the stories her dead father told her in her dreams—was keeping secrets from me and I could not understand why.

I brought the piece of paper to the stove. I imagined Poitrenaud’s hand caressing the petals of the hibiscus. The same hand that drew these painstaking and exquisite lines. The same hand that had held mine.

I tossed the drawing into the fire and watched the flames devour it.

* * *

Our healers were at a loss to explain this strange plague. What they could not heal with herbs and invocations, they attributed to some dark art. Our Castilian lords issued an edict prohibiting the use of water from the Pasig, and I murmured my gratitude to Damian for keeping us supplied with spring water from San Juan. Our Castilian lords offered no explanation regarding the origins of the mysterious epidemic. The priests had no answers for us either, beyond words of consolation for the bereaved. They prevailed upon our Castilian lords to dispatch doctors to the poorest households.

None of us had seen an epidemic of this nature. The English doctors declared that the disease was caused by foul miasmas. The plague spread and claimed its victims with horrifying speed. Rumors persisted that the foreigners—most especially the devious English—had poisoned our waters to get rid of the indios. Such a conjecture was plainly without merit. If the English had their eye on our islands, as Damian suspected, they would have seized power from the Castilians at the first opportunity. As it was, our Castilian lords and the foreigners among us remained unscathed even as they roamed among the dead and the dying. Whatever talismans they armed themselves with, I was determined to get my hands on them.

The main door to the Hotel Oriental was locked and the windows were shuttered. From behind the door, I recognized the voice of a fellow servant, who called out fearfully, “Who is it?”

“Betong, open the door, please. I must speak with Señor Kühnel.”

The door remained shut. “Nobody here.”

“Where is he? Where’s everyone?”

“God knows where Kühnel is. The Frenchmen have gone out to help the sick. That Poitrenaud has been looking for you.”

Shouts thundered from the distance and broke the silence of the city, but all I could hear was the fluttering in my chest.

“What… what does he want from me?”

“I’ve no idea. Go now, Delfina. Do you hear that? The madness is spreading.”

“Wait! You must help me find Kühnel.”

“Get away from here! It’s not safe!”

I stepped back from the door and took a deep breath. I thought of the herbalists that I had brought in over the last couple of days to see Sinta. None of them could offer any remedies. I had more trust in the herbalists, whom I had known since childhood, than in hospitals, where the Castilian lords locked up lepers and women who wasted away from diseases one must not name. But despite my misgivings, I decided that it was time to take my daughter to the Hospital de Santa Ana. Perhaps, just perhaps, some miracle lay within its walls.

I came across a procession of carts piled high with bodies and accompanied by the bereaved. Even the carabao drawing the carts seemed forlorn. From one of the carts a woman’s leg hung out and shook with each jolt and I looked away, ashamed and horrified that no one had bothered to think about the dead woman’s decency. The funereal parade was coming from the direction of Tondo, my barrio, and it came to a halt along the divisoria, the wide stretch of avenue that separated Tondo from the commercial district of Binondo. On the opposite side of the avenue a Castilian grandee emerged from his carriage and was immediately flanked by his guards. He forbade the carts from transporting the bodies across Binondo.

A voice cried out, “We’re running out of earth for the dead, señor!”

“They’re killing us!” screamed another.

More voices joined in angry unison and rose to a deafening crescendo. Some of the men drew their bolos and stepped forward, but a gunshot fired into the air silenced the tumult as quickly as it had started. The grandee’s guards aimed their rifles at the crowd.

“For the love of God, get yourselves home,” the Castilian lord said softly, as a father would to an irate child. As he studied the surly crowd he covered his mouth with a white handkerchief, and with a curt nod, he climbed back into his carriage.

The seething crowd dispersed. The weeping of the women and the wheels of the carts squeaking in protest were too much for me to bear. I made my way home, my head filled with images of a lifeless Sinta sprawled in a cart. I prayed to all the saints to preserve my daughter and to give me strength.

I opened the door to my hut and saw Poitrenaud on his knees, straddling my daughter and vigorously rubbing his hands over her naked, convulsing body.

Words that I never dared utter before now poured out. Hijo de puta. Demonio. An inner, fretful voice pleaded for restraint. Severe punishment awaited any indio who dared lay a hand on a white man. But a reptilian wrath was clawing its way out of me. I pummeled him with my fists.

Poitrenaud put up his arms to ward off my blows. “Delfina, listen to me!”

My hand found its way to his face and left a trail of scarlet lines on his cheek.

His voice shook. “You don’t understand. I’m trying to help her.”

It took all my strength to push him out of my house.

* * *

Into the fire went all of Sinta’s belongings. I did not know if fire could prevent the plague from spreading, and as much as it pained me to get rid of my daughter’s possessions, it felt like the prudent thing to do. Sinta did not have much. The little basket she used for gathering flowers. A comb and small flask of coconut oil. The scapular bearing the image of the Virgin Mary.

I had first put the scapular around Sinta’s neck when she was an infant to protect her from harm. Tossing a holy object into the fire was a sacrilege, but I could not bear to be reminded of its failure. Should lightning strike me for this act of desecration, so be it.

* * *

The main door to the Hotel Oriental was unbolted. The hotel appeared to be deserted. Muddy footprints wandered about the wooden floors. The stable doors had been broken into and the horses and carriages were gone. Señor Kühnel would not have tolerated such a state of disgrace and I worried that he might have fallen victim to the plague.

On the second floor, Poitrenaud’s room was unlocked. A wardrobe of dark mahogany stood at the back of the room. I opened the wardrobe and saw some thing, a small creature with a shapeless face, glaring at me. I staggered back, thinking that it was a mischievous spirit, the kind that was said to roam the houses of the accursed. I peered at the creature. It was an animal that I did not recognize, severed from its mother’s belly and condemned to spend eternity in a jar of brown soup.

I searched through the wardrobe and saw other curious objects: insects preserved in liquid, an assortment of leaves pressed between paper packets, twigs encased in glass vials. A box contained what seemed to be measuring implements. If I had not known about Poitrenaud’s profession, I would have concluded that he practiced witchcraft.

A sinister buzzing began to hum in my ears.

I gathered whatever relics I could fit into my pockets.

I did not have to wait long.

Poitrenaud walked in. He resembled little of the energetic wanderer I had accompanied to the forest. There were furrows in his brow and shadows under his eyes— marks of a haunted conscience, without a doubt. I noted with grim satisfaction the scratches on his cheek, but at the same time, much to my immense shame I felt a brief urge to run a gentle finger over those delicate wounds.

I had to remember what I came here for. I drew out my bolo that was hidden within the folds of my skirt. I took a step towards him.

He turned pale. “It’s not what you thought it was, Delfina. The mort de chien was taking over. I was trying to save her.”

“You lie. I’ve seen the way you looked at my child.”

My hands could not stop trembling. The bolo dropped to the floor. I formed my lips in the shape of a curse, but no words came out, only a pitiful howl.

I ran out of the room and reached the base of the stairs just as a group of men burst into the ground floor. A cloud rose over them, that of human emanations that have been stewing under a scorching sun, and underneath, an animal smell ripe with fear.

Someone shouted, “We’re looking for the man who brought poison to our homes!”

It was then that I noticed the bright red slick on their bolos and pikes.

I thought of the creature in the jar. I thought of my daughter convulsing between Poitrenaud’s knees. I could persuade these men, my brethren in tragedy, to lay down their arms and return to their homes to mourn. Instead, I dug out the relics and held them out in my hands.

“The man you seek is a sorcerer,” I said.

They hissed at the sight of the tiny beast in its glass cage. One man made the sign of the cross. Nervous whispering ensued. To my dismay, they began to retreat. The thought of confronting a sorcerer, possibly one endowed with a malign power, must have given them pause.

I spoke of Sinta’s shame at the hands of Poitrenaud. I wanted them to know that her final moments were vile, foul, ugly. I told them that her chattering teeth had lopped off a bit of her tongue, that her eyes had rolled upwards and stuck fast. That instead of burying her, I had committed a most unholy act: I set her body on fire so as not to spill into the unsuspecting earth the evil that had consumed her.

I could not, however, speak of my own shame.

My voice cut through their murmur as a knife through lard. “A sorcerer is but a man. He hurts and bleeds like the rest of us. If you do nothing now, he will spread his malice far and wide.”

They stood silently as an older man made his way up the stairs with slow but determined steps. He nodded at me with a mournful understanding, and one by one the men followed him up the stairs. At first, they moved with caution, but emboldened by their growing numbers they picked up their pace.

The buzzing in my ears persisted. I went to the courtyard, where a body lay sprawled on the ground. A swarm of flies rose from the head to reveal a chunk of face hacked off with a blade. What was left of it was Señor Kühnel’s. The humming of the flies grew louder and added to the turmoil in my head. From within the walls of the Oriental an agonized cry rang out. I covered my ears to drown out the sound, and I found relief in the silence.

* * *

Our Castilian lords called it cólera. The English who came by way of Bengal spoke of the mort de chien. Some said that it meant “dog’s death” in the French language but others believed that it had a more diabolical meaning in some long forgotten tongue.

After Sinta’s passing, I volunteered for the brigades organized by the priests to aid the ill. At the home of an elderly patient in Binondo, I assisted a Castilian surgeon as he administered tincture of lavender with alternating doses of laudanum and camphor. The laudanum did little to abate the patient’s frantic shivering. With quick, deft movements, the doctor tore off the patient’s blouse and rubbed her naked body.

The reviled memory came in a flash—and with it, a sickening epiphany.

The surgeon shot me a glance as I cried out. Without breaking stride he explained, “Dry friction will get her sluggish blood moving again.”

Poitrenaud’s blood had cooled long since, splattered on the walls of the Hotel Oriental to slake the thirst of a maddened crowd. Not all the water from the Pasig would wash it off. Not all the rivers on this earth would rinse away the stain from my hands.

Clara Kiat’s fiction has appeared in
Puerto del Sol, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Other Stories. A graduate of the Tin House and VONA writing workshops, Clara is working on a novel and a collection of short stories set in 19th century colonial Philippines. Originally from the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, Clara grew up in Manila and now lives in Madrid, Spain.


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