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The Neighbors

2006-07-14 00:06

  When Zalela and her family moved into the Taman Sentosa Housing development, she soon became friends with Mei Ling, who lived next door. The two girls, who were in the same class, would walk to and from school together every day, and they spent all their free time together. Their friendship blossomed until one evening when Mei Ling's mother brought home a dog.

  “Look, dear, I've brought you a puppy. It's a birthday present from your father and me.”

  “For me?” exclaimed the girl in delight. Hugging the puppy to her, she spoke to it: “Oh, you're so beautiful! I think I'll call you Johan. Yes, Johan.”

  But, next door, Zalela's mother became uneasy when she learned about the puppy. According to the religion of Zalela's family, dogs were unclean and should not be kept as house pets. She tried to talk to her husband about it but he seemed unconcerned. “Well, as long as the puppy doesn't come into our house, I guess it'll be all right,” he said.

  “But don't you hear it whining and barking day and night?” she grumbled.

  “Oh, it's probably just not used to its new home and misses its mother. That's why it barks.”

  But this did not make her feel any easier. And she was afraid Zalela would start playing with the puppy. Finally she decided that she must forbid Zalela to go to Mei Ling's house.

  “But why can't I go there?” Zalela asked.

  “Because of the puppy.”

  “But what's wrong with that? I don't play with it.”

  “I know, dear. But you know our religion forbids us even to touch a dog.”

  Depressed, Zalela could not think of any reply. But secretly she still continued to go to Mei Ling's after that.

  One evening Zalela came rushing home and hurried to the back of the house. Suspicious, her mother followed her out, where she found the girl washing her knee, scrubbing it vigorously.

  “What's wrong, Zalela?” she asked, acting surprised.

  “Oh, John licked my knee, mother.”

  Hearing that, the woman became furious. “Didn't I tell you stay away from Mei Ling's! Why did you disobey me?”

  “I'm sorry. Please don't be angry. See, I've already washed my knee,” she said, standing up.

  “I can see that. But you are not to go to Mei Ling's any more. That's final.”

  “But, Mother, she's my best friend.”

  Just then Mei Ling appeared. “Oh, please don't be upset,” she appealed. “Johan was only trying to play with Zalela.”

  But Zalela's mother became even angrier. “Indeed, playing with that dog! Both of you know its against out religion. And if a dog does touch you, you have to wash that part of your body once with water mixed with clay and six times with clean water.”

  “But Johan is clean,” Mei Ling protested. “I wash him every day. He's not in the least bit dirty. Just look at him,” she said, pointing at Johan, who had come up behind her.

  “I know his body clean, Mei Ling. But for us he's still an unclean animal. And that's that.”

  Mei Ling could not think of anyway to defend Johan. And she could not really understand what Zalela's mother was trying to say. All she knew was that she did not like Johan's is being accused of being unclean.

  Suddenly the dog began running around the yard, wagging his tail and barking playfully. “Oh, no! Get that dog out of here. Don't let him in!” shouted Zalela's mother in disgust.

  Mei Ling could not believe what she was hearing. If frightened her. Saying nothing, she ran out of the yard with Johan at her heels. Once back home, she told her mother what had happened.

  “Mei Ling, you know that people of their religion aren't allowed to play with dogs,” soothed her mother.

  “But why did she accuse my Johan of being unclean? I keep him very clean,” argued Mei Ling, in tears. Her mother did not say anything.

  Despite her mother's warning, Zalela still continued to go to Mei Ling's. The girls did not seem in the least bothered by the recent incident, for their friendship was too important to them. Zalela also realized that Mei Ling loved Johan very much.

  Johan continued to be a neighborhood nuisance. He would howl all night and spend his time chasing cats, always causing much commotion.

  One Sunday afternoon Mei Ling went to Zalela's to play. As the two girls sat there, Johan came and stood by the front gate. Zalela's cat, Koreng, came out of the house and joined the girls. Suddenly Johan charged into the yard, heading straight for the cat. Jumping with fright, Koreng ran into the house, Johan following close behind. Inside, Koreng jumped up on the television set. But as he did so he brushed against a vase, which fell on the floor, shattering.

  Hearing the noise, Zalela's mother came rushing into the room, “Oh, my, what's happened to my beautiful vase?” she shouted in disbelief.

  Johan stood in the hall, growling. Seeing him, the woman picked up a broom and started beating him with it. Yelping in pain, the dog ran out of the house.

  Mei Ling stood watching, helpless and almost in tears. Saying nothing, she ran out of the yard after Johan. Zalela was too stunned to do anything. She knew her mother was very angry and would not allow her to see Mei Ling at all anymore. Just because of Johan.

  That night, when Mei Ling's father returned home from work, he found his daughter in tears. Between sobs, she told him what happened.

  “Well, of course she'd be angry if Johan chased the cat into her house and then broke her vase,” he said.

  “What'll we do now?” Mei Ling's mother asked.

  “I don't know. I guess she'll just have to stay away from Zalela for a while,” he replied reluctantly.

  Mei Ling was stunned. Her father's words took her by complete surprise. She rushed off to her room, confused and sad about everything that had happened.

  That night Zalela could not sleep. She kept on thinking that because of Johan her friendship with Mei Ling was ruined. Maybe I ought to ask her to get rid of the dog, she thought. But, no, she knew she could not ask her friend to do that, for Mei Ling loved the dog too much. Zalela might not want to lose Johan either.

  Meanwhile, over the next few weeks Johan's barking continued, but now it sounded increasingly strange. First he would whine softly, then he would growl and bark, and finally he would howl. And his howling would take on an eerie, frightening tone. Mei Ling became worried that Johan was ill, but her father assured her that he was not.

  Night after night Johan's strange barking and howling continued. It made the neighbors uneasy, for they felt it was a bad omen. Rumors began to spread that it meant either the dog or its owner was going to meet with some serious misfortune. Hearing this, Mei Ling became even sadder.

  During this time Mei Ling and Zalela did not meet. Although they saw each other at school, they never talked, and they went home separately. But finally one day Zalela gathered up enough courage to speak to her friend. Walking up to Mei Ling, she asked: “Don't you want to be friends with me anymore?”

  “Of course I do. But you now that we're not allowed to meet.”

  “And all because of Johan.”

  “I know, but there's nothing we can do.”

  “Well . . .”

  “Well, what?”

  “You won't be mad if I say something?”

  “Of course not. We're friends.”

  “Well, then, Mei Ling, I think you should keep him tied up.”

  “Tied up?”

  “Yes, keep him on a rope in your yard. Then we could see each other again.”

  “But I don't think he'll like that. He's always been free to run around as he pleases. If I tie him up, he'll just bark more.”

  “Does that matter, as long as we can see each other?”

  “But it won't work. It'll just make the neighbors angrier. They'd probably kill him.”

  “Don't be silly. They can't kill him. And I'm sure he'll get used to being tied up after a while. As it is, he barks all the time even though he's free.”

  Mei Ling thought for a moment. Finally she replied: “All right, I'll try trying him up tonight and see what happens.”

  Both girls smiled and started off toward home, hand in hand.

  That night Mei Ling tied Johan up under the porch. But the dog barked endlessly. Saddened by this, the girl kept on going out of the house to see him, patting and stroking his head and back. “Don't cry, darling. I only did this for your own good. This way no one will ever beat you with a broom again. And now Zalela and I can still be friends.” But Johan just whined and licked her face.

  No sooner would she quite him down than his barking would start again, growing louder and louder. And then Mei Ling would rush out to him once more. Her parents watched in silence, afraid to say anything.

  It was growing late. Mei Ling had already been out to comfort the dog five times. Tired and upset, she finally decided to see him free. “All right, I'll untie you now. But promise you'll be quite and not go anywhere.” The dog whined as if he understood what she was saying. Then he gave a low growl and looked toward the road.

  “Hey, what's the matter? Be quite. I'll untie you, but don't roam around,” she said, setting him free. But as she went back into the house he sat there, staring at the road.

  Except for some frogs croaking in the distance, the night was completely still. Suddenly it began to rain. Slowly, Mei Ling drifted off into an uneasy sleep. She dreamed that she was with Zalela and Johan, the three of them walking endlessly. Then came to ravine. She looked over the edge, but it was dark and deep, and she could not see anything. Then, suddenly, Johan slipped and fell into the gaping blackness.

  Mei Ling woke up screaming. She jumped out of bed and rushed into the yard. It was dawn. Johan was nowhere to be seen. She screamed again, and her parents came running out.

  The three of them looked around the yard, but there was not a trace of the dog. Mei Ling searched the neighborhood, calling out loudly, “Johan, Johan,” but there was no sign of him. Gloomily she returned home and sat under the porch where Johan used to sleep. Quietly she murmured to herself: “This would never have happened if I hadn't tied him up. He hated it. That's what made him run away.”

  Her mother said consolingly: “Don't be sad dear. We'll get you another dog soon.”

  “But it won't be as good as Johan. I don't want another dog. I'm going out and look for Johan. I just know he is not dead.”

  Word of what had happened quickly spread through the neighborhood. When Zalela heard, she immediately went over to her friend's house. As soon as Mei Ling saw her, she threw her arms around Zalela and started sobbing.

  “Please don't cry, Mei Ling,” said Zalela, but she too felt sad.

  “Oh, I know he's dead!”

  “No he's not. He is still alive. We'll find him.”

  “I know he's dead. Last night I dreamed that he fell into a deep ravine and disappeared.”

  “Don't be silly. Let's go look for him now. He might be down by the stream where we used to fish.”

  So the two girls set off down the road. The morning was cool, and dewdrops glittered on the grass. In the east, the sun slowly rising. Since it was Sunday, there was little traffic on the road.

  As they approached the stream by the side of the road, they saw something floating on it. Mei Ling's heart was pounding. Leaving Zalela, she ran ahead. When she reached the edge of the stream, she saw that it was Johan's body. He was covered with bruises and wounds. It seemed that he had been hit by a passing car and thrown into the pond. Mei Ling almost fainted.

  Later that morning Zalela helped her friend bury Johan at the back of Mei Ling's house. The girls planted a small bush near his head. Then Mei Ling knelt beside the grave and, in a trembling voice, murmured: “Rest peacefully, my love. This plant will always remind me of you. I'll water and care for it until it's big and healthy. Sleep well. I'll always look after your grave.”

  Zalela, who was kneeling beside her, was touched by her friend's words. Both girls were crying. Quietly they stood up and, hand in hand, turned and walked away.

  As they came around to the front of Mei Ling's house, they saw Zalela's mother enter the gate, carrying a small basket. At first Zalela was afraid that her mother would be angry at finding her at Mei Ling's. But the woman just walked up to the two girls and placed her hand on Mei Ling's shoulder, softly saying: “I'm sorry that your pet was killed. I know you loved him very much. But please understand why I couldn't allow Zalela to come here when you had your dog. I hope that you two will be able to continue your friendship now. And I although I know that nothing will ever replace your dog, I've brought you this to keep you company at home.”

  As the finished, Zalela's mother handed Mei Ling the basket. Looking inside, the girl saw a tiny white kitten, its eyes barely open. “Oh, what a beautiful kitty,” cried Mei Ling. Picking up the little ball of white fur and rubbing it against her cheek, she said: “I know Johan would never be jealous of you. I'm sure he'd be happy that I've found a new friend. You can help me take care of his little plant.” Her eyes brimming with tears, she turned to Zalela's mother. “Oh, thank you, thank you. I'll love my kitty as much as I loved Johan. And Zalela and I shall be the best of friends always and always.”

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