All Puerto Ricans are familiar with the legend of the dog of San Gerónimo (El perro de San Gerónimo). It has two main forms. The most common version talks about a Spanish soldier who’s stationed at San Gerónimo Fortress at the entrance to the San Juan Peninsula (it’s really an islet, but bear with me). One day he runs into a wounded dog, nurses him to health, and is later on followed by this animal wherever he goes. Eventually he receives orders to head for Cuba, or to fight a local insurrection; versions vary. He leaves the fortress. The dog swims out to a reef located next to the fortress, where he stands on a rock and peers into the ocean, looking for his master. The legend says that the soldier was killed in battle, or that his ship sank. The dog never moves from his position, and becomes petrified.
The second version says that a local Indian was running away from Spanish soldiers. When he ran into a nearby cave the Spaniards sent hunting dogs inside to find him. As the Indian was about to be devoured by a dog he asked his deity (Called Yuquiyú) for help. The angry god turns himself into flesh and petrifies the dog; the pursuing soldiers run away in panic.
Either way. There is a rock formation right outside the fortress that looks like a dog. So I was told as a child, and every time that I drive past the site I try to take a peek at this curiosity. Once I married Phyllis I taught her about the legend. Since our apartment is driving distance from San Juan, for 35 years I’ve only been able to point out the dog from afar.
There’s the dog.
“I see nothing,” she says.
There’s a dog there. Clear as daylight. Head sticking up in the air.
“No, there’s not. You were a child; you had to believe what they told you.”
Your eyes are just not good enough.
“You’re the one who has cataracts and needs reading glasses. There’s no dog.”
By then we have made a right turn from Dos Hermanos Bridge to Muñoz Rivera Avenue, and the dog is left behind.
One of the benefits of the apartment that we leased from our cousin is that it’s a few hundred meters from San Gerónimo Fortress, and therefore the dog. I get up at 6 in order to do my walking before it gets too hot. If I choose to walk around the Condado Lagoon, I have excellent views of the dog. Except this year, I had some trouble making it out. I figured that maybe Phyllis was right: my vision is not what it used to be. The dog had to be there. One day Phyllis woke up early to walk with me.
Today we’ll walk around the lagoon, so that you can see the dog close up.
As we neared the rock formation I had to force myself to believe that there was a dog there. But I knew that it had to be. Hadn’t it been there for hundreds of years?
There’s the dog.
I get the look.
“There’s no dog there.”
Can’t you see? There’s a little stump that comes off the base of the rock…
“That’s not a dog. No way.”
I throw my hands up in desperation with this woman who has no imagination, and can only see what she sees.
It’s a dog. There’s always been a dog there.
One of my cousins sponsors a weekly lunch for any family members who wish to show up. For many of us it’s the highlight of the week. The food is always great, and her apartment has a spectacular view of the lagoon, San Gerónimo Fortress, and the dog. Halfway through the main course I got to talking with one of my cousins.
I’m having trouble seeing the dog.
“There is no dog. A huge wave knocked its head out months ago. It’s gone.”
It takes me a minute to assimilate this.
Hasn’t anyone tried to find it?
“There was an article in one of the papers; said a cab driver had dived in there and come up with it. I haven’t seen the head.”
Please don’t tell Phyllis about this. She’s very fond of animals, and she had grown attached to this dog. Best if we tell her that it’s still there.
He nodded. I didn’t realize, however, that Phyllis was within earshot, and that she knows some Spanish. She headed over to where we were sitting.
“Are you talking about the petrified dog?”
Another cousin was coming out of the kitchen as she spoke.
“There’s no dog,” he said. “Big wave knocked his head off.”
I get the look again. A big one. I pretend to be busy eating chicken and drinking sangría.
“You lyin’ sack of ___,” she says. There’s this huge grin on her face; the one that she wears only when she has proof that she’s right and I’m wrong.
There was a dog there. For hundreds of years.
She pats me on the head, the same way that she would a puppy that needs comforting.
“Sure there was.” Another grin.
I start talking to my cousin again.
We have to bring the dog back. Ask a local sculptor to make us a new one, then somehow weld it to the rock. We can start a collection to pay for it…
People are slowly finishing their meals. They get up from the table, pretending that they have to take the dirty dishes to the kitchen right away. I’m being left alone.
No, really! It shouldn’t be that hard! A bigger dog so that everyone can see it from shore. It would be a great tourist attraction! Let’s do this!
The table empties. Everyone begins to say good-bye. I’m left alone with the unspeakably beautiful view of the lagoon and the ocean. And no dog.