by Grace Yannotta
The dog sits in the corner of the room. She looks like one of those pharaoh dogs, Suze thinks, the lithe golden body, the sharp ears, the keen dark eyes. The ones that line the tombs of the olden kings. The protectors. She knows she’s not supposed to stare, the poor thing is already trembling, but Suze can’t take her eyes off her. It’s the saddest boldest sight she’s ever seen.
Yara, the coordinator, is still talking. She hadn’t even noticed Suze drifted off, thankfully. Suze likes to think of herself as one of those newer-wave, semi-corporate feminists, a single mom nearing fifty with a wildly indifferent, frighteningly independent teenage daughter, and she knows she’s not supposed to judge other women. She’s supposed to defend other women. But eighty percent of the members of this foster organization are women, the same eighty percent are so terrifyingly catty that unless it involves dogs in-the-flesh, Suze, prefers to keep to herself.
“…I know it’s stupid, but I promised my son he could name the next dog that came in because his older sister named Fox- you know, the pinscher mix that just got adopted by the Brams…”
Yara continues in her dry voice, eyes rolling nearly into the back of her head. Suze sighs from her position on the loveseat. She can’t remember the last time she fit a word in. She feels the eyes of the little dog locked on her. A stranger in a strange home.
“So, anyways, he named her Bow.”
Yara shrugs again.
“After a singer he likes or something. I don’t really remember. But Jen-”
Suze loves how Yara throws out the names of other members of the organization like she’s supposed to know them. She’s a naturally introverted woman, she works a lot, she hates going out at night and sometimes she forgets to get her roots done until the gray has nearly taken over completely. Apparently, that’s a recipe for isolation.
“-thinks the name is marketable, so Bow it is.”
Suze scoots slowly, carefully to the edge of the couch without leaving it. Bow nudges her bones even tighter into the corner of the living room. “Hi, sweet girl.” Suze tries again. Bow shakes. Suze breaks eye contact.
Yara winds herself down from the conversation, leaves Bow’s food and small doses of Prozac. The transfer of fosters is usually a semi-painful event, due to either rising aggressions or a too-tight-attachment to the non-permanent families, but Yara seems to be relieved to have Bow out of her hands. Suze can tell already that Bow’s not a warm and snuggly dog and she must have been terrorized by Yara’s young children, yelling and screaming in the natural juvenile way. She needs a quiet home. An easy one. Like Suze’s.
The door shuts behind Yara and Bow jumps. It wasn’t a slam, but Yara made no attempt to make the sound any quieter than it would be naturally. Suze’s daughter Britt pads in from the kitchen, done with her algebra- which she had finished hours before but used as an excuse not to be in the vicinity when “The Agency,” as she calls it with a fake menacing voice, came with its delivery.
“God, Yara’s a nightm-” Britt starts, and like Yara, it’s not her fault. Her voice is naturally buoyant, and despite years of trying to get her to keep her voice down, Britt either can’t or refuses. Bow skitters out of the room, into the kitchen Britt, just abandoned.
Suze sighs, pursing her lips at her daughter. “Really?”
“You’ve got to learn to keep your voice down.”
“How was I supposed to know that…” Mother, 49, and daughter, 18, dissolve into bickers, as mothers and daughters often do, that results in Britt flopping next to her mother on the couch with crossed arms and a fragile vow to maybe work on volume control. They watch the nightly news. Bow peeks her head into the room before sprinting out the moment she realizes Britt noticed.
“She’s a pretty dog, isn’t she?” Britt comments, knitting her brows at the spot that Bow abandoned. This is far from the first dog they’ve fostered in this household, and she certainly won’t be the last. It’s always fun to have a new recruit in their home but after twelve years, it’s not a big deal anymore.
Well, at least, not to Britt. It’s always a big deal to Suze.
Britt retreats to bed half an hour later and Suze shuts off the television, picking up her book from the side table and crossing her legs under her. It’s a self-help-comedy-women-in-business hybrid and it’s not great, but it keeps her mind distracted for a bit. She gets a solid three chapters in before something tells her to blink up.
Bow. On the ottoman. Staring at her with wide, almost black eyes. Five feet away.
Suze doesn’t move.
Bow doesn’t move.
“Hi,” She tries again, as soft as she can muster.
Bow doesn’t move.
Suze takes that as a victory, albeit a small one.
Britt went through a Greek mythology phase about six years ago and all of a sudden, their tiny family was entrenched in books and movies and anecdotes shared over the dinner table. Suze wasn’t all that interested in it, but she loved the look Britt got in her grey eyes when she was fascinated by something. She’d do anything to keep it there. She’s reminded, now, of a story, Britt once told her. She can’t remember the explicit details, but a god visited a pair of humble merchants disguised as a beggar, asking for a meal. The merchants, not poor but not rich either, welcomed the sad man into their household for dinner and a warm place to sleep. After a night or two of hospitality, he revealed himself, in true godly form, and blessed the merchant family for years to come in thanks for their welcome.
Suze is reminded of that, as Bow blinks at her. A poor little beggar dog.
Suze cracks a smile. Bow runs away.
The next night, after Britt goes to sleep, Suze retreats into her book again. Their family is contingent on their habits. And, after another three chapters Suze softly sets her book down on her lap.
Two nights later, Bow doesn’t run when Suze smiles at her. But the slightest movement on Suze’s part sets her off.
Suffice to say, a week in, Britt and Bow aren’t taking to each other. Britt has a petite frame, but somehow, she walks heavily, a sixty-year-old man in a teenage body. She tries to regulate her tone and Suze appreciates it, but a bellow is still released every so often. Suze has yet to address the fact of her daughter’s disjointed, jerky movements in standing up and flopping down, but one step at a time. Bow is never in the room when Britt is.
But every night, Bow, perches on the ottoman and watches Suze read. Suze finishes the self-help-comedy-women-in-business book and starts a self-care-comedy-women-in-business book. One night Suze puts her book down and scoots her foot just an inch closer to Bow. Bow doesn’t move, watches it warily. Suze moves it an inch more. Bow bolts. She takes that as a victory.
Two and a half weeks in, Suze looks up, and Bow is on the other side of the couch, pressed against the arm, as far away as she can get.
But she’s on the couch. Suze beams into her book.
Britt’s kind to the dog, as she is to all dogs, but she knows that her daughter isn’t really fond of Bow, simply because Bow isn’t fond of her. Suze and her daughter have always been very similar, but there is one distinction that has always divided them: Britt cares what everyone thinks of her, even the pathetic junkyard dog they’re fostering for the next three months. Suze couldn’t care less.
A month and a half later, Suze’s reading is interrupted by a cold tap on her hand. She looks up. Bow nudges Suze’s hand with her black nose. Suze looks up, an unabashed smile spreading across her face. Bow keeps her gaze locked on Suze before bolting again.
Bow allows a pet, a singular pet, two months after their first introduction. She comes into the dining room during dinner now. She won’t accept food from Britt, but she’ll sniff it and even through all of Britt’s aggravation Suze can see a ghost of a smile on her daughter’s face.
Suze wakes up one lazy Saturday morning, and Bow is blinking at her with those wide eyes at the foot of her bed. Like those marble pharaoh dogs, Suze thinks again. She wonders what Bow is guarding.
Three and a half months since the first day Suze met Bow, she receives a text from Yara. When can she come over? She’d like to discuss Bow.
Suze is aware she’s neurotic. She likes her clothes folded a specific way, and she likes to watch television in a specific room, and she’s repentantly anxious, but she feels something rotten inside about this whole thing, more apprehension than she usually feels at Yara’s presence.
“Yara’s coming next Sunday afternoon,” Suze dries the dishes after Britt washes them. Her daughter makes a vague, annoyed sound at the thought of the interaction.
“She’s the worst.”
“Don’t whine.” She pauses. Bow’s footsteps have gotten heavier since she’s arrived here. Now Suze knows whenever the dog enters a room- her little paws clatter on the hardwood softly. “Something about Bow.”
“I know.” Britt doesn’t like Bow but she hates Yara, so Suze is certain of where her daughter’s loyalties lie.
Seven nights and approximately five pets across Bow’s soft back and Sunday arrives. Suze does her hair in the bathroom mirror. Bow watches her. Suze watches Bow watch her out of the corner of her eye. They don’t need to talk.
“Have you seen Bow?” Suze snaps and her voice remains hushed for Bow’s sake, but her voice is heating up. “Do you really think you could see her at a Petco? She would have a nervous breakdown.”
“I’m not arguing with you,” Yara replies. She works in Customer Service, and she has that condescending timbre that peeks out at any sign of conflict. “She can’t go to any events. I’ve seen her—she lived with me for three weeks, Suze. She’s un-adoptable.”
Suze thinks of herself as a rather composed person, but her lips squeeze together into a tight line. What kind of word is that? “…Okay?”
“It’s been three months, Suze.” Yara says, and suddenly she sounds exhausted. Almost wary. Suze realizes that Yara can’t look her in the eyes. Britt’s propped against the counter, watching from the kitchen, unconvincingly pretending to get a snack. Her brows are knit. She’s trying to put it together too. “We have protocol. She can’t stay in the system forever- we are backlogged with dogs Suze, and I know it’s hard to hear, but there’s not many options from here. If we can’t figure out what to do—if we can’t find an adopter as soon as possible we’re going to have to put Bow down.” Yara’s voice fades into the background.
Bow’s standing in the entryway, golden and regal, her fur shining in a spot of afternoon light from the window. Something tells Suze that she can understand every single thing that’s going on. Maybe Suze is looking into it too much, but Bow doesn’t look scared.
She is resigned and it breaks her heart.
Bow will never be a cozy, play-catch-in-the-backyard kind of dog. Suze will never be the ideal woman—her ex-husband leaving her, and their daughter thirteen years ago made her feel as if that was absolutely certain. But every glimpse of affection, every nudge from Bow is rewarding. Bow understands the reluctant, quiet companionship that Suze needs. Suze provides the careful, hushed respect that Bow has never gotten before.
Britt probably doesn’t want to keep Bow, but Britt is leaving for college in five months, and Suze has spent eighteen years doing everything for her daughter, spending every extra penny, letting her clog up the DVR with her crappy television and fog up their conversations with schoolyard gossip. Suze does it happily.
But in five months, Britt will be gone. Suze will be alone. And at this rate, Bow will be dead.
Suze interrupts Yara in a rush. “We’ll take her.”
Suze catches her daughter’s attention from the kitchen. She’s confused, but she’s smiling still.
“We’ll adopt Bow.”
Yara pauses, glancing between the rascally dog lingering in the entryway and the woman in front of her. “Okay, well… Great. I’ll just get the papers from Jen and…” Yara’s voice is white noise in her ears.
Bow sits in the spot of window light. Her nose twitches. She understands.
Bow is not her name, it is Bau. It was close, though, to what she whispered in the ears of the little boy who gave her this particular appellation. She could not expect him to get it completely right. English is a harsh language. Strict. Closed-mouth. He was small.
Then again, in this iteration, she is small too. Like him, her thoughts are not exaggeratedly complex. But they are there. She feels.
Bau has come close to death countless times, just in this form. She was shot in the stomach by a bunch of small, gargoyle boys with fake guns. The bullets were plastic, but she was in pain for weeks after. She was kicked at, she lived in the snow, she had her pups torn away from her, she starved, she pined, she killed. It is the life she leads.
Here, sitting on the blue bedspread, she is safe. She is healing.
Bau has always been good at healing. But it has been a long time since she could bestow that gift upon others.
Bau watches the woman’s chest rise and fall, Bau will heal her. She will heal her foul-mouthed daughter too, eventually.
She curls into a ball at the woman’s feet. Bau was close to dying today. But she did not die today, nor will she die tomorrow, nor the day after.
Bau will protect instead.
Bau, Bow, it is all pronounced the same way.
Grace Yannotta is a seventeen-year-old high school student based in North Carolina.
Artist: John Truck