Loss is a dog gnashing its teeth, straining the chain looped around the oak. He arrives on a Tuesday after our big brother’s long hair catches in the pool filter, winding and unwinding him for hours while we were at T-ball.
We call the dog Sit Boy—no, God, maybe Robby.
Mama says: you cannot name a thing that doesn’t belong to you.
But he is ours—of this we are sure. We do not mind bared teeth or the hooked warning of his tail. Or that he shakes the hens, snapping their necks. Fat feathered purses litter our yard.
He watches us pinch our noses and baptize each other in the algaed pool, dunking, then spitting arches. Our mouths taste of scum and dirt. Even so, we wail when Mama drains the pool and buzzes our scalps.
The chain wears the bark bare until a blonde corset forms at the tree’s middle and urine burns the grass tawny. All night he brays. Mama heaves her foot into his ribs.
The drag of his teeth etches channels along her kneecap. She retreats, bandages her leg, pretends she is unable to recall what she has lost.
Eventually the dog’s neck grows around the collar, swallowing purple nylon as Mama spills coffee on Father Fred and stumbles around the kitchen in our brother’s size-thirteen Nikes.
At night she whispers hello? to empty rooms, hoping for a ghost among ghosts. We pretend we don’t hear her, go still in our bunks, but it’s a routine that becomes as regular as nightly prayer.
When the dog displays his pink belly each time we enter the yard, howls when we leave him, Mama ushers him through the back door. She unbuckles and tugs at the blood-soiled collar, cleans his wound. We’re supposed to be asleep, but we place our feet in all the creakless spots along the hallway. We watch from the top step of the stairs, holding our breath. But Mama doesn’t see us.
She fills a metal bowl with peppered butter noodles—brother’s favorite. They sit together while he eats, until she’s told him of brother. Tells the story of how he drilled holes into pennies to make them into buttons, how he used to talk to the people in the television; she says that his eyes were as dark as figs. When the dog finishes, he licks at the wound where his teeth raked Mama’s kneecap. She kneads his ears, milking them like udders.
Curled around the dog on the kitchen floor she thumbs the blaze of fur between his eyes and slips her neck into his mouth. As simple as tucking a letter into an envelope. Her request takes shape in a sigh, in a curse for her God. When the dog’s teeth press into her skin, red buds erupt, spilling to the floor—she does not flinch.
Jennifer Popa is a Ph.D. student of English at Texas Tech University, where she teaches creative writing and literature and serves as managing editor at Iron Horse Literary Review. Though she originally hails from Michigan, she found her way to West Texas by way of Seattle, Fairbanks, Austin, and Hiroshima. Some of Jennifer’s most recent writing can be found in Colorado Review, Grist, Watershed Review, The Boiler, decomP, and Atticus Review. She can be found at www.jenniferpopa.com.