First-Place Winner in Bark's Short Story/Fiction Contest
The urge to offer Anya Graceen to Lemuel B. Garrett came upon Emma Roland Mystyshyn as powerfully as a lightning bolt the drizzly day Lem walked both woman and dog along the old canal. In the gray cold, he explained how the river had risen the second summer in which she and he had known each other in the second degree as friends of a mutual friend. At the edge of the again-rising river, when, to point, Lem let go of the hand she had slipped into his, Emma was overtaken with a raw and gnawing emptiness.
In an hour, she would head home from the city to the mountains, turning up the heat and turning down the music in her truck, following the river back to its source in an effort to return to the simple satisfactions of being a woman living with an easy dog. But when Lem took his hand away, Emma was aware too quickly, too clearly and much too keenly that she did not want to be without him. This realization and the urge to offer him Anya Graceen arrived within her simultaneously, viscerally, and with more force than any impulse she could remember in any of her sane years.
She bit her lip. What would even one day be without the warm scent and singular sound of breathing with which Anya G filled the shared space in which they lived and Emma worked? What would become of their familiar routine, of the ease with which woman and dog shared hours? Would Emma wake if Anya Graceen did not stare at her at dawn? Would noon pass unnoticed if Anya Graceen did not set her heavy jaw in Emma’s lap to request the mid-day walk? Could Emma rest at all without the nightly stroking and cooing that settled Anya G in her nest of blankets, without the comfort to them both of Emma’s tucking Anya’s little afghan around her thick brindle-bullish frame? And if Emma slept, would she wake in the night, alarmed not to hear Anya G snore?
Although Emma sought the aching knowledge that the absence of Anya Graceen could forge her a connection with the man Lemuel B. Garrett, what if he did not want Anya? What if he mistakenly assumed Emma did not love Anya fully but wanted to be relieved of her? What if Lem failed to see Emma’s offer of the dog as her first gesture toward something that might be called love? What if he would not share with Emma in this or any other way? What if—after giving away her Anya, after Lem understood and accepted Anya Graceen to be the living symbol of the profound and sustaining connection Emma so deeply desired to forge with him—what if then Emma herself again wanted no part of life with a man, even one as thoroughly good and sweet as this man?
So Emma Roland Mystyshyn swallowed the urge to put her palms to Lemuel B. Garrett’s clean-shaven cheeks and beseech him to let her give him, if only temporarily, the most precious gift of her dog. And as she worked to put down what rose in her that might form words offering Lem dog and endearment—while this desire, so suddenly and powerfully risen, also powerfully refused to be squelched—Emma became aware that the throb in her throat was not the stone of fear, but her heart, moved finally, then caught where it might choke her.
All this passed in her mind with blinding speed in the moment Lem’s unencumbered hand pointed above the muddy, roiling river. Of his part in this, Lem remained unaware. He brought the hand down and placed it in his pocket, effectively throwing Emma first into a brief state of relief that, reeling, she had not retched, and then into murk.
Though he had not actually acquired one, Lemuel B. Garrett had given deep and long thought to living with a dog. He had not given equal consideration to having a woman mucking around in his life, especially one so contextualized in full catastrophe and trailing a dog. Emma Roland Mystyshyn and the moon around her that was her sanguine Pit-Bullish bitch meteored into his orbit by accident, though he fleetingly pondered how much of their recent series of seemingly happenstance close encounters Emma herself may have, however haphazardly, arranged. Yet despite the whir of life’s chaotic, worn and sometimes partially dismantled machinery around her, Emma evoked in Lem the feeling created in most by white noise. Lem was not prepared to use the word serendipity, but there was in him sometimes a warm and not-quite-latent awareness of the potential for contentment, if not outright happiness, in their erratic trajectory. Lem smiled when he thought of Emma. They docked together briefly and irregularly, halting and jerking, and then they clanged apart, without either scheduling the next linkage. But increasingly, when he was with Emma, Lem noticed, he lingered.
“I’ve thought about getting a dog,” Lem said, petting Anya Graceen, who was positioning her butt beneath his hand. “I was thinking someday a Shiba Inu.” As he spoke, Lem looked at the velvet face and furrowed brow of Anya Graceen.
“Oh,” Emma responded to the back of Lem’s head. “A Shiba Inu.”
Emma found their differences magnetically compelling. How like Lem that he would want a dog of visibly distinguished breed, a compact independent sort, with a quick and prickly alertness he himself possessed but hid behind a closely considered and carefully managed countenance of comprehensive calm. She herself preferred and sought the sturdy not-exactly-identifiable mutt, the opportunistic and wide-ranging village dog on whom the natives might have poured their boiling water had it strayed into their unfenced yards so obviously and ardently in search of the next bit of sustenance and comfort. A village dog treated well stayed and quietly stood guard over what it recognized as its very good things, but a Shiba Inu was an escape artist, a wily screaming sprite of independent will whose need to be watchfully attended would wrap Lemuel B. Garrett into a man-dog duo tighter than the inner turn of its beautifully up-curved tail, a space in which there would be no room for Emma Mystyshyn or the motley gene pool of her thickly lovely and lazy Anya Graceen. And someday? Really, someday?
“Puppy or rescue?” Emma swallowed hard around rightnow and her lumpen heart.
“Adult,” said Lem. “Rescue. Like Miss Anya.”
It was something, so Emma breathed again.
And then Emma rifled the questions Lem might ask about Anya Graceen’s care, should she offer and he accept the gift of Anya’s shared time. What would his questions reveal? Although Emma craved knowing everything about Lem, even—perhaps especially—that of which he was not himself aware, Emma would take great care to anticipate and mitigate what, in answering, she might inadvertently reveal about herself. They were very un-alike, Emma and Lem, in ways she was convinced mattered. The man ate more and better meat in one day than she consumed in a week. Though she would not have been able clearly and succinctly to explain how, this, she felt, was a profound difference. What if he asked “Would a little bacon fat over Anya Graceen’s kibble be too rich for her digestion?” Emma could picture Anya Graceen’s rapturous wriggles as she anticipated such fat fragrant delicacy. But Emma needed practice answering. Despite ingrained habit, Emma would not allow herself to blurt that good drippings should not be wasted on a dog, because what Emma very much wanted to say to Lem was: “Dear man, you may do exactly as you please.”
To Emma, the man Lemuel B. Garrett was in his personal characteristics very like her beloved Anya Graceen. He hung back, observing, stepping forward into companionship quietly and on his terms. His pace was unique, irregular and—except for the moments in which he experienced powerful excitement—slow. He liked to be curled, covered and warm. He made direct, nonjudgmental eye contact. He was sweettempered but cautious. A very few things could in an instant set him snarling, but he backed off fast and seemed not to hold grudges. Rubbing roused him to generate a deeply rolling, guttural, subconscious hum. He snored some. And, like the dog, who generously gave dry little Pit Bull kisses and sometimes also tender, nibbled affections, he was superbly gentle with lips, tongue and teeth—and in the use of all these he was astonishingly and endearingly skilled.
And so, should Emma Roland Mystyshyn offer Lemuel B. Garrett even the short-term loan of her is-it-partly-Pit-Bull village dog Anya Graceen, Emma knew she would not—despite what his good nature might lead him to think—have at heart Lem’s best interests but her own. About this she tried to feel no guilt: from both observation and experience, Emma knew one took care of one’s own self best. But looking out well for one’s self did not necessarily obviate potential, practical or pleasurable good ends from sundry sharing, especially that of the most thoroughly intimate sort. Might not Emma’s best interests and Lem’s entwine? Emma watched Anya Graceen go loose-jointed with drunken-faced happiness as Lemuel stroked her. The dog moaned softly and then fell over in a post-petting stupor. In the unguarded moment between man and dog, Lem grinned, laughed out loud and bent still lower to rub the dog’s hot, pink belly with his open palm. Anyone who saw them would see, in that moment, man and dog were together supremely and thoroughly happy. Anya G’s doggy presence in Lemuel Garrett’s home might allow Emma ingratiating ingress to his life in a way she could hardly dare—or bear—the fullness of anticipating.
Intermittent walks, a little butt-rubbing. What they had was plenty good enough. But where, oh where, might it all lead? Dared Emma hope? Then again, why risk messing up what they already had? When it was over, when the familiar habits were mostly gone—however, wherever, they went—each might remember the way one would recall a film of someone else’s true or fictive life. Though now such things seemed gifts, some of their accumulating customs and routines would surely become annoyances each would rejoice in the loss of, though perhaps also simultaneously and differently grieve. And there would, for certain, be losses. There would most definitely be grief. There would, it was inevitable, be pain. Yes. Despite the restlessness that accompanies the breeding season, no matter what the news, the rabbit always died. But Lemuel stood, Emma said nothing and they walked together with the still-unbalanced Anya Graceen.
His pocket things settled on her table. His pants crumpled on her living room floor, from which, rising before him, she picked them up when Anya G was not nested in their folds. Though Lem set Emma’s bag near his bed, though it pleased him, comforted him, to see it there, the sight of her baggage startled them both, just as it was always a mild surprise to each to see Emma’s purse and keys near his door. He listened to her sing as she cooked, and they smelled each other in sheets and towels after they parted. Yet they had their days and weeks alone. They came and they went, entering and leaving, each accepting the unfathomable sorrows they had brought and might still bring on. What loss had they learned to live with, had perhaps come to love? Still, this once, this last time, why not allow some things, like joy, simply to be? Why not choose a shared way? If not now, when? Why not let all the rest work for, around, this contentment?
And so, when Lemuel B. Garrett turned toward her, Emma Roland Mystyshyn, like her dog Anya Graceen, positioned herself for possibility: Emma turned her face up to the rain and smiled at Lem. Lem raised an eyebrow and smiled at Emma. The dog Anya Graceen, observing the river, stood alongside. Whatever came next would be just fine.
Illustration by Camilla Engman