Mountain Dog

Margarita Engle; illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov

Henry Holt and Co.


In my other life there were pit bulls.
The puppies weren’t born vicious,
but Mom taught them how to bite,
turning meanness into money,
until she got caught.
Now I don’t know where I’ll live,
or what sort of foster family
I’ll have to face each morning.
I dread the thought of a new school,
new friends, no friends, no hope.…
No! No no no no no.
But the social-worker lady doesn’t listen
to NO. She’s like a curious puppy, running,
exploring, refusing to accept collars and fences.
She keeps promising to find a relative who will
give me a place where I can belong.
I don’t believe her.
There aren’t any relatives—
not any that I’ve ever met.
I know I’m right, but family court
makes me feel dumb, with judges
and uniforms
wrapped up in rules.
It’s a world made for grown-ups,
not unlucky kids.
Even the angriest pit bulls
are friendlier than my future.
Everyone talks about dog years,
but all I can see now is minutes.
Each impossibly long dog minute
with the frowning judge
and cheerful social worker
feels like it could go on and on
Mom’s cruelty to animals
was her fault, not mine, but now
I’m the one suffering, as if her crimes
are being blamed on me.
When the social worker keeps smiling,
I find it hard to believe she’s actually found
a relative, a great-uncle, Tío Leonilo.
What a stupid name!
Maybe I can call him Leo the Lion,
or just tío, just uncle, as if I actually
know my mother’s first language,
the Spanish she left behind
when she floated away
from her native island
with me in her mean belly.
The social worker promises me
that although Tío is old—nearly fifty—
he’s cool.
He lives on a mountain, rescues lost hikers,
guides nature walks, and takes care
of trees. He’s a forest ranger.
She might as well say he’s a magician
or a genie who lives in a bottle.
I’ve spent all my life in the city.
All I know is Los Angeles noise, smog,
buses, traffic, and the gangs, and my mom,
the dogs, fangs, blood, claws.
Nothing makes sense.
Why would a cool uncle want to share
his long-lost relative’s kid-trouble?
This can’t be real.
Real life should feel real,
but this feels all weird and scary,
like a movie with zombies or aliens.
When a man in a forest green uniform
walks into the courtroom, he hugs me
and calls me Tonio, even though Mom
never called me anything but Tony
or Hey You or Toe Knee.…
Out in the hall, Tío shows me a photo
of a dog, a chocolate Lab—goofy grin,
silly drool—not a fighting dog,
just a friendly dog, eager, a pal.
Tío walks me out of that crazy
scary courthouse, into a parking lot
where the happy dog is waiting
in a forest green truck.
I have to meet Gabe’s welcoming
doggie eyes and sniffy nose,
even though I’m not ready to meet
nice dogs, cool uncles, or anyone else.
Well, maybe just one sniff is okay.
When I pat Gabe on his soft, furry head,
he gives my hand a few trusting,
slobbery licks.

copyright © 2013 by Margarita Engle