If Not Love

by | Apr 15, 2023 | Creative Nonfiction

IF NOT LOVE by Rachel M. Hanson

My dog walks over uneven ground, dark mud and massive roots—Appalachian woods—with ease. The sunlight would be too harsh on her pink skin beneath fine white fur, were it not for the thickness of North Carolina trees and thickets. I watch her and wonder what a past is to a dog. I know just bits of hers. There was a story in the way her bones had shown through her skin, the way her tail laid low, the way she shook in fear. I had not wanted to love her. Had resented my partner for insisting we meet with the man who fostered her, who brought her to us on a chain. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me judge him immediately. It wasn’t love that made me relent to taking her in—it was the nervousness around the men, the fear of them. And the way she calmed when I led her away, put some distance between them and us.

Blue trembled for days, shit the bed, tried to run away—lunging out the door to escape. I ran after her without the forethought to bring a leash. She lurched and so did I. We ran several streets beyond my own. Eventually, Blue gave up.  Not because she was tired or could not outrun me, but I think because she didn’t know where to go. She fell to the ground and rolled over, her legs stretched taut, bracing, somewhere between submission and nervousness. I picked her up and carried her home—thirty-three pounds of pit bull mutt, up from the twenty-eight she had been. Still ten pounds shy of where she ought to be.

My sister had been small, too. Too small—bad nutrition, bad everything. She used to wrap her tiny fingers into a fist around my pinky. I used to keep her in my bed, though she ought to have been in a crib. I was scared wandering hands might find her baby body the way they had found mine. And still, there were times I would pack a bag, intending to leave her, desperate for an escape. I’d open the window and slide the bag onto the roof before slipping through it myself, feeling the pull of the balmy night. Looking down at the ground, preparing for the jump, I’d whisper into the darkness a mantra: don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. Even as I found myself backing away from the roof’s edge, slipping back through the window, the stained blue carpet at my feet feeling like an immediate, gripping weight, don’t look, don’t look.

Of course, I did look. Kneeling next to the bed. I’d find myself brushing the brown curls from my sister’s face—small with a furrowed brow. It was as if she knew, even as she slept, that I was trying to leave her. Babies do know things. And babies need everything, babies need so fucking much, and my baby sister was no different. On the nights I almost escaped, it seemed her brow was more stern, though I’m sure I imagined it. My own punishment for wanting to leave behind this child who counted on me—who saved her trust and laughter for my little brothers and myself. We all loved her so, admired her so. The way she was determined to join in the boys’ roughhousing. Her toddler fists sought aim as our brothers wrestled about her. Her punches would land, and my brothers would stop fast and laugh, as our giggling sister held up her fists, daring any of the boys to come near.

That was decades past, back when I was sixteen. I shake off the memories because I learned long ago the dangers of sitting too long in the past. And yet, it still comes back, sometimes flashes, sometimes whole memories and events, some good—most bad. I look at my Blue Dog and wonder about her old life. I think it’s best for her to have forgotten. I hope she has forgotten, though I know memories have a way of living in the body no matter how hard we try to banish them. I had been a mother to children I did not bear in my past life. Like Blue, I’d been chased when I ran out the door—my hands bloodied from fighting back. I did not submit, had never been good at giving up. Any submission I’d ever made was just me buying time until I could escape. When I ran, the hands that grabbed my body were not gentle. I suspect Blue knows something of those kinds of hands.

Blue is a dog of course, so while our way of remembering and forgetting is different, there is enough sense in both of us to know who is safe, and who is not. Still, when Blue picked me as her person, I was confused. I sometimes declare to her dumb dog face that no one has ever loved me so much, and I’m not sure what to do with it all. Who is love for? Who deserves it? Who gets to have and keep it?

I eventually did leave my sister behind. Left my little brothers behind. That does something to a person. Or I guess I should say, it did something to me. Kate Chopin’s Edna said that she would give up her life for her children, but she would not give up herself. Henrik Ibsen’s Nora left her children behind pretty much for the same reason. Of course, they are fiction, and I am real. Djuna Barnes left her family behind too, unwilling to sacrifice herself further. She is less sympathetic of course, mostly because of her way of othering, and because, well, she too was real. What actual real human woman leaves children? Fathers, sure, but it’s rare of mothers. Barnes wasn’t a mother though, but a sister. I was the kind of sister that could not take the weight of my siblings on my back and have never, not once, forgiven myself for it.

The sun has lowered, and the trail is getting dark, and a man stands in its middle. Though he is some distance away, he has an imposing stance, taking up too much space, but what else is new? Blue is off leash, a few feet ahead. She stops hard, focused and still. I walk on and call her along. Instead of moving forward, she steps back, never taking her eyes off the man. My stomach turns as I watch her body stiffen by the second, her hair rising at the neck. I know to listen. We move quickly off the trail and into the brush, then deeper into the woods above. We walk quicker but soft. Blue never once leaves my side. We wait to drop back down on the trail until we are sure the man has moved on and far. Once our feet are back on maintained ground, we run all the way to the road. It occurs to me that Blue could have run much faster, taken off for safety had I not been with her. And I might have tried to make myself bigger, put her on the leash and forced her to walk by this man, who clearly terrified her—but I didn’t. And what is that, if not love?

Photo by Becky Stern, used and adapted under CC.

About The Author


Rachel M. Hanson lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina. Her work can be found in Creative Nonfiction, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, North American Review, Best New Poets, The Minnesota Review, Juked, and elsewhere. A recipient of the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship in Nonfiction at Colgate University, Rachel holds a PhD from the University of Missouri and is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina Asheville.