Junior wakes Esch up the next morning by shaking her and asking if she’s planning on attending the fight. He is only allowed to go, he says, if she goes. He also tells her that Randall and Skeetah are arguing—Randall insists that Skeetah shouldn’t be taking China to the fight, regardless of whether or not she’s going to participate. Randall is angry, Junior says, that Skeetah keeps “ruining things,” like his basketball game and his chance at attending camp. Esch ignores Junior’s updates, willing herself back to sleep.
Esch is exhausted, both physically and mentally. Her brothers’ arguments, obsessions, and problems are too much for her to bear—and now, as the big fight looms before her, she finds herself unwilling to even get up and engage in the chaos all around her.
Esch reads her mythology book in bed, but keeps stopping in the middle of the Medea story. She is confused by the author’s note about different versions of the tale; one in which Medea allows her lover to kill her brother, and one in which Medea herself kills him. As she reads under the covers, she feels that Medea is under there with her, sweating up the bed.
Out in the hallway, Junior is sitting on the floor outside of Esch’s door. He lets her know that Randall has fixed Daddy’s breakfast, and that Daddy, after spending some time hollering about the approaching hurricane, has fallen back asleep. Esch walks into her father’s room and finds him asleep, beer cans on his night table. She walks back out and closes the door, and Junior begs her to go to the fight so that he can attend, too. Esch at last agrees.
Though Esch is unwilling to deal with her brothers’ drama—both due to her exhaustion and her fear of what terrors could befall them all—she knows that Junior just wants to be a part of things, and reluctantly agrees to be the bridge between him and his older brothers’ antics.
Esch sits on the toilet and watches out the window as Skeetah gives China a bath. As Skeetah washes her with dish soap so that she gleams, Randall approaches him and tells him, again, that he shouldn’t be taking China to the fight. Randall is upset about his basketball game and the way Skeetah interrupted it by fighting. Skeetah defends his choice to fight with Rico, and insists that Randall doesn’t have to come to the fight; it has nothing to do with him. Randall insists on going, though—he reminds Skeetah of his promise to pay for camp if the puppies sell. As Randall walks away, Skeetah pets and admires China, who is gleaming “cocaine white.”
Though Skeetah and Randall have serious things to discuss, Skeetah seems to really be concerned only with making China gleam. He shines her up “cocaine white”—a blinding white that represents both illicit danger and intense purity, the only truly clean thing on the whole Pit—in order to demonstrate both his control over her and her own innate beauty.
Esch, Skeetah, Randall, Junior, and China head through the woods towards the clearing where the fight is to be held. Though the forest is quiet, Esch thinks she can hear, in the blowing of the wind, the approach of Katrina “coming like the quiet voice of someone talking before they walk through the doorway of a room.” Esch’s stomach feels full of water, but she does not say anything to her brothers; she thinks of Medea’s journey, which took her to the water, where death was close at hand.
As Esch walks into the ring where the dog fight is to be held—one of the novel’s most tense, loaded moments—she feels, for the first time, all three of her “mother” figures surrounding her. China, Katrina, and Medea all represent both power and destruction, and as Esch enters into a place marked by violence and death, she is both fearful and emboldened.
In the clearing, about fifteen boys and their dogs stand in clumps, talking and smoking weed and cigarettes. Esch realizes that she is the only girl present. Junior runs off to play with Marquise’s little brother, while Esch looks at the many dogs—all different, but none as beautiful or as white as China. Esch knows all the boys gathered here are hopeful for a win—to be able to return home from the woods, “their own dangerous Aegean Sea, to be able to say My bitch did it.”
Once again, Esch is the only female in a male-dominated space—this one is considerably more hostile than the Pit, however, and the boys around her have a clear desire both to own the female objects at their disposal—their dogs—and simultaneously glorify and demean them.
Marquise introduces Esch and her brothers to his cousin Jerome, whose dog Boss will be fighting for China. Boss is enormous, fat and tall with bowed legs. Marquise pets his own dog—a yellow pit named Lala whom he never fights. Across the clearing, Esch and her brothers make out Kilo, straining against the leash Rico holds as he digs excitedly in the dirt. Jerome looks at Kilo, and assures the others Boss will be able to beat him; Boss has fought “from Baton Rouge to Pensacola” and has won a great deal of fights. As Esch looks to Skeetah and China, who sits calmly at his side, she realizes that no one else present loves their dog the way Skeetah loves China.
At the heart of all of this hypermasculine posturing and attempts at wresting control, dominance, and authority from one another are actual animals—actual, natural beings. The boys in Bois Sauvage fight their dogs for sport and profit, and the relationships between dogs and owners are always volatile. Esch realizes in this passage that only, it seems, in the case of China and Skeetah is there true love and respect—to all the other boys, their dogs are just pawns for them to try to control.
The boys leave their dogs with their friends and form a circle in the middle of the clearing to discuss the order and terms of the fights. As they argue and bicker, Esch notices the rising wind, and wonders whether Katrina is actually coming for them after all. She feels like Medea, standing “womanly ripe” on the deck of a ship, preparing to bless her heroes before they go into battle.
The various “mother” figures throughout the novel are comingling in this scene as Esch feels the presence both of the storm and of Medea—the force of nature itself, and the woman determined to conquer it—and must decide which one she is.
After the boys finish talking, Skeetah takes China’s leash back and she stands still at his side. Esch notices that while some of the other dogs sniff at one another and play, none of them approach China; she has developed a fierce reputation, and none of them will dare test her. As the first few fights unfold, Skeetah and China watch calmly. China licks Skeetah’s fingers and never once gets riled up despite the commotion all around her.
China has been depicted as exceptional and strange through her magical, gleaming, all-white coloring throughout the whole novel. Now, though, in the midst of the other dogs, it becomes clear that China’s appearance is not what sets her apart. Her reputation is such a vicious one that no one will even go near her; this adds another layer to the contrast between her sweet demeanor and violent killer instincts.
At last, it is time for Boss and Kilo to fight—the fight that will determine whether Rico gets to take the puppy of his choice from Skeetah for free. Rico and Jerome take a minute to pet and whisper to their dogs, and then sic them on one another. The dogs tussle and bite at one another, drawing blood. After the first round, there is no definitive winner; after wiping their dogs down, Jerome and Rico send their dogs into the ring once more. As they continue fighting, it becomes clear that the dogs are too well-matched; neither will fold or give. Skeetah urges Jerome to call the fight, and he does; both Jerome and Rico call their dogs off and drag them out of the pit.
The two dogs’ energies are evenly matched, and it quickly becomes clear that the fight between them is going nowhere. Rather than allow their dogs to fight to the death, Rico and Jerome pull their dogs out. Even in this vicious world there is room, it seems, not just for reason but for compassion—or at the very least, pure self-preservation.
Rico insists that Kilo won the fight, but no one else supports his claim. Everybody can see that the dogs’ fight ended in a draw. Rico is insistent on getting his puppy, but Randall insists that the night has ended in a tie. As Rico threatens Skeetah, Randall steps in between the two boys, telling them to stop fighting; there is no way, he says, to decide the quarrel between them. Skeetah, with an impish smile, says that there is one way; he unhooks China’s leash from her collar, and she smiles, too.
As tensions escalate and things get hairy—more dangerous even than at the basketball game—Skeetah makes a quick, dangerous decision. His and China’s twinned excitement about her stepping into the ring again shows the underlying propensity for violence (and the need for survival at any cost) that they both share.
Randall excoriates Skeetah for wanting to fight China and begs him to think of China’s puppies, who need their mother. Skeetah shrugs Randall off, though, and leads China away so that he can “talk” to her. Junior comes over to Randall and Esch and asks if China is really going to fight; they instruct him to go play in the woods, and to stay away until the fight is done. Across the clearing, Esch spots Manny, who looks at her concernedly. She avoids his gaze, imagines herself tall as Medea and dressed in resplendent robes, and walks over to Skeetah. As she approaches him she can see that he is hiding a razor in his mouth. He talks to China in a low, breathy voice, pumping her up and telling her to “make them know” what she can do.
Skeetah is forced to make a terrible decision: he knows that to declare a draw would be to lose the puppies, but that to fight China—to risk her own life—might be his only chance to retain his hold on the puppies and the money they promise. Skeetah clearly has faith in China’s ability, though, to “make [the others] know” what she is made of, and prove that motherhood has indeed strengthened rather than weakened her.
The fight begins; Skeetah has removed China’s leash and collar, and as soon as he tells her to “go,” she shoots across the clearing towards Kilo and sinks her teeth into his neck. She rips fur and draws blood, but Kilo bites her leg and shakes it—a weak and easy move, Esch thinks. China retaliates, and her bite is so bad that Rico calls a time-out. As soon as Skeetah calls China’s name, she turns around and smiles at him “as if to say I am coming, love, I am here.”
Though everyone has predicted that China will be frail, if not outright weak, during a fight, she enters the ring enthusiastically and with both violence and vigor. At the same time, Esch observes a tenderness within the dog that speaks to the softness and capacity for love within her despite her fearsome exterior.
Rico and Skeetah tend to their dogs. Esch watches across the clearing as Manny whispers to Rico that China “ain’t shit, ain’t got no heart.” After a brief reprieve, the fight begins again, and the dogs bite at one another; Kilo tears at one of China’s milk-swollen breasts and shakes, refusing to let go. Skeetah yells for China to “jump,” and she uses her feet to push away from Kilo—her nipple is torn away. Skeetah, seeing the carnage, calls another time out.
Manny has doubted China for a long time now; just as he expressed his doubts about her strength back in Skeetah’s shed, he attempts to discredit her “heart” now. Manny’s gendered denigration of China’s strength and verve reveals how prejudiced and sexist he is, not just when it comes to human women but to females of all kinds. In a mirror of Manny’s sexism, Kilo tears away one of China’s teats—a symbol of her femininity—in a low, cruel attempt to wound her where she is both most vulnerable and most valuable.
As Skeetah tends to China, Rico taunts him from across the ring, stating that he doesn’t want the white puppy after all—he wants one with “more Kilo in it.” Randall begs Skeetah to stop the fight, but Skeetah insists China hasn’t lost yet—he puts her into the ring one more time. As the dogs meet for a third time, Esch thinks that the way they attack one another looks like an “embrace.” Skeetah calls for China to “make them know” over and over again as China viciously attacks Kilo, shutting her jaws around his neck. She tears out part of Kilo’s throat, and Rico begs for the fight to stop. As Kilo keens and cries, China returns to Skeetah. Esch spots Manny across the ring, looking at her, Skeetah, and China with hate in his eyes.
Just like earlier in the novel, a character mistakes femininity for weakness, not realizing how wrong he is. Though it seems as if China is slated to lose as she enters the third round, it is her very femininity which wins her the fight. The appearance of her delicate “embrace” is in fact deadly, and as the fight comes to an end, China assures not only her own survival—but that of her puppies, and indeed, in a way, of her owner.