before I went to school, so I was probably four or just turned five. We kept
livestock, and this was while I owned my own calf (you know, the calf of the
infamous hamburger story . . . ). Anyways, I felt very important as I fed
my calf and currycombed him. I often felt as if I was King of the Barn, and
while taking care of my calf would imitate my father, who truly WAS the King
of more than the barn. My father hated taking care of the livestock, and had
absolutely no natural tendencies toward animal husbandry. He would curse and
shout and become even more ill-tempered than usual. The last milk cow we owned
disappeared while the rest of the family was visiting my grandmother, and
my father was left at home to milk the uncooperative cow. Livestock became
absolutely obstinate in his presence. The only animal I ever saw my father
really become attached to was late in his life when he fell in love with a
cat who sat up in a doll high-chair and ate cheese from his hand . . . but
that is another story.
Although in my memories I self-importantly had the job of taking care of my own calf, in reality I could not at four have come anywhere near handling the heavy bales of straw and hay. I'm sure that my father is so often present in those memories because he was helping me do so as he took care of the other livestock. That's why on the day of my shame, I am not sure whether he was actually present. I certainly spent much of my time hiding from my father at other times in the barn, and the haymow, and even amidst the chicken coops, so I also could have been there by myself. Though, it was a lie, or rather my refusal to tell the truth, that caused me to feel the sting of knowing I was totally at fault and to blame for upsetting the at-best fragile equilibrium of our family life.
Now, I also remember, that the calf's name was: "Calf." We seemed to go for literal names-our succession of dogs were often named merely "Dog" or "Puppy" before they were slaughtered on the nearby highway. My father refused to have a dog that we didn't let run loose, as he considered it "unnatural," so the mortality rate was incredible. Cats had to do something really special to rate anything other than the name "Kitty" or "Momma Cat."
out of all these interchangeable pets did rate a name and the love of all
of the rest of us, with even my father feeling remorse when it too inevitably
met its death on the highway. This was our beagle named Jo-Jo. Jo-Jo
was a good-natured beagle who seemed to exemplify the best of the breed. Jo-Jo
must have also been smarter than most of our dogs, or maybe just less adventuresome,
because she managed to live longer than any other dog. I too was very attached
to Jo-Jo, and Jo-Jo was often my companion as I played solitarily in a field
somewhere or hidden underneath the cinder block foundation of our house.
On this day of the lie, I was literally swaggering with importance (even now I remember how it felt to be striding into the barn, ready to feed my OWN calf). I scooped up the feed and currycombed the calf. I went to get some hay, but as I was doing so, I saw Jo-Jo the beagle in one of the cow's mangers. I had often seen my Father chase Jo-Jo out of the manger, and I was incensed that the dog dared to be there while I was King of the Barn. As I had seen my father do, I picked up the pitchfork and stabbed at the dog.
Of course, when my father did this, he merely threatened the dog, and probably didn't even touch Jo-Jo with the pitchfork at all. I could barely handle the long handle of the pitchfork, but I jabbed the dog with as much energy as I could. I did this several times. The dog in the manger quite naturally turned around and bit me. Several times . . .
I don't remember any sympathy from my family about the dog bites, and given the good-naturedness history of the dog, very quickly I was unsympathetically interrogated as to what I had done to make the dog bite me. The blame was swift and immediate, and just as quickly it dawned on me that this had not been a smart move. I burrowed my head into my mother's lap and refused to talk, but even my mother was not reassuring. Talk began of rabies and the series of shots I would have to undergo. Even at four, I was petrified of rabies. According to my father, most every other stray animal we encountered on the farm had rabies, and you would surely die if you touched the animal, let alone let it bite you.
Equally upsetting was the news that now Jo-Jo would have to be confined in some small stifling hot and stinking old chicken coop to be watched for any sign of rabies. The Sheriff would even have to come, although I am foggy as to why this was so. My brother and sister lost no time in making sure I knew I was totally to blame for this complete injustice. My father countered with a screaming session every few hours where he threatened me with his belt if I didn't tell him what had happened.
This went on for several days, as I watched poor Jo-Jo miserably imprisoned and as my brother and sister ignored me even more than usual. I still refused to tell anyone what had happened.
I decided I was the scum of the earth. And I never lied again.
Written for and appeared inThe Courage of our Confusion