Illustration by Phong Nguyen
Editor’s note: This short story was written by one of the teachers who participated in last summer’s T3 Academy program (for Teaching the Teachers) run by the Podium Foundation. It was one of two selected for publication by Richmond magazine. See the other story, “Some Family Matters,” in our January issue.
By Sylvia Evans
A few years ago, when I was a young person and lived in my mama’s and daddy’s house, it all happened. I guess I was about 5 years old when that incident occurred. Sometimes things occur that youth just do not understand or even want to comprehend.
My parents lived on a country-type place. Chickens had free rein and many visitors became acquainted with their territory when venturing without awareness into the backyard. The garden resembled Adam and Eve’s home — apple, pear and peach trees were natural borders between my parent’s 3 1/2 acres and the neighbors’ property. An excess of various veggies ripe for picking or shucking grew throughout the summer. Sometimes, a relative’s cow escaped his personal form of bondage and would stampede after whomever was ambulatory and then be captured in the garden. We owned a horse too, but this story ain’t about him. This story is about Barney.
Who the heck is Barney? Barney was our pet pig. He was just like having a bigger dog than the other nine canines we already owned. When my dad first brought Barney home, we pulled ourselves away from viewing our favorite television sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show. We espied the pig momentarily and immediately fell into a family meeting to decide upon his name. We took great deliberations, a whole 2 1/2 minutes, to arrive at an agreement. We felt that if Fern could have her Wilbur, we could have our Barney.
We went a little further than that, too. One of my brothers liked to draw pictures and design interesting captions to them, so he was elected to carve letters on the wooden slats to Barney’s pen. We were pleased with his job — every letter was legible and even, sort of similar to writing on a teacher’s chalkboard.
We spent a lot of time engaged at Barney’s pen. We admired him, talked about him, talked to him and believed heartily that he understood every word we said. There’s always someone who doesn’t follow the decided plan, but eight out of nine of us kids occupied part of Barney’s time. We rubbed his back and his sides. We touched his forehead, but not too close to his snout because we did not want to get any surprises. Water was slowly poured from a bucket onto his back and Barney shook slightly like an engorged pooch to demonstrate that he enjoyed our actions.
But the main thing that we did that brought us the most pleasure was plaiting Barney’s tail. Oh, that was big fun and I don’t know which was “funner,” the plaiting or the waiting to plait. We would plait his tail up, then let it loose; plait it again, then take it down again. All eight of us took turns. Then we noticed that his tail needed more attitude, so we wet it, twisted it and rolled it up with pink sponge hair curlers. I don’t know if Barney liked our private times with him or not, but he never complained. He never grunted, groaned or tried to get out of his pen or away from us. Yet one time when we were massaging his sides, he expelled a “brissssssh.” We guessed that was the best resistance he could offer.
These actions went on for a couple of years and everyone, including Barney, seemed happy. Life was good for us all — fresh air, spacious living, good food and good slops. At least, that is how it seemed to us kids. However, the adults, who were survivors of the Great Depression and denied educational opportunities, were adept at stretching the American dollar.
We were not privy to the ways of adults, for they kept us uninformed about their doings. Once, our Dad pulled up into the front yard driving a 1966 baby blue Plymouth. His actions were like front-page news to us, akin to the Easter Bunny’s arrival and an early Christmas combined. Unbeknownst to us, many years of saving, budgeting and family denials had gone into that purchase.
Likewise, on Friday nights, the grownups definitely had an agenda. We knew some of our parents’ friends would arrive at our home, but we didn’t know exactly which ones. Upon their arrival or shortly thereafter, we would hear these words: “Children should be seen but not heard,” or “Come, show your manners, but return to your place,” or simply, “Excuse yourselves.” They had their own club, which translated into, “It’s adult time and no kids allowed.” Ultimately, this end-of-the week time involved spirited conversations mixed with recurrent splashes of Old Grand-Dad.
Conversely, one man’s company was never among these invitations. His whole nature appeared to collide with wholesomeness, cleanness and righteousness. Mysteriously, on one particular morning, Dad brought this man, Mr. Derby, to the rear of our home. Mr. Derby was one of those buffalo hunter-looking men, not to be confused with honorable Buffalo Soldiers. When Mr. Derby passed by, people itched. Most kept their distance, took a deep breath and held it until he was out of reach. His notorious reputation credited him with knifing a man to his demise and squirreling away unpunished. Decent folk kept their wits about them when Mr. Derby was around, but only half-heartedly warned their children about his demeanor.
His presence on the property seemed completely odd. Somehow, our parents handled him much the same way as they had the Plymouth, in undisclosed fashion. He was never asked to come inside our home, but was addressed with meticulous politeness outside, away from the mainstream activity in the yard. None of us had actually been within close proximity to Mr. Derby, and I think that was by our parents’ design. However, the rumors about him had reached our tender ears. Even our mother could be heard greeting him from the safety of a sheltered and bolted porch door. He and his capricious deeds were well known in the community of relatives, of which he was not a part, yet our naiveté temporarily shielded us from full awareness of his capabilities.
Ultimately, Mr. Derby walked hungrily past the side flower garden, beyond the veggies and in back of the cornstalks. From the kitchen nook, we ended our breakfast. We silently watched him through screened picture windows. We sensed that his scheming and plotting was in full play.
Suddenly, our ears literally felt pinched. We heard a familiar sound, yet it unnerved us. All of the family ran out to see what the commotion was. It sounded like Barney, but a distorted Barney who was audibly out-of-sorts. Loud squeals, high-pitched grunts and unexpected sprints filled the atmosphere, and Barney was at the center of it. Yet the most daunting and horrendous thing to see was Mr. Derby riding atop Barney’s back. Mr. Derby morphed into a reckless horseman on a hog, the grim reaper riding a pig — an unmasked, ugly Zorro wielding a sword.
Swathump! Swathump! Swathump! Would he ever end the blows? And with each one, a deep, sienna-colored liquid flowed from Barney’s head, eyes and snout. He galloped in full stride like a runaway slave on his way to an unknown destination. Yet, Barney was not going down uncontested, and battle he did with his remaining strength. As his life-flowing spirit ebbed from his body, Barney thrust his head to his right side and bit a gigantic section from Mr. Derby’s leg. More reddish hue colored Barney’s side as he descended to the edge of the rear garden, which was thick with green foliage and teeming with life. Subsequently, Mr. Derby rode Barney down to the ground. Grinding his Rambo-type machete, he proceeded to rip Barney from gut-to-gut. Maneuvering his good leg, Mr. Derby kicked Barney’s carcass away from him, thrust inwardly at Barney’s core, then leisurely lugged out a magnanimous, weighty portion of Barney’s small intestines. As Barney’s innards hung dripping with blood and fresh manure, Mr. Derby exhaustedly bellowed, “Having chitlings tonight, and y’all all invited.”
About the Author
Sylvia Evans’ more-than-35-year teaching career has spanned grade levels and included roles as classroom teacher, Title 1 reading teacher, SRA reading coordinator, writer of educational proposals and currently, itinerant teacher of English language learners (ESL) for Richmond Public Schools. While Evans was participating in the Podium Foundation’s weeklong T3 Academy workshop, her daughter, Joy, also an elementary school teacher, suggested that she write about a favorite story from Evans’ childhood that she had told over the years. With her daughter’s inspiration, “Barney” surfaced into print. Colleagues from George Wythe High, Thompson Middle and Brown Middle schools were avid supporters.