Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Be Careful Choosing Your Friends

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This is a short story I wrote years ago about a childhood friend. Velvet reminded me of it with her post about a very friendly pregnant cow.

At one point, I had submitted it to some very Southern magazines hoping to have it published... so forgive my Southern twang but I was writing for the potential audience. Hope ya'll like it.

Be Careful Choosing Your Friends
Holly Dare
copyright 2000

Mama always told me to be careful when choosing my friends but it didn’t really matter because I never had a lot of friends growin’ up. See, Mama had me kinda late in life and all my siblings were grown by the time I showed up. I related much better to older folks on account of everyone in my family being so much older than me. They called me “growny” for my age. Whatever you call it, I was a lonely child.

We lived in the city of McComb, Mississippi, which was really a small town but to the country folks, it was huge. I spent most every weekend on the farm of some relative. My grandmother lived North of Tylertown and had a large farm and many of my older cousins lived on various farms around hers. I was a tomboy and could fool most folks into thinkin’ I was a country kid. I could chase a chicken down for Sunday dinner with the best of ‘em. I even helped my uncle catch the turkeys for holiday dinners. It was my job to hold that turkey still while my uncle chopped his head off.

Sometimes we went to Aunt Nell’s, who wasn’t really my aunt on account she was my stepfather Fred’s sister.

Aunt Nell and her goofy husband Tommy were retired for as long as I could remember. (I call Tommy goofy because, if at all possible, he ate out of a red bowl or plate… said it made his food taste better. If there wasn’t a red bowl, pink ‘ould do! If there wasn’t a pink one, he’d pretty much go hungry!) They had about 15 acres of land out from Osyka which is the Southern part of Pike county Mississippi. They leased their land to farmers or cattle ranchers but I liked to go there because the catfishin’ was good. Very good.

Tommy and Aunt Nell fed their catfish and sometimes, when it was getting’ dark and we hadn’t caught anything, Tommy would bring out a few dipnets and start feedin’ the fish. Those catfish would storm to the side of the pond and the water would boil from all the commotion. Fred and Tommy would just wade in and scoop ‘em out.

Fred had a big hook that he would hang on a low tree branch out in the backyard. Tommy would open the gills of the catfish and place it on the hook so that the metal curved up and out of the fish’s mouth. Fred would score the fish just under the gills on both sides. He’d take these flat pincher pliers and yank, skinning the fish alive. Sometimes the fish would wiggle & writhe even after its skin was yanked off. Fred would hand the fish to Tommy who would cut it’s head off and gut it. Mama and Aunt Nell would be in the kitchen getting the batter ready, cuttin’ up the taters, and makin’ hush puppies. Add some soft white bread to sop up the grease, salt, pepper, ketchup and corn meal crumbs from the plate and you got a meal fit for a king.

It was always just me and the grownups until the spring of my 12th year. That was the year Aunt Nell adopted Buster. Buster was a cow – a bull to be precise. I had never really known a cow before but Buster seemed kindly enough. He was not much taller than me when I first met him. His legs looked like toothpicks under that fat black & white body. He had big, kind eyes and the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen. Buster wailed the first night Aunt Nell had ‘im. I figured he was missin’ his mama. I snuck outside when the grownups weren’t lookin’ and went to the corral that Buster slept in and scratched his neck. “It’ll be O.K. boy. You’re gonna like your new home.” He seemed to like that.

I’m not quite sure how Buster and I became such good friends. I seem to recollect that that was the year the pond was low and we had to fish the normal way – a pole with a hook and bait at one end and a fool on the other. It was slow going and not too excitin’ to a child with no patience.

I took to wandering the pastures and flinging cow chips at trees to watch ‘em explode into powder. And somehow, Buster took to followin’ me. I was a little frightened the first time he did it. I think he sensed this and kept his distance. It wasn’t long before I grew to appreciate his company and he followed along on my heels. Sometimes, he would even goose my behind makin’ me jump and squeal. I would run and he would take off right behind me.

I liked to walk the ridge overlooking the pond. My folks could see me and yet I was out of earshot. I would curl up under the shade of a pine grove there and tell Buster stories. He never interrupted like the grownups. Buster was a very good listener and I loved him for it.

One Sunday in July, the grownups were fishin’. I had tried for awhile and got bored started to wander off, knowin’ Buster would follow. Mama yelled, “Take a bucket or two with you. Nell says those blackberries are ready for pickin’.”

“Yessum.” I grabbed two buckets and gave whistle, knowing my friend would find me. We wandered up on the ridge and sure ‘nough, there were berries everywhere. I had picked one bucket pretty near full when I got hungry. From that point on, most of the berries went in my mouth and of course, a few went to Buster. I kept working my way around this berry thicket, pickin’ and eatin’, pickin’ and eatin’, until I heard a loud “Mmmmmmmmoooooooooooou.” I turned to see where Buster was. There was only a wall of briars. I turned round and round but everywhere I looked, briars. I had eaten my way clean into the middle of the briar patch. I couldn’t figure out how I got in there and now I was scared. I guess I started to whimper a bit because Buster started mooing and scratchin’ his hoof on the ground. I could hear a loud thud followed by twigs snapping. Buster was trying to get to me! I decided to walk toward the sound carefully lifting briars up or pushing them down with my foot. I yelled, “I’m comin’ Buster!” When I finally broke free, Buster gave me a literal tongue lashing. He was as happy to see me as I was him.

Winter came and went. It was too cold to fish so we didn’t go to Aunt Nell’s as much. I always made sure to take my winter coat whenever we did go there. That way, Buster and I could walk while the grownups visited. But I was grateful for the return of Spring and warm weather. If my parents could fish, we stayed longer and I got more time with my friend.

I was particularly glad when Easter came. I wanted to teach Buster how to hunt Easter eggs. Fred, Mama and I went to church but sat in the back so we could get out faster. Folks always seemed to need to talk to the preacher more after Easter services. We quickly walked the half block home and loaded up the car with the ham Mama had in the oven.

All of Fred’s family was already at Aunt Nell’s by the time we got there. Tommy opened the front door and said, “Ya’ll hurry up and fix yer plates. We’re ‘bout to start without ya.” Fred and I hurried to the counter to grab plates as Mama put the ham down. “That red one’s mine,” Tommy unnecessarily reminded us.

We fixed our plates with the feast Nell had prepared: steak, butter beans, corn, sweet potatoes, okra, and Mama’s ham. There was rice and gravy and Nell’s renowned biscuits with the crunchy butter and salt tops. We sat down and Tommy asked the Lord for His blessin’ and we started to eat. I was about halfway done when I realized I had better save room for dessert. I put my fork down and looked around the room at everyone eatin’ and talkin’. And then I looked out back to Buster’s corral.

“Hey! Where’s Buster?”

The room grew quiet. A few put their forks down.

Aunt Nell said as gently as she could, “Honey… Buster’s on your plate.”

My face must have twisted to reveal the torment going through my head because suddenly all the grownups were laughing.

There was nothing left to do but finish my dinner. Mama leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You don’t have to eat the ste – Buster - if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s allright. I’ll eat ‘im,” I sadly replied. “If Buster had to die to be food, I’m sure he’d want it to be me who ate ‘im.” I finished my meal in silence and went outside to sit in Buster’s corral alone.

I really did miss Buster tagging along on my walks through the pasture. And I’ve learned to be a bit more careful about choosing my friends. And I vowed to never again make friends with something I might end up havin’ to eat for dinner.


Linda@VS said...

What a nice story, Holly! All except the ending, that is; I think I'd have died right there on the spot. It's hard for us city-born girls to accept the idea that meat comes in an animated form.

Anonymous said...

This story reminds me so much of my childhood in Arkansas when we named and made friends with every animal on the place. Our parents were kind enough to lie to us about who we were eating. Thanks for the story...Carmon

Anonymous said...

Holly, what a great job! I love this little story----even though it's sad at the end.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Velvet, It was awful at the time. But I was always raised with the knowledge that some animals are born so that we might live. As humans (the
"superior" being), we are to show deep gratitude for this sacrifice.

Carmon, You were lucky. We often knew who we were eating.

Jackie, Thanks for stopping by... it was sad and I missed my friend for a long time and never made the effort to get to know any more of my aunt's bulls.

Annie said...

I know people who've become vegetarians as a result.

That's a story so many of us might be able to tell, except in my case it was a nanny goat that ended up on the table.

Anonymous said...

Great story! That would have done a number on me, to find a friend on my plate.