Little Billy

Janet Barkhouse

“Little Billy died last Sunday,” I tell my father, who’s visiting for a while during my husband’s absence.

“Little Billy died last Sunday,” I tell my father, who’s visiting for a while during my husband’s absence.

My father snorts. “Just like your mother. You girls! You think you’ll move to the country, have all these animals and won’t it be just great. Your mother’s all died, too.”

I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. “Little Billy got the scours,” I explain. “Just after Jim left. I gave him a needle for worms, and antibiotics, and he seemed to get better. Then he died.”

Sick-shit smell. Strange goat eyes hazed with misery. Slits in a circus tent, full of mischief, just the other day. Not now.

“A weasel got your mother’s hens. Her cow got hit by a car!” He cackles. “Stupid! Stupid and irresponsible!”

“All right, Dad. I remember.”

My mother had died two years past. Just two years before that, she’d left my father to live on a little hobby farm. “To have some peace,” she told me. “Animals won’t contradict every blessed word I say.” I’d visited often, fallen in love with the place. She signed it over to me when she went into palliative care.

“You girls think you can do anything you want, and if you make a mistake, you just say sorry and that makes it all better. Well, it doesn’t.”

What’s that little devil up to? Kneeling, rump up, head down … what’s he looking at? Climbing over the fence to see. Immobile, his eyes unfocused, his haunches streaked with filthy gunk. Flies. Stench. But he’s supposed to be cured. Lifting him to his feet, him falling to his knees again. Picking him up—gagging—carrying him into the barn where he was born.

“Hoping for the best, and acting for the worst. It’s criminal,” he says. Thumps his fist on the table like a judge in a melodrama. “Criminal!” His eyes glitter.

Laying him in the corner of his pen on feed bags piled over shavings. The hens scolding and fussing at us; sunbeams catching swirls of dust motes. Trying to get him to eat, to drink. His breathing rapid and hard. What to do? Call the vet? On a Sunday? For a six-month-old billy goat? Get my neighbour to shoot him? We were just going to eat him, anyway. Not making the calls, not believing it won’t all come right.

“Just like Meredith down the street—remember? Lost her little boy that way? Could not, would not, make him behave. Let him do just what he damn well pleased. Pleased him to play outside in the rain and get pneumonia. Pleased him to die.”

“What would you like for breakfast, Dad?”

“Guess that taught her something she won’t forget.”

“Dad … Dad, what can I get you for breakfast?”

“What have you got?”

“Oatmeal. Eggs. Whatever you like.”

“I’ll have oatmeal then.”

I hunt in the cupboard for the jar of oat flakes. Pull it out, empty. Suddenly remember when I’d used the last of it, the useless spooning of warm oats into the kid’s slack mouth, the throwing of cold leftovers to the chickens. Why in God’s name couldn’t I have remembered two minutes sooner?

“Gee, Dad, I guess we’re all out of oats. It’ll have to be eggs.”

“I got my taste buds all set for oats. Just give me tea.”

“At least let me make you some toast.”

“Sure you got bread?”

I put two slices in the toaster, fill the kettle. I want to ask my father if he’d minded at all when Mum left, but I can’t make my mouth say the words. I look at him, wonder what he’d been like as a young blade. Mum told me, wistful, that he could dance like an angel. Hard to imagine.

The smell of toast fills the kitchen. I am buttering it right over to the crust, just as Dad likes it, when he says, “So what’s Jim up to?”

Dad and Jim do not get on, so when I asked Dad down I thought there’d be no questions to deal with. “Working in Toronto,” I say. I am careful not to look at him.

“I know that,” he snorts. “I mean, what’s he think he’s up to, leaving you in the lurch like this?”

“It’s complicated.”

“That’s one word for it.” It’s the right one, though. How do things that matter so much break so silently you don’t know they’re in splinters until they draw blood? When you look back, you see what you did wrong, but can’t know what 15 BARKHOUSE | Little Billy would have happened if you’d done things differently. If I hadn’t taken on Mum’s hobby farm while she was dying; if I hadn’t begged Jim to make it permanent after she died; if Jim, the die-hard city boy, hadn’t minded the bugs and smells and muscle pulls more than he’d enjoyed the skinny dips and beers in the dusk and making love in the new sweet hay. If.

“Has he got another woman?”

“Why does that have to be the only reason things fall apart, Dad? Did you have another woman when Mum left?”

“Your mother was the only woman I ever loved, ever will.”

He loved her? I hear the clock’s gears, the rooster in the barn, the patter of rain on the porch roof. He loved her. The kettle whistles, shrieks. I move it off the stove and go about the business of making tea.

“Why didn’t you move here with her?”

“Don’t know. She didn’t ask. Wish I had, now. Too stiff-necked, I guess.”

Is he talking about himself or her? I’ve never heard him own to a mistake or a fault. The look of him—the sag of him—says he means himself. I get the milk jug out of the fridge, mugs out of the cupboard, and sit beside him on the long side of the table facing the windows. Rain is running down the glass. My dad’s voice from long ago sounds in my head: These are my two drops of rain, waiting on the windowpane …

“I keep thinking it will all come right. I love him, and I’m pretty sure he loves me. But I don’t know what to do, so … I don’t know … I don’t do anything.”

My father for once says nothing. I put milk in the mugs, pour the tea over it, the way Mum always did. “Scalds the milk,” she’d explained countless times.

“Scalds the milk,” Dad says, as if he’s heard me.

We sit, side by side, sip the hot comfort.

“Where’d you bury him?”

“Dad …”


“Out behind the barn. Up in the potato field.”

Covering Little Billy with a feed bag, throwing the porridge to the chickens. Digging. Digging. Sweat stinging, hands blistering. Standing in the doorway of the barn, sunblind, listening to the flies. Carrying his body out to the shabby grave. Shovelling the rocky dirt back in.

“Well, well, well,” Dad sighs. “My turn next.”

“Oh, Daddy!”

“Oh, Daddy, nothing. The young may die, but the old must die.”

“I should have called the vet,” I say, with sudden grief.

My father laughs, a soft sad puff of air that warms my head as he puts his arm around my shoulder.

Janet Barkhouse lives in rural Nova Scotia, where she writes poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Recent work includes a book for young readers, Sable Island—Imagine! (Curriculum Plus, 2010), and poems selected for anthologies by Lorri Neilsen Glenn, and Sheree Fitch. CV2Leaf Press, and the CBC have published her work.

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