I heard the crunch of tires on gravel as mom and dad pulled out of the driveway in our copper-colored Pinto wagon. I had a list of chores to complete in exchange for permission to stay home alone. Letting me stay home by myself was a probationary test and babysitting my brother and sister would be the reward if I avoided burning the house down while they were gone. Being in charge of my brother and sister wasn’t enticing but the idea of being treated more like an adult was so I agreed to the tradeoff.
To avoid starting the dishes, I wandered outside to pet my marmalade cat Fred. Fred was fat and looked like Morris in the cat food commercials. I spotted him in a lawn chair just out the front door so l thoughtlessly walked through the door in shoeless, sock covered feet. Fred purred from deep down in his belly as I picked him up from the chair like a limp dishtowel. He didn’t resist at all as I flipped him over on his back to cradle him like a baby and stroke the soft peach colored fur on his belly.
Fred was nearly asleep in my arms when I felt his whole body harden in a posture of alertness. His purr transformed into a low quiet howl and then he scrambled out of my grasp leaving me bleeding with scratches from his claws on the un-freckled flesh of my wrists. He ran across the lawn with a yowl and bounded up the ancient Elm tree near the road.
Distracted by arms that felt on fire, I didn’t give a second thought to what had caused Fred to turn on me. Cats in general are untrustworthy and given to mood swings so I shrugged off Fred’s betrayal until I heard a sound behind me. Around the corner of the house came a strong expulsion of breath followed by a deep grunt and then I saw her snout. Arabella, my dad’s farrowing sow was out of the fence. I could just see her glistening nostrils and the ring piercing her septum to keep her from rooting too deep in the ground as she continued to sniff and grunt. I knew she could tell I was there around the corner. I had been in the barn when Arabella gave birth to a litter and saw her challenge my dad when he reached in to check on a tiny piglet. I’ve heard people talk about mother bears protecting their cubs but for me a mother pig is just as terrifying.
I froze for a second until the pounding of my heart made my ears ring like an alarm clock and then I ran. With tender soles, I ran across the gravel drive and through the grass to our blue metal swing set. I imagined feeling her rough bristled forehead pressing into my back as she tossed me off my feet. I saw in my mind her mud covered hooves slicing through my skin as her 350 pound body plowed over me. I imagined her squeal as she tore into my flesh with her crushing teeth and I started to cry. I ran with tears streaming and I was gasping and hiccupping for breath.
I hit the hot metal of the slide and gripped the sides. I was too big but I started to climb. My filthy socks, wet from the evening dew slipped on the smooth surface of the slide with each panicked step. I could hear her snorting as she lumbered toward me and the swing set. Around the tractor tire sandbox she came. Her shoulders as high as the fourth rung of the slide’s ladder. She stopped and turned her snout up to me, sniffed twice and then she turned to root in the dirt around the sandbox.
I don’t remember how long I sat at the top of the slide. The sky had turned dusky when mom and dad arrived home to find me trapped at the top of the slide and Arabella calmly grazing in the yard. Dad turned off the engine and got out of the car grabbing a downed branch under the Elm tree. He approached Arabella with his arms out from his sides and the branch in his right hand like a weapon. “Heyaw!” he yelled, and Arabella started in surprise. “Heyaw!” he yelled again and Arabella turned away from him and lumbered unimpressed away from the play yard. Slowly, Dad guided her back to the barn and Mom came to me on the slide. She asked what happened and after I told my tale she asked why I had been outside without my shoes and then she chided me for my ruined socks.
I still had chores to do but I had a good story to tell. The first time I was allowed to babysit, Dad laid down the law that I was in charge and as an afterthought called back on his way out the door, “You all better just stay in the house.”