(In case any of my real-life cousins read this: it’s fiction! You weren’t that mean.)
The four sisters got together to put up peaches. It was easier if they helped each other and more fun, too. The kitchen held the talk and laughter of women who knew each other as well as they knew themselves. Their paring knives flashed, their faces reddened with steam as the Mason jars were filled, sealed and lined up like gems.
We cousins raided the wooden bushel basket, made ravenous by the peaches’ tree-ripened fragrance. It was like eating velvet. Juice ran down our chins and stuck our fingers together. There were four of us, too, all girls, stair-stepped in age: seven, nine, ten, and twelve. I was the youngest, doomed always to be the smallest, dumbest and most gullible. Sometimes my older cousins were nice to me, but often they couldn’t resist being mean. No grown-up would come to my rescue, including my own mother. I was expected to find a way to hold up my end in the cousin hierarchy.
Alice, the eldest among us, was our de facto leader. If she held up one hand, we all knew to shut up because she wanted to tune in to something interesting our mothers were saying. The sisters talked Pennsylvania Dutch among themselves, and Alice was the only one who could understand even a smattering of it. She was our ears, passing on the latest gossip, usually boring grown-up stuff we didn’t care about. Still, we liked the idea of spying.
We were at Aunt Berta’s house that day, a big white farmhouse floating amidst acres of grain. There were all kinds of things to do on the farm: the sheepdog might let us pet her puppies, or we could chase the chickens and make them squawk. There were tractors to climb on, a haymow to jump in, and a rope attached to the rafters of the barn from which we could swing. Many of these activities were strictly forbidden for reasons obvious even to us, but the sternest injunction of all was, “You girls keep away from that bull.”
“Come on,” Alice said, “let’s go see Buster.”
Buster was a ridiculous name for the bull, two thousand pounds of total terror. He was kept confined within a stoutly fenced yard where he pawed the ground and bellowed his rage at being kept away from the ladies. I was scared to even look at him.
“I don’t wanna see Buster,” I whined.
But: “C’mon, you big baby!” the cousins chorused. Of course, I went. Babies always go if they possibly can. We’ll risk anything to avoid being left behind.
“I dare you to climb up on the fence.”
“I dare you to throw this peach pit at him.”
At that moment the bull was less scary than my cousins. I climbed; I threw. I had neither aim nor arm, but somehow the peach pit bounced off the soft part of Buster’s nose. It couldn’t have hurt much, but Buster was not one to let an insult slide.
With a roar he charged, knocking into the wooden fence with hurricane force. I flew backward like a cork out of a bottle, landing with an “oof.” Then there was no air in the world. I couldn’t take a breath. I couldn’t speak or cry or move. The cousins gathered around and poked at me. “Get up!” they hissed. “If they find out, we’ll all be in trouble.” Goading the bull was strictly forbidden. Goading me was apparently a different matter.
“We’ll say we told her not to do it,” Alice said, thinking fast. “We’ll say we tried to make her stop.”
Just as I was able to draw my first painful gasp of oxygen, we heard our mothers calling. “Girls, come on. Time to go.”
“I guess the peaches are done,” Alice said. “Now act natural. Don’t tell.” This last, delivered with lizard eyes, was directed at me.
And just like that, my moment as courageous bull baiter was over. I received no accolades and reassumed my humble role as the littlest. But from that day forward I’ve been known in certain familial circles as Ferdie. Short for Ferdinand. And that’s no bull.