FOR AS LONG AS HE could remember, the barrel had sat in the back yard, behind a locked gate and a very tall fence. Only the father had the key, and three times a day, the boy would watch his father take a jumbled plate of scraps out to the back yard to leave at the opening of the barrel, which was a large as a big dog’s house and lay on its side, the opening facing away from the gate. The boy himself was not allowed in the back yard, but would accompany the father to the gate, which he would hold open to keep it from slamming shut with the father still inside, which would be a bad thing and wouldn’t trap the father back there at all—only inconvenience him.
After the boy and the father were finished eating inside, quickly and without conversation, the father would go back out into the yard and return with a plate so empty and clean it was as though it had been swabbed with a gigantic floppy tongue. Sometimes the boy thought a big, messy dog must live inside the barrel, some ferocious beast too dangerous to live in the yard or the house like a regular dog, and sometimes he thought the barrel itself was the living thing with the big, floppy tongue, swabbing the bits of meat and potatoes from the plate like a mop swabbing the deck of a ship.
The boy had spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it looked like when the barrel ate the scraps brought to it on the old, chipped ceramic plate. Did a long, pink, sticky tongue come out and delicately lap food off the plate? Did some sort of hose protrude at mealtimes to suck the food off the surface of the plate, like a vacuum cleaner extension, or the way mouths of the tiny tank snails worked in the fish tank at the doctor’s office? He could only imagine the answer, though, because his father would not let him step even one single step into the backyard when it was time to feed the barrel. “Not one step past the gate.” He didn’t dare ask his father if he could come out and feed the barrel with him. He didn’t dare ask his father anything.
Sometimes, when the boy was outside playing, he’d think about the barrel. The barrel was in the back yard, and the boy was only allowed in the front. A giant wooden fence surrounded the back yard. It was too high for the boy to see over, but not so high that if his father was locked in the back yard, he couldn’t escape. They’d talked about this many times. The only way into it or out of it was through the gate and through the back door of the house, both of which were always locked. The boy’s father was the only one in the whole world with a key. “Stay out of the back yard,” he’d say to the boy, any time he saw the boy looking at the big, locked door. “Don’t even THINK about it,” he said when he caught the boy trying to peep through a knothole in the tall wooden fence.
Once, the boy woke up in the middle of the night to a strange noise in the back yard. He got out of bed and went to the window. He could see the father in the back yard, hunched over next to the barrel, his lips moving. The boy couldn’t tell what the father was saying, and he knew better than to open the window to hear better because he was to “NEVER open this window.” It sounded like the barrel was crying. He couldn’t tell what the father was saying, but it sounded like the barrel was crying. After a while, the father stood up. He patted the barrel awkwardly, like one would a dog or a small dragon, and marched briskly back to the house.
Before this incident, and afterwards, the boy spent the long, empty hours of the day wondering about the barrel. He drew pictures of the barrel and wrote stories on the backs of scratch paper about going to the back yard and making friends with the barrel. He was too little to go to school, and had no other children to play with, so his imaginary friendship with the barrel was his only friendship. When he played in the front yard, he would sometimes talk to the barrel through the tall wooden fence, but quietly, so the father, who was inside the house, couldn’t hear him, and sometimes, when he went to bed at night, he would talk to the barrel through the window before drifting off to sleep.
One day, the father caught the boy drawing pictures of himself and the barrel playing together. In the picture, the boy was pushing the old wooden barrel on the rusty swing in the front yard. A long, slippery red tongue lolled out of a hole at one end, surrounded by a ring of sharp, white teeth. The father’s face grew red and angry as he looked at the picture. The boy shrank into his chair, confused and frightened. The father was always angry, but there were different degrees to his anger that the boy was too young to have completely deciphered, each of which demanded a specific reaction. The boy did not understand why the picture made the father so angry.
“Stay away from that barrel!” the father finally shouted. He crumpled up the picture and threw it in the garbage. “Don’t even THINK about the barrel!”
But the barrel was all the boy could think about. He would lie awake in bed long after the father put him in his room for the night and waited for the house to go quiet. As soon as he was sure the father was asleep, the boy would carefully tiptoe across the creaky wooden floor to look out the window at the barrel in the back yard. If he put his ear to the glass, he was sure he could hear the barrel singing, or crying, or making wet, blubbery, nonsense sounds to itself. Sometimes, the barrel would suddenly jerk and rock in place as though trying to roll away.
During the day, the boy tried his best to not think about the barrel. He tried to make up new imaginary friends to play with in the front yard, mostly other children like himself, sometimes fanciful talking animals. He’d give them all conspicuously manly names like “Tom,” and “Peter,” and “Randall,” as the father seemed especially pleased with the boy when his imaginary friends had boy names. When he drew pictures of his imaginary friends, he made them all little boys like him, although, not having seen any other children except those in the books on the little shelf in his room, he often drew them with purple skin and green or pink hair. The father would frown slightly at these pictures, but since he didn’t actually say anything, the boy went on drawing his imaginary friends in rainbow hues.
Nighttime dedicated to imaginings about the barrel. In his dreams, the barrel sprouted legs and arms and could run about the yard like a person, or on all fours like a dog. When it was on all fours, it sprouted a long, wet tongue like a dog, and panted, and drooled, and barked. When it was on two legs, it laughed, and shouted, and said nice things to the boy, like, “You’re my best friend,” or, “Do you want to run away with me?”
The dreams were so alluring to the boy that he began to think of ways to make them come true. The window in his bedroom had been nailed shut for as long as he could remember, but he could see how easy it would be to take the nails out. Every night, after the father went to bed, the boy carefully dug at the soft pine windowsill in his room with the tines of a fork, and slowly, over the course of many nights, the nails began to come out. He was so careful not to make any noise. He was careful not to scratch the glass. He was careful not to leave scratches on the frame with the fork. And most careful of all, whenever he pulled a nail out, he pushed it back into the hole and pulled it out again, until the hole was compromised just enough that the nail would slip out with a gentle tug. A casual visual inspection would leave one with the opinion that all of the nail were in place and the window was still secure.
When all the nails had finally been loosened, the boy scarcely dared to push the window upwards. When he finally did, the ancient wood frame gave a terrible, loud screech. The boy stopped and carefully, quietly, pushed the window shut and jumped into bed. A few seconds later, the door to his room opened and the father’s silhouette filled the doorway. “Was that you?” The boy kept silent, eyes tightly closed, unmoving in his bed. After a few seconds, the father turned away and shut the door behind him.
As soon as he was gone, the boy quietly crept out of bed and went back to the window. This time, the pane slid up easily, silently. The window gaped open to the back yard. The barrel loomed in its corner of the yard.
The boy squeezed out the window and tiptoed across the yard. He could see the father sitting at the kitchen table through the small window in the back door, an open beer bottle in one hand, his attention focused on the newspaper spread out on the table before him. The boy had always assumed the two of them went to sleep at exactly the same time. He hadn’t anticipated the father being in the kitchen, a full view of the back yard right beside him. He just had to turn his head. The boy almost went back in the house right there, but then the barrel gave a little jerk, as if trying to signal him.
The boy took a deep breath and ran as fast as he could to the barrel. Any minute, the father would turn around and see him. He would reach the barrel before the father turned around. It was so close. And then he was there.
“Hello?” the boy whispered. He dropped to his knees and peered inside the dark of the barrel, into the opening faced away from his bedroom window and the gate in the fence, the side he had never been able to see clearly. It was so much larger up close than it had appeared from the kitchen, from his bedroom, from where he obediently waited for his father at the gate. It was almost as big around as he was tall. He could see something moving inside, something way in back. He crept closer, until his head was almost inside the barrel. “Hello?”
Long, thin arms reached out and grabbed the boy. He squeaked and squirmed and tried to get away as the arms pulled him completely into the barrel. Pendulous breasts and long, matted hair brushed his skin. Thin arms pulled him close to a body that smelled horrible yet so familiar.
“Shhh,” whispered a voice near his ear. “Shhh, baby. Shhh. Mine, mine, all mine,” the voice began to softly sing. The body rocked back and forth, clutching the boy tightly, rocking him, too. “Mine, mine, all mine. You’re all mine now.”
The boy began to cry. He wanted out. He wanted back in his bed, the safety of his room. He wanted the father to come and get him, to rescue him from the stinky darkness of the barrel.
“Don’t cry, little one,” cooed the voice, still rocking, one hand over his mouth. Fingers combed through the boy’s hair, brushing it back from his forehead. “Don’t cry. Someone will feed us soon.”
Holly Day (hollylday.blogspot.com) has been a writing instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis since 2000. Her poetry has recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Grain, and Harvard Review, and her newest books are The Tooth Is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press), Book of Beasts (Weasel Press), and Music Composition for Dummies (Wiley).
Image: “Abstraction. Empty Barrel.” by MicroVovk, elements.envato.com