I have a friend named Travis who is almost 4 and who gets a big laugh out of barking at his sister.
He does it in a kind of casual, non-malicious way, although occasionally he sneaks up behind her and barks suddenly, which scares hell out of the poor child.
Travis is a terrific mimic, having fooled his mother once into believing a coyote was howling at the back door, and when he barks it's pretty authentic.
But why, you might ask, does the boy bark at his sister? Good question.
Shana Lee, which is her name, is only a couple of months old and her presence has precipitated a form of one-sided sibling rivalry.
Until she bounced into the world, Travis was the star upon which the family spotlight focused.
Then suddenly there was the new baby, cuter than a puppy and more demanding than a Russian hooker, and the focus of family effort shifted by necessity from him to her.
Travis, naturally, resented the shift and sought equal time by knocking pots and pans off the sink.
The attention evoked by the clatter, however, was not exactly what he had in mind, so new avenues of celebrity were sought.
Since they have two dogs that bark a lot, and in so doing get attention, Travis decided that one way to win back the spotlight was to emulate the pets.
So he barks.
I noticed this one day when I visited his house. We were headed across the family room toward the back door when Travis wheeled abruptly toward Shana Lee and barked.
She blinked and cried.
"You barked at her," I said, surprised.
"Right," Travis replied with a smile of angelic innocence.
He lifted his eyebrows slightly for emphasis.
"That scares her," I said.
"Oh well," he said, and continued out the back door.
Oh well is currently Trav's favorite phrase, employed in response to almost any kind of accusation for which he finds no other logical reply.
"I'm not sure barking at your little sister is a terrific idea," I said.
We were at his sandpile near the fence, which is one of his favorite places in all the neighborhood. Sometimes I peek out the window and see him sitting atop the mound, looking around at the world beyond the fence.
"You wanna sit down?" he asked, gesturing toward the mound.
I was wearing slacks which had just been returned from the cleaners and was not inclined to grovel in the dirt, but it isn't often a little boy asks you to be his pal and enter with him into a kingdom of magic and make-believe.
So I sat.
"Do you realize," I said to him, "how long it has been since I sat on a sandpile?"
"Since Wednesday?" he asked.
"Since . . . well, I don't know since when. A long time."
"What happens is you get older and you get busy and you forget how much fun sitting on a sandpile can be."
"You can see where a fire was," Travis said, pointing to a distant hillside, where trees were still blackened and twisted from a forgotten burn.
"You can see the freeway," he said, pointing in the opposite direction, where a ribbon of concrete twists north.
"And you can see Shana," he said, turning once more, this time toward the house.
I realized suddenly that Travis was putting her into the same alien category as a forgotten brush fire and a distant freeway, both of which represented mysteries beyond the fence he could not quite comprehend.
Four is not very old when you stop to think about it.
Shana Lee was new and different, and what had been a life of stability and security had changed suddenly, like an S-curve in a straight road, and it would never be the same.
Fire does that too, quickly altering the landscape, removing familiar sights, somehow modifying the way we perceive a hillside.
The world's a scary place when change is in the wind.
I understand that. Little boys are called upon to face giants along the trails they walk to adulthood, torn by the courage required to take the next step and the warmth that awaits if they run back to where they were.
But you can't go back and I think Travis knows that. He's got a little sister, a beautiful little sister, and one way or the other, she's a change he must adapt to.
"Actually," I said to him, "Shana's going to count on you a lot. You're the big brother and you'll have to teach her and protect her."
"Oh well," he said, smiling a little. He liked that.
"She'll be your pal."
His mother called from the doorway.
"Come on," she said, "we're going to a movie."
"All of us?" Travis asked suspiciously.
"Just you and me," she said.
He ran toward the door.
"We'll play later," he called back.
"Right," I said.
Travis has caring parents and they'll let him know in the days to come that he's just as loved and wanted as he ever was.
He doesn't quite know that yet, however.
As he passed Shana Lee, he turned suddenly and barked.