Her Name Was Barbara Allen
By: Anita Gorman

I knew both of them, Barbara and William. She called him Sweet William, but I don't think he cared for that name. The thing is, he was totally obsessed with Barbara Allen. She was a beauty, that's for sure.

But their relationship was troubled from the beginning. William loved her, and I am pretty sure that Barbara Allen loved him. But they would do things to hurt each other. I remember one time when we were all at a local watering place, if you get my drift. The men were toasting all the women. "Here's to the beautiful Louisa!" "The enchanting Eleanor!" "A toast to pretty Polly!" But William did not offer a toast for Barbara. Why? Maybe he was self-conscious. Maybe he somehow knew that in the end she would hurt him. And so, the toasts went round, and no one toasted the beautiful Barbara Allen. She wasn't there at the time; I think she had to work. But I'm sure she heard about it later and nursed a grudge against Sweet William from that time.

They had known each other from childhood and used to wander around the cemetery near the village church, sneaking kisses and embraces even when they were only eight years old. So, everyone thought that by the time they were adults they would be married in that same village church, Sweet William and the beautiful Barbara Allen. It was not to be.

Not long after that event in the tavern, William became ill. He had been working as a laborer, trying to save up enough money to marry Barbara Allen. One day, after helping to build a house and getting soaked in a cold, driving rain, he went home with a chill. The next thing you knew, he had pneumonia. When I next saw Barbara Allen, I asked her if she had visited William. "No," she said, "why should I?" I think she was still angry at him for slighting her in the tavern.

"He's sick, Barbara. Very sick."

And so—she told me about this later—she went to see him. This is pretty much what she said. "I went to his house. His mother let me in. I went to his bedroom. He looked awful, so pale. And then I said a strange thing. I'm not sure why I said it, but I told him, 'William, I think you're dying.' Maybe I still wanted to hurt him, or maybe I just said the first thing that came into my head. I stood close to his bed. I wanted to take his hand, but I didn't. And then he answered me. He said, 'I know I'm dying. I can feel it. It's like nothing I have ever felt before. I need you, Barbara. With you I may get better. I may live.' And he reached out and grabbed my warm hand with his cold hand. But I was angry and told him so. I asked why he raised his glass to all those other women but didn't offer a toast to Barbara Allen. And then he said something that wrenched my heart. He said, 'No, that wasn't it. I cared too much for you. I didn't want to shout your name along with all those other names. You are the only one I love.'"

Barbara Allen started to cry when she told me this story. I felt sorry for her, but I felt sorrier for William. Then she continued. "I walked out of the house without telling him I loved him. I still felt angry at being slighted. I never saw him again."

Here is what happened next. Sweet William no longer had a reason to live, or so everyone in the village said. They buried him in the old churchyard, where he and Barbara used to play as children, right by the church where they would have been married or might have been married. I had the feeling that Barbara wanted something "better" for herself than just marriage to a laborer.

And when the bell tolled for William at his funeral, Barbara realized what she had done. That's what she told me. "I think I killed him," she confessed.

I tried to tell her that it was the pneumonia that killed him, but she insisted that he had died of a broken heart. Maybe in some crazy way that made her feel more important, but I knew she was a mixed-up woman. Then, soon after William's death, Barbara Allen herself died. It was the strangest thing. What did she die of? Some said she stopped eating. Some said it was guilt and remorse that ate away at her insides. She told her mother that Sweet William had died for her, and that she would die for him.

Her mother didn't believe her. She thought Barbara was being a drama queen (which she was, after all), but in the end Barbara showed everyone that her drama was her reality. Before she died, she asked her mother to bury her next to William.

And that's what happened. Now there were two fresh graves, one for Barbara Allen and one for Sweet William. And here's something unusual: out of William's grave a red rose grew and started to bloom and out of Barbara's there came a briar. This all happened in the month of May, but by the end of the summer the rose had kind of tied itself around the briar. Isn't that something? The people in the village wondered at that. Most took it as a good sign, an omen, that in death William and Barbara were together. Together forever.

And in the tavern to this day we offer a toast when we gather: "To Sweet William! To Barbara Allen!"


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