Howard Reed’s Brain

A short story by Bekah Ferguson.

Howard Reed submitted the signed paperwork promising he’d donate his brain to science, and died six years later.

At the hospital where he passed away late one night, a Brain Bank employee arrived to collect and transport the organ to a nearby laboratory. But unbeknownst to family, it never arrived there; instead, during transit, his brain was deliberately swapped with a John Doe’s. Thus, as far as everyone was concerned, Reed’s brain had gone just where it was supposed to go and where it would be sliced in half: one side to be frozen, and the other to be set in formaline for the purpose of autopsy. The identity of the donor would forever remain anonymous to the researchers who would only receive such tissue after their protocols were first approved by a Research Ethics Board. But Reed’s brain was not to be divided after all; nor was it anonymous. At least, not to the two scientists who bided their time awaiting his death, and had deliberately stolen it.

Inside their undercover laboratory—housed in the back corner of a private, sequestered hanger—they set to work. The equipment had long been prepped for the expected arrival and after a few switches were flipped here and a few keys punched there, machines and pumps were roused from their slumber. Industrial lighting flooded the corner area with artificial sunlight, above which black tarps had been draped to the floor in a tent-like fashion; blotting out the light. Any rare vehicle that might happen to drive by on the dirt road out front would see only the moonlit sketching of an abandoned building.

Cradled by latex-gloved hands, the brain was removed from its temperature-controlled traveling case and set down within a round glass container, not unlike an astronaut’s helmet. The body of the man had indeed perished but his brain was still very much alive. Micro-circulation was restored to the blood vessels with absolute precision from bags of artificial blood, and electrodes were inserted all over the organ. Attached tubing trailed away from both the brain and the container: down over the side of the lab counter, straight across the floor, and up into the sides of a tubular liquid-filled vat.

Through the oval windows of the vat a two hundred and eighty pound Sus domesticus pig floated in the greenish water; a myriad of internal cables gathering together where they’d been attached around the sides of the animal’s skull, connecting to the memory center of its brain. More measures were taken, a lid sealed into place encapsulating the human brain in its preservation chamber, and levels were checked on the various computer screens. Then the meticulously-planned upload commenced.

And so it came to be that the deceased Howard Reed awoke to find himself fully conscious inside the mind and body of a piglet.

As disoriented as he was, he quickly deduced two inexplicable things about himself. One, that he still retained all his own thoughts, perceptions, and memories, and two, that he’d also subsumed the mind and sensations of the piglet within whom he now resided. They shared, as it were, one mind. At least, on his end. The pig, lacking the frontal cortex of a Homo sapien, probably lacked the ability to share in this joint consciousness too; Howard could only assume that this symbiotic mind was known to him yet unknown to the pig.

He pondered his situation intensely for a only a few minutes, however, standing stalk still in a trance as other piglets fumbled around him, before he could no longer ignore the hollow burning in his throat—er, the piglet’s throat. Hunger. So he looked around for the first time, blinking, and immediately deduced his location.

The creep area of a farrowing crate.

Something else was burning too however, almost to the point of eclipsing his hunger. Both his behind and his crotch. Ooh. He need only glance around at the other piglets to know. They all had one-inch red-tipped stumps not yet healed from tail-dockings. And between his legs . . . Oh again. Castration. He remembered now. Remembered? Why these must be the piglet’s memories then. A shudder rippled through his body at the recollection: the slice of the scalpel, the tugging, pulling, cutting, all without anesthetic.

As the piglet’s eyelids drooped, Howard’s ability to concentrate faded, like a creeping vertigo. A sibling bumped into him and he fell over. Another walked over him, the pressure of one little trotter squeezing the air from his lungs for a half second. He struggled to get his footing again, and stood up. Refocusing, Howard found himself looking around for his—er, the piglet’s—mother.

There she was, lying on her side close by, separated from the piglets by bars. They could reach her udder through the gaps but would never be able to cuddle her. Surprised to find his desires so at one with the piglet’s, Howard fought for a place to nurse and drank with great gulps until full; vaguely aware in his periphery of a couple of detached, shivering runts. When he finished nursing, his instinct was to explore the enclosure and spend more time contemplating his peculiar situation. Instead he succumbed to sleepiness, drifting off into a milk-induced slumber.

When he awoke, he woke as one might do from a bad dream. With a sense of relief. Not as from a nightmare per se, but certainly from a dream perturbing in nature. Unpleasant, but not horrific. Yet as his vision came into focus, a sense of dread welled up within him, for all about were mounds of pink: to be precise, little pink bodies with frizzy fur. He was still a piglet.

The sow was standing up now, eating from a machine-fed trough. It released a specific portion of food and water for her daily. Howard knew this because Howard was a hog farmer. A third generation hog farmer. He also knew that the sow had just enough room to stand and lie down; turning around was impossible. Chewing on the bars was about the only thing she could do. And she would live her entire life this way, a truncated four or five years. He trotted over and peered up at her. She looked like a giant. His whole life he’d been looking down at pigs—this was the first time he’d ever been dwarfed by one. On her shoulder was an ulcer, one that appeared to be partially-healed in some areas and fresh in others. A chronic wound, no doubt. She likely had one on the other side too. He’d seen it many times throughout his career. A difficult problem to avoid in farrowing crates, but he’d learned to keep it out of mind.

But how could he be here, inside a piglet’s brain? His last memory was of being deathly ill in a hospital bed. Had he died and been reincarnated? No, that’s not how it worked; at least, he didn’t think that’s how it worked. Could it simply be a dream within a dream? He sure hoped for the latter, though what would he awake to if it was? The grim faces of his middle-aged son and daughter-in-law sitting next to his death bed? And then what. Ah yes, he remembered now. He’d signed papers promising the donation of his brain to science. He’d also bequeathed the farm to his eldest son only—not because of favoritism or birthright, but because his younger son was dead, and wouldn’t have wanted it anyway.

A couple of hazy weeks or so went by and Howard revisited these thoughts again and again throughout the days, in-between nursing and sleeping. Each time he awoke it was with a sense of long-suffering, calmly waiting for the dream within a dream to end. For despite the passage of time, he figured it was quite possible that he—the man—had only been asleep for a few hours. The mind was funny that way. But he had to admit that each time he awoke to the same plight he grew a little more discouraged, and a little more frightened.

The two shivering runts continued to starve until one day a farmhand came and lifted them both out of the creep area by their hind legs. They were too weak to give much of a protest, not even a squeal. Howard and the piglet watched the man lumber off with them down the walkway flanked by endless farrowing crates, until he was no longer in sight. The piglet looked away, but Howard could still see the rest in his mind’s eye. In some back room of the building the piglet skulls would be dashed upon a concrete floor or wall—twice, even thrice, if the first time wasn’t enough. Or perhaps alternatively they’d be dropped into a sealed bucket of carbon dioxide where they’d asphyxiate. He’d used both methods himself.

And his youngest boy, Melvin, had despised him for it. Howard’s theory at the time had been that a young boy would grow desensitized to such things with enough exposure; simply get used to it. Just as he had and his grandfather and great-grandfather had, and every farmhand fresh out of high school had. His eldest son, Toby, too. But not Melvin.

The child just stood there near the open door of the soiled room, body rigid; blood spots dribbling down his rubber boots from the spray. His ten year old face looked anemic with shock, pupils dilated with strong emotion. It was if Howard had killed a puppy.

After that, Melvin became withdrawn—a shadow version of himself. Though he remained deferential to his father, where once his eyes had danced at the invitation to spend time together, he now made less than subtle efforts to get out of it. This pained Howard deeply, though he did hope in time that the boy would develop an understanding, and get over it. So he kept him busy with benign duties around the farm, despite the feeling like he was coddling the boy; and wondering all the while if he should have kept bringing him back to that room until the child could finally see the thing as normal and acceptable. But he couldn’t bring himself to repeat the scenario, couldn’t bear to see his son looking at him like that again. Besides, there were plenty of other farmhands who didn’t mind doing it, and there was Toby of course. Toby who at times even seemed to enjoy it.

Another week in the creep area passed by quickly—quickly because the piglet spent most of his time snoozing—and the time came to be transported to another building. Two farmhands lifted the piglets out of the creep area by their hind legs and dropped them into a wooden box on wheels. The screeching and pandemonium of all his siblings frightened the piglet—and with Howard along for the ride, pushed its way to the back of the enclosure, tiny heart palpitating.

Though Howard was as cognizant of his surroundings and circumstances as he had been as a man, while feeling everything viscerally and emotionally that the piglet felt as well, he lacked motor control of any sort. Where the piglet went, he went, and he did whatever the piglet wanted to do. But being mentally in-sync with the piglet’s body, he was very much in agreement with the animal’s choices; eager to eat when hungry and to sleep when tired. It had been a drowsy handful of weeks, which greatly limited his capacity to meditate on his perplexing situation. And this was the first time that he, rather, the piglet, had felt distinct fear.

It was scared. It didn’t know where it was going.

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Bekah Ferguson

Hello and welcome. :) I’m the author of the contemporary romance novels, When the Fog Cleared and A White Rose, and many short stories (sci-fi, paranormal, fantasy, coming-of-age). I live in Ontario, Canada, with my husband, Robbie Ferguson (Category5 Technology TV), and our three children. I'm a "My Fair Lady" of sorts, egalitarian and LGBTQ-affirming, with a passion for philosophy, psychology, and history. I mostly write fiction, but also blog about my various Christian musings from a progressive perspective. you can follow me on Facebook & Twitter.

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