But Howard knew where it was going. They were going to travel to another building on the same lot or to another farm, where phase two of a piglet’s life would commence. A confinement facility. While some farmers raised their pigs from birth to slaughter, as he had, others sent their piglets off to contract farmers to finish the process. The truck ride was brief, indicating that they were only being moved to another building on the same property. Howard hadn’t been able to see much from the creep area, and could see nothing from inside the back of the truck either where his siblings and dozens of other piglets tumbled around together, losing their footing with each bump in the road. The truck came to a stop and they were corralled indoors and into a new pen.
Heart still racing, the piglet would have tucked his tail like a dog, if he still had one, and the tiny stump twitched instead. Though the amputation didn’t hurt anymore, the instinct to flick its tail, wag it, tuck it, remained. This pen was big. For now, at least. He shared it with many other piglets; all involuntarily and abruptly weaned from their mother’s milk quite a few weeks before nature intended. One or more of them might succumb to severe diarrhea as a result but daily doses of medication would help to prevent it in the majority. On each side of this metal enclosure was another pen, also with a dozen or so piglets, and so on and so forth for as far as his beady eyes could see. Slightly dazed, the piglet stood on the slatted cement floor, recently power hosed, and sniffed at the air. His eyes watered and he sputtered.
Ammonia and methane, among other gases.
“It’s only going to get worse, little buddy,” Howard thought to himself. The air right now was about as fresh as it was ever going to be for the pigs, for through the evenly spaced slats beneath their trotters was an eight-foot deep pit. And as it filled—and boy was it going to fill—the stench would grow more and more thick and putrid over time until it was toxic enough to kill a man should he enter the pit without a mask, oxygen tank, and rescue harness.
The piglet twitched an ear, pummeled by the cacophony of screeching piglets adjusting to their new surroundings, and something else too. An industrial sound. He looked up and around. The towering steel ceiling and walls were replete with fans and pipes: noisy air-extraction machinery. Howard knew that the farmhands also had regulatory face masks and ear protectors to wear as needed, due to respiratory illnesses and hearing loss being a genuine threat for workers. But alas, the pigs, with their round snouts, large nostrils and big floppy ears, would never receive a moment’s reprieve from it. As a farmer, Howard had indeed pitied the pigs this sensory hell, but had figured he shouldn’t give it much thought since they’d be dead soon anyway.
With a brave attempt at tuning out the noise, the piglet indulged a sudden twinge of curiosity and began to explore the enclosure. It seemed to Howard that with each passing week, as the piglet grew more wakeful, it was becoming more aware of its external world too, and beginning to feel strong, well, pig instincts: the desire to do pig things. One instinct of which, was to root. But there was nothing to root for, no ground to dig.
The piglet wandered about for a while, still with a spring in its step, being careful not to get its trotters stuck in the one-inch slat gaps, as occasionally happened to some of the others, much to their distress. The little creature hoped in its little heart to find something of interest in the pen, but there was nothing, of course, just a cluster of piglets snorting and bumping into one another as they wandered about. Howard sensed the intrigue gradually diminishing and fizzling out in the piglet’s heart; the death of a hope and curiosity it didn’t even understand, for how could it? It had never seen a blue sky or a grassy meadow, would never delight in the discovery of and the digging up of grubs, rocks, and roots, would never sunbathe and cool off in a refreshing muddy stream. All the things it longed for it couldn’t envision, yet it instinctively understood that what it desired could not, and would not, ever be found in this pen.
Feeling sleepy with boredom and very real disappointment, the piglet plopped down on the slats, already wet and soiled in places, and tried to make itself comfortable for a nap. Since Howard’s mind shared the piglet’s body, he could feel the hard cement against the piglet’s limbs as if they were his own limbs, and he could inhale the stench as if through his own nostrils. The piglet couldn’t understand how filthy and bacteria ridden the floor was, but it didn’t like being soiled. Even a piglet understood the difference between mud and feces. In the wild mother pigs prepared padded nests of straw for their offspring and took their toilet elsewhere. Mud was to cool off in because they didn’t have sweat glands, not because they somehow relished being dirty.
Again, Howard felt a sense of regret for the pigs, felt sorry that they had to endure such perpetual discomfort. A necessary evil, he’d always called it, for people had to eat. But now he could no longer console himself with the thought that it wasn’t worth worrying about since only temporary. One, because from his current vantage point, another four months to go felt like an interminable misery, stretching out ahead of him like a bed of hot coals that he’d have to crawl over on hands and knees. And two, because already he feared the additional physical pains and sufferings he was certain to experience within that time. He was trapped inside the mind of a pig, as trapped as this pig was in this pen, neither of them able to escape, and each knowing, deep down, that escape was impossible.
The piglet rested its chin on the cement, every inhale drawing air up from the cesspool below. Howard wanted to vomit, or was it the piglet who did? It was becoming more difficult to determine where he ended and the piglet started. Maybe he ought to give the little guy a name. He’d called him buddy before, perhaps that would do.
Buddy watched as soiled pink trotters pranced by, he glanced upward at the industrial ceiling lights from time to time, and occasionally he caught sight of a farmhand walking by outside the gate. The sight of the farmhand brought Toby to mind. What he was up to these days anyway? Probably taking over where had Howard left off when he what . . . when he died? Fell into a coma? It was likely easy for Toby to take over too; he’d already pretty much taken the reigns years back when Howard had to spend more time at home with his ailing wife.
Only forty years old when she began showing signs of Alzheimer’s. By fifty needing near-constant supervision. With too much debt to afford a full-time caregiver, Howard’s time was divided between the farm and the farmhouse. Though he hadn’t perished from grief, if not for Toby, he surely would have died from exhaustion.
Grief because Melvin was only sixteen when he died and Beverly was never the same after that. She blamed Howard. He understood. But a few years later she didn’t remember anymore.
Buddy drifted off to sleep, dragging Howard with him. When he awoke later, he went in search of food and fought with his siblings to get his due share. Soy and cornmeal. Crunch crunch crunch. Munch munch munch. The days drifted into weeks, which spread into months.
Each time Buddy opened his eyes from sleep, Howard experienced the same sickly sensation of a sinking heart—the let down as fresh now as it had been on day one. He was still here. Would he ever escape this cyclical hell? Or must he wait till the bitter end—the captive bolt to the head at the abattoir? Or electrocution perhaps, arguably the most humane method. Or maybe he’d end up at a slaughterhouse that used carbon dioxide gassing instead, his last few minutes of life screaming and flailing in terror as the suffocating poison filled his lungs. The only mercy was that Buddy, unlike Howard, did not know this was coming.
Buddy, who like his siblings, was gaining weight rapidly, and now weighed nearly one hundred pounds. Their pen, which had at once seemed so spacious, was packed with rotund pink bodies jostling about with only a few feet of space to move between them; about seven square feet per pig. His nostrils dribbled continually, breathing difficult due to chronic sinusitis, and he often had to breathe through his mouth. The only benefit of congestion was that it was harder to smell the steaming stench continuously radiating upwards from beneath their feet.
One of the pigs in his pen had developed a skin disease that progressed until great clumps of rotting flesh were sloughing off. Eventually a farmhand spray-painted the word “destroy” across its back. Soon it’d be taken away.
Even with the continual use of antibiotics, a percentage of Howard’s own swine got sick beyond repair and either died or had to be killed off; a financial loss each time. The bodies were piled in deep pits out by the farm lagoon, sometimes left to bake and fester in the summer sun for weeks on end before being buried. And sometimes disease came about not from the enclosed and cramped living quarters, but due to the violence of a farmhand—wounds from rough-handling that became septic and resistant to medicine. The majority of his employees had been regular, decent folk, however, the sort that did their job as best they could and tried to be gentle with the animals as much as possible. But sometimes pigs could be quite stubborn, not wanting to be pushed around. And if a farmhand lacked self-control, this kind of opposition was like gasoline on a spark.
Howard always fired the ones who were rough and abusive—that is, if he discovered it anyhow—but the one employee he could never let go of was his own son, Toby. He’d had to make concessions for the sake of family, urging the young man to at least contain himself while the other farmhands were around to witness. It was a double-standard he knew, but this was his son, his only living son. Melvin was long gone and Beverly needed his help: without Toby to manage the place, Howard would have eventually been ruined, gone bankrupt. Sure, he pitied the hogs who suffered the rod, but like the constant deafening noise and searing stench, this too had to be perceived as a necessary evil. People had to eat, and Howard had to provide for his family. He was in so much debt from upgrades and expansions that his once dreamed of profits remained ever elusive.
His grandfather had run a much smaller production that included a grazing field, but when Howard’s father took over, he filled that land with expanded indoor facilities so that they could raise more pigs, continue production during mid-winter, and keep prices down for consumers as well. The steady turnover made for a much more reliable income. Then, when Howard took over, young and ambitious, he bought a neighboring piece of land and built a second building, replete with pipes that pumped the sewage from the indoor pits into a large, man-made lagoon they had dug out back. Because the hogs were a commodity, a product on a conveyor belt, their comfort could only be taken into consideration in so far as it pertained to financial matters; disease and mortality rates specifically. Any consideration beyond that cut too deeply into net earnings.
Despite this, Howard treated the creatures with as much dignity as such circumstances allowed. It wasn’t his fault that Toby had grown increasingly rough with them over the years; hadn’t Howard always taught his sons and farmhands alike to be patient with the dumb animals? Besides, most of the time an isolated bout of violence didn’t result in the death of a pig anyway. They could live with bruising so long as the flesh wasn’t torn; at least then infection was avoided.
But one time Toby’s rage was so vicious that a sow had died.
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4 thoughts on “Howard Reed’s Brain”
Hi Bekah… I’m a university lecturer in Ghana West Africa. I admire your functions…
I wish to recommend one for my level 100 students under the course… Prose Fiction..
Sorry, I mean fictions in my previous comment…
Please we would be glad if you could give us a little background information about yourself for our analysis…
I’m at the Department of Modern Languages at the Presbyterian University College in Ghana…
Hello. 🙂 If you go to my “About the Author” page, there is more information about me there. Thanks! 🙂