Toby was forcing the unhappy creature back into a farrowing crate when she stomped down on his big toe, which despite being shielded by a steel-toe boot, was nevertheless crushed. Howling in pain, Toby reached for a rod and bludgeoned the poor creature so severely that she miscarried, and died in a puddle of tiny stillbirth piglets, afterbirth and blood.
Rushing in upon the noisy scene, Howard’s first reaction was to verbally lament the financial cost of losing not only a fertile sow but her offspring as well. Then he’d caught sight of the wide-eyed face of a farmhand watching them down the hallway. Instantly sobered, he began dealing with the mess as Toby limped away, and then lost several nights of sleep worrying if his son would be reported for animal cruelty. But apparently the farmhand had kept his mouth shut: time passed and no one showed up at the farmhouse with clipboard in hand. The fear faded and he tucked the memory away into the dark recesses of his mind. He didn’t tell Beverly what had happened either for she wouldn’t have understood; the light in her eyes long gone.
Now that a couple months of sharing the mind and body of a pig were past, Howard had developed a sense of affection and camaraderie toward Buddy; though he couldn’t remember feeling much of anything besides a detached and passive pity for the thousands upon thousands of pigs who had been in his care over the decades. They had seemed like a mindless entity to him, a pinkish school of fish so to speak, with each individual swallowed up as a whole. Yet here he’d come to perceive Buddy as an actual companion, a friend even, though with a much deeper empathy towards the creature from having shared every sensation and instinct. Howard used to think that people who ascribed emotions to animals were simply projecting their own onto them, and maybe they were to a certain extent, but he’d always done the opposite and ascribed them none at all.
When Melvin was around the age of twelve, he’d turned his nose up to Sunday dinner one day—a pork tenderloin—and said that he didn’t want to eat meat anymore. Beverly looked more surprised than anything else but Howard was furious. “Well I hope you like potatoes,” he fumed, “because you’re gonna be eating a helluva a lot of them from now on.” Melvin accepted the challenge silently, a sullen look on his face. Toby, then fourteen, had sniggered, eyes narrowed in crafty thought while he ate.
A month later, Howard found a stash of various canned nuts in the pantry, tucked away behind a bag of flour. Beverly seemed embarrassed when he confronted her, confirming his suspicion; she was catering to Melvin. “We can’t afford to be buying fru fru nuts for a wussy, cowardly brat who refuses to eat what he’s served,” he scolded her, waving a can of peanuts around in his hand. “Has no respect! The boy needs to man up. Let him eat carrots till he’s sick of ‘em and he’ll come crawling back, just you watch.” A pointed look.
After that, he set the can down on the kitchen table so gently it made no sound, and walked away, resigned. He knew that Beverly would continue to buy them and that he’d wasted his breath venting, but the sight of the nuts had triggered a cyclone of emotions within him, half of which he couldn’t decipher, and anger was the only way he felt safe to express it.
He’d also thought the boys weren’t around to observe or overhear this exchange, but later that afternoon when he was leaving the confinement building, he’d caught sight of his sons in a squabble in the distance, near the front of the farmhouse. Toby appeared to be taunting Melvin, waving something in his hand. As Howard approached he realized it was the can of nuts.
Breaking free from his brother, who’d grabbed him by the wrist, Toby yanked off the lid and whipped handfuls of peanuts every which way as he ran, laughing. Melvin didn’t chase after him but instead tramped off in the opposite direction, disappearing behind the house. This seemed to trip Toby up and he slowed his run to a stroll, tossing the empty can behind him with a deflated expression of boredom. The can landed on the dirt driveway and rolled in a half circle before coming to a stop.
“Pick that up,” Howard said sternly, reaching him. “Does this look like a landfill site to you? Show some respect.” He paused, considering. “And leave your brother alone, you hear?” Toby had rolled his eyes, then stooped down to grab the can. But he hadn’t left his brother alone. As more time past, his harassment toward Melvin seemed to increase in stride with his mistreatment of the pigs.
Every morning Buddy continued to awake with expectation, and sometimes with the same early hope, though nearly extinguished now, that still perked once in a while. He still dreamed of exploring, rooting, bathing—blind as those dreams were—the yearning like an ever present, gnawing hunger. The only real comfort and fulfillment he experienced was the bond he shared with some of the other pigs when they cuddled together at night on the squalid floor. Some of these pigs could no longer stand for long periods of time, having developed lameness in their feet due to lack of exercise, injuries, foot rot, or abscesses; their trotters and haunches caked in their own waste. And though the slats they slept and stood upon were usually wet from urine, when the excrement dried out it turned into an astringent dust, creating a haze in the air, despite the extraction fans.
The pigs were nearly two hundred pounds now, their pen soon to be standing room only as their bellies grew fat enough to provide plenty of bacon to consumers.
The missus served it with eggs, with pancakes, on sandwiches and burgers, wrapped around chicken, on fried rice, on salad, and even atop homemade maple donuts.
But now that Howard shared a body with Buddy, he could viscerally feel the very belly from which such candy would one day be cut with a butcher’s knife—along with all the rest of him—his hips and shoulders for ham; loin for chops, roasts, and steaks; ribs for short and spare; hocks and trotters for stewing, his ears for pork rinds, and various leftover pieces emulsified into meat batter for bologna and hot dogs; fat, organs, blood and guts for sausage.
When Melvin was fourteen, he started bringing a girlfriend around home to visit early spring. A slender thing with long wispy hair and sharp, incisive eyes. Her name was Lindsey. She didn’t eat meat either. The two of them used to sit there together during Sunday dinners eating their side dishes while Toby, across the table, exaggerated his delight in his hefty meat servings, just to annoy them. Sometimes Beverely scolded him for this, other times she frowned and said nothing. To his credit, Melvin seldom paid any mind, though this had the unfortunate effect of irking Toby all the more.
If Melvin had been pushy about his views, perhaps this would have been understandable, but the boy had a sensitive and reserved nature; making verbal protests only when he felt his view might not be obvious within given circumstances. His main way of demonstrating his sentiments was by refusing to participate in any rough-handling. When he helped around the farm it was of a nurturing manner—caring for newborn piglets and assisting veterinarians during on-site visits with duties such as administering medications and treating wounds.
Toby and a group of school friends had ganged up on Melvin one afternoon late that summer while Beverly was away from home doing a grocery shop. Howard heard snatches of baleful laughter and shouting carried on the wind while he was outdoors supervising a truck that was loading up hogs headed for slaughter. Instinct told him to go investigate, and when he did, he found the teens in the driveway at the foot of the farmhouse porch, clustered in a circle around something on the ground. Melvin.
At first he panicked, thinking they were kicking and beating Melvin, but it soon became apparent that this was not the case. Melvin was indeed pinned down but he wasn’t being pummeled. Instead, three eighteen year old boys were assisting Toby as he smeared fried bacon in Melvin’s hair and continually attempted to cram it into his mouth, coaxing and mocking him as he did. Melvin’s arms were restrained but he was doing his best to keep his mouth shut, resisting.
Howard watched from behind his pick up truck in the shade of an elm. He didn’t make his presence known, though his heart was hammering. Deep down he knew it was a fear of Toby that held him back, for the young man was hefty and muscular now; but he told himself that he would of course intervene if anyone started throwing actual punches. So he let the scene play out, his palms clammy and sweat gathering on his brow. At the time, he didn’t know how many nights he would later lay awake regretting this, haunted and robbed of sleep.
Footsteps padded on the dirt behind him, coming from the road and quickly getting louder, and he looked over his shoulder in time to see Lindsey rushing toward him. She must’ve witnessed the altercation from the roadway, on her way over to visit. “How can you just stand there?” she cried. “Help him!” She tore past Howard and lunged onto Toby’s back, yanking and pulling and screaming at him.
Toby elbowed her away effortlessly but let go of Melvin as well, whipping the bacon at his chest with a scornful laugh. The other teens let go too, in obedience to their leader, and the four of them strolled off in a row, high-fiving one another. Melvin scrambled to his feet, his hair mused at odd angles as though slicked with gel, and brushed off the seat of his pants. Lindsey took his hand and he followed her up the porch steps, looking dejected and humiliated. She had then glanced back in Howard’s direction with a cold, hard stare before opening the country screen door.
The days continued to expand inexorably into additional weeks and months, and Buddy now weighed more than two hundred and fifty pounds. Howard had lost all sense of time and could really only track it by watching the pigs grow in size—comparing their weight to their month of age. Otherwise it was just day after day of sleeping on waste, standing on waste, eating dry grains, drinking and sloshing water with the others; his snout congested and runny, eardrums numb from the endless roar, joints and feet at times sore and swelling. There was absolutely nothing to do and no room to do it in. Howard had no choice but to live out these days trapped in a feedback loop of agonizing memories combined with the sufferings of Buddy. Buddy, who merely existed in a state of on-going privation, all hopes for adventure and novelty utterly vanquished.
The culling of this particular group of hogs would soon be upon them: kill day. Buddy’s consciousness would be snuffed out forever and remembered by no one. No one but Howard, that is. And what was to come of Howard himself? Would his consciousness end too? Or would he awake in the body of yet another hog—worse still, a sow? For if there was a hell, this was assuredly it.
More time passed and at last the farmhands arrived to corral the hogs out of their pen, down the hallway, and onto an outdoor ramp leading into the back of a transport truck.
The foreign sunlight was searing and Buddy blinked repeatedly, tucking his head a little. It was sweltering outside too, indicating summertime. Some of the hogs squealed and protested, jerking and bumping about, and the workers had to use paddles and electric prods to keep them moving along. They then spritzed the animals’ backs with water once they were all packed inside; a method used to keep them somewhat cool as the truck first began its journey. Buddy had sustained several stinging scratches in the process—frightened comrades had trampled him in their alarm while being boarded—and now he stood still in the middle of the truck, surrounded on all sides, and tried to keep his balance as it began to move.
An hour of driving stretched into two. The water on their backs evaporated early on and it wasn’t long before heat stroke began to set in. At times Buddy swooned but he managed to keep standing, panting and parched, longing for a drink of water. If it had been spring or fall, they would have been fine. If mid-winter, perhaps they would have been chilled to the bone, even potentially frostbitten. Some farms were closer to abattoirs, of course, the journey only an hour. But not this one. And now, after three hours of travel, a couple of the pigs had collapsed from the heat, foaming at the mouth. The cramped space had become a virtual furnace while the drivers of the truck enjoyed their air-conditioned cabby.
Buddy remained frightened and miserable, languishing and longing for relief. Howard’s dread of what was to come morphed into the burning memory of Melvin’s final hour of life. And in this moment, in this truck, Howard felt closer to his lost son than had ever been possible before; though the heat that had melted his son’s flesh was far greater than this sauna.
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