Piggies PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brendan O'Donnell   
Friday, 12 March 2010 08:56

Halfway up a gentle hill behind the farmhouse, the three of us—Nate, Richard (our father-in-law/host), and I—leaned on the pigsty railing. It was a clear, dry autumn day—the sky a hard, cloudless blue, the sun a searing light dipping west. Every corner of the pen had been rooted up. No grass grew; just lean patches of weeds, a gaunt fruit tree, and a thicket of ancient berry vines where the pigs reclined. I let the .22 rest along the top rail.

“See how they tear up the ground?” Richard pointed.“But look at that, they crap in only one place. They’re real tidy about that.” Richard had a pistol in his back pocket and a knife in a sheath. He’d do one, and I’d do the other. But first, the man looked at his animals. Just, it seemed, for the sake of looking at them.

“Well, wanna get ‘em over here, Nate?”

Nate tipped a busted-up bucket of apples thudding into the stall. One of the pigs grunted. The sound came out of the center of her head. Richard called to them. “Hyeeere, piiigs . . . hyeeeeeeere, pig pig pig . . .” The other lifted her head, then dropped it back down. Thus they remained, unmoved by the apples.

“You’re doing a terrible job, Nate,” I said, and jabbed him with the stock. I thought my voice might crack in the middle of the joke. My chest felt like stone. Resting the rifle back on the railing my finger brushed the safety. There were so many ways to do it wrong.

Please, God, let me do this right.


A machine spanning the sliding doors roared down a wall of warmish air, and I passed into the fluorescent, air-conditioned supermarket. A wall of snack chips to my right and another of snack cakes coaxed me down a towering hall of cheap household-name food products. Ninety-eight cents: a tall bottle of ketchup with three glistening tomatoes on the label. Ten cents more: chili in an easy-open can from chest-high stacks, pictured spilling heartily off a hot dog. A buck ninety-eight: Dracula’s own chocolate-flavored bat-shaped marshmallow cereal packing the benefits of whole grain into each ¾ cup serving.

Passing from the high walls of cereal and ketchup into the comparatively pastoral produce section, I checked my shopping list. Three things: apples, bacon, whipping cream. Tubs of caramel greeted me by the apples. Some had no fat. Others had less fat. Yet others were decadently swirled with an indulgent cyclone of chocolate. I reached over them to gather five apples into a bag, about two dollars’ worth. The sticker on the apples said “Argentina 4017”.


Nate ignored me and hopped over the railing. “Gimme a stick,” he said, and Richard handed him a length of 2x4. The bigger sow sniffled at him. Nate whooped and thrust the stick into the thicket, slapping their behinds. “Get up pigs! Suppertime! Get them apples!” he hollered. The pigs scrambled to their feet, clumsy, graceless, alarmed. Nate raised the stick at them as they stumbled past him toward the railing.

Promptly, unceremoniously, they plowed into the apples, scattering more than eating, snout slime smearing on each other and their food, grunts coming from the center of their heads, absorbed, almost businesslike. Then a shrill contest of thrusts and squeals exploded out of nowhere—fixed on the same apple, they thrashed for five seconds until the bigger one got it. Then back to eating with quietness, the fight forgotten, a switch flipped. Richard laughed. Nate climbed back over to our side of the railing and we watched them a moment longer.

“Well, you wanna go?” Richard asked me.

“Can I just watch you do the one first?”

“Sure.” He took the rifle and drew it up to his shoulder, standing before the bigger pig. “Now, what you do is you draw an X from one eye up to the other ear,” he said, drawing in the air. “And you make sure the muzzle is perpendicular to that cross in the X. It’s quick, and it just drops them.” He held the muzzle eight inches from the pig’s bobbing head. She dipped for an apple and chewed it while looking directly through the fence at Richard’s knees, her head still. He sighted her in and pulled the trigger.

As if hearing the report before it had sounded, she jerked her head up.

The bullet entered her face halfway between her snout and her eye. Richard cussed.  Blood snorted from her nostril. Her head thrashed, insistent, violent, out of control, as if trying to shake the bullet loose, a sound between a squeal and a scream tearing loose from her throat.


The bacon was a city block journey from the apples. I dodged carts and shoppers down the aisleway past the refrigerated California produce. It stretched from floor to ceiling; over the tops of the apples and lemons and onions and potatoes the store ranged away in corridors. Razors, flour, graham crackers, popcorn. Peanut butter, greeting cards, potato chips, canned meats. Breakfast cereal, magazines, condensed milk, spatulas. Past a bulk section, stuff in bins with no brand names, a lot for a little, sweets and granola and pasta and dog biscuits. Then the deli. Sliced meat in heaps. Fried chicken parts. Pizzas. Sandwiches. Sushi. Much of it prepared today.

I found the bacon in a refrigerated unit on the wall populated by more-or-less smoked and smoke-flavored meat products. Hot dogs. Lil smokies. Maple-flavored breakfast sausage. Turkey hot dogs. Other meats, hotdog-esque. And just to the left of a cartoon-emblazoned wall of biscuits and baked goods in cans of many colors, a rather modest display of bacon.


Nate stood stock still. “Is that gonna kill her?”

Richard shook his head. “If it does, it’d take a long time.” He climbed over the railing. Producing the pistol from his back pocket, he stood before his suffering beast and fired at her shaking head. She did not fall, but shook and seized, her screaming clipped and shriller. Richard yelled, frustrated, hating her misery, and lunged forward, firing again, point blank, into the X.

She fell silent and dropped. Her body spent, her death throes shuffled her body on the earth less than a minute. Then she was still.

Richard dropped and cut her throat on either side of her jaw. Her blood flowed and blackened the earth. The smaller pig, huddling close to the railing, watched cagily as Richard wiped his face and sheathed his knife. He climbed back over, handed me the rifle, leaned on the railing, and groaned.

“You saw how she jerked her head up,” he said, after a minute.

“Yeah. Damn.”

“If that happens when you do it,” Richard said, “you gotta go in there like I did and plug her quick.”


“The adrenaline, the stress of it, messes with the meat. You want them to die happy.”

“She didn’t die happy. Is all that pork no good now?”

Richard shrugged. “No. Just not as good as it could be. But . . . you just don’t want them to have to die like that.”


Bacon came in a variety of packages, each claiming a precise weight but with different flavor and thickness options. Butcher’s Cut Thick-Sliced. 50% Less Sodium. Smokehouse Thick-Sliced 30% Less Fat. But I just needed regular old bacon. Hickory Smoked Bacon had the fewest adjectives. A family of four smiled from the label foreground; a big red barn beamed in the country sunlight in the middle distance. Wind-tousled green. Non-threatening heartland cumulus clouds. $2.78.

I grabbed the nearest package and flipped it over. The windows showed maroon-streaked white. Bleh. I stashed the package back on the shelf and flipped over another. Uneven slices, mostly white, a little maroon. Back to the shelf. Thus I rifled through another ten packages until settling on two finalists, each banded thickly with white fat, but each also brandishing a slice-length stratum of actual meat. “Eh,” I thought, tossing one back, “six of one, half-dozen of the other.”

Two items down, one to go, a block and a half to dairy. Turning, I encountered a mid-aisle display of pre-cooked bacon. Just south of four dollars for 2.1 ounces of pork needing no refrigeration. “Microwaveable!” exclaimed a badge on the box. A different family of four smiled in front of the same grassy, pigless farmscape that appeared on the uncooked Hickory Smoked package in my left hand.

Another city block, through twin pillars of brand-name corn chips boasting spectacular flavor combinations that did not exist the last time I’d been here. Past 98-cent cases of pouched, sliced meat products. Platter-sized packs of boneless meats asking $1.68 a pound. A row of four-pound things called ground turkey chubs, just under five bucks. Shrimp and fish and other things in grades ranging from Classic to Signature to Five Star, breaded, boxed, and frozen by a fisherman I’ve trusted since 1849. Tens of thousands of yogurts blending healthy things like strawberry and banana and kiwi in just one five-ounce cup, some featuring no fat, sugar, or, presumably, calories. Across from the yogurt I plucked a homely pint of whipping cream off a shelf next to a bottle of chocolate milk with a fun-loving, sunglass-sporting steer sloshing a glass of the brown stuff at me.

I completed my circumnavigation of the supermarket with another block-long stroll to the checkout lines arrayed like chutes across from the bread wall. My eyes scanned idly over the racks of gum and mints above the conveyor belt, pondering how bread has become a beneficial source of fish oils and fatty acids. Then I saw a new variation of some tinned mints I like. Reflexively, I reached out and dropped it on the conveyor with my other three items.


Apples crunched. The smaller pig returned to her eating.

“She’s calming down,” said Richard. “Give her a minute, though.”

The pig and I stood opposite each other. She chewed slower and warily, the other pig dead on the ground behind her. White, bristly hairs shone in the sunlight over her skin, pink mottled with islands of brown-black. She had docile eyes, an animal just minding her own business, living, eating apples. It wouldn’t get any easier just watching her. Maybe just go vegetarian.

“I’d better just do this, then,” I said.

I drew the X, finding at its center a lump of dried crud. Quietly I flicked off the safety and aimed, resting my arm on the railing.

She looked up at me, pieces of apple dropping from the sides of her mouth. A quick breath. Blow it out. Don’t turn back.

The report bounced cleanly off the hill opposite. A hole, black, in the crud. Her eyes shot straight up, as if looking for her forehead. The black hole remained fixed, inert. She hit the stall railing and slid down.

And she shook as if on a hinge bending within her body, her last, out of control, heartbeats shooting black blood from her nostrils and, finally, out of the bullethole. It pooled in a hoofprint between two apples by her snout.

Richard got back over the fence and cut two quick slashes just behind her jaw. Her blood flashed out of the wounds and over his knuckles. We watched her tremble until she lay still, and Nate and I pulled the rails off the posts. Richard wiped his hands off on his pants and said, “I’ll go get the tractor in here. You”—he handed me his knife—“cut through the skin behind her ankle so we can hook onto the tendons.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Richard started downhill for the tractor, patting my shoulder as he passed. “Good shot, there,” he said.

I knelt at her hind legs, the shock of killing fading, my hands steadying. She had died as quickly as a pig could die, her blood a placid black lake pooled around her head. I pinched behind her ankle and cut through the skin, exposing pink, still warm muscle and the off-whites of shinbone and tendon. Down the hill, the tractor roared to life. The sun up above dried the blood on my hands, my fingers cold and tacky, having dealt death so we could eat and have life.

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Last Updated on Friday, 12 March 2010 09:09