Jeff Wallace is a 2007 graduate of Indiana University's MFA program in fiction and the 2006 winner of Appalachian Heritage's Plattner Award. Wallace's publications include Keyhole Magazine, Appalachian Heritage, New Southerner, The Louisville Review , and Plain Spoke. He lives in Hillsboro, Ohio.
Root Hog: A Jack Tale
“You gonna look for work today?” Patty asked. Jack hadn’t heard her come out onto the porch. He’d thought to sneak up to the barn, to fool with the hogs a bit before her and their boy Andy awoke. The hogs were growing fast. He could hear them up there now, rooting in their pen, wanting their feed.
The door creaked shut, loud on rusty hinges. How had he missed that? He would have to oil it soon. Another thing on a list that grew everyday. It was amazing how much work came about when a man had no work to do.
Reluctantly, he turned to face her. She was wrapped in her pink bathrobe, a cup of coffee in her hand. Her hair, naturally curly, was a red rat’s nest of tangles from sleep. This is how she looked when he was at home on the weekends. Pretty, in a woken-child type of way. But womanly too. The worn robe, thin as it was, hinted at curves and softness underneath.
“In a bit,” he said. “How you can stand to drink coffee in this heat, I’ll never know.”
“It ain’t even hot yet,” she said. She came closer to him, her bare feet moving lightly across the rough boards. She put her empty hand on his wrist, below the scars that ran the length of his forearms. The birds had left those, beaks tearing as they swung like pendulums on their foot-nooses. He hated the puckered ribbons of skin, but her fingers, light and cool, always seemed to find them and trace them lovingly. “Work’ll turn up. You’ll see,” she said. It had been six weeks since he’d been suspended. A week since they fired him. A month since they’d made love.
“Plenty of work to do here,” Jack said. “Just not likely to be paid for it.” He slipped from her grip and moved away, off the porch and towards the barn. He tried not to hurry.
The barn sat on a rise along the tree line. There was a small pasture off to its south side, nearly two acres, where Jack kept two cows and a mule. He’d bought the cows as calves to slaughter and sell, and the farmer he’d bought them from said he’d throw in the mule for free. Jack had known the old man wanted rid of it. Not much work for a mule, and on a small farm, a working one, an extra mouth meant a lot. The mule was enormous. But the farmer had been shrewd enough to say it in front of Andy. Jack had still been close to turning the old man down, but the old man had half-joked that he would have to sell the mule for glue. Andy, soft and sickly as he was, had cried at that, and the mule had been loaded into the trailer beside the calves. Andy had named it King Arthur.
The hogs were big already, nearly two-hundred pounds, and dug at the sides of their pen with their snouts. He’d put rings into their noses to try and stop them, but they worked the ground relentlessly, snuffling and rooting in the dirt for any feed they may have missed. The pen was built on the back of the barn, beech trees growing around its three sides like a horseshoe. The locust posts shook from the animals’ weight when they bumped it, the two-by-fours that he’d nailed on the bottom of the pen rattled, and the barbed wire for the rest of the fence vibrated in his hands as he leaned over the pen.
Above the pigs, in the loft of the barn, he heard the mewling of kittens. He had two females and a wandering tom had gotten to them both. He’d noticed the swell of their bellies earlier in the summer, knowing that something would have to be done. But like everything else, it had become too much. If Andy saw them they would stay. Jack could see that fight, feel that pain. The boy was sick. The kittens would stay. He inhaled the sluggish air, taking in deeply the hot and alive smell of the hogs.
He was proud of them, glad that he could help make them so large and strong. Their power was palpable, their strength vibrated in the air. Jack thought that he could see them growing, adding fat and muscle, even as he watched them fight and struggle after their feed. Their black and white bodies were caked in the mud and excrement, but they never let up. The heat and the wet had raised a glorious stink.
Marvin Delaney, the shift manager, had been the one who told Jack to do the job that got him fired. He had told Jack they were sick, and they needed to be got rid of before it spread to the others. The machines couldn’t be used for it because of the fear of contagion. Marvin had given him a white dust mask and a pair of yellow leather gloves and told him to kill them, simple as that. And just as simply, Jack had done it.
His normal job had been simple. He stood at the end of a conveyor system that carried and killed the chickens. The birds were attached to the system by another man at the beginning of the line. This man took the birds and secured a noose around their feet. The birds were carried by the noose, one after another, five per minute. They were first given an electric shock meant to stun them. They were dipped, head deep, into a small tank of electrified salt-water. The birds were loud before this step. Usually, afterward, they were silent. They were then lifted up and brought between two small spinning, humming blades, usually removing their heads. The heads would bang and bounce down a small metal trap. Their bodies would move slowly down the line, headless and bleeding-out into a blood trough on the floor. The blood would be used for meal and feed. After they had been sufficiently bled, the line would carry them to scalding tanks where they were dipped to loosen feathers. That is the way the line was supposed to work. Often, the birds were not stunned. Often they would avoid the spinning blades. Often, Jack had to do his job. Jack’s job was a simple one. He stood between the scalding tanks and the head blades. If the machines did their job, Jack he would let the bird pass by, or, if the bird still lived and fought, he would grab it and, using a company issued razor, cut off its head. It was to be humane. He would collect the heads on his right side and hang the birds to bleed over a stationary trough on his left. Jack did this job everyday.
The work that got him fired had been different. He’d gone into the quarantined section of the plant, anticipating that the birds would be caged. Instead the chickens had been loose on the concrete floor. The sound of the clucking and cooing mixed with the sound of their nails. The room was loud and dark and hot and the fans were off because of the quarantine. The room was tight with him and the two hundred birds. It smelled heady and sour, like stale beer and burnt black-powder.
He’d had to bend and catch them, the razor held tight in his left hand. He scooped them up one at a time, and as they fought and pecked at him, he had had to switch the blade to his right hand and the bird to the other. There was no place for the heads, no place for the flopping bleeding bodies. After the first few birds, they all seemed to know his purpose, and their struggles intensified. Jack’s anger rose with each peck and scratch.
Finally a panicked bird pecked at his face and went for his eyes. Jack turned his cheek, the beak catching him below his left eyelid, and he slammed the bird on the floor. The scratch below his eye stung from the sweat and grime of the moment. He could feel the blood on his face, the wound open to the air, alive. The bird squawked on the ground and tried to move. Something was broken in it—a wing, a leg. Jack didn’t care to look. He reacted, moving instinctually. He kicked at it, one steel-toed boot holding it down, the other finishing it off. From then on, for the rest of the afternoon any bird that fought or ran Jack kicked to stun or kill. The meanness of it—someone had reported the condition of those birds—was what had done him in.
It had been two full months now since he’d touched Patty. Not that they hadn’t tried. She said nothing of it. But he thought he could see something in her that was different, something in the way she moved around him. She seemed heavier, like something had pulled all the lightness, all the woman-ness out of her. It was him, he knew. And when she looked at him her eyes had changed. Still love there, but tinged with sadness. And pity, he thought.
The nights they tried, the nights when he felt his touch become awkward against her skin and felt his body rebel against his desire, Jack dreamed about those birds. He dreamt that they would jump on him, pinching and searching for feed, dying for his blood, never stretching their necks to beg for mercy. Their pointed spurs were impossibly sharp, their nails ribboned his shirt, his skin. He would wake in the mornings, sweaty and confused, the wedding quilt his grandmother had made him dank, his fingers biting at the seams. Always, the feeling of the birds swarming around his ankles, and he knew that if he fell they would eat him alive.
A month later, the fall rains still hadn’t come. The heat still held the land, squeezing from it every bit of color and life. The pastures had all gone to dust. The hay supplies had begun to run low much too early. Jack, though he knew they would be too spare to turn a profit, had slaughtered the cows the week before. They had cost five hundred for the pair, but now, with money running low, four hundred for them had been a boon. “Puny things,” is the way Patty had described them. She was right. But to make sure the mule stayed in food through the winter it had to be done.
Jack stood in front of the mule now. It was the biggest mule Jack had ever seen, nearly eighteen hands. Jack guessed its weight at over fifteen-hundred pounds. It was buck-skin in color, its mane a distinct black. Jack reached out his hand. Like a dog, it lowered its head below his hand, wanting to be patted and scratched. He complied, the sleek hair cool against his hand. Its brown eyes watched his face. If a mule could smile, this one would, Jack thought.
He had still not found work, and with fall coming it was doubtful that he would before spring. Production was down everywhere. The only ones that seemed to have money were the ones who had enough to start with and it seemed like those folks meant to keep it. He felt like he was owed something but didn’t know what. He scratched at the mule. It knickered and showed its front teeth, laughing. It turned from him and bounded away a few feet then stopped.
“Too hot for that nonsense, ain’t it King.”
The mule looked back and then walked farther away. It had worn a spot in the earth down not just to earth but to dust. Andy loved to watch it roll there, and days when the boy felt better Jack would carry him up and Andy would sit on Jack’s shoulders. The bones of his thighs were like kindling, and his pelvis would push into the base of Jack’s neck like dull blades. Andy was worse now. He rarely left his room and school had become an afterthought. And with the boy home, and Patty finding a part-time at the grocery, Jack couldn’t leave the house to look for work.
The fight came suddenly out of the morning calm. Worse, it was in front of Andy.
“Any plans for the day?” Patty asked.
“Stick near to the house, I suppose,” he said.
“The barn, you mean.”
“Yeah. Work to be done.”
He had fried eggs for them, made the coffee. She picked at her eggs. Andy was dumping ketchup on his.
“Those cats,” she had said.
He stood, suddenly angry. His chair pushed away and tipped as he stood. It fell to the floor with a crack. “Goddamn it,” he said. “I’m trying.” He squeezed the coffee mug in his hands. He tried to take a drink to calm himself. He didn’t know what he meant when he said it. The sound of the chair had raised Andy’s eyes to him. The coffee was cold in his mouth, the feel of it gagged him, and he spit it back into the cup. “Son of a bitch,” he said. Andy began to cry and broke into a hard cough. He choked as he sobbed.
Patty had lifted the boy from his seat and laid him across her lap, his chest on her knees. She pounded his back with the sides of her fists. Jack stood there silent, feeling the sun coming through the windows, the heat of it on his neck and back, staring into his mug of coffee. He looked from it to Patty, Andy rasping in her lap.
He moved his arms out, as if in embrace, as if he could explain the heat and the wretchedness inside of him, but he could not. Turning he sat the cup on the counter and walked out the door.
He walked on to the hog pen. Of the whole farm they were the only ones who seemed to be unaffected by the heat. Quite the opposite. As the sun ground out the life from the world the hogs seemed to be fueled by it. Patty had called them solar powered for a short time, starting it as a joke. It had turned sinister as the hogs continued to grow larger and wilder.
The mud in their pen was still deep, the only place on the spread not turned brittle. They had already been fed this morning. Jack had come up and done it before dawn. The world had been shades of purple and black then, the mud turned to frozen crude, the hogs’ skins tattooed in tar and blue-electric, their flesh shivering with energy. They had not even looked at him, just at the corn-feed and the slop from last night’s dinner. They’d been on it before he was finished dumping it into the mud. He’d watched them wrestle over it, their snouts burying as much as they uncovered. He’d begun to fear them, their size, but he kept on.
Even now he wanted to get them more feed. They didn’t need it, he knew, but they wanted it. He should water them, too. Spray them and their pen while he was at it. He’d take some up to King after he was finished with them. He wanted to go to King first, but was bound to the hogs.
He stepped into the dark of the barn. The motes drifted in the light from between the slats, the corn and straw dust swirled though the straps of light. His eyes adjusted slowly. The cats were slinking in the shadows. He could hear them over his head in the loft. His father had built this barn and there were still some of his father’s tools hanging on rusted nails. Two notched and chipped tobacco blades hung on the wall away from him. A milk jug sat in the corner. It had dog food in it from years and years before. There was still the smell of cow. There was a polite cough from back in one of the stalls.
“Patty?” he asked.
“It’s me,” she said. She stepped out from the stall gate. She’d been tucked away behind a post.
“What are you doing up here?” he asked her. He felt his skin prickle. The barn was cooler than the outside but there was no breeze.
“I was watching you watch the hogs.”
“I was gonna feed them again,” he said. “Give’em some water.”
“What about me?” she asked. “What do you have for me?”
She walked out to him and took his hands and wrists. And again, by some second sight, she found the scars and traced the puckers.
“I wish you wouldn’t” he said.
“And I hate those hogs.”
She stepped backwards into the stall, leading him by his hands. He could see their slat-split shadows. It reminded him of dancing silhouettes, black construction-paper cut outs spun on a wheel, made to look alive by moving in guttering light. As they crossed over into the straw floored stall she dropped his hand and began to undo the buttons of her shirt. He watched her unclasp her bra. He started to undress, and his fingers shook as he fumbled at his belt. He kicked at his boots trying to get them from his feet. He looked up and saw her fully naked. Her curly hair hung past her shoulders. She was smiling. She was a beautiful woman.
“Let me,” she said. She crouched naked on the floor, her fingers undoing the laces to his boots quickly and efficiently. He slid his feet from them easily.
“Andy,” he said, an excuse. His voice, even to himself, sounded plaintive.
“No,” she said
He lay down on the dirt floor of the stall, and she on top of him. They moved together then, for a moment, for a while. She reached down and lifted his hands and he saw his scars, the dashes of pink. He felt himself start to go soft inside her. A choking and slippery desperation twisted in his chest like a leech.
“No,” she said again. She kissed at the scars, on them. Her thin pink lips brushed at his rucked skin, matching the color of the scars. He shuddered, the flickering images of animals—the hogs, the cows, the King—crackled in his mind, alive, and he finished. He watched her smile down at him.
“That was nice,” he said. The dust and smell of the barn seemed to settle over them. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” she said. And then “Do you hear that?”
The hogs were screaming in their pen. “I wonder what’s got into them,” Jack said.
“Jealous,” Patty said.
“I’d better check.” They dressed together slowly, smiling and speaking in whispers. The hogs would go silent for a moment and then erupt into screeching. Jack hurried to tie his boots.
He stepped out of the barn bare-chested. The wind brushed against him, giving him a chill.
He looked into the pen, and there in the mud were the bodies of three of the barn cats. They were torn apart, their blood and guts mixing with the mud and shit of the hogs. Struck dumb, Jack stared at them, wondering how they had gotten there, why so many had made the same mistake. He wondered this as another cat fell into sight and onto the hogs.
Jack looked up, and in the open loft stood Andy. He was holding another of the cats, a gray and black short-hair. He held it with one hand by the ruff of its neck like a mother would a kitten. He looked at the cat and then at his father.
“Stop,” Jack said, and as he said it Andy dropped the cat. It didn’t make a sound as it fell. The pigs moved towards it, their sharp teeth were on it as it hit the ground. It fought and struggled but didn’t get away. Patty had come out. She was fully dressed. She stood next to Jack, her hand on his bare back. Andy, slight as a card, disappeared into the dark of the loft. He came back holding another cat, this one squirming uselessly in the boy’s hands.
“Son, you gotta get down out of there,” Jack said. The boy was in his underwear, he hadn’t even bothered to put on shoes. In summers past he would have been dark brown. But he was pale, almost blue in the harsh light. He held the cat briefly above the hogs before letting it go. The blue of him looked like an electric arc.
Andy went back in and when he emerged again, he held a cat upside down by its hips. He was apologizing and begging the cat to forgive him. Again Jack tried to talk to him, to slow him down, but the boy was deaf to him, smiling.
Andy held out the cat, a large calico, and it started to slip from his hands. Jack watched as his boy tried to catch it, lurching out and grabbing it by its tail for control. The animal swung round at the boy like a loaded sling. It latched onto his thigh, its claws digging in, and then climbing up his body. Jack saw the zipper of blood swell in teardrops from the boys legs and up his chest and up his arms, marking him in thin red ribbons. Andy screamed and pitched forward, pinching at the animal as he fell. Behind him, Jack heard Patty whisper, “Oh, God.”
Jack jumped the barbed wire and boards as his son fell into the pen onto the backs of the pigs. The monstrous animals were dazed by the sudden weight of the boy. They started, stepping backwards slightly, and then came rushing.
Jack leaped in front of them He kicked at their snouts and at their eyes. He slipped in the muck and beat at them with his hands, gaining ground and moving them slowly away from his boy. Their sharp teeth bit into his forearms. One began to bite at his thighs and calves. Andy lay behind him nearly naked and bleeding in the stinking muck, seeming to wait, asleep, for his father. Jack turned and lowered to scoop him up. The hogs continued to batter at him. He could feel the heat on them, the coarse hairs on their backs rubbed on his arms. He stood and carried Andy towards the pen’s edge. Patty screamed at him, “Hurry, hurry,” holding out her arms like a basket. The hogs bit and shook at his legs and at his pants as he handed the boy to Patty. He struggled over the fence. But even as he climbed, the hogs pulled at his boots.
Jack stumbled into the yard. He watched as Patty carried Andy to the house. The boy was squirming in her arms. Jack heard thunder far off, booming like footsteps. He walked, following her, shaking and shivering. Behind him the hogs still screamed and worked the ground.
He had watched the clouds creep over the land, their lack of speed showing a lack of wind. He watched the rain come slowly and inexorably up the hollow as he loaded his rifle. The rain came down in straight hard sheets, pounding at the earth and scouring it in a way the sun could not. The dust of the road and of the hillsides turned to mud and began to wash out. Rivers of red clay and earth wept down the hills. He could see the King rejoicing in the pasture, rolling in what had been his dust but now had turned to cool mud.
Jack was at the pen’s edge when the rain finally reached him, the cold rain delicious on his skin. He brought the sights of his gun down on one hog and then the other, killing the giants himself.