Life was sweet.
But when I turned eight years old, I hit a bit of a wall. My golden streak kinda ended. It’s hard to imagine that it could change so fast, that I could lose that carefree joy so early, because everything had seemed so simple and easy. I lived in a small town in Indiana where nothing really bad ever happened. Occasionally, Jesus was mad at me for touching David Carter’s penis on the playground, stuff like that, no big deal.
I’m the youngest of three kids, all daughters. Which is fine except my dad wanted me to be a boy so bad. I am not, in fact, a boy, and since my mom got her tubes tied right after having me, all that baby boy energy fell directly and solely onto me. I was my father’s favorite little let down. When I was eight years old, it was decided I should start learning the family business because it was also the age that my father had started working on the farm. Up until this point, my concept of the family business and being a farmer was very naïve and sweet, that it wasn’t unlike the delicate care one might instill on one’s pet Tamagotchi, or the relationship Doc Hopper’s wife had with a family of raccoons she adopted that shared her bed every night. It was simple. Every year was the same. My dad would buy a couple hundred pigs, raise them till they were the ripe old age of one, and then they died of natural causes, all mysteriously at the exact same time. Suddenly rich in meats, we would share the bounty with our friends and neighbors, as our pig friends would’ve wanted it.
So when my father finally asked me to help one day after school, I remember I was so excited. I ran upstairs, threw on my overalls and boots, and got fully ready for a day working hard at scratching pig bellies until they fell asleep in the waning sunlight. I took my dad’s hand, and we began walking toward the barn when he told me, “Jim is over here waiting for us in the back…”
Him saying Jim was going to be there scared me because to me our hired man Jim was everything my parents had told me to fear, yet here he was working for my Dad. He had been working for my dad since before I was born. Jim loved terrible hair metal like Whitesnake. Jim had a ponytail and yellow tobacco-stained teeth. I felt especially uneasy when I found out Jim was an atheist, which was the worst thing in existence, to my knowledge. It went spiders, Ryan Truex, the wrath of Jesus, atheists. I knew my dad was a schmuck for being nice to him. He was always so open and warm to people. But me, I never took my eyes off of Jim. As Psalm 14:1 tells us believers, “The fool has said in his heart there is no god; they are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good.” So I didn’t fucking get it.
But as we walked to the hoghouse, I tried to remember, Jim or no Jim, I was finally getting to help. It was that magic hour of light in evening, sun getting low and golden red. My grandfather was standing at the hoghouse door, picking at the scabs on his bald head, and sure enough Jim was standing beside him waiting with these weird looking scissors in his hand, I’m thinking to myself, Somebody better watch that motherfucker. Then, I looked up at my dad and he is smiling down at me, and I suddenly feel included in some important tradition. This is awesome.
What is not awesome, however, is actually walking into a hoghouse in summer. I’m going to go ahead and presume that you have not had the privilege to visit such an establishment. Before you even open the door, you can hear the squeals and screams of hundreds of pigs. Walking inside, you are choked by the stagnant, sour air. Rats scurry out between your legs, chased by cats as you make your way through. There are these shitty plywood corridors connecting the different buildings and, when you walk, the hanging lights shake, casting spooky shadows on the walls.
It’s hard to explain what it feels like to walk into a narrow, claustrophobic hallway where hundreds of sentient animals live huddled over their own shit, crawling over one another like moms at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, for their entire lives.
“What are we going to do?” I ask my dad. I’m starting to feel a little nervous again.
“We just need to help the baby pigs,” he says.
I feel relieved. The nursery part of the hoghouse is much quieter, more peaceful. It’s my favorite. The pigs are just days old and they haven’t figured out that shit sucks yet. They haven’t realized that they aren’t going to actually get Master’s degrees, or whatever. They are new, they are clean, sweet, they are three days old and they are ready to learn what’s in store for their future.
“We have to trim their tails off,” my dad tells me. And I was so innocent I thought for a second, but their tails don’t have any hair to trim. Then I knew what he meant. Suddenly, it makes sense to me why Jim is carrying shears. Jim turned and interjected, “If we don’t trim their tails off, they will bite at each other, bite the tails, bite em’ off and get infections.” Typical atheist, I thought – always thinking everyone’s out to get one another.
I’m still processing what Jim said when suddenly we are in the nursery and my grandfather is handing me a baby pig. Its nose is twitching and snorting, it is smooth and it has one spot on its back, just like a puppy named Socks I used to have. I was holding the pig like I would a baby doll. But my Grandpa started saying, “You’ve got to hold it real tight, like this.” He forces my hands onto the pig’s back legs and now it is dangling in front of me, squirming and squealing. It occurs to me that the pig is scared, and so am I. Its tail is perfectly curly and coiled, thin like a balloon string. It’s hard to hold on because I’m little and I realize I’m shaking. Jim is reaching over with the shears.
I look around nervously for my dad but he is across the room rounding up the other piglets. Before I know it I hear a snap like the buttons on my favorite rain slicker and blood is streaming down the pig’s smooth belly from where the tail once was, legs kicking against me wildly, screams higher and louder. Small spurts of red spray onto my boots and overalls as my grandfather takes away the piglet, dabs the tiny stump with purple iodine and throws it down in the pen, where the rest of its blood drips a trail as it runs as far away from us as it can.
“Does it hurt?” I turn and ask my grandpa. He shakes his head, not looking at me, already handing me another piglet.
“Nah, it don’t hurt, here, hold him real tight.” Even at eight I knew it was a lie. Each pig’s screams as they are cut tell me different: we are a factory line of amputation.
This goes on for I don’t know how long, until I look between my feet and under the metal grates of the floor to see the thin pink curly fry tails of dozens of baby pigs piling up and floating in a cesspool of shit, piss, and blood, surely the worst kind of pool imaginable. I’m slightly in shock, and remember the time my mom made me wear oven mitts when I had the chicken pox so I wouldn’t scratch. What if she had just cut off my fingers instead? Was cutting the tail off really the only way to keep them from chewing on them? Wasn’t there some kind of remedial pig program to help? Was it possible the pigs were in their minds praying to an invisible pig in the sky and writing this whole massacre off as somehow his divine piggy will? Were the pigs in fact having the same debates about pig God that Jim and my father were having about man God?
I taste pennies in my mouth and realize I’ve been chewing my nails. My hands are still covered in pigs’ blood. I feel dizzy as I walk out of the building with my dad. The sun has gone completely down. I shuffle away in the dark to the back of the hoghouse, towards home, nervously kicking rocks as my dad and grandpa linger and talk.
As I come around the hoghouse, I can smell BBQ and burnt hair. I hear the crackling of flames, and turn to see Jim illuminated by a tidal wave of fire billowing out of a black furnace I have never noticed before. He is bending down in front of a wheelbarrow that is piled high with the bodies of dead piglets. These were piglets that had died of disease or been too weak to survive the first few days of life. I watch as he picks them up, one at a time, and places them almost delicately into the incinerator. I watch him do this for any number of minutes. He doesn’t know I’m standing back in the dark.
Seeing the pigs go into the flames, I begin to realize that so much of my dad’s business was really dealing with death. Facing death each day, and pain, like it was nothing. I saw the cycle clearly for the first time. It made sense that my dad believed in God: the flies got stuck to the traps, the rats got eaten by the cats, the pigs ended up on our table or in the incinerator, and then there was us, at the top of it all, anointed and ordained by almighty God above creatures on heaven or earth.
But regardless of our place in this holy food chain, I realized very suddenly we were going to end too: my Dad, my Grandpa, Jim. At some point each one of us would become too sick, feeble, or vulnerable to be of use in the world and then it would all be gone – atheist or Christian, pig or human. I learned a very valuable lesson: either you’re meat or you’re not meat.
I went home that night and made myself a tuna sandwich with extra Fritos on it and fell asleep covered in crumbs, because death is an unstoppable freight train of darkness and what else can you really do?
Lauren Catey was raised on a farm in Indiana. Her best friend was a horse. Now she spends her time writing and teaching 3rd graders in West Humboldt Park, Chicago. She writes stories that they probably shouldn’t hear.