International Writers Magazine: Pig Tales
was getting old, and it had been too long since my last visit. I
couldnt help feeling sorry for him - living alone way out
in the country like that - and I knew there was nobody visiting
him but me. There was a time when no one would have felt sorry for
him. Not because he was ornery he wasnt he was
simply your standard, self-made, confident farmer who didnt
Virgil was once
a big man. He was big in stature and in prominence. He was tall and
wild with big hairy knuckles and he always had at least one smashed,
bruised fingernail. Virgil used to be a farmer. He raised hogs mostly
along with watermelons. I dont think there was a bigger
hog operation in at least a two hundred mile radius, maybe more. But
now Virgil was 75 years old. The hogs, melons, farm, wife and family
were all gone. He still had the house, but that was about it. His kids
had moved off long ago and made lives of their own. I dont know
if they ever came around anymore. If they didnt, I dont
know why. Virgil never said and I didnt have the guts to ask.
Virgil lived in the only house on county road 535. As I pulled off the
highway and onto the gravel road, memories came rushing back
they always did. I used to date Virgils daughter twenty
five years ago. Theres no telling how many times I drove this
road back then. She was seventeen and I was sixteen and she and
Virgil both liked me. She was Virgils opposite sweet, small,
blonde and happy. She had moved to North Carolina when she got married.
Virgil had told me that, but I think that is as much as he wanted to
say about it.
The fields along the road north of Virgils place used to be full
of cotton. They were rich with dark green color in the early summer.
I remember the color and the heat always made me think of a jungle.
In the early fall, the dark green would give way to vast expanses of
white bolls. When the cotton was ready, I recall thinking that if you
squinted a little and turned your head to the side it looked like someone
had spilled a zillion golf balls in those fields. For some reason, nobody
raised cotton around here anymore. Soybeans were now king. Cotton had
always had more appeal to me. Cotton was somehow exciting. It reminded
me of "Gone with the Wind" and I felt like living where they
grew cotton meant I belonged to a special "Old South Club"
of some sort. Soybeans were boring and the fields were left simply brown,
lifeless and ugly. I dont even know what you do with a soybean.
The empty fields and scraggly brush on either side of the road always
seemed to jump in the way of my visits to Virgil and drain what little
enthusiasm I might have.
If I visited him in summertime it wasnt so bad.
The house was the same
only older and more dilapidated. The same,
rusty-red truck still sat in the yard in its usual spot. I dont
think it ever moved anymore. Virgil had most of his meals brought in
by the "meals on wheels" folks, and the transport van took
him to his doctor. Other than that, he had no need to leave.
"No reason to knock." I thought as I stood for a moment at
the screen door. "He probably wouldnt hear me if I did."
The door wasnt locked. It never was.
"Virgil!" I hollered.
"Back here. Come on in. Who is it?"
"Its me, Bill."
Virgil sat in the same chair that he sat in twenty five years ago. It
didnt recline and it was covered in thick, coarse, ugly green
and yellow plaid something right out of the seventies. I thought
it used to be vibrant, but now it was terribly faded and as dusty as
the floor behind your dryer. The place was dark and depressing. It was
cluttered and dirty and for some reason it smelled like kerosene. I
smiled a bit to myself as I noticed the ever-present stack of "Pork
Farmer" magazines at his side. "I dont think he has
seen a live hog in ten years." I think as I have a seat on the
old couch. As I sit down, a brown spot in the old yellow carpet catches
my eye. About the time I begin to wonder what in the world caused it,
Virgil spits a stream of tobacco juice right onto the floor right
in the middle of the spot. It makes me laugh. "Why worry about
the carpet anymore?" I think.
"How have you been Virgil?" I didnt hear his reply as
my attention was drawn to the lack of "hog smell" in his house.
Back when several hundred hogs lived just fifty yards south of where
we sat, there was always a very unique aroma in his living room. "Thats
the smell of money." He used to say when I would complain. Virgil
is talking about something, but I can tell that it is mostly Alzheimers
induced nonsense and I know he doesnt care if I actually
listen. He is just happy someone is here to talk at. I look over his
head and out onto the old hog lot. The memories come back again.
I used to help Virgil "cut and ring" his pigs. "Cut"
is hog farmer talk for castrate, and "ring" refers to the
metal rings that pierce the hogs snout and nostrils keeping
them from rooting the whole field up. Dating Virgils daughter
meant you helped him with the hogs. "One was a pig without a prom
dress and the other was a prom dress without the pig." I think
and laugh to myself.
Virgil would call me a day or two ahead of time and ask if I could help.
I never refused. When I arrived, he would have the thirty or forty pigs
scheduled for "surgery" separated out and kept away from the
sows. During "cutting" time, we would do more than forty a
day anymore would wear you out. It was unbelievably hard work
wrestling those little animals into submission. Virgil would grab up
one of the squealing little things by the hind legs and flop him over
on his side. It was my job to put a knee on the pigs shoulder
and hold him down and grab his hind legs and pull them up to his chest.
Virgil would then take his knife and make two quick slits in the scrotum.
The testicles would pop right out like a giant exploding zit. Quick
as a snake hed cut the "cords" and douse the wounds
with some age old mixture of turpentine and rubbing alcohol. I would
then take the ringer and fast as lightning pierce the rim of the snout
with four separate rings and then put one big one right in the middle
just like you see with bulls. With the job complete, the pig
would be put back over the low fence with the rest of the hogs. Theyd
squeal like mad while we were working on them and as soon as they hit
the ground on the other side, they would start grunting real low and
fast and dragging their wounded hind ends on the ground. They never
bled. Virgil said the reason for that was he would only cut pigs "when
the moon was right". I dont know what he was talking about,
but I know it had something to do with the Farmers Almanac.
The sows, like any respectable mother watching their children being
mutilated, would become enraged. They would stomp and snort and prowl
back and forth outside the fence trying to get in. If they could
have gotten to us, I am sure they would have torn us to pieces.
While Virgil keeps talking and spitting, I recall one particularly eventful
"cutting and ringing day". Like always, the job had gone without
incident. The sows were screaming and hollering while twenty or thirty
little pink pigs dragged their butts on the ground at their mothers
feet. Me and Virgil gathered up our tools and headed back through the
gate on the opposite end of the field into an enclosed area away from
the sows. This was where the lone boar lived. Virgil was halfway to
the opposite end of the enclosure and I was about forty or fifty feet
behind him when the boar attacked.
I never paid much attention to him before. I knew boars had a reputation
for being mean, but, as far as I could tell, this one had never done
much of anything besides eat and make little pigs. Maybe he finally
got to the point that he didnt like us messing with his babies
either or maybe he thought he might be next. Whatever the reason,
something had ignited this hogs anger. I first saw him out of
the corner of my eye and I didnt recognize what it was. He came
rocketing across the mucky ground like an eight hundred pound, furry,
red, swine train. Virgil was knocked off his feet and onto his back
before I could make a sound to warn him. The boar was on top of him
thrashing his head back and forth foaming and stomping
and doing his best to tear Virgil open with his ugly yellow tusks and
black hooves. And all the time the boar was screeching and squealing
like a wore-out brake pad.
About five seconds passed until I finally heard Virgil screaming "Help
me! Help me!" and realized he was talking to me. For a second I
didnt do anything
what could I do? I certainly couldnt
just run over there and pull the hog off of him, and the closest thing
to a weapon I could find was the big glass bottle of turpentine and
alcohol that I happened to be holding in my right hand. I remember gingerly
walking up to the hog I wasnt brave enough to run
and I prayed that by the time I got there Virgils guts wouldnt
be pulled out. Then, like a redneck in a bar fight, I busted the bottle
right over the hogs head. A thousand shards of glass and the smell
of alcohol and turpentine erupted into the air. And to my surprise,
the hog - without a moments hesitation - wheeled right around
and ran right back to where he came from shaking the glass and
moisture off his red face. I thought he looked like some sort of giant,
demon possessed Irish setter after an unwanted swim.
I helped Virgil to his feet and brushed some of the glass off his coveralls.
It was several minutes before he quit shaking and calmed down enough
to talk. He got a wild look in his eyes and said to me "run that
hog up in the catchin chute." I had no idea what he was planning,
but from the look on his face, I knew now wasnt the time to argue.
By this time, the old, red boar was back rooting around in the dirt
as if nothing had happened. I wandered up behind him, clapping, whistling
and waving my arms. Like they all did, he turned away and I herded him
right up to the chute. Virgil was already there and as soon as the boars
head poked through the bars, he pulled the lever and clamped the hogs
neck tight. The big pig immediately began squealing and screaming again.
I could barely hear, but Virgil was saying something like, "No
damn hog is gonna tusk me". He had gone and gotten
a pair of bolt cutters and he had its jaws around one of the hogs
tusks. And I stood there with my mouth open, wondering why in the world
I dated his daughter, and watched as he strained and puffed and squeezed
on the handles trying to break the giant tooth in half. When
he was finally convinced this effort would fail, he threw the cutters
down and stormed away headed back toward the shop. This time
he came back with a hammer the hog stomping, squirming and screaming
the whole time. Virgil walked right up and, without even the slightest
pause, swung that hammer like John Henry. In less than five blows, both
tusks were gone. The whole time, I just stood there with my hands in
my pockets. I was only sixteen, and I wanted to be "a man",
and I wasnt sure how a man was supposed to act on such an occasion.
We walked back to the house in silence. I remember thinking that this
was the meanest man I had ever known.
I dont remember how long I dated his daughter after that, but
I know it wasnt long. And I know I never helped him cut and ring
hogs again. I think he sold the boar less than a month later, but Im
not sure. He may have killed it. For all I know, I may have helped him
But that Virgil was long gone. The man I was looking at couldnt
knock the teeth out of a scurvy pirates head.
My mind returned to the here and now, and I noticed that this whole
time Virgil had been continually talking, and I hadnt been listening.
I looked down and caught his gaze.
"How are you doing Bill?" He said.
Im just fine."
He stuck a finger in his mouth, pried out the tobacco plug and flicked
it into a trash can by his side. Then he ran his left hand through his
coarse, red hair. I then watched incredulous as two very interesting
"Damn false teeth." He said as he wriggled his dentures
out of his mouth and dunked them in a big glass of water on the table
by his chair. He pulled them out, dripping wet, and began trying to
dig the tobacco out of the cracks. As I watched him work on the teeth,
the silence began to feel awkward. The first thing to come to my mind
was his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer.
"Hows your cancer?" I asked.
"Not too goo," he said and shook his head. "Did you know
they want to castrate me?"
"No." I said. He could see I was shocked, but if he thought
he knew why, he was wrong.
"Can you believe that?" He said. "I cant understand
why in the world they want to do that. The doctor said something about
hormones. I cant understand him."
"Virgil, do you think there is divine retribution on behalf of
livestock?" I asked.
"What?" He responded predictably as he sucked his teeth back
in his mouth.
"Never mind." I said.
Money or not, I really dont miss that old smell.
Cully Bryant December 2008
cbryant85 at msn.com
Cully is also published in "Locust" and "Clapboard House",
and fiction to appear in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature
and Clapboard House.
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