by Wren Bellavance-Grace
He has wanted pet pigs for as long as he can remember. How long are you willing to live with that want, I ask. After all, if you have the ability to make your wish come true, why would you not? How could you not?
And so one fall day, two smallish pig brothers arrive. The smaller and shyer of the two is all black, except for white cuffs above each hoof and a splatter of white on his forehead, which makes him look like an absent-minded painter, and earns him the name Raphael. His brother – bolder, more confident – is a greyish-dusky-rose, with several generous dark polka dots. He gives this one the name Seamus, a name he once thought he’d give to a son. They are curious, and cautious (as prey animals must be), and responsive at all times to food. He gives them a plastic ball to push around with their snouts. Dried feed pellets drop randomly from pre-drilled holes. Even when all the pellets have been dispensed, they will still roll it around the floor until we finally pick it up. Hope, and hunger, springs eternal.
In their first year, he works with “the boys,” or he tries to. He dreams of a day when they can all work together, visiting veterans hospitals or entertaining young children, an amateur clown and his comfort pigs. He wants them to succeed, but these pigs are his pets, not his paid work, not the work that controls him in much the same way as the hard plastic ball controls his boys. This veteran needs housing; that family grieves; the new widow is hungry; a proud man has asked for help that may come too late. The pellets he chases keep him pushing, pushing, pushing like Sisyphus up the eternal hill – forms to file, releases to sign, grants to qualify for. When he comes home, he bribes the boys with apple quarters and rubs their growing bellies while they snuffle, temporarily content.
In the spring he builds them a pen behind the garage, half shaded by the winter pear tree inherited from the Polish farmer whose house this used to be. The tree brings shade for the boys, which is needful, and in the fall it will bring a bumper crop of dense, mealy pears. Each year I tried to find a way to use them – canned some one year, but the mealy texture put me off; coffee cake another year, but the skin was so tough to peel; last year a pear sauce that went well with his famous blackened kielbasa. Until now we have been leaving most of the hundreds of pears to rot on the ground, much to the delight of the growing season’s last remaining bees.
I can identify six or seven different ways the boys communicate, but none of them sound like ‘oink.’ I can’t imagine how children’s books get this sound wrong. “What does the pig say,” we ask our kids. “Oink,” they answer, which is not true. They say, hoom-hoomp, or they say hoooooo-weer, or they mutter a naso-guttural shnorck shnorck between themselves. So much is lost in translation.
It’s fall again, the boys’ third year. The early pears are beginning to fall so they race him to their pen trying to beat each other to the morning’s small harvest of immature pears. Give it a few weeks, boys, I want to tell them, but they will have no less hunger then than they do today. We could not get in the way of their pear browsing if we wanted. They have already eaten all the weeds from their pen, every blade of grass, countless grubs, and the kitchen scraps of both neighbors’ houses. But the thing about pigs is they don’t have that switch in their brains, the one that we have that tells us when we are full and it is time to stop eating. The boys will never know or believe they are full. They will sleep or they will eat, and when they sleep I am almost certain that eating occupies their dreams.
In the afternoon it is warm and he takes the boys across the street to the park to graze. I watch them from my window, all three of them. He has given up on trying to train them; they listen more to each other than to him. There just never was enough time. Seamus has jowls now that threaten to blend into his pot belly and his polka dots look so much smaller on him now. He is the friendlier of the brothers; when children visit the park and ask to touch them, Seamus does not mind. They can put their small hands on his back, feel the coarseness of his hair, he will not miss a bite of tender green grass and clover. Raphael, bless his high-strung artistic heart, is more likely to run than suffer the curiosity of park patrons. He will stay just far enough away; there is plenty of park, plenty of grass and clover to go around. Here, in this park, they might never starve.
Today though, there are no curious children and the boys each concentrate on the patch of park right in front of them as though it were the world entire. They work methodically, as I remember they did around their pen when it was new to them and full of years of overgrowth. I spent many hours in that first spring watching them digging, snuffling, searching; watching the overgrowth and weeds reveal barren earth, watching the first pear drop for them, like manna from heaven.
Eventually he brings them back from the park and I bring fresh water out to the pen and the boys turn their faces up to me, snouts caked in rich umber, curious if I have also brought food, and disinterested when they decide I have not. In every waking moment they seek satisfaction for a persistent, relentless, limitless hunger.
I return to the house but for some reason I continue to watch. They are driven to search, snouts turning over earth, pushing stones and twigs as they go. Raphael finds a root, bites down once, twice, but it does not satisfy. At the fenceline, his brother is down on bended knee, face buried in the trench he is working, stretching his snout towards something tasty, something promising, just beyond his reach. I recognize that hunger; I too have been sent to my knees seeking release.
Tomorrow morning he will lead them out to their pen again, and there will be a handful of miraculous pears waiting for them before they eat their pellets, and in the afternoon I will return, bearing all that I have to offer: compassion and fresh water.
Tomorrow–maybe–will be the day I decide I am no longer willing to live with my own unquenched hunger.
photo credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash