With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The Saturday my fingers were mauled I distinctly recall black birds everywhere. They clung to the electrical wires that draped from the several small outbuildings to the large red barn in the center of the farm. The birds called from the walnut trees and hopped among the combed-over swatches of fescue in the steaming pasture. Some of them swooped down through the cool air to peck at the spilled corn spread out before the tires of our John Deere. Our dog Joe, a German shepherd who was less than helpful around the farm, chased the birds around the barn lot. Twice before the morning of the accident, other farmers had shot at Joe after they’d allegedly caught him chasing their pigs.
I was seven years old. My older brothers and I were feeding the sows that day when the wet corn clogged the auger’s drive. I had my hands on the belt, trying to turn the motor manually, like I’d seen them do, when one of them flipped the green toggle switch. The auger jerked to full speed, and the metal pulleys and rubber belts had their way with my hand. My middle finger fell to the ground; my brother Darren had to kick it away from the hungry snout of a Duroc sow.
In a flash Darren scooped me up in his arms and ran to the tractor, yelling to my other brother, Derrick, that they had to get me to the hospital. I could feel the stump throbbing, pulsing out blood like a squirt gun. The birds’ chattering seemed to grow faster and louder, as if they were aping the awful whine of the auger motor that continued to grind wildly behind us, the acrid smell of burning rubber drifting over the barn lot.
I was lying face up in the tractor’s loader when Darren came rushing back from the house. I could see the black birds overhead. I thought they were the buzzards from the Westerns we’d get to watch on Sunday nights, or maybe the more exotic African vultures on Wild Kingdom. I assumed that the birds were doing their natural duty: indicating to beasts everywhere that there was food to be had down below, a boy on the brink of succumbing on a pig farm just outside the city limits. I began to cry: a nasty, deep bawl that crescendoed and then petered out as I eased into a healthy state of shock. Later, my brothers would tell me I took one look at my finger on ice in a zip-lock bag and went out like a dove shot from the sky.
Darren devoured pulp-fiction novels, and though he’s never confirmed it, I think putting the finger on ice was a trick he’d read about in one of them. Regardless, thanks to his quick thinking, the doctor was able to sew the finger back on, but I couldn’t use my right hand until it healed. Although I was somewhat relieved to escape the torturous summer regime of farm work, I had to figure out how I was going to do things one-handed. The hand that had borne the burden of brushing teeth, turning pages, driving tractors, and feeding livestock was useless. Worse, it had to be soaked twice a day in a tray of water saturated with Epsom salts. This was not a pleasant experience. The stitches — fifteen on one finger, ten on the other (a lot for fingers only as big around as pencils) — stuck to the gauze bandages, and the salve the doctor gave my mother to put on them smelled weird, like mold or sulfur or the water left over from boiling hot dogs. And then there was the way my fingers looked: ugly and red, like roadkill innards.
Even now, the middle one has a bunk-bed nail: one up top, stubby and close to the cuticle, and another below, ridged and cracked, with the appearance, if I let it grow, of a dewclaw. A pale, raised scar rings the deformed area just below the last knuckle, circling my finger like a fishing worm just under the skin.
The finger’s crookedness got me noticed in adolescence. Kids in my seventh-grade class would egg me on in the back seat of the bus. They’d see some farmer riding a cabless tractor in the autumn cold, gray plumes of exhaust wafting from the stack, and the kids would beg me, “Give that old man the wicked bird, Crandell. Do it! Flip him off with your wicked bird!”
In the days following the accident, I was still seeing and hearing the black birds, and would for months to come. I couldn’t get them out of my head. I could see their beaks carrying away pieces of my body, up to the tops of walnut trees, where they fed their young with the tips of my pinkies, the loose gristle of my stripped fingers. The stitches, with their jet-black sprigs, reminded me of the birds’ feathers, shining wickedly under the cloudy water of the Epsom baths.
Since my family was busy taking care of the farm, my healing was a solitary experience. Other than the two times a day when I had to be cajoled into soaking my fingers, I didn’t see much of anyone. Darren came through for me once again, though, devising a way to distract me during the stinging baths. He’d put a bed pillow between me and the trough of Epsom salts, blocking my view of it entirely. While my mother would peel off the crusty gauze and pull my hand into the water, Darren would begin reading to me from whichever paperback he seemed always to be near completing. If the pain got intense, I’d put a plastic Donald Duck toy in my mouth and chew on it while Darren read aloud about two mob men stranded on an island, up to their chins in blood money. The cover had a picture of a treasure chest with gold coins dripping with blood.
Sometimes Darren would stop reading and say, “You know, Bubbie, there are certain lizards that grow their tails back. Regeneration.” He’d reach for my hand, taking it as gingerly as a suitor about to propose, and say, “Besides, you’re a smart kid. Smart kids can do anything they want.”
That whole summer, I had to soak the fingers twice a day, and Darren never missed a session. For that, I think he should get to live forever. I’ve often imagined him coming to my funeral as an old man, taking my cold hand from the open casket, and kissing the wicked bird. Whether it ever really happens or not, I know he’d do it. For sure.
But as I said, most of the time Darren was busy with farm work, and I was idle. To occupy myself, I started doing two things that have left their mark on me. First, I began telling stories. I’d make up plots that paralleled the passages Darren had read at that morning’s soaking, rearranging events and changing the names to match those of people we knew from school, or of the farmhands we sometimes hired — ballsy men with nicknames like Racer (for the way he drove a corn picker), Torch (for his welding skills), and Beaver (for his, well, love of women). I couldn’t write the stories down because I couldn’t hold a pencil. So every evening, from memory, I’d tell Darren the pulpified tales I’d made up that day while he was working. I’d relate them during the soak at the kitchen table, while our mother made dinner and the rest of the kids washed their chore clothes and our father worked at the ceiling-tile plant. At midnight Dad would come home, arriving just twenty minutes or so after our mother had left for her graveyard shift at the Cyclone seeder factory.
Darren was a good sport and widened his eyes at the plot turns he surely recognized from his books. He would look surprised and say, “Wow!” when I told him how Racer and Torch had pulled a bank heist in town, the hot blue flames from Torch’s acetylene tank their only weapon, and Racer driving a tractor as their getaway car. The pair hid out in one of our silos, eating silage for two weeks, before the county sheriff got an anonymous tip from some sissy crop-dusting pilot. If any of this ever made it through to our mother’s ears, she didn’t let on. Normally, she’d have told us to stop poisoning our minds with such garbage, but she was tired from working and seemingly deaf to what was being said.
The second thing I started doing, in between soaks, was playing with our dog Joe. Up until then Joe and I had been little more than passing acquaintances. I had chores, and he had three hundred acres of cornfield to roam, not to mention the river, Shanty Falls, four pastures, and a deep gully, all of which bordered our land at the river bottom. But now, with so much time on my hands, I wanted to get to know my dog better. I wanted the two of us to become pals, trailing animals along the spoors that crisscrossed the farm in every direction, tracking the scent of foxes, raccoons, squirrels, and any other wild and vicious creatures my brimming mind could imagine.
Joe cooperated in these early attempts at camaraderie, though he’d sometimes go missing for whole days, turning up again just before dusk, as my mother was using a pair of big silver snips to cut the crusty gauze from my aching, mauled hand. Other times, after he and I had walked in the corn rows together or gone spying in and around the haymow, Joe would suddenly take off on his own, leaving me alone with my pain. Even as a pup he’d never come when called; it was as if he’d never learned his name.
Some nights Joe would return limping, the fur around his thick neck standing up, the tip of his bushy tail wet with something. He scared me then, though I could not say why. On those nights, Joe would stand on the porch outside the kitchen door while my mother and Darren tended to me, and I would see black birds, big as roosters, pecking at the glass pane, flocking around Joe’s tail, using their beaks to tap out a message on the firm rod of cartilage that ran under his black and tan fur. I’d stare at Joe and the phantom birds through the glass of the kitchen door until Darren would bring me back to reality with a request for the next installment of whatever story I’d ripped off from his latest book.
Shortly after the nail on my finger became greenly infected and fell off, Joe came to the back door, whimpering. It was about to storm outside. My mother was filling the plastic basin with warm water and Epsom salts. Darren and the rest of my brothers and sisters were out back taking down jeans and white underwear of all sizes from the clothesline. Black thunderheads roiled above the red barns, and sporadic raindrops hit the ground like firecrackers.
I got up from the kitchen table and went to see what was wrong with Joe. The rain picked up, and the sky went so dark it seemed as though I were up past my bedtime. My brothers and sisters, all soaked, rushed by me into the house, clutching armloads of wet laundry. Joe stayed near the end of the porch, not making any sound now, but licking his chops and panting heavily. As I got closer, I could see pink foam around his muzzle; it splatted onto the concrete and over his paws, which held something wiggling to the porch. He eyed me carefully, occasionally pausing to bite and pull at the thing that squirmed under his heavy paw. I felt tears begin to well up; it was difficult to see clearly. A few black birds cawed behind me, threatening to dive down and peck off what was left of my nasty finger. Joe began to growl, the nape of his bristly neck surging with every step I took. For all his companionship in those weeks we’d spent together, I’d felt something awful and mean in him, just underneath his shiny coat and muscular frame. I was ready to face what I’d suspected about him: that he had become bloodthirsty.
I stopped so that the end of my work boot was just an inch from Joe’s front paw. He glowered up at me. The storm began to toss raggedy lawn chairs across the backyard. Joe snarled, teeth bared, his eyes fixed on a point to the left of my head. I felt hate surge in my chest, as I could now clearly make out what he had pinned to the cold porch: a baby pig, no more than a few days old, its fuzzy head sticking out from beneath Joe’s paw.
I was scared of course, but perhaps too stupid to realize that Joe might actually bite me. Or maybe I simply didn’t care at that point. The little pig, white with black spots, made a horrible gurgling cry. Joe snapped at my good hand as I reached down to take the piglet from him. Determined, I tried again, plucking the little thing away as Joe turned to leave the porch.
By now I was crying and talking out loud to myself. I didn’t want to look down at the piglet, which felt only mildly warm and alive in my hand. When I did survey it for injuries, I noticed right away that its little ears were gone, chewed down to nothing more than tiny flanges of rose. My mother and the other kids were folding clothes in the laundry room as I carried the piglet to the steaming basin of Epsom salts. Slowly, I dipped the little pig’s feet into the warm water. His bony sides strained to rise and fall, and he moved his head a bit as I dangled his soft hooves into the salt solution. Blood oozed like jelly from the holes in his skull. His eyes were closed, their long lashes matted and still. Without much more than a cough of blood sent weakly into the water, the piglet went limp, his lungs no longer pushing under fishbone ribs.
Still I kept washing him in the water, taking care to cleanse Joe’s thick slobber from his nostrils, dabbing at the blood around his head. I tucked the piglet into a kitchen towel and cradled him like a doll. I said a prayer for the tiny creature and studied his altered head. Though I was sad to the bone, I needed to understand what I was seeing. Ears make a pig’s face; without them, it appears alien. The term “pinhead” comes to mind. But there is also something regal about an earless pig, perhaps a kind of ancient, distorted beauty understood by tribes that practiced head shaping. (I’d learned about them in social studies.) I stroked his wounds, trying to make sure he knew he was kingly, and that I would put him to rest.
Behind me a door opened; it was my youngest sister. I quickly grabbed the piglet, stuffed him and the towel under my shirt, and darted out the door. Outside, I looked around for Joe, but he was nowhere in sight. The storm had blown over; the sun shone above the barns like aluminum. Swifts and barn swallows dipped about the towering weather vane on the cupola, using their radar to pick off wet, slow-moving insects for dinner. A row of black birds sat on the white barn-lot fence, staring at me as I carried the piglet papoose-style to the garden. I collapsed on my knees and began pawing at the ground with my good hand near a tepee of snap peas. I placed the piglet in the hole I’d made, towel over his body like a shroud, and used my muddy hand to cover him. Then I scrambled to my feet and rolled an old car tire from a nearby shed and put it over the grave.
Back in the house, I discovered that my mother had been worried by the dirt and blood and dog spit she’d found in the tub of Epsom salts. She thought I’d gotten my fingers dirty during the day, causing them to bleed again, and Joe’s slaver looked a lot like the beginnings of another infection. She quizzed me about it, but I only shrugged my shoulders and sat silent at the kitchen table, the steam of the newly filled tub forming a haze about our faces as Darren read to me. My mother used a double shot of salts to rid me of whatever trauma I was not talking about. Perhaps trying to get me to talk, Darren stopped reading and asked if I had another story to tell. I nodded my head yes.
“It’s called ‘Pig,’ ” I said.
My mother smiled at the title, and I realized she had been listening all along. She must have been glad I was finally starting to tell wholesome farm tales rather than the crime-novel imitations I’d been spinning during the other soaks.
“There’s this pig with no ears,” I began.
The smile on my mother’s face drifted away, and she went into the pantry and began shuffling the boxes and cans around. Darren told me to go on. I felt shaky. My throat tightened.
“This pig with no ears is a killer. He’s got two big, bloody holes in his head, and he’s full of rabies. He goes around trying to eat people.” My voice started to quaver. Darren put down his book. I felt the hard ridge of a nascent sob in my throat. “These black birds have been sitting on his snout and picking meat from the holes in his head.”
I broke down crying then. My mother shot out of the pantry to console me as Darren lightly lifted my hand from the water and patted it with a towel. They put me to bed early while my other brothers and sisters asked what was wrong with me. Eavesdropping from the dark bedroom upstairs, I heard my mother say, “Your brother’s just trying to get used to his fingers.”
Very early the next morning, a farmer named Higgly came knocking on our door. My father went out on the porch to talk with him. For a long time all my dad did was nod his head in agreement. I’d woken up feeling better that morning and had been anxious to get back to the piglet’s grave to make sure nothing had dug him up, but now as I watched the conversation on the porch, I knew it was bad news about Joe. I ran back upstairs. From the window directly above the porch, I could see into the bed of Mr. Higgly’s pickup. There, sprawled out as if ready for a formal viewing, was a large sow, her ears gone, a crimson crown of thick blood about her head. The rest of her was as white as flour.
I went to the closet and fumbled with one hand to put on my overalls. From downstairs, I heard the kitchen door open and my father calling us to come to the table. I snuck behind the school clothes hanging in the closet and stood there silently as my father called my name. Slowly, I parted the clothes and tiptoed down the stairs, giving myself the option to sneak back upstairs undetected if I started to cry before entering the kitchen.
My dad laid it all out for us, what we were going to do. He told us we could be fined or, worse, brought up on charges if we didn’t take care of Joe. He said Mr. Higgly was only asking for three hundred dollars for his lost sow. Mr. Higgly, we were told, was a reasonable man, and he had a brother-in-law who worked at Grissom Air Force Base, not twenty minutes from us. They trained drug-sniffing dogs there, our father said, and they were always on the lookout for purebred German shepherds. It was all decided before my mother got home from work at 8 A.M.: the next day we would all take Joe to Grissom. Joe didn’t seem crazed or thirsty for more blood as my dad tied him to a tractor in the front yard for his last night with us.
© Debra Sugerman
We arrived at Grissom Air Force Base in our brown GMC station wagon. A state trooper with a large mustache and hair like a sink brush escorted us into a barren white room. We waited as he took Joe to a fenced-in run behind the building. My father signed some documents, handed over Joe’s purebred papers, and returned to sit with us. My mother filed the girls’ nails while my brothers circled the room, as if looking at things that were not there.
A door opened behind us. It was well concealed: white hinges, a white doorknob, too. A man in a dark green military uniform brought in a fine-looking dog that could have been Joe’s twin were it not for the different markings on its muzzle. The state trooper came back and addressed our family as if we were a high-school class.
“This is a small marijuana cigarette,” he said, holding up a plastic sandwich bag. He looked directly at me. “Son, come up here.”
I didn’t want to go, but my father nudged me. I scuffled toward the trooper.
“You ever gonna smoke, son?” he asked.
I shook my head no, holding my injured hand behind my back.
“What’s that?” he asked, cupping his furry ear.
“No,” I said lightly.
My mother smiled at the other kids.
The trooper got down on one knee and spoke into my face. “Son, I’m going to put this in your shirt pocket.” He paused to wave the military man and the dog out of the room. Then he stuffed the dope into my pocket. “Now I want you to just sit over there with the rest of your family, and when Corporal Stanley and Butch come back in here, he’ll find it before I count to five.” He stood back up. “OK?”
I nodded my head and went back to my seat.
Butch came back in with his ears pricked and his tail erect. His eyes shone with a lucid intensity, as if, while outside the white door, the military man had fed him some drugs for a boost. The state trooper stood back and smiled impishly while Butch sniffed the concrete floor around my siblings’ feet, steadily filing down the row past my mother and father to me. The trooper was counting out loud. Before he reached three, the dog started to go straight for my pocket, but then he changed directions, rooting and snorting with immense suction at my side. Scared, I moved forward in my chair, exposing my bandaged fingers, the object of his mad sniffing.
The state trooper began to yell at the dog. “Butch! Heel, Butch!”
The dog got his teeth into the bulky gauze and began to pull ever so gently. I thought he was going to eat what was left of my fingers. I started to cry. I was so different, even animals could detect it.
My father stood up and tried to get the state trooper to call off the demonstration. “OK,” my dad said, “let’s get this over with.”
Butch’s handler came and retrieved him, and the dog was out the white door before I could even put the tape back around the wad of gauze. Disgusted, the state trooper stomped toward me, heavy boots thudding the floor, and pulled the dope from my pocket. He turned to leave, but then paused to address my parents, his back to us.
“We’ll evaluate your canine and call you with the results. If he’s found suitable, you’ll be compensated.” He strode through the white door and disappeared.
A week later we got a call during dinner. My father hemmed and hawed on the phone. Then he walked quietly to the table, where, for once, we were all sitting down together to eat; my mother had been laid off the day after we took Joe to Grissom. It was nice to have her around all the time.
“That was the people at the air-force base,” my father said. He surveyed us around the table, his flanneled chest rising rhythmically. “Joe is deaf.”
For a moment, no one spoke. My dad said again, “The dog is deaf; it can’t hear.” He scratched the top of his head, clearly trying to absorb the news himself. Finally, he went to his chair at the end of the table and sat down. “They can’t use him.”
We ate in silence, the noises of the meal more apparent than usual: the clang of a pan lid, the chirp of a glass hitting a dinner plate, the scrape of a spoon as it caught a mouthful of peas from a bowl. I can’t say any of us knew what to make of the absurd news we’d just heard, though our lives on the farm had been full of absurdity. In the truest sense, all farming is cruelly ironic: fields of green can be wiped out by too much fertilizer; hogs sometimes get spooked and eat each other the night before they’re butchered; and farm kids get sucked into the same machinery their parents planned on handing down to them.
I sensed that something about Joe’s fate would alter me for good. Here was a story. The farm and the pigs and my entire family were all stories that I could tell someday. If I practiced and read and paid attention to what I had been taught, I could use my wicked bird to write something that would heal my fingers to the quick.
We picked up Joe that afternoon and brought him home and tied him once again to the tractor in the yard. Over the next few weeks, he’d get loose and chew the ears off three of our sows and a neighbor’s feeble old boar before we had to do the most awful of things: kill an animal for killing other animals. We took him to the Humane Society, where he “went to sleep,” my mother told me. It was the best she could come up with, I am sure, but I knew that Joe had been killed for threatening our livelihood. That night I woke up terrified that the black birds were in my bed, eager to peck at me. When I opened my eyes, I thought I saw Joe’s ghost at the foot of my bed. I went and got in Darren’s bed, where he told me the safest story he could think of, full of candy canes and presents galore.
A couple of the pigs that Joe mauled lived. One of them, a female, had enough nipples to be kept for birthing. For years, she had strong, healthy litters of piglets of all colors. Occasionally, a city couple out on a drive would pass our pasture and catch a glimpse of this four-hundred-pound sow parting the high grass with her pointy, earless head. They’d quickly pull their car over, and Darren, quite the entrepreneur, would charge them a couple of bucks to hear the story behind the funny-looking sow.
Then he’d come and get me, my fingers completely healed but crooked and lobster red, and usher me down the lane to where the couple stood by the fence, feeding the sow clumps of ditch grass. I’d tell them how she’d been born with no ears, but she could smell better than any other animal. She even got a job sniffing out drugs part time for state troopers. I went into great detail about her ability to hide in the grass without detection, her head like a small boulder, invisible to the untrained eye. I spoke slowly, with a regal air, when I told them she was descended from an ancient breed of pig that had no need for ears.
I’d pause just the right amount of time before saying, “We love her just the way she is —” the family would look up at Darren and me, standing side by side as I sealed the deal — “even though she can’t hear us telling her.” I’d feel the story make me whole, my brother’s perfect right hand supporting my back.