With fists, with words, with kindness
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Once there were two hogs and a sow who lived in a sturdy pen outside an old man’s hut. Then the old man died. That morning, no one brought food to the pen; the next morning, no one brought food to the pen. By evening the animals were panicked and ravenous, the bottom of the trough licked smooth as tile. “The man will come with food tomorrow,” one hog assured the rest. “He always comes with food.”
“Well, he didn’t come today, smart guy,” the other hog snapped back, his voice rising. “So watch it with that always.” For a long moment they glowered at each other, but then the sow intervened.
“Hey,” she said sharply. “Hey, come on.” The hunger was a swelling inside of her.
Each made a silent decision to let the tension dissipate. They were siblings, the three of them. They were so hungry.
In one corner of the pen stood their water container: a half barrel of rainwater. They filled their bellies with water and spent a restless night. The next morning, again, no one brought food.
“Why isn’t he bringing food?” the first hog asked over and over. “He always brings food.” It had never occurred to any of them that one day there might not be food. With food, everything else had clicked into place: sky and pen, the grunting of the other pigs, the wheel of days and seasons. But without food, all the familiar objects of their life became unrecognizable somehow, though also precisely the same. The trough, the clouds overhead. Without food, the ground disappeared, and there was only falling, or a feeling just like falling.
“We’ve got to make a plan. We’ve got to break out.” The first hog was frantic, near tears. “It’s the only way.”
“Maybe he’ll come tomorrow?” said the second hog.
“I’m telling you, we have to find a way out and go, go, go.” The first hog paced from one end of the pen to the other.
The sow shook her head as if to clear her vision. “What do you mean, find a way out? There is no way out.” She went to the rain barrel and lapped more water.
“He always brings food,” the first hog said again. “Why isn’t he bringing food?”
Over the next few days they came to realize that escape was their only choice. But how could they break free of the pen? Though they spent hours inspecting every inch of the strong wooden slats, they could find no exit.
The hunger turned from an ache, to a fire, to a weakness inside of them. They were dizzy with it. It turned from a weakness back into a fire while they combed the pen for a gap.
At last they came up with a solution: If they were to knock the rain barrel over and hoist it into the trough, maybe one of them could stand with both front legs on the barrel. Another one then could climb unsteadily onto the first animal’s back, and if this one could reach the top of the fence, the remaining sibling could clamber over them both and drop to the other side.
The plan was a good one, except that two who used their bodies in this way would be left inside the pen to die. “That’s the only flaw,” the first hog said, nodding, and when the other two snorted and laughed, he laughed, too, a sound that was close to tears in its rawness.
“The only flaw!” the second hog repeated. “You think?” Again they erupted in laughter.
It took them some time to compose themselves. “Just a flaw for two of us,” the sow said after they had been quiet for a minute. A feeling of closeness had developed while they were laughing together, but the sow’s words put an end to that.
What choice did they have? They decided to draw lots for who would stay and who would go. Before the drawing, they walked the pen one last time, inspecting the strong boards.
“It’s the only way,” one said.
They gathered three pebbles: two light gray, one dark.
“Here we go,” the sow whispered.
At the count of three, they closed their eyes and each selected a pebble. They looked at the pebbles and at each other. The outcome was clear: the sow and the first hog would make a ramp of their bodies with the trough and the rain barrel, and the second hog would climb to freedom. The chosen hog felt the sweet thrill of relief, though he did his best to hide it. The hunger had turned into a claw. Soon he would be outside the pen. No one spoke.
But then the hog who had been selected to stay behind and make a ramp with his body began to shake his head. “No,” he said. “No you don’t!” he yelled. He said he refused to starve and die. He accused the others of cheating. He turned his back on them and stood trembling in the corner of the pen. “No!” he shouted.
“Fair’s fair,” said the one who’d been selected to escape.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” said the sow.
But the hog wouldn’t hear it. “No,” he said again. “No, no, no.” He snarled at them. “Cheaters! Trying to cheat.” His face was hard to look at. Inside him the hunger had turned into an avalanche. It was sliding.
“We didn’t cheat,” the other hog said.
“How could we have cheated?” the sow asked.
But he wouldn’t hear it. “Draw again,” he insisted. “Cheaters.”
Over the next few hours they circled each other, shouting. Before too long the sow had taken sides with the refusing hog, and the two of them tried to convince their brother to draw again. “If he thinks we cheated, we owe it to him to do it over,” the sow said to the hog who had thought he would be free. Her voice was sugary and crafty and pained. “Just to make it all above reproach.”
The chosen hog hollered and argued. He briefly had the sensation that he was no longer a hog who was hungry, but rather a hunger in the shape of a hog. He shook his head back and forth and muttered. He remembered the thrill when he’d seen the pebble. Finally he saw that he had no choice.
“OK,” he said. “Let’s draw again.”
The sow felt the hunger subside in a rush, replaced by joy and a kind of cunning. This time the pebble would be hers.
The refusing hog could find no words for what was inside him. There was something that had been hunger, and something that had been terror, and something else like a strong wind blowing. It took him a long time to understand that his brother and sister had agreed to draw again.
In silence they returned to the trough. It was well past midday now: flat, hot sky.
In silence they chose their pebbles.
Now it was the sow who would go free. The hog who had been selected the first time felt himself reel. He couldn’t find his feet.
The sow was making a high-pitched noise, like a keening. It was partly a celebration, but only partly. Inside her the hunger had become a shining light. It was so bright she could see only the pebble. “Let’s go, guys,” she said, her words edging around the light. “Let’s make the ramp.”
The refusing hog, the one who had called them both cheaters, was backing away toward the corner of the pen. He was shaking his head. He was shouting. “No!” he yelled. “I won’t do it!” he yelled. “Cheaters!”
The hog who had been chosen the first time still couldn’t find his feet. He couldn’t find a single part of his body. He had chosen the pebble that meant he could go, or it had chosen him, and then it had been taken away. He charged the other hog and butted him with his head.
“You’re the cheaters!” he shouted. He wheeled toward the sow. “Both of you are the cheaters.”
The sow was trying hard to see around the bright light. There was the pebble, and the raised voices of the hogs, but really there was only the light: how it bathed her face.
“What?” she said.
“Both of you are the cheaters,” the hog said again.
The other hog, the one with the wind blowing hard in him, heard the word and repeated it: “Cheaters!”
“I’m not a cheater,” the sow said.
“Cheaters!” the hogs shouted, butting each other with their heads. Inside each of them the hunger had turned into something with jagged edges. After a while they all stopped shouting and glared at each other.
“I won’t do it,” the hog with the wind in him said.
Finally the sow asked a question. She was nearly dizzy with hunger and fright, but her voice was calm — she was surprised to hear how calm. “So,” she said, staring at the refusing hog, the wind-inside-him hog, “tell me the truth.” She licked her lips. “No matter how many times we draw, you aren’t going to stay, are you? Just so we all know where we stand.”
The hog opened his mouth, and the wind became the words that tumbled out. “No,” he said. “I’m not building a ramp with my body, not for either of you. I’m sorry. No matter how many times we draw.” He started to cry. “I’m sorry,” he said, or the wind said. “I just can’t.”
There was some relief then, in the pen. The truth had been spoken out loud, and the situation had shifted in some small way for each of them. The refusing hog felt his head clear slightly. He lay in the corner of the pen and let the wind blow in him. I just can’t, he thought.
His brother, the hog who had thought he would be free, stood in the opposite corner of the pen and looked out through the slats. He felt drained and numb. He tried to remember the days when the old man had brought food, but they seemed like a dream or a joke.
The sow wept. Night came.
“Why isn’t he bringing food?” the wind-filled hog asked once.
In the morning the sow began to speak. She talked about their life, about how the man in the hut had brought food to the pen in days gone by. She described the changing seasons and how the birds flew overhead. The hogs nodded. They remembered. She told the story of the time a flock of geese had stopped in the field near the pen, and how one goose had wandered near them. She had never seen a goose up close. In the sky, geese banked on powerful wings, but on the ground, this one waddled on webbed feet. It came right to the edge of the pen and peered in, making inquisitive noises.
They all nodded, remembering the time they’d seen the goose. It had come right up to their pen and looked in at them with soft eyes. It was a sky animal, covered in feathers. It had honked tenderly.
“The outcome’s the same,” the sow said after a while. “Even if there’s one who won’t stay, the outcome’s the same. Do you understand?” She turned to the hog with the wind blowing in him. “You,” she said. She looked him up and down. She said to the other hog, “We could build him a ramp with our bodies.”
The other hog blinked. “But he didn’t win when we drew.”
“But he won’t agree to stay, no matter how many times we draw.” Inside the sow the hunger had turned from a street fight to a lullaby.
“But he’s a cheater,” said the hog who would have gone free. “We can’t just, you know, reward that kind of behavior.” He heard the words he’d used, and they confused him somehow, seemed far away. “Right?” he added.
“I don’t know about that,” the sow said. She shook her head as if to clear her vision. “It’s more like one is better than none.” She swallowed. “To survive,” she said. They both took a long moment to let that sink in. The hunger inside her turned from a lullaby to an empty wooden bowl. The hog with the wind in him was out past where words could go. He was humming to himself.
“If he had been chosen, that first time, would you have built a ramp?” the sow asked.
“I don’t know,” said the hog who still had words. “I think so. I don’t know.”
“Me neither,” she said. “I can’t remember.”
“It isn’t about right and wrong,” the formerly chosen hog said after a while. “Maybe it’s like when you wake up and go back to sleep,” he said. “Not for anything is what I mean, I guess. Not because you’re good or anything like that.”
“Yeah,” the sow said. “That’s how I see it, too.”
“I’m pretty scared,” the hog said.
The sow shook her head again and swallowed. “Yeah,” she said.
They hoisted the barrel into the trough. They made a ramp with their bodies. The hog with the wind blowing in him climbed it. He clambered out of the pen.
The wind went on blowing. His brother, his sister. He looked back for a second and then started to trot. He trotted to the forest and ate. Nuts. Wild mushrooms. He ate and ate, and the hunger shrank from a chain saw, to an insect, to a tiny dot, and disappeared, but the wind would not stop blowing, no matter how much he put in his mouth.
The next morning the hog awoke at the foot of a tree with the wind still blowing in him. Gradually his words were coming back to him, or he to them. Gradually the objects of the world were regaining a kind of solidity and coherence. It’s morning, he thought. No one brought food to the pen, he thought. We drew lots to see who would be saved, he thought. What have I done? he thought. The sun shone brightly on the tree’s rough bark.
Better stop thinking for a while, he thought, and he did stop, rooting mindlessly for nuts and wild mushrooms.
Some days passed. The hog awoke at the foot of the tree. His words had come back more clearly. It’s morning, he thought. We drew lots, he thought. I called them cheaters, he thought.
The wind was blowing in him, and the wind was now the voices of the hog and the sow he had left behind.
“You,” the wind said. “You left us.”
The hog flinched. He swallowed.
Better stop thinking for a while, he thought.
Many days passed. The hog awoke at the foot of the tree.
“You left us,” the wind said.
Better stop thinking for a while, the hog thought, but it didn’t work this time. He kept thinking.
The hog’s body burned with shame and grief.
“You called us cheaters,” the wind said.
Many days passed. The wind still blew in the hog.
“I know,” the hog said. His entire body was burning. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Sorry?” the wind said. “Where does sorry get us?”
“Not very far, I guess,” the hog said.
Better stop thinking for a while, he told himself again, but again it didn’t work. He kept thinking.
The hog ate nuts and wild mushrooms. He slept at the foot of the tree. His whole body burned.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Here we go again,” said the wind.
The hog awoke at the foot of the tree. He asked the wind if it would ever stop blowing.
“Do you want that?” the wind asked.
“I do,” the hog said. “It would be really great.”
“Yeah, well, tough shit,” the wind said.
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” the hog said.
“There’s nothing to do,” the wind said.
“So now what?” the hog said.
“We were so hungry,” the wind said.
“We were so hungry,” the wind said. It blew into the hog’s face.
He returned to the pen. A thick and rotten smell.
He walked around the pen in a circle, rubbed himself against the slats. It looked smaller than he remembered, just a stupid little pen next to a crumbling hut. Their bodies are in there, he thought.
“I left you,” he said to the wind.
“I know,” the wind said.
“There’s nothing to do,” he said to the wind.
“I’d like to go back to the forest and get some nuts,” he told the wind, “and bring them here.”
“A symbolic gesture?” the wind asked.
“I guess so, yeah. An offering.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” the wind said. “But knock yourself out.”
The hog brought nuts and wild mushrooms back from the forest to the pen. He carried them in careful mouthfuls. He made a pile outside the pen.
“This is for you,” he said. “My brother, my sister.” He started to cry.
The hog awoke at the foot of the tree. It was a beautiful morning. He carried nuts and wild mushrooms to the pen. The smell was still there. The birds had eaten most of yesterday’s offering. “I’m doing my best,” he said to the wind.
The wind didn’t say anything.
“I have to start somewhere,” the hog said.
The wind blew in the hog as he moved from the forest to the pen, from the pen to the forest, making his piles of nuts and mushrooms. Sometimes it was a gentle wind, and he was able to move and see and think; sometimes it was so furious he had to stop and close his eyes, clench every muscle until it passed. He was beginning to learn some things about the wind, the way a log in a wood stove learns about fire. For a long time he thought that the wind was shame, that what blew through him was the shame of betraying his brother and sister, but that wasn’t right, not entirely. His whole body burned sometimes with shame and grief and hot, red, angry confusion, but the wind was separate from all that. Or more than all that. The wind was older than he had realized, first of all, older than just his brother and sister and his own actions that day in the pen. The wind carried all the days that had led up to that one, all the days spent eating and talking in the pen, their whole long lives up until that moment. And even more. The wind carried not just their lives but the lives of their parents, too, and of all the generations of hogs from the very beginning, all the way back, a river of grunting eating laughing shitting fucking dreaming farting living dying hogs. Was that right? Was that what the wind was? He didn’t know. It was hard to tell. When he could, when the blowing wasn’t too much, he trotted back and forth with his offerings, which the birds ate.
He thought about his brother and sister. When they were barely piglets, they had been taken from their mother and brought to the pen. They had wallowed together in the same mud, the three of them. They had been rained on together, had stood together in the sunshine and the cold. Once, a goose had waddled right up to their pen and peered in at them. Could any of them have known what directions their lives would take? Of course not. The wind’s singing was a babble of voices, a cascade of murmuring voices.
“I’m happy to be alive,” he said to the wind.
“I don’t know if I’m happy or not, really,” he said. “It’s more like I can’t imagine not being alive, you know?”
The wind accelerated and turned, deepened. The wind carried the voices of his brother and sister, his parents, of all the generations of hogs — that massive, endless symphony of voices — but even that wasn’t all of it. There was still more. Something caught in his throat. His mind spun. The wind was all the hogs who might have been, too, the potential hogs. It was the branching of possibilities and the further branchings of each branch. Was that true? Could that be true? He breathed in and out, trying to listen.
In the wind’s song he thought he heard the old age of his brother and sister, and his own death in the pen. It blew through his bones. Their lives could’ve gone that way — they really could’ve — but they hadn’t, they hadn’t. The wind sang the song of all the hogs who’d ever been and might have been: hogs dead early, hogs never born, hogs who failed to live up to their own deepest potentials. What sort of deepest potentials do hogs have, though, really? The wind said it knew, and sang them, sang of the genius of hogs, the profound understanding of hogs, the complex and delicate sensations available to hogs.
“Are you serious?” the hog whispered into the roar, and the wind said it was, it was. At least, he thought that was what the wind was saying. He wasn’t sure.
The wind shifted keys. The wind sang of the horrors of hogs, the vapidity and selfishness of hogs, the misery and boredom of hogs, and the possibilities radiating out from each possibility. The thwarted lives, the angry lives. The shining lives, the cramped and furious lives, the dignified and upright and terrible lives. The wind was more than the hog could bear. It sang a song too vast for him. It blew away who he was and blew right through whatever was left. “Are you serious?” the hog whispered, and the wind said that it was, it was.
The hog wrestled with the stark facts of that day in the pen. He went around and around with them in his mind. “I left you,” he said to the wind, to his brother and sister in the wind. But that didn’t feel true, not entirely. There was more to it than that. “It’s not like I made a choice,” he said, “a conscious decision or anything. It’s just that I couldn’t do it, couldn’t make the ramp. That’s all. I don’t know why.
“I’m trying to understand,” he said.
When he could, when the blowing wind wasn’t too much, the hog trotted from the forest to the pen, piling nuts and mushrooms outside the strong boards. The wind moaned through him. He ate his food in careful mouthfuls. The strong smell around the pen had faded now. When it rained, he watched the water run down the pen’s strong slats; when the sun shone, he watched the heat bake the thick posts. The wind carved a path through his body.
“I just want to sort it all out,” he said to the wind. “I really do.”
He carried food from the forest and piled it outside the pen, where the birds ate it. His breathing swirled in and out of him.
“I wonder sometimes if you’re fate,” he said to the wind.
“Fate?” the wind asked.
“Yeah,” the hog said. “You know, like destiny or something?”
“Not even close,” the wind said.
He carried food from the forest to the pen.
“Well, then,” he said, “maybe time?”
“I beg your pardon?” said the wind.
“Time,” he said. “Like what you are is the passage of time, days going by. Blowing me forward, blowing me through my life.”
“Not even close to close,” said the wind.
His breathing moved in and out of his body.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” he told the wind. He trotted back and forth to the pen and made piles of food for the birds.
“Sure,” said the wind. “If you say so.”
That’s how the days and weeks passed. Months passed. Years. Until the summer morning that the wooden slats of the pen rotted all the way through, and the hog tore it apart. He knocked the boards down methodically. They gave easily. The trough was there; the rain barrel was there. Two twisted objects he could not look at were there on the ground. He butted and stomped and broke the wood into pieces, panting, until only splinters remained. He stood amid the wreckage for a long time, waiting for his breathing to return to normal. He was aware of the sky stretching above him, and of a slight pain in his hooves from the stomping. He still had not looked closely at the twisted objects. For the first time in years, the wind stopped blowing, just for a few moments.
Then it started again.
After that, the hog didn’t visit the site of the pen very often. He spent his days and nights in the forest. The sun rose and set; the moon rose and set. “I did what I did,” he said to the wind. “I don’t know why. And now I’m living on into the next day. Do you see what I mean?”
The wind didn’t say anything, but the hog didn’t mind. What he felt now for the wind was a kind of familiarity. It served as a compass point for him, a way of orienting himself in the world. When he inhaled, he breathed in the wind, and when he exhaled, he breathed out the wind. Each breath was a small wind in the vast wind that surrounded him, although sometimes each breath was the whole of the vast wind itself. He moved more slowly these days; his body often hurt.
“Are you sure you aren’t time?” he asked the wind again.
“I’m not time,” the wind laughed, swirling in and out of his face. “You aren’t even in the ballpark.”
“Oh,” said the hog, though he didn’t understand. He breathed in and out.
“Not even next to the ballpark,” the wind said.
The hog lay underneath the tree. He was very old. Down his left side there was a kind of pain that was different from the usual aching. A new pain.
“Well, whatever you are,” he said.
“Yes?” said the wind.
“I’m pretty grateful to you,” he said. “Staying with me all these years.” He thought about his brother and his sister that day in the pen. He had been so young then. He had left them behind to starve. He remembered the mornings when the old man had brought them food, how the trough had nearly overflowed with food.
“Grateful?” asked the wind.
The pain in his side was blossoming, spreading into his limbs. He was dying.
“Yeah,” he said. He took a long breath.
He remembered the day a goose had come down from the sky, how it had laid its soft eyes on him.
“Grateful?” asked the wind gently.
“Yeah,” he said. He meant it. He mostly meant it. The sun was shining through the branches of the tree, the slowly waving branches. He understood that his life was almost over. Just a few more minutes.
He remembered his mother. Lying against her warm, thick side, together with his siblings. He could feel their bodies against him, the skin smell, the sweet taste of milk. He didn’t know if he felt grateful or not, actually. Maybe he didn’t. It was hard to say, so hard to sum it all up, to keep it from turning into something else.
The sunlight through the branches.
The pain was sharper now.
They drank her milk until they fell asleep.
Your May 2017 issue reminds us that animals are sentient beings, and that how we treat them is often less than humane. In particular I was moved by David Rutschman’s incredible “The Hogs, the Sow, the Wind.” I learn something new each time I reread it and was surprised (and then not surprised) to see that the author is a Zen priest.
David Rutschman’s short story “The Hogs, the Sow, the Wind” [May 2017] was devastating. At first I thought it would be a fable, but it is much more than that. You might say it is like a Buddhist koan: it moves you immediately, but you need to give it time to permeate your mind and heart.