By ELLYN GAYDOS
I live on a wooded road posted with NO TRESPASSING PROPERTY OF GEORGE FUDGE signs. In addition to being a large landowner, George Fudge rents out dumpsters, and is rumored to be an ex-con and confirmed to be a minister. When the season is right, he plows snow. He’s plowed my driveway more than once for free. I am surrounded by good intentions. On the wall of the post office there is a note that says, I am an honest girl, written by a customer who took a card costing $2.99 and left $3. The town maintains a free rack of clothing outside the dollar store, kids’ jumpers and XL T-shirts fluttering brightly.
I work on a small vegetable farm carved out of hayfields owned by the local high school and woods owned by the local commune. The other young farmers and I grow food for a hundred families that come each week to get shares of vegetables, which begin in spring as ephemeral greens and end in winter as sacks of beets and potatoes.
Home from work with a heavy trash bag of compost for my pigs, I find the escaped animals locked in the chicken coop. They got out in the unwatchful summer afternoon, their snouts bending up the bottom of the fence to roam undeterred past illegible PRIVATE PROPERTY signs. They were escaping their squalid pen out of pure misery, I think. I had been watching them get shocked trying to push through, seeming genuinely angry, for the past few days, putting off moving the fence out of laziness or a desire to escape the drudgery of what I’d taken on.
I go in the house for cheese, crackers, and a Budweiser for my trip into the woods, plus zip ties, a knife, wire strippers, pliers, and a spool of coated wire to aid in the erection of a fence on fresh green earth. I pee beneath low branches, thinking to myself that I am destined for this flowering of work, and laugh. My boyfriend Graham is here with me, sweat-soaked T-shirt and sneakers in the dirt, with a Yeungling hat on. First, we pull the T-posts from the ground, the spools of woven wire are collected, and I pound the newly freed stakes, leaves stuffed in my ears to insulate against the sharp din of the post pounder.
When all the stakes are situated into a rectangle of fresh pasture, I pull the long spool of wire down from the old pen, a barren brown now where almost everything has been rooted up by strong snouts and eliminated, to the new pen deeper into the woods, past the overgrown stone wall some forgotten farmer made for his sheep, so that I am not sure whose property this really is anymore. The declarative ping ping ping of the post pounder sounds through the woods, and no one replies. Only my cat comes to watch us work, her long calico fur splayed luxuriantly over the coarse bark of a fallen log. Graham pulls the wire taut while I fasten it to each post. We work in tandem as the light is wrung from the sky, trying to move faster. I run between poles, gathering tools and discarded beer cans, anything that could be sniffed out and distract the pigs from the preordained path I am willing them to take.
Graham stands in the new pen sunken behind the stone wall, ready to open the fence for the pigs. I walk to the chicken coop and find them captive but uncaring. Nosing the ground, with their ears bounding in characteristic rhythm to their plunging and cresting snouts. All but two of the chickens are tucked overhead in their coop. I throw in the drowsy stragglers, not wanting something carnivorous to happen between hen and pig in the confusion of dusk.
Holding a bucket of compost, I slip open the gate to the coop. The pigs lift their heads from their digging, and I call them out. They come swiftly, trailing me in a sailing triangular formation like a pink kite. It’s working, all of us pumping our legs and them following me across the unmowed grass behind the house. The dog, shut in the kitchen, barks murderously over the radio. One pig, ears pricked, breaks from the triangle and ducks into a thicket, hiding. I call. The unseen dog’s throaty barks alternate with strained high notes, an attack bark followed by one of panic. It is darker every moment. I steer the pigs away from the barking, leading them more loosely now through the woods. Two follow to the edge of the new pen but turn away coyly instead of stepping inside.
I only want them to agree to this fattening until, eventually, their corpulence eclipses their curiosity. Refusing the new pen where a stinking pile of food awaits, they turn back to run free through the open lawn. At first, I try to call the pigs back, but soon I am only trailing them helplessly out of the woods and past the chicken coop again. Walking fast, I realize with dread that they’ve found the road. They love the easily traversed path. I look up at the moon—huge and summer soft—bouncing my dread off its benevolent surface. They are passing the neighbor’s house now. This night could be endless, I think. I call out, and now I am running. Even though, last Saturday night on the way to a party, I found a brown cow standing in the middle of the street, tonight I don’t want to be discovered wildly calling my pigs on the road.
“Pigs!” I call, and they turn in small acknowledgement, deciding what to do. Graham appears in our driveway, his big white T-shirt aglow in moonlight. “Pigs!” he says, and they turn toward him. I let them sniff the bucket of compost to urge them forward and they overtake me, following Graham so that I am trotting behind and he is leading. Just when I see the night opening for them to go into the wild and disappear, they come home, stopping in the front yard to eat acorns. I get them back into the chicken coop instead of their pen behind the stone wall and pour a bucket of slop over the fence. It will hold for the night, and they’ll travel to their new pen in the hungry light of morning.
Inside, the dog twitches with the knowledge of some animal transgression on the property, and the clock on the stove reads 8:00 when, finally, we sit down to dinner.
In sleep, the pigs pile together like a corsage of pink carnations, with the chickens roosting unconsciously above. The moon is aflame, catching each leaf and pine needle, while bats traverse its face as sharp cutouts.
At 6 a.m., an alarm sounds. Outside, the pigs sleep wedged beneath a board fallen from the chicken coop. While the coffee brews, I concoct a bucket of good slop: curdled milk, soup, tomato ends, soft zucchini and grain. I walk to the coop and lift the latch; the pigs exit, calmly grunting in the gentle humidity of morning. Once let out, they follow behind me and the bucket as we walk toward the woods. The littlest of the pigs defects until I hurriedly shove a cantaloupe in her snout, allowing her one bite before luring her forward with the fruit. The group of us advance, the pigs straying momentarily at the scents, leaves, and squirrels that animate the woods. With the gate to their pen open, the smallest pig attempts the threshold first, with the fattest lumbering behind confidently. The third rushes the sides of the fence, unsure how to enter, briefly returning to her former pen of uprooted earth. She is too heavy to reorient manually, so I trot behind her, herding her in clumsy zigzags toward the gate, until finally she slips through. Quickly, I plug the fence in and it clicks to life.
Like with many goods during COVID, there was a pig shortage this year. The three motherless piglets I bought are pinker, more defenseless than the others I’ve raised. Their eyes run.
While out delivering bags of carrots and potatoes to a local grocer, I talk to another farmer in the parking lot as he waits for his frozen chickens, pork chops, and packages of ground beef to be tallied. He tells me they can’t keep meat stores in their own freezer; everything is selling so fast these days, as if stocking up on meat or other worldly goods will provide an antidote. He says he has at least been able to get slaughter dates for his cows, and a team came down from Vermont to process his pigs. They got to his farm at 9 a.m. after doing a cow somewhere else, processed six pigs, and were gone by 11, on to the next job. We both bought strange piglets this year in the chaos of everyone buying livestock and shipping in animals from parts unknown. He said he bought his off a trailer in a parking lot. One of them just kept getting skinnier and skinnier until it eventually died.
“Did you ever figure out what was wrong with it?” I ask.
“In the middle of summer? I was way too busy.”
“Just dig a hole and move on,” I say, with a shared sense of helplessness.
A woman emerges from the warehouse with my empty bins, a signed invoice
“Well, good luck with everything.”
For the most part, the pigs spend their days peaceably, as three distinct beings in sunlight and shadow. Their growth happens day by day, so that, to their keeper, it is hard to perceive until winter, when, against the snow, they begin to appear fat and warm, like baked rolls.
With everything outside covered in frost, they sleep in a row beneath a tarp lashed between trees. It is a cold morning with absolutely blue sky. In the time it takes me to fill a bucket of feed from the shed, the cat deftly catches and kills a vole with one audible squeak. The chickens are giving fewer eggs in the waning daylight, and they balk riotously at me as I pour their grain before visiting the pigs. When I approach the pigpen, one ear points out on alert from the tarp and I am greeted with a startled bark. Then a second pig emerges, and finally the last, slithering from underneath the drooping plastic. I pour the grain in two distinct piles to reduce fighting. Obligingly, the animals sink their snouts to the feed but are slow with sleep and cold. The pigs laconically rub against me, wanting to be scratched through hair that has grown in and left them looking whiter for the coming winter. One sits at my feet as I scratch through the soft bristles on her forehead. The smallest pig rubs herself on a birch sapling, ruffling its bark, before sauntering over to a grain pile. The fattest presses her hams to the earth until she can prop her back legs shakily up beneath her massive carriage. Hung decorously from her dense skeleton are the chops in a row along her spine, the blanket of bacon on her belly, the hocks we’ll smoke ringed around her legs.
On the day the pigs are killed, the sky darkens and an unseasonable rain comes hitting against the halved animals hanging outside. One of the butchers says, “It’s a monkey’s wedding,” because there is sun shining through the downpour and even a rainbow.
Soon after the pigs are gone from the woods, all the employees at the dollar store quit on the same day and the free rack of clothing outside disappears. Knowing the seasons will repeat all over again, we spend a day at the farm mulching garlic, planted for harvest the following summer. Beneath plastic coveralls, swishing up and down the sewn rows, my stomach has filled out around a baby. In the beginning, the baby turned the smell of growing herbs into a sickening one. I hid in the outhouse from the plants and the sun that brought out their perfume. Now I feel her as an ache at my center against each lift and bend.
The farmers’ market continues from the same parking lot as the dollar store, undeterred. A shopper arrives early, dressed in fake Chanel: shoes with a peeling double C, Chanel bag, Chanel dress, and a dachshund on a thin leash. She is shabbily stylish, feet squeezed into shoes and a bouffant waning into her ponytail, a gray question mark. She passes over each vegetable in the booth, asking how much everything is.
“God Almighty, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she says, picking up a black radish and putting it back.
“We work hard,” I say.
“So do a lot of people.”
“We make minimum wage.”
“You poor baby.”
Maybe if I wasn’t in my big canvas coat, she’d see my swollen stomach and be nice. Instead she comes back week after week, led by her dachshund, and searches through the root vegetables and fall radicchios assessing their worth, making a fool of their purveyor weighing and tallying, converting each radish into dollars and cents.
Graham and I move to a house with a long, steep driveway and have to hire George Fudge to plow it for $100. It is perfect for sledding, but I am too pregnant now. In preparation for spring, I complete the seed inventory on the farm, and by nightfall a midwife at the hospital is holding my feet. A pig farmer, the midwife doesn’t help her pigs when they farrow; they can do it on their own. The baby comes out face up, smelling sharp and amphibian. Outside, snow falls while I look at her. Twice I have the feeling of a dove flying just above my head. I can hear the wingbeats. As we drive home from the hospital in a storm, people are driving into snowbanks, and again George Fudge plows the driveway—for free this time—so we can get to our house.
In the baby’s second month, spring arrives and the farm needs the dirt plowed for planting. The baby hasn’t come into consciousness yet, living in a strange cocoon of sleep and tentative wakefulness conveyed through slate-colored eyes. She waits for me in the warm truck while I drive the tractor between fields, sinking the plow into newly softened ground. The smell of soil and the yet-to-be-greened earth churn outside the truck while the baby sleeps. I peer in the cab, fearful since I can’t hear her cry distinguished from loud machines, but each time I look, her limbs are stilled and her eyes closed. Small pricks of nerves accentuate the once celebratory vernal equinox work of making the land flow in brown waves.
I watch a neighbor put her cows out to pasture. Thin-hipped, the cows didn’t get enough winter feed, but finally the grass is back and it’s time to begin a fecund grazing that will last many months. Calves born in winter come out of the barnyard for the first time, their lilting steps springing hard off solid ground instead of sinking into muck and manure. One slow calf remains in the barnyard, a hind leg hanging awkwardly from her body and missing its hoof, stepped on and removed by some huge relative. The farmer already knows the calf will not make it through the season. Leaning on the fence, we can hear the cows tear off grass in mouthfuls, wrapping pink tongue around green in quick succession before stopping to chew. Pointing to one large cow, the farmer adds, “She’ll be hamburger soon,” naming the continuous conversion of matter in which I too take part. I can imagine two opposing images to represent a farmer: one the Nutcracker’s prolific Mother Ginger opening her skirts for children to dance out of, the other a reaper darkly cloaked and wielding his scythe.
I nurse the baby before work, sitting on the cement stoop outside my house. The cat appears beside us, trotting down the driveway with a little rabbit hanging from her mouth. Wet black eyes and a certain twitchiness prove it to be still alive. Soon the rabbit wriggles away and the cat is chasing it in an angry flash of fur down the drive. I don’t see the rabbit again, in pieces or whole, and believe happily that its escape was successful.
As the plants grow, so does the depth of the baby’s world. I wheel the stroller over uneven ground to let her watch as I do the slow work of weeding onions. When she tires of this, I hold her in my lap, inching along and pulling the unwanted plants from between thin green strings of onions. Moving together in the dirt like this, we make it to lunch, when she can nurse and lay in cool grass, out of the cloying dirt of tilled land. The farm dog rolls in something dead and sinks his muzzle in the baby’s face, smearing her with a rancid green goo.
After lunch, the farm crew drives to a field of garlic to pick scapes, the curling plant tops which flower if you let them and deplete the bulb. I clip an apron onto my waist below the baby’s carrier and work down the rows, slipping green scapes into apron pockets with the baby dangling softly into the plants’ pointed leaves. My hands become crusted white with garlic sap. I fill a single crate before she begins to cry inconsolably, fighting red-faced against the straps holding her to me. The whole hot field needs scaping, but instead she and I leave work, abandoning the rest of the day’s wages, in search of cooler pastures, water, and shade. Once accustomed to the work, it is hard, mentally, to get out of it. It could go on forever like this just as sure as the seasons repeat, working from inside a fence that keeps the animals out and us in. After the baby I work less, and it feels strange, like a pig who finds herself loose on an unfamiliar lawn. On some sunny days, we sit idly on the porch, the baby and I, watching carpenter bees thread themselves in and out of the wooden house with an animal busyness punctuated by bursts of unproductivity while they float drunkenly before the railings.
While swimming at the creek, I am alerted by the sound of a hoof scraping against rock. I wade in behind a stand of flowering knotweed and its bees. Light catches on the water, turning it from brown to amber, and I hear the water run against the many stones. A deer slowly crosses the stream, looking in my direction and seeing nothing, both of us folded seamlessly into the wetland. The banks are rich with long grasses, mounds of ferns, and canes of multiflora rose. The sun casts its steady light upon matte leaves and yellow heads of goldenrod coming into bloom. It is the last great sexual yearning of the season. The bugs ring on a higher register than the rush of water, below which is the guttural hum of some hidden machine, proof of the world engaged in ceaseless work.
A trapper once told me the lure that scents his traps requires a little bit of a lot of animals. He mixes skunk, beaver, and fish oils into a kind of intoxicating perfume, the exact combination of which remains secret. He used to hunt raccoons at night: “While everyone was out in the barrooms chasing women, I was out in the woods.” I imagine the pigs having escaped never to return, and me quitting the farm fields for good. Instead of the belabored process of hilling potatoes or fencing in pigs, I’d wait at the mouth of a rabbit hole and catch the first rabbit that comes out, right as it jumps.
Ellyn Gaydos is the author of Pig Years. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, VQR, and The Iowa Review. She works on a vegetable farm in New York State where she lives with her husband, daughter, and two cats.