Pigpen (from C is for Cannibals)
Donna handed the bowl of scraps to her eldest daughter.
“Careful you don’t drop that now.”
“Don’t worry Mommy, I got it,” Cayleigh said, and Donna watched as arms, which seemed like only yesterday to have been wrapped in baby fat, juggled with the blue ceramic bowl. The thing must have been a whole quarter of her size, but she managed it. Her little sister — and there were the chubby, baby arms Donna remembered — watched, wide-eyed, with her thumb in her mouth.
“Careful there, don’t run,” Donna called as the girls scampered out past the screen door, on their way to the pigpen.
She watched them through the window, shooing the chickens out of the way as they wove their way over the dusty ground. The pigpen had been built in the shade of a pair of oak trees, but she still had a clear view of the front of it from her kitchen window. She could keep an eye on her daughters, even as they tipped the scraps over the fence.
The girls loved the pigs — they’d been told several times that they were for eating, but still they’d sulk when one of their favorites went to slaughter. Well, mostly it was Cayleigh doing the sulking — Crystal just copied her sister.
She heard Brett’s truck pulling in and the front door opening.
“Hey, handsome,” she said, when he wrapped his arms around her waist and squeezed her tight. His stubble rasped across her neck as he kissed it.
“Hey there, beautiful.”
“Gonna do a pot roast with that leftover brisket. You good with that?” He hummed in agreement, almost a purr, hands slipping over her hips.
“Good hunt, I take it?” she asked.
Again, he hummed, fingers working at the fastenings on her jeans. He’d take her right there in the kitchen if she let him.
The screen door slammed open, startling Brett’s hands back into a more innocent position on her hips.
“Mommy! We got to stroke Princess 2! She come right on up to the fence an’ I stuck my hand in and…”
Cayleigh was beaming, chest puffed out like a little rooster, cradling the now empty bowl, her sister tottering along close behind.
“Did you now?” Brett said, taking the bowl and setting it on the counter before scooping up his daughters — one in each arm — and giving them each a kiss.
Donna knew he didn’t exactly approve of the girls giving the pigs names. And there’d certainly been tears when the original Princess had reached her time. Lots of tears followed by a hunger-strike and a vow to never eat meat again, until Donna had finally sat Cayleigh down for a talk.
She told her that the meat was Princess’s gift to them — that it was cruel to refuse it, to let it go to waste. Cruel to let the pigs remain in their pens, toughening over the years, before succumbing to illness, to old age.
“They’re animals. It’s what they were meant to be,” Donna had said. And, at their next meal, Cayleigh had cleaned her plate and asked for seconds.
“Make sure you wash your hands,” Donna reminded. “How ‘bout you Crystal? Did you get to stroke a piggy too?”
The little girl nodded, holding up her hands like Donna would be able to see the evidence herself.
“Okay, to the sink then.”
Brett leaned over the kitchen sink, still holding the girls as they washed their hands with soap and water. He laughed as they wiped their hands on his shirt, depositing them both back on the ground with such care as if he were handling the finest porcelain. It always delighted Donna to see how gentle he could be, how he knew exactly when to temper that Samson-like strength.
To her relief the girls immediately darted for the door again, heading on outside to the jungle gym Brett had made for them.
She turned back to her husband, standing on her tiptoes to give him a quick peck on the lips — chaste, innocent. The hand fumbling with his belt loop was anything but though. She untucked his shirt, felt his skin and the thick hair over his stomach.
There was a thud from outside — not the backyard, but up front where Brett had parked his truck.
“Goddamnit,” Brett muttered. “Sorry baby, I gotta go deal with that.”
“No problem, we’ll pick this up later. I’ll bring you out a cold drink and something to eat in a bit.”
He smiled down at her with such love it took her breath away. It made a bubble of pride swell in her chest. I did that!The one good thing besides her daughters that she’d managed to create.
He squeezed her tight, but not too tight. Just right.
“Hey, you show that sow who’s boss!” she said, as he let go.
Donna went to the living room window and watched her husband wrestle a bound, leggy blonde from the truck bed and march her over to the barn.
She’d asked him once why it was that he only brought home females, never males, and Brett had blushed and kinda stammered that they were easier to catch and control. Donna wasn’t sure whether she believed that. She’d seen plenty of guys Brett could have picked up and tossed in the back of the truck no trouble.
It was fine, she’d decided, if he was attracted to them. But if the horny state he came home in was any indication, he certainly wasn’t getting his rocks off in the back of the truck with them. Besides, once they made it into the barn, they were pigs. Just meat which hadn’t realised it yet.
The girls came to help with hanging out the laundry. Cayleigh handed her clothes, while Crystal was in charge of the pegs. Donna brought both of them inside and gave them a cookie from the jar.
They scarfed them down and then they were off again; bare-foot forces of nature whirling through the yard.
Cayleigh picked up a stick and started drawing in the dust. Her sister copied her, and then both of them were scoring swirling lines into the dirt, giggling and laughing.
It still amazed Donna how much fun they seemed to have all on their own — in her house growing up the phrase ‘go watch TV’ had been her mom’s mantra. Like the TV would do the job of raising three kids for her while she smoked and got fat.
Donna remembered when she found out she was pregnant with Cayleigh she’d just burst into tears, wailing that she didn’t know what to do. Brett had calmed her down, told her to trust herself. When the baby came, she’d know what it needed. She’d be a great mom.
And it was true. When Donna had finished panting and looked down between her legs at the tiny, red-faced little creature lying on the bloodied towel she’d felt a change. Like the world had just shifted and this tiny being was the pivot.
It was just natural.
One day the girls would start asking questions, and Donna would have to deal with that. The lack of TV would slow the process, but a child’s curiosity couldn’t be kept at bay forever.
Donna had asked Brett how his father had explained it all to him — the food chain and their particular place in it — but he’d shaken his head.
“Not his way. Never his way.”
Donna trusted him that he knew what to do, like he always knew.
She made the girls lunch meat sandwiches and, while they ate, she put together a tray to take out to the barn.
It usually took Brett most of a day to process a new sow, and after that he had to keep a close eye on them for another week while the wounds healed up before they could go into the pen. He’d gotten pretty good at it, and it had been a few years since they’d lost a sow to infection.
Alongside the sandwiches she added a pitcher of iced tea and some jerky.
“Mommy, can we hose down the pigs?” Cayleigh asked, tugging at Donna’s jeans.
“Uh-uh sweetie, I don’t think you’re big enough to handle the hose all by yourself. But you can help Mommy do it — just let me take this out to Daddy and I’ll meet you at the pen.”
Cayleigh had started to pout at the refusal but perked up at the second half of that sentence.
“Okay Mommy!” she said, darting out the door, leaving Crystal to scurry after her.
The way now clear, Donna picked up the tray and headed to the barn.
The barn wasn’t really a barn — it had been, several generations ago, but Brett’s grandfather had modified it to use it as a slaughterhouse and butcher shop when the family’s attention turned less from general farming to just meat.
Brett’s father had added a walk-in freezer for additional storage, but Brett had made the most recent additions — a surgery room for processing and a recovery room for afterwards.
It was hard work, but worth it in the long run.
In the pen they could control their animals’ diet, allow any drugs or toxins to be flushed out naturally, and slaughter as they needed to. Brett could plan his hunts better and there was less pressure to bring home a catch every time.
Donna had jokingly suggested Brett bring home a stud, try raising some piglets of their own, but it just wasn’t feasible. Assuming they even managed to breed one sow, and that the pregnancy and delivery all went smoothly, they’d still have to wait fifteen years to have a decent size pig for butchery.
Donna slid open the barn door with her foot.
“Brett!” she called. “I got food.”
Enough time had passed that he should be through with any tricky bits, but it didn’t hurt to announce her presence.
The processing room was through to her right, and she could hear the buzz of the saw running.
“Brett?” she called again, shifting her grip on the tray as she moved to avoid one of the meat hooks hanging from the ceiling.
She kept telling Brett he should tidy up. Most of the hooks and chains hanging from the ceiling hadn’t been used in years. Brett had bought and installed a bunch of modern butcher equipment, leaving the majority of his father’s things to rust.
The saw was still going even as she approached the door and knocked.
She wasn’t supposed to go into the room — Brett tried to keep it as clean as possible, to prevent infection, and apparently her opening the door while he was working could bring infection in.
She knocked again, calling his name a little louder.
Still the saw kept running.
Donna tried the door handle.
The room was empty, the table in the middle bare. No Brett, no pig. But there was blood — big drops of it on the shining metal of the table.
She looked around for the saw, still thrumming away, and spotted the white plastic of an electrical cable disappearing around the far side of the table. She put the tray down, and she walked, slow like she was wading through molasses. Or maybe it was her mind that was going slow. Trying to stall, to slam on the brakes.
She rounded the edge of the table and looked down at her husband.
Brett had been first in everything that mattered. First love, first kiss. First to get her, to understand.
It had bothered her a little that he hadn’t been her first, especially after she learned she had been his. She’d broken down, told him about her mom’s boyfriend and his wandering hands, the cruel words, bruises where no one would see. Told him that was why she’d run, why she’d been out here looking for shelter.
Donna could remember every detail of the moment they’d met. Could remember standing in this barn, wet-through from the rain, looking up at a freshly split carcass.
She remembered the horror, as the shape made sense. And then the peace.
Headless, handless, identity-less. Donna had felt envy. Here was someone who didn’t have to look in the mirror, feel the self-disgust and loathing every time. No, whoever this was was perfect — pared down to just the meat on her bones. Raw substance, no soul, no feelings.
So, when she heard the footsteps behind her, when she turned and saw the handsome boy holding a hammer, she’d smiled.
Brett told her later he thought she was nuts at first. His grip on the hammer had trembled and something in him had rebelled. Had told him it would be a mistake to bludgeon this strange, smiling girl to death.
He’d had to hide her.
If his father had found her, he’d have slit her throat and strung her up to bleed out almost as soon as look at her. At first Donna hadn’t cared, thought about walking out into the yard, offering herself. She wanted to be clean, like the girl hanging from the hook.
But there had been Brett.
They talked, they touched, they kissed. It didn’t take long before they made love too. His technique had been pretty lacking, but he’d actually wanted to make her feel good too which was another first. There was something in his eyes that called to her. It was like a radio signal, bouncing back and forth between them. Their frequencies just fit.
She was shaking as she knelt by her husband’s head. Blood soaked into her jeans, touched her skin even as she reached out and touched his hair.
There was no point checking for a pulse.
Donna looked for the saw and found it under the table, still covered in Brett’s blood. She switched it off, and then she finally heard the moan. Felt it in her chest, low and animal, the noise she was making.
Brett’s face was cold. It must have happened before he’d had a chance to knock the girl out with the gas. Maybe he hadn’t restrained her properly – somehow, she’d got loose. And done this.
She used the table to haul herself up. Her legs were shaking so bad she thought she’d fall, land face-first on her husband’s corpse.
The smell hadn’t hit her at first — the copper scent of blood was so familiar it didn’t bother her, but the stink of crap from shredded bowels was less so. She looked down at the messy cuts — the saw had sliced through the muscles and into the abdominal cavity. Ripped his guts apart. Sloppy, shoddy work. If Donna had treated a pig like that Brett would’ve been so mad that he wouldn’t’ve spoken to her for a week.
Ruined. That bitch had ruined him.
Tears stung her eyes as she walked around the table, away from Brett’s body. She stumbled over the lip of the door, had to hold onto the frame for a few moments until the ringing in her head stopped.
What am I gonna do?
Cayleigh and Crystal. Her daughters’ faces sprung up in her mind so strongly it was like they’d been put there by something else — something outside herself.
That bitch-pig was still out there, and Donna’s children were too.
She staggered over to the countertop and looked at the knives, picking up one of the skinning blades. Brett’s skinning blade.
She gripped it tight and headed to the barn door.
It felt like things outside should have changed — for the sky to be dark with rain clouds, or the bitch to be standing there waiting — but it was still the same bright, summer day it had been.
The pen. Donna had told the girls to meet her at the pen.
Her knees still felt weak, and she could see Brett lying there every time she blinked.
If that bitch hurt her babies…if she did that Donna would…would…
The girls weren’t by the pen. Donna ran up and leaned over the fence. The pigs were there, all six of them, staring back at her and smiling.
“Where are they?” she snarled, breaking one of the rules. You didn’t talk to them like they could answer, like they were still human.
The smiles dropped from a few faces, but one, a redhead, tipped her head to the side and shrugged. Donna knew that look. The peace and resignation which came with knowing there was nowhere further down you could go. When the knife came to rest against her throat it would be like a prayer being answered.
Donna pushed away from the fence and headed back towards the house. She glanced up front and saw the truck was still there. If the sow had made a run for it on foot, she wasn’t likely to get far. There were lines of traps set up all around the property as well as a razor wire fence.
She heard a thump from somewhere in the house.
“Girls?” she called, praying they would come to her. She glanced around the kitchen and saw a knife missing from the block, saw smudges of blood on the counter.
She jumped out of the way as the cupboard door under the sink swung open. She crouched down, and Crystal flew into her arms, shaking like she’d been dunked in ice-water.
“Baby, are you okay?” she asked, her hands flying over her head and arms, checking for marks. “Are you hurt?”
She looked back at the cupboard, hoping to see Cayleigh crouched behind her, but it was empty — just bottles of bleach and cleaning supplies.
“Where’s your sister? Crystal, sweetie, where’s your sister?”
Crystal had been silent up to this point, probably too scared to make a sound, but now she began to cry. She pointed upstairs, and Donna managed to translate the baby-talk.
A monster had her sister. It had taken her upstairs.
“Okay, okay,” Donna said, running her hands over Crystal’s head, soothing her. Stray smears of blood now marked her hair, and Donna would have to make her take a bath after all this. “You just stay here now. Hide. I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Crystal didn’t want to let go, but Donna insisted.
“Just stay here. Shh. Shh. It’ll be okay.”
She shut the cupboard door and padded around the kitchen table and out into the hall. She moved quickly, as quiet as she could manage, listening as she climbed the stairs. There were muffled voices, Donna recognised the voice of her eldest daughter, coming from the direction of the bathroom.
Donna tried the door, already knowing that the latch would be on. It rattled but stayed stiff in the frame.
“Cayleigh, sweetie, are you alright? Did she hurt you?”
“I called the police!” another voice answered. Donna’s grip tightened on the knife. She longed to kick the door down, but it was solid wood and she’d be more likely to end up with a busted foot than a busted door — she just wasn’t strong enough.
“You’re sick. How can you–Oh god. They’re people, not animals! A-and you…you’re…”
“Monsters?” Donna suggested. “You’re gonna find out just how much of a monster I am if you’ve hurt one hair on my daughter’s head.”
But first she needed to find something to break down the goddamn door.
There was an axe in the barn. She slipped the knife through two of her belt loops and hurried down the stairs. The cupboard door opened, and she had to usher Crystal back inside, tell her the monster wasn’t gone just yet. But Mommy would get rid of it soon.
When she came back with the axe in hand she glanced at the phone in its cradle on the wall. There were bloody fingerprints on the handset and the wall, and any hope that the sow was bluffing crumbled. But she didn’t know the address, she didn’t know where she was — and maybe the police would be able to trace her but it would take them time to drive out here, time to find the place, to make it past the fences and the traps.
Cayleigh was sobbing when Donna made it back to the door.
“I’m coming, just hang on sweetie.”
“I called the police!” the sow shrieked again, like it was some sort of magic charm that people like Donna were supposed to flee from — like vampires from the sun.
“Well, the cops aren’t here!” Donna said and took the first swing.
The axe-head sunk deep into the wood, and both the sow and Cayleigh screamed.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. Just stay back from the door, honey.”
Donna managed to wrench the axe free, pulled back and swung again, aiming for the same spot.
Three more strikes and she could see through, could see the blonde sow-bitch who’d killed her husband cowering next to the toilet with Cayleigh held tight in front of her.
The sow pulled out the knife she’d stolen.
“You hurt her and I’ll make you eat your own guts,” Donna snarled, using the blunt side of the axe to knock out more of the wood, enough of an opening to try to reach through for the latch.
The sow tried to scoot forward, to slash at Donna’s arm, but Cayleigh wouldn’t let her move.
“Noo! Don’t hurt my mommy!”
Donna finally got the door open, kicking aside shards of wood as she stepped into the bathroom.
“Y–you cannibal freak…I told your daughter what you really are. You eat people! Stay away! Stay away from me or I’ll…”
But her hand trembled on the knife. Bloody hands which had left bloody handprints all over Cayleigh’s clothes and arms.
Before the sow could untangle herself from the child Donna swung the axe. She hit her with the blunt end, snapping her head to the side and ramming it into the cistern. It busted her nose in a bright spray of blood.
Donna pulled her sobbing daughter out of the way, reaching in to grab the knife away from the stunned pig. She grabbed a handful of blonde hair, wrenching the sow’s head back. She held a hand over her mouth, enough to check she was still breathing.
She made sure the axe and the knife were both out of reach before she turned and gathered Cayleigh up into a hug.
“It’s alright, shh, it’s alright now.”
She wanted to remember this. Remember what it felt like to hold her daughter in her arms, would have to imagine how it would feel in one, two, five or ten years.
Donna finally let go, cupping Cayleigh’s reddened face in her hands. She glanced around at the sow, still out cold.
“Daddy…I want Daddy!” Cayleigh moaned.
“Oh, baby, I’m…Daddy’s not…Daddy’s not coming back. He’s gone.”
Donna hugged her again, wishing she didn’t have to explain this.
“Somewhere he can’t come back from. And it’s…it’s her fault. She sent your daddy away, and I’m gonna punish her for it, but I need to be quick before she wakes up.”
Donna pulled away again with an apology, as the sow’s eyelids were starting to flicker. She picked up the kitchen knife and sliced through the sow’s top, tearing it into strips and tying it around her wrists and ankles.
“What’re you doing?”
“I told you, I need to punish her for hurting your daddy.” She finished off the last knot and glanced at her daughter. “Want to help?”
Together they dragged the pig down the stairs. Donna did the heavy lifting, while Cayleigh followed and tried to make sure her head didn’t hit the stairs on the way down.
“We don’t want her brains getting all mashed up. If she gets too stupid, she won’t be able to understand what we’re doing.”
They got Crystal out from her hiding place. She giggled and poked the ‘monster’ in the chest, and then she followed them out across the yard and to the barn.
Donna didn’t tell her about her daddy, knowing she would understand it even less than Cayleigh.
Once in the barn Donna sliced off the ankle bindings and replaced them with shackles. She rummaged around in a few of the drawers and finally found an old ball-gag — a survivor from her father-in-law’s era. She pushed a button and a motor started up, lifting the sow feet first into the air. Donna let it run until she was about eye-level with the sow’s knees and then she stepped back.
“I’m gonna show you something your daddy showed me.”
She took out Brett’s skinning knife.
“If you practice, maybe one day you’ll be as good as he was.”
The sow didn’t wake up until Donna had started work on her left leg. She started screaming not long after that.
When the police arrived, the sow was still alive. Donna knew she wouldn’t stay that way though. Brett had told her all about the skin — it was the largest organ in the body, and Donna had thought he was pulling her leg about that one until he showed it to her in one of his textbooks. Without it the body had no defence against germs or even against the cold. The world was a harsh place, and it became harsher still without your skin.
He’d showed her how to separate skin from flesh, piece by piece. She’d been enchanted, watching a transformation like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. People talked about things being skin deep like it was a bad thing, like goodness should be written all the way through to the bone. But Donna saw it differently. A person was only a person so long as they had their skin. Once you took that away, they were nothing. They were clean.
Donna stepped away from the bloodied, shivering pig when asked. She lay down the knife.
She looked at her daughters, frozen with their newly cut capes still grasped in blood-slicked hands, eyes wide at this encroaching army of blue-uniformed creatures.
The world was a harsh place, but Donna hoped that the memory would live on — of a time of simple joy, simple love, where there had been only two things. Family and pigs.
C is for Cannibals is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.