Mom had warned me that pigs bit off fingers, or worse, and last week Artie and I’d found a sheep dead in a field, killed by loose hogs. Despite the hazards, I agreed to it when Artie asked if I’d help him ring some baby pigs.
More than thirty of them were waiting for us in the stall when I arrived, and Artie’s father told us to grab their back legs.
“Just hold ’em still. I’ll do the rest,” he said.
The pigs squealed when we grabbed them, and the squealing intensified to a high-pitched scream when Mr. Barker inserted the points of the steel oval on each side of my pig’s septum. He squeezed the ends of the ring together with large pliers, and the animal kicked loose from my grip.
“Get another shoat,” he told me, turning to ring Artie’s pig.
The pigs screamed in higher volume and raced into the farthest corner as I approached. With their legs thrashing, they climbed on top of each other to create a pink pyramid of bodies, each one shaking in fear. Catching them was easy then.
The screaming gave me a headache, and it reminded me of how I’d screamed when a dentist drilled one of my teeth without numbing it first. The pain had shot through my jaw and sort of exploded. I imagined the pain of a ring cutting through my own septum.
“Do you have to do this? They’re scared to death,” I finally yelled over to Mr. Barker, where he stood between pigs with his back against a post. He wiped his face with a red handkerchief, shook his head, and bent closer to reply.
“Sure ain’t no fun. But yeah, we got to or else they’ll dig under the fence and get loose.” And then I understood, remembering the dead sheep. Mr. Barker flexed his heavy pliers and stared at the writhing pile.
For the next hour, I tried to ignore the noise, the fear, and the pain as we finished the ringing. When at last we opened the gate, we had to pull the pigs loose from their pyramid in the corner and chase them out. Their screams changed pitch as they ran towards the pen, where they ate slop and began grunting contentedly again.
Artie asked me to play, to swing on a rope in the barn, but I said I had to get home for lunch. In the kitchen, Mom told me she’d actually heard the screaming from across the highway even though our doors and windows were closed.
As I washed up, the water hitting the basin reminded me of sweat, and that reminded me of the terrified animals. I heard their little hooves pounding, remembered them climbing over each other and screaming. I went back to the kitchen and told Mom that I wasn’t hungry. Still a bit traumatized and thinking now of the pigs as victims, I went outside for a peaceful walk by myself in the woods.
BILL VERNON served in the United States Marine Corps and has taught college-level English literature. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town in 2005, and his poems, stories, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. He plays Uncle Sam in his hometown Dayton, Ohio’s annual festival A World A’Fair.