At Alice and Henry’s farm, it is time to mate the sows. Henry even bought a home pregnancy test for them—it is inserted into the vagina and simply beeps, with maddeningly little explanation, if it judges them to have conceived. It is 50 percent accurate, he says. At six foot four, Henry walks the fence with his feet turned out, looking for his two sister sows in their brush-filled pen. Tied around his head he wears a bandanna that quickly darkens with his sweat. I work between Henry and Alice, helping one while the other takes care of the baby.
The farmers here are newlyweds: Alice, thin-boned and green-eyed, and Henry, slightly fat on pork, with short unkempt hair and a beard of the same auburn. They have a baby and a freshly mortgaged house, two mutts, no wedding rings, and a field of pigs. It is a small farm on a fenced-in, gently sloping hill. Carved out of one side of the hill is a series of plots that makes up Alice’s market garden. The rest is open pasture portioned out for the pigs. The garden abounds with pattypan squash, something I have never seen before, a thick yellow star with the knowing weight of flesh and seed. On the table we use to wash vegetables for market, bags of Alice’s breast milk lie scattered.
Henry has borrowed a red boar of strange constitution from a friend and unloads it now from a horse trailer into the sows’ pen. The boar’s eyes are too close together and brightly green instead of the humane shade of gray I’ve come to expect in pigs. He’s hardly the stock you want to multiply, but the sister sows are of unshakable genetics, entirely stubborn animals. Both are black, around seven hundred pounds, and slow to follow all commands. When grain is poured into their pen, they gather it at the front of their mouths and tilt their heads back in violent jerks, all the better to funnel the feed directly to their stomachs before fighting over the scraps.
The boar, about four hundred pounds lighter than his mates, follows the sows. They tolerate him sniffing their vulvas while they forage for food, but eventually they turn, leaning over their broad backs to bite him hard on the neck, sending him in a shamed loop that ends again at the points of their vulvas. Otherwise, he moves from their warm bodies toward their fresh urine in the grass, which he smells and often seems to determine “not ovulating” before momentarily giving up and ambling into the shade.
When one of the sows does lend herself to the boar’s advances, she stands still, an unmoving slate rectangle. He climbs up behind her and inserts his curling penis, nudging it along. She allows this with nonchalant grace. Only one sister at a time lets him hang around her.
On the opposite side of their wire fence, ten uncastrated males are enraptured, studying the act upon which their agricultural survival depends. But of course they don’t know this. While the procreative sex is happening, they play at mounting one another, and other boars sit, as dogs, and respectfully watch. Some carry streaks of white smeared onto their hams, the semen of other juvenile boars practicing at sex.
Alice brings out the baby in his stroller after lunch. I don’t know if his eyes can see far enough to make out what’s happening or if he can only inspect the clover around the wheels of the stroller. There’s also his mother’s shape to monitor as she moves through the field setting up fresh pasture for the pigs. His gaze follows her almost everywhere.
The two farm dogs are also here with us. They ate a robin I tried to rescue from drowning and also, I think, the killdeers’ ground nest I found hidden in wild thyme. They find everything little and kill it and their breath is terrible. Alice dries pig liver for them and keeps it shriveled inside a treat jar. The dogs like me and bark at me like crazy. I let them rest on the cool heads of lettuce in the field even though it kills some of the plants.
When his mother is gone from his sight, the baby will smile at me and the pigs, consent to be touched, and the truck will finally slip into reverse out of the fecund field and back toward the disarrayed driveway and white farmhouse. I always look for the baby when I back up. A cousin of mine in Vermont has a toddler who got hit by a mower. The doctors had to get the grass out of her stomach and piece back together the bones of her foot and her hand. I sent her daisies in the hospital. She will be able to go home in a month, we hope. Her dad jokes that he should throw holy water on the mother, who was supposed to be watching their daughter, to see if she gets burned. I was at the farm when my stepmom called to tell me about the accident, but I didn’t say anything to Alice and Henry because I didn’t want to jinx their baby. Instead I went home and cried on my front porch over the bad things that can happen to innocent creatures.
Fifteen minutes from Alice and Henry’s farm, the town of New Lebanon appears as a singular strip along Route 20, a town easily missed. Reach into the console of the car, look up, and you’ve already come to the lone blinking stoplight, after which there is not much except spaced-out houses and a dumpster factory. Farther on stands the Lebanon Valley Speedway, the grandest thing to be seen from the road—a dirt track surrounded by rough concrete walls that keep stock cars from flying onto Route 20, and cement bleachers that could be the walls of a castle. Seasonally, at the summer town board meetings, weekenders and second-home owners, mixed among the trailer-park residents, farmers, hippies, and senior citizens, make an appeal to reduce operations at the track and make it quieter in town, but they never win. Local sympathy remains overwhelmingly with the speedway.
The downtown strip before the blinking light consists of little more than his and hers barbershops, a Family Dollar, a China City Takeout, a gas station, café, diner, an empty bowling alley, library, three churches, and two bars. The mountains are low and leveled off. There are a few billboards and chain stores with half-stocked shelves.
I have two farm jobs this season. Half the week I go to Henry and Alice’s pig farm, the other half to the vegetable farm run by my old friends Ethan and Sarah, both slight and dirty, elfin almost. Ethan has light hair and pink lips set against a deep tan cast by the summer sun of farm fields or the winter sun of woods where he fells trees. Sarah has dark, closely trimmed bangs, the square jaw of her father, and big white teeth. Both have blue eyes that seem to refract the warm ember of sun they so frequently take in.
We live together in a small yellow house surrounded by yellow flowers. Goose, a large Maine Coon cat that can dissect a mouse and leave only a single string of intestine attached to a disembodied pink nose, lives there too. The house is a ten-minute drive away from their farm, past cornfields, cows, and the diner. We grow vegetables just because we like certain varieties, cultivating unpopularly bitter radicchios and giant pink tomatoes that split as they ripen alongside thousands of pounds of survival foods, rows and rows of potatoes and cabbage. We return from work stinking of fish fertilizer, our boots and collars dirt laden. Most nights we eat rich vegetable-filled suppers at the kitchen table before collapsing into bed. I’ve learned to sleep through the sounds of Goose
The farm itself does not belong to Ethan or Sarah but to a Sufi commune. The Sufis began it in the 1970s, replacing the Shakers who had come before them. Every Wednesday they offer free lunch at the commune. It is either a ploy to attract more members, an act of charity, or likely both. The chef is a beautiful woman with wild white hair. Her food is redolent of a health-store buffet: lentils and rice, vegetable-rich soups, cornbread, jam bars, and giant bowls of salad with homemade tahini and green-goddess dressings. Most of the people who show up for lunch are associated somehow with the commune, older and living in their own houses, having given up on true communal living.
The dining hall, part of a cluster of Shaker buildings overlooking the farm, constructed in 1831 for their own meals, is painted a cheery shade of yellow bordering wide-planed wooden floors. There’s a framed picture on the wall of the original communards, ragged and young, with visiting Shaker sisters in dark bonnets, a shadow of the six hundred Believers who once lived here. By 1947 they were all gone, having sold off thousands of acres of farmland and shuttered seed and herbal-tonic businesses, schools, a chair factory, and a tannery.
There are fewer and fewer Sufis left at the commune these days, an emptiness that carries an almost historical sense of inevitability; others say the mountain and these lands themselves exert a kind of magnetic pull and we are all arrived because of it. In spite of the past failings, a small number of young people still come here with communal hopes.
At first, I hid from the eccentric graying communards with their big believing eyes. I overheard some of them talking about a willow tree as if it were a person. They seem to move more slowly than the rest of the world and with a degree of care I am unaccustomed to. Most of the commune members never remember me, due to either old age or more pressing spiritual concerns. But I got to know the cooks and carpenters, the mail room, and the herb garden grown into the shape of a pentacle. So many Believers have already trod upon this same plot of land. As on the other farms, what I feel on Mount Lebanon is the blunt power of nature, nothing more or less.
Sarah grew up in town, born here after her parents met at the commune. I’ve seen pictures of their wedding on the mountain, the guru’s hands held high above her mother’s hair, stuck with baby’s breath, and her father’s red-suspendered shoulders, blessing them both. Her mother was an artist and her father was a carpenter. Sarah and Ethan took over the farm here after the commune put an ad in the paper seeking farmers since they no longer wanted to run it.
Sarah wrote to me: “I have a proposal, consider moving to NL this winter and getting a job at the diner or the Gallup Inn etc. and make art with me. I know it sounds questionable but I think it could work in some way.” The letter closed: “The tie between us is very fine, but a hair never dissolves—Emily Dickinson.” I moved in spring. Now, we tend twelve acres with two old tractors, one new, and a pair of giant draft horses named Belle and Lou.
The barn is an ash-colored building that shares a dirt drive with the machine shop and a long wooden shed where we keep our tractors and other supplies dumped and disorganized. Some machines are permanently broken and buried beneath spare parts, while those used daily are more neatly nested in the rubble. The layers of the farm, from this season and many prior, date back to the 1980s, when the people of the commune were young and numerous enough to run it, but the tools themselves date to a much earlier era of farming—horse-drawn manure spreaders and mowers with jagged rust-colored teeth. The farm operates within this antiquated realm or spiritual bubble despite the bigness of current-day agriculture. The main farm field is located across a thin creek from the barn and is filled with rounded rocks that do not dissipate under the gentle cultivation of eighty-year-old tractors. We run two identical models: one red, the other once-red.
Apart from the barn, the farm itself is disparate, consisting of piecemeal plots of rented or borrowed land. There’s a field surrounded by woods near the end of the road—best loved by deer, who enjoy the cover of the nearby trees, and Sufi neighbors, who, mostly, do not own guns. We grow garlic and potatoes there, things the deer find noxious or at least unappealing. Some years we tempt fate and plant good-tasting cabbage or sweet-leafed cauliflower. A portion of these items are taxed by animals. Away from the barn, toolshed, and maintenance shop, the vulnerable plants are not watched over but only found later, sawed down to stalks.
By necessity all the fields are surrounded by tall fences made of electric wire nailed to stripped saplings. These fences, laboriously set up and maintained, are only partially effective at keeping animals out. Rats, mice, voles, groundhogs, and deer enter above, below, or in between the stinging wires, based on their nature and physiology. Each field, dug up and plowed into productivity from the grass, trees, and wild plants around it, is encircled by a drive path for the tractors, horses, and the truck full of workers that come weekdays during the growing season to plant, cultivate, and extract the bounty.
If the horses are not working the fields, they stand in their makeshift stable beside the creek watching the comings and goings under shade. Here they’ll rest during the heat of the day, before they are turned out on pasture to graze under the cool night sky. The farm’s farthest sight line encompasses the pastures where they graze, so we can see them in their idle hours, and they can see us in nondescript toil. The land and the town are old, but the farm, replanted by young workers every year, always feels new.
One morning I take my boyfriend, Graham, to buy some piglets from a nice lady who casually mentioned that she could get one of her ten children to help load them, each pig pushing forty pounds, into my truck. Graham stands there in his old Nikes and black pants with paint on them, watching the kids corner the pigs. His buzz cut has grown out this summer, light brown and soft as a child’s. His sneakers are caked in manure. He lifts the screaming piglets out of the pen, away from their mother, and drops them into an old dog crate in my truck’s bed. The woman sends us home with homemade bagels, wrapped in a paper towel, and frozen hot dogs. Eventually I move the pigs into a scrubby patch of trees just a ten-minute walk from our yellow house. These pigs are not part of any of my farm jobs but uphold a simpler custom that Ethan, Sarah, and I recognize: to stock our freezer for winter.
I named the two littermates Brother Sun and Sister Moon, after the movie about Saint Francis. In time, Sister Moon will take the shape of a stately claw-foot tub, her blond spotted body curving elegantly around her haunches, which end in four flesh-colored hooves. Brother Sun will more closely resemble a stovepipe, flaming red and stubbornly round. He’ll sometimes bite people who don’t know how to comport themselves around pigs. For now, the pigs are small. Their ears barely crest the green in the wooded pasture—I find them by those points and the sound of roughage passing through their snouts. When I visit them after work, they’ll sniff my hand holding a can of Hamm’s and will drink the beer if I pour it out into the dirt for them. Their low-set eyes look down into a world brown and wet and swirled with beer or leaves. They are wary of me at first, but soon Sister will let me scratch her, then Brother will too.
That night, I go to bed at 3 a.m. By 7 a.m. my piglets have escaped. In early sunlight, I carry an orange bucket of feed down the driveway. A man across the road says he saw the pigs moving through his lawn. I walk down the road, past the big forsythia bush and the pond, to the fields interrupted by homes. In the warm and quiet morning, I do not see any flashes of swine body on the neighbor’s property. I ring the doorbell. A woman with a gray bob opens the door, a breezy modern interior—heavy spiked light fixtures and shampooed carpets, expansive paintings and impractical picture windows that probably get covered in ice during the winter. Weekenders. “I saw the pigs go that way,” she says, pointing around the back corner of the house. She says she held sliced fruit out in her hand for them, but they weren’t interested.
Behind the house there’s a statue’s cement head sinking in the lawn with meadows flowing behind it. I start to follow the perpendicular paths of tire tracks across open fields swollen with mud. I find pig tracks, stuck deep, seeing them first as inverted deer tracks before I turn and get oriented to their direction. Thorns make runs on my legs as if they were cheap fabric. I stop at a swamp. The pigs apparently walked around the cattails on supple ground. No evidence of foraging (like miniature explosions in the dirt). They just took the old logging roads, enjoying the air brushing the cool mud coats they acquired along the way. Everywhere bedstraw blooms in tiny white clusters that choke the field grass. The air is heavy with the smell of nectar.
I start to wonder if they’re actually gone. Worry they are circling an irate farmer tedding hay with spinning implements and driving unrelentingly forward, or eating out of a poisonous rhubarb patch in someone’s vegetable garden. Or worse yet, in the sights of the hunters down the road who make garish gun blasts all weekend behind their house.
Finally, I find them, shaggy red and blond cutouts against the grass. When they see me, they greet me as an old friend, seesawing their fixed rectangular bodies toward me, ears flapping in happy abandon. We walk pleasantly the mile or so back together, with me sometimes leading or one of them heading the procession with purpose. They really are perfect company. No words need be exchanged, just spending time. We cross the road and leave behind the statue head. Sometimes one pig will speed up and accidentally push its nose into my calf, a cool lily pad.
Some days, Ben, the cook from the Sufi commune, saves old food for me to feed Brother and Sister. His cheeks are usually flushed pink from the big ovens. He is young like me and self-effacing about his cooking. One morning, he gives me milk crates full of half-and-half. He directs a few workers in the open kitchen, then points me to the basement, where he’s left a scrap of paper on top of the unrefrigerated milk crates that reads, “pig.” I decide to pour the containers of half-and-half into buckets before I get to the pigs’ pen so I don’t have to hear the pigs’ anticipatory screams for food, but I wonder if they can hear me all the way from the road unscrewing the milk and glugglugging it into buckets. I drink some first; it’s still good, and this time of year I’m so hungry. When the pigs’ portion is poured out, they lower their heads luxuriously into the white bowl of milk and suck in long powerful breaths of it. They fight and spill some of the milk, and then they roll in the puddle, cooling off from the day. It looks like a crater on the moon, gray and murky.
They are getting fatter every day and they carry the weight well, muscling out their shoulders and lengthening their stomachs into long strips of bacon. There is a tradition to this, the family pig—a “mortgage lifter”—an animal that judiciously eats the kitchen scraps and is converted back to food for the same table, the excesses of which can be sold as the cold comes.
Brother and Sister like touching me when I’m in their pen, even though it is often to get at their food. They have never been gentle with their own bodies, but they press their noses pleasantly against my bare thigh or the soft corduroy fabric of my pants. They sit on the toes of my boots, squishing the rubber against their rounded hindquarters.
They are archaeologists, showing me the old farm, which is reforested now, as they force their snouts through the undergrowth. Over time, skeins of barbed wire appear, beer cans with antique fasteners, iron parts of tractors, a contractor bag (which they shredded like mice making a nest), an apple peeler, paint cans, milk pails, mushrooms from ancient spores. Their pen has begun to stink. The smell comes from their wallow and digested food. They leave uneaten fruit and vegetable rinds shriveled in the dirt and pushed out past their fence to rot. Once I found witches’ butter, a strange and luminescent orange fungus, hanging improbably from a stick in a corner of their pen. The fungus is slick like plastic, almost tacky, and yet delicately puffed into three-dimensionality
like a paper lantern. It was attached to the stick by a thin stalk, as oysters do with one foot clinging through the tides in their tough shells. I took the stick home and displayed it on our kitchen table. It looks as beautiful as the magnified pictures in a field guide.
I work in steel-toed boots, pointed so that I look like a witch but also a construction worker. My best T-shirt is one Sarah bought me, extra-large and pink, covered in a pig face so blown out its black eyes rest at my armpits, its snout on my belly button. I look young because of my thin body, but with sun wrinkles coming in. I wear my long hair piled beneath a baseball cap and, on days when it rains, oversized rubber coveralls that swish when I walk. Being a farmhand is skilled work, but it’s not good money. Besides a fondness for the days, I like the concrete task of producing food, and my hands are trained by years of repetition at bunching radishes, trellising tomatoes, setting up fences.
Part of the job is losing oneself in nature. Cast out into the farm among the plants, animals, machines, I feel unindividuated. Of course, I act upon the world. But the work is so elemental as to be impersonal: animals fed, dirt plowed. The weather acts; I accept. If I leave, someone will surely take my place. I see a sign at Price Chopper that says they’re hiring at sixteen dollars per hour in the deli—more than any of my farm jobs pay—but those who choose to farmhand (and many don’t get the luxury of choice without papers or a clean record or the ability to pass a drug test) have good reason: a freedom that goes beyond working for someone else, just as answerable to weather or bugs. It is never my farm to run, anyway. The seasonal work is a kind of stasis happening year after year. There is no ending and no beginning to an agricultural story, only a descent into a repeating cycle.
It is not necessarily so impersonal to work as a farmhand, but I feel like a different kind of person, a person addressed to plants, animals, or machines. Often my thoughts with the plants are dumb. I think of the weeds I am pulling or count what I am picking. Animals, like Alice and Henry’s tank-shaped sows, I can read better in a mammalian sense. Touch them, watch how they behave, see when they back away or come forward, hear when they call out. There is no embarrassment in watching and one needn’t ask, but farm animals are different from the wild ones, who may choose to stay hidden. There is so much else to understand besides the clogged world of human activity. But on the farm, I carry out unkind human intentions or make ugly mistakes. Geese, fattening nicely for Christmastime, accidentally hung themselves in the cross wire of a fence I set up. I removed their downy bodies, so close to slaughtering size, and fed them to the dog. I pruned tomatoes for more fruit, but instead spread a brown wasting disease so that as they fruited they rotted. I plowed with the tractor over sod-covered earth and turned it from living soil to blowing dust. After years of this work I still falter, spoiling the life we are cultivating.
A farm itself is a system that is always somewhat out of control. An order imperfectly blanketing wildness. But there is still pride to be had in a well-run farm. The task is in getting a living thing to flourish, corralling life toward the desired fecundity. This aliveness is not a human achievement, but simply a condition of nature. We pride ourselves on our manipulations, but it cannot go beyond that. In the fostering of this raw thing—life—lies the reward.
Without understanding life, one can farm. It is a profession based on so much work already done, the earth tricked so many centuries ago. The cooperation of plants and animals remains a mystery to my stubbornly unscientific mind. I am taught to plant potatoes on Good Friday, to tap trees for sap when the days are warm and the nights freezing, to guide a pig into a trailer with its ear and tail as rudders, to look for the yellow spot that indicates a ripe melon. I read on the bag what ratio of bonemeal to spread for fertilizer. There is an equation to weigh a pig without a scale: Square the girth of the animal, multiply by length, and divide by four hundred. The whole thing feels predestined. What is left, each year renewed, is the work.
There is the established wisdom, but still there are no false promises. Things thrive or die, and the farmer hopes to tip the balance toward bounty. Most years it is okay. But I’ve seen the cruel waters of flood eat away at a field or the cracked soil of no rain or worms rot a flock of sheep from the hooves up. Enough to know that life remains wild. For this reason too I like farming: One simply must accept the outcome. Here one’s hard work becomes like a prayer instead of an insistence that things will turn out okay. The work exists in a moment of suspension.
On this, as every morning, Brother and Sister are brought food and water, which they require in increasing amounts as their bodies round and their thirst grows. The pen loses green with mounting rapidity until I move them to fresh pasture—new squares of wood for them to mow down and turn over. One of the first marks of the pigs is that all the raspberry canes have been bowed with their newly grown tips pressed forcibly back into the ground. After stomping down the thorn-covered canes, they eat the leaves and the plants are left bare.
On our afternoon off, Sarah and I take a walk across town, past planted feed corn, trailers, Victorian houses, and the town hall, to drink from the Lebanon spring. We walk through the cultivated valley scavenged by Canada geese and up a steep hill. There used to be a hotel here and a bath with the circumference of a silo. Bathers would come from all over to enjoy the spring’s waters. Everything here grows special. The water stays seventy-one degrees all year round. When tasted it is warm to the lips, not stagnant but amenable to the temperature of the body and the blood. In our time, part of the Lebanon spring has been redirected into a black hose. To drink from it without sinking into the puddle beneath, which is ringed in vibrant green chickweed, Sarah has to stand with her legs spread wide. blessed water, wine of the gods is carved on the rock that once provided a statelier fountain. The abandonment of pretense at the spring echoes through the rest of New Lebanon. Sarah says there used to be a bar here that looked just like a ship, but it burned down a long
We sit on my shirt, spread beneath a sycamore tree that grows straight from the spring. It is so big I did not see it the first time I came here. From under the tree we can still hear the hose flowing, but it is hidden now behind the hexagonal bathhouse built beneath the sycamore. Bulbous mounds press out from the tree’s limbs, “like souls got caught in the tree,” Sarah says. The once merry bathers? Or did the whole town get fenced inside some fairy ring?
The tree’s giant trunk splits into three, each still bigger around than a normal tree, which explode into further trunks and open-palmed green leaves. In the sunlight, the bark is white as milk. Now it is the color of sand and concrete. The tree’s missing branch has grown, over time, into a completely smooth knob.
The shuttered bathhouse is topped with a white spire, pointing a bony finger at the otherworldly tree. Every time we come here, we peer into the bathhouse windows. The structure encloses a rotted basin with PVC piping arching over it. Pallets and netting—supplies for something great—are stored beside it. It is a place for nymphs. A place where the Mohican tribe brought sick settlers before they were betrayed by them. Some families still live here because an incurable relative came
to be healed.
The Gallup Inn, another kind of watering hole, and one that Sarah also used to lure me here, closes early even on the weekends. The regulars are old and last call is around ten, depending on the night. We go there after the springs just as the sun disappears. The sign is made of plastic, a black silhouette of a horse lit up so that its outline glows at night. It is an after-work bar and a bar for people done with work altogether, or contractors with irregular hours who sometimes arrive by three in the afternoon. Because it is an offtrack-betting bar, the TVs, small and outdated, are tuned to horse races whenever they are on. A small machine in the corner is used for placing bets, but it is at least a thirty-minute drive to redeem a winning ticket.
The bar itself stands on one end of the room, a wooden U with three taps. The bartender floats in her narrow lane, her purse wilted on the countertop beside the register among the bags of chips, T-shirts with horses on them, and shelves of cheap liquor hung from the wall. All the bartenders here are women, each with her own night of the week; ranging from grand-
motherly to motherly, they run the bar with an air of casual intimacy.
Tonight, the bleached-blond bartender, skewing more toward grandmotherly, wears a pink tie-dyed Saratoga Race Course shirt with the races playing behind her. She hoists a gallon of unrefrigerated milk onto the bar and says, “Don’t you have pigs or something?”
“Yeah, they’ll love this,” I say.
“That’s how you get them fat,” someone at the bar adds.
People hang around outside smoking cigarettes and eating the awful hot dogs served here. The stink of nearby cow pastures passes in waves between the smell of beer and cigarettes. All that is visible is the parking lot and the dump under the darkening sky. The building manager, who’s been repainting the outside of the bar, sucks in on a cigarette. His cheeks deflate, retracting from his sunburned and dazed face. He is also wearing a tie-dyed shirt, but instead of horses his has chickens on it. He says he’s been feeding the same crow every day while painting and every day it comes to visit him. One day it came with a gold ring in its beak.
“So it proposed to you?” I ask.
“Did you say yes?”
“Yes. Now I’m married to a crow.”
One night, a wild storm surrounds the yellow house. Under the porch lights, what looks like a red dog stands huffing in the downpour at 10 p.m. When the purple lightning flashes, his silhouette darkens against the sky and I can make out the creases in fat jowls and the cylindrical waddles of a pig. In the brief light Brother’s eyes turn green, just like those of the boar at the farm. His sister appears on the lawn, in a pink flash of her bathtub-shaped body.
It is easy to follow the white line of the road back to the field where they live. The grass is silver this time of night, but the woods are harder to see through. I walk in front, followed by two pigs, Graham, and a few houseguests, one with no shoes, excited at the novelty of it. The rain comes down so hard it pools under your eyes before falling in rivulets between your lips. We are all sinking into puddles, tripping over large stumps of quartz and barbed wire stretched taut between the trees.
When we get to the pigs’ pen, the flimsy fence is splayed like a rib cage, white wire and posts sticking out at terrible angles. I dump more food to keep the pigs inside the mess while trying to tighten wire, sink poles back into the ground, and straighten the fence out again. We leave them there, but I do not know if they’ll be home when I come back.
In the morning, Goose is on the roof. I can see him from the soap-stained window in the shower. At first I think it is not a cat on the roof but a pig farther off on the lawn. We make eye contact, though, as if to reassure each other of our existence.
August arrives with a thick heat. The plants on Ethan and Sarah’s farm grow fast in heavy sunshine. It is time to mow the vegetable fields before everything goes to seed—the bluish rye grass and bolted crops trying to spread newer generations, too much green. The mower is a flat semicircle towed behind the tractor. As the mower crashes on, the ground assumes a lighter shade of green. The freshly torn stalks are soon matted with a cud of plants. Rocks knock and ping against the mower blade, and now and then the metal catches on the ground, digging brown sickle-shaped dents in the land.
I move from crops onto open field, wild grasses mixed with clover and poison ivy. It smells sweet, the incense of running motors and hay. The metal seat is hot beneath me and I bounce obediently with the tractor. Rabbits begin to run in terror at wild angles away from the wheels, dusty brown spirits. This is easy, visual work. The tractor is in gear and I don’t change speed. Birds have made their nests in the ground. Some hop away, one wing splayed out as if in a splint. Are they faking it like the killdeers? Even butterflies are flung about as the dog-nosed tractor parses the grass. I make patterns mowed in stripes or triangles around rocks.
At the pig farm, Henry is inside making a pinhole camera because today is the eclipse. When he comes out he is carrying a long lens on a stand, white paper, and masking tape. I wonder if the baby will watch too. I’ve known him three months now. His hair has turned orange and his teeth have grown in long and white; I know because he smiled at me. He has a unibrow now, equally faint from end to end. He is sitting in his stroller and clutching his mother’s sweaty hat while she works, enjoying her scent, which is also his own. At work Alice is surprisingly strong, moving with unselfconscious severity, fitting metal poles together or forking up sod while the baby cries from the stroller. I found an old studio photograph of her in an unfinished room of the farmhouse that betrays her grace. Her thin neck and delicate features against an absent white background, the sideways look of her green glass–colored eyes.
Later, Henry, Alice, and I watch a piece of paper held beneath the camera. Henry holds the paper steady and we take turns looking through the thick lens. At first only the paper appears, but then it is punctuated by celestial movement: white disk of light, the sun’s external gases, the membranes of the clouds, and the dark disk of moon are all illuminated in an oddly transparent tableau that wavers across the page and again is gone when the clouds become too thick.
The crickets grow loud and the sky dims a few shades bluer. The pigs sleep through all of it and the plants respire.
Alice brings the baby indoors and my work continues. Henry backs the trailer into the field adjacent to the woodlot, where the boar has been trying, for weeks now, and with much uncertainty, to impregnate the sister sows. Now all we can do is wait. Henry opens the fence with obvious escape routes in the hope that the boar will intuitively enter its new pen or follow his lead. But there’s the green of the surrounding fields to distract him, if he doesn’t spook first.
Some pigs are too young, not yet acclimated to following commands, and the sows remember bitterly slipping off the trailer or the sting of the electric fence. Even though they are seven hundred pounds, I have seen them reduced to quivering masses as they venture out of their pen. Once when we tried to move the sows from the field to the woods, they got so nervous they began hyperventilating in the midday sun and had to be doused with water underneath a shade canopy jerry-rigged of stakes with a tarp tied between them. But their hearts kept pumping blood like hoses. They are nervy creatures.
When the boar, who has outworn his welcome in price of feed, is scheduled to be sent home, it is another uncertain maneuver. I lay out new ElectroNet fence in long white ribbons before pushing the posts into the ground with all my weight to create a passageway to the trailer. We make piles of grain in the pen, but they, by some logic, attract only the sows, and then we bait the boar with a bucket of corn, peas, and whey, capping the tip of his snout. He hesitates as we cross the threshold. Some animals can decipher the timed clicks of a power fence. Because of the slop, the boar consents to leaving his pen and going into the new one constructed around the horse trailer to take him home. The boar is doing it. He walks up the ramp, but we don’t act quick enough. The door hangs open and he walks out again.
If the load doesn’t happen right away, anxiety starts to set in. The pigs begin to realize they are not on a walk that ends in a paradisiacal bowl of cream on soft hay. Now the boar follows the bucket only haphazardly, looking with one eye at the fresh forage. He doesn’t like the gap between the ramp and the trailer, which emits an inch of disorienting light. He doesn’t like the way the light seems sucked out of the long metal tube he’s supposed to walk into. Henry half runs after the boar, sweating into his bandanna and jiggling the rubber bucket of feed. He dumps feed on the grass, which only deters the boar further from wanting to enter the trailer. A pig, with its oversized mouth, will parse out meal from between individual blades of grass, delicately working its tongue and lower jaw for as long as it takes.
The last pig farmer I worked for was quiet, a grown man who blushed. When he was trying to load pigs on a trailer I saw him, with all his might, thrust his body against the back end of a pig over and over, which did not work. (Sometimes, with animals, you start to lose your mind.) Eventually, he constructed a large ring out of woven wire, which he covered in an old sheet so the pigs couldn’t see through, and used it as a lasso. He would hurl the ring over a pig or a squirming pack of piglets. Grown pigs were only momentarily trapped before they forced up the bottom of the wire with their noses, bending it enough to wriggle their fat bodies out from under it.
“Sometimes I think I’m going to hell,” he said once. “What do you think of raising animals for profit?” he asked me.
“They have to come from somewhere,” I replied. We had already eaten pork chops together by then, easily and with quick hunger, another shared intimacy with the pigs.
Eventually, I get the boar eating, face deep into the bucket so that his eyes see the perimeter of the bucket’s rubber edge and little else. After shaking me off, he changes his mind and reenters the bucket. This time we travel, me with the bucket by my hip, motored along by his prodding, up the ramp and into the back of the trailer. Henry quickly shuts the back door and again I find myself in a black trailer with a pig. Some pigs get angry in enclosures, others go into a near-comatose sleep, waiting. I watch the boar sniff abjectly in the dark. Henry opens the side door in a flash of sunlight, and I slip out before the boar notices.
September comes, the days of summer passing with a steadfast momentum. We prepare a homemade dinner for Brother and Sister, their last meal. I make sweet white-flour cakes with caraway seeds and dried cherries, taken from Sarah’s baking cupboard. When cooked, each cake is removed from its glass baking dish and put onto a square of newspaper, then given a thick frosting of peanut butter. I jam a pig-shaped cookie cutter through the flesh of a beet, summer squash, a cucumber, a collard leaf, a block of cheese, a tomato. I press the assortment of vegetal pig silhouettes into the creamy brown faces of the cakes. A friend brings a forty-ounce bottle of beer from E-Z Mart to go with the cake.
Sarah and I walk the food down the road, newsprint flapping ceremoniously, through the hayfield and brambles to the pig pen to serve them. They eat in a more measured, urbane manner than normal on account of the peanut butter sticking to their thickly ridged mouths. As usual, one discovers the goodness of the beer before the other and Sister sucks most all of the malt liquor down as fast as she can in slurps that would be applauded in any beer hall. After her bowl is drained she stands stupidly, looking out at the surrounding mosaic of leaves. The pigs are handsome and we size them up, admiring, with some solemnity, Sister’s spots and Brother’s fat.
At noon the next day we shoot them. Ethan rolls plantain leaves and puts one in each ear. Brother is shot over his grain bowl when I’m not looking. His sister’s left ear folds over protectively against the gun blast that has now dissipated and retreats into the brush, but she is lured out to continue eating. Ethan gracefully aligns the barrel above her eyes and against her thick skull and shoots. Sarah sinks a knife into Brother’s throat and blood comes out in a crimson curtain. The blood has a beautiful brightness to it, making it almost orange, not like any color you normally see, but one that is secret and vivifies from unexpected exposure to light. Both pigs lie kicking for a while after they are stuck.
“They had a lot of life in them,” someone says.
Brother is dragged out of the woods. Sister lies alone in dappled sunlight, her eyes closed. Projected around her is the green canopy, lit from above, a gilded ornament to her death. She was my favorite. She died with an instinctual knack for this, as for other parts of life. Her body remains warm and agreeable. I see her teeth for the first time—two surprisingly square ones in the front angled toward each other. The rest are spotty molars.
I keep seeing death’s face in different ways. It is funny to choose a profession, like farming, in which death is taken into the fold and yet nothing is clarified. It does not steady me for loss even if I have held a pig’s head in my hand or seen a chicken collapsed in the dirt. It is like a blunting of the real. Life is cauterized and then the camera pans left onto that which still breathes, photosynthesizes, or sounds.
We roll up the fence and carry out the feed bowls. Both pigs are loaded, lying down, in the bucket of the tractor, and Ethan drives them back across the hayfield to the house. He raises the bucket halfway to make sure their bodies don’t fall out. Sarah and I follow behind in the truck.
In the grass of the lawn, carabiners are shoved behind the tendons in their back legs and clipped into triangular gambrels chained onto the edge of the tractor’s bucket. Ethan raises the bucket with the tractor’s hydraulics and the pigs float up, at full two-hundred-pound extension, from their hind legs. We hose off their hides until Brother becomes more red and Sister more blond.
With knives, one pair, Ben the Sufi cook shows up to help, works on both pigs simultaneously. Their skin is split across their back legs and down the centers of their stomachs until the point where their front feet begin and the width of them is again crossed with the knife. The exposed fat is white and clean. I am proud of their quality, the purity of the sugar-white fat and the delicate pink flesh neatly whole underneath. We begin the careful process of separating skin, peeling it back in an increasingly heavy sheet. The skin is held taut with one hand; with the other, the knife scores repeatedly the seam between skin and fat, pushing it back with every stroke.
Graham has come for the pig processing, but he didn’t want to see the pigs, whom he’d fed and watered on his visits, die. He didn’t know how we could be so heartless, but he is there on the lawn when we return from the woods with their bodies. I bartered their death for my own freedom from husbandry, along with extra money for winter, which I quickly sink into books and time spent writing.
Graham wants to make headcheese, so we give him the head with the cleanest shot sunk inside. The other is buried. First, he’ll remove the cheek meat; then the skull is cut into a V until the baseball-sized brain is located and gently dragged out of its cavity. He finds the slug and cuts away the burnt edges where it struck. The eyes, tethered by ocular muscles, are also coaxed out of their houses. When the head has changed from blood red to fleshy pink, it is given salt and pepper in equal amounts and lowered into a pot of boiling water on a hot plate, where it will cook on the front porch all day. The pot is close enough to the house that the paint bubbles behind the vapor as it floats up to the heavens.
Inside the body, beneath fat and skin, it is all sheen and the churning of a superior machine. The large intestine begins to lower out first, but all the organs are sewn together by a universal membrane. Exposed are the matte pink of lungs and the hidden heart. The white webbed stomach. A full bladder. The neat frills of the liver are clotted in beautiful pink and red-patterned cells; we all stop to look and save it for the dog. The kidneys, twins of a deeper red, sit in full sun on the plywood table on our lawn and start to change. The skin encasing them becomes egg white and iridescent.
We collect all the inedible pieces—the curling penis and bitter gallbladder—in two buckets and bury them in a hole. The pig bodies, now reduced to meat, bone, and four hooves, are slipped inside contractor bags and lowered from the tractor into the truck bed. We drive them to the vegetable farm’s walk-in cooler, where they will hang to cool overnight. At the farm, I pick herbs to put in the sausage we will make. My fingers, soft with fat, smell faintly of iron and the crisp oil of lovage and bitter parsley, the diesel of thyme and oregano, so sensual that I unabashedly pass the softened and perfumed palms of my hands over my nose and cheeks, sniffing politely as one who does not deserve that which I am given and that which I have taken away.