by Jessica Hwang
Artist: Scott Olson
The air is laden with stink and with noise. The sharp sting of ammonia cuts through layers of coppery blood and vomit-tang. Squeals puncture the suffocating heat. Men shovel piles of steaming dung, kicking animals out of their way. Their tanned ropy forearms sling heavy buckets of slop into rows of metal food troughs and aim hose nozzles at kennels, sluicing dried urine and crusted feces down grates. Blue-bottle flies land on the men’s sweat streaked faces and on the filthy hides of the animals. A carcass rots in one corner, invisible beneath an undulating carpet of writhing, crackling maggots. Inside a crate, a pig seizes, eyes rolling up in its head. Pink bubbles froth from its mouth and snout as its legs scissor the air.
Two-ninety-two’s left rear hoof is split all the way through, pulsating in rhythm with her heartbeat. One of her teeth is broken and sharp against the side of her tongue. A pig in another row is coughing and the one in the next crate has let loose with a pool of mucusy diarrhea. Two-ninety-two lifts her head until the bars of the cage press down on her skull. She rolls her eye toward the corridor. The pig she thinks of as Torn Ear is thrashing against her crate and Spotted Coat is being led to the rack. Mean Sow glares at her from the stall across the way. An insect lands and Two-ninety-two tosses her head, snapping at the sting. She shifts with a shuddering sigh. A throb shoots up her infected leg, radiating bright splinters of pain into her hip. She stretches her numb forelegs as far as they’ll reach beneath the metal bars of the crate. She’s back in the gestation crate today after the rack.
Her litter arrived this morning. They’ve all been moved to the farrowing crate. A piglet struggles to free itself from where it lies trapped between the metal floor slats and Two-ninety-two’s own overheated body. It wriggles and flings itself against her ribs, mewling, as the others nudge and jostle to suckle. Two-ninety-two’s udders are enflamed, the puckered skin oozing; each tug a joy and an agony. She heaves her ribs against the cage, tries to push herself closer to her babies.
Someone has taken her litter away. She’s led back to the rack. Her leg buckles beneath her. She peers into the crates lined up across from the rack. Where are her babies? She needs to rustle their tiny bodies into a nest, nuzzle them, sing to them as they crowd against her for warmth, their tiny satisfied oinks warm puffs against her belly and teats. The man at the rack is always glaring, always frustrated. Always there is the quiver of rage in his voice—shouted words she doesn’t understand.
He yells, “Go right!” and thumps her on the ear with a balled fist when she freezes. After the rack, into the gestation crate. One-hundred and fourteen days.
Some of the newest piglets have caught The Grease. They’re covered in flaky red and gray lesions. The dead ones are tossed into a garbage bin and hauled outside, away from the others.
Two-ninety-two scarfs up the pellets a man dumps into her trough, snuffling and snorting. Her litter is due in a few days; her belly hangs low and distended. Maybe this time she’ll be allowed to keep her piglets—to groom them, teach them, watch them frolic and play and chase. Learn their individual personalities. See them grow into adult pigs.
Eight litters, eighty-one piglets, and four years after she herself came into the world, Two-ninety-two feels the sun on her bristly back and flashing in her eyes for the first time. She’s prodded and kicked into line with hundreds of other animals. Her legs are unsteady, unused. She’s pounded on her sensitive nose when she veers out of line to sniff at the grass
edging the dirt walkway. A sow cries out when a man pushes an electric prod against her rump for dawdling. They’re funneled up a metal ramp. Two-ninety-two lifts her snout to capture the fascinating smells of fresh air, leaves, trees, dirt, pollen, wildflowers, puddled rainwater.
Her back hoof dragging against the earth, she’s swept along a sea of pink. Inside the dim interior, she struggles to catch her breath.
Her mouth is dry, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. Maybe soon the dizzy rocking of the truck will stop and they’ll bring food. They’ve never not brought food before. She stands, packed as tightly as if she were back in the gestation crate, swaying and dozing. Two-ninety-two dreams hazy images of rooting in rich dark soil for juicy tubers. She dreams of lying in that lovely clean air with the hot sun soaking into her aching back and the cool grass beneath her belly.
She’s jostled awake. Sunshine again, too brief. Men hollering. Which way? She shies away from the blood-scent and the screams pouring from the building. A heavy boot aims a kick at her ribs. She knocks into another pig, follows her blindly inside.
Bodily fluids coat the concrete floor. Two-ninety-two slips and goes down on her knees. Hooves trample over her. A man looms close, fist raised, and she scrambles back up. Pigs are being herded and shoved down a wide concrete corridor. She catches sight of a sow she recognizes and tries to wedge herself closer. She knows there’s no food here, no water. There’s nothing here.
“Ah there now, old girl, that’s a nice one. Come here, girl.”
Two-ninety-two raises her head at his kind tone, stepping closer. She cocks her head, examining the shiny metal device the man holds in his hand, forked at one end. Is it something to do with food? Perhaps it produces water if she waits long enough.
“Good girl,” he says and she lifts her face, anticipating the long-awaited stroke of a sympathetic hand against her weary body.
Jessica Hwang’s fiction has appeared in Reservoir Road Literary Review, Bright Flash Literary Review, Mystery Magazine, Tough, Shotgun Honey, Uncharted, Failbetter, Wilderness House Literary Review, Moss Puppy Magazine, Samjoko, Pembroke Magazine, Grey Sparrow Journal and is forthcoming in The Thieving Magpie, Rundelania and The Writing Disorder. You can find her at jessicahwangauthor.com