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The International Writers Magazine: Pig Tales

Red Irony
William Bryant

He was getting old, and it had been too long since my last visit. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him - living alone way out in the country like that - and I knew there was nobody visiting him but me. There was a time when no one would have felt sorry for him. Not because he was ornery – he wasn’t – he was simply your standard, self-made, confident farmer who didn’t need pity.

Virgil was once a big man. He was big in stature and in prominence. He was tall and wild with big hairy knuckles and he always had at least one smashed, bruised fingernail. Virgil used to be a farmer. He raised hogs mostly – along with watermelons. I don’t think there was a bigger hog operation in at least a two hundred mile radius, maybe more. But now Virgil was 75 years old. The hogs, melons, farm, wife and family were all gone. He still had the house, but that was about it. His kids had moved off long ago and made lives of their own. I don’t know if they ever came around anymore. If they didn’t, I don’t know why. Virgil never said and I didn’t have the guts to ask.

Virgil lived in the only house on county road 535. As I pulled off the highway and onto the gravel road, memories came rushing back…like they always did. I used to date Virgil’s daughter – twenty five years ago. There’s no telling how many times I drove this road back then. She was seventeen and I was sixteen – and she and Virgil both liked me. She was Virgil’s opposite – sweet, small, blonde and happy. She had moved to North Carolina when she got married. Virgil had told me that, but I think that is as much as he wanted to say about it.

The fields along the road north of Virgil’s place used to be full of cotton. They were rich with dark green color in the early summer. I remember the color and the heat always made me think of a jungle. In the early fall, the dark green would give way to vast expanses of white bolls. When the cotton was ready, I recall thinking that if you squinted a little and turned your head to the side it looked like someone had spilled a zillion golf balls in those fields. For some reason, nobody raised cotton around here anymore. Soybeans were now king. Cotton had always had more appeal to me. Cotton was somehow exciting. It reminded me of "Gone with the Wind" and I felt like living where they grew cotton meant I belonged to a special "Old South Club" of some sort. Soybeans were boring and the fields were left simply brown, lifeless and ugly. I don’t even know what you do with a soybean. The empty fields and scraggly brush on either side of the road always seemed to jump in the way of my visits to Virgil and drain what little enthusiasm I might have.

If I visited him in summertime it wasn’t so bad.
The house was the same…only older and more dilapidated. The same, rusty-red truck still sat in the yard in its usual spot. I don’t think it ever moved anymore. Virgil had most of his meals brought in by the "meals on wheels" folks, and the transport van took him to his doctor. Other than that, he had no need to leave.
"No reason to knock." I thought as I stood for a moment at the screen door. "He probably wouldn’t hear me if I did." The door wasn’t locked. It never was.
"Virgil!" I hollered.
"Back here. Come on in. Who is it?"
"It’s me, Bill."

Virgil sat in the same chair that he sat in twenty five years ago. It didn’t recline and it was covered in thick, coarse, ugly green and yellow plaid – something right out of the seventies. I thought it used to be vibrant, but now it was terribly faded and as dusty as the floor behind your dryer. The place was dark and depressing. It was cluttered and dirty and for some reason it smelled like kerosene. I smiled a bit to myself as I noticed the ever-present stack of "Pork Farmer" magazines at his side. "I don’t think he has seen a live hog in ten years." I think as I have a seat on the old couch. As I sit down, a brown spot in the old yellow carpet catches my eye. About the time I begin to wonder what in the world caused it, Virgil spits a stream of tobacco juice right onto the floor – right in the middle of the spot. It makes me laugh. "Why worry about the carpet anymore?" I think.
"How have you been Virgil?" I didn’t hear his reply as my attention was drawn to the lack of "hog smell" in his house.

Back when several hundred hogs lived just fifty yards south of where we sat, there was always a very unique aroma in his living room. "That’s the smell of money." He used to say when I would complain. Virgil is talking about something, but I can tell that it is mostly Alzheimer’s induced nonsense – and I know he doesn’t care if I actually listen. He is just happy someone is here to talk at. I look over his head and out onto the old hog lot. The memories come back again.
I used to help Virgil "cut and ring" his pigs. "Cut" is hog farmer talk for castrate, and "ring" refers to the metal rings that pierce the hogs’ snout and nostrils –keeping them from rooting the whole field up. Dating Virgil’s daughter meant you helped him with the hogs. "One was a pig without a prom dress and the other was a prom dress without the pig." I think and laugh to myself.

Virgil would call me a day or two ahead of time and ask if I could help. I never refused. When I arrived, he would have the thirty or forty pigs scheduled for "surgery" separated out and kept away from the sows. During "cutting" time, we would do more than forty a day – anymore would wear you out. It was unbelievably hard work wrestling those little animals into submission. Virgil would grab up one of the squealing little things by the hind legs and flop him over on his side. It was my job to put a knee on the pig’s shoulder and hold him down and grab his hind legs and pull them up to his chest. Virgil would then take his knife and make two quick slits in the scrotum. The testicles would pop right out like a giant exploding zit. Quick as a snake he’d cut the "cords" and douse the wounds with some age old mixture of turpentine and rubbing alcohol. I would then take the ringer and fast as lightning pierce the rim of the snout with four separate rings and then put one big one right in the middle – just like you see with bulls. With the job complete, the pig would be put back over the low fence with the rest of the hogs. They’d squeal like mad while we were working on them and as soon as they hit the ground on the other side, they would start grunting real low and fast and dragging their wounded hind ends on the ground. They never bled. Virgil said the reason for that was he would only cut pigs "when the moon was right". I don’t know what he was talking about, but I know it had something to do with the Farmer’s Almanac.

The sows, like any respectable mother watching their children being mutilated, would become enraged. They would stomp and snort and prowl back and forth outside the fence – trying to get in. If they could have gotten to us, I am sure they would have torn us to pieces.

While Virgil keeps talking and spitting, I recall one particularly eventful "cutting and ringing day". Like always, the job had gone without incident. The sows were screaming and hollering while twenty or thirty little pink pigs dragged their butts on the ground at their mothers’ feet. Me and Virgil gathered up our tools and headed back through the gate on the opposite end of the field into an enclosed area away from the sows. This was where the lone boar lived. Virgil was halfway to the opposite end of the enclosure and I was about forty or fifty feet behind him when the boar attacked.
I never paid much attention to him before. I knew boars had a reputation for being mean, but, as far as I could tell, this one had never done much of anything besides eat and make little pigs. Maybe he finally got to the point that he didn’t like us messing with his babies either – or maybe he thought he might be next. Whatever the reason, something had ignited this hog’s anger. I first saw him out of the corner of my eye and I didn’t recognize what it was. He came rocketing across the mucky ground like an eight hundred pound, furry, red, swine train. Virgil was knocked off his feet and onto his back before I could make a sound to warn him. The boar was on top of him – thrashing his head back and forth – foaming and stomping and doing his best to tear Virgil open with his ugly yellow tusks and black hooves. And all the time the boar was screeching and squealing like a wore-out brake pad.

About five seconds passed until I finally heard Virgil screaming "Help me! Help me!" and realized he was talking to me. For a second I didn’t do anything…what could I do? I certainly couldn’t just run over there and pull the hog off of him, and the closest thing to a weapon I could find was the big glass bottle of turpentine and alcohol that I happened to be holding in my right hand. I remember gingerly walking up to the hog – I wasn’t brave enough to run – and I prayed that by the time I got there Virgil’s guts wouldn’t be pulled out. Then, like a redneck in a bar fight, I busted the bottle right over the hog’s head. A thousand shards of glass and the smell of alcohol and turpentine erupted into the air. And to my surprise, the hog - without a moment’s hesitation - wheeled right around and ran right back to where he came from – shaking the glass and moisture off his red face. I thought he looked like some sort of giant, demon possessed Irish setter after an unwanted swim.

I helped Virgil to his feet and brushed some of the glass off his coveralls. It was several minutes before he quit shaking and calmed down enough to talk. He got a wild look in his eyes and said to me "run that hog up in the catchin’ chute." I had no idea what he was planning, but from the look on his face, I knew now wasn’t the time to argue. By this time, the old, red boar was back rooting around in the dirt as if nothing had happened. I wandered up behind him, clapping, whistling and waving my arms. Like they all did, he turned away and I herded him right up to the chute. Virgil was already there and as soon as the boar’s head poked through the bars, he pulled the lever and clamped the hog’s neck tight. The big pig immediately began squealing and screaming again. I could barely hear, but Virgil was saying something like, "No damn hog is gonna ‘tusk’ me". He had gone and gotten a pair of bolt cutters and he had its jaws around one of the hog’s tusks. And I stood there with my mouth open, wondering why in the world I dated his daughter, and watched as he strained and puffed and squeezed on the handles – trying to break the giant tooth in half. When he was finally convinced this effort would fail, he threw the cutters down and stormed away – headed back toward the shop. This time he came back with a hammer – the hog stomping, squirming and screaming the whole time. Virgil walked right up and, without even the slightest pause, swung that hammer like John Henry. In less than five blows, both tusks were gone. The whole time, I just stood there with my hands in my pockets. I was only sixteen, and I wanted to be "a man", and I wasn’t sure how a man was supposed to act on such an occasion. We walked back to the house in silence. I remember thinking that this was the meanest man I had ever known.

I don’t remember how long I dated his daughter after that, but I know it wasn’t long. And I know I never helped him cut and ring hogs again. I think he sold the boar less than a month later, but I’m not sure. He may have killed it. For all I know, I may have helped him eat it.

But that Virgil was long gone. The man I was looking at couldn’t knock the teeth out of a scurvy pirate’s head.
My mind returned to the here and now, and I noticed that this whole time Virgil had been continually talking, and I hadn’t been listening. I looked down and caught his gaze.
"How are you doing Bill?" He said.
"Fine Virgil…I’m just fine."
He stuck a finger in his mouth, pried out the tobacco plug and flicked it into a trash can by his side. Then he ran his left hand through his coarse, red hair. I then watched incredulous as two very interesting things happened.
"Damn false teeth." He said – as he wriggled his dentures out of his mouth and dunked them in a big glass of water on the table by his chair. He pulled them out, dripping wet, and began trying to dig the tobacco out of the cracks. As I watched him work on the teeth, the silence began to feel awkward. The first thing to come to my mind was his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer.
"How’s your cancer?" I asked.
"Not too goo," he said and shook his head. "Did you know they want to castrate me?"
"No." I said. He could see I was shocked, but if he thought he knew why, he was wrong.
"Can you believe that?" He said. "I can’t understand why in the world they want to do that. The doctor said something about hormones. I can’t understand him."
"Virgil, do you think there is divine retribution on behalf of livestock?" I asked.
"What?" He responded predictably as he sucked his teeth back in his mouth.
"Never mind." I said.
Money or not, I really don’t miss that old smell.

©   Cully Bryant December 2008
cbryant85 at

Cully is also published in "Locust" and "Clapboard House", and fiction to appear in “The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature” and “Clapboard House”.

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