The following excerpt from PIGS was reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Red Hen Press:
Excerpt from PIGS
The pigs ate everything. Kitchen scraps. Bitter lettuce from the garden. The stale and sticky contents of lunch boxes kids brought home from school. Toe nail clippings. Hair balls pulled up from the drain. After the pigs were done, there weren’t even any teeth left over, not even any metal from cavities filled long ago.
They lived in a pen out back. The land was rocky but spacious, and the pen had been tucked in a corner out of sight for more years than any of the children could remember. It was made out of wood, gray, splintered boards nailed together in a haphazard way. Every five feet, the wood was anchored by posts. When you stood by the fence the pigs lumbered over grunting and stuck their snouts out between the rickety slats. It wasn’t always that they expected food. Sometimes they just wanted their snouts scratched. Sometimes they just grunted happily and settled back down in the shade. There were six of them. They never fought. They seemed to smile when you approached. But you had to be quick. If you brought a bucket of slop and poured it out too slowly without moving your hand away, you never knew what could happen.
Luisa was missing a finger. Not an important one. Just her left hand pinky, where she hadn’t moved away quickly enough one hot summer afternoon when she was feeding them shoes. It was summer every afternoon there. Soft and lazy and slow. The pinky came off in one clean bite before she even realized what was happening. She left with a feeling of shame, like it had been her fault the pig grabbed her finger. She wrapped her hand in her skirt and kept her mouth shut, and the stub didn’t start hurting until she lay down for the night.
The land was actually an island. The island was surrounded by water that glinted green in the sun and clouded to gray in the shade. Some might have let the pigs run free, feral among the scrubby bushes. The pigs could have rooted happily for mushrooms or truffles, found entire brambles of berries to eat and maybe left the children alone. They could have gobbled up the entire world’s detritus without anyone’s help. But the grownups preferred the pigs confined. They preferred the relative safety of the fence.
Luisa had lived on the island forever, or for as long as she could remember, which was the same as forever. There were other children too, three of them. Andrew, who sang in his sleep and had straw colored hair. Mimi, who was older, or at least taller, than the rest, and who liked to pretend she knew much more about the world than anyone else, and who couldn’t grow her hair long no matter how hard she tried. There was even a toddler. They called her Natasha. Her head was covered with loose blonde curls. She couldn’t have been more than three, and she giggled every time she heard the grunting of the pigs.
They were all afraid of the gray water, of the sea in a mood of despair. It wrapped the island like a scarf made of grief. It made you choke with tears to touch it.
The children slept together in the same room. It was a whitewashed room in a one-room hut, and they each had a space on the floor. It was comfortable and clean, and they were so used to each other that they never felt crowded. Mimi sometimes said she was getting older and needed more space, but the rest of them were happy to shove over and let her have it. They didn’t have beds, but they’d never heard of beds, and who needed beds anyway? They had blankets. They had pillows. They had mice that skittered along the edges of the room and ate breadcrumbs from the tips of their fingers.
The children ate fish for dinner every night. They picked berries and searched for bird eggs and kept watch from high rocks for sails and garbage on the horizon. Except for Luisa. The distance always blurred for her. Sometimes she wished she could get out on the water, get up close to those ships and find out where they came from. There was no way to tell from far away. But it was just a dream, and she never mentioned it to any of the others. Even in her head, she couldn’t figure out how to make a seaworthy craft.
It didn’t take long for Luisa’s finger to heal into a nice, neat stump. She rubbed it sometimes, and whispered to herself that it was time to grow up and stop being clumsy. She tripped over things easily. She didn’t notice roots or loose rocks or places where the earth buckled. She’d kick the ground in frustration and end up hurting her own foot. It was her fault she’d lost a finger. The pigs were fast, but if she’d been a little more agile they’d have snapped at air. She wondered what she’d tasted like. She hoped she’d tasted good, but not so good that the pig would want more. She tried to remember which one it was that had snapped at her, but even though she was pretty sure it was the one with black spots, she wasn’t sure enough to say.
Sometimes the children tested what the pigs would eat. The leather flaps of shoe tongues. The bent frames of glasses. Mardi Gras beads. Tin cans. Pistols. Cap guns. There seemed to be no limit to their appetite. The children would stand a few feet away from the fence and toss whatever they were testing high into the air. The pigs moved with an unexpected grace, opening their long mouths and catching whatever came sailing down directly between their teeth. The pigs were remarkable. The children watched them with amazement, their own mouths open, their hands, now empty, coming together of their own will to clap. Hub caps. The tassels off bicycle handlebars. Empty jars of mayonnaise. Gone, all gone in seconds.
The grownups on the island frowned at the children and never even pretended to help them with their chores. They drank espresso and smoked cigarettes and plugged their noses dramatically whenever the children got too close. As far as the children could tell, the grownups never cooked.
“It’s not that they don’t know how,” Mimi said. She grabbed every opportunity to be the expert. “It’s that they don’t need to. Food appears. Why should they slave over a hot stove?”
“But what do they do?” Luisa said. “What do they talk about all day long?”
“Do they ever watch the pigs?” Andrew asked.
Natasha gulped and puffed out her toddler’s cheeks.
Nobody had the courage to ask. When Natasha fell into the gray water and came out covered in spots and filled with an unquenchable thirst for a parent that even Mimi couldn’t solve, the grownups flinched at the sight of her.
“What are they here for?” Luisa said. Sometimes she thought, “Maybe we should just feed them to the pigs.”
Johanna Stoberock is the author of the novel City of Ghosts and, most recently, PIGS (Red Hen Press). Her honors include the James W. Hall Prize for Fiction, an Artist Trust GAP award, and a Jack Straw Fellowship. In 2016 she was named Runner Up for the Italo Calvino Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Best of the Net Anthology, and Catamaran, among others. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington, where she teaches at Whitman College.