Hattie Reed kept a close eye on the boar hog. The moment she entered the sow pen, the hog lifted itself off the ground with a snort and trudged over to the fence that separated the two pens. He rooted around in the earth at the fence line and pushed his snout up against the palings. As Hattie slopped the females she checked on the animal over her shoulder. The boar couldn’t possibly root down far enough to climb under the lowest board, she knew. But the way the wood bowed when the hog pushed on it, and the sound of its tusks scraping against the boards made her uneasy.
“You get back now,” she called over to the boar. “You’re fat enough.”
The boar let out a grunt and Hattie shook her head. “You girls pay no mind to that one,” she said to the sows. After she slopped the trough she walked to the well where she filled a heavy oak bucket. The weight strained the muscles in her arms and shoulders, and water sluiced over the sides until she could finally pour it off into the water bath. Each time she returned from the well the boar hog lifted his head to watch her. Now and again he snorted and pushed on the palings, scraping his tusks and rooting in the ground where he tore up the earth with his heavy hoofs. When she finished with the watering she walked along the fence line back to the barn. The boar followed alongside within his own pen, his skin covered in a mask of mud that rose to the tops of the legs and covered its belly and large testicles.
“You are a foul one,” she said to it.
Hattie was in her mid-thirties, a spinster saved from starvation only by her uncle, the reluctant guardian who took her in when she was just ten. Her parents had been killed when a horse spooked at a female bobcat guarding a den. The horse pulled the wagon right off the narrow mountain road and the couple were thrown over the edge. Days later the animal appeared on a neighbor’s farm, dragging the severed traces and broken shaft. Though the horse appeared to be near death, it savagely fought the farmer when he tried to wrangle it toward some water and feed, the trauma still alive somewhere inside of it. When the bodies were recovered, no one could tell exactly how the couple sustained the disfiguring injuries, though everyone hoped they had been crushed instantly by the weight of the wagon, and not killed by the long fall down the sandstone rocks.
At the time, Doc Cornett told young Hattie it was best not to think of her parents any longer, nor of how they might have died. They were simply dead, he told her. “Try to forget them. Life don’t always make sense,” he explained. “It’s just the way of things.” She could smell the whiskey on his breath when he ushered her away.
Eight years later, in the same matter-of-fact tone he informed her that she was “barren.” That’s the word he used, she remembered. “You cannot give birth. It’s a plain fact,” he had added. “And so there’s no use in worrying over it.” There was the whiskey smell that time, too. Hattie was a young bride then, just eighteen, and she tried to disbelieve it. She gave herself frequently to her new husband, at all hours and in all of the isolated places on their small farm. When nothing happened, she coaxed him into the horse barn where the brood mares nursed the foals, and into the little shed outside the chicken coop. Maybe the quick and sure fertility of the livestock would somehow change things for her, she thought. Maybe there was something in the air there.
Eventually the doctor let slip Hattie’s condition in a card game where he drowned his losses in whiskey and rough gossip that sometimes included his female patients. Hattie’s husband soon got word of things and asked her to leave. It seemed only fair then, and he never showed any anger, even though Hattie had kept the secret from him for months. His parents were less kind.
In the first few years after the marriage ended, Hattie’s loneliness grew. Her young husband had been attentive and loving until he discovered the truth about her, and thus she craved more than anything the love of a man, a partner with whom to make a home, if not a family. But word about her had spread quickly. Pretty as she was, she was not fit for motherhood, and therefore not fit to marry in the logic of the tiny mountain community. In time, she began to seek out any kind of masculine attention, even if it meant clandestine exchanges, and the substitution of physical intimacy for something greater. But after a while she simply gave up. Like all little mountain towns, gossip was a commodity much-exchanged, and the shame became too great for her to bear. Over time, the meanness turned to pity. “Bless her heart,” people said when she left the town store or walked down the road on an errand.
Hattie ended up back on the uncle’s hog farm. A widower and a committed misanthrope, the man never showed her any kind of paternal love, neither back then nor now. She was expected to cook, keep house, and help tend to the hogs. In exchange, she got a clean room and whatever she needed in the way of clothing or necessaries, though she required little.
She had been there ever since.
Nowadays, when Hattie slopped the boar hog, she did so quickly. She would spill some feed over the fence, well away from the trough. Then, when the boar began to dig his snout into the swill, she would race over to the gate near the feed trough and slop the contents quickly, before the hog could make his way to the area. Sometimes, though, the boar simply wouldn’t take the bait, even if Hattie called him sweetly to the far fence. It was as if he knew she was headed to the feed trough soon enough. At these times, she had no choice but to stand beside the huge animal as she poured off the buckets of feed. Often the hog sidled right up beside her, its hairy flank, wet with mud and feces, soiling her legs and skirt. Even worse were the times the hog would suddenly wheel so that his sharp, yellowed tusks nearly caught her legs. Not violently, but carelessly. For Hattie, the whole affair was unnerving, and when she could finally close the gate behind her, she would cuss the boar fiercely. But to this the boar was indifferent. The moment she left the pen, he buried his muddy snout in the feed, grunting and making a mess of the earth beneath the trough.
Hattie would leave in a tremor.
Even more unsettling was working the mating pen. The uncle had always kept a close watch on his stock, but as he got older he began to tire, and some of the more unpleasant work fell to Hattie. When she balked at the task he would scold her, “You need to learn how to conduct it, Hattie. There ain’t no income if that boar can’t service the females. It’s just a fact of life, goddamnit.” Yet no matter how many times she had witnessed matings and watched the uncle help to carry them off without incident, the whole event disturbed her. And when the time eventually came that she was to supervise the matings herself, a wave of terror overcame her. She was certain that the boar sensed it, too.
Her first efforts were disastrous. As she tried to lead one of the sows into the mating area, the boar barged its way into the sow pen. Instantly it terrified the females and a contagion of squealing filled the air. The boar prodded and cornered the different sows, cutting a few with its tusks before the desperate Hattie and an old farm hand managed to corral it back to the mating pen.
On the absolute worst of these occasions, the boar had harassed Hattie herself, moving with a dexterity she hadn’t seen in it before. It cut off her escape and snorted violently. At one point it swung its huge head and nearly caught her on the leg with a tusk. She stood terrified in the center of the pen, but the hog just faced her down, its heavy, cloven hoofs set firmly in the mud in front of her. She felt as trapped as the sows. Finally, she made a dash for the fence and was on her way over the top when the boar crashed into the palings beneath her, nearly toppling her back into the pen. In a fit of blind terror she clawed the top board and pulled herself over. The boar rammed its snout into the fence again, splintering the wood this time. In the mud, safely on the other side, she cursed the boar furiously, using language she had only heard from the farm hands. But the boar stood mute, staring through the palings at her. Hattie began to cry.
Plodding its way back into its pen, the boar left both her and the sows behind.
Over the years Hattie had pleaded with her uncle time and again: “Why can’t we remove the tusks, like everyone else does around here?” But she already knew the answer. The uncle had explained over and over that the boar came from a line that simply wasn’t to be de-tusked. The animal was the issue of a hog who had nearly killed a man who tried to de-tusk it—an event Hattie herself had witnessed. And to hear tell, that hog was the issue of another male that had in fact killed a man. Her uncle scolded her when she asked about acquiring a more docile boar for breeding. “That boar hog keeps us afloat, Hattie,” he said. “That boar, that line of boars, produces strong weaners, the best around. Them pigs are healthy because of him. It’s just basic business sense, girl.”
Sometimes Hattie was reminded of that old boar from the time when she was just a little girl, before her marriage, though the memory ushered in a bodily fear when it came. A farm hand, young and cocksure, had convinced the uncle to shear the boar hog’s tusks, but when they made the attempt, the animal tore the rope from the man’s hands and thrashed him fiercely across the forearm with his tusk. If it weren’t for the uncle’s quick work, the man would be dead. Hattie remembered the man’s blood on the old boar’s snout after the incident. The spot soon dried black and remained there until the wet mud of the earth had finally removed it weeks later. The stain frightened her back then, and she avoided the boar’s pen as a rule. Nowadays, Hattie still ran into the former farm hand on occasion, usually when she was in town on an errand. His shiny scar ran from wrist to elbow, a full inch wide in the middle. It frightened her even now and she avoided eye contact with the man.
Recently, the boar hog had torn through some palings and made his way into the sow pen. And from there he ripped a gate from its hinges, releasing all the hogs. The garden Hattie lovingly tended was trampled and eaten over. There was a random pattern to the sows’ destruction, and they left much of the crop untouched. But the boar attacked the little patches in a more methodical pattern, destroying the spinach, radishes, kale, and greens. In places it uprooted row upon row of a crop, not eating anything, but simply destroying. His hoofs made deep impressions in the soil where he had overturned the earth, and his tusks made sharp, deep furrows where the hog had pulled the plants out one-by-one. Here and there he left large mounds of manure, more than Hattie thought possible in a single evening. The few plants not uprooted in these patches smelled of hog urine. The uncle decided to hire a new hand to repair the fences and gates.
The young man was committed to his work, but he also saw an opportunity for a show of chivalry. “Sweet Jesus,” he said to Hattie. “Look at what that devil has done. Boar hog, I am gonna wear you out, you hear me? Tearin’ up that pretty lady’s fine garden, by God.” He smiled at Hattie, and though his teeth were yellowed, and his eyes too wide set, she felt something lift inside of her.
Hattie said, “That hog will be the death of me.”
“No ma’am,” he said. “I’m gonna see to it that he learns his place and treats a pretty lady with proper manners.” He pushed back his locks and smiled broadly at Hattie. She noticed now a missing cuspid, but she smiled back. On another day, she brought the man a cup of water and tried to find an excuse to linger near fence, but she couldn’t, and so she walked off alone. Though when she got to the barn she stole a glance at him over her shoulder. He was standing right where he had been when she left him at the pen, still staring at her. He waved. Why was he watching her, she wondered? But for lack of knowing what else to do, she returned the wave. Maybe he truly thought she was pretty. Hadn’t he said so? That night, she thought about him as she got into her bed. Her skin was warm despite the chill in the air and she kicked her quilt to the floor.
True, the hand was not like her ex-husband. The hand was raw, dirty even. A “low-born” man, her former father-in-law would have said. But it excited her to watch him work. She liked to look at his lithe body and to watch him lift the new fence boards he hammered into place so evenly, each stroke of the hammer finding its mark. His sure work would keep the boar where it belonged, she thought. One day she came upon him while he ate his lunch, shirtless, under an apple tree. She thought he might be embarrassed to be seen so, but he appeared unaware of any need for decorum. Instead he lay back on the ground and smiled at her, his hands behind his head, his hale form in full view for her.
And when Hattie slopped the sows nowadays, the hand always seemed to be nearby. Once he even entered the pen with her while the boar hog rooted around on the other side of the fence, scraping his tusks and snorting continuously. “You hush now!” the hand yelled. “This pretty lady is trying to feed your harem.” The joke made Hattie smile and she allowed the hand to touch her hair, though she turned away when she had to return for more feed. Another time, when the boar hog simply would not stop its aggravating, the hand climbed over the fence and kicked it fiercely in the flank. “You sunuvabitch, I told you to shut the hell up!” he screamed. His eyes were still wide with anger when he said to Hattie, “So sorry for that, Hattie. I just can’t stand it when he bothers you.” Part of her was frightened, but she felt somehow drawn to the hand, too. It was in her interest that he kicked the hog, she told herself. And hadn’t the hog tormented her? For years? Maybe it deserved a little rough treatment.
At night it was all Hattie could do to get to sleep for thinking about the hired hand.
Twice yearly, when the piglets came, Hattie’s work would change. But this time, she met the new tasks with a lighter step than normal. And she seemed content, even pleased, to watch the sows nurse the piglets, something that had saddened her in the past. She also kissed the hired hand a few different times. Once, he found her alone in the barn and she allowed him to kiss her forcefully, with his tongue in her mouth. He placed his hands on her breasts then, and though she felt drawn to him, she demurred for the sake of form. Later she returned the passion of another kiss in the barn, and she almost gave herself to him but for the sound of the boar’s grunting from outside. The hand seemed angered, and he cussed aloud, though whether at her or the boar, she didn’t know. She told herself she wouldn’t put herself in a situation like that again. But it did happen again, and once more it was the boar’s aggravating that spoiled the moment. It fairly tortured her with its constant grunting and snorting. The hired hand told Hattie angrily that she was only imagining things, that the boar was lying idly in its pen, not making a sound. “What the hell, Hattie?” he snapped at her. “Either you want it or you don’t, goddamnit. But stop makin’ excuses. I’ve about had enough of this.”
Hattie cried when he stalked off. And when she slopped the boar hog later that day, she slung the empty bucket hard at its haunch as it moved to walk away. Running through the gate which she slammed behind her, she yelled, “You bastard!”
Hattie then began to think more practically about a way in which she could find a place where she and the hand could not be bothered, where she could show him that she didn’t intend to reject him. But it was difficult to arrange things. To complicate matters, around this time the hand began to speak shortly with Hattie, when he talked to her at all. If he had to walk across a pen to work on a fence he would cuss the weaners and sows, now and again giving one of them a boot to the flank if it got into his path. The boar hog would snort and push his snout up against the fence when he saw the hand. Once the man kicked the fence where the hog rooted on the other side. The hog surprised him with a tusk that thrashed out through the gap in the palings, nearly cutting the hand. “You fat sunuvabitch,” the hand roared. “I will wear you out!”
Hattie worried that the man had given up on her altogether, and she decided to approach him in the barn. This time, she would give herself to him, no matter what, she told herself. But when the hand began to paw her and lift her dress, again she thought she heard the snorting of the boar, and the sound of its tusks up against the palings. She simply couldn’t go any further, it was too exasperating, and she pleaded with the man to understand. They would leave the farm some evening, she promised. She would sneak away. But this time, the hired hand simply said, “No, that’s ok, Hattie. I’ll be leaving in a few days anyway. I’m almost done here. It was nice to be around you, is all. You should know that. There ain’t no need to feel bad, is all. We tried, pretty lady.”
Hattie cried for days when he left for good shortly after.
In the following weeks she plodded about her work, not interested in the nursing sows or in the piglets or weaners. Strangely, the boar hog she now no longer feared, and she accepted indifferently its foulness and its carelessness. If the hog messed her skirt with muck, she simply washed the skirt. And over time she yielded to the impulse to do nothing, to wear the skirt again, unwashed, and even again before she cleaned it. What would be the point of washing, she reckoned, if the boar hog would simply sully her time and again? The skirt would last longer with less frequent cleanings. She simply hung it out to dry each evening.
The anger she felt toward the animal was gone.
It was rare for Hattie’s uncle to leave the farm for any extended period, but one day he decided to take the wagon across the county to look at a harrow a man had up for sale. He told Hattie he’d be gone all day, and to be sure to secure the gate between the boar pen and the sows when she moved from one to the other. The hog had been especially aggressive, he thought, and he didn’t want another disaster.
After Hattie slopped the boar she entered the sow pen to check on the water bath. It was there that the hand surprised her. “Hello, Hattie,” he said, flashing the smile with the missing cuspid. She dropped the bucket and he laughed. He slicked back his locks and moved toward her. But from somewhere behind came the loud snort of the boar hog. The animal moved toward the hand, slowly at first, and then the hand saw what had happened. The gate between the pens was ajar, though he was sure it had been closed when he had crept over the fence beforehand. The boar stopped and faced the hand, its round stomach black with mud and filth.
Hattie took off running toward the fence, clawing her way over the palings and racing headlong toward the house. The boar hog turned and watched her go. When she had reached the house, the hog moved on the hand with a speed the man had not expected. The hand darted toward the fence but the hog cut him off and toppled him with his wide flank. The boar thrashed its head, and as the man tried to rise from the earth a tusk ripped into his forearm, tearing a wide gash nearly from elbow to wrist. The hand cried out in a mixture of terror and agony.
Hattie heard it from just inside the farmhouse. She thought to look out the window, but it was all too great for her, too much now, and she ran to her room and dove onto her bed tick, covering her ears with her hands. It wasn’t until hours later that she finally got up the nerve to return to the pen. The gate was open, but the boar hog had already moved away from the sows that loafed and rooted in the earth as if nothing had happened, as if the boar hog were never there in the first place. The hog lay just inside his pen, uninterested in Hattie altogether. When Hattie closed the gate, she saw that the tip of a tusk was stained red. Her heart raced and she scanned the farm looking for the injured hand. But he was long gone, never to return. The scar would forever remind him of the hog, but Hattie would never know any of this.
She stared at the boar hog on the other side of the fence. Its coal black eye fixed on her for much longer than a moment. A red tail hawk cawed from above and a squirrel darted from a drey somewhere. For a moment, things seemed to go still all across the farm. Hattie called the hog to her, sweetly, as she did when she wanted to bait him away from the feed trough. And an image came to her then, a memory she didn’t know she possessed. It was of her father and of a story he often told her as he sat on the side of her tiny bed tick when she was only a small child. It was about a country milkmaid, a girl who could call all the cows together for milking, a girl who communicated with the animals. It was just a folk tale and she couldn’t remember all the details, just that her father had told the story before bedtime, and that she often fell asleep before the story had ended. She thought of the girl now as she remembered her in the telling of the story so many years ago. A gentle milkmaid who could talk with the livestock.
Hattie called out to the boar hog again, tenderly, almost as if she were singing. But the hog only snorted and walked away.
For years afterward, Hattie tried to remember if she had locked the gate as her uncle had advised that day. But she simply could not recall.