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The Suckling

The sun moved toward the top of the west ridge. Another hour or so and he would wrap it up. He dipped the heavy brush, slapped paint onto the next weather-scaled siding board. The sow shifted noisily; the piglets scampered and squealed.

He had begun in the cool of a morning that quickly heated up under a flawless summer sky. Assignment: "Paint the shed with that mama sow and her eight pigs." One more outbuilding on the Worthington place. Another month and he would have painted them all.

He had been slopping paint over the farm’s tenant houses, fences, and outbuildings since late spring. "Don’t get fancy," Worthington had said. In other words: Don’t waste time on preparation. Knock off the big flakes and cover it up. Make it look good. For Worthington, it was the chance to spruce the place up at lowest cost. Dan McNeil’s need was Worthington’s opportunity.

Dan and Linda had drifted to a stop in the blue foothills of Northern Virginia in the fall of the previous year. They had lived the gypsy life for years, inspired by the counterculture’s vision of a new age. Long trips around the country, to Alaska, to Canada, had been followed by a two-year sojourn in Norway, that time when most of their close friends were living abroad: Ghana, Israel, Spain, Indonesia. . . . The diaspora of the young and idealistic.

Since their return, more travel; though now with a difference: The burden in their hands of a daughter, born near the end of their stay in Norway. Through pregnancy and birth and the first weeks of ecstatic fascination with that little blossoming face, they had never imagined that Heather’s birth would much affect their unrooted lifestyle. But rather quickly, the new one had pulled them to earth.

Before Norway, Linda and Dan had identified with the urban-centric Flower Children. But their time on the farms and small villages of Norway had altered their feeling for cities; returning to the noise and menace of the crowded streets was out of the question. The face of "the movement" was now toward the land. Many of their friends, returned from abroad or wandered out from city, had settled in rural communes. Dan and Linda came to rest on an abandoned farm in a two-hundred-year-old stone house, embodiments of a new vision. Or flotsam by a stream after flood.

The sow grunted. He leaned against the rough fence boards and looked in, taking a breather. The piglets, greedy for tit, squealed and shoved. For Worthington they were a sideline, a hobby. He raised Black Angus on his thousand rolling acres; and harvested enough corn and hay on his bottom land to see his breeding stock through the winter. Dan recalled his stockman’s pride as he showed off the sow and her litter. "Eight fine pigs!" he had beamed. "Not bad for a first farrowing. Not bad a-t’all!" Several would be sold. The rest would be cycled through the makeshift smokehouse Dan helped stoke with chunks of green hickory—for dark substantial hams and fragrant sides of bacon—or through the local abattoir for sausages and pork roasts. Hearty fare for the extensive Worthington clan.

Fare at his own spare home was another matter. The years of footloose wandering had exacted a price. He had found after he washed up at the old farm that he had appallingly little to offer in this rural setting. His years in the university had left him a superbly educated man—considered, at any rate, in the light of contemporary standards. But he had few practical skills. In the city, it had been easy to get along on the simplest of white collar skills—an ability to type, make bookkeeping entries, manage files. Here, he had no skills to sell. And thus, as his hands yearned to go down into the earth and his eyes filled with a vision of the new life he could bring to flower, he was stymied by an unremitting penury. For the first time in an easy and affluent life, his days filled with simple and desperate needs: To buy milk for his child; to pay his few bills; to keep his battered car moving. . . .

It was not a life without friendship, or without joy. But it was a ceaseless, grinding effort "to manage." There were no luxuries. They planted a garden—because it was the first agrarian step, and because of the magic they rediscovered in it—but mostly so they could eat. Dan caught bluegill from a neighboring farm pond when he could spare the time from work. Once he managed to kill a groundhog, which he dressed out and made into a savory stew, the first meat they had eaten in two months. They gathered wild greens, berries, apples from the single remaining tree of an orchard that had once filled half that farm. They baked bread made from wheat, purchased at the feedstore, ground in a laborious hand mill. The only groceries they typically bought were milk, dried beans, and cooking oil.

Suddenly Dan’s attention sharpened. There was something about the melee of piglets. . . . He began counting. . . . And when he had counted, very carefully, he counted again. . . . "That mama sow and her eight pigs. . . ." It was inconceivable that it had been a slip of the tongue: Worthington had referred to the eight pigs twice, in the morning at the big house, and again later, leaning on this very fence. . . . Dan realized he had been holding his breath, released it in a long, musing sigh. . . . There were nine pigs.

He stood awhile as if entranced, his eye singling out one piglet. The ninth pig. The pig which for Worthington’s mind did not exist. . . . Memories of Charles Lamb’s "Essay on Roast Pig" wafted like a fragrance through his mind. . . . His reading of it years before had left an indelible vision of roast suckling pig as the ultimate in gratification, in elegant indulgence. His memory now echoed Lamb’s impassioned plea: "He must be roasted!"

It was that vision that transfixed Dan McNeil’s mind. His family was not hungry. But their life had been so. . . relentless of late. Every thought was of making ends meet, of how to fend off the ever-looming catastrophe. There was too little mirth, too few corners in the day where one could set aside the great nagging anxiety. His household badly needed a feast. . . A little festival. Therapeutic gluttony.

For a moment he amused himself with "a nice philosophic question": Whether, Worthington being unaware of the presence on his farm of a ninth pig, he would in fact lose anything at all were it to disappear. . . . ? But he pushed aside the exercise as specious; and in his mind unflinchingly labeled the thing for what it was: He was contemplating stealing his employer’s pig. . . . Ah, but on the other hand. . . . had not the stealing of pigs a long if not exactly honorable tradition? Had it not always been part of a rough-and-ready redistribution of wealth between lord and peasant? . . . .

His foray over the fence took him by surprise. Sudden reckless resolution and action were one. Partly he was driven by the vision of roast pig; and partly by an exuberant boyish abandon, a resolve to see if the absurd thing could be done. His hastily formed notion was that he could take mama sow by surprise; snatch up one of the sucklings (just below the exquisite little ham seemed a convenient handle); and—tucking the wriggling thing under one arm—vault back over the fence to safety before mama could react.

He had his target selected as his boots hit the ground, and kept it centered in sight as he dashed forward. He was halfway across the pen when the sow reacted with shocking speed. There seemed no transition between supine hulk and furious charge.

He was suddenly aware how big she was, how massively solid! Impossible she could move so fast! But what could she do? Would she bite him? Would she knock him down and stomp on him? He had no idea. But he recognized the naked face of total violence. And God, was she fast! He was as terrified as he had ever been.

There was no time to stop and reverse course. He shifted his momentum toward the end of the pen. The worst fear was when he had turned his back and no longer had her in sight. His frantic leaps seemed to bring him no closer to safety on the other side. The sow’s enraged squealing bellow filled his ears. Then his hands were grasping the top fence board—he was vaulting over, the sow’s snout crashing against his boot.

He lay stunned and gasping in the dust. Raising his head shakily, he was face to face with the sow, snout thrusting angrily through the boards. Her piercing shriek gave way to short, emphatic grunts. Her glare was implacable, unmistakably hostile. He imagined her gloating with smug triumph, if the beast could feel emotions. He himself felt utterly humiliated.

He pushed himself trembling to his feet, retreated from the sow, leaned against another fence to quiet his hammering heart. After some minutes he returned to the paint bucket, picked up the heavy brush, and began slathering the viscous red paint over the siding boards in great angry swaths. His raid on the pen had been a lark. But its failure filled him with a keen disappointment and a sense of self-disgust.

He guessed it had something to do with an obscure sense of competition with Rob, that strange and wonderful friend who had been living with them for the past three weeks. Rob had said once that his only goal in life was to be helpful. And he had simply showed up at their place one day, announcing he’d be staying awhile. "To help out." He had the practical skills that Dan lacked; and the renovation of the old farmhouse had begun moving forward rapidly.

The place was Worthington’s. It had been uninhabited for years, and so was in some disrepair. But it was solidly built, basically sound despite the neglect. The agreement with Worthington: Fifty dollars a month rent, plus repainting the interior of the house. Materials supplied by Worthington.

The house was of the simplest possible design: A stone box with a metal roof. Two rooms on each level: Basement, ground floor, upstairs. Massively built of rough field stone. Nothing to recommend it to the sophisticated eye, perhaps. But Dan loved that house. He loved its enduring solidity, its sense of place embodied, as if the stones of these fields had gathered themselves up into walls. He loved the woodwork of stairs, floors, around door and window—quite plain, but set in place by an honest and master carpenter. He loved the care, the respect, with which it had been brought into being.

He was therefore glad when Rob came to help. He and Linda had been stumbling along so slowly on their own. Suddenly, under Rob’s hand, the work went forth with competent fluidity. Dan pushed Worthington, who was tight with his dollar, to buy good paint. Rob and Linda between them had the requisite color sense. The repainted interior, in subdued, understated pastels, was warm, restful, and homey.

A phrase from Rob often resonated in Dan’s mind. Planning the day’s work, Rob had said to Linda: "You cut in—I’ll roll." To Dan it hinted at a certain easy assurance. He wished he could say with casual competence: "You cut in—I’ll roll!"

But Rob was not content with being the hero with the paintbrush. He immediately tackled his next project: Built-in installation of counters and cabinets in the kitchen. On a near-zero budget.

The first step was tearing down a dilapidated shed on the place. Dan helped Rob with the project, though he could not see any value in the gray-weathered oak siding boards. Using a hand rip saw, an old planer-jointer borrowed from Worthington, and sandpaper, Rob cut and smoothed the boards, removing the weathered surface, revealing the solid grain. He shaped them, cutting to length, ripping to width, with the rip saw only. And then assembled them into cabinet and countertop, without nail or hardware, using the saw blade on a Swiss army knife to cut marvelous butterfly, dovetail, and other interlocking joints.

Once the noisier phase of the work was complete—i. e., once he had gotten to the cutting of the joints—Rob performed his miracles at night, while Linda and Dan and Heather slept. Each day dawned into disbelief: How could he have done that!? It was never clear when or how much Rob himself slept. . . Though it was known where he slept: On the livingroom floor. On a sheet. Linda had been horrified at the idea, and they had both insisted that they would provide a more comfortable bed, if only a mattress on the floor. But Rob was blithely adamant; he assured them that he slept, by preference, on a sheet on the bare floor at his own commune thirty miles away.

Rob’s sleeping habits were only one facet of a leprechaun eccentricity. After signs of a mouse appeared in the kitchen, Rob set up a trap consisting of a small box propped up with a pencil over a bait. After tying a string to the pencil, Rob waited motionless for several hours into the night until the mouse came to the bait. In the morning, Rob presented the mouse, happily ensconced in a little box house complete with a bed of dry straw, and two screen windows. After admiring him for a couple more hours, he released him in the backyard.

The cabinet project was nearing completion. The first of several coats of tung oil had been applied, and the result was astounding: The weathered old boards had been transformed into wood of a dark honey color, the blackened nail holes adding a rustic appeal. The tung finish would be tough and durable, satiny, emphasizing the grain of the wood. It was a kitchen addition that could be envied by many a finer home.

His work near its end, Rob would soon be returning to his commune. Dan felt a painful sense of inadequacy in the situation; due in part to his awareness of how much he owed the present comfort of his home to Rob’s skills and rather heroic efforts rather than his own. He wanted so much to give his long-time friend something by way of thanks. Money Rob had adamantly refused. Money in any case Dan had virtually none to give, as they all knew. He felt burdened by a debt unpaid.

The sun dipped behind the ridge. There was plenty of daylight left; but Dan felt oppressed, and decided to call it quits for the day. He still felt foolish about the abortive raid on the pig pen. And he was thoroughly sick of cheap paint. He banged down the lid on the paint bucket, walked over to the stack hydrant, washed out his brush. Then he washed himself up, using the cake of coarse soap by the hydrant. He placed brush and bucket in their place in the barn; and turned dispiritedly toward his battered Datsun 510.

As he passed the pen he glanced inside. The sow had long since calmed down, confident in her ability to meet all threats to her young. She had lain down full length on one side, her tits toward the fence. One of the piglets, perhaps excluded in the previous feeding frenzy, had attached himself to one of the tits. Eyes closed, he sucked greedily. His hind legs would be an easy reach from the fence.

The tableau of opportunity was already beginning to dissolve. The sow’s head came up, her weight shifting. With little conscious thought Dan reacted, dropping to his knees, right hand thrusting between slats. The sow was rising frantically; but the piglet hung on in greedy oblivion. The pig’s shank—a quick grab—he had him! He pulled the piglet into position as mama shrieked and launched her charge—grabbed the other shank—jerked the piglet through the narrow space. The sow battered the fence ferociously; Dan ignored her. He held the piglet in hands outstretched, like an offering. It was limp, faint shudders coursing through the little body. . . Perhaps again he had acted on a lark, assuming he could always change his mind about the pig after outwitting the sow. But pulling it through the narrow space had broken its neck. The deed was done.

He paused awhile, his breath hot and fast in his throat. He stared at his prize with a sense of utter disbelief. It was surprisingly solid and substantial in his hands. . . And then, fleetingly, it was replaced . . . . by a vision of roast suckling pig. . . He jumped to his feet.

He tucked the pig under an arm as he tried to walk casually to the car, feeling utterly exposed—as if surrounded by a pulsing incandescent halo. Popping the trunk lid, he wrapped the piglet in part of an old blanket, shut it inside. He climbed inside the hot car, held the wheel tightly, tried shakily to compose himself.

When he was calmer, he started the car, drove out of the barn lot toward the gravel road off the farm. He began to turn right, then paused. After a moment of indecision he turned left, toward the big house. Parking by the split-leaf maple, he walked around to the back of the house. Worthington was in his office. He knocked. "H’lo, Dan. Finish?"

"Almost. I’ll knock out the rest in the morning."

"Good. Want you to set aside the painting for awhile—replace the eave soffits on Bony’s house." Oh great, thought Dan: More goddamn carpentry. . .

"Oh, sure, yeah—that’ll be fine. . . . Uh, Mr. Worthington. . . You remember we said when I started, you said we’d see how I worked out, for awhile. . . "

Worthington remained silent, impassive. Leaving the initiative with Dan, giving away nothing.

"I think I’ve been reliable, I’ve done good work. . . . I really need to be making more money. . . I’m asking you to up me to five dollars an hour. . . . "

"Well, I don’t know, Dan," was the reply. "If I’ve got to pay that kind of money, I might as well let the boys finish up the job. . . . "

"The boys" were Worthington’s four hill-country tenants. Uneducated, plodding but indefatigable, land-wise, and absolutely amazing with all the farm’s machinery. But they weren’t going to finish up the painting. They both knew it. Dan let Worthington go on about the other arrangements he could make, letting his own silence negotiate for him. In the end, they settled on a fifty cents increase, to four and a half. Dan knew there was no possibility of pushing it any further. He thanked the older man, and rose to leave.

"Oh," said Worthington, "take these along"—picking up and handing him a carton of a dozen eggs. Tucking the carton under an arm, Dan again thanked his employer. His lively skepticism he kept carefully masked.

The laying flock was another of Worthington’s domestic economies. The hens produced more eggs than Mr. and Mrs. could use; but Worthington distributed them out among the clan. When a surplus dozen had gone begging long enough, Worthington on occasion passed it on to his fence painter. Several in the last batch had been obviously spoiled.

Dan felt lighter of heart than he had in a long while as he rattled over the gravel road toward home.

Arrived at Stonehaven, he again popped the trunk lid, took out the wrapped piglet, and walked to the house, forgetting the eggs on the passenger seat. Climbing the stile over the fence surrounding the yard, he saw Linda and Rob at the picnic table under the black walnut tree, enjoying the cooler air of the late afternoon. Heather toddled around the table, keeping one hand on the bench seat for support.

He waved to return their greeting, but did not turn toward them. "Stay out of the kitchen!" he said over his shoulder, and entered the house.

As expected, his worn copy of Joy of Cooking did not fail him. . . Irma Rombauer tells all! . . . Just as on the previous occasion when he had killed and cooked the groundhog, she was right there, guiding him through. The unaccustomed part was scraping the hair, rather than peeling the skin, off the intended dinner. But with such a young pig the task proved surprisingly easy, as he poured scalding water from the kettle over the piglet in the sink. After the scraping, he was back on familiar ground—the basics of mammalian anatomy.

Having dressed out the piglet, he wrapped heart, liver, and kidneys and put them in the refrigerator. They would do nicely for more utilitarian meals. Tonight was a feast. He paused a minute, looking at the little pink pig. Unlike an animal which lost its hide on the way to the oven, it looked so prim, so dainty—it could very well be peacefully asleep. . . He completed his preparations, and placed it reverently into the preheated oven.

He waited a few minutes, gazing mesmerized at the gathering blue on the distant ridge. The tantalizing redolence of roasting meat began to fill the kitchen.

He turned down the heat in the oven. After checking the refrigerator to make sure there was milk, he opened his wallet. Damned little, but enough. He returned to the yard.

To the eager curiosity in Rob and Linda’s faces he replied merely, "I’m going to Front Royal—shouldn’t be long. Do not look in the oven!"

There was no good place in the town to buy wine—the supermarket would have to do. He bought a Beaujolais Villages which seemed likely to be reliable, and a small bottle of good olive oil. Then back toward home.

In the gathering dusk they picked vegetables, made their preparations, fed Heather and put her to bed. To every mystified inquiry Dan returned a cheery "Would you chop these, please" or "These new potatoes’re sure gonna be good! . . ."

And by complete dark the feast was ready. He had them set up everything on the table outside, including candles stuck in bottles. And wait, their anticipation now near frenzy. He removed his little darling from the oven, crisp and golden. . . "He must be roasted!" . . .and placed into its mouth a small beet, in lieu of the requisite apple. The aroma was almost maddening!

Linda and Rob greeted his appearance out of the darkness with astonished cheers. They stared with fascination at the pièce de résistance as Dan told them, halting and unsure of their reaction, of his raid on his employer’s pigpen. Rob threw back his head, his laughter ringing clear as a bell.

They insisted that he be the first served, cutting off one of the little hams and holding it out to him like a sacrament. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, brought the fragrant meat to his lips like a kiss, opened his mouth on a hot luxuriant bite. . . How sweet it was! Succulence defined!

Afterward they sat in dreamy satiety, drinking the last of the good wine, listening to the pervasive song of the crickets. Each knew that this inexpressibly special, this magical evening would glow in memory for as long as they lived.

Dan gazed at the evanescent comets of the fireflies, feeling more unalloyed contentment than he had since coming to this place. Feeling how good was friendship. Thinking how primal an act this was—this uncompetitive gorging with others of one’s species. . . .

Rob picked his teeth, sighed, mused: "Wonder what the rich folks are eating tonight. . .!"