I want to tell you a story, about a feral sow, a dozen piglets, a boozy November night, and a couple of drunks with guns. This story has assumed mythic properties, I think—and lessons can be construed within the narrative which overarch the story itself, and the personalities involved (the drunk with a gun being an archetype Texans know quite well, for example. There are others, too). I created a sequence of poems from it, poems I rather like; perhaps on some other day I will print them here. When I do, you will see that I have omitted and embellished and glossed, although the meat—so to speak—was true.
It was after Thanksgiving, more than ten years ago, when my friends Gus Paulus and Terry Vedder came to camp and hunt at Spunky Holler, my family's place near Cherokee, 120 acres located in North San Saba county, a half mile down Hwy 16 from the Llano county line. I met both when I was managing a Godfather’s Pizza in Clear Lake City a number of years back—each was an employee, and ultimately a manager, in my restaurant. Vedder was a nice enough guy, serious and thoughtful—from Minnesota, originally, and he spoke with the slow, understated, Scandanavian/Cannuck accent-thing they’ve got going on there. He had a wide streak of stubbornness, especially when he believed he was right, which was most of the time; and was known for being blunt to the point of cruelty—we called him Terry the Terminator, because whenever we needed to fire someone, he would volunteer to do it.
I met Gus the day he was released from prison—Harris County Jail, he says now, but since the poor bastard’s faculties are turning to mush these days, one must take his recollections with a grain of salt. He had been jailed for possession of terroristic materials or something—he was a proto-terrorist—and had been sprung only a few hours when he applied for a job at my restaurant. He was a sight—gangly and vaguely insolent, wearing his prison-issued suit and tie, and desperate for the opportunity to start over. His old boss, Nina, was a friend of mine, so I took a gamble on the young criminal; a gamble that turned out pretty well, because Gus was a great employee, probably the heart of my staff there, in spite of his mild sociopathy, and prodigious overuse of alcohol and other intoxicants and hallucinogenics.
We’d left Godfathers many years before the evening I’m telling you about. I was living in Lampasas at the time, and drove over to visit late in the afternoon. They’d set up camp already, had been hunting most of the day, and were pretty liquored up. A storm had blown in, which shortened the hunt. It was a norther, a pretty good blast, and it was getting colder by the minute when I arrived. Gus and Vedder were at each other’s throats, as usual—Gus had lectured him about pissing near the feeders or something the day before, and Vedder was adamant that the deer had been hiding in their camp all day in spite of the human smells, so Gus didn’t know what the hell he was talking about—this is the gist of it, I think, though undoubtedly I’m forgetting some of the nuances and refinements. Someone suggested we drive into Llano to warm up, and have a few beers; after 30 minutes of arguing about that, and another 30 waiting for the two of them to primp and fuss with their hair, we drove—or rather I did, no way those two were driving anywhere—the 10 miles or so into town.
Llano is the county seat of Llano county, and has a population of about 2500…The nightlife is not scintillating, consisting then of 3 bars; one on the North side of town, a rather dark, sinister joint with no name, and a clientele that frightened Vedder ("I've seen Deliverance, I don't need to live it"); another on the east side, called the Granite Bar, I think, which was completely empty except for a strange and chatty bartender named Lyle; and finally another joint at the corner of Hwys. 16 and 29. It was a rathole, but it had a few pool tables, a decent crowd, and a jukebox which consisted of the Chicken-fried hits we expected, but also had some Skynrd, some Allman Brothers, and some Wet Willie—not a total loss. We stayed for several hours, Vedder and I having an agreeable time drinking and playing pool. Gus, however, was teetering over the edge—he was entering full-on Pirate Mode, a particularly appalling state of drunkenness where he would mostly sit and leer, gesticulate and mumble wildly. Everything he said in this state resembled aaarrrggghhh or aaaeeeemorphrrr or hehehehehehemuggamugga—and we knew from past experience that it was best—for us— to just leave him be. One particular honky-tonky angel in attendance, a lovely creature of vintage age and origin who had apparently left her dentures at home, seemed to speak the same pirate dialect. She and Gus passed the time grunting maniacally at each other, between spinning themselves around on their barstools like wild and grossly malformed children. It was a disgusting display to be sure, and when two o’clock rolled around, prying them apart was difficult, unwieldy, and strangely satisfying. Gus sat whimpering pirate crap in back of my van nearly the entire way back.
A few miles from Spunky, though, he must've forgot about his wench, because he began giggling and fucking with the back of Vedder’s head—Vedder would turn around and they would begin slapping each other like schoolgirls, until I pulled the vehicle over and separated them. This had happened on several occasions already, and I could hear Gus ginning up for a repeat performance when I turned off the highway to the dirt road that led to the pasture. It was a moonless night, and the grass on each side of the narrow road was several feet long, and swaying markedly in the prevailing north wind. I was two-thirds of the way down, and nearly to the corrall, with one eye on the back seat, and one arm extended, fingers limbered, ready to poke Gus in the eye once he started fucking with Vedder’s head again, when out of the tall grass a huge feral sow darted in front of the van. I had no time to stop. With a terrible thud, we rolled over the poor creature, crushing it. I parked immediately, and we hurried out to see what we could do. My taillights illuminated the animal in a sickly red glow, as it lay twitching and dying at the edge of the grass, a huge and jagged gash torn from its shoulder, blood pooling beneath it, and flowing to the road’s sunken middle. As we approached, it lunged at us, with every bit of strength it could muster, narrowly missing Vedder’s leg. At this point, it was certain to each of us—even Gus, who had regained the power of speech—that the sow was suffering such terrible pain that something would have to be done. Gus and Vedder hurried to the van to grab their guns—loaded pistols, which they had brought in addition to their deer rifles—and when they arrived at the pig, they began to argue—naturally, because they argued about every-fucking-thing—about who the angel of mercy should be. At first, Vedder relented, and told Gus to do it—to which Gus made a snarky remark about Vedder’s lack of marksmanship being a cruel punishment for a dying animal, anyway. At which point Vedder said there’s no way in hell Gus is gonna do it, cause he’d enjoy it too much. To which Gus replied by asking Vedder, Are you gonna eat it? To which Vedder angrily rejoined, Hell no I’m not gonna eat it, I’m not a fucking hillbilly. Gus insisted that it is immoral not to eat what you kill, therefore it would be immoral for Vedder to take the shot, and Vedder pretty much went apeshit, screaming that he’d never heard logic like that in his entire life, the goddamn animal is already dead, we’re just ending its misery, what the fuck is wrong with you, and all the while the animal was twitching there at their feet. I went back to the van to grab a flashlight. At this point, I was sort of hoping they would maybe shoot each other—I didn't bring a gun--only they needed to do it quickly, because the sow was in obvious pain. When I came back, though, and flashed the light on, a new development was revealed. A couple of tiny, rat-sized piglets had appeared. And they were nursing on the sow.
Others came out of the high grass, squealing and squirming for position, sucking the last milk they would ever get from her failing body. This sight interrupted their argument, forthwith, and dispelled any illusions of levity that may have been born from the gruesomeness of the original scene. We were each immediately affected, saddened, awed to silence, and probably a little sickened. There still remained the work of the sow. Neither seemed to have the heart remaining to do it. Vedder thought maybe we should wait for them to finish nursing, to which Gus and I said, no, it won’t make any difference, somebody end this animal's pain now. Gus drew up his pistol, and just as his finger was tensing on the trigger, Vedder bent over to look more closely at the piglets, directly in the line of fire. Gus exploded, What the fuck are you doing, and Vedder retorted What the fuck are you doing firing your weapon without saying you’re gonna do it? How was I supposed to know? All the while drifting closer to the sow, which was lifting its head and reaching for Vedder’s leg. Reading our reactions, I guess—because this happened very quickly—he dropped his arm, suddenly, and killed it with a single shot to the head. After this we were all quiet again, for a little while at least, watching as the orphans fed, desperately, on their mother’s stiffening, emptying body. Another argument ensued shortly, though, when Gus theorized that the most merciful thing to do would be to shoot the piglets, too, because they didn’t have a chance without the mother. Both of us acted horrified by the idea, but I think we knew this was true, even as the two of them went back and forth with admonitions of bloodthirstiness and bleeding heart disease. We also knew none of us would be able to do it. There was nothing to do—both choices were hard and brutal, but the easiest was to do nothing. Eventually, as the argument continued, the piglets dispersed into the grass, relieving us of any discretionary burden. Gus made a half-hearted attempt to find them, and when he was finished he and Vedder loaded up the sow in back of the van. Somehow along the way Vedder had agreed to BBQ her the next day—tacitly, I think, in the way of familiar old married couples—and when I dropped them off at camp, they set to work skinning and gutting.
When I came by the next afternoon, part of the sow was on a spit, above a waning fire. I declined a portion—it was gamey, but pretty good, considering, Gus said—at which point he and Vedder began arguing about barbeque sauce or something.
I thought about the bones of all the animals I’ve stumbled across, along the slope of the holler. Undoubtedly, the pigs would join their number, although their soft bones would probably turn to chalk pretty quickly. Abrupt, how their world and life was turned upside down accidentally, by haphazard collision with the late twentieth century. It is the crack in the teacup that Auden talked about—we know it is there, and choose not to look. We altered something of the natural order that night in the pasture, and those tiny creatures suffered pain for it, which would not abate a moment for the remainder of their brief lives. It was in our power to prevent it, but we didn't.
Just this once, and probably accidentally, Gus was right.