The hot sun crawled down the western sky, and the world melted from exhaustion, as did the man who stood in the cabin doorway. He looked far older than his thirty-one years. Pearls of sweat beaded on his forehead as he leaned against a rough-hewn plank he had split nearly five years earlier. With dirt from the day’s work still caked under his fingernail, he picked at the grayed wood until a splinter came free. He then used it to clean his teeth. All the while, his coal black eyes stared at a thin golden band of wheat at the far edge of the field, his mind wondering if there would be enough to last him through winter. It would soon be harvest time.
Up against that blue-turning-orange sky, the modest wheat tassels glimmered as if a fire were igniting the place where heaven met earth, consuming his distant neighbors. It might as well, couldn’t be worse than this drought. He stood alone like this, every day after finishing his chores, sometimes with a stick, sometimes with a smoke comprised of a touch of tobacco and a measure of straw, sometimes empty-handed, but always in this doorway bearing witness to the passing day. He slowly waved a fly from his ear only to feel it land on his dried-out split lips. His tongue licked at the annoyance.
The man turned away from his wheat, ignored his infernal calculations of bushels and days, wanted nothing at this moment except to exist and not work. Normally he would have been glad for summer and the late sun; the winter with its lightless frozen nights ached with desolation. But in this year, his fifth year, the year that would finally bring him title to this land, God had withheld rain and made summer the greater hell. The ache of frozen limbs would be a deliverance in comparison. If only he could feel the sting of cold air, the touch of snow, the relief of a warm fire, with those comforts he could once more hold onto his dying dreams.
As the sun fled and the sky grayed, he took a step into the yard, scuffed his too often mended boot against the dry cracked dirt. There had been no rain for over a month and little in the months before. He kicked the ground again, not in anger, but in resignation. If the drought wasn’t bad enough, God had sent the plague, as the man called it, to claim the dog, the hog and the entire litter of pigs. All that was left was the sow Peggy Bitch, and two mules. He had named the sow after his wife, when she ran out on him in the autumn of ’72.
Peggy Bitch rooted by the outhouse, her hot breath dampening the soil as she did. It was the only place in the yard where she could smell the faint aroma of moist dirt. Her snout pushed hard into it, catching the ever so slight earthy pungency of a false truffle. The back and forth scraping sped up, her breath blew back into her eyes, anticipation overflowed, and then it was there, right up against her nostrils, how wonderful the certainty of it all. Saliva slopped over her jowls as she swallowed. It was another few minutes before she found a grub, small but juicy, a morsel from heaven.
Peggy Bitch heard the call and saw the man standing by the barn. The voice distracted her momentarily, but the beautiful monotony of rooting had hold of her. She shoveled. He called again. Her nose was still in the dirt, her one eye on the man. The urge to go and the need to stay competed. She found one last grub, tasted its flesh squirt in her mouth, and was satisfied.
The pig ambled toward the man, favoring one of her back legs. She couldn’t remember how she had hurt it, but that was of no consequence; a bad leg was a bad leg, regardless of where it came from. She made her way across the hard dirt, a clear recollection of something that really did matter forming in her mind—the smell of the grass and worms that used to be in this very place. She didn’t mind answering the man’s call. He would open the barn door and she would be grateful, better to be locked inside than to sleep under the stars with all the dangers inherent in freedom.
Peggy Bitch watched the man as he fed the mules their oats, standing next to them for a minute or two while the sound of their masticating jaws filled the small space. Then he turned toward the pig and spoke.
“Thank God for you, Peggy Bitch. You’re a pig. You could find food in the African desert.”
He sat down in the dirt next to her, and reached out to scratch behind her ear. “Still, even you’re getting thin. Not as boney as yours truly, I grant you that, but awful skinny compared to last year.” Peggy Bitch felt his rough skin and fingernails chipping dirt from her hide. It calmed her. He stayed with her for a while, petting her like she was a dog, though he never did pet the dog that much. The pig sat patiently enjoying the attention. Eventually, he stood and took two steps toward the door, then stopped and walked back, bent back down and kissed her on the head. “Hang in there, girl. I need ya.”
Peggy Bitch felt the warm concern in his touch, though the words meant little to her.
The man straightened back up and left the barn, looking around at the darkening sky as he walked, praying for a cloud. It was still light enough that he could have seen one if it were there, a darker mass upon the gray, but heaven’s uniformity would not budge. Still, he offered up a wordless prayer to his maker. Inside the cabin, he didn’t bother lighting the lamp, better to conserve the fat from last year’s butchering. He sat down on his only chair, pulled the storage box over, and opened it, feeling with his hand for the rabbit jerky and the last biscuits. He’d have to make some more tomorrow. At least he still had grain.
He gnawed and chewed and gnawed some more, settling into a slow pattern, determined to make the meal last. He focused his mind on the taste of the jerky, smoky and strong. It lasted maybe fifteen minutes. When it was done, he stripped to his birthday suit and lay down on his stiff woolen blanket. Underneath the straw was broken and flat, no longer sticking him here and there like fresh strands would. It had been a hard day; he was exhausted, but he could not sleep. He thought of Peggy the wife, as opposed to Peggy Bitch the pig. He told himself that he didn’t miss the woman so much as he missed the feel of her soft skin at night. He imagined the sex, thanked God that they never had any kids. Was that her fault, or his? He would never know, but not having kids was one of the few blessings he could count. He hadn’t needed to tell them that their mother had run out on them, hadn’t needed to bury them in the hard ground of winter or watch them die of thirst and disease in this goddamn drought. The man cursed himself for thinking of her, cursed himself for thinking at all. No good could come of that. He lay still and waited for sleep to take him.
In the night, Peggy Bitch awoke to a distant howl. She tried to sleep, but something told her that she needed to be alert tonight. She waited and listened. The calls crept closer, and then they stopped.
She smelled the wolves before she heard them again. They were close, very close. The first sound was the rustling of dry grass, then their heavy breath on the hot night air. She was inside the barn and they prowled outside. Her heart raced.
A growl punctured the darkness so near that she felt the wolf’s breath through the open seams of the barn wall. She pushed away, stood, put too much weight on her bad leg and fell to the ground again. A wolf charged the wall. Another scratched and dug the dirt. She could see its paw. She squealed and squealed, fright pulsating through her large body, making her hairs stand on end.
A gunshot cracked the night, the burst of powder and pellets throwing a wolf against the barn wall. She heard another wolf growl, then another crack. The sting of a pellet tearing into her skin made her flinch, like the bite of a horsefly in the spring. The man hooted and hollered, swore and told the remaining wolves that he would shoot them, too. Peggy Bitch thought they might have understood, because the world went quiet, and the barn door opened.
“Everyone all right in here?” the man asked, then walked over to Peggy Bitch and scratched behind her ear, a good long soothing scratch that brought her peace. After, she discovered a puffy sore on one of her rear legs. She licked it with her tongue, tasted the richness of blood, prodded it with her snout, felt the small lump within, but could not dislodge it.
The next morning, Peggy Bitch could smell the man working. The aroma of death and blood made her anxious, so she paced within her stall—back, forth and back again, flies buzzing the whole time. When he finally opened the door, she settled and gave her attention to him. He carried a bucket.
“Got somethin’ for ya’,” he said, and placed the bucket of intestines on the ground. She still smelled the wolves, but no longer smelled the danger. Peggy Bitch dipped her snout into the bloody entrails. She gobbled and chewed the sloppy mess, sucking it all down as fast as she could, hardly remembering such a feast, caring little about the danger in the night.
The man worked hard that day, just like every other day, but this day he felt good. He cleaned the wolves and stripped the meat thin. In the house, he started a fire, the heat be damned. He stripped off his shirt, but that didn’t help much; it just gave the sweat a clear path of escape while he fixed the meat to long iron rods and lifted them up into the chimney, crowding it with meat until smoke backed up into the room. From experience he knew exactly how much firewood to add and how often to add it so that the meat smoked, but did not burn. During the long day, he let himself dream that this summer would pass, the drought would end, he would get the deed to his property, and the five years of hard work, the nearly two years of loneliness, would finally pay off. Maybe next year would be a good year—just like seventy-one. His crops would be full, he’d sell corn, wheat and hogs in town. He’d look for a new wife.
He went to bed that night with the smell of smoke, meat and blood still heavy in his nostrils. He tossed and turned in half-dreams, hearing thunder in the sky and rain on his roof. At one point the sensations were so strong that he walked naked into the night, dreamy excitement overpowering his waking senses. But when he stood on the same cracked earth and breathed in the same dry air, he had the sudden certainty that this dream was the only relief he would ever find. The fear that he had held back for so long came for him. What lay ahead was clear. The last of his animals and the last of his crops would wither and die and he’d go with them.
He awoke the next morning even more exhausted than was customary. He was slow to get dressed and didn’t bother making his regular cup of chicory. Not even the smell of smoke and meat on his clothes was enough to overcome his melancholy. When he finally opened the door, it was at least an hour after dawn. He would clean the stalls today, he decided. He went into the world with his head hung low and his eyes downcast, made his way to the barn and let Peggy Bitch out in silence, before going back in for the mules. It wasn’t till he tied MacDee and Scoop up to the post that he noticed something different. It was the air. It wasn’t quite so warm and it somehow smelled fresh. It wasn’t just the absence of yesterday’s smoke.
The man looked up for the first time that morning, felt the smallest touch of hope. He gazed out at the horizon and saw clouds, not just white vaporous wisps, wonderful gray clouds. They were far away, but they were there. Though he already knew that the direction of the wind was right, he licked his finger and held it up next to his face. A smile cleaved his cracked lips.
“See that, Peggy Bitch? Look yonder!”
No sooner had he spoken than his brain told him to apply an emotional brake.
“Now Peggy, we don’t know for sure that rain is comin’ and even if it is, we don’t know how much or where it will actually fall. We can’t get too excited just yet.”
The man cleaned the stall, tried not to think about rain, tried not to depend on it, but by noon, he could work no longer. He put aside his rake, led the mules back inside, and went into the house, emerging with the only chair he owned. For the next three or four hours, he stared at the sky, watching the clouds slowly advance. In all that time, he could divine not a single drop of rain, but the clouds still held promise. One minute, he would imagine them moving inexorably forward until they loomed above him. He would raise his hands and the heavens would open. The next minute, his mind would watch as the clouds simply drifted by.
In the early evening as, the sun began its descent, the clouds had still not reached the homestead. Perhaps sensing his battle between hope and desperation, Peggy Bitch ambled up to the chair and sat down next to the man.
“Oh, Peggy Bitch,” the man said as he reached out and slapped her lightly on the back. “At least I got you.” He lifted his hand from her back once more, then brought it down with another clap. At that very second, the percussion of skin against skin was matched by the sound of thunder in the sky. The man thought his heart would stop. He looked back at the horizon, but saw no rain. “Oh Peggy dear, I’m prayin’, let God deliver us.”
Peggy Bitch and the man sat as still as the big rock which occupied the center of the homestead’s main field. She didn’t quite know why the man was sitting so still, but she figured he needed the company and he needed it quiet, so she obliged. Perhaps it was the warmth of his hand on her back, or the comforting words that he spoke every now and again, in any case, she felt a need to stay with him, to soothe him, and to wait.
The damn rain was still bottled up in the clouds. The man’s desperation took root and flowered. His hope drained away, then thunder cracked loud, rattling his head and causing Peggy Bitch to tremble under its weight.
“Damn, that was cl—” Before the man could finish his words, lightning flashed overhead and exploded a tree at the edge of his field. The thunder was so loud, his eardrums felt as if they had been torn apart. He looked around, stood, shrugged his shoulders and held his palms up to the sky as if to ask—Where in the hell is the rain? But there was nothing. He looked back at the tree, torn in half by lightning, saw a trace of smoke rising.
“That was some goddamned fireworks, wasn’t it, Peggy?”
Peggy Bitch did not answer, but the man started laughing. “Rain, you son of a bitch,” he yelled. “Rain goddamnit.” But still it did not.
Then the man saw small flames where the lightning had hit. He didn’t think much of it at first, didn’t know what to do. He simply watched as they grew stronger. In slow motion an ember lifted up. He was at least fifty yards away, he shouldn’t have been able to see it, but he did. He watched as it drifted in the air and alit on the wheat, his last surviving crop, his store for the winter. Like magic, the ember disappeared in a puff of smoke, only to be replaced by flame. The man jumped to his feet and ran for his sickle and rake.
Peggy Bitch felt the man’s panic, saw him run to the barn and then straight at the fire. Her instincts told her to get as far from the fire as possible, and the man was making her even more nervous. She wanted to follow him, to help him if she could, but she knew she was a pig. It was the man who watched over her, the man who led her to the barn at night, the man who killed the wolves. What could she do? Peggy Bitch did the only thing that she knew. She walked to the barn, into her stall, and lay down. She was still worried, but the smell of pig shit and mule manure, as well as the closeness of her stall, comforted her.
The man hacked at the wheat furiously, cutting a path in front of the fire and then raking it away as fast as he could. He picked up his sickle again, swinging as fast as muscle would bear. Between cutting and raking, he threw the wheat into piles, hoping that the embers would not find them. He made small piles and distributed them around the field so that if the fire spread, it might consume one or two, but not all. As he worked, he gained confidence, the fire spread a little, but it turned away from him. He looked into the future, cautiously eyed survival. “Just keep cutting,” he shouted to himself. He did not notice as the flames leapt over him and caught brush, so dry and thirsty that it willingly drank fire. He worked on, his mind of one purpose. The fire spread. He worked on, every new pile of wheat a victory over God. He worked on. The flames licked his house.
Peggy Bitch smelled the fire coming. It scared her. Something took over inside her and she rooted furiously, clearing straw and looking for cool dirt. Every once in a while her snout would discover a buried corncob or some other edible morsel, and she would chew nervously, before continuing her mania. Behind her, MacDee and Scoop stomped their feet. Peggy Bitch pushed through hard dirt, scraped her snout against rocks until it bled, but still she worked. The smoke now seeped through the walls of the barn. She dug, but she also made the mistake of looking at the wall. She saw flames. Behind her, MacDee and Scoop started to kick and buck, boards began to break. Their whinnies turned to shrieks.
In the commotion of his own work and the heat of the fire, the man did not hear the panic in the barn until it reached fever pitch. When he could no longer ignore it, he looked up. What he saw first were the flames consuming the roof of his home. The man dropped his sickle and ran, determined to save the house. He ran right past the barn, skidding to a stop as part of his roof collapsed. The fire would not surrender, he could see that, and so he turned to the noise of the animals. He ran through the open door, surprised to see Peggy Bitch rooting deep in her own stall, the gate open. She was free to go, but instead, it looked like she was digging for China. MacDee and Scoop still kicked and shrieked, but first he went to Peggy.
“Come on, girl,” he said, but she just rooted. “Come on Peggy,” he yelled and slapped her hard on the butt. “Come on,” he screamed, before he kicked her in the snout. She looked up at him as if he had offended her. “Please, Peggy Bitch,” he pleaded and she followed him outside. Once there, he kicked her in the butt and she took off running away from the fire. Only then did the man turn back for the mules.
MacDee and Scoop walked down the muddy road, the man’s whip cracking the air above their heads. Peggy Bitch rode prone in the bed of the wagon, boards separating her from the wheat and the few tools that the man had saved from the barn. She heard the man’s reassuring voice, thought that he might be talking to her.
“You’ll like St. Louis, Peggy Bitch. I didn’t have any luck there, but I didn’t have any luck here either. I should have left Kansas when the missus did. Staying did me no good. She told me it wouldn’t work, that she couldn’t do it anymore, but I didn’t listen. I blamed her. If I was smart, I would have taken her home instead of watching her ride away.” He talked on, telling Peggy Bitch about St. Louis and the big muddy Mississippi, about the paddle boats and trains, about the big houses and smooth roads. How he’d get work at one of the freight yards where they were always looking to hire. How he’d sell the wheat and the wagon and mules and have enough for a place to live even if he couldn’t start over with his wife. How he’d turn it all around again.
That night, they made camp. The man coaxed Peggy Bitch to lie down by the fire. She resisted getting too close, still scared from their ordeal, and chose her own comfortable distance. The man seemed satisfied and lay down next to her, putting his back up against her belly, his head on her heart.
“You’ll like St. Louis,” he said again. “But if the wife will have me back, we’re gonna have to get you a new name.”
Gareth Frank is a retired labor union organizer, who has embarked on a second career as a writer. He studied writing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and has a Master’s in Industrial Relations from the University of Wisconsin. Frank has published two short stories, one of which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, while the other was nominated for the Silver Pen Writers Association’s Write Well Award. He is currently seeking representation for a novel.