The Fall by Judy Birkbeck

When the shed with all nine hundred pigs went up in flames, the noise brought people out in slippers and dressing gowns for miles around. Screams split the air and the smell of roast pork hung over the countryside for weeks. Many wouldn’t eat it any more. Adam wasn’t sure he would ever work with pigs again. The sight of them brought it all back, the searing heat as he opened the door and the sea of moving bodies, charred and clambering over each other, jammed in the narrow opening, before a sheet of flame blasted him backwards and pigs on fire shot out after him. The skin of his face was twisted and red-raw, his sightless left eye just a crack and his ear shrivelled. Piercing squeals filled his nights and days.

Eve spotted the ad in Farmers Weekly: Pigman wanted for remote organic farm in North Yorkshire, outdoor-reared pigs, dairy cow and chickens, self-sufficient. Complete freedom of management.

—You’ll get no change out of them, his father warned.

But his grandpa defended free-range pigs:

—Not like these modern beasts pumped full of antibiotics when they’re not even sick.

*

No landline, no mobile phone coverage, no broadband, fifty miles to market and slaughterhouse, twenty-three miles to the nearest shop, but a backdrop of rolling hills in smooth sweeping curves, and woodland where the pigs rummaged through the leaves. The pigs were Tamworths, small with dense ginger bristles and bare pink snouts and prick ears, sheltered in arcs like miniature Nissen huts, with two hundred acres to run as they pleased.

—I like my staff to be happy, Mr Gott said.

He was emigrating and required quarterly transfers to his bank account and twice-yearly reports with detailed figures. He would visit some time in the future, and advised against touching the small gold-coloured mushrooms in the woods. For one who liked his staff to be happy, Mr Gott was not wonderfully content himself.

—Without you I’d never have kept pigs again, Adam told Eve afterwards with his lopsided smile, one eye half-closed, mouth turned downwards. My hard-headed woman.

For a while things went swimmingly, they took pigs to market or abattoir at thirty weeks old and transferred money to Mr Gott. Sometimes they got bored with each other, annoyed by each other’s habits. He turned the end of the sellotape under, she stuck it down; he binned the empty toothpaste tube, she retrieved it and squeezed out more. Their only social life was the pub in the nearest village nine miles away and the livestock auction. They missed friends and Friday nights at the cinema and their old nine-voice barbershop choir. Singing a capella with only two voices didn’t have the same ring to it.

*

A fuzzy-haired man with torn jacket squatted at the edge of a grassy clearing, picking something and putting it in a carrier bag, something small and golden brown.

—Mr Gott said not to touch those, said Adam.

—He tells everyone that. The stranger smiled, stood up and offered his hand. Zach.

Adam warmed to him as he seemed not to notice the burn marks. Adam said they’d given up tripping; he was prone to bad trips since the fire. Zach held up a specimen no wider than a five-pence coin, bell-shaped with a long thin stalk.

—These are fine. I’ve eaten them for years. He popped it in his mouth. I like the young ones best, before they flatten out.

Adam tried one. It was rubbery and bitter, disgusting. From his pocket Zach produced a bag of chocolate-coated raisins to mask the taste and they ate four more each. They walked on.

*

The base of his spine tingled, leaf shadows rippled, pieces of sunlight fluttered on the flaky silver bark of a birch tree. Beautiful, he thought, but felt no need to speak. He closed his eyes and blood rushed to his head. When he opened them again, the pieces of sunlight were diamonds and with clammy hands he grasped at the glittering shapes. An earthy smell filled the air and in his ears an ocean thundered. The leaves of the trees shone red and gold, and the brilliant green and yellow and white chevrons on his jumper throbbed and dissolved.

—My jumper…

They laughed. He drifted, merged with a fallen sun-warmed log which he embraced, soared, and when he returned, as return he must, he could never be the same again.

Thinking of returning, he remembered he did not have a boundless and infinite union with everything around him, he was Adam, separate, oak and beech and hazel trees crowded him, squeezed him, they were pigs buckling and squirming and their flesh heaved against him, sizzled and withered to a crinkled brown mass of labyrinths that formed and melted, formed and melted, and the air was full of screams. His own.

—Go with it.

He softened and felt a whoosh of rapture. He knelt down, laid his cheek on the grinning bark and watched the sapphire plates of woodlice.

*

Eve’s hair spread over the pillow. The sky pulsed red and bathed her in its light and they flowed into each other with a rush as with a final thrust a fountain of lava shot up and he sank beneath scarlet streams. They had never felt so close.

—Everything is thanks to you, he said.

*

They floated through the field towards waves of hills. The golden-yellow gorse smelled like coconut, and their pods exploded and catapulted seeds far and wide. Black Rock chickens swarmed round for the feed, their feathers a mosaic of coal and diamonds, and the snakeskin patterns on their legs glinted. One flapped its wings and squawked and Adam wished its wing were not clipped. How could they ever again twist a hen’s neck?

The pigs strutted across like ballerinas on blocks and lifted button-snouts with two neat holes. To the horizon and beyond, heads bobbed up and down, mouths opened and closed, they were a singeing, writhing horde, clambering over each other, ears streaked with red veins, mobbing him, and the squeals came in deluges and made a kaleidoscope of ruby and gold Catherine wheels. Mustn’t fight it, he thought and relaxed, and the pigs snuffled at the food. He melted into the throng, grateful for them all. Eve sang and her voice filled the whole sky like tinkling glass beads and morphed into swirling yellow waves. She took his hand and twirled him round before they sailed on over mud and grass, laughing, crying and shaking.

Early next morning they were still wandering in the mist and singing quiet songs in close harmony. It was strange sitting at table with Eve. Normally she slept in, bleary-eyed and bad-tempered. Bacon was off the menu. They picked at scrambled egg on toast, wasted and vaguely worried. The bacon left in the fridge turned blue with age before they could bring themselves to touch it. It was a piece of one of their own. How could he ever again dispatch those beautiful, intelligent, adorable creatures to a grisly death? Or take them to market, see them kicked in the back legs or biting the bars of the pens? Or even sell those fluffy-headed, waggle-tailed newborns to an intermediate stage in that death? He tried taking six weaners to an auction but he couldn’t bear to stay and watch, sat in the cafe instead and listened to a man moaning about prices. Back home, when the takings arrived in his bank account, he cried. Market day had been the highlight of his life. No more.

*

Trips to abattoir or market stopped, they dismantled the fences, sows farrowed, piglets grew up and mated and the fields and woods thronged with snorting, grunting bodies. They moved the pigs’ arcs into the woods, fenced them off, planted more arable crops with poppies and cornflowers and corn cockles, and transplanted whips for new woodland. They converted some fields to meadow. Before winter came, they dried enough mushrooms to see them through the year. Mushroom parties with Zach and visiting old friends were a regular thing. New pig-owners were found in this way. People brought food for the pigs and sometimes left with a couple in tow. In spring they often lay on their backs in a meadow to feel the heartbeat of the land, or to watch a tiny beetle crawl to the top of a grass stalk, wobble and spread wings, but hang on. They sang softly in harmony with the short, brisk chirps of field grasshoppers.

The letter was a bombshell.

            Dear Mr and Mrs Jones,
                                      
                           I am most concerned that no money has been transferred to my account recently.  I will call on 22 May to inspect.
                                       
                                 Yours faithfully,
                                 D. Gott

—But that’s today, said Adam.

—We’ll explain about converting to crops. We just need time.

—But what when he sees the wood crammed with baconers and cutters? And the house cow with her calf?

—He did say we could have a free hand. It’ll end up more profitable with the crops.

Adam looked across at the ginger army in the woods. Their natural lifespan was fifteen years. It could be more lucrative if they weren’t in another world much of the time, a world in which no living creature had dominion over another. He thought of Mr Gott’s crabbed face when he warned against the gold-coloured mushrooms.

*

Adam screamed. The boot smashed into his hip and flipped his body over.

—Move, bawled the man in the ankle-length leather apron.

The boot went into the other hip and Adam scrabbled at the loose gravel in the yard. Screams came from inside, and the close harmonies of a barbershop choir singing a jaunty song.

Another leather apron appeared.

—Go on, the baritone sang in a hearty voice and delivered a kick that tossed him again.

—Go on, echoed the bass, ending on a long-drawn-out bottom E.

A blow to the instep jarred the length of Adam’s spine. He clawed at the ground till his fingertips bled. Dust clogged his throat and grit stuck to his tongue and the roof of his mouth. The sky alternated between light and dark. He could smell blood and fear and steam. The singers raised their voices and drowned the screams.

Crack. His legs somersaulted over his head and bent his neck double. The aprons drew nearer. They were covered in blood, fresh warm lurid red blood, pigs’ blood. He was motionless now. Playing possum. Or not. No, this was no game.

—Up, sang the baritone.

—Up, repeated the bass an octave lower.

They helped him up with their boots.

—Do you want help? warbled a tenor apron on one note from the doorway.

—No, Mr Gott, came the reply. We’re just coming – just coming.

He clung with both hands onto an ankle and the foot lifted his upper torso into the air. Another foot kicked and stamped on his bare arms, but he held on. He turned his head to look up and found himself looking into Mr Gott’s eyes, then an apron flapped over his face and an excruciating pain shot through one leg. He released his grip.

Rough hands grasped his ears, one on each side, and dragged him across the yard, legs trailing, skin left behind. From the middle of the yard to the overhead conveyor belt inside, he let out a trilling scream, while the chorus of workers sang as they busied themselves about their tasks.

The stench was awful. Pigs hung upside down by one leg under the bright lights and poured blood. None moved except for one pig and Eve who twitched and shuddered and struggled further down the line to the music of clanking chains and clattering machinery and hissing steam. The floor was ankle deep in blood, the walls a stippled crimson fresco. By the far wall the water tank seethed. An apron stood either side of it. They eased the approaching bodies into a holding frame with a synchronised movement.

—I-in, ou-out, turn it all about, they chanted with glee as they capered and twirled.

Adam was hoisted aloft and a shackle clamped round one ankle. He dangled by his broken leg and shattered pelvis, and his arms and free leg swam doggy paddle. The screams were louder now. They were coming from his mouth. Between screams he heard Eve’s spluttered grunts.

And he was off. The chain swung violently and so did he.

—Something to calm you, sang the baritone and ran a blade across his throat.

He flailed and writhed as he swung down the line, choking, choking, choking, while bass and baritone linked arms and did a knees-up and the whole chorus, swelled by more from beyond the tank, sang with gusto in unison:

—The animals went in one by one, hurrah, hurrah,
The animals went in one by one, hurrah, hurrah,
The boot went in, the pigs did squeal,
They all did hang for the evening meal,
And they all went into the tank, tra-la-la-la-la-la.

About the contributor

Judy Birkbeck has short stories in Lampeter Review, Unthology 9, Aesthetica, Mechanics’ Institute Review #15, The Shadow Booth, Lighthouse and others. A novel, Behind the Mask is Nothing, is published by Holland House Books. judybirkbeck.co.uk

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