On a hot, sunny day in the middle of June, a farmhand left his quarters to see about a pregnant sow, due to give birth. He took one step outside but hobbled back in to get his hat. As he made his way to the pen, an aberrant gust of wind lifted the hat from his head. Before it had a chance to touch the ground, the farmhand plucked the hat from the air and dusted off on his leg.
Thunder clapped. The sky was clear, but the farmhand didn’t rule out the chance of rain. No sooner than the thought crossed his mind did he feel a drop on his face, a precursor to the coming deluge. The devil must be beating his wife, he thought. He replaced the hat on his head and quickened his pace toward the pen.
Thunder resounded. The farmhand scanned the horizon for signs of darkness or approaching storm clouds but found none. He spotted a lone tree in the distance, a valley willow, its branches swaying in the wind.
Upon entering the pen, a familiar stench greeted him, a tepid mixture or defecation, straw and the mush made from apple cores and corn cobs in the trough. By now, the rain flowed freely from the sky. The deafening sound of the droplets, relentlessly pounding against the corrugated roof of the pen, was rivaled only by the disconcerting crash of intermittent thunder. Through the door, the farmhand could still see the brightness of the day that hadn’t changed despite the unfaltering downpour.
The change in weather made the pigs restless. The successive shocks of thunder startled them and shook the very earth upon which they stood. The pigs huddled together to escape whatever dangers might lie outside the throng. Those on the outskirts struggled for center positions. Those in the middle fought to maintain their footing in the onslaught of thrusts and shoves. A few pigs who hadn’t joined the fray dashed frantically from one end of the pen to the other, crashing into one another. I’ve never seen them act like this, the farmhand thought.
He spotted the pregnant sow in one corner of the pen. She lay on a soft patch of well-trodden earth strewn with thick straw. No piglets yet, but soon.
A flash of lightning, visible in stark contrast even against the brightness of summer, parted the heavens. The great divide left in the lightning’s wake spread to the earth, and it, too, slowly split and began to fall apart. The farmhand felt a similar split within himself. A deep, excruciating pain, transcending his physical senses, flowed throughout his body and touched the depths of his psyche. His consciousness faded. The last thing he saw was a vertical, then horizontal divide separating one half of the earth and sky from the other. The intense white of the divide grew larger and devoured everything in ghostly avalanche. But the farmhand’s world grew black, the darkness behind his eyelids his only shield against the intense brilliance that threatened to engulf his world.
He lay breathless for some time. It was as if everything — the storm, the pigs’ frenzy, the divide — had all been some queer dream. He wanted to open his eyes but couldn’t stir his body from its inertia. Then he felt a singular jolt. Spasms shot through each of his muscle groups until they could no longer bear the strain. The farmhand breathed in deeply. He exhaled and slowly opened his eyes. Everything was bright. Everything was blurry. As he blinked, things came into focus. He was still in the pen.
As he lay on the fetid ground, he thought on the events that had led up to this point. How did he get here? The answer proved elusive. He had thoughts, but once he focused on one, once he had a hold on it, it slipped away from him as if waking from a dream. One by one his memories deleted themselves in inverse chronology. The first to go was the white divide. After that, the storm. Tucked away in every corner of the farmhand’s mind, a myriad of memories, some dear to him, others he would have been glad to forget, departed. The most impressive ones were the most painful to lose.
He had been out hunting with his dog, a black and tan coonhound. She had been his companion for years, ever since she was a pup. He called her Ruby, after the town where he bought her. He had gone there for a funeral — a distant relative who had once helped him out of a tight spot — and bought the pup on a whim from a man on the side of a road. The man had a whole litter and was happy to sell to the farmhand for one hundred fifty dollars, which even in those days was not a considerable amount for a purebred. He rode home with her sitting on his lap, the rhythmic swaying of the train lulling them both gently to sleep. Since then, the two had been inseparable.
On this particular hunting trip, the farmhand and Ruby had been tracking a wild boar. It had been an ordeal from the start. Whenever Ruby caught sight of the hog, she would bark and chase after it until it gave her the slip. The farmhand would try to keep up as best he could, but he was not the young man he had once been. Ruby, too, grew exhausted. The boar, however, grew impatient and aggravated. When it had no other place to run, it decided to fight. It dashed at Ruby several times, once barely missing her hind leg with its tusk. The boar was spent, and by the time the farmhand caught up with the commotion, it didn’t have any energy left to spend. The farmhand’s shot was sure.
Until this point, the pair had mainly hunted rabbit and raccoon. This had been their first successful hog hunt and was cause for celebration. Prior to the return trip through the woods, spirits were high and the revelry was not short-lived. The farmhand had celebrated by taking a few swigs from his flask and belting out an old tune taught to him by his uncle. The farmhand tied the hog as he sang, Ruby howling along with the melody:
In the place where there’s no light
No love either may linger there
But if one has the will to fight
No need my friend to despair
Ruby bounded through the woods ahead of the farmhand, who, despite dragging the heavy boar, showed no signs of fatigue. Ruby made her way up a steep incline leading to a small roadway. The farmhand struggled a bit below with the hog, its weight finally wearing him down. Through the haze of the alcohol and the heat of the hunt, a pang struck him as a needle to the spine. He heard a screech, long and shrill, and a yelp, short and piercing. He felt a pain in his heart. He knew what had happened. He abandoned the hog and scrambled up the incline toward the road. He saw his friend lying in the road, lifeless, markedly different from just moments before. He smelled motor oil and burnt rubber. He heard the fading sound of a diesel engine. He tasted stale alcohol along with some sweat and a salty tear that found its way into his quivering mouth. And he felt a void of immeasurable depth.
As this memory, too, faded from the recesses of his mind, he struggled to stand but was still too weak. His body plopped to the ground, and he continued to rest.
He was younger by about twenty years at least. He straddled a young steer, that despite a reputed pleasant demeanor, objected to having the farmhand sit on its back. The steer’s owner, a rancher well-known in the town, regarded it as uncanny. “He usually needs a proddin’ ’fore he starts buckin’. I reckon he likes you.” The rancher laughed reassuringly and patted the young farmhand on the back. Yet the young farmhand was not comforted. It was, after all, his first time attempting a ride.
He and two friends had been in Texas looking for work in oil fields. It wasn’t easy to find. Although the demand was high at the time, lots of eager young men were coming from all over the state, and in the case of the young farmhand and his friends, from outside the state, to get a piece of the action. They, after a long day of no leads, decided to fortify themselves at a local bar. After a few beers their spirits had lifted.
A commotion had built outside. Once a week, the bar owner invited the old rancher to have a rodeo night. Amateurs and the inexperienced would have a chance at riding a real bull and with cash prizes to boot. The young farmhand decided to give it a go. “What’ve I got to lose?” he asked his friends as he shrugged his shoulders.
“Not enough,” one of them replied.
Atop the steer, the young farmhand had second thoughts. But it was too late to back out. If he could last eight seconds he would win fifty dollars, which would have paid for all the beers he and his friends had drunk plus a few extra rounds.
Beads of sweat rolled down the sides of the young farmhand’s face. He tightly gripped the rope tied around the steer’s flank. The steer shuffled restlessly. The young farmhand said a silent little prayer, and the gate was released. The steer bucked as if it had been aflame and was trying to put itself out. The young farmhand was whipped and jerked like a rag doll in a hand-cranked clothes dryer. At least the crowd found it entertaining.
After what seemed like four minutes to the farmhand, but was actually four seconds to everyone watching, the farmhand was tossed into the air, lost consciousness and regained it just as he hit the ground. He fell awkwardly on his left leg and was immediately plowed by the steer. The farmhand lay on his back as the steer stood over him. As a few of the rancher’s men approached the steer, the farmhand glimpsed one of its eyes. A glint of light, at first almost imperceptible, began to grow in its pupil. The glint expanded, and its gravity sucked the farmhand into it until everything was white. And that memory, too, was gone.
One of his most salient memories, formed when he was just a boy, involved his father. The two had gone camping in the woods.
“You gon’ learn how to be resourceful, boy. Live off the land, like I do and like my ol’ man did,” his father said. “Every man’s got to know how to take care of ’imself. And once he knows that, he can learn how to take care of others, family. You listenin’?”
“Yessir,” the boy farmhand replied.
His father had set a spring snare trap to catch small game. Then they went fishing in a nearby creek and caught a couple of golden shiners. When they made it back to camp, they found a rabbit caught in the trap.
“Papa, look! We caught a bunny rabbit!” the boy exclaimed.
“We gon’ eat good tonight, boy,” his father smiled.
His father used an old pocket knife to kill and skin the rabbit. As the boy watched, something came over him, and he cried. He wanted to repress his tears lest his father chide him, but they kept flowing. His father watched the tears silently and continued to skin the rabbit.
“Papa, why’d you have to kill that rabbit for?” the boy asked.
“We got to eat, don’t we? Ain’t no use in cryin’, neither. Those fish we just caught’re sure dead by now, too.”
The boy looked down at the fish he carried, still dangling from the hooks on the lines, their once wriggling, writhing bodies, now lifeless and static. The boy began to realize something, something that he, at that age, was not able to put into words. But it nonetheless made a deep impression on him and stayed with him for the rest of his life, that is, until the moment when all his memories abandoned him.
Of course, there were other less influential memories as well. He progressed through all of them, and they all faded from him. In this way, he relived some fifty odd years of his life in a matter of seconds. In the end, his mind was as clean as new-fallen snow. He eventually stood up on his trembling trotters. He felt a primal urge. He craved sustenance. His eyes focused. He instinctively approached a teat, engorged with trickling milk and, alongside the other piglets of the farrow, satisfied his hunger.