Pigs can’t skin themselves. My husband says this to my son every morning over cereal. He says it to me also, but when he says it to me it’s because he’s being a jackass. This is an English word I learned recently from the pigs.
The pigs agree with my jackass husband. “You can’t hold a knife without opposable thumbs.” They grumble at each other, “And anyway, it would be a violation to do our own skinning. You wouldn’t embalm yourself, would you, New Wife?”
“I might,” I tell them.
When my husband first drove my son and me in his pickup truck from the airport to his confinement, I knew there must be pigs somewhere, but I couldn’t see them. Low metal buildings nested in rows a dozen deep. My husband pointed at a lake a few miles away.
“Lagoon,” he said. “No. Not ever.”
My husband’s favorite thing about me is that I am not good with English.
He took us through all the buildings, his chest puffed out, his face scruff barely concealing his grin. I couldn’t see what he was so proud of. There were hundreds of pink pigs in each of the metal buildings, crammed into pens so tightly they couldn’t move. Two males in what I now know to be the fattening pen screamed and ripped savagely at each other’s hides. In one building, there were crates of pregnant mothers too round to stand. In another, blind, staggering piglets bleated weakly as men in rubber suits clipped their ears and tails.
My son, a lover of pigs, giggled.
“Their faces bleed,” he laughed in Hungarian, his eyes full of their bared teeth.
“Enough,” I would have said, had I known the English word.
My father was a pig farmer all his life. Before him, his father was a pig farmer. Before him, his father was a pig farmer. Before him, his father was briefly a jeweler for Austro-Hungarian aristocrats, and then he became a pig farmer. My husband is a pig farmer. One day, my son will become a pig farmer.
My father’s pig farm was a wooden hut and a beech forest where furry pigs ran free over the roots of white trees. Hungarian pigs are not the bristly, immobile masses my husband raises. Mangalitsa is their real name, though my son called them “woolies.” They could be mistaken for sheep, they have such thick, curly hair. The sound they make when they snuffle in the snow is like the kindest sort of laughter. I loved to run my hand through their black and creamy curls and then smell their musky oil in my skin. They are good, wild pigs, and my son rode them like horses and slept with them in the forest until the first snows of the season, when I made him come to the hearth. On winter mornings, my father shoveled a path through the snow to the house of the pigs so I could bring them warmed water and our steaming dinner slop. Their grunts echoed against the vast, crispy ice. “Thank you, Moon Face”, they called to me. The white walls rose beside me, the stars glittered down, the mountains crumpled like old leather faces.
My husband’s pig farm isn’t even called a farm. Nevertheless, he works with pigs, however bristly and immobile, and this is why I married him. Love has nothing to do with it; he simply put his hands to my nose so I could smell the pig on his skin, and then he offered me two visas. My son, my new husband and I were on a plane within hours.
“Make for me a grand soap bowl tonight,” my husband said to me on my first night. “Make what?” I asked. My son blinked up, uncomprehending. My son had no understanding of English beyond the words “pig” and “leaving.”
“A grand soap bowl,” my husband repeated, angry. My husband is American and not fond of repeating himself. “I will be cold from the [word I didn’t know], and I will like some soap.”
“Yes, all right,” I answered.
While my husband toiled in the cold of the word I didn’t know, my son and I made a grand soap bowl. All afternoon it took us. I had smuggled with me a small box of salo, made from my father’s pigs, and I carved the oxidized fat from the upper paprika-orange layers, which my son scooped into a large pot. I boiled and rendered and strained, then emptied the white puffy stinking fat into a large silver bowl. When the soap was hard, I gave my son and myself each two metal spoons and we set to carving out the bowl.
When we neared completion, my husband arrived home at dusk. He stared down at us where we sat at his kitchen table. My sleeves were rolled past my elbows, my son’s hair curled with sweat, and the kitchen was coated in the thick smell of pig soap.
“Where is my soap?” he demanded.
I held up the silver bowl. “Right here, husband.”
My husband tightened his fist. My son stared.
“Where is my soap?” he said again, slowly.
“Soap?” I asked, hesitant.
“S-o-u-p,” spelled my husband. “Soup.”
“My English,” I pleaded.
My husband erupted in laughter. It hurtled out of his muddy, smeared body. He clutched the edge of the table to keep himself upright. My son flinched and held his spoon out in front of him, as if warding away evil.
“Oh, poor wife,” my husband laughed. “You are too stupid for your own good.”
“I…sorry?” I tried, unsure now if even that was the appropriate phrase at this time.
“Yes,” he agreed, patting my head like a child, “I know you are.” He looked at my son. “Isn’t dumb mommy very, very sorry?”
“Soup,” my son said quietly in English.
“Look!” cried my jackass husband. “Even your five-year old son can say the right word!”
“You’re just here to slum it with us,” the pigs in the third fattening pen say. They’re wrong. I like the way they sound. The words they use. The pigs in the fattening pen are crude, and I like way they curse each other with names like “crackle” and “chop,” “hock” and “rind,” as though they’re preparing their minds for the divisions of their bodies after they go to slaughter. I like that they can understand me. Pigs always do.
“You can’t just come into our pen and act like you belong here,” the pigs say.
“Let me stay,” I beg.
“There isn’t room,” says a pig whose ear has been bitten off. He has long scars running all across his body. The other pigs like to pick on him. Now he picks on me. There is a clump of fecal matter smeared on his nose.
“Go bother the mothers,” says the pig who clicks his teeth. “They’re always talking.”
The pigs snort together in agreement. Then the pig with one ear knocks into the pig who does all the biting, and they snarl at each other. Just in time, I step lightly past the flushed bodies and out through the cage door. The fight is so loud I can hear it rattle the tin siding.
My husband does not abide by my son’s “peasant upbringing.” He clips my son’s hair and keeps him in clean shirts with small, embroidered men riding horses on the lapel. When my son is allowed to see the pigs, it is on an arranged occasion, and my husband is the one to take him. He leads my wild boy through the aisles of contained animals. He doesn’t like me being in the confinement, but he can’t legally stop me, and I refuse to stay in the house on the hill.
When I am inside the confinement, the workers don’t talk to me, or even look at me. They stomp past in their rubber suits without even a head nod. They have eyes only for the pigs, and I’m sure they don’t trust the boss’s wife. They leave me to it.
“New Wife, will you scratch behind my ear?” whines the mother pig with the high voice, but I can’t reach it. There’s no room. The mothers lie in tight crates. Without space to move, they must let their urine and feces squirt from their bodies through the grated floor to the concrete below, smearing trails down their skin that irritate and sting. They can’t raise their legs to scratch. I imagine the hooves jabbing their uterine walls. I remember pregnancy. I hated every minute.
“New Wife,” say the mothers, “where are you from?”
“I am from Hungary,” I tell them, extending my hands to stroke the spaces between their eyes. A worker pushes past me, looking down.
“What is Hungary?” they ask.
I speak of my father’s map of Magyar Királyság, the Kingdom of Hungary – the “real” Hungary, he used to grumble, “To its full extent, before the Treaty carved it up into the little plot of land it is today.” That was what he said, right up until he died. My father was not so different from many Hungarians. Even now, if you go into Budapest and you sit down in a dark bar, and you say to the bartender, “Bartender, tell me what Hungary used to be,” this bartender will glare at you and bring out his own map of Magyar Királyság, and he will say to you, “One day, when we finally rid ourselves of our government, we will be whole again.”
The pigs nod, their cheeks brushing the grated floor, though I realize they don’t know what a bartender is, or a map, or land.
“We had pigs in Hungary,” I say. “They ran the length of forests and found meals in the snow.”
“They ran,” says the mother who is quiet. “How lovely.”
My husband likes to observe rituals when he comes home at the end of the day. He kicks off his muddy boots at the back door, in the “storm room,” where one goes to disrobe when they are dirty. (The front door is only for clean entrances.) While I sweep up the crusts of earth, he takes out his small knife and cuts off a piece of the grand soap bowl I made. He scrubs up and down his forearms and soaks them in the sink under hot water for ten minutes. Then, he likes to sit down at the dinner table and eat, in a circle around his plate, the things I’ve cooked for him: first the meat, then the potatoes, then the vegetables cooked in pig fat. These three actions in this order, every time.
A month into our marriage, I was eager to practice my English. We’d held real conversations only twice, and I wanted to know him. I cooked for my husband one night a lovely mound of pork belly. My father used to call it Abált szalonna, boiled bacon anointed with good Hungarian paprika and garlic. Though in Hungary, we ate it cold, I knew my husband hated cold meat, so I served it to him hot with raw slices of onion.
We began our meal in silence. My son loves Abált szalonna, and he noisily chewed the tender fat. My husband poked at the rosy lines suspiciously for several minutes. Then he shifted the plate and started with the onions. I ignored his change in routine and kept my hands folded in my lap, where they sweated. I reviewed all my verb tenses.
“Husband,” I said slowly. “How was your day?”
My husband snorted and slurped an onion slice. “It was fine. Damn pigs are eating too much, I’ll have to cut back on the corn feed I’m getting from Purina Mills.”
I understood all the words in his sentence. Pride colored my cheeks.
“Did your father keep pigs also?” I asked. I yearned to know how my husband learned to farm pigs.
“Yeah,” said my husband. “Taught me everything I know.”
“My father also,” I said, pleased.
“Huh,” said my husband. “Didn’t know that.” He looked down at his plate. He turned it again and speared a piece of pork belly with his fork. He bit off an end. “This is good,” said my husband.
“My father’s recipe,” I beamed. I motioned at my son. “We ate it at his birth.”
My husband stopped chewing. He stared at me. I frowned. Had I used the wrong tense? Perhaps “birth” was not right, and I should’ve used “day of birth” instead?
“His birth,” mocked my husband. “Was your [word I couldn’t remember] there too?”
“My what?” I asked.
My husband was beginning to get impatient. “Your [word I still couldn’t remember].”
I sped through all the English words I’d memorized before this conversation, desperate for a familiar definition. The way he’d said it made me think it was a slang term. My husband lost patience. He slammed down his hand.
“His father,” he snarled, pointing at my son. I felt the blood flee from my face. A brief image of my son’s father – the dark eyes that crinkled joyfully, the one night I saw his naked flesh – flew in and out of my memory. My husband must have seen the image, too. He picked up his plate and threw it at my head. Had I not ducked, it would have shattered my face the way it shattered against the white, tiled wall. My son looked between us, chewing.
“You’re with me,” said my husband slowly, the way he does when he wants me to know that I am the most stupid of all wives. “Forget him.”
So I did.
The mothers are bored today. They get to gossiping quickly.
“I want to bite that worker who cleaned my rump this morning,” grumbles the mother with the birthmark. “Who uses that much water pressure? I’m still leaking from my asshole.”
“Remember when Slackteat licked the blonde one?” says the mother with the tooth-shaped scar on her shoulder.
“How he blushed,” says the mother who laughs at everything.
“You would have liked Slackteat, New Wife,” says the mother with the scar.
“Slackteat?” I frown.
“One of the ex-wives,” says the mother who is sad.
“What happened to her?” I ask.
The mothers shift and twitch their hooves. “Bad blood,” they murmur.
“I liked Snowhair,” says the mother with the high voice. “Even if she was only around for a month. She was so beautiful.”
“Beauty – fuck! We lasted longer than she did!” barks the mother who laughs at everything. The other mothers catch it like children. Their laughter becomes a dull roar.
“Why was Snowhair here a month only?”
“All of us wives get bad blood,” says the Quiet Mother. “On every farm in every state.” I lean over her crate, but the mothers hear the white food canisters being filled. They swing their necks wildly until their cheeks can touch the tapering mouths of the feeding canisters.
“My hocks are killing me,” says the mother who is sad. She sighs.
“Shut it, Slagskin, and eat,” snaps the mother with the birthmark. She parts her lips to reveal her white teeth and slavering tongue. She suckles from the great white teat. Gray slop runs down her rosy chin.
Rain will come soon. I walk the path that trails up the hill, and when I am halfway up I stop to look at the house in front of me. The windows, large and clear, give me a yellow glare that cuts the gray evening into pieces. Past the porch, I can see my husband sitting on his leather couch, his face cast blue by the screen in front of him. My son pads over and climbs beside him. He drinks a box of juice. His face begins to blue. I turn away.
The wheat fields bristle up and out like worn, brown fabric. My feet lead me over loose stone and hard earth, away from the confinement. Five feet from the lagoon, the air is suddenly hard with stink. I pull out a rag from the pocket of my jeans and hold it to my nose. I trip and crumple and cough.
At the lip of the water, the trees curl. Grass rots where it touches the still surface. Long, white tubes protrude on stilts, lines of sludge trickling from their lips. I stare at the water. It is the wrong color. It is not dark, not any kind of blue. It is pink. Resting in the purple muck along the shore is a small, pale crescent. I lean down to examine it properly. It is a tiny piglet, a fetus, no larger than my hand, veined, blue-stomached, its legs not quite formed beyond nibs, its eyes squeezed and its mouth stained red with bad, bad blood.
“Mother Pig,” I whisper. The mothers are sleeping the fitful sleep of the imprisoned. I want the mother who is quiet, but I cannot find her face in the dark.
“Mother Pig,” I whisper.
“New Wife?” someone squeaks. I tiptoe to the left. There: her distinguished cheek, her wide, sad eye roving. I put my mouth close to her ear.
“I saw the lagoon,” I murmur. “There was a dead pig.”
The Quiet Mother shivers.
“What is the lagoon?” I ask.
“Our waste and our dead and our afterbirths,” she says. “The ex-wives. All of us. Every farm has one.”
“Every farm?” I whisper. I cannot make sense of the pink poison. Surely I am misunderstanding her English.
The Quiet Mother moans. “Yes, New Wife. Every farm. If you fall in, they won’t find your body.”
“Slackteat and Snowhair,” I say.
“And you,” says the mother. “And me.”
A light at the end of the confinement clicks on.
“Run,” hisses the mother, and so I do.
Our silence could be navigated by ship, it is so wide. I stand beside the bed, naked and ready to fulfill my nightly requirement. My husband stands opposite me in his white boxer shorts, his penis protruding between the short’s slit. He rubs his face, the sound of bristles loud in the room.
“Come to bed,” he says finally, hauling his body onto the mattress. He kneels in the center, pats the space in front of him. Come here, his hand is saying. But this night is not a night when I can hold my tongue and close my eyes and wait for it all to be over.
“What is the lagoon?” I ask my husband.
“What is the lagoon,” my husband repeats.
“Yes,” I reply.
“No,” he says. “This is like the soap-soup thing. You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Yes, I do. What is the lagoon?”
“Disrespectful cunt,” he says. He raises his hand and brings it down on my face. I laugh.
“I am Hungarian,” I remind him. “It will take more than a slap to break me.”
“Let’s test that theory,” he says. His eyes glint.
There are two types of violence to use against a wife.
The first is the smart of the dominating gesture and with it the clarifying pain of understanding one’s place, and if it is not beloved, it is at least a learned action.
The second is the pig kind. The flaying of the body. The butchery. The consumption. The fury.
My husband uses my pig body and leaves me, my mouth stained red, curled on our bloody bed. He locks the door on the way out.
My son scratches at the door.
“Mama,” he says quietly.
When I do not answer he tries the handle. It will not open. I lick a corner of the bed sheet and rub at the dried, crusted blood on my inner thighs.
“Mama please, when will he let you out?”
As long as my son still speaks Hungarian, I can continue to lie here silently.
“Hey,” booms my jackass husband’s voice. “Want to see the pigs?”
My son is led away.
After three days, the door unlocks. My husband stands in the doorway. He hasn’t shaved. His beard makes small curls across his ruddy face. He sneers at the sight of me and stomps to our closet. He throws me a white summer dress. It is raining and cold outside.
“Get dressed,” says my husband. “We’re going to the lagoon.”
My husband wears a white mask, but I am forced to hide my nose in my elbow as we approach the lagoon. It is even pinker than I remembered. The white pipes slip their goop into the sludge. The sun sits high. The flat sky presses down. Standing in rubber suits with masks on their faces are three workers, one much shorter than the other two.
“Mama,” shouts the small one, “look at me!”
In his hand is a leash. My eyes follow it to the pig it is attached to.
“New Wife,” says the Quiet Mother. Her belly touches the ground, swollen with unborn pigs. My feet sink into the purple muck.
My husband calls to the two workers, “This is the one?” The two workers nod. I have never heard them speak, and even now they stay silent.
“Do it,” my husband says.
My son tugs on the leash. The Quiet Mother begins to scream and cry, digging in her heels.
“Please,” I say to my husband. I tug on his arm but he wrenches it away. “Son,” I yell in Hungarian, “you must stop!”
My son tugs harder. “This is my job, Mama,” he pants. “I am learning to be a pig farmer.”
I try to move, but my feet are trapped. I am shin deep in the muck of the dead. I watch the workers and my son push and shove the Quiet Mother until only her head can be seen above the pink. She gives me a wild look, and she disappears.
The trees shudder. My son stands. My husband takes my chin in his hand and yanks.
“Disrespect me again, and you go, too,” says my husband. His spittle lands on my cheek.
My son looks at me, uncertain, and waves.
I prop open the pen doors. I guide the mothers to standing. I lead the multitude out into the moonlight. I teach them to walk again and then to run. When they run, they carry me on their backs. It’s like flying. It’s like coming home. I ride the pigs, wild once more, into the brown fabric of this country. The land is ours. The wind is ours. The babies bounce in my arms. The mountains rise from the flat expanse to take us back into their folds. We sleep in a pile of pink, measured breaths. We raise our young to be strong and wild, clever and true. Berries and sweet swamp onions become our meals, and we sing the song of being whole again. My hands teem once more with the smell of slop.
Here is another ending: I prop open my legs. I guide my husband to where he desires. I lead him to the moment when he is grunting and his eyes are closed. I teach my arm to hack the kitchen knife through his thick skin. When he dies, he bleeds all over me. Relief keeps me breathing hard. I drag his body away, wild again, into the pink lagoon. The farm is mine. The pigs are mine. My son rests tight in my arms. The silent workers fade away like shadows at dusk. We work together, my son and I, in the pens of pink, measured breaths, killing each mother, when her time comes, quietly and eye-to-eye. The meat we now eat comes from peaceful pigs, and there is no fear on my pig farm. My hands teem once more with the smell of slop.
Here is a third: I prop open the oven. I guide my head inside. I lead my hand to the knob. I teach my lungs to stay flat. When I die, I leave no blood. My husband buries my body, wild again, in the black earth. The farm is my son’s. The language is his to choose, the television his to watch, the money his to inherit. My husband stands beside him. In the pens of pink, measured breaths, the pigs are silent to my son. There is no shared language there. He spends his life in a country where no one makes their own soap. His hands are clean of everything.
I, New Wife, stand in silence in the cold and the muck. There are three endings for a story like this. I make my choice.
Originally published in Caketrain.