Narrated by Bob Eccles
“A Head Full Of Pigs” received an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s The ?Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Seventh Annual Collection (1993).
Emory Barnes never forgot the squeals. Thursday morning while he waited inside Pete Hanson’s Garage before reporting to work, they came to him as the new kid removed the lug nuts from his Chevy pickup’s rear wheel. The mechanic’s lug gun triggered the sensation with its shrieking wail every time it sucked at another nut, building to a crescendo for maybe four agonizing seconds before starting on the next one.
With each wail Emory could smell the pigs’ blood thick and hot in his nostrils, the dripping slime that made the floor of the Hog Island Meat Packing Company so treacherous that in the past six months three men had broken their bones on it. The gore from a day’s slaughters always clung to Emory’s fingers like sticky candy, and it never completely washed off, not even when he scrubbed himself raw. Every Thursday he practically bathed in the stuff when – after the pigs had been bled, skinned, and eviscerated – he carried their gutted carcasses to the hooks in the storage room freezer. Even after a hot shower the smell never really left, and his flesh seemed to glow pink. Emory knew that the pigs’ blood had gotten under his skin, and he knew it would remain there. Just like the squeals and shrieks remained.
His father had worked the Island for thirty years and was the company’s most proficient butcher. Emory never doubted what line of work Addison Barnes expected his son to pursue. He felt just as certain that few women would select a man who came home stinking from pigs’ guts. But a good son knew better than to speak against the one thing in the world his father took any pride in, and Emory had learned that when it came to speaking to his father, some words were best left unspoken. He let the old man keep his pride while he kept his silence.
For many years Addison Barnes had lectured to his son about how nature had created her most useful creature in the pig, because sixty-five per cent of the little sucker was edible. The beauty of it was that even the inedible parts, the offal, were salable by-product, and Addison bragged how he could cut his way through a pig faster than anyone on Hog Island, removing the innards in the time it might have taken that pig to shit. Emory felt certain that as the pigs were taken down the chutes to the slaughter the old man must have heard music in their shrieks.
On Thursdays Emory helped to herd the fatted boars and sows from their stalls down the chutes that led to the butchering rooms, and he watched as they bustled through. The Yorkshire, Hampshire, the Spotted and Chester White, Emory knew them all. Thursdays were when the squealing swine hit their peak, the days the pigs’ screams filled the world. And something worse. Something much worse.
Thursdays were the days the pigs got into his head.
The mechanic’s lug gun shrieked again, and for a moment Emory heard the baby Yorkshire he had once called Sir Francis Bacon. Addison Barnes had brought the piglet home to his twelve-year-old son as a birthday present, and within three years the boy had raised it into a prize-winning boar capable of fetching five-hundred dollars at a Hog Island summer auction. But Emory had told those who asked that they could keep their money.
His father thought different. That following winter the roof needed tarring, and the pick-up’s transmission was shot. Businesses all around the Island had gone bust and the company’s butchers were talking about layoffs. Addison added up the cost of feeding and boarding the huge boar against the cost of selling it, and saw no further than the bottom line when it came to God’s most perfect creature. “Business is business,” he told his son, “and Sir Francis here is our business. This pig eats its weight in pig slop every day, and corn meal don’t come cheap. Either that pig eats, or we do, Emory. It’s that simple. The day will come when you understand why pigs was put on this earth.”
Emory did not understand. But he said nothing, because nothing was what he was supposed to say once Addison Barnes had spoken his piece.
The following Thursday the Yorkshire’s stall was empty and Emory ditched school to run all the way to the Hog Island Slaughtering House. He arrived just as a procession of pigs bustled past him on the chutes, and for a moment he thought he spotted Sir Francis. The boy could not see where the twisted chutes led, but he knew their destination well enough. He could hear the pigs’ shrieks from where he stood. A huge hairy arm stopped him from going further.
“You don’t want to go down there, Emory,” Addison said, holding the boy back. “You’ll see enough of that when you’re older.” Emory knew how true his father’s words were. Besides, he realized he had no stomach to explore what lay at the end of the chute, because he could hear. He wondered if the shrieks from below came from his Yorkshire.
He didn’t cry until he arrived home. Neither he nor his father ever mentioned Sir Francis again.
Whenever Emory awoke to the screams he tried to reassure himself that there were laws about what went on inside the Hog Island Meat Packing Company. When the Federal Government passed Bill 91960, the Humane Slaughter Act, Addison explained to him how three well-dressed government inspectors had personally come to the Island to inform the company foreman, Matthew Conklin, how new federal regulations called for the pigs to receive electrical shocks, for humane purposes, that would render them unconscious before they were slaughtered. It wasn’t much to feel good about, but it was enough to let the boy drift back to sleep.
Years later, when Emory added his name to the company payroll, he discovered that Hog Island had its own interpretation of Bill 91960. The process of using the electric prods was time consuming and expensive, and Matthew Conklin considered the pigs’ unimpeded march to their slaughter as infinitely more cost effective. Since the same three government officials paid only two annual visits, Conklin kept the prods handy enough to whip out for appearances. The rest of the time Matthew Conklin could give a pig’s ass about what was humane.
For many nights following that discovery the pigs’ screams echoing inside his brain would not allow Emory sleep. And then came Thursdays . . .
Most Thursdays the foreman began the slaughters by shouting out a stuttering “That’s all, folks!” just before his killing teams swung their clubs at the bobbing heads as they passed on several conveyer belts through the narrow chutes. The pigs snorted and whinnied before the clubs slowed them down, and if any porkers were still standing as they reached the bottom of the chute, the butchering knives finished them off. Conklin often surveyed the carcasses as they lay in puddles of their own blood and said something he considered clever about little piggies going to market.
Shrieks and screams and lug nuts.
As Emory stood in the bay area of Hanson’s Garage the mechanic’s lug gun returned him to those other Thursdays, to the smell of blood and stinking guts that always filled his nostrils enough to last long past the slaughtering days.
“Yeah, she’s gonna need brake pads,” the young mechanic said. “Your pick-up must’ve been grinding away at herself for weeks, judging from the wear on those pads. Can’t have metal eatin’ away at those pads without somethin’ havin’ to give. We’re lookin’ at ‘bout two hours’ work here.”
Emory looked dully at the lug nuts scattered on the greasy floor below the lift. He barely heard the words through the grunts and screams that echoed inside his brain, but he smiled back pleasantly and said “Fine,” because that was what he was supposed to say. “I’ll hop the bus to the Island and pick up my truck about 5:30. Everybody’s got to work for a livin’.”
And because it was Thursday he knew the slaughterhouse pigs would have something to say about that . . .
The heat in the killing rooms was blistering and the stench was especially pungent with the dozen kills whose blood had already been spilled on the floor. A huge piebald Yorkshire sow had taken three severe clubbings, but remained on all fours at the bottom of the chute. Blood trickled from her snout and her eyes glazed over as she turned to look up at Emory. He had hoped the pig would drop so he could drag the carcass off to the hooks and prepare for the next one. He hated to see them linger. For a moment the sow fixed her dull stare on him. But she did not drop.
“Sooo-eeeeee! That fucker’s sure playin’ hard to get, ain’t she?” Conklin called from the walkway along the chute to Alvin Worthy, who was preparing to use his machete-like butchering knife to cut the pig’s throat. “Let’s get this little piggy off to market, Al. Emory, hold that bitch still!”
Emory rarely had to touch the pigs while they were still alive. Most pigs arrived sufficiently dazed when they came off the belt at the bottom of the chute, and one swift cut from Alvin Worthy would usually bring them to the floor. As Emory grasped the piebald’s torso she resisted violently, squealing and kicking. Alvin gave her a clean slice across the throat, and still the sow remained wavering on her feet. Hot blood spilled into Emory’s face and he spat some from his mouth.
“I ain’t so sure that pig’s got any more lard in her than you have in your ass, Mr. Worthy!” Conklin called out again, almost laughing himself sick. “Let’s see you and Mr. Barnes drop that whore!”
The two men stood facing the huge sow, watched over by every worker in the place as if the killing floor had been transformed into a sports arena. The pig grunted thickly, snorting back the blood in her snout and quivering where she stood, but she did not look like an animal that was about to go down. Thinking of the blood he had tasted, Emory again grabbed the pig’s torso. He wanted to close his eyes, and he wanted to scream. Most of all, he wanted to vomit.
Instead he wiped his mouth and said, “Okay, Al. Let’s do ‘er.”
This time Alvin pulled back hard on the blade as he cut through the pig’s throat. Thick gouts spurted from her neck, and the piebald hit the floor like a huge sack. Alvin stood over her, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, a gap-toothed smile spreading over a face speckled in blood. He waved his butcher knife in the air like a sword.
“Damn!” he said, loudly enough for the whole place to hear. “Talk about bein’ a whore. That fucker sure didn’t feel like givin’ away her pork chops!” Four men along the chute broke into uproarious laughter as Alvin Worthy brought the house down. Matthew Conklin, having seen the show, lit a cigarette and walked off.
Emory dragged the carcass to the corner of the room where another man waited to hook the sow upside down by her feet in a swine’s interpretation of the crucifixion. The pig would be carried by conveyer belt to Hog Island’s senior butcher, Addison Barnes. Later in the day, Emory would haul the gutted remains to the storage freezer, where it would wait a day or two before being graded and processed. The procedure was remarkably efficient every step of the way . . . except that the piebald sow’s eyes were still open.
And she was still staring at Emory.
Surrounded by dozens of the day’s freshly butchered slaughters, expertly skinned, then cleaned and trimmed by his father, Emory had worked alone throughout the afternoon carrying the carcasses into the freezer. He hung the last of them and watched the pig’s remains dangle from the meat hook. Its head and feet were gone, and it was smeared with dripping beads of blood. He had not seen very much fight in today’s kills, except for the large sow. Now even she dangled silently from a meat hook in the freezer, unrecognizable from the rest.
Although the storage room was 32 degrees, sweat glistened on Emory’s forehead. The smell inside would be foul until the meat froze, and despite the many hours he had spent in this freezer, the reek of fresh pork always kicked hard at his stomach. Still, the freezer was quiet and he relished the silence. He sat on the old wooden bench and savored the stillness that surrounded him, alone among the bleeding rows of headless pigs.
“What the fuck?”
A grating sound broke the silence, a sound of twisting metal like that made by a porch swing. It came from behind him, and Emory jumped to his feet in the dim light, thinking maybe someone had come into the storage room freezer. His eyes searched the rows of meat hooks and came to the one that swung empty from its fastening, still dripping the blood of the hulking pig carcass it had held moments before. Directly below the hook, a small puddle of blood remained. Something snorted behind him. He spun toward the sound, but there was nothing to see except the pig carcasses that hung silently in the freezer. He heard a thick grunt come from a row in front of him, and he strained to see down the long columns of meat hooks, but still he saw nothing.
“Pigs,” he mumbled to himself. “Goddamned porkers must be usin’ my brains for pig slop.”
A very loud snort. A pig’s snort. This one came from a meat hook two rows behind him. As he turned to look, something cold and wet bumped his foot. Emory looked down and saw the bleeding chunk of meat throbbing on the floor. He saw the dripping flesh heave and swell.
He heard it snort.
From behind him the metal grated again, and he spun toward the sound. The rows of pig meat that filled the freezer slowly twisted and turned on their hooks. One grunt became two, then six, then twenty. The pigs’ squeals began slowly from one corner, then from another, and they worked themselves into an insane chorus of swine sounds, building to a crescendo that threatened to explode inside Emory’s brain.
Dozens of carcasses squirmed on their hooks in unison, as if straining to pull themselves off. The largest of them slipped off its hook almost directly above him. It struck him on the side of his skull like a heavy sack and brought him down to the floor.
Emory shook his head and crawled to one knee, trying to focus on what was happening around him. Everywhere in the freezer, squirming carcasses thumped to the floor, leaving bloody streaks in the sawdust as they wriggled toward him. His mouth opened to scream but other sounds drowned him out.
The dripping carcasses of meat grunted and snorted and squealed, and they filled his head with pigs, filled his head with more shrieking pigs than ever had been in his head before, filled his head with all the pigs in the world . . .
The Chevy pick-up at Pete Hanson’s Garage was waiting and ready to go at 5:30. The young man paid in cash and climbed into the cab, noticing the strange look the kid mechanic had exchanged with old Pete when he paid his bill.
They couldn’t have known about what he had left inside the freezer at Hog Island, he told himself. But soon enough somebody would find out what the pigs had told him to do. Maybe tomorrow morning Alvin Worthy would be the one to discover the skinned carcasses of Addison Barnes and Matthew Conklin hanging on adjoining meat hooks inside the freezer. The young man assured himself that for the next few hours, at least, that particular secret was still safely locked behind a sixteen inch thick freezer door.
Ain’t nobody in here but us little piggies.
He managed a twisted smile and dismissed the mechanics’ strange expressions at the smell of the slaughter he always carried out with him on Thursdays, giving them no further thought as he drove off.
The old man and his young assistant watched him closely as he pulled out, and again they exchanged questioning looks.
“Can’t figure that out at all,” Pete Hanson said to the kid once the Chevy pick-up had cleared the curb. “No, not at all. I’ve known Emory Barnes his entire life. His father and me was school pals. The quiet type maybe, but that boy always has something to say to me, Emory does. Always.” He wiped off his hands and returned his tool kit to the shelf.
“He wasn’t real talkative this mornin’, neither,” the kid agreed, taking off the attendant’s hat to run his fingers through his hair. “Just stood there like he might’ve had somethin’ on his mind. Made some lame remark about everyone havin’ to work for a livin’. But at least he did talk . Not like . . . like what he just did. Jesus, what the hell do you suppose . . . ?”
“Well, maybe you’ve just explained it, then,” Pete said. “There’s an old saying, if you lie down with pigs, that’s the way you wake up smellin’. Seems to me that Emory Barnes has been workin’ around so many of them pigs for so long, I guess all he knows how to do any more is snort and grunt like he thinks he’s one of ‘em . . .
AUTHOR BIO: Ken Goldman, an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association, has homes on the Main Line in Pennsylvania and at the Jersey shore depending upon his mood and the track of the sun. His stories appear in over 630 independent press publications in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia with over thirty due for publication in 2012. Since 1993 his tales have received seven honorable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. His book of short stories, “You Had Me At ARRGH!! : Five Uneasy Pieces by Ken Goldman” (Sam’s Dot Publishers) had been an all-time top ten best seller at the former Genre Mall, and his novella, “Desiree,” is available in eBook downloadable format on the Damnation Books web site, and on Amazon.com in Kindle and print format. You may find Ken on the web sites Masters of Horror and The Horror Cafe.