A Mess of Pork
By Harriette Simpson Arnow - Jan 3, 2018
I got off the bus at a town called Somerset, in Kentucky, and went to the post office. I wanted to see if my picture was there. It was. A tall man looked at me with his dead blue eyes, and I was afraid. I went outside, but he did not follow me. I stood still in the street, and I heard a man say, “He didn’t have a gun. He fell on his face.”
“Six children, they say,” another man said. “They run after the other one. They left him for the hogs.”
“Did they mess him up?”
“Some. His wife come with the dog before they’d done much damage.”
I walked over to the men. They were throwing bags of mail into a truck with Mount Victory written on the door.
“Howdy,” the taller man said. “Aim to go out?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re new,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“That store is locked. The same travelin’ man never comes twice,” he said. I sat in the cab with the mail-carrier and the other man. They didn’t talk much.
“Know him well?” the other passenger said after a time.
“Knowed of him,” the mail-carrier said. “Tred Fairchild was a good man. Steady goin’. Made good liquor.”
“The law’s the law,” the other man said.
“Hell,” the mail-carrier answered, and spat between his teeth.
November dark comes early in the hills. Ten miles out the lights were turned on. Mount Victory was twenty-seven miles away. Down there twenty-seven miles is a long way. The roads are full of ruts and holes and rocks bigger than a man. I couldn’t tell much about the country. I saw little stunted cedars and limestone rocks, then sandstone and pine. We crossed a creek.
“Buck Creek,” the driver said. Then we went up a twisted, rocky road. Twice we stalled. I guess it was ten o’clock when we got to Mount Victory: a store and a schoolhouse and a church on a high windy ridge.
“Store’s closed,” the mail man said. “Ye’d better stay the night with me. Hardgrove lives two miles away.”
I stayed the night with him. I slept without undressing on a tick filled with shucks. They were up by daylight next day. “I’ll be going,” I said after breakfast. “By the way,” I said, “where does this Tred Fairchild’s widow live?”
He walked to the door, and pointed across three hills. “Over yonder. Clean over Rockcastle. The revenuers crossed at Shad Keeney’s place. Ye know the way to the store?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“I’ll take you to the forks, and point it out,” he said. He did. “Aim to walk over to Dykes and see the store keeper there?”
When he was gone away I went toward the river. I followed a wide yellow road. It stopped, and I followed a path to a log cabin. A hound dog barked and a woman came to the door.
“Where is Shad Keeney’s?” I said. “I want to go over Rockcastle.”
The woman did not answer. She said to someone behind her, “A stranger man wants to go over. Run fetch your paw.”
I waited. Soon a loose-jointed man with his overalls tucked into muddy boots came. “Be you the tax ‘sessor?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
We went across a field and down a bluff to the river and his boat. When he had rowed me over he showed me the path to the Fairchild place. It was a long way, and once I thought I was lost. When it was nearly dark I came to a log house. I knocked and a woman came to the door. She was not an old woman, but she made me feel young. I guess because I’d never had any trouble like she had. She wore a shawl overhead, and had a baby in her arms. The baby was nursing. When she saw me she pushed her breast out of sight.
“I killed a copper,” I said.
“What’s that?” she said.
“It’s a man. A man like the ones that killed your husband. It was in a city. He wore a uniform.”
She stared at me. “My picture’s in the post office,” I said. “They would pay money for me,” I said.
“Come in,” she said. I went in, and sat down by the fire. It was almost out. Two small children played in the ashes. The woman laid the baby on the bed. She went into another room. She called me son. She gave me overalls, and a shirt, and a pair of brogan shoes. The clothes were not a bad fit.
“Can you cut wood for the fire? She asked. “It is hard to cut wood in the rain.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You are my cousin come over from Shearer Valley by the falls of Cumberland. He is called Dick Hansford, and has never been here. His hair is black. Tomorrow you and the boys go to Feldew Ridge for black walnuts. Then your hair will be dark, too.”
“The mail carrier and a Keeney man saw me.”
“They are from the other side,” she said. “They never come over here. Nobody comes here but Julie Meece.”
“They are not ones to talk.”
She made me a bed in the loft. I went with her to the barn next morning to help with the work. I’d never been about a barn, but she taught me what to do. On the crib door was nailed the skull of some animal. The teeth were in the skull, two of them tushes three or four inches long. “What is that?” I said.
“A hog’s skull,” she said. She touched a long tooth. “The hogs they left Tred with had teeth like that.”
“Your dog fought them,” I said.
“It got them to chase him,” she said. “Nothing can fight the hogs of Rockcastle. They were mean things—the hogs. Near as mean as the men.”
I got the corn and went to feed the hogs she was fattening. Most of them were young male hogs. They had been castrated and did not seem fierce. They were not like the hogs I saw at the World’s Fair. These were big boned and flat sided, with long legs. They did not make a lot of noise. “Feed him fifteen ears,” the woman said, and led me to a pen behind the barn.
In the pen was a boar hog with teeth like the teeth of the skull. The woman looked at the black hog, and I thought she smiled. “He will make a fine mess of pork,” she said.
“He looks old and tough,” I said.
“He is. He is a cannibal hog. Last spring he got out and ate seven young pigs.”
I looked at his teeth. “He could eat a child,” I said.
“More like him could kill a man—two men,” the woman said. She looked at the hog. She looked at me. “I think God sent you,” she said.
After the work was done at the barn, the biggest boy (he was twelve years old) took me to Feldew Ridge for black walnuts. The ridge was a narrow neck of land twisted into a high horseshoe. The walnut trees were on an inside slope of the bend, and beyond the trees were yellow sandstone bluffs. Below the bluffs I could see beech trees, and holly with red berries growing there. I thought it would be nice to go down and pick some holly right off a tree. I looked about the bluff for a place to go down. They were not high bluffs. No higher than a two story building, but steep. Les, the boy, was hunting wintergreen berries higher up the ridge side. I called to him, “Les, is there a path down the cliff here?” He did not answer me, but ran quick down the hill side.
“I want to pick holly down there,” I said.
He walked to the bluff edge, and looked over. “You couldn’t go down there. Nobody goes down there.”
“They stay there. When my granma was a girl a neighbor woman got lost with her baby. She went in there. They found the buckles on her shoes, and pieces of the baby’s dress. It was red lindsey-woolsey. Hogs—them hogs will eat anything. They’re hard to kill, too. If you do shoot one there’s a dozen others.”
He stood there and looked down the cliffs into the holly trees, and I thought of the black boar in his pen. I thought of the teeth in the skull on the crib door, and I quit wanting the holly berries. I wanted to take the walnuts and go away.
“I wish I could see one,” the boy said, and he talked in a whisper now. “Them hogs are the stillest things. They’re all in their holes under the sand rocks, asleep.”
“We’d better get home,” I said.
“They never come up here,” he said. “They stay in the valleys, and eat beechnuts, or go over to Cumberland and eat pig nuts and acorns. There they don’t bother much unless you have a dog. They hate dogs.”
I looked down the cliffs again. It was like a room down there. A man might climb down but not up. I was glad I’d asked about the path.
When we were started home Les pointed over the ridge toward Rockcastle. “See that old chimney?” he said. “That’s in the mouth of Holy Creek. People lived there maybe a hundred years ago. They raised hogs to send to Georgia, so my granma said.”
“What is Holy Creek?” I asked.
“That’s where the hogs live. Only it’s not a real creek. Just a valley where you can go in but can’t come out.”
We hulled the walnuts, and the woman took the hulls for my hair. That night she carried the walnuts to the black hog. She stood a long time and watched him eat them. I watched too. He would get a walnut between his back teeth, throw back his head, and close his little eyes. Then there would come the crunching sound, and I would remember how Les had used two stones up there on the ridge side to crack a walnut. Somehow I did not like watching that hog. It made me think of things. I could not see how the woman could watch him either. Her man had been left dead in a field with hogs like that.
The next day I cut wood. Les helped me. When we were carrying it in, Julie Meece came. I hid in the loft. She and the woman sat in the big house by the fire. Through the thin boards I could hear their talk. “How’s the baby?” Julie Meece asked.
“He’ll be a puny one. Your milk is poisoned with hate for the two that killed your man.”
“I know it,” the woman said.
“If you would cry like a sensible woman.”
“I can’t cry ‘till them that killed him are in their graves.”
“Pray to Jesus.”
“I can’t pray—not yet.”
“Such talk,” the neighbor woman said, and spoke of other things.
“It’ll soon be fine hog killing weather. You’ll have plenty of meat. I would kill that boar hog first. He is not safe.”
“I will kill him when the time comes. His pen is strong.”
“He will be fit only for lard. The meat will be strong.”
“Yes, it will make a fine smell.”
I helped with the hog killing the first cold days in December. We did not kill the black boar. Every day I gave him corn, and every evening the woman went to stand and watch him eat.
It was a cold winter that year. The woman had no shoes. She made moccasins from the skin of a calf we had killed. There was no flour or sugar in the house. We ate pork and molasses and fodder beans and cornbread. Sometimes the lesser children cried with the cold, but the mother and the older ones never complained.
It was a cold night late in January, and the woman and I sat by the fire. She had sent the children away to bed. “How much money it they would pay for you?” she said, and looked into the coals.
“A thousand dollars,” I said.
“Do you trust me?” she said, and turned and looked at me.
“Yes,” I said.
She took a stubby pencil from the mantel, and a piece of brown paper bag. She smoothed the paper slowly on her knee. She wet the pencil with her tongue. She looked into the fire. She talked. She did not talk to me. “They’ll come alone—the greedy devils—they’ll tell none. They don’t know me. I’ll be Julie Meece.” She wet the pencil again. This time she talked to me. “I can’t spell all the words. Can you spell?”
“Yes,” I said. I spelled Rockcastle, and February, and chimney, and secret, and Ransom Ledbetter, and sunrise. Then I addressed the letter. I wrote “Andrew Combs, Somerset, Kentucky” on a crumpled envelope. The next day Les took four eggs for a stamp, and went over to Rockcastle to the post office and mailed it.
One morning, I guess it was three weeks later, the woman woke me early. It was dark. I couldn’t see her there in the loft. I could feel her shaking me, and hear her say, “It’s time to kill him. Come help me.”
“Kill who?” I said, and sat up and felt the cold.
“The black hog. I’ll have to shoot him. I need you to hold the light.”
Outside the stars had not paled. It was a cold time. I could hear the timber on Fellow Ridge crackle with the frost, and when I laid my fingers on the door latch they stuck there. “A fine day,” the woman said, and looked at the stars, and sucked up lungfuls of the cold.
The black boar was not asleep. He stood and blinked at us in the smoky red light of the pine knot. I could see the coarse hairs raised across his shoulders, and the bits of frozen mud and ice on his feet. “He hates the cold,” the woman said. “The others will hate it too. They cannot root in the frozen ground, and empty bellies make them mean.”
She shot the hog between the eyes. It ran a little with the bullet in its head. It died, I think, standing up. Its forefeet slid over the frozen ground and the black snout came down between them. Then its eyes stopped blinking and I knew it was dead. The woman climbed into the pen, and stabbed it between the forelegs with a butcher knife. The blood froze about it in a ragged pool, and then she said, “We will scrape him now.”
Together we half dragged and half carried it to the iron kettle of water hissing above a fire of fat pine. The woman took gunny sacks, and spread them over the hog’s bristles. I dipped bucketsful of the boiling water and poured it over the hog. Together we scraped off the stiff black hairs.
The woman hurried. It was as if she had to have him cleaned and cut up by a certain time. I hurried too. I don’t know why. She kept looking over her shoulder toward Kender’s Mountain. Behind it the stars were thinning out, the sky blue-gray instead of black. She was watching for the sunrise. I watched and worked against it too. When the hog was scraped and cleaned she had me wrap it in sacks and pour hot water over it. “To keep him warm,” she said.
She left me and went to the house. She came back soon with two suits of ragged overalls. They had belonged to Tred. She did not say anything. She took bits of hair and parts of the hog, the boar parts you know, and laid them in the pockets. Then she took a threaded needle from her bosom, and sewed the pockets up. She put more around the bottoms of the trousers, and folded and sewed it smooth away. I never asked her what she was doing. I don’t know what I thought about while I stood there and watched her hide pieces of the bloody, stinking meat in the ragged overalls. I do not remember thinking that she was crazy. I know that I kept watching for the sunrise. I seemed to know that her work must be done before sunrise. I know that I forgot the cold. The pine knot burned low and I lit another.
All the stars paled, and on Kender’s Mountain the pines stood black against a pale wash of pink. The woman finished with the clothes. She took a clean cloth (there was no paper in the house) and put bits of the still warm liver and heart and kidneys in it. She wiped her hands on a gunny sack. “I’m going now,” she said. “Come behind if you want to. Not too close.”
I walked behind her toward Feldew Ridge. The thin layer of snow crunched into powder under our feet, and all about us trees cracked in the cold. It was so still. I wished a little wind would blow. I thought it might take away the boar smell on my hands and clothes. Even under the pines the air was drenched with it. We came to the spot where Les had pointed out the old chimney by Rockcastle in Holy Valley. The woman walked down the ridge side toward the chimney. “Don’t come much nearer,” she said.
I went as far as a thick low growing clump of ivy, and hid there. The woman went on until I could see her standing by the chimney. It came lower, just above her head. Then I saw two men come up from the river. The woman walked a little way and met them. I could not hear much they said. I saw them take the overalls. They laughed and put them on. I heard one, the bigger of the two, say, “You’d make a smart sheriff, sister.” I saw them take the bundle of meat, and heard them laugh some more.
The woman pointed up the valley, and said something. Then she walked away. When she was gone a little piece the shorter man called to her, “No danger of gettin’ lost?”
“No,” she said, “just keep up the valley ‘till you see the cliffs. He’ll be there in the rock house. Say, ‘Mrs. Meece sent you some meat by us.’ He will come out and the rest will be easy.”
When she was gone a little farther she stopped and called to them again, “In case you see a hog just make like to call a dog. The hogs here are afraid of dogs.”
They laughed and waved to her. She came straight away then, and did not look at them again. She walked past the ivy bushes where I was. I think she had forgotten me. When the men were out of sight I ran up the ridge side. I wanted to go to the place where Les and I had gathered walnuts. I was almost there when I heard men in the valley below me whistle for a dog. I ran a few steps, and heard revolver shots, a whole lot of them coming fast. I heard a pig squeal. I reached the patch of winter green above the bluff, and I saw the woman sitting on a gray sandrock. I don’t think she saw me. I was below her near the bluff edge. I could hear hogs now down in the beeches and holly. They made soft, “Woofs, woofs,” and I could hear their feet in the frozen ground.
I wanted to look over the edge without being seen. I lay down on the sandrock, and stretched out to look down. I never looked. I heard a man scream. I put my hands over my ears, and pulled my head hard against the rock. Once when I was a boy I saw the brewery stables burn. I remember a big horse screamed and ran back into the fire. Then it screamed again. This scream was like that, and like a woman’s. Sometimes I can still hear it. I lay that way a little while, and then everything was still, and I took my hands from my ears and stood up. I listened and heard them. Their teeth made crunching sounds. The black boar’s teeth when he ate the walnuts had sounded that way. I knew there were no walnuts down there.
Originally published in Esquire in 1935 under the pseudonym H.L. Simpson.