She Was a Good Pig
By Spike Gillespie
AUGUST 3, 1998: Mildred was freaking. This didn't concern me too much. We'd adopted her in the spring of '97, as a companion for Skinny, but the relationship never quite panned out the way we'd hoped. Mildred was aggressive, given to screaming when things weren't going precisely her way, biting any hand that reached out to touch her, not a bit like the docile Skinny.
Mildred and Skinny are guinea pigs. Rodents? Yes, but pets to us, bona fide members of our family.
I was singing to my son Henry, as I have each night for years, a song Mary Magdelene sings to Christ in Jesus Christ, Superstar. Never mind the Freudian implications, the words have always soothed my son as he drifts off: "Try not to get worried/Try not to turn onto problems that upset you/Don't you know everything's all right, yes everything's fine."
But everything was not fine. Mildred was nearly bursting from the cage. I assumed she was hungry, or maybe that the water bottle was empty. Closer examination revealed food in the bowl. Then the problem became clear. Skinny was dead.
I sucked in my breath. No time to plan eloquence. There was the child, five feet away. And the pig, our beloved Skinny, sprawled out, lifeless and silent, her long Peruvian hair splayed oddly about. My stomach seized.
"Henry?" I paused for a second, then blurted. "Oh honey, Skinny is dead."
Selfish panic. Immediate tears. I could not, I knew, pick up the stiff body, could not deal with the situation alone. I excused myself for a moment and called Ross. Thank god, he was home.
Despite my feminism, my attempts to show I can do anything, no man needed, dead animals still fall under the heading "masculine chore," a gender-associated task. More to the point, however, is that Ross has been Henry's main father figure for years, sharing the chore with a few other solid platonic male friends, but always, always the only one of these called "Papa" by my baby.
"Can you come over right away?" I babbled into the phone, skipping the hellos. Ross has heard this plea before. And always the answer is yes, right away. I elaborated slightly.
"Skinny is dead."
Hang up. Call back.
"Can you bring a shovel?"
Unfortunately, pets and death are not new to us. Last fall, not long after we purchased Mildred - unbeknownst to us, she was pregnant - she gave birth to a litter of four. Adorable Tribbles, one by one, just as they had dropped out, they dropped off, victims of a sweeping genital problem, or perhaps victims of my own inexperience with infant pigs.
Whatever the cause, four different mornings over the course of two weeks I awoke to find another little corpse. Each time I broke the news solemnly, put on my gardening gloves, and carried the little one out to the Mother Teresa Memorial Garden, a hunk of hard ground centered by a bench Ross made of slabs of concrete he found lying about.
Those were sad times for us, but nothing to prepare us for the loss of Skinny. The babies had never had a chance to show their personalities. But Skinny....
Henry was four. I told him guinea pigs could stretch themselves all skinny, hence his official dubbing of her. We put her in an aquarium in the kitchen and before long she learned to associate the sound of the refrigerator opening or a plastic grocery bag crinkling with the imminent dispensal of lettuce. She'd whistle these times, a peculiar "Weet weet weet weeeeeeet." We determined she was a genius.
From time to time we gave her run of the house. That pig could run. Fast. And she could stretch and hide and play catch. After awhile, she mostly just stayed in her cage.
Still, we took her out to bathe her, filling the kitchen sink with a few inches of warm water, soaping her up, and laughing at how very skinny she was when all that hair was wet and flat. We'd wrap her in a dish towel, hold her up, pretend she was the Virgin Mary.
Waiting for Ross I attempted to console my inconsolable child. "Everything in this house dies," he wailed. "The baby pigs died. Tomorrow all the other pets will die. And we'll die too."
It was a tough spot. How could I promise him we wouldn't all be dead tomorrow? And the way I felt looking at Skinny made me wonder if he was right. What if the cat finally bolted in front of the wrong car, what if the dog dropped over from heat stroke, what if the annoying Mildred succumbed to whatever it was that took Skinny, what if the bird caved in to old age?
I couldn't lie. "Honey, it's true. Death is part of life. I don't think we'll all die tomorrow. But part of bringing life into the house means having to deal with death."
Actually, I doubt I was that well-spoken. And eating at my conscience was the fact that I'd been recently joking that we have too many pets, that the guinea pigs smell, and when would come the time I didn't have to deal with them? Not only that, I swear I had a premonition days before. Glancing at Skinny I'd wondered what I'd do the day I walked in and found her still. I had to fight back the thought that somehow I'd willed her gone from this world.
"Let's go wet the ground," I suggested. We went out to the memorial garden and I was thinking of a passage - I believe it is from Lonesome Dove - where the ground is too hard to bury the dead. I wanted Ross not to have a hard time of it. I wanted to distract Henry.
We turned on the hose and went to work, him watering, me attempting to dig with an old piece of cracked shovel I had. Then he tried digging. We made no headway, the water running off the surface, not penetrating.
Throughout this, the dog, Diablo, unaware of the gravity of the situation, tramped through the mud waving his rubber carrot at us, begging to play.
"No!" I yelled. And, "Sit." He tried to obey. He sat. But he eyed the carrot, now muddy and indiscernible, sitting beside me on the bench.
Ross arrived then, put his shovel to the ground. As he did, the dog lost patience, lunged for the carrot. In this flash, I saw horror pass over Ross's face and knew immediately what he was thinking, what he dare not say in front of Henry. He thought that was Skinny in Diablo's mouth, about to be chewed to shreds. I leapt up, consoled him. "No, not Skinny," I whispered. "She's in the house."
Ross was about to volunteer to be the one to carry Skinny out. Henry interrupted. "I'll carry her," he said. And so we went back to the cage.
I'd covered her with a chartreuse T-shirt. Henry lifted her, gingerly, like a little baby in his arms, her so lifeless, him more reverent than I had ever seen him. My stomach clenched harder.
He laid her in the hole and I suggested he place a symbolic handful of dirt on the beloved. "She was a good pig," I said. Ross covered her with earth.
Henry got out his chalk and on the rock he wrote, "Skinny 94-98."
Ross left and I took Hen into the house. He and I needed to continue the ritual we'd begun. "Shall we write a poem?" I asked. Poetry is his thing lately, and he has informed me that when he grows up, this will be his job. He agreed. Together we wrote:
A Poem For Skinnyby Henry Gillespie
Henry drifted off. Through the night, lost in his dreams, he turned and clung to me, something he will never do anymore when he is conscious. The world was not exactly right. But we held each other tight, grateful, both of us, for this crazy life we have together. For all the creatures in it.
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