Brett Kaplan lives and writes in South Florida. He received his MFA from Florida International University where he recently completed his thesis, a collection of short stories entitled, Existential Bebop. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Adelaide, Subtle Fiction, and Boned: A Collection of Skeletal Writings.
AN ABSURD STATE OF AFFAIRS
When Amis the pig returned from the slaughterhouse un-slaughtered he had life-changing news to deliver to the pigs in his pen. They were surprised to see him again, because from what they knew, when one of them were taken, they never came back. So, when they saw Amis reappear—a pig who most of them admired—they rejoiced in the belief that all was well, though, as it would soon become evident, their belief was just a product of bad faith.
A blanket of chaos swept the pen of eight when Amis spoke of the grim future that awaited them all. It pained him to have to describe all of the blood, and how it came at him from every direction, along with the pigs who hung by rope, with their necks slit, left for dead. He told them about the evil workers who tossed dead pigs into corners like pieces of trash. Amis warned the members of his pen that if they didn’t take action, they too, would wind up like all the rest.
That’s when Jen, a pig Amis had grown close to, said, “I don’t understand, what did we do to deserve to die?”
For that, Amis had no answer, nor it seemed, did anyone else, until a wise, cynical pig named Phil said, “We are simply thrown into being and are condemned to die.”
“You mean they raise us just to kill us? That’s absurd!”
“Precisely,” Phil said. “And all that we can do is hope it only happens once.”
The pigs couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They moved in circles and stomped their hooves in protest.
Amis, however, believed that there was something they could do. He moved to the side of the pen to ask Phil if he knew why he was sent back instead of ending up like the others.
Phil—who was older and had been there longer than most—said he’d only seen it happen a few times before, said it seemed that the ones who were sent back were either too young or too skinny. When Amis asked Phil why that was, Phil said because he was pretty certain that they were being killed to be eaten.
“Oh, the horror,” Amis said, “the horror.”
Chaos turned to sadness, and a great silence fell upon the pen. Phil, Jen, and Amis stood together, while the other pigs milled around with their snouts to the ground, unexcited by the luscious mud that had once given them unspeakable pleasure.
Amis’s pen wasn’t the only pen on the farm. In all, there were about eighty pigs, split off into pens of ten, a number that fluctuated every time one of them was taken, or a new one was brought in. They lived underneath a large, outdoor structure, with a high roof and a meshed fence that was covered by a green, see-through tarp that went up about half way that kept the pigs from baking in the sun. The structure had a fence door that was also covered in mesh. Amis’s pen was the one closest to the fence door, the same one he’d been dragged through by one of the workers, sparing him from death in the slaughterhouse. To the left of the structure was an open pasture where horses and cows could graze the grass as they pleased. The pigs could see the pasture through the tarp, making them long for the promise of freedom held by the pasture and beyond. Yet, here they were, trapped, in view of the promise that seemed so far out of their reach.
Despite everything working against them, Amis knew there had to be a way out. He brought his gaze to the far reaches of the sty and saw the many number of them. He imagined the power they had in their size and realized there were two choices they could make: they could sit back and accept the reality of what awaited them, or take an action to defy the pre-determined purpose the evil workers had in store for them.
Amis reflected on what Phil had said to him about being unwanted in a skinny, weak state, which made him consider the possibility of a hunger strike. He believed that if they stopped eating, or at least ate only to survive, the workers would reject them just as they had done to him. When he proposed this to Phil, Phil said, “Yes, but you are hungry, are you not?”
Amis said, “It’s more than a matter of being hungry.” He turned to the rest of the pigs and said, “If we choose not to eat and make ourselves undesirable, they may allow us to live. Yes, we are trapped, but that does not take away our freedom to choose.” He paced back and forth, and said, “We can either continue to eat, leading us to die in shame, or we can stand up for our desire to live. By eating at a minimum, we can take this absurdity head on. And if we die, at least we know we’ll die trying.”
It took a few moments, but soon enough the pigs were enthused by Amis’s leadership, and were able to see a sliver of hope. Their prospects were bleak, yes, but they managed to find comfort in solidarity. They held their snouts high and decided they weren’t going to go anywhere without a fight.
During their evening feed, Amis, Phil, and Jen refused to eat while most of the others ate in moderation. Amis was okay with that. What he wasn’t okay with was the few pigs who took it upon themselves to eat like they were at the last supper. This group of three was led by Gus, a pig who Amis had had disagreements with in the past.
When Amis confronted him about it, Gus said, “What are we supposed to do? Starve ourselves? If they picked you, what makes you think one of us won’t be next?”
Gus was right, that very well could be true, but that’s not a sentiment Amis wanted to give off. Instead he made his plea. “Why not join the rest of us and do what’s right?”
Gus said, “The only thing that’s right for us to do is to squeeze out any bit of pleasure we can get before it all comes to an end.”
Amis didn’t know how to respond. Who was he to tell someone else how to live? And in a way, Gus was right. It was up to them, and if they didn’t want to join him then that was fine, they could suit themselves. Yet, that feeling for Amis couldn’t have been true, because when he saw Gus put his snout back into the feed, Amis—who was hungry and frustrated—became enraged. He got in position to charge Gus, but was stopped when Jen and Phil told him to forget it, there was nothing he could do.
By the time night fell Amis had cooled down, though he would spend much of the night tossing and turning. It was impossible to get those images of death and destruction out of his head. Going through that experience made him question his very existence. After all, what was the point it? To be born only to have to endure such excruciating pain, didn’t make any sense to him. He was helpless knowing that his life was pre-determined by a bunch of greedy, inconsiderate men who were ruthless in their unrelenting desire to turn a profit.
Although he’d been trapped for most of his days, he knew there had to be something more, a place where everyone was happy and free, where he wouldn’t have to be confined to an overcrowded space full of urine and feces and hopelessness. He’d seen the birds who flew under the roof of the sty, coming in and out as they pleased. He could feel the gallop of the horses up and down the rolling hills of the pasture. Yet, that world seemed so far out of reach from the reality his life was confined to.
At first, he had been thrilled to be spared from that chamber of death, but now he wondered whether it would’ve been better if, it had all ended there instead of having to be sent back to his pen left knowing what was coming. Sure, if he hadn’t been taken to the slaughterhouse in the first place, he’d be able to spend what time he had left eating and enjoying life without realizing what was coming. But, now that he did know, he was put in a position where he could do something about it.
He stood awake in the nighttime silence of the sty and thought about involving pigs from the other pens. The one advantage they had was their size in numbers. Besides, it was only the right thing to do to tell them what he knew. And the more of them who knew, the better chance they’d have at surviving—the most important factor of all. One of the problems would be how to get the news to the other pens without sending the whole sty into chaos. He couldn’t just shout out the news. What he could do, he realized, was roll the news out to other pens one at a time, starting with the pen next door. He did happen to know a pig in that pen, too—his friend Steve. Steve was the kind of pig who wasn’t bashful about his willingness to complain, one of those complaints being that he could never get himself to sleep. That’s when Amis decided to give it a shot.
“Hey Steve,” he said. “You awake?”
Steve looked back at him and said, “What do you think?”
“Listen,” Amis said. “We need to talk.”
Steve, now realizing who he was talking to, was surprised to see Amis. “I thought you were gone,” he said. “We saw them take you.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Amis said. He told Steve what he learned, and what the workers planned to do with them. Then he told Steve about what Phil said and explained his pen’s decision to stop eating, and asked him if him and his pen would join.
“But we’ll die if we don’t eat,” Steve said.
Amis said, “We’re not stopping entirely—just not eating as much.”
“And you think by doing this they won’t kill us?”
“I don’t know,” Amis said, “but it’s worth a shot.”
“Oh, this is dreadful,” Steve said. “Absolutely dreadful.”
Amis told Steve to find someone in the next pen to deliver the news to.
Steve asked Amis when they were going to start.
“In the morning,” Amis said, “after breakfast.”
When the workers came around to give the pigs their feed, Amis looked on as one of the other pigs decided to join Gus and the ones who kept eating as they pleased. And although he was disappointed, Amis was encouraged by those who remained strong, including Jen and Phil who agreed that his plan to inform the other pens was not only a good idea, but something that needed to be done.
In that moment, Amis thought about asking Phil why he never said anything, but ultimately decided not to, thinking he would save the question for when they were free.
When Amis have Steve the signal that it was time, Steve appeared apprehensive. He came over to the side of the pen and told Amis that he thought it was better for the rest of the pigs not to know. Amis, surprised, asked Steve how he would feel if one of the pigs in his pen was taken and he decided not to say anything about it.
“Or,” Amis said, “what if it was you?”
Steve conceded. He knew Amis was right and that was enough for him to go along with everything as planned.
Amis, Phil, and Jen stood together and watched Steve as he slumped his shoulders and prepared to relay the news to the pigs in his pen. Once he did, Amis witnessed the horror that fell upon the faces of the pigs as they learned what would become of them. His heart sank when Steve turned around to acknowledge who the news was coming from. Amis did his best to put a poised expression, but he shook inside while the pigs in Steve’s pen looked his way in a state of terror. He was thankful to have Phil and Jen by his side to keep him comfort.
Throughout the morning, news traveled around to all eight pens, causing escalating screams of terror to crash over the sty like waves of sorrow. The ground shook from the collected stomping of hooves by the crazed pigs who ran in circles, protesting the horror of what awaited them. In fact, the whole sty ended up learning about the news before the plan could be executed as Amis had planned. This, Amis would regret because it didn’t take long for the workers to come in responding to the chaos. The workers presence escalated even further.
“What the hell’s gotten into them?” a portly worker said.
“Told you we were givin them too many of those antibiotics,” the other said.
“They’re fine. Just a little crazy is all.”
The portly one walked up to a pen on the side of the sty opposite of Amis. As he approached, the pigs ran around in a circle, fast. He opened the gate, kicked one of them in the ribs, and used a stunner to shock another. He closed that gate and moved down the line of pens looking in at each one. He made his way down to the opposite end where all the pigs in Amis’s pen had backed into the corner. Amis, however, did not. Despite his weakened strength, he stood in front of the pen as their leader. He did his best to keep his composure, but couldn’t help tremble knowing what the consequences of being taken were. Amis looked the worker in the eye as he opened the gate latch, and entered the pen. In fear, Amis backed his body further into the pigs behind him, hoping to evade the evil worker, but to no avail. The worker reached down, grabbed Amis by the neck as he looked over his body, and said, “Goddamn swine,” holding Amis up with his front hooves dangling in the air.
The pigs behind Amis sobbed for their friend, thinking he wouldn’t be so lucky this time, and for good reason. But they were wrong. The worker wasn’t pleased. He pushed Amis into the far corner of the pen and then made his way through the rest of them, looking for a bigger, stronger pig ready for slaughter. He pushed the skinnier pigs aside until he found one he liked. It was Gus. The worker took him by the neck, dragged him out of the pen, and left the others to live another day.
The pigs let out a collective sigh of relief, grateful to be spared from death.
The encounter made Amis realize that their hunger strike would only give them so much time. He spent the afternoon thinking before he addressed the pen for the first time since Gus was taken.
“By now we are all aware of the danger that awaits us. While eating minimally seems to be making something of a difference, we cannot depend on this for our survival. If we want to live, I think we can all agree that the only way of doing that is to escape. And since some of us may not be as strong as we once were, we’ll need everyone to contribute if this is going work.”
He told the pen that his inclination was for them to rush the worker the next time he came in. Once they got out of their pen, he explained, all they would have to do is make their way out of the structure through the meshed door, and then move like hell once they got onto the pasture and into the beyond.
After speaking to the pen, Jen pulled Amis aside and asked him how they were going to tell the other pens about their plan.
“They’ll know about it once we make our move,” Amis said, looking away.
He was restless the entire night. He sat in the mud, and questioned how it all came to this. He never asked to be born. It just happened one day that he came to be. And now, knowing the reason why, he failed to find any meaning or value in his life. He reflected on his earliest memories, and thought about his mother and how she’d lay on her side while she provided him and the other piglets in his litter with the milk they needed to survive. Did she know the reason why they needed to survive? Did she know that one day they’d hang from the roof of a shed while the blood drained out of them? And now here Amis was, at the stage of his life where, if his plan didn’t work out, would become another one of the ones left to hang, completing the purpose of his life. If only he was so lucky to never come to be. That to him, would be the greatest gift of all.
In the morning, the worker came to the pen to give them their morning meal. This time the pigs indulged knowing that it could not only be their last, but also—and more importantly—to give them the energy they would need to endure the escape.
Not long after they ate, the portly worker returned to the sty to select his next victim. He walked up and down the pens searching for a pig that would make for the perfect kill. He went to the far end of the sty and then came back towards the front and stopped in front of Steve’s pen. He opened the gate and walked in. Steve stood in front of the pigs in his pen just as Amis had for his pigs the day before.
Amis wanted to move now. He knew that every moment he and his pen remained, was just another moment one of them could be taken. Their time was now.
To initiate their escape Amis got the worker’s attention. He moved to the front of the pen and stood tall with his chest out and grunted loud for the worker to hear. He kept doing it, louder and louder, until eventually Jen, Phil, and the rest of the pigs in his pen joined him. The worker’s attention moved to their pen. He stared at them, and once he noticed Amis, a look of vengeance fell upon his face. He left Steve’s pen, shut the latch behind him, and walked towards Amis’s pen like he had unfinished business to take care of.
Amis and the other pigs looked at each other, acknowledging that this was it.
The worker opened the pen, reached in to grab Amis, but was stopped by the seven pigs who charged at him, forcing him to the ground, trampling him as they hauled ass, making their way out of the pen.
They were off. It seemed like they were on their way to the freedom they desperately yearned for. When they pushed their way through the unlatched door of the sty they were met by the other worker who had come out of the slaughterhouse with a gun in response to the noise. The pigs scattered, running onto the pasture in different directions. The worker chased after them and fired multiple shots along the way.
Jen and Amis ran ahead while Phil and the other heavier pigs lagged behind. Jen and Amis saw horses and cows react to the loud pop of gunfire. They each had their own fenced off areas where Jen and Amis—and everyone else—would have to pass through in order to get away. The problem was, they didn’t know if they could make it underneath the fencing. The continual gunfire, along with the cry of their fellow pigs, made them quickly decide that they would have to try.
Amis told Jen to go first. He watched her maneuver her body low to the ground, forcing her way underneath the fencing just enough to make it through. Eating less over the last few days seemed to give her an advantage. Jen watched Amis as he tried from the other side.
“Hurry,” she said, “they’re coming.”
Amis worked his body in the same way Jen did, but his large frame had got in his way. He continued to try, but stopped when a bullet hit the fence post right next to him, and he thought it was over. He looked up at Jen doubt that he’d be able to make it.
“C’mon,” she said. “You’re almost there.”
He tried just a bit more, working his back underneath the fencing just enough to make it through before bullets penetrated the impression in the grass he and Jen left behind.
They ran through the horses’ area to the other side of the farm, and once they reached a comfortable enough distance away, they looked back, seeing Phil and the other pigs from their pen dead on the ground. The workers picked them up, and stacked them on top of each other, before carting them away in a wheelbarrow.
Amis’s heart sunk. He knew it could’ve ended badly, but seeing it all play out in front of him was something else. The freedom he promised his friends had whittled to nothing, as did the lives they once possessed.
Jen was also emotional. She wept and told Amis how she felt guilty about going on without them.
“There’s nowhere for them to go,” Amis said. “If we don’t hurry, there won’t be any place for us either.”
And with that, the two pigs looked ahead, picked up their step, and entered the freedom of a nearby forest.