Creatures - Short Story 5 - Spring Comes to Hogtown by Dan Fields

They did not let the other children see what the hogs did to Judy Ann Keller.

The growing incursion of the animals was known throughout Pierce Township. Now the community had no choice but to face it. Collective anxiety had simmered for weeks, yet at the moment of crisis many adults managed to keep cool heads, until later.

Mrs. Keller comforted her child, doing without the comfort she herself could have used. Her sister Mrs. Boone rushed inside the Methodist church to telephone, first for an ambulance and then for the girl’s father. Mr. Keller was driving a long haul from Sacramento to Yakima, time and a half for the holiday. His wife had given him grief about it, despite the attractive paycheck, since it would mean missing his little girl in her new Easter dress. Cradling the quivering child in the shade of the poplar grove between the park and the church lot, Mrs. Keller reflected that perhaps his being away was a mercy. Better that they reunite at the county hospital, in view of professionals trained for whatever scene might ensue. The Kellers would need that overtime pay sooner than expected. More than a pair of ruined Easter dresses would need replacing.

Mr. Boone, the brother-in-law, went immediately to his truck for his bolt-action .270 rifle. He stood sentry just inside the trees, in case a stray hog circled back.

As Judy Ann’s wails of pain subsided to dull moans beneath her mother’s caresses, Mrs. Keller spied a dozen colored eyes winking at them from scattered hiding places. The abrupt halt of the egg hunt left much of the park unexplored. It was unlikely to resume once the Kellers were gone to the hospital, especially with the fresh-mown grass darkened by patches of dried blood. Mrs. Keller continued to shush her suffering child, feeling her own tears come. She was unsure of kissing Judy Ann’s face without causing more pain, unsure whether the raw tissue could still be called a face.

Mr. Moseby, the church pianist who had planned a quiet Easter dinner with his mother, was summarily enlisted to help keep the rest of the little ones calm. Miss Wexler, who taught Sunday school, herded them into the sanctuary for songs and treats while the other adults held a powwow. The weeping children, many of whom had seen or heard part of the attack on Judy Ann, received special considerations of extra chocolate. Several other children noticed, and did their best to exploit the situation.

There were more wives and mothers than fathers at the meeting. A handful of the men had run straight home to collect their personal firearms, a regular olden-days posse. The sounds of their vehicles tearing through town carried a good distance in the late Sunday morning. The talk was strained but civil, with community opinion tipping in favor of drastic action. Pierce’s feral pig problem was no longer something its residents could ignore. They were beyond the point of responsible coexistence.


***

When the first odd hog or two came foraging down the side streets of town at dusk, nobody raised much of a fuss. Parents brought their children outside to look, especially if a sow wandered past with her piglets.

As more territorial young hogs began rooting up lawns and knocking over cans late at night, people adapted. Pricey new trash bins with tight-sealing lids, a generous outlay from the town purse, curbed the vandalism for more than a month. In time, the hogs grew bolder and turned up in greater numbers, even in broad daylight. More and more yards were outfitted with dogs, but regular all-night barking soon grew worse than the clatter and stink of upset garbage. Most folks in Pierce would spot at least one hog, often more, on a public street in the course of a normal day. Mr. and Mrs. Russo, a retired couple chiefly interested in birding, library lectures and generally flaunting their longstanding patronage of the Sierra Club, issued harsh injunctions not to feed or encourage the hog population, smugly certain their ignorant pop-eyed neighbors were doing so anyway. Small kids, to their parents’ dismay, began referring to the roving herds in town as “our piggies.”

After a pair of young boars broke through old Mrs. Cadwallader’s back fence, terrorized the hens in her coop, ran off her Irish setter and kept the poor lady under siege at her doorstep until the constable arrived, Pierce Township had applied to the county for a special ordinance overriding the already liberal hunting limits on feral hogs. The county granted the request, with strict clarifications that any hunting should still be done outside incorporated town limits. The local game warden, being a step-cousin or some such thing to Mrs. Cadwallader, had gone easy on the little mountain community when they ducked the letter of the law, purely in the interest of getting the problem under control.

Since the Mrs. Cadwallader incident, there had been multiple reports of hogs following residents, even charging or making other aggressive displays. Many backyards, especially those with apple or fig trees, became pitted minefields under torrents of hooves and hungry snouts. Homeowners began setting live traps with limited success. The rumor made its way through town that Mr. Tuck Spencer, who had a post office box in the township and owned a large commercial orchard a dozen miles outside it, was hosting groups of amateur hunters for massive (and unlicensed) weekend hog shoots on his devastated property.

Never, before the Easter fiasco, had anyone witnessed such a concentrated and brutal attack. Little Judy Ann, whom some children teased because her daddy was a trucker instead of a farmer or a local business owner, had gone off more or less by herself. A trove of undiscovered eggs in her chosen vicinity kept her thoroughly distracted. The hogs, who despite their daring preferred areas with plenty of ready cover, had previously made minimal forays into the clear-cut public park. Near the edges, though, they were able to approach undetected through the trees. The key attractor in the case of the Keller girl was a matter for speculation. The smell of so many boiled and vinegar-dyed eggs might have played a part, but it was just as likely that Judy Ann’s face and hands were sticky with Sunday school punch and melted chocolate. If the half-dozen hogs had not broken cover and gone directly for her with such speed, one of the patrolling adults might have seen and called her away in time.

Several residents had read up on invasive wildlife, thanks mainly to the library’s acquisition of some secondhand computers from the county office. Typical of Pierce Townshippers, they were eager to advise their neighbors on the topic.

Mrs. Rafferty, the constable’s mother, offered her newfound education with gusto. “They got these special outfitters for hire,” she said, “to manage wildlife invasions. Ones down south know all about wild pigs. My Bert’s got trouble enough keeping two-legged folks in line around here.” Nobody added that dealing with unruly animals would also tax the time her son had to keep her lawn and flower beds in line. Her homeowner’s vanity cost considerable mowing and edging time, and she was already on Bert’s case for loitering too much down to Lona’s CafĂ© & Pie Palace.

Mrs. Webb sniffed. Her husband was Reverend Webb. The Methodist pastor had excused himself to comfort and pray with the Kellers at the county hospital, although Mrs. Webb had scented a curious anxiety in him that made her suspect he might have been persuaded to join Bert Rafferty’s hunting party instead, looking for hogs with fresh blood on their snouts. Either way, she resented being left to manage the highly emotional and opinionated remainder of his flock. Still, “Pests are pests,” was what she had to say. “I don’t see the use in paying a bunch of overeager gun nuts from Texas and Louisiana and who knows where else to run loose killing pigs in our streets and woods. If that’s all that’s needed, we have plenty of capable men to look after the problem.”

“People here got their lives to get on with,” Mrs. Rafferty insisted. “Them professionals come from where hogs run wild all over. They’re specialists,” she added, pronouncing the word as if Mrs. Webb was a child slow to learn it.

“Amen,” said Mrs. Jeffries.

“Has any one of you stopped to remember that a child’s been hurt?” cried Miss Leona Pine. She had trembled with suppressed agitation all this time, and her wet eyes crested over at last.

At the same moment her sister, Ms. Nelda Pine Blodgett, threw open the door. A jaunty strain of “God Said to Noah” blew into the room, sung off-key by the overexcited children in the sanctuary, with Mr. Moseby plinking the time on his Wurlitzer. Ms. Nelda had been accompanying her aunt, Mrs. Cadwallader, to the ladies’ room. She scowled at the group of eyes turned suddenly on her, hurried the old lady ahead of her into the room and shut the door too hard. The current leg of the debate continued as she settled her aunt in a corner chair with a paper cup of coffee, brewed weak and further cut with tap water to suit Mrs. Cadwallader’s constitution. When this was done, Ms. Nelda interrupted Ms. Leona’s blubbering exhortations.

“Seems to me,” she said with measured coldness, “not one of you gets the whole picture. Anyone stop to ask what made this problem blow up so quick? There’s been no frost to kill off the orchards, and logging’s neither up nor down, so the regular environment’s about the same as it was. Something’s made these hogs bolder and meaner. You think a bunch of cowboys and Cajuns will think to ask about that? Hasn’t any of you read about the tracks they found up around that old Hanford site? Critters burrowing up under those rusted-out hurricane fences. Woodland animals foraging willy-nilly around all those old nuclear power stations or whatnot. No telling what all’s got into what, spreading that poison dirt around afterward, roaming anywhere you please.”

The gathering took exactly five seconds to mull over Ms. Nelda’s points. Her husband had retired from the logging company with full community honors, and with a stomach full of adenocarcinoma that cored him out like a Pink Lady apple for one of Lona Gorman’s pies. Ms. Nelda specialized in raising thoughtful but unpleasant questions that her neighbors hardly dared contemplate. Rather than address the ramifications of her speech, Mrs. Webb pressed on as though she had not entered the room. Chief among the opinions repeated was that Pierce ought to be able to manage its own infestations, whether bark beetles or black bears or whatsoever in between. Murmurs of assent showed Mrs. Webb’s position gaining support.

“The real issue is keeping the animals outside residential zones,” Mr. Russo offered in his usual lofty tone. “Personally I don’t imagine that introducing extra armed parties to the equation will keep anyone safer, but

Loud grumbling interrupted him. The clear import of the noise was that the Russos were snobbish tree-huggers, not apt to be much help in a crisis. Anyway they only attended services on Easter and Christmas Eve, to help with decorations and so on. The value of their opinions at any meeting held in church was therefore suspect.

“Seems to me,” said Mrs. Jeffries, “you’re the one telling us not to feed the hogs, not to coax them so they won’t bother us any more than they’re doing.”

“That’s right,” said Mr. Russo. Mrs. Russo nodded.

“Well, tell me this,” Mrs. Jeffries said. “For three weeks my husband gets up an hour before dawn, just to drive our garbage all the way out to the dump in Seven Cedars, and that’s darn near to Mattawa, before heading back up to Ellensburg to work his twelve at the sawmill. Two nights ago three of them bastard hogs come into our yard and broke the dog’s leg. You want to explain to my little girl what we did wrong to get that dog hurt?”

Mr. Russo sputtered, reseating his spectacles, “Well, obviously, I...”

“The problem needs more study!” interrupted Mrs. Russo. Their mannerisms were so similar that they looked more like an aging brother and sister than husband and wife.

“Ah, nuts to you pair of old dope-smoker do-nothings,” Mrs. Jeffries hissed. The Russos exchanged a look suggesting she could not have shocked them more had she sworn at them.

The escalating tension triggered Miss Leona into more paroxysms of sorrow. She had neither husband nor children, but imposed her outsized empathy on others whenever possible. Ms. Nelda, with grudging patience, herded her maiden sister and ailing aunt to the door. Their departure meant that further practical concerns, such as housing unknown groups of outsiders and maintaining good relations with neighboring towns whose support was vital to small communities like Pierce, went largely unaddressed.

Outside the meeting room, the young chanted how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” punctuated by the distant booming of many rifles, “and the walls came tumbling down.”


***

The Easter meeting dispersed with inconclusive results, but within a week the matter came forward again in stronger terms. The people of Pierce continued their best control efforts without a noticeable effect on the frequency and severity of hog activity within township boundaries. More dogs were lost, more people frightened, and vigilant teachers narrowly avoided a schoolyard incident similar to Judy Ann’s but involving at least five children. Miss Templar, the recess monitor, came away with nasty lesions on her ankle and knee from kicking a well-grown shoat up the sidewalk and off the grounds. Mr. Oxley, the assistant school custodian, sprained his wrist while helping two children to safety atop the jungle gym. He also suffered a minor bite at the base of his neck, developing a mild but seemingly permanent cough after receiving first aid in the nurse’s office. He declined to have his wound examined further by doctors.

Mr. Keller returned to town after several nights at the county hospital, where he had sat for long stretches with his wife and daughter and slept between times in his parked rig. He took care to have a personal word with every neighbor known to have expressed doubts about hiring professional help for the hog problem.

The first to receive his special attention was Mr. Russo, whom he found waiting for Mrs. Russo at Lona’s. Mr. Keller slid into the corner booth opposite the startled older man, and leaning forward with the appearance of confidential friendliness, he gave his appeal in low tones.

“I swear, Bud, it breaks a man’s heart to see any child torn up like that,” he said with astonishing control. “Never mind it’s his own little girl.”

“I’m, ah...” Russo fumbled for the right reply, knowing in his heart that there was no such thing. “The wife and I are awfully, were awfully sorry to...”

Keller interrupted with an account of his daughter’s injuries, replete with clinical detail. His points included the drawn-out process of grafting enough skin to replace the sections pulled loose from her face and neck, as well as complicated plans for prosthesis on the hand she had all but lost.

“That’ll have to come later, when we can afford it. If we can. As it stands I can’t do much but take all the long-haul work that’s going.” As he went on, Keller showed signs that his emotions might run over. Russo, neither sentimental nor a praying man, now prayed for Keller to find his composure again. Keller did, by dropping all pretense of warmth. His green eyes, like the one of his daughter’s that county doctors could salvage, drove into Russo like roofing nails left out in a freeze.

Keller went on, abusing the man’s decency by forcing him to hear more. Russo’s own familiarity with biology made it redundant to catalog the peculiar crushing power of pig’s teeth, but Keller had prepared his speech in advance to give the same recitation for as many neighbors as he saw fit.

“My God, Russo,” he groaned through his teeth, “I just wish you and Madge and the whole town could find your way clear to visit, and see what I’m talking about.” Not long after, he left with as little ceremony as he had arrived, seeking other community pillars who needed to hear his version. When Madge Russo arrived for lunch, waylaid by a stubborn congregation of rooting pigs outside the beauty parlor, she found her husband staring into his coffee, eyes wet with tears.

Mr. Keller moved through Pierce Township like low-grade influenza, impossible to ward off or ignore. His appeal seldom varied, though occasionally he pressed gruesome details in eerily calm tones for the benefit of the callous and stubborn. The main thrust of his talk was that their community had jobs and lives to get on with, particularly those with dire medical expenses. Better, he argued, to spend a little on tackling the problem quickly than prolong it trying to handle the hogs in their own time, with their own resources. Most important, he stressed, was avoiding the risk of future casualties. He finished each conversation by inviting his captive listeners to deliver their good wishes directly to Judy Ann in her hospital bed, anytime they wished. Many sent small gifts; few made personal appearances.

There was something Mr. Keller might have added, but at the time he scarcely understood it. His daughter’s wounds were healing more slowly than they should, even with all proper attention. Stubborn infections kept Judy Ann at high risk for complications, far longer than normal for such injuries. Even before keen minds grasped what the highly combative animals carried besides common porcine pathogens, the Kellers could not have been stronger in their conviction that the wildlife problem in Pierce called for organized and forceful management.

A few perfunctory council meetings followed Mr. Keller’s private campaign. The members indulged in showy, clamorous arguments but the sessions ended in a sound majority vote. Several days after, the township’s governing body opened communication with a well-established outfitter who assured them in gentle drawling tones that the problem would be a pleasure to manage.

Mr. Hopley, the senior town representative, found the comment unsettling. After hanging up the phone he sat awhile in silence with his hand on the receiver. Anxiety troubled his dreams that night, such that Mrs. Hopley might have turned him out of bed had she not doubled her sleeping pill dosage. The councilman’s exhausted imagination conjured armed shapes in trees, running rifle crosshairs up Main Street as children and pigs trotted arm in hoof over the pavement. He dreamed of bullet holes appearing spontaneously in church windows, the Society of Lady Methodists nervously clattering teacups until they shattered and sipping from the jagged fragments with bleeding smiles. His final vision before waking was of the whole town in the public pool, which had transformed into a massive mud wallow. Men and women thrashed and snapped at one another while the children squealed their glee. The mud had begun to turn a rusty hue when the horrid orgy sounds were muffled by the howl of a great siren, such as Hopley had not heard since his boyhood during wartime. He bolted up in bed, chilly with sweat, to a commotion outside his window. An overeager citizen had launched some flaming object at a group of pigs and managed to set one of them on fire. It galloped down an alley past the Hopley home, shrieking pitifully like a flayed thing as its bristly hide lit up the small morning hours.

Mr. Hopley felt no better two days later, when the first equipment-laden truck arrived. It was well ahead of the agreed-upon schedule. The driver, a clean-cut Texan from a town called San Angelo, introduced himself to Mr. Hopley with rough courtesy, assured him that Pierce Township would be in good hands, then set off immediately to scout the terrain and establish a base camp. By dawn the next day, local traffic slowed notably under an influx of evocatively painted hunting vehicles, most of them hauling custom-built trailers. They too saluted the locals with brusque politeness, greeting each other in the street with vaguely obscene good humor. All were searching for their bearings in the hog-ridden streets of Pierce Township. Given the circumstances, they seemed, in Hopley’s estimation, far too happy to be there. Shutting his office window against the hum of vehicles and strange new voices, Hopley caught the tail end of a shouted request for folks to clear the intersection so that something or other could pass through.

By Mother’s Day, the thundering coughs of high-caliber rifles were as common as woodpeckers.


---

Copyright Dan Fields 2019

Dan Fields absconded with a film degree from Northwestern University in 2006. He has recently published fiction with Sanitarium Magazine, the Nosleep Podcast and Jolly Horror Press. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and children. See more at www.danfieldswrites.com.

Dan is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. His work is also available in the Fantasy Library and the Horror Library.

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