Hey friends. So I have set myself a challenge to write a short story every day. My only goals are that they be at least a page and that they have a goldurned ending, because endings are hard. That is why they are so random! Here is another one. I love you and pie and I’m in Illinois and that’s the haps, caps.
At the lowest levels of the castle, beneath the storerooms of potatoes and beets, beneath the few stinking dungeon cells, there is a dark place. A place where even a candle is not permitted to shine, where a man may be killed for lighting a cigarette, where a stray firefly would be caught, excommunicated, and executed.
This is where the Shade Pigs live. I’ve been around the world a fair bit in my life and my village is the only place I’ve ever heard of Shade Pigs, so I’ve no notion if they’re any particular breed or if they’ve just been Shade Pigs bred from Shade Pigs so long that they’ve become their own breed.
They are black, firstly. Although how anyone knows that for certain, they haven’t told me. Seems like anything would look black in blackness. In fact, now I think of it, any description of a Shade Pig must be totally composed of hearsay, conjecture and moonshine because you can’t see the damn thing. Tchuh. Well, that doesn’t stop the minders going on about them and their great milky eyes and onyx hooves, their jet bristles and translucent tusks. Even though the minders are supposed to keep their well paid traps shut, it’s two pints of cider and they’re all scaring themselves talking about the poor beasts they slop and curse at every day.
I suppose they’re just pretty ordinary sorts of pigs going about their piggish lives. But they do say as the darkness does something. You see, around about Halloween, they slaughter the pigs, down in the cold room beside the pens. Old Nan is the one who dresses them, and she has been blind so long that she doesn’t mind about doing it in the dark. Her fingers are so fine and sensitive that she cleans them as well as any sighted cook could. Now Nan is not one to get in her cups and she has only ever said that a pig feels like a pig, so I am more than ever inclined to think the minders are full of hooey.
She dresses the pigs and on the morning of October the thirtieth, they build up the fire in the smoking chambers. The light of the fire mustn’t touch their flesh, so the smoke is piped through a series of grilles into the cold room where they’re hung until they are as cooked as cooked can be and no fine lady will be able to complain of worms in her belly on the following summer.
On Halloween day, the servants black out the castle. Thrice lined curtains in every window, every chimney closed, silver and crystal hidden in cupboards, fires banked, candles snuffed. It must be bloody cold, that supper, but the family insists. Then all the servants save Old Nan are sent home to their families to have a bit of a rest and a gossip until All Souls.
I know I said Old Nan is a closed mouth sort of cuss, and I stand by that, but the year I turned seven, just after her boy died, she came to my mother at night in need of mourning company. And my mother, who is a kindly sort, gave her apple brandy and rye bread and let her sit as long as she needed, which turned out to be all night. It put a dent in the apple brandy, I can tell you. And if there had been an equal dent in the rye bread, perhaps Nan might not have said the things she did that night, all the truths she keeps wrapped up in her belly about everyone in the village, the Family not withstanding.
I was hidden under the loom. I was a curious child and grief was a mystery I hadn’t yet been inside. Of course, Nan just cried and carried on for about the first hour so I fell in and out of sleep. I woke and stayed awake when she began to talk about the blacksmith, and my eyes nearly popped out of my head when she said what she had to say on the miller and her family, so I was awake and listening hard when the castle and the Family and their ways came up.
You see, it’s Nan who serves that Halloween feast. She’s the only one who knows, the only one who’s been inside.
When dark has fallen, she carries the pigs up on her own through the night black house and lays them out on the great teak platters some great grandfather brought back from foreign parts. She rings a gong that sounds dreadfully in the emptiness and all the family files in, some orderly and prepared, some nervous and knocking into things, some rambunctious, but all silent. Their chairs scrape out and they sit while she carves and serves. It is their understanding that she then retires to the room across the hall to wait out the day. She mostly does. Their have been years, though, when she remained. Tired of the heavy mystery and the airs, tired of the nervous idle speeches of the people she serves. She remains in the room, silent. They say a prayer in some old language she doesn’t know and then they eat, like pigs themselves, gobbling and snorting and grease running down their chins, no doubt.
Before they have half finished, they fall into faints. Each at their place, they tumble, forwards or back, on the table or on the ground and how they moan. Cries like animals, men speaking in women’s voices and women in men’s, bird calls and wailing like cats in battle. Nan says it gave her quite a turn the first time. This lasts an hour or so she thinks, and then they are quiet but breathing hard.
That first year she listened to their panting through the night and slipped out quiet as a mole just as the dawn was coming.
The next day, All Saints, they are furiously engaged in business. Letters and wills and land and plans, investments and travel itineraries, parties and marriages. All is arranged on this day. They sleep heavily on All Saints Night and on All Souls when everyone comes back, they’re as usual as they ever get.
The second year that Nan stayed to watch, it progressed just exactly the same, hooting and screams and then hours of panting. I think she got a bit bored, to be honest. But she’s a cautious woman, our Nan, and didn’t go thinking to do anything foolish without all the knowledge she might get beforehand.
Well. The third year, when they had all gone off in the swoons and were lying like dominoes and heaving away, Nan slipped up to the table and took a piece of pig for her very own, to take back to her room and find out what was what. She said it trembled in her hand as she moved through the dark rooms but I think it was she that was shaking.
She lay down on the cot in her room across the hall and she ate that piece of pork. It tasted of earth and smoke and night. It tasted like the half hour before a storm hits. It tasted like waiting for something bad to happen.
She hushed then and gulped brandy and rocked on her chair. Mother, I could tell, was mostly asleep but she made an encouraging hum and Nan went on.
She dreamed the future that night. She saw births and deaths, gains and loss, spring through winter of the coming year. She dreamed of holding her boy, Owen, as he burned with fever through a long long night but the vision broke up as that day’s dawn came and she was whirled into other nights. She would see only the things that happened in darkness. Secret things. Hard things. Night things.
She kept Owen inside all that year, to keep him safe from sickness or injury or whatever evil seed would grow the fever that wracked him through her dream night. But lack of movement made him listless and lack of sun made him sickly and he died anyway.
Nan wasn’t crying anymore by this time. Mother was snoring quietly. I had my right fist stuffed into my mouth to keep quiet when I positively heaved with excitement.
I was just small and didn’t know how to hurt with the hurt of others. All I could think of was magic and knowing the future and looking down at the world like a god, to right all petty wrongs and to make a glorious fortune for myself.
Nan scraped up out of her chair and rustled her shawl around herself. She capped the brandy and made her way to the door by feel, thumping her hand along the wall joists. I heard the door open, a small sigh, and then she was gone.
I am twenty now, and Old Nan is very old indeed, not as strong as she was and rheumatic to boot. I have been many places and seen many things but the mystery of the Shade Pigs, the mystery of my home, still knocks around inside me. I am back to stay, my ruined eyes almost healed and a job as Nan’s assistant waiting for me. This is the year I will eat of their meat. This is the year I will know my future.