By Kit Whitfield
'See now,' the man told his nephew. 'This is the proper way to kill a pig.'
The barn was dark and airy and light sliced in between the beams, barring the floor. The boy hadn't been allowed in while the pig was being chased. Pigs have a bite worse than a dog, and this one was heavy, its muscles packed from months of table-scraps, and his uncle hadn't wanted him hurt. So he'd sat outside in the yellow dusk, scratching pictures in the dust with a splintery twig and pulling at the beards of dead grass that poked up from the edges of the shed, dried out from months of drought. He had listened to the scuffles and squeals of the pig, and giggled when he heard his uncle curse, writing the words down in the dust. Then he'd been called in, and had had to kick dust over them before he was caught.
The pig was hanging upside down, stretched solid as a log. Its eyes were wet, and the boy wondered if it was crying. The light through the cracks striped its flank like golden welts, and picked out all the coarse white hairs graining its skin. It struggled a little, but hung from the heels it could only hinge to and fro a little bit, dragged down by the weight of months of overfeeding.
'You have to cut its throat to drain the blood,' said his uncle, 'or the meat'll go bad. This is the way we always do it - now stand back, don't get splashed.'
And he took his knife and sharpened it with a few passes on the stone. Then, with the grace of the expert craftsman, he cut into the pig's throat, and drained all its life out and caught it in a bowl.
'This is the life,' he told his nephew. 'But that's not for us. We have to give it to the authorities, they'll be coming and collecting it soon.'
'What will they do with it?' asked the little boy.
'Oh, you,' said his uncle, 'always asking questions!' It was hard to hear him over the pig's grating scream. Then the pig stopped and gasped dusty air through its opened windpipe, and over it could be heard a soft shuffle outside. 'See, there's a man waiting outside now, bring the bowl to him and mind you don't spill any. Got it safe? That's a good boy.'
So the boy took the bowl and balanced his way to the barn door. It was made of planks standing side-to-side, and there was a piece missing from the bottom of one of them, so he hooked his toe under it and opened the door without letting go of the bowl. It was brim-full. Then he was outside with the sun in his eyes.
'I'll take that, thank you, sonny.' said a voice.
He turned to face the smiling man holding out his hands for the bowl. His hands were soft and pale and smelled, even over the thick, salty life, of plantain leaves and cream. The boy looked at his face, which was soft and pale too, with no stubble even though it was evening and eyes the cloudy blue of the sky before rain. The eyes were still. The skin around them seemed stiffened, so it didn't wrinkle when the mouth smiled.
'Yes sir,' he said, but just before he handed the bowl over, he had an idea that made his head pound with the wickedness of it, and before he had time to lose courage, he had dipped the little finger of his left hand into the bowl. The life was warm and sticky and coated his finger tip. Then the man took the bowl out of his hands - cool, dry fingers brushed against the boy's -and the boy curled his little finger in his palm to hide it.
'Someone will bring the bowl back in a few days.' the official said.
The little boy bobbed his head before trotting back to the barn, but the official's smile never wavered.
The barn door swung open as he walked towards it. 'All right?' said his uncle. He nodded. 'Now, we'll leave it overnight, and start to butcher it in the morning.' He put his hand on the boy's shoulder, and they walked out, leaving the pig hanging alone in the barn.
The beam and rope creaked at its weight. A few droplets of blood fell on the ground. The pig's eyes stayed open. They dried out, and so soon the sight crackled over, which is how the pig knew it was dead. First the warm brown of the barn faded to coldness, then greyness began to settle over the sight. And the greyness grew, and began to drown out the eye-textures of the barn, until it was all the eyes could see. Then the greyness crackled over like breaking ice. The cracks ran hard over the greyness as the dead eye began to wrinkle, and though they made no sound, they were final, and the pig hung on its own in the splintered half-dark.
And the little boy?
He had supposed he would have to lose the life on his finger when his mother made him wash his hands for dinner. He wasn't to know otherwise, but when he next looked, his skin was as clean and smooth as May dew. And when he did have to wash his hands, and touched the water with it, the water rippled around it and he could feel it jittering against his skin.
A little light smeared onto everything he touched with it. Think how on a summer's day, clouds move away from the sun and light shines down, and all the colours become absolutely themselves, but are gold at their base. It was this way with the things he touched. The room was dark, but the water sparkled in the chipped stone basin, and the wood on the door that he tapped creaked and began to grow. Only a little patch of it, the size of the boy's fingertip, but by morning the dead wood around it was splintering away.
The boy's mother looked at it and clicked her tongue against her teeth, and said 'Oh, I knew that wood wasn't dried properly! Look, it's going bad.' So, her husband, whose job it had been to dry the wood, was embarrassed and promised to deal with it. And not wanting to waste a good plank, he took a chisel and knocked out the growing patch and threw it out of the window.
The piece outside the window continued to grow, while the scar in the door charred in the air, so by the next morning it was black. The woman sighed and shook her head when she saw it, but it wasn't her place to complain twice in as many days. And when the boy's older brother found the growing wood in the yard, he picked it up for firewood and used it to start a fire in the grate. The fire took a long time to light that morning, and when it lit, its flames were green-tipped and whistled as they danced.
'Look!' said the little boy, pointing, 'The fire's all green!'
'Nonsense,' he was told.
'It is, it is!'
'Fire isn't green, stupid,' his brother said. But when he looked, and saw it was, he didn't want to be blamed for lighting a bad fire. So he chased his brother out of the house and knocked him down in the dust, and sat on his stomach, tickling him.
But the next day, after they finished butchering the pig, the little boy fell and cut his knee, and when he rubbed his little finger against it, the bleeding stopped.
Then, when he was helping in the kitchen, he burned the little finger against a pot. He snatched his hand back and whimpered as the skin on it began to bubble, but outside, the sky flashed and roared and rain began to pour down. The mother ran to bring the washing in, but the men stamped with delight because the drought was finally broken and the crops were saved. The drought had held for months: the grass had gone from green to yellow and the ground crackled over and was just beginning to turn grey when the boy blistered his finger and the skin swelled with fluid, and the clouds turned over and began to pour down.
'Praise God,' said the family, and they all went out into the rain to kneel and pray. The little boy knelt with the rest of them, but when he held his hands together in the holy way, he didn't touch his little fingers together because the left one was sore from its burn. The rain splashed down on him and matted his hair into little whips, and when they all said 'Amen,' and ran back into the house, his mother rubbed his hair dry with a prickly towel that rasped his scalp and made his neck ache from the shaking, and his ears itched from the grating noise of hair against wet hair.
His mother kept a jug of dried flowers on the table. They kept the room bright and cheery, and needed no watering, really no trouble at all. She had grown them and cut and dried them herself, and now she hardly needed to glance at them. The next morning just before he woke, the little boy dreamed about them. When he woke, he could remember little of his dream, but he got out of bed and went down to the jug, his finger tingling. No one was watching. He put his little finger out, and touched one, just one of the flowers. Under his finger, he could feel the light scratchiness of life gone to paper, the transparency of rich petals shrunk to wisps of colour. Then the flower turned and started to grow. Its leaves crackled and crumbled, so the boy ran for a cup of water and dropped the flower into it. The leaves swelled then, and turned in the air, and the petals opened their arms to the dim room. Roots slipped out from its cut stem.
Then his mother came in and said, 'Get dressed and put that outside, will you, let's not have it cluttering the room.' So he planted it outside and its roots reached into the soil. He didn't tell his mother that he had touched life into it. He kept his little finger hidden in his hand. And though things did happen sometimes, little glimmers of life, no one but him noticed.
Then at Easter, the family served a suckling pig and asked people to join them and celebrate. The boy was seated next to a little girl with bright yellow hair who he was in love with. She had pretty eyes and could pull hideous faces and she climbed trees as well as a boy, but she was soft about animals. When the boy's mother brought in the pig, she jumped and said, 'Oh, the poor little thing.' She tugged at the boy's sleeve. 'That's a poor little thing,' she said.
'I can make it better,' he said.
'Could not!' she said, rubbing her cheek.
'Can too!' he said, and he reached out and ran his finger down its spine.
It was a few seconds before the little girl started screaming, but then everyone saw and started to shout. The pig wasn't quite on its feet. It had slung its body halfway off the ground on its cooked legs, but its muscles were baked and its tendons gone to leather. The heat of the oven had boiled the eyes in their sockets and they were whitened beyond sight. The effort of crouching had already began to peel the meat off the bones; they lay on the table and shrank to and fro like salted slugs. Most of its nerve endings were seared into the crackling, a crisp grid of swollen fat, but if it wished to scream, its lungs were gone and its body was stuffed with onions.
Then two of the men grabbed it and took it outside, and through the window the guests could hear curses and cracking sounds. The hostess grabbed the writhing pads of meat and threw them on the fire. They burned with a green flame and a whistling noise that was high and sharp and deafening.
There was a moment of panting shock. Then they turned to the little boy. He wasn't a crier, but he had his hands over his mouth and tears in his eyes, and among all those white faces, he was blushing red as a dawn. His mother stared at him for a moment, wiping her hands on her apron; she had seen him touch the pig. She ran over to him and shook him, shook him dizzy. He was almost too dizzy to talk when she let him go. But he sat crumpled on the floor, and, crying, he began his confession.
He told them everything he remembered, how he dipped into the bowl of life, the water and the door and the green fire, the flowers and the dreams; he didn't remember the rainstorm. Some of it he got confused on, and had to whisper it to his mother. She was clutching her hair and shaking her head. 'How could you do it?' she said. 'How could you bring trouble on us like that?'
They put the children out of the room to talk in private. The little boy and his fair-haired friend pressed their ears to the door, and listened as the adults agreed amongst themselves that they would not speak of it. 'You should deal with that boy before he does himself trouble,' he heard his grandmother say. 'Deal with him before he makes you sorry. But we won't talk any more about it, love. You've troubles enough.'
His little friend looked at him and said, 'Sorry you're going to get into trouble.' He didn't say anything. A little later, her mother came and pulled her by the hand away from him, and they never met again.
That should have been that. But rumours flew through the earth, and got into the water people drank. No one talked about it on the streets, but they knew of the little boy, and because they could think of no other explanation they told each other that it must be the work of the devil.
Finally, word got to the authorities, so they met to discuss what should be done.
The first of them declared that it was a serious matter. 'I say we cut off the finger,' he said. 'There's too much going on there. It's the only way to be sure.'
Another frowned and said, 'But how can we keep it? This isn't animal life we're dealing with now. The life has gone into him, and I don't like our chances of containing it.' And the room was quiet. What would the finger do away from its body? If they kept it in a box, the box would warp with life. And what if the life had gone all the way through the little boy already? And it would bleed , blood would run everywhere and it might all be scented with this sacrilegious life.
Then the oldest spoke. 'Why should we bother?' Everyone stared at him. 'Look how long it went unnoticed; looked how scared people are now. People don't want to believe it. And if too many people get scared, how can we rule them? Let's be humane. If they don't want to believe it, why make them?'
Everyone looked at each other. Nobody spoke, but they all nodded together.
So they issued a proclamation that all was normal. There was nothing unusual about this boy. The pig and the fire and any other unusual happenings had just been a trick of the light.
The little boy's father came home with a leaflet proclaiming this. He read it out to the boy and said, 'You're all right, son,' and clapped him on the shoulder. But though he managed to look his son in the eye, it was still the right shoulder that he clapped.
The little boy went outside and sat down to think about it. His little finger hurt. It had felt tingling and good before, but now it hurt. Everyone said it was normal, and surely they knew?
He curled the sore finger into his palm.
All around the farm, the leaflets were distributed. Posters were pinned on walls and people crowded round to read them. Messengers proclaimed the news and the intelligent people explained it to the stupid ones, and heads of families explained it to their children. The leaflet was read in the streets and in homes, and soon it was known everywhere that it had only been a wild rumour. And people sighed with relief, and went about their lives.
And the boy?
He lived his life with one finger tucked out of sight. He stayed at the farm until he was old enough to leave. He behaved well enough, and if it slowed him down to do all his chores with his right hand alone, no one was tactless enough to mention it. His left little finger stayed curled in his palm. After a while, it just looked like a mannerism.
At night, his hand cramped from the constant bending in, and the pain kept him from sleep. He didn't care. He had queer dreams, dreams that he could never remember when he woke, and he preferred to be without them.
He married a red-haired girl from the other side of the country, and she was a good woman who worked hard and did not complain that he only ever touched her with his right hand. But they had two fine sons and a loving daughter and one day while he was planing a piece of wood, a splinter spiked into his finger. His daughter was watching, and she was a sweet girl who couldn't stand to see her father hurt. Before he could pull away, she had taken hold of his finger and put it to her mouth and sucked out the splinter. A few drops of blood got into her mouth.
She looked at him and smiled.
His mind was grey and aching from years of fitful sleep. But somewhere, at the clear base of it, he knew that next time she opened her mouth, it would be to sing.