“What’s that noise?” asked John, the high-screech pitch too unimaginable to ignore. We were on the offside of a slaughter plant wall. He cupped his hands over his ears to give himself an impossible reprieve.
“Pigs!” I yelled back.
I could tell he didn’t understand. I hadn’t understood the first time I’d heard them, either.
We climbed on lidded barrels to peer over the wall: in every direction, as far as the eye could see, there were pigs: pigs on top of pigs, crammed into cross-fenced pens by the thousands, like dead sardines in tin cans. The odor they emitted was almost unbearable, of feces and urine; from the dark-walled interior building, the pungent stench of blood invaded our nostrils.
Some pigs were sitting on others, much the way a human might sit on a living room sofa; others seemed dazed. They sat in liquefied feces, mixed at their feet by their constant struggle to get comfortable, to vainly escape, from the urine they peed into the pens, from fear and disorientation.
And the pigs were screaming — bloody murder.
“Why are they squealing so?” John asked, raising his voice as best he could over the deafening pitch of pigs’ cries. As far as he knew, they weren’t directly in harm’s way.
I waited till the pitch fell, the way it always did, like clockwork. Still, despite the lull, I had to raise my voice to answer. “In a moment,” I explained, “they’ll kill a pig.” I pointed to where the warehouse opened like the hull of a giant ship. “When the pig screams, it will send a shock wave through the pigs out here; they’ll all scream.”
Right on cue, from the depth of the building’s interior, a screaming pig could be heard and I could see the animal, the way I once had: pushed onto a moving conveyor belt that would take it to the stunning tongs. Once there, the plant man would grab the pig’s head in the giant vice the way one would lift lettuce from a salad bowl. A painful current of electricity would surge through the animal’s body, stunning it just enough — or so it is hoped — to render it unconscious before the pig reaches the throat-cutting blade.
The screaming of the butchered pig in its death throes triggered the incredibly deafening screams of the pigs in the holding pens. Pitch. Lull. Pitch. And again.
I believe they knew. They could hear the dying inside the warehouse. They could smell death. If I knew what was happening to them, so did they.
When the lull struck, a pig caught our attention — as we did hers. There wasn’t any possible way she could have heard us, but maybe she sensed us there on the wall, maybe she saw a shadow we couldn’t see, felt a presence we couldn’t know we were emitting. Maybe pigs are just that smart.
She stumbled over the pigs packed around her, the one lying in the ooze of mud and feces at her feet, and made a deliberate attempt to face us. Exhausted from the about-face she had made or maybe from the stress of the entire ordeal of the killing machine or maybe from both, she abruptly sat in the muck beneath her tiny cleft hooves.
And then, I’m sure of it, she quite deliberately lifted her gaze to the two of us on the wall. I could see the white outlining her tiny blue iris, the pupil that focused on…John’s face.
A pig screamed in the building’s interior: the next ham on the chopping block, a fever pitch of a scream, a cry of utter terror and agonizing pain. It triggered the chain reaction, the knowing in the others, on the outside.
And the pig, her penetrating gaze still locked in John’s, opened her mouth into a gaping, heartfelt morbid grin. From the depth of her very being, she forced a desperately plaintive wail, a cry only a terribly doomed animal could make.
I felt — I didn’t hear — John as he stumbled backward off the barrel on which he’d been standing. I turned in time to see him land on his feet, pushed there by the sameness in him he’d unexpectedly seen in that pig. He had a look of the most profound and pure shock in his eyes.
I’d once had that look myself and completely empathized with it: an indescribable hurt for them as much as I now had for him. You see, in their passing, sometimes, some animals take a few of us with them.
Keep fighting the good fight.