All the pigs were male to avoid reproduction, and we tagged their ears with colored plastic markers. Pink for kidneys, blue for livers, purple for pancreases, and red for hearts. The tags gave them names like A178, K390, T789.
The bio-engineers never really talked to me, but whenever they were near, I heard them call the pigs chimeras, sometimes chims. I thought about adopting that nickname myself, but when I walked down the rows of the barn I was assigned to maintain, and I looked at the pigs under the panels of blue-green fluorescents, I didn’t see anything that looked like a chimera. I only saw big, fat, oinking pigs, their soft pink skin almost white under the light.
Occasionally, people in business attire would tour the barn. Investors. I gave them rubber boots to wear so their shiny business shoes wouldn’t get dirty. They’d walk like they were on stilts. It always made me laugh, how out of place they looked.
The investors called the pigs donors. I liked the nickname even less than chimera.
For a long time, I thought about what my own nickname for the pigs should be. At first, I considered band names. Old ones like The Beatles, the Monkees, the Misfits, or the Pixies. I almost went with Kool and the Gang but couldn’t decide which pig would be Kool.
The nickname came to me one morning at breakfast. I had just filled a trough with feed. The pigs swarmed. They dug into the slop and feasted. Their grunts became muffled from all the food they shoveled into their mouths. It sounded like they might start choking, they ate so fiercely.
I laughed, and I said, “Slow down, friends.”
Friends. I liked that. Then I thought about the engineers calling the pigs chimeras, and the investors calling the pigs donors. I looked down at those hungry pigs and I thought about the extra organs growing inside of them. The human organs, the ones meant to save peoples’ lives. The word universal came to mind.
After that, I called the pigs universal friends. As the groundskeeper, it felt like the right nickname for me to give them.
I’m sorry for the long tangent about naming the pigs. But remember what you said before I got the job? Every plant and animal should be treated like a friend on this earth. In hindsight, I think that’s another reason I gave the pigs that name. I’m glad I did. I feel like it served as a constant reminder of why I was there, biding my time, waiting for the right moment to set them free.
I never had problems with the work. Like I’ve told you, I’ve taken care of livestock before. If I had to sum up raising farm animals, it’s this: feed them and pick up their shit. The barn was the same way, only more technical and meticulous. We kept the food in barrels with shiny laminated labels denoting their weight, date of production, expiration, and composition of the feed: 5% apples 10% wheat, 12% soy, 15% mushrooms, and so on. Pigs are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything, but I had specific pens of pigs that had strict diets. I later learned some people buying organs wanted their new organs to have the same dietary restrictions as their dying ones.
I also analyzed their feces. I’ll try not to go into too much detail, even sitting here thinking about it is awful enough. All those months of picking up their dark brown turds and breaking them up in my hands to check the consistency. I hate to recall the way the excrement crumbled like dirt, the way it reeked as I tried to put as much of their droppings as I could into plastic bags and note which pig they came from. I wore gloves, of course, but I never felt like I could truly wash that smell off me. Sometimes I smell it here, even now, that sharp stench, still coating my hands.
They’re actually very beautiful, pigs. Watching them was my favorite part about the job. Seeing all their faces through the grating of the fence, pushed together in groups, snorting, like they were gossiping. Their snouts twitched endlessly in curiosity, trying to pick up subtle changes in a hangar with no wind. If I stood on the steel bars of the fence and peered down, they looked like naked people crouched on all fours digging in dirt.
I would stare at their bellies, trying to spot where the extra organ grew. Would it bulge out of the side of them like a tumor? Would the human organ grow beside the pig organ, conjoined by tissue? Or might an extra liver or pancreas grow anywhere? Do extra organs float around? Or did the human heart replace the pig heart from the start?
I was doing my rounds one day when I found one of my universal friends pressed up against the railing of his pen. He had a red tag and stood away from the others by himself. My friend leaned against the metal and the jellyrolls of his body squished in between the gaps. I walked over and reached a hand over the fence and placed my palm on his side. I held him against me the best I could.
I searched for his heartbeat, or would it be heartbeats?
Ba-bum, I felt the first time. A solid thud.
Just one heart. But then–
Ba-bum-bum-da. Ba-bum-bum-da. An extra rhythm. A second heart searching for purpose.
I knelt and examined my universal friend. His eyes looked the same as all the other pigs. You’d be surprised how much they look like human eyes when you see them up close. They even have little eyelashes. But while most of the pigs just looked past me, this one didn’t. I brushed a hand atop his skull, patted his side, stared into his eyes.
And I felt my universal friend peer back.
Then he broke away from me, clacking his ear tag across the bars of the pen. He did this repeatedly, jerking his head back and forth to clank his red tag against the metal. Maybe he was trying to scratch an itch, but he kept going, kept making that clanking sound. I moved beside him and ran my nails around the area where the marker had been stapled into his ear. I scratched, but that didn’t seem to satisfy him. He nudged his head against the sty one more time, then shuffled away, puffing out a snort as he went.
Before he left, I glanced at the ID on his red tag: N898.
The apartment you found for me was okay. It’s nice when you can find places where the walls aren’t just painted white. I just wish the toilet had been bolted into the bathroom tile better. The base of it would shift and rock like I was floating atop waves. Not exactly the best way to relieve yourself.
The woman in the apartment directly below mine wailed a lot. I was too focused on my universal friends and the task of freeing them to go downstairs and ask if everything was okay. She wailed often enough that I figured she was alright, that it was a strange habit or a means of release. Just one of those things, right? In all the time I spent living there, I never found out what she cried out about.
I remember lying in bed after the first time I had noticed N898. I thought about his watery eyes and the way the wrinkles and folds on his face had curved and drooped when I had looked at him. He hadn’t just peered into me, he had frowned. I’m sure you know the feeling, when an animal looks at you and you get the sense they really want to tell you something.
That sad face kept me up late at night a lot. I missed the commune with everyone, with you and the others, and all the animals. I wanted to pet and fall asleep with Bruce. He was my favorite cat. Someone’s taking care of him, right? I know he’s getting older and needs a little more care. If they don’t know already, let whoever feeds the cats now know that if you break up the hard food with the back of a spoon it’s easier for Bruce to eat. He doesn’t have a lot of teeth left. He can’t jump up onto high places anymore, but if you see him pacing underneath that tool shed—the rusty blue one right outside the back door of the house—please put him up there for a bit. That’s his favorite place to nap. Just remember to put him back down after a few hours. He won’t be able to get down by himself.
Anyway, I’m sorry, I think I got off track. The point I was trying to make is that after I first met N898, I thought about him a lot, and those thoughts would spin into webs of memories. Memories of home and missing everyone. I even started to wish the woman’s cries were more distracting because at least I could go to the source. I could have gone downstairs and consoled her or slammed my fist down on my living room floor and yelled, “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
But it’s harder to stop yourself from thinking. I actually had forgotten about that woman until just now. After I met N898, I stopped hearing her, I was thinking so loud.
Did you know pigs have the IQ of a three-year-old? Anyway…
I tried to focus on my work. I wanted to free my universal friends right then, but I knew I had to wait so you and the others could prepare everything else. I did everything I could to ignore N898, but no matter what, he’d follow me when I went to the heart quadrant of the barn. When I looked out at the sea of friends, at their heads bobbing about in the hangar, his face would be idle and pointed directly at me. Other times he’d follow me while I circled the perimeter of his sty. He’d even place his front trotters up on the railings, lift himself up, and point his snout at me.
“What’s wrong, friend?” I asked a few times. He’d clank his marked ear against the steel in response. The red tag would snap like a playing card in a bicycle wheel.
As much as I could, I spent more time in the other quadrants. None of those pigs acted the same way, and I was grateful. I fed them, and they ate, then they’d shit, and I would put their poop in plastic bags. If I managed my work right, I could spend almost twice as much time in the other quadrants.
“You take pride in your work,” a bio-engineer said to me one day while I looked over the universal friends branded blue.
“You seem to love what you do,” the engineer said. His eyes sunk into their sockets and dark circles rimmed their perimeter, but his face held a softness in the cheeks that appeared kind. “I’ve seen you watching them, while they eat or when you clean up after them.”
I leaned against one of the pens, my arms floating over into the pigs’ territory.
“You really care about them,” he continued.
“I–I like pigs. I mean, I think they’re lovely animals. They’re like kids, always getting dirty when you don’t want them to. They eat like slobs. They don’t care if they smell. But they’re good to each other. They look so happy when they sleep together in piles.”
“These aren’t pigs,” he said.
We both looked out at them, at their collective mass of cylindrical pink bodies.
“They’re something more important than pigs now,” he said.
The engineer stepped closer to me.
“Thanks for taking care of them,” he said. “I’m Howard,” and he put out his hand.
I didn’t want to shake it.
“Thanks, but my hands are pretty dirty,” I said. He put his hand back to his side and I said, “I’m–I’m Randall.”
I almost told him my real name.
Howard would wave to me whenever he saw me after that. I tried to not like him and didn’t always wave back. I didn’t like what he said about my universal friends. He might have been right; they had become more important than regular pigs. But the way he said it, uncaring, with cold definitiveness, that’s the part I didn’t like about him.
It didn’t help that thinking about Nigel kept me up later and later. That’s what I started calling N898. The other universal friends felt like acquaintances compared to him. Nigel had put himself out there. He wanted me to know who he was. It seemed wrong to keep thinking of him as N898. He looked like a Nigel to me.
Nigel continued to habitually bang his ear against the metal bars. He started doing it even when I wasn’t in the heart quadrant. Plenty of noises filled the barn: fans, generators, oinks, grunts, but Nigel’s rattling rang out in a different register, a high-pitched ting that I heard over everything else. A nightmare chime. Sometimes I saw him staring at the door that the engineers came in and out of to get to their labs. When investors waddled around the hangar in their borrowed boots, he’d glare during their entire route around the barn. No matter what, if Nigel saw a person, he’d lock onto them for as long as he could see them.
Other times, he burrowed. Most pigs roll in mud and dirt to cool off, but Nigel stuck his head into the earth and jutted his skull around. He left craters like giant gopher mounds that I would have to smooth out with a shovel. When I went into his pen, he’d circle around me or stay glued to my side. I swear, a few times I saw him trying to balance on his back legs.
“Stop it, Nigel!” I scolded. I hate yelling, especially at animals, but Nigel’s behavior made me feel so bad, and thinking about how scared and worried he looked made it harder and harder for me to sleep.
“You look tired,” Howard said to me one morning in the break room. I had started drinking a lot of coffee and ventured in there more often. “Everything okay?”
I know you said not to get to know anyone at the hangar, but my eyes hurt every day at that point and my arms weighed me down and made the barrels of food harder and harder to lift. Everything became more difficult, and I couldn’t talk to anyone from the commune. Like you cautioned, we couldn’t know if the company was keeping a close eye on me.
“I’m worried about one of the uni–…one of the pigs.”
“You mean chimeras?”
“What’s it doing?”
“He…just seems scared.”
“Have you analyzed his stool?” Howard asked.
He put a hand to the tip of his chin.
“I can take a look at him.”
I must have given him a strange look. I worried I had already said too much.
“Just to make sure everything is alright,” he added.
I tried to think of a way to change the subject but couldn’t. Hazy, like in a dream, I found myself walking into the hangar with Howard. I won’t lie, it felt nice to walk beside another person again. I miss that a lot.
We made our way to the heart quadrant. Nigel must have smelt us. I heard his clanking, growing louder and louder.
Then a new sound erupted in the barn. A guttural shriek, horrible and nauseating.
Howard and I ran to the source of the noise. Some of the other universal friends started to mimic the sound. The original cry still rang the loudest among the echoes, and the vibrations of the pigs shook me as their screams rippled across the barn. We headed into the liver quadrant.
Howard and I reached the source. A universal friend thrashed in the center of his pen. He lay in the mud and all his legs kicked and bucked. He slammed his skull up and down and it thudded hard against the ground each time. Like I said, I wasn’t sleeping well at this point. I might have been seeing things, hallucinating, but I swear I saw his belly bubbling.
Howard and I froze.
The friend kept writhing and screaming. I wanted to look away but couldn’t. His face contorted in agony. His jaw swung open and locked. I looked away from his face and went back to staring at his bubbling belly.
Then his stomach burst and his insides spilt out onto the mud. I couldn’t decipher any of the pieces of him. All the purple and blue and red and pink of his insides were scrambled together. His organs had turned into one giant heap of sludge.
At some point, I finally turned away. Howard wasn’t beside me. He was running back the way we had come, heading toward the lab and the other engineers. I didn’t know what to do, so I started walking back, too. Before I made it to the door where Howard had disappeared behind, I looked over to the hearts.
Nigel had positioned himself right at the edge of his pen. He sat and stared, not clanking his ear, just looking at me.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I didn’t want to stay at home lying in bed thinking, so I just went back to work early and sat in the break room.
Howard came in early, too.
“Rough day yesterday,” he said.
“Made some coffee,” I said, staring at my own almost-finished cup.
Howard went to the coffee, and I heard him pour the brew. Rather than just standing and saying a few words like he usually did, Howard came and sat beside me. He set down two cups of fresh coffee and slid one over to me. I looked at him, but he stared into the steaming surface of his coffee.
“You know…to make the extra organs, we inject the pig embryo with human DNA. Before they’re even born, the human organs are already growing inside of them. We’re careful, but there’s always a small chance that the DNA goes somewhere it’s not meant to. Other organs might start growing, maybe too many.”
He sighed heavily and swirled his cup around.
“You try to be careful, but sometimes…”
He trailed off. Then I started talking. I told him a story.
The story goes like this:
When I was a kid there was another boy that lived next door to me. We played together every day, and we really liked playing outside. We’d always meet each other out in his front yard. One day, I went to the front of his house to meet up with him like I always did. He was sitting right in the middle of his driveway. His head was tilted down, fixated on something. I went over and sat next to him to see what he was doing.
In between his legs he had a frog. The frog was on its back and all its limbs were splayed out. I think they might have been broken.
‘I caught a frog,’ my friend said. ‘Let’s dissect him.’
He picked up a butter knife he had beside him and stuck it into the frog’s belly. He ran it up and down the frog’s stomach a few times until it split open.
I could see all the frog’s little organs. They looked like marbles. For a second, only a second, I wanted to pick them out and flick them across the cement.
My friend cut at the frog a bit more and then he handed me the butter knife.
‘Here, you try’ he said.
I took the butter knife from him and held it over the frog. If I looked at the organs closely, they didn’t look like they belonged to a living thing. I hovered the knife over the open stomach. I remember shaking.
I threw the knife across the lawn and ran home crying. I sprinted into my room and threw my face into my pillow. I cried and cried and cried, and when my mom came home, my face was still puffy, and she asked me what was wrong. I told her I didn’t want to be friends with my neighbor anymore.”
I hadn’t told anyone that story before. The story of how I had lost my first friend.
Howard had stopped staring into his coffee and was looking at me.
“That was the last time I remember hurting anything,” I said. “I didn’t cut the frog, but I didn’t stop my neighbor. I felt like it was the same thing.”
I took a sip of coffee.
“And I think that was the last time I saw the insides of something. At least until yesterday.”
Howard and I stared at each other. I still didn’t want to like him, but it felt good to be with someone and share the hurt.
“Thanks for listening,” I said. “It helps.”
That’s what had happened before you called to tell me everything was ready. That’s why I sounded so tired on the phone. I was trying to catch up on sleep. Still, you have no idea how happy I was when you called. I don’t think I could have stayed there for much longer.
I’m still amazed how much can change from leaving a few doors unlocked. I don’t think anyone there watched me very closely because they thought I was stupid. Maybe because I didn’t talk to anyone except Howard, and because I liked petting the universal friends.
It happened so effortlessly with my routine. Take out some trash, leave the door unlocked. Put some annotated waste in the designated bin outside the building, leave another door unlocked. The timing worked out better than expected, I think. Everyone seemed wrapped up with the horrible thing that had happened to my friend in the liver quadrant.
Before you arrived, I made one last round about the hangar. The universal friends snorted and oinked like usual. Except for Nigel, of course. When I got to his pigpen, I found him staring at the wall. I called to him, but he wouldn’t look over at me. I worried more than ever.
Then I remember heavy footsteps and seeing everyone come into the hangar dressed in all black. Like a dream, dark specters slipped in and began to rummage around. You were one of them. I think I heard some shouting, but you probably remember better than I do. Before I knew it, bio-engineers were dragged into the hangar with their arms tied together. There was just that one gunshot, right? A security guard, but just to scare him, you said.
Someone, maybe it was you, yelled at me a few times before I responded. I was so hung-up watching Nigel. He had started to burrow his head into the dirt, but then he stumbled to the fence to clank his ear, only this time it was more like banging his head. Then he went back to the mound and threw his face into it.
Howard’s yelling finally snapped me out of it.
You had the engineers all lined up. I’m sure you remember looking down at them on their knees. I don’t know if you noticed, but some of them were crying. I saw them. Howard didn’t cry, though. He yelled, and he stared at me when he realized I wasn’t tied up, that I walked with the specters dressed in black.
I asked for your gun then. Remember? I’m sure you do. You looked so surprised. I know I always said I didn’t like guns back on the commune, and that was part of the reason you asked me to play the role I did. But still, you handed your gun over to me, plopped it right into my palm. So easily, without hesitation, like my old friend had done with the butter knife.
You didn’t know his name then, but the engineer I went and stood over was Howard. You probably thought I was going to shoot him, huh? No, I just wanted to look at him one more time. I didn’t agree with what he did for a living, but his friendship had helped me sleep, at least a little bit. I think he knew I was sorry because I looked at him for what must have been a long time, and he stopped yelling.
Then I turned back to Nigel.
What if the human DNA had gone into his brain? Like I said, pigs have the IQ of a three-year-old. What if it was even a fraction more? What if he knew what he was? Can you imagine? Growing inside a four-legged body and eating slop and knowing something was terribly, horribly wrong? He wouldn’t even be able to sweat the terror out. He’d be trapped in that body, with only the mud to hide in.
Nigel squealed. He shook and banged his head. He wouldn’t stay still. He thrashed and thrashed. I thought about the universal friend from the day before. I didn’t want to see Nigel’s head explode. I didn’t want him to melt from the inside out. He appeared to be in so much pain.
He quivered over to me, closer, still writhing. The way he bobbed back and forth, I felt sure he was about to fall over like the other universal friend. Before he could collapse, he stilled himself and craned his neck to peer into me again. Our eyes met, and I saw what I had to do. That’s when I shot him in the head. You already know that. You saw me do it. But what you might not know is the sound of two hearts dying at once is deafening and it sounds just like a gunshot.
After all those months of so much noise, I had finally stopped it all. The barn was so quiet after that. You didn’t say a word, just took the gun away from me and left me standing there. I didn’t even hear the hangar doors being opened. I didn’t see you and the others opening the pigpens and herding as many of my universal friends as you could into the trucks and letting the ones you couldn’t fit escape down the hill. I bet they looked like naked people, hunched over, crawling into the truck beds, or sliding down the hill. It must have been beautiful to watch their pink bodies be lit by the moonlight while you all escaped into the night.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can’t blame you for leaving me there. I know I wouldn’t have been able to go back to the commune after that. I don’t know how long it took for police to show up and take me away. I just remember being in the hangar, and now I’m here.
I really appreciate you coming to see me, to be able to sit here and talk to you. I imagine it was risky, making up some relation with me, trying to hide any link that might be traceable to the commune. Will you tell everyone I said hello? Oh, and please don’t forget what I said about Bruce. Tell him I said hello too, please, and that I miss him the most.
I can tell by your expression you still aren’t happy with me. That’s alright. I hope that after what I told you, you understand why I did what I did, at least a little bit more. I never thought I’d hurt anyone or anything ever again, but I don’t regret what I did. Not at all. I’ve learned there’s more than one way to be set free.
Copyright © 2022 Barton Aikman