I woke in the dark to squeals and yells and thumps and bangs. From somewhere inside the house, Daddy rattled off a string of cusswords, then hollered: “Get the shotgun, Lizzy, something’s got in with the hogs!”
The awfulest commotion was going on outside. It sounded like every pig on the place was pitching a holy fit.
“What is it, Clara?” Sissy asked.
“I don’t know…” I turned back the covers.
She grabbed my arm. “Where’re you going?”
“To see what all the racket’s about.”
Sissy’s fingers dug deeper. “What if it’s the boogeyman?”
I pulled my arm away. “There ain’t no such thing and you know it.”
My feet hit the floor and I made a beeline for the slash of light knifing in underneath the closed door, Sissy’s night-breath a hot prickle on the back of my neck. My fingers curled around the doorknob, twisted and pushed.
Light blared from the 100-watt bulb dangling on the end of the thick, black wire snaking down from the kitchen ceiling, spotlighting Mama and Daddy for a few seconds before they rushed out the back door.
I chased after them, Sissy right on my heels.
The lantern held high in one hand, the tail of her nightgown in the other, Mama ran neck and neck with Daddy across the back yard and through the gate.
Dewey appeared inside the bouncing circle of light. Mama let out a startled “Oh!” and Daddy a “Jesus Christ!” and we all skidded to a stop.
“Don’t you be going down there, Mr. Primrose,” Dewey said, his eyes all big and wild looking. His oily brown hair stuck out this a’way and that a’way. Only one gallous of his overalls was fastened; the other flopped down over his scrawny belly. “It’s dangerous. There’s demons loose tonight.
Dewey was a few bricks short of a load. He’d been in the war and had gotten a Purple Heart pinned on his chest and a steel plate fastened to his scalp. He’d showed up at our door one spring day a couple of years ago, wanting to work for something to eat and to spend the night in our barn, and had never left.
“No demons, Dewey,” Daddy said. “Nothing from hell or heaven above. Maybe a bear…wildcat, or some such critter.”
A shrill squeal of pain rose to the top of the general fuss the pigs were making, and lay there thick and heavy, like grease on a boiling pot of ‘coon.
“Shit!” Daddy grabbed the lantern out of Mama’s hand and took off again. Mama’s big, bare feet slapped the packed dirt behind him.
“Ain’t…no…bear…” Dewey said between gasps of air. “A…demon…”
The tortured squeal ended, chopped off in mid-screech.
Daddy and Mama stopped short, and I plowed into Mama’s back and Sissy into mine. Now, any other time, Mama would’ve smacked me for my carelessness, but like Daddy, her attention wasn’t on what was behind but what was in front: the pig sty.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” Daddy said.
In the flickering light cast by the lantern, I saw what was happening in the pig sty. And it wasn’t no bear, wasn’t no wildcat. Not a demon either. It was evil, plain and simple. And that evil came in the shape of the old sow, Beulah. A piglet hung limp from her bloody jaws. White with black spots. Miss Sally’s farrow.
“Did she kill it, Arlis?” Mama asked softly.
Miss Sally rushed out of the shadows, squealing and snorting to high heaven, and crashed into the red wall of Beulah’s side. Beulah laid down the piglet and turned on Miss Sally. She stared at the smaller sow, did nothing but stare and stare, and after a bit, Miss Sally ducked her head, turned and slunk back into the darkness.
Beulah snuffed, then turned her attention to the lifeless form lying in the muck by her front hooves. Down went her snout, she sniffed, nudged the little body. Then her jaws opened wide and clamped down on the exposed, pink belly. She jerked her enormous head, ripped out a chunk of meat, slinging blood and little clots of stuff that spattered the boards of the fence and our shocked faces.
Sounding like a nest of disturbed snakes, all of us sucked in a hissing breath.
Daddy handed the lantern and shotgun to Mama, then hopped the fence, his bare feet disappearing into a mud wallow. Sucking noises dogged his steps as he moved toward Beulah.
The old sow’s snout plunged back down inside the piglet and pulled out a rope of guts. Her face turned toward Daddy. She calmly chewed as she watched him approaching.
Daddy marched up to Beulah and thunked her hard on top of her bristly head. “Damn your hide, what the hell’s got into you?” He hit her again. Beulah tossed her head as if a horsefly was pestering her. “Get outta here.” Another blow. “Go on!” Daddy reached down and grabbed the back legs of the small farrow. Moving fast for such a big, clumsy-looking thing, the rust-colored sow clamped her jaws around the piglet’s head. “Turn loose, you bloodthirsty bitch!” Daddy pulled. He grunted and cussed and pulled harder, but Beulah held fast to the gutted piglet; she didn’t budge an inch.
Sissy tugged the sleeve of Mama’s gown. “Shoot her, Mama, before she eats Daddy too.”
Mama looked down at my little sister. “Don’t talk crazy, gal. Beulah’s worth too much to go killing her.”
Daddy let go of the piglet. For a second there, I thought he’d given up. He took a couple of stumbling steps backward, swayed a little, then crumpled over into the muck. He landed on his side and didn’t move.
My stomach knotted up. “Daddy?” I yelled. “You all right?”
“Of course he ain’t all right,” Mama said. “Dewey, you go see about Mr. Primrose.”
Dewey shook his head. His eyes rolled. “I ain’t getting in there with that she-devil.”
“Shoot her, Mama!” Sissy said.
Mama stared hard at Dewey, kind of pointed the shotgun his way. “Dewey…”
“I ain’t going in there, Miz Lizzy. I’d rather be shot than et up.”
Mama sighed great big and shook her head. She handed the lantern to Sissy. “Hold this high, gal.” And the shotgun to me. “Keep your eye on Beulah. She comes at me, you let her have it.” Then she hiked up her nightgown and crawled over the fence.
Sissy shook my arm. “Shoot her, Clara.”
“Shoot Mama?” I asked.
“No, Beulah. Kill Beulah.”
My eyes returned to the pig sty, to Mama trudging through the mud, bending over Daddy, shaking him, calling his name. To Beulah, jaws working, chewing meat, crunching little bones.
“Kill her,” Sissy said.
“Kill her,” Dewey said.
And later I wished that I had of. I could’ve told Mama that Beulah’d made a move toward her. Mama most likely would’ve gotten mad and striped me good with Daddy’s belt, but she would have gotten over it, and Beulah would’ve been dead and gone.
But as it turned out, it was Daddy who was dead and gone. And Beulah lived for many more years.
“What’s going on here?” Mama said, running her hand over Sissy’s fat, bare belly.
Sissy shrugged her shoulders. “I et too much, I reckon.”
Mama jerked Sissy’s shirt back down. “Don’t sass me, gal.” The back of Mama’s hand cracked across my sister’s face. The blow had a lot of power behind it, knocked Sissy on her butt.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” Sissy cupped her red cheek. “I won’t do it no more.”
There hadn’t been any sass in Sissy’s words, but she knew better than to go against Mama. I did too. Since Daddy’d died, Mama had gotten mean and hateful.
“Now I’m gonna ask you one more time–who did this to you?”
Tears trickled down Sissy’s cheeks. She trembled. “I–I don’t know wh–what you mean.”
Mama planted her fists on her wide hips. She looked down at Sissy and shook her head. “Are you that ignorant…you really don’t know?”
Sissy said nothing, just sat on the floor with her head bent over, wisps of corn-silk hair sticking to her wet face.
“Get up,” Mama said.
Sissy bolted to her feet, a mess of scared-shakes and sniffles.
“You’re pregnant, got a baby in your belly,” Mama said. “Now what I wanna know is what boy put his pecker inside you and got you that way.”
A boy’s pecker put a baby in your belly?
“I have a baby in me?” Sissy pulled up her blouse and looked down at her belly that was round and fat like the sows’ bellies got when they were carrying. And before they were carrying, Roland had been on them, had put his pecker…
I laid my hand on my own rounded belly. If Sissy had a baby in her, I guess I did too, ’cause we both had–
Mama caught the movement of my hand. She pushed my fingers aside and placed her hand where mine had been. Her black eyes got all frosty, the cold wrapping around the mad and mean, and I thought for sure she was gonna knock me down like she had Sissy; but instead, her large body deflated as if it were a gray-haired, people-sized balloon.